Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Absolute Friends. By John Le Carre

Absolute Friends

John Le Carre

Coronet Books. First published 2004.

This is one of the finest (and angriest) of Le Carre's novels. I must have read it at least once earlier, when I bought it about a decade ago. But when I read it again now I did not remember anything about either the characters or the plot line. It was like reading the book for the first time, and that made it suspenseful and thrilling. Of course, no matter how many times one repeats, Le Carre's writing style, like that of PGW, is always good to read, and the content always thought-provoking.

When he started writing his outstanding spy fiction, Le Carre kept away from politics, and concentrated on psycho-sociology of the individuals involved. Thus, in the first of his great novels, 'The Spy Who Came In from the Cold', the chief character Leamas is manipulated by his bureaucratic handler, George Smiley, to overcome his cynicism and despair and undertake a last mission for his country. As part of this intricate plan he is deliberately betrayed to his enemies and ends up a corpse on the Berlin Wall. In the trilogy that followed, Le Carre, explored the thoughts and feelings of Smiley, as he kept seeking moral justification for all the nasty things he does in his job. There is, however, a degree of anti-Americanism visible in the writing even then, especially in the second of the trilogy – 'The Honourable Schoolboy' – in which, at the end, the British intelligence service, which does all the hard work, is robbed of the fruits of its labour by the Americans.

His later novels have become increasingly political, always taking sides against globalized American corporates, which control most established political activity and discourse in the US and try to do so all over the world. In this book, written even as the first phase of the war in Iraq in the noughties was coming to an end, he describes the way in which two rather naive and idealistic men, who are 'absolute friends', are drawn into serving as victims of a bizzare, cynical and dastardly plot to discredit the voices of moderation in Europe, who were exposing the Iraqi war for what it was – a coldly calculated plot to use the unfortunate events on 11th September 2001 in New York, and grab control of the oil wealth of the people of Iraq. The story moves from radical European student politics of the late fifties and the sixties, to cold war espionage back and forth across the 'Iron Curtain', to final denouement in about 2003.

Le Carre's politics during this time has become increasingly left-liberal, but he is not therefore, and never was, a supporter of the totalitarian systems of Eastern Europe, the erstwhile Soviet Union and Asia. He deplores the tendency of the neo-cons to lump together all the ideologies that are hostile to their idea of Christian fundmentalist, libertarian, free-market corporate political economy. And indeed, in this book he addresses just the lengths to which those interests would manage and even create events that their drum-beaters can frenziedly work up into mass support for their project of bringing 'Freedom and Democracy' to the world. Any and every dissenting voice, even the most reasonable and most rational of them, must be discredited and suppressed. In a passage he mentions a few of those voices, ones he obviously admires: 'I have in mind', says one of his characters, outlining a project to create a platform to bring together writers and thinkers who speak out against neo-conservatism, 'such thinkers as the Canadian Naomi Klein, India's Arundhati Roy who pleads for a different way of seeing, your British George Monbiot and Mark Curtis, Australia's John Pilger, America's Noam Chomsky, the American Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, and the France-American Susan George of the World Social Forum at Porto Alegre.'

In another such passage he talks about 'the encroachment of the corporate power in every university campus in the first, second and third worlds.... the educational colonisation by means of corporate investment at the faculty level, conditional upon untrue nostrums that are advantageous to the corporate investor, and delterious for the poor fuck of the student.' I, myself see this happening in my own University. It is not possible to question the current wisdom, more specifically even the current regime, without inviting serious repercussions. Academics are also now considered government servants, and are expected to abide by all the rules that the colonial British government imposed on its slaves, and left behind for our current lords and masters to insist we follow. Elsewhere Le Carre asks: 'How do these corporations achieve their stranglehold on our society? ' And answers: 'When they are not shooting, they are buying. They buy good minds, and tie them to their wagon wheels. They buy students wet from their mothers and castrate their thought processes' [the IT industry in India]. 'They create false orthodoxies and impose censorship under the sham of political correctness' [A.K. Ramanujan's essay removed from Delhi University syllabus]. 'They build university facilities' [not in India they don't – they get the government to do it for them] 'dictate university courses, over-promote the professors who kiss ass, and bully the shit out of the heretics'.

The story ends tragically, as all of Le Carre's later novels do, with the defeat of the idealistic dreamers and of innocent bystanders. The last one I remember which could be said to have had a 'happy' conclusion was 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy'.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Mating Season. By P.G. Wodehouse

The Mating Season

P.G. Wodehouse

Penguin Books. First published 1949.

The books belongs to the golden period of about 35 years between 1925 and 1960 when PGW wrote some of the most sublime comic literature ever written. Not word is out of place in this story involving the standard set of characters Wooster, Jeeves, Gussie and 'the' Basset, augmented by Esmond Haddock, a deliciously described Cora 'Corky' Pirbright, Claude Pirbright, Gertrude Winkworth, and a 'surging sea' of five (yes, five) aunts, not counting Aunt Agatha, who appears off-stage. Four pairs of lovers get their lines crossed and keep getting hitched up with the wrong partners, with Bertie Wooster playing the role of the joker in the pack, being grabbed up by whichever female happens to be unattached at the moment, much to the horror of his completely bachelor soul. (I suppose one might, with some effort, write a facetious essay on the topic 'Was Bertie gay?' - but that line of investigation is best left to Stephen Fry, maybe.) And then, of course, Jeeves waves his wand (actually a cosh in this case) and sets things right. 

The book contains the story of 'Mervyn Keene, Clubman', a novel by Rosie M. banks, summarized for Wooster's benefit by that prime specimen of all that's soppy, Madeline Basset. Upon listening to which Wooster remarks to us, the readers, as follows: 'The fact is, I was feeling a bit stunned. I had always known in a sort of vague, general way that Mrs Bingo (i.e. R.M. Banks) wrote the world's worst tripe - Bingo generally changes the subject nervously if anyone mentions the little woman's output - but I had never supposed her capable of bilge like this.' Lovely stuff.   

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The Hired Man. By Aminatta Forna

The Hired Man

Aminatta Forna

Bloomsbury. First published 2013.

Aminatta Forna is (probably) of Sierra Leonian origin, born in Scotland, and brought up in Sierra Leone and other Asian and African countries, but not in Eastern Europe - Croatia - where this book is set. 

It deals with a Croat trying to come to terms with some of the awful things he witnessed and also did in his immediate past. The story begins in the aftermath of the complicated and multi-cornered civil war in which five or six ethnic groups (Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Albanians...) all fought each other, massacring non-combatant groups, and generally behaving as if they were primitive tribes belonging to 10,000 BCE. The result, of course, was the 'Balkanisation' of, well, the Balkans. Former Yugoslavia is now four different countries and maybe as many 'autonomous' regions within those countries. Croatia fought its war mainly with Serbia. 

The book is set in the fictitious town of Gost in Croatia, which has seen its share of the horrors, and now, when they are nearly over, there is not much energy in its residents to try and rebuild their civilisation. Many have left, and those who remain are either old, or predatory. Into this psychologically and physically destroyed landscape arrives an English family - mother, son and daughter, father to follow later. They buy a house that is nearly falling down and set about trying to renew it. To help them they hire Duro, the narrator of the story, as a painter, fixer and, as it turns out, security man. Duro is trying to extinguish anger and despair from within him, which are a consequence of the memories of his childhood, and the way the subsequent decade turned his friends into fiends, or victims. He himself was not untouched by the tribalism, and, in presumed revenge for the murder of his friends' parents, and attempts to rape another of his friends, he shoots and kills, in cold blood, some soldiers, who may or may not have assisted in the brutalities. Duro's interactions with the English family, the way he wholeheartedly assists their efforts at rebuilding, the way helps the daughter uncover a mosaic mural which was deliberately plastered over the by the former owner of the house, the way he takes them to the seaside and to a picnic in a secret place in the mountains, the way he watches over them and prevents at least one open attempt to terrorize them, all this helps his wounded psyche to heal, and to grow scar tissue. 

The story deals with three time periods - before the civil war, presumably in socialist Yugoslavia; the civil war itself; and the time after, in newly formed Croatia. The narration goes back and forth between these times, is a bit confusing. Often I was not clear just which period the narration was referring to. The author keeps promising ghastly revelations, but when the revelations are actually made, they are emphasized so little, and mixed up in so many different back and forth movements of the storyline, that we keep looking for something else right to the end of the book. But the narration just kind of comes to a halt, when the English family complete their vacation and return home.

Forna obviously did not write this book from her own experiences. Perhaps she travelled in Croatia recently, and perhaps she did a lot of research. She does sound hugely authentic. Her writing is completely undramatic, though never straightforward. Many of the most important incidents are almost dealt with in passing. Some of the knots of tension she builds up are never resolved. Overall I was left with a sense of  - nice book, nice writing, but I wouldn't have missed much if I had not read it. 

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Evil Under the Sun. By Agatha Christie

Evil Under the Sun 

Agatha Christie

Harper. First published 1941.

World War II is not even mentioned.  But that is just carping. One doesn't read AG for political comment. The murder takes place at the beach of a seaside resort hotel, situated on an island off the coast of Devon in England (where else?). Poirot is on hand and after his usual comments and murmurs to misdirect the reader, and after many of the usual AG memes have been trotted out, the surprise murderer is revealed. AG does not give the reader a fair chance, but nowadays I just 'meta-read' her, trying to guess how she'd take the story. The obvious red herrings can be easily ruled out. But despite this, trying to figure out 'the most unlikely suspect' and fixing on him/her/them is not always easy. In this case I failed. The misdirection was well done. In some of her books, there is a character or two one can feel sympathetic towards, and even like. There is an attempt to introduce  a couple of such here, butthe portraits are not very well drawn. The book is average Agatha Christie. Good for complete, self-indulgent escape, like watching an average soap on TV. 

The Greatest Show on Earth. By Richard Dawkins

The Greatest Show on Earth

Richard Dawkins

Black Swan. First published 2009.

Dawkins addresses this book to those who would like to see what evidence there is for the theory of evolution. Not the people who would deny the fact of evolution, for they are not going to change their mind, no matter how much scientific evidence is presented. But for people who have learnt about the theory, and believe it to be the truth, but are not able to comfortably reply (in their own minds or in debates) to the various challenges put forward by the 'evolution-deniers' - I won't just say 'creationists', there are other varieties as well. Dawkins presents various different strands of evidence, some of them more convincing than others; some known to Darwin, others made possible only recently. He also presents detailed evidence for ideas that are not actually part of Darwin's theory, but necessary for it, such as a very ancient origin for the Earth.

Dawkins does not here present the theory in any great detail. He has already done so in several other books. (His tone in the one or two of those books that I have read is as polemical as in this one. This tone makes the book lighter reading than it would have been, had it been more academic.). I have repeated Daniel Dennett's summary of Darwin's idea elsewhere in this blog, and can do no better than copy and paste from there, as follows: Evolution by natural selection occurs whenever the following conditions exist: (1) variation: there is a continuing abundance of different elements. (2) heredity or replication: the elements have the capacity to create copies or replicas of themselves. (3) differential "fitness": the number of copies of an element that are created in a given time varies, depending on the interactions between the features of that element and features of the environment in which it persists. Variation occurs randomly, without any 'intent'. Natural selection imposes different survival rates for different variants. The ones that fail in this process disappear, and only some of variants are replicated in the next cycle. If this procedure is repeated a sufficient number of times, the original single entity differentiates, over time, into a variety of different species. This Darwinian process, can, in principle, explain all the immense diversity found in nature, not just the biosphere, but inanimate systems as well, and, in practice, all the biological diversity, and an overwhelming number of non-living systems.

Of course, just because a procedure or a process (i.e. a theory) is self-consistent and logically flawless does not mean that's how things actually happened. For that to be established, in other words for the theory to be accepted as a scientific fact, in the manner, for example, in which Newton's Laws of Motion are accepted, we need observational and experimental evidence. We also require that the theory has some predictive power - the more this power, the more scientifically powerful the theory, more it is the 'truth'. 

Dawkins addresses the first of these issues very effectively in this book. The subtitle - 'The Evidence for Evolution' - is a clear statement of intent. And he carries out this intent with surely and competently, by laying out all the observational evidence there is for the theory. Here is summary of what he discusses.  

  • He starts from where Darwin also started, with descriptions of dog-breeding, horse-breeding, pigeon-breeding, and so on, which establish that it is possible to use a selection mechanism to speed up the widening of differences between variants of an animal, until it results in two types that are so different that they cannot inter-breed, and may be considered two independent species. Selection by humans, of course, has not lead to different species, not as yet. But, would a dachshund be able to cross-breed with a St. Bernard? Only with great difficulty, I should imagine. 
  • Dawkins then describes evidence for non-human selection, i.e. natural selection. Flowers are selected for their visual attractiveness and perfume by bees and butterflies and wasps. In their turn, the insects evolve to match the flowers. These processes drift into speciation, and new species of flowers and insects arise, matched for each other. Dawkins describes a variety of orchid in Madagascar that has a long and narrow approach to its nectar. To Darwin and (Alfred Russell) Wallace (co-discoverer of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection - ToEbNS), this implied the existence of an insect with a long and narrow proboscis. And years later a moth with precisely the required characteristics was discovered. So yes, Darwin's theory had predictive value, as well, though admittedly this prediction did not have the same force as predicting the bending of starlight, or the existence of the positron.
  • The immense amount of time required to achieve the observed species diversity argues for an ancient origin for the earth, and this is supported by multiple lines of evidence - radioactive dating being the most prominent and rigorous of these. 
  • Speciation happens all the time, sometimes in comparatively short periods of time. This has been observed in the wild - lizards on two islands of the coast of Croatia that, in a few decades, evolved with distinctly different mouths to take advantage of the geographical differences in the vegetation; and white moths in pre-industrial England that turned black to better camouflage themselves in the newly soot-laden landscape. Rapid speciation has also been observed in, for example, bacteria, in laboratory experiments where they were artificially selected for a particular trait. And of course there is the fearsome advent of MRSA, though Dawkins does not talk about it. This is a strain of lethal bacteria that is resistant to most known antibiotics, and has probably arisen only in the last few decades. 
  • There is a large amount of fossil evidence which traces the different stages of evolution of many different animals. Human evolution, from 'Lucy' about a million years ago, in particular, is known in quite amazing detail, and though new fossils are being unearthed all the time, the broad outlines of the evolutionary road human beings took to get here are already well understood and well supported. Claims of 'links' being 'missing' are false. [In discussing fossils, Dawkins presents a partial transcript of an interview he had with Wendy Wright, a Christian creationist. Her utterly stupid attitude in refusing to acknowledge the evidence and the facts, and on insisting that evolutionary scientists are aggressively and wrongly promoting their 'beliefs', and that other beliefs - e.g. creationism - are equally valid, all this reminds me of the 'arguments' presented by some of my friends, highly educated guys with impressive degrees, when they say global warming along with the consequent climate change is 'hogwash'.] 
  • Speciation of a sort occurs in each individual organism as it grows and develops from a single cell into a complex multicellular organism. Dawkins uses this chapter to to emphasize that though this process is near miraculous, it can be explained as arising from local independent interactions between molecules that give rise to all these marvelous structures and functions - in other words, no 'skyhooks', in Daniel Dennett's words.
  • The theory of the drifting continents - plate tectonics - explains the geographical distribution of the species, and thus supports and underscores the theory of evolution. [There is independent evidence from geology for continental drift - and independent evidence for evolution. And, though the one is not proof of the other, the two theories match and complement each other well.]
