Primo Levi described his return to Italy from the Auschwitz concentration camp in La tregua (The Truce). In this Paris Review interview, Levi reminisces about one of the book’s characters: “You remember Mordo Nahum? I had mixed feelings toward him. I admired him as a man fit for every situation. But of course he was very cruel to me. He despised me because I was not able to manage. I had no shoes. He told me, Remember, when there is war, the first thing is shoes, and second is eating. Because if you have shoes, then you can run and steal. But you must have shoes. Yes, I told him, well you are right, but there is not war any more. And he told me, Guerra es siempre. There is always war.”
Today, as the world commemorates the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we should strive to understand the revulsion that Primo Levi felt towards those who took part in the Nazi extermination campaign and also towards those who could have but did not speak out against it. In memory of the murdered millions, here’s an excerpt from The Truce:
“There is no rationality in the Nazi hatred: it is hate that is not in us, it is outside of man. We cannot understand it, but we must understand from where it springs, and we must be on our guard. If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative, because what happened could happen again. Consciences can be seduced and obscured again — even our consciences. For this reason, it is everyone duty to reflect on what happened. Everybody must know, or remember, that when Hitler and Mussolini spoke in public, they were believed, applauded, admired, adored like gods. They were ‘charismatic leaders'; they possessed a secret power of seduction that did not proceed from the soundness of things they said but from the suggestive way in which they said them, from their eloquence, from their histrionic art, perhaps instinctive, perhaps patiently learned and practised. The ideas they proclaimed were not always the same and were, in general, aberrant or silly or cruel. And yet they were acclaimed with hosannas and followed to the death by millions of the faithful.”
Topping the bestseller list at Amazon.fr is Soumission by Michel Houellebecq. Is his vision of a supine French “submission” to a gradual Islamic takeover a farce or a warning? Tonight, in Cologne, people will have a chance to make up their own minds when the controversial author makes one of his rare trips abroad to speak about his work. Unsurprisingly, the Lit Cologne event is sold out.
Soumission is set seven years in the future, in the year 2022. Mohammed Ben Abbes becomes president of France and immediately all women must be veiled in public, state secondary schools adopt an Islamic curriculum, and the protagonist, François, is told that he cannot return to his university job unless he converts to Islam. He happily submits to the new order, not for any religious or philosophical reasons, but because the new Saudi owners of the Sorbonne pay far better — and he can be polygamous. As he notes, in envy of his new boss, who has converted already: “One 40-year-old wife for cooking, one 15-year-old wife for other things… no doubt he had one or two others of intermediate ages.”
For those who are not fortunate enough to have a ticket to see Michel Houellebecq in action tonight, this Paris Review Q&A, “Scare Tactics: Michel Houellebecq Defends His Controversial New Book,” is essential reading. Snippet:
Have you asked yourself what the effect might be of a novel based on such a hypothesis?
None. No effect whatsoever.
You don’t think it will help reinforce the image of France that I just described, in which Islam hangs overhead like the sword of Damocles, like the most frightening thing of all?
In any case, that’s pretty much all the media talks about, they couldn’t talk about it more. It would be impossible to talk about it more than they already do, so my book won’t have any effect.
Doesn’t it make you want to write about something else so as not to join the pack?
No, part of my work is to talk about what everyone is talking about, objectively. I belong to my own time.
In 2014, more than 276,000 people immigrated to Europe illegally. That’s almost 140 percent more than in 2013, according to figures published by the EU. The most of these migrants sailed across the Mediterranean, and the newest method of trafficking them is cruel and effective. The smugglers buy cargo ships from scrapyards, pack hundreds of people onto them and collect thousands of dollars from every one. Then, in the middle of the Mediterranean, the captain sets the auto-pilot for Italy and jumps ship.
Isabel Wilkerson addresses the mass movement of people in the The Warmth of Other Suns and while her focus is the American South during the 20th Century, the eloquent conclusion she reaches is universal:
“The migration was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making. They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable — what the pilgrims did under the tyranny of British rule, what the Scotch-Irish did in Oklahoma when the land turned to dust, what the Irish did when there was nothing to eat, what the European Jews did during the spread of Nazism, what the landless in Russia, Italy, China, and elsewhere did when something better across the ocean called to them. What binds these stories together was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done.
