Native American Portraits 1862-1918, by Nancy Hathaway

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The hundred or so photographs of Native Americans in Nancy Hathaway’s 1990 compilation, drawn from the Kurt Koegler Collection, are reproduced in large format and are of excellent quality.  Dating from the early 1860s to the end of the First World War (a span possibly less precise than the book’s title suggests as the dates of many are unknown), they chart the decline of the indigenous people in the United States and the development of photography in technical sophistication and as a practice.  The book includes images made in the field by travelling photographers, capturing a vanishing culture, and studio portraits.

Hathaway’s introduction outlines the destruction of the Native Americans’ way of life as the continent was opened up to settlers, treaties were broken, bad faith was backed by military force, and the Native Americans were pushed into ever smaller and more worthless parcels of land.  While this was occurring, outsiders who had long been fascinated by what they considered exoticism, expressed in art and literature, provided a ready market for the new medium of photography.  The bulk of the introduction comprises an account of the various photographers who catered to this demand, people who achieved remarkable feats to document the Native Americans, especially in the early days when photographing on location involved conveying large quantities of equipment over hostile terrain.

Attitudes by the Native Americans to being photographed varied at different times, from refusal to resignation, and photographs were sometimes taken under conditions of compulsion.  There was an understanding on their part that to be photographed was to be commodified as the object gazed at, yet another attribute of the self expropriated by the invaders.  As with its literary and pictorial predecessors, photography emphasised certain tropes, such as the ‘noble savage’, which depicted them in certain ways.  They might even be shown in styles of clothing worn by other tribes to heighten the impact.  As a consequence of such manipulations, the modern viewer needs to be aware that often what it seen is constructed for a certain effect rather than a straight anthropological portrait.

Judging from her bibliography, Hathaway is not an expert on either Native Americans or photography but more a jobbing journalist, and apparently her captions need to be treated with caution.  This is not an academic text but it still gives an overview of how the Native Americans were photographed, and the story of their suffering and loss is etched on their faces.  Hathaway notes that the photographers’ motives ranged across the ‘artistic and commercial, ethnographic and Romantic’.  Whatever the reason for the image, the result was the same – to reinforce the lack of agency of the subject, however they were dressed and posed and whatever accessories were included.

The most symbolic picture in the book is a panoramic landscape taken by Leander Moorhouse (pp. 84-85), probably in Oregon.  In the foreground are tepees erected on scrubland, around which small figures and a horse can be seen.  In the middle distance chugs a steam engine pulling a long train.  The conjunction sums up the way those who were the original occupiers of the land were marginalised by the forces of progress.


Who Killed Charmian Karslake?, by Annie Haynes

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Warning: Spoilers below, in which I identify the murderer.

Annie Haynes is one of the lesser-known of the authors who were at work during the Golden Age of British detective fiction.  Who Killed Charmian Karslake? is the third of her novels featuring her sleuth Inspector Stoddart and was published after her death in 1929.  In it, an American stage actress, the titular Charmian Karslake, attends a ball at Hepton Abbey.  This stately pile is the Midlands country estate of the Penn-Moreton family, incumbents since the dissolution of the monasteries.

Her acceptance of the invitation comes as a surprise to the family and to observers of the social scene as she had rejected invitations from people even more eminent.  The Abbey is owned by Sir Arthur Penn-Moreton, whose wife, Lady Viva [sic] had invited Charmian after they had both been present at an accident in the street involving a young child.  The reason for the ball is the the marriage of Sir Arthur’s younger half-brother Richard (Dicky) to American Sadie, née Juggs.  Also present is barrister John Larpent with his fiancée Paula Galbraith.  And of course there are numerous servants on the premises.

Unfortunately the following morning Charmian is found dead in her room, having been killed by her own pistol (an unnaturally quiet one considering nobody heard the shot).  The motive is unclear as the only thing missing seems to be a sapphire ball she habitually wore as a lucky charm – even though it was said to have a cursed history.  Inspector Stoddart of Scotland Yard is called in, assisted by the able Alfred Harbord, and soon finds the house’s inhabitants are hiding a variety of secrets.

Charmian’s past is shrouded in mystery but Stoddart soon realises Charmian Karslake was not her real name, and despite her apparent transatlantic origins she might have been more local to Hepton than she made out.  She knew at least one person in the house the night of the ball, but not by a name belonging to anyone present.  Various individuals are harbouring secrets and are evasive when questioned, and it seems more and more likely Charmian’s presence at the Abbey was not by chance.  Stoddart and Harbord plod on with their enquiries, but then Sadie is found brutally attacked in the Abbey’s grounds.  How are the events linked and is a madman on the loose?

The 2015 Dean Street Press edition has a useful two-part introduction by crime fiction specialist Curtis Evans, the first providing biographical details on Haynes, the second discussing this particular novel.  He has been instrumental in rescuing her from obscurity and has unearthed much of the information about her currently available.  He notes that, while popular during her lifetime, her books went out of print in the 1930s, plunging her into obscurity, so Dean Street Press have rendered a service to lovers of mystery fiction by producing new editions.