  • Skeletal and anatomical structures have similar or related features across species and genera, clearly derived from a common prototype (though they could equally have been derived one from the other - there is other evidence to show that such similarities are not descended one from the other, but both come from a common predecessor). However, many cases of such similarity are due to convergent evolution, rather than divergent evolution from a common ancestor - the wings of birds and bats are an obvious example of convergence. Dawkins also describes the DNA evidence for evolution. Large scale genome sequencing projects have produced, and continue to produce, rich data. And, with the data and the software widely accessible, gene sequence comparison makes it possible for any interested person to sit at a home computer and verify evolutionary relationships between species. Here, as elsewhere in his writings, Dawkins takes a strict gene's-eye view of biology, with inheritance coded for only in the DNA. He is dismissive of the possible role of horizontal gene transfer, which has been identified to be significant for evolution not only in prokaryotes (bacteria) but also in eukaryotes (higher organisms, plants, animals). I think he does not sufficiently emphasize that the presence of a universal genetic code, across all forms of life, from viruses to bacteria to plants to animals, as the single most important validation of the idea that all species on earth originated from a single, unicellular form of Life which existed about 4 billion years ago.
  • In a polemical chapter, aimed more at striking down 'intelligent design' and creationism, Dawkins points out that there are several unnecessary complexities in animal anatomies that make it clear that evolutionary 'progress' is a random walk in biological space, natural selection favouring one particular direction at one moment, and another at the next. One such extraordinary and needless feature is the fact that the laryngeal nerve, which connects the larynx to the brain, actually first goes down from the larynx into the thorax, before coming up again to connect to the cortex, which is a detour with no function. This oddity, and a couple of others, are presented by Dawkins as examples of 'unintelligent design'. Dawkins strikes another blow against creationism by pointing out to the unspeakable cruelties that take place in nature that is 'red in tooth and claw'. He refers to the Ichneumonid wasps that are parasitoids. To quote from ' -wasp', "Typically, an adult female parasitoid lays an egg on the surface of or into the body of a living larva of another insect. When the egg hatches, the parasitoid proceeds to systematically consume the host. Like a cat with a mouse, it keeps its victim alive as long as possible. Dead larvae rot quickly, and this ruins the meal. First the parasitoid eats the fat bodies of the larva, then the digestive organs, keeping the heart and central nervous system intact for as long as possible. Finally, these are consumed as well and the long-suffering victim dies, leaving an empty caterpillar shell in which the victorious insect may choose to pupate." Dawkins quotes an un-named Australian scientist as saying that whoever 'designed' such a creature must be 'sadistic bastard'.
  • Dawkins also provides evidence for the mindlessness of evolution by pointing out to the constant strife to appropriate a greater and greater share of the resources, and to always try and become 'better' - better at chasing prey, or better at escaping the predator, or sometimes both. He hints at a social connection to Darwinism here by making a parallel between natural selection, which he says 'chooses between rival individuals within a population', and Adam Smith's 'invisible hand of the market'. I am not sure how much this comparison is valid. The analogy could easily feed a bleak view of human society where success and 'progress' are not predicated on ethics. But, Chomsky, for example, has a different take altogether on what exactly Smith said and meant. It is overly simplistic, invalid and even stupid, not to say dangerous, to extend Darwinism into social interactions, especially in order to justify a specific point of view.
The book, as I mentioned in the beginning, appears to be written mainly to provide talking points to those who would refute the idiocies of the creationists. It is an excellent read, and this edition is supplied also with many beautiful illustrations. The explanations are rigorous, comprehensive and crystal clear. But it is unlikely to actually change the minds of to many creationists. They, like climate-change deniers or Hindutvawadis, or for that matter, believers in many other types of theories and systems - religious, economic or political - will not let facts come in the way of their 'truth'. (Talking about religious beliefs, I may mention that atheism is not a belief - it is based on logical deductions from the lack of evidence for an anthropomorphic, omnipresent, omnipotent God).