In February 2006, the late, much lamented Christopher Hitchens addressed the “international Muslim pogrom against the free press”. In light of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, his words are need re-reading today:
“When Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses in 1988, he did so in the hope of forwarding a discussion that was already opening in the Muslim world, between extreme Quranic literalists and those who hoped that the text could be interpreted. We know what his own reward was, and we sometimes forget that the fatwa was directed not just against him but against ‘all those involved in its publication,’ which led to the murder of the book’s Japanese translator and the near-deaths of another translator and one publisher. I went on Crossfire at one point, to debate some spokesman for outraged faith, and said that we on our side would happily debate the propriety of using holy writ for literary and artistic purposes. But that we would not exchange a word until the person on the other side of the podium had put away his gun.”
“Power is the ability to direct or prevent the current or future actions of other groups and individuals. Or, put differently, power is what we exercise over others that leads them to behave in ways they would not otherwise have behaved.” — Moisés Naím, The End of Power
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced at the weekend that his New Year’s resolution was to read a book every two weeks this year. He promises to read books that will “emphasise learning about new cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies.” His “Year of Books” Facebook group has attracted 179,000 likes so far and his first selection, The End of Power by Moisés Naím, sold out on Amazon.com within 24 hours.
According to the blurb, The End of Power examines the global tilt in influence “from West to East and North to South, from presidential palaces to public squares, from once formidable corporate behemoths to nimble start-ups and, slowly but surely, from men to women.” For Zuckerberg, the book “explores how the world is shifting to give individual people more power that was traditionally only held by large governments, militaries and other organisations. The trend towards giving people more power is one I believe in deeply, and I’m looking forward to reading this book and exploring this in more detail.” Facebook watchers will, no doubt, read a lot into the CEO’s picks.
The question on the tips of many tongues now is: Will Zuckerberg recreate the “Oprah Effect”? Oprah’s Book Club, which Oprah Winfrey hosted on her talk show from 1996 until 2011 turned many literary works into million-sellers.
“To put it simply, power no longer buys as much as it did in the past. In the twenty-first century, power is easier to get, harder to use — and easier to lose. From boardrooms and combat zones to cyberspace, battles for power are as intense as ever, but they are yielding diminishing returns. — Moisés Naím, The End of Power
“I guess I should explain how Mars missions work, for any layman who may be reading this. We got to Earth orbit the normal way, through an ordinary ship to Hermes. All the Ares missions use Hermes to get to and from Mars. It’s really big and cost a lot so NASA built only one.
Once we got to Hermes, four additional unmanned missions brought us fuel and supplies while we prepared for our trip. Once everything was a go, we set out for Mars. But not very fast. Gone are the days of heavy chemical fuel burns and trans-Mars injection orbits.”
So says the narrator of The Martian by Andy Weir. The book has been a commercial and critical success: The Wall Street Journal called it “the best pure sci-fi novel in years,” and the film version, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain, will be released in November next year.
The book is more topical than ever, considering the spectacular success of the Orion spacecraft, which soared into space on Friday before splashing down on target in the Pacific ocean. NASA says that Orion is destined to be the first of a fleet that will carry humans beyond the Moon to Mars. Opponent say that putting humans into space is futile, expensive, dangerous and ultimately harmful to science. They argue that robot craft represent the future of space exploration. It’s a debate that’s bound to get more heated in the coming years and The Martian offers a cautionary message:
The Ares Program. Mankind reaching out to Mars to send people to another planet for the very first time and expand the horizons of humanity blah, blah, blah. The Ares 1 crew did their thing and came back heroes. They got the parades and fame and love of the world.
Ares 2 did the same thing, in a different location on Mars. They got a firm handshake and a hot cup of coffee when they got home.
Ares 3. Well, that was my mission. Okay, not mine per se. Commander Lewis was in charge. I was just one of her crew. Actually, I was the very lowest ranked member of the crew. I would only be “in command” of the mission if I were the only remaining person.
What do you know? I’m in command.
I wonder if this log will be recovered before the rest of the crew die of old age. I presume they got back to Earth all right. Guys, if you’re reading this: It wasn’t your fault. You did what you had to do. In your position I would have done the same thing. I don’t blame you, and I’m glad you survived.