However, readers expecting a classic detective novel, with clues scattered for the observant reader to pick up and deduce the criminal’s identity from, will be disappointed to find there are no such clues to help spot the butler, Brook, as the murderer; the only hint is when Inspector Stoddart suggests he has more affection for Dicky than for Sir Arthur, which might imply he acted to protect the young gentleman from a charge of bigamy, whereas his motive was thwarted love on his own behalf.  Haynes is not as accomplished a plotter as Agatha Christie and whereas rereading a typical Christie allows one to see the subtle indications of the guilty party along the way, rereading Charmian Karslake has none.  It could be considered a cheat to dismiss the domestic staff as extraneous to the investigation and then finger the butler as the killer.

Despite weaknesses in plotting and the odd loose end (if Charmian engineered her invitation to the Abbey, how did she organise the street accident which brought her and Lady Penn-Moreton together?), the plot has its amusing moments.  Haynes shares the prejudices of her time in her attitudes to Americans and the French. particularly Richard’s father-in-law, Yank canned soup plutocrat Silas P Juggs and Charmian’s maid, Celeste, respectively, the latter of whom speaks in an, ow yoo sye, verry Frrench accon.   Working class characters are generally treated sympathetically though there is some condescension, leavened by humour.

On the other hand there is a touch of derision about her upper-class characters.  Haynes came from modest origins as the daughter of an ironmonger in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, and Evans draws out aspects of the way she deals with the gentry up at the big house in Who Killed Charmian Karslake? compared to her own upbringing in Leicestershire.  When a character says of the Penn-Moretons, ‘Many’s the errand I’ve done for ’em and had a copper chucked to me like as I was a dog’, there is an element of bitterness peeping through which may have had its roots in Haynes’s own life.  She moved to a more congenial life in London and probably would have echoed a character’s dismissal:  ‘Oh, I have no use for such a place as Hepton with its petty class restrictions’.

The detection is strictly professional with no amateur sleuth showing the flatfeet how to do it – in fact the police’s competence is underlined by Mr Juggs’s unrealistic boast that American detectives would have done the job much faster – though there is surely a trace of Lord Peter Wimsey (first appearance 1923) in young Dicky, with his monocle and unfailing insouciance.  Stoddart has a rather refreshing approach to handling witnesses which often involves lying and insincere flattery to elicit information, something more common in real life than in detective fiction.

The strangest thing about the novel is Dicky’s first marriage, and the Juggses’ (père et fille) attitude to the way he did it.  He finds himself on trial for Charmian’s murder because he had been married to her briefly.  However, she had been reported as dead, torpedoed during the war, so he considered himself a free man; hence her reappearance at a ball given to celebrate his marriage to a wealthy American heiress came as something of a shock and provided ample motive for murder to rid himself of this superfluous spouse.

What makes the first marriage peculiar is that Dicky married Charmian under an assumed name, Peter Halisham, a local character who had died years before, and the name said by Charmian the night she died.  He gives some feeble excuse for having done so, but it all looks very fishy, not to say caddish.  He emphasises he had done nothing wrong, but it enabled him to omit the paperwork legally declaring Charmian (or Sylvia as she then was) dead, allowing the marriage to be conveniently buried.  His second wife and father-in-law seem to think this behaviour in using an assumed name to marry not at all odd, and it does not diminish him in their affections one iota.  Sadly Stoddart does not charge him with obstruction for withholding this vital information, nor Larpent, who had been Dicky’s best man.  Doing so would have allowed Haynes to stick it to the toffs still further.

Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky, by Bertrand M Patenaude

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As Isaac Deutscher put it in the titles of his three-volume biography, Leon Trotsky was in turn armed, unarmed, and outcast.  Bertrand M. Patenaude has focused on the years in which Trotsky was outcast, as he moved from country to country after his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1929, washing up in Turkey, France and Norway (where shamefully he was interned) before being offered a safe harbour in Mexico.  He lived in Coyoacán, now part of Mexico City, from 1937 to his murder in 1940, initially in the Blue House, where artist Frida Kahlo had grown up and which was now owned by her husband Diego Rivera, until Trotsky fell out with Rivera and moved to another house close by.

Patenaude’s narrative is cleverly, if occasionally clumsily, structured: rather than following a strict chronological order it focuses on the Mexico years, with flashbacks where necessary to amplify relevant points.  These sketch in aspects of his earlier life, the tumultuous political events through which he moved as a revolutionary and as a senior figure in the Bolshevik government, developments in the Soviet Union and further afield, not least Mexico itself, during the 1930s, and the fate of his family and intimates.  This approach entails some lengthy digressions but in general works well.

