Fiction, non-fiction, truth and lies
2019 in eight books
I didn't deliberately set out to read books about history and memory in 2019, but it did become a dominant theme. It was after all that kind of year: it saw the hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the Fascist party, the hundredth anniversary of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s takeover of Rijeka, the eightieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, the seventieth anniversary of Yugoslavia’s Goli Otok prison camp, and the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution. 2019 was also a year in which fake news and fake history were discussed more than ever before. One notorious dabbler in fake history was even awarded a Nobel Prize. All the more heartening, therefore, to discover that there were still plenty of fiction and non-fiction authors capable of telling a good story, with integrity and an eye for history as well as a talent for spinning tales.
Featuring a hundred-year-old Berliner hurtling around the railways of Central Europe armed with Baedeker’s 1913 guide to Austria-Hungary, this book is so full of historical symbolism it’s difficult to know where to start. It is prolific Czech author Rudiš’s first book written in German, something which in itself is pregnant with European meaning (so meaningful in fact that I actually read it in German myself, aware that it might take some time before this rollicking trans-continental train journey of a novel gets translated into any other language). Centenarian former tram-driver Winterberg (a German born in what is now the Czech Republic) turns out to be an engaging if obsessive guide to the century through which he has lived; his beer-supping care-worker Kraus (a Czech who has gone to work in Germany) provides obsessive commentary of his own. Starting with Königgrätz, where the Austrian army was smashed by the Prussians in 1866, this odd couple travel by train through a succession of places crucial to the fate of Central Europe, with Bosnian capital Sarajevo, site of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914, as the intended last stop on the journey. While realizing that a continent described by train timetables and trusty red-jacketed Baedekers is not such a bad place to be, we also come face to face with the dark forces that have rent it asunder. Babbling on like a latter-day Herodotus, the irrepressible Winterberg is evidence of Rudiš’s talent for creating compelling, out-of-the-ordinary characters with an awful lot to say. The end of Winterberg’s journey is stark but not bleak – and one cannot help thinking that Winterberg, the man for whom the phrase “replacement bus service” spells the death-knell of civilization, is still out there somewhere, gazing from the steamed-up window of some inter-city carriage. (And as a post-Brexit Brit in search of a heartland, I will be on the train with Winterberg.)
The first part of a planned trilogy, Scurati’s brick-sized novel about Mussolini and early Fascism (covering the years 1918-1925) actually came out in 2018 – although at over 800 pages long, it’s the kind of book that you start reading in one year and don’t finish until the next. I picked it up in Trieste after attending an exhibition celebrating the centenary of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s takeover of the city of Rijeka (then known as Fiume) in September 1919. D’Annunzio improvised a regime that included many proto-fascist elements subsequently adopted by Mussolini; however the exhibition, in a calculated act of selective memory, drew a veil over the context in which D’Annunzio was operating, and ignored almost completely the racist aspects of the Italian nationalism he espoused.
Scurati’s detailed, densely researched novel is in many ways an antidote to the revisionism of today’s radical right. Focusing not just on Mussolini but also on many of the other characters active in politics at the time (D’Annunzio included), Scurati demonstrates how Fascism grew out of a primordial casserole of negative attitudes: hatred of socialists, hatred of liberals, hatred of foreign powers telling Italy what to do, and hatred of a society that had an ambiguous attitude to soldiers returning from the battlefields of the Great War. With a bunch of attitudes like this, there was no need for an actual ideology (Mussolini’s Futurist and social-radical allies drew up a party programme for him but he abandoned it after the elections of November 1919). It was the excitement of donning a uniform, driving around in lorries and beating up the left that defined early Fascism, and ensured its first flood of supporters.
Indeed it’s the fact that Fascism grew out of a lack of ideology that makes a big, organic, elastic novel like this the ideal medium in which to explain its rise. Scurati assumes adroit hold over a vast national panorama, zooming in on Mussolini’s newspaper office in Milan before panning out to cover street fighting in Bologna or Ferrara. He shows that Mussolini and his supports were flesh-and-blood characters with clear (though not necessarily particularly noble) motivations, and that they were also much closer to the right-wing populists of today than the latter would like to admit. The times were different; the indignation and hatred surprisingly similar.
While the history of the twentieth century lies at on surface of most of the books on this list, Proslava, the latest from Croatian author Damir Karakaš, deliberately places it behind the scenes. We don’t know why the main protagonist is hiding out in the woods near his village home, and the book does not in any case follow chronological sequence – it’s only through further reading that we begin to guess that we are looking at a rural community rent asunder by World War II. The “celebration” of the title remains an ambiguity (is it a political rally? A fair?) and the event itself is never actually described; it’s the protagonist’s long cross-country journey towards the celebration that forms the centerpiece of the book. In Croatia (and increasingly, one might say, Europe as a whole), problematic historical memories are frequently pushed under the carpet, or recycled as folklore; Karakaš presents the past as a dark but recurring fable, rendered all the more disturbing by the fact that the big narrative signposts have been deliberately removed. The action takes place in the author’s native region of the Lika, an inland area characterized by mountain chains, karst plateaus, and a population hardened by the yearly struggle for harvests and healthy cattle. The wild landscape is almost a protagonist in its own right – flora, fauna, wind and rain are all described with a lyrical majesty that marks out Karakaš as a master, probably unrivalled in Croatian literature, in evoking the character of place. It’s a short book, but perfect, almost symphonic, in its composition. A book of the year for many Croatian critics, it is one that cries out for translation into other languages.
Originally published as Pod Pritiskom in 2004, Bosnian writer Faruk Šehić’s short-story collection Under Pressure (trans. Mirza Purić) comes to English-language readers as the follow-up to his widely-praