Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (2017) by Yuri Slezkine

Cover of The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution by Yuri Slezkine

Book Review
The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (2017)
 by Yuri Slezkine
Princeton University Press/Oxford University Press
Published August 27th, 2017
1126 pgs.

  I went back and looked at all the books I read this year to see if there was anything I liked more than The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution.  Finishing the first volume of Rembrance of Things Past by Proust was a real milestone, and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Shame and The Satanic Verses were all top 10 type titles.  I liked Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing, which won the National Book Award and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Sunders, which one the Booker Prize.  I also read four titles by Nobel Prize for Literature winner Kazuo Ishiguo, and I felt like his most recent book,  The Buried Giant was sorely misunderstood by critics and audiences.

   But it was The House of Government, which is a history book- not even a novel- which is my favorite book of the year.  The House of Government is nothing short of a revelation, one of those history books that only comes along once or twice in a generation.  I would compare it to Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer in terms of the impact on our understanding of the subject matter.  Slezkine deserves recognition on every level: For his research, his construction of the book, his writing style and technique and the persuasiveness of his thesis, which is that Bolshevism was a millenarian religion like many others, and it's followers were like all millenarian followers.

   The House of Government was a literal place, a bespoke apartment building for the elite of the revolutionary government.  Slezkine traces the lives of the apartment dwellers: early days of prison, exile and revolution;  a "heroic" period where the residents were deeply involved in cementing the success of the Russian revolution, the post revolution hangover and finally the extermination of the entire "old" Bolshevik elite during the Red Terror.   Each period gets full attention.  The House of Government clocks in at over a thousand pages with another 200 pages of addendum's and notes.  It's researched like an academic history book but reads like a novel.  Ultimately, it is a must for anyone interested in the subject, or advances in the discipline of history.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Hallucinating Foucault (1996) by Patricia Dunker

Book Review
Hallucinating Foucault (1996)
by Patricia Dunker

   French intellectual Michel Foucault is one of those 20th century figures, like Freud or Einstein, who continues to inspire new generations, both with his actual ideas and also with his image.  In his case, that image is that of the sex-positive transgressive male homosexual, as aggressive about asserting his particular sexuality as any heterosexual man, with a fondness for vagrants and criminals, the rougher, the better.  It's this combination of intellect and danger that gives him such enduring appeal.

  In the recently reviewed The Seventh Function of Language by Binet, Foucault appears as an actual character in his 1980's who-done-it.  In Hallucinating Foucault, he does not appear in person, but he haunts the proceedings, which detail the activities of the unnamed narrator, a graduate student in literature at Cambridge University.   The narrator's subject is French novelist Paul Michel (fictional), who appears as a kind of literary doppelganger, or maybe spiritual manifestation, of Foucault.  At the beginning of Hallucinating Foucault, which is set in the "present," the narrator learns, through his girlfriend, known in the book only as "the Germanist," that Michel went stark raving mad and has spent the last decade of his life in an asylum near Paris.

  Off he goes then, to meet and befriend the subject of his research.  The description makes Hallucinating Foucault sound more off putting and pretentious than it actually is. It's one of those novels that will appeal to people who fondly remember the height of "post-modern" academic culture, and leave those on the outside incurious to investigate further.

The Story of a Brief Marriage (2016) by Anuk Arudpragasm

Book Review
The Story of a Brief Marriage (2016)
 by Anuk Arudpragasm

  It is easy to forget, or never learn, what, exactly was wrong with colonialism.  Aside from the obvious outrages such as discrimination and slavery, there were the more subtle but just as pernicious techniques of governance, many of which continue to vex these places decades later.  One of these techniques was to "divide and conquer" native populations by favoring one ethnic/religious/cultural group at the expense of another.   Decisions about which groups to favor were themselves the product of racism, and the result is that the removal of the colonial administration would inevitably unleash anger between the group which had been favored and the group (or groups) which were disfavored.

  The most "classic" example of this government technique of control in recent history is the Rwanda genocide, where the colonially favored Tutsi's became enmeshed in genocide with the Hutus, the disfavored group under colonial rule.  Sri Lanka was another location where this dynamic was much in evidence.  There, the British favored the minority Tamil population, ancient immigrants to Sri Lanka from the sub continent at the expense of the majority Sinhalese/Buddhist group.  In the aftermath of the British withdrawal, the Sinhalese took control of their government, and the Tamil's "fought back" through the formation of a nationalist liberation group, known as the Tamil Tigers, who immediately launched a bloody civil war, one that included the invention of the suicide bomber and wide spread civilian atrocities by both sides (but mostly by the Tamil's).

  Eventually, with major help from both China and Israel, the Sinhalese government trapped a mixed group of Tamil civilians and rebels on a single strip of beach in the north of the island and exterminated them down to the last man.  This happened in the spring of 2009, and The Story of a Brief Marriage, written by a Sri Lankan Tamil now studying Philosophy at Columbia University, is the story of a young civilian Tamil man trapped in that last redoubt, weeks before the end.

  I'm unaware of any other narratives- fictional or non- that take on the perspective of one of these civilians who was trapped- apparently the Sri Lankan army indiscriminately shelled the civilians along with the guerrillas, and The Story of a Brief Marriage is deserving of attention precisely becausethe viewpoint of the narrator is so unique.

  To recount the horrors of The Story of a Brief Marriage is to lessen the impact, but in a decade with plenty of explicit narratives about wars present and future, this one stands out.  There are no larger political issues, just the horror of being trapped in a war zone and targeted for annihilation by a very modern army.

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