The treatment of Trotsky’s personality captures his strengths and weaknesses.  He displayed political charisma and possessed undoubted intellectual abilities.  A fine orator and writer, he was able to enthuse and energise, his whole being devoted to the cause.  However, Patenaude balances these merits with his flaws.  There was a strain of arrogance which prevented Trotsky being a people person, and contributed to his comprehensive political defeat.  Critics, including Anatoly Lunacharsky, noted his inability to organise others: ‘He could electrify crowds, but not persuade individuals’.  Throughout his career he managed to alienate close comrades and squander his advantages.  Such traits meant he was never, despite what Lenin might have thought, a credible alternative to Stalin.  Patenaude too stresses Trotsky’s late conversion from Menshevism to Bolshevism, which did not help him forge alliances.

This is certainly not hagiography, but it is always sympathetic to his plight.  That plight should not be underestimated, with a constant barrage of slander from Stalinists in the Soviet Union and in Mexico.  The Dewey Commission, headed by the liberal philosopher John Dewey, was set up to examine the fake allegations being made against him during the Moscow show trials as the head of a vast conspiracy responsible for sabotage and espionage in the Soviet Union.  Many of the lies were shown to have been sloppily constructed and were easy to refute, though hard words he had used to denigrate Lenin prior to the Revolution were hard to shake.  While enabling Trotsky to put his views to a wide audience, the Commission’s verdict in his favour changed few opinions.

There is at times a strain of the absurd which Patenaude plays up, for example in the idea of the former Commissar for War reduced to playing with rabbits, but tinged with tragedy in a figure once of enormous political significance fulminating about disputes over dialectical materialism in the American Socialist Workers Party (Patenaude is particularly good on the complexities of Trotskyism in the US) while the Soviet Union had made a non-aggression pact with Germany, central Europe was being carved up, and the continent was about to go up in flames.  Trotsky was infuriated by the characterisation of dialectical materialism as incoherent and an article of faith rather than based on evidence, given it was the foundation of his political worldview, though others thought there were more pressing matters needing attention.

In these later years his Achilles heel became his handling of the Kronstadt rebellion in 1921.  He had advocated its suppression to defend the Revolution, and later critics argued that in doing so he was no better than Stalin organising purges.  Trotsky had called the Kronstadt sailors counter-revolutionaries just as Stalin was using the same epithet against the opposition groups.  The means had justified the ends for him just as they did for Stalin.  At the same time Trotsky could not bring himself to condemn the Soviet invasion of Poland and Finland, instead seeing the aggression as the implementation of workers’ control, to the astonishment, and increasing alienation, of his comrades.  Towards the end of his life ‘Trotskyism’ was more about what it was against than what it was for, not a credible method of building a coherent political platform.  Stalin had it right when he said the only important Trotskyist was Trotsky, and once he was removed the rest counted for nothing.  The subsequent history of the Fourth International indicates how sound his judgement was.

While supported by comrades who put up with a lot in return for little thanks, Trotsky was often let down by those around him, not least when they were Soviet agents who had infiltrated the movement.  He could though be his own enemy.  He often seemed to go out of his way to sabotage his prospects, whether it was not returning to Moscow when hearing of Lenin’s death, which logistically he could have done, or continuing a Mexican trip when news of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact broke and he was in demand as a commentator.  Despite their ultimate failure to ensure Trotsky’s safety, the Mexicans come out of it very well, offering asylum, providing some of his security, and finally purchasing the house after his death and allowing his widow and then grandson to continue to live there until finally it was turned into a museum.  Rivera too made strenuous efforts to secure the asylum offer, then purchase a house by mortgaging his own to provide extra security, for which efforts Trotsky repaid him by the affair with Kahlo and the falling apart of their relationship by Trotsky’s insistence on prioritising ideological matters over gratitude.

Money was always a cause for concern because although the American comrades were supporting the security measures, both financially and with voluntary manpower, he relied on his writing for living expenses, and while successfully completing an autobiography and The History of the Russian Revolution,  he became bogged down in a biography of Stalin (which Patenaude amusingly considers ‘tedious and repetitive, as though written for the Society of Old Bolsheviks instead of the Book of the Month Club’), while finding his style unsuited to popular magazine articles.  The necessity to spend money on Trotsky’s safety was amply demonstrated when NKVD operatives launched a raid, well armed and with incendiaries to destroy Trotsky’s extensive archive.  This fifteen-minute assault, facilitated by an agent on the inside to circumvent the alarm system (who was taken away and later killed by the attackers), failed miserably, the only casualty being Trotsky’s grandson’s toe – so miserably in fact that the Mexican police were initially suspicious it was a put-up job by the Trotskyists to smear Stalin.