“We cannot go on with this euro. We must improve the European monetary policy and achieve equality of the dollar and euro interchange,” said former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at the Forza Italia party’s ‘No Tax Day’ rally in Milan on Saturday. “We must bring back our right to print money and establish monetary market exchange.”
Meanwhile, Tehran’s economy minister, Ali Tayyebnia, warned yesterday against “frenzied behavior” as Iranians dumped their rials. And in Venezuela, the dollar is now worth 1,700 percent more on the black market than the price the government charges those lucky enough to obtain it legally. Then, there’s the collapse of the ruble. This entire currency business is treacherous so it’s not surprising that when the Financial Times listed its Best books of 2014 at the weekend, the “trap” metaphor appeared prominently in the top titles reviewed.
There’s always a but, isn’t there? In its blurb for The Vikings by Anders Winroth, Princeton University Press points out that the Norse warriors “also settled peacefully and developed a vast trading network.” When Tom Shippey reviewed Winroth’s book on Friday in the Wall Street Journal he had a go at the modern academy, which works hard to present the Vikings as “explorers, traders, founders of urban life, contributors to civilization.” Uncomfortable fact is, says Shippey, that when the Vikings managed to “stimulate the economy of western Europe,” they did it “by selling slaves to the Islamic world and stealing church treasuries from the Christian one.”
The thing that made Viking culture different, notes Shippey, “was all that academics dislike in the word ‘Viking.’ … Vikings would not be welcome in the faculty lounge.”
The mortal dread that the Vikings could inspire was captured in this ancient Irish poem, as translated from the Gaelic by Kuno Meyer:
The Viking Terror
Bitter is the wind tonight.
It tosses the ocean’s white hair.
Tonight I fear not the fierce warriors of Norway
Coursing on the Irish Sea.
By the way, the second line of the John Montague translation of that anonymous poem is especially evocative: “Bitter the wind tonight/ combing the sea’s hair white.”Tweet
As we get ready to spend an evening in the cinema watching Gone Girl, there’s some serious prepping going on at the Rainy Day HQ. The novel by Gillian Flynn, on which the film is based, has been re-read, and this excellent analysis of director David Fincher’s approach by Tony Zhou has been watched several times. Yes, we’re ready. Bring it on.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris. It’s the follow-up to The Unnamed, which was the second novel by Ferris. On first glance, both books are similar in that they do their best to exhaust the reader. Equally, both are about suffering and despair and one can safely bet that Ferris will not win the 2014 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, for which To Rise Again at a Decent Hour has been shortlisted. If you like dentistry, though, there are some amusing bits:
His canine, in an advanced state of decay, was stained the color of weak tea but was still rooted to active nerves. No dentist in his right mind would pull a tooth without at least applying a local anesthetic. I told him that, and he finally agreed to the local. He resumed his meditative position, I juiced him with the needle, and then I went at his canine with a vigorous swaying grip. Two seconds into it he began to moan. I thought the moaning part and parcel of his effecting emptiness to the extreme, but it grew louder, filling the room, spilling out into the waiting area. I looked at Abby, my dental assistant, sitting across the patient from me, pink paper mask obscuring her features. She said nothing. I took the forceps out of my patient’s mouth and asked if everything was okay.
“You’re making noise.”
“Was I? I didn’t realize. I’m not actually here physically,” he said.
“You sound here physically.”
“I’ll try to be quieter,” he said. “Please continue.”
The moaning started up again almost immediately, rising to a modest howl. It was inchoate and bloody, like that of a newborn’s with stunted organs. I stopped. His red eyes were filmed with tears.
“You’re doing it again,” I said.
“Moaning,” I said. “Howling. Are you sure the local’s working?”
“I’m thinking three or four weeks ahead of this pain,” he said. “I’m four to six weeks removed.”
“It shouldn’t be painful at all,” I said, “with the local.”
“And it’s not, not at all,” he said. “I’ll be completely silent.”
I resumed. He stopped me almost that very second.
“Can I have the full gas, please?”
I put him under and removed the tooth and replaced it with a temporary crown.
Reading The Great Gatsby is an annual Rainy Day event. Here’s a favourite snippet:
“By seven o’clock the orchestra has arrived, no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums. The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing up-stairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive, and already the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colors, and hair shorn in strange new ways, and shawls beyond the dreams of Castile. The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.”