Eventually though the campaign to assassinate Trotsky was successful.  While the conclusion is never in doubt, there is an air of horrible inevitability.  The reader knows when the last day has arrived as Patenaude goes through it action by action, leading up to the terrible moment when the murderer strikes.  Contrary to myth, we learn Ramón Mercader did not use an ice pick but rather a kind of prospector’s pick or ice axe, one end pointed, the other end flat and wide, with a sawn-down wooden shaft, and struck him from the front rather than from behind.

A hypothetical question is what would have happened had Mercader not been successful, and bearing in mind his incompetence he was lucky, only succeeding due to the sloppiness of Trotsky and his guards.  It seems reasonable to conclude that Trotsky would have become less and less relevant to world affairs and his reputation among his followers further tarnished thanks to his refusal to discard the characterisation of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers’ state.  Increasingly his reluctance to discard dogma meant his analyses were diverging from the reality, to the astonishment of those who looked to him for guidance.  While a tragedy for him and his family, his untimely death spared him from an undignified decline.  The wonder is that he was able to find enough SWP supporters in the United States to fund the security he needed in Mexico as all but a small core must have seen he was a spent force.

Domestically Patenaude details the love and irritation the Old man, as he was often called, could inspire in equal measure, his touching relationship with his wife Natalia, with whom he had gone through so much, and the unlikely affair with Frida Kahlo which so pained Natalia.  The house was a pressure cooker of emotions, while outside the ever-present Stalinist threat hovered, a situation that might have crushed a lesser man, and Trotsky’s fortitude deserves respect.  Rigorously researched, Stalin’s Nemesis is at the same time a pacy read despite its 400 pages.  Finally, the title is a puzzle.  Was Trotsky Stalin’s nemesis?  Hardly; an irritant certainly, but nemesis suggests an agent accomplishing the downfall of another.  In that sense, Stalin was Trotsky’s nemesis.

The Librarian, by Mikhail Elizarov

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Published in 2007, Ukrainian-born but Moscow-resident Mikhail Elizarov’s novel The Librarian won the Russian Booker in 2008 and the present translation by Andrew Bromfield was published by Pushkin Press in 2015.  In it the reader is introduced to the works of Dmitry Alexandrovich Gromov (1910-81), a minor Soviet hack writer who produced seven entirely conventional social realist propagandistic novels which toed the party line.  Little read even in his lifetime, he died as he had lived, in obscurity.  His books would have been forgotten too, except there was something magical (literally) about them which conferred a benefit to the reader.  Following the fall of the USSR, a number of people had discovered these effects, and the books had become known by alternative names to their titles, according to the influence they had.  Thus these were the books of strength (The Proletarian Way, 1951), power (Fly on, Happiness, 1954), meaning (A Meditation on Stalin Chinaware, 1956), joy (Narva, 1965), fury (By Labour’s Roads, 1968), endurance (The Silver Channel, 1972), and memory (The Quiet Grass, 1977).

The covert values conveyed by reading do not last for long so it is necessary to keep rereading the books, which come to exercise a drug-like quality.  The Book of Meaning may provide a key to a greater understanding of reality, but it is vanishingly rare as most copies were pulped, Gromov having praised Stalin in it after Kruschev’s denunciation; even the most assiduously conformist author can come unstuck if the world outside turns on its head.  Two conditions have to be fulfilled in order for the magic to work: the reader must concentrate, and finish the book in one go.  A casual browse will not do.  Unfortunately the impact cannot be carried by facsimiles so it is not the text alone, but some quality inherent in the structure of the book itself; and the full text must be present, with nothing removed – even the loss of an erratum slip will void the effect.  Why Gromov’s books, and no others (as far as is known), should possess such properties is unclear.  Superficially they are no different to many others written at the time extolling Soviet values.

Those in the know understood what the books could do and a subculture sprang up with ‘reading rooms’, essentially collectives who seek to acquire copies from rivals by any means necessary while retaining their own against others’ attempts on them.  The books are so valued that readers will die to acquire or defend them in regulated fights called Satisfactions.  Because of the violence, and the need to operate clandestinely, there is a Council of Libraries which in theory regulates the groups’ interactions, but with only partial success, and possessing its own power-grabbing agenda.  This all has to be done discreetly to prevent the books’ powers becoming common knowledge.  Much of The Librarian is occupied with descriptions of battles between the factions with home-made weapons and improvised armour.  Guns are not allowed because – well, there wouldn’t be much of a story would there?  Incredibly all combatants abide by this rule, ostensibly in place to keep the rumbles secret, resulting in barbaric levels of slaughter in the lovingly-described battles.

The novel opens with an account of how the books’ potency was discovered and how the library structure, with its internecine conflicts, evolved before switching to a first-person narrative by Alexei Vladimirovich Vyazintsev.  After an aimless life in Ukraine with various false starts, Alexei travels to Russia as the new millennium dawns to sell his late uncle’s flat on behalf of his family, only to find he is caught up in the underground conflicts that characterise the various Gromovite groups.  Plunged soon after arrival into this underworld, he takes over his uncle’s role as librarian, effectively the director, of the Shironin reading room, at first reluctantly but eventually with the fervour of any other devotee of Gromov’s works.  From not knowing what he wanted, trained in desultory fashion as an engineer while harbouring dilettantish aspirations to work in theatre, in short unable to find a firm place in a society which has lost its previous certainties, he now has a purpose in life.  However, there are constant dangers threatening to whittle down his comrades as rivals threaten and the predatory Council circles, trying to concentrate its power.

On one level it is an allegorical treatment of the Soviet Union and its interminable power struggles, though it will mean less to someone who doesn’t have a decent grasp of Soviet culture; it’s the kind of novel which cries out for a contextualising introduction.  The reading rooms survive through violence in the same way the Soviet state apparatus used force to maintain its grip on power.  Yet presumably Elizarov is saying in part that while Soviet culture, as exemplified by Gromov, might seem second-rate and banal, there was a magic in it which has been lost with the penetration of capitalist values.  Social bonds have loosened in the new Russia, and reading rooms take on the role of family as most of their members live alone.  The books are a catalyst allowing social outsiders to belong to a group, and there is a religious element indicating a higher purpose too, suggested by Alexei wearing a book round his neck contained in a metal case, like an icon.  There is a universal message about the magic books exert, the power they can confer, and the danger of obsession they harbour.

The strange ending sees Alexei confined in a bunker in the basement of a nursing home for elderly women (the men having been murdered), apparently in reach of an immortal state after being given all seven books to read.  The trade-off is to be trapped in stasis and removed from reality, a sacrifice to the power of Gromov, or perhaps anticipated to be the vessel of a divine revelation.  In his captivity it seems he has written the book we have been reading.  Possibly Elizarov is contending that while it harks back to its past and puts its present in the hands of those who serve their own interest, Russia, sealed in an ideological bunker, cannot move forward.  Obsessively rereading Gromov’s books provide strength, or joy, or whatever, but at the same time one is reading novels extolling the vision of the fake Socialist idyll encapsulated in them.  Tellingly, the Book of Memory conjures up an invented past; Alexei’s involves an idealised Soviet childhood of cheerful Young Pioneer camps and May Day holidays.  They may feel wonderful, but they are not true, yet though Alexei acknowledges they are ‘infantile’, they are nonetheless seductive.  If there is nostalgia for the old days, it is balanced by the recognition that they had become ossified and their hope of a bright future rendered illusory.  Similarly, in utilitarian terms it can hardly be said Gromov’s books bring more pleasure than pain to those who encounter them and become addicted.  There is a feeling the loss is not of the Soviet Union as such, but of what it could have been if developed in the right way, instead of its opportunities being squandered.

There are descriptions of Gromov’s plots which actually sound quite enticing.  I would have liked to read them, but am fully aware that something would be lost in translation even if I absorbed them with the utmost attention in one sitting.  The impact of Elizarov’s cryptic prose, on the other hand, may wear off quite quickly after The Librarian’s cover is closed.

Children’s books repurposed

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Five Go on a Strategy Away Day, by Bruno Vincent
How it Works: The Husband, by Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris


Five Go on a Strategy Away Day, by Bruno Vincent

Having done my share of constructing towers from Lego and bridges from drinking straws at company team-building events, I enjoyed this hybrid satire of vacuous corporate bonding and Enid Blyton-style adventure enormously. In it, Julian, George, Dick and Anne have grown up, though Timmy the dog is still alive.  They are all (apart from Timmy, obviously) working for the multinational Lupiter Fünckstein at its London headquarters where Julian has managed to wangle jobs for his relatives.  When they are sent on a team-building awayday in the sticks they find their well-established relationships under pressure.  The Secret Seven turn up as bitter rivals on the same course, with the difference that the Five’s shambolic approach is contrasted with the Seven’s superb organisational skills, though their high irritation factor is signalled by a propensity to play Kumbaya on massed ukuleles.

In the morning the Five have to undertake an indoor task, guiding blindfolded Julian as he navigates round pieces of paper representing landmines (tasteless to be sure, but an authentic-sounding challenge).  Thank goodness it was only bits of paper.  In the afternoon they are sent outside on an orienteering exercise, during which naturally they become lost.  Here the focus switches to an adventure more in keeping with the original stories, though with extra bickering, as if author Bruno Vincent had run out of ideas for making fun of the team-building industry.

In addition to the group exercises each member has had to do a personality test.  Their characters as defined by a crude paper and pencil questionnaire are credibly linked to the way they behaved as children, playing off Blyton’s stereotypes.  So they are categorised as leader (Julian), follower-on (Dick), renegade (George) and team player (Anne).  Unfortunately the Five discover that digging beneath characteristics which had never been examined is an uncomfortable process; moreover, such pigeon-holing can lead to friction, damaging hitherto productive group dynamics.  They eventually win through, more by luck than judgement, and they do it as a team even though on the basis of their scores they are abject failures.  So much for professional trainers with their abstract exercises and pop psychology.

The book will appeal to anyone who either enjoyed the Famous Five as children or has had to endure ghastly team events stuffed with bullshit-bingo cliché.  I was particularly amused at Corporate Relations getting the best meeting room and food, at the expense of departments which actually made the company money.  Having begun my career as a thrusting young executive in British Telecom’s Corporate Relations Department I found that plausible: BT’s CRD in the 1980s was certainly full of senior ‘managers’ whose sense of entitlement was inversely proportional to their often less than stellar performances.

Billed as ‘Enid Blyton for grown-ups’, Quercus are jumping on the updated Ladybirds bandwagon with their series.  There is a market for books which simultaneously allow older readers a shot of nostalgia mixed with cynicism about the modern world, and the infantilism of team building makes the topic a perfect match for a parody based on a Blytonian-style story.  Vincent shows that these allegedly bonding events companies insist on sending their hapless employees on are pointless, definitely time-wasting, and potentially corrosive of professional relationships – some things are better left unsaid in the work environment, especially if you despise your co-workers.  As George amply demonstrates, the strain of having to pretend to be positive while bored witless during team exercises is best countered with lashings of alcohol.

Five Go on a Strategy Away Day was a quick read, so I thought the £7.99 price a little steep, though because these books are so popular it is possible to pick them up cheaply (mine was 40p, which I thought reasonable).  Now, having learned about the career developments of the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, I’m curious to know what the Five Find-Outers and Dog have been up to recently.

(8 June 2017)


How it Works: The Husband, by Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris

I thought I would read this to get some tips, but it was pretty much irrelevant to my life, apart perhaps the bit about a man running on sausages and beer, which I can relate to even if it isn’t completely accurate.  The wife read it too but says there isn’t anything in it she didn’t know already, whatever that means.

The humour obviously lies in the disjunction between the pictures lifted from the Ladybird children’s books, published with a straight educational purpose, and the knowing, sometimes slightly salacious, commentary written in the style of the original books that looks at the picture in a new way.  The result is an irreverent spin on a much-loved staple for those of a certain age, providing simultaneously a bit of nostalgia for its unrealistic middle class world and a mocking look at the disappointing way we turned out.  It may present itself as good-natured, but there’s a sharpness underneath.

Pictures were chosen in order to act as a vehicle for an amusing commentary, but lack a narrative thread linking them.  It’s all entertaining enough, but with such an enormous library to choose from I was expecting more coherence.  Despite that limitation, there are some telling points about family life and the self-delusions husbands are said by their wives to harbour.  There is no harm in seeing these deflated, but it’s a fair bet that every man reading it will think it applies to everyone but him.  One is left wondering what the pictures originally illustrated.  For example, why is that smiling man in a kilt coming through the door holding what looks like a large turd in his hand?

The cover price (£6.99) is incredibly expensive for what you get – bearing in mind that half of it is recycled from decades ago and reading it takes all of ten minutes – but people are buying them in droves so Ladybird have been canny in working out what the market will bear.  There are squillions of these titles in circulation so they will turn up more cheaply eventually.  I paid 20p for mine, about what this market will bear.

(4 August 2017)

Thank You, Mr. Moto, by John P Marquand

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Readers who come to John P Marquand’s 1936 novel Thank You, Mr Moto from the films starring Peter Lorre will probably be surprised to find that Mr Moto plays a relatively small part in the story (and the film with the same name bears virtually no resemblance to it at all).  Set in China, all the stereotypes are in play: inscrutability, disingenuousness, double-dealing, a complacent sense of superiority towards foreigners, and a lack of sentimentality and an indifference to suffering in a country where life is cheap.  Yet Marquand displays a respect and fondness for China and its people, highlighting their intelligence if not robust code of ethics.

The story is written from the viewpoint of Tom Nelson, an American expatriate living in Peking after a scandal at home obliged him to resign from his law firm.  A fluent Chinese-speaker, he has effectively gone native and considers he has as good an understanding of the Chinese mind and way of life as any outsider can.  Having turned his back on the difficulties of life he meets every challenge with the shrug ‘it doesn’t matter, does it?’’  He is supposed to be writing a book but doubts whether he will ever get round to finishing it.  Among his large circle of acquaintances are Jamison Best, a shady English cashiered major, an American woman Eleanor Joyce, in China for some dubious but unspecified purpose, Prince Tung, a down-on-his luck aristocrat and aesthete impoverished by the fall of the Manchu dynasty – and of course Mr Moto, a Japanese government agent (not ‘the private eye of the Orient’ promised on the cover of the 1960 Fontana Books edition).

Tom’s relationship with Eleanor Joyce is initially prickly but they become intertwined after Major Best is murdered and it quickly becomes clear that they are next through having had contact with him.  The plot hinges on rare Chinese paintings which Eleanor is seeking to buy for an American museum, not realising that the sale involves their theft from Prince Tung by a brigand, Wu Lo Feng, who is planning a raid on the unguarded city.  Best had been involved in the sale of the paintings but had double-crossed Wu and so was eliminated, with Eleanor and Tom targeted in case they had been told of the plot.  Backing Wu is a Japanese provocateur, Mr Takahara, who wishes to utilise the chaos Wu will bring to extend Japanese influence over China.

Tom, Eleanor, Tung and Moto are captured by Wu and Takahara, along with Tung’s paintings, and taken to a small abandoned temple.  All looks lost, however they manage to escape when Eleanor unexpectedly grabs Wu’s pistol.  Moto disposes of Wu and Takahara, and the planned insurrection is quashed.  Tung is astonished at the turn of events, Eleanor’s impulsive action representing as it does western ‘illogicality’, as his oriental fatalism had prepared him for certain death.  Tom and Eleanor find romance, while Tom finally realises that however much he immerses himself in it, he will never be truly at one with China.  He finds that even Tung, whom he had considered a friend, looks on him as inferior.  Acknowledging that the subtleties (essentially rendered as deviousness) of the Chinese mind will always elude him, Tom shakes off his previous negativity towards life, finding that by changing his circumstances, circumstances have changed him.  He and Eleanor plan to leave the country, but not before they say, ‘thank you, Mr. Moto.’

Ostensibly a thriller, with plenty of action, Marquand makes valid points about the difficult situation in China and the growing influence of Japan.  Yet Mr Moto, while working for the Japanese government and bent on extending his country’s influence, is portrayed sympathetically and the more aggressive Takahara is shown to be the villain, even though, as Moto himself acknowledges, their ends are not dissimilar.  What does separate them is that while Takahara is willing to sacrifice the Americans, Moto endeavours firstly to persuade Tom to leave China for his own safety then, when that fails, does his utmost to keep them safe.

The result is to make Japanese expansionism in the power vacuum of post-dynastic China seem reasonable; as long that is as it is not done aggressively, like Takahara’s methods, rather in terms of altruistically proffering a ‘helping hand’ to ‘backward’ nations, as Moto perhaps ironically argues imperialist powers have done in the past.  Unfortunately the wider Japanese project in south-east Asia, for which Moto represents its acceptable face, is not examined at all.  Perhaps for American readers, like Czechoslovakia for Neville Chamberlain, it was a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom they knew nothing.  But not for long: history proved to be on the side of Takahara in China, before the Imperial Japanese Army set its sights further afield and brought mayhem to the Pacific.

Grotesque, by Natuso Kirino

Grotesque cvr

Grotesque, by Natsuo Kirino, author of Out is structured as a series of first-person narratives with changing narrators, some direct, others in the form of journal entries of the elaborated sort rarely found in real life.  Contributors are mainly an unnamed woman, plus her sister Yuriko Hirata and school friend Kazue Satō, the last two of whom had worked as prostitutes and been murdered within a year of each other.  The chief suspect, Zhang, a Chinese illegal immigrant who is accused of murdering both women, and who admits to murdering Yuriko but not Kazue, is also afforded a lengthy statement.  All three women had attended a prestigious educational institution.  Rather than cohering to present a rounded portrait, all the narrators, whose accounts intersect, are unreliable, necessitating the reader to evaluate their truthfulness against each other.

The main narrator is considered physically plain, whereas her younger sister Yuriko was so beautiful it seemed unnatural.  The elder harbours a lifelong resentment, not helped by having worked hard to enter the elite Q School, while Yuriko is able to coast because of her looks.  Once there, Yuriko becomes the standard by which her sister is judged and found wanting, rather than acknowledged for her intelligence.  Perhaps in defence, the older sister dismisses Yuriko as unintelligent, a verdict not born out by the quality of the writing in her journal.  Even so, harbouring nymphomaniac desires, Yuriko begins selling sex at school, and eventually drops out of education, becoming a high-class hooker who as time progresses finds that her desirability has a short shelf life, forcing her ever further downwards as her looks coarsen.  Despite an intense dislike for Yuriko, after her death her sister adopts her blind son Yurio, who appears to be as self-centred as his mother had been.  Possessing Yurio is a final victory over her sister.

Kazue is shown as a striver at school but an object of derision by her peers.  Her self-esteem issues manifest as lifelong anorexia, a way to exercise control over her environment.  Despite her best efforts she will still never fit in, and her strained efforts are contrasted with that of a more accomplished student, Mitsuru.  Kazue’s attempts take on the character of eccentricity and this continues after school.  She simultaneously holds down a job as a middle manager in a design and engineering firm while working as a prostitute, her behaviour in both spheres becoming increasingly erratic.  Bizarrely she uses her status as an analyst in a prestigious company as a selling point in her prostitute role, showing her business card to punters and boasting of her position.  Clearly blackmail is not a problem in Japan (another question her behaviour raises is how she lasted so long at her firm without being fired when she admits to spending all day cutting out newspaper articles, when not snoozing in a vacant meeting room).

Zhang’s section recounts his life in China, his escape to Japan with his sister, with whom he had an incestuous relationship, and her death, then his life on the margins in Japan.  Existence for peasants in rural China is shown to be hard, and prospects little better for them in the cities.  As with other accounts this is shown to be not necessarily accurate: his alleged closeness to his sister is belied by her abandonment of him, and the later possibility that he murdered her is floated.

Yuriko’s sister manages her relationship with the world by despising people, including, by her willingness to manipulate, the reader – it is worth bearing in mind that she has curated the accounts that make up the book, and is always quick to undermine them when the content doesn’t suit her.  The only person she seems to be tolerant of is her grandfather, though her liking of him is bound up with wanting to stay in the flat to which he has the lease, and she is quick to put him in a home when he becomes senile; not much sign of the famed Japanese reverence for the elderly on show here (the grandfather had fallen in with Mitsuru’s mother, who owned a bar, and he had sold off his prized bonsai trees to fund his new social life – the traditional ways cannot compete with the attractions of modernity).  Nor is she particularly hostile towards Zhang, rather fascinated by him.  She detests her sister, and her determination to define herself against Yuriko is expressed in her claim to still be a virgin at 40, but her obsession with Yuriko is a weakness which undermines her own self-worth as she continues to measure herself against her sibling.  The novel concludes with her fantasising about becoming a prostitute in turn, reasoning that women turn to prostitution through hatred of the world, in which case it would only be an expression of her standard view of others.

The book explores themes of a woman’s place in what is still a male-dominated, hierarchical system, and how women must accommodate to a male system in order to survive, whether at work or in the sex trade.  As Yuriko and Kazue age they fall further down the ladder of desirability until they are reduced to standing in the street, a trajectory Kazue embraces as her fate.  But Kirino also looks at how this environment affects women’s attitudes towards other women.  Ideology works by pitting the repressed against each other in order to preserve the privileges of the powerful, so the women are generally dreadful to each other instead of understanding that they have common interests against their oppression.  The girls at Q School show no solidarity, instead having a strict pecking order amounting to a caste system, bulwarked by extensive bullying.  They are divided into the insiders – self-assured and from rich families, from fashionable parts of town and generally pupils at the school from the time they were small – and the rest, the outsiders.  However much the latter might want to become the former, even if highly talented, they will never be able to bridge the divide (the narrator, living in municipal housing in a down-at-heel area, has no chance).  Despite the stereotype of the coy modest Japanese woman this is a highly sexualised society (think Hentai, selling used underwear and groping on trains, not to mention the paedophilic schoolgirl fetish).  Even in the house the situation for women is no better, with stay-at-home mothers despised for weakness and made to feel their powerlessness by the rest of the family.

Often considered culturally sophisticated by observers, Japanese society on this evidence is rigid, dysfunctional and misogynistic.  There is no escape; Mitsuru, the most intelligent and able of them all, but an outsider, becomes a doctor but goes to prison for terrorism while a member of a cult, and ends by marrying her old biology teacher, himself disgraced and having had to resign from Q School because his son had become Yuriko’s pimp (it was the teacher who had managed to get Yuriko admitted to the school as part of an experiment to see what effect she would have on the student body, an act he comes to regret).  Biology is destiny in Japan, it seems, and women have the cards stacked against them.  The elder sister herself, perpetually angry with the world, ends up in a series of unfulfilling jobs.  Not one woman in the novel does well, whatever her talents.  Some of the blame for the failure of the women to fulfil their potential is laid at the door of the education system and its propensity to damage genuine relationships.  Adding to the complication is the fact that Yuriko and her sister are mixed race, or ‘halves’, with a Japanese mother and Swiss father.  This affords them a degree of exoticism but also makes them quasi-outsiders in their own country which harbours a marked degree of xenophobia.  When his business fails the father moves back to Switzerland with their mother, who shortly afterwards commits suicide.  Typically Yuriko’s sister is indifferent to the act.

What poses initially as a crime novel and then supposedly an exploration of why respectable women would become prostitutes is in fact a satire on society that eschews the conventional trappings of the crime genre (we never learn who killed Kazue, assuming it wasn’t Zhang, but it doesn’t matter, the crucial thing is she was murdered).  While fooling themselves of their importance, men too are relatively powerless, resulting in a feeling of anomie pervading and subverting a social order that only appears poised on the surface.  Prostitution is shown to be a false mechanism for female empowerment as it works within a patriarchal system that prizes youth and beauty, yet in some sense all women must prostitute themselves to survive.  Kirino has written a rich but profoundly pessimistic book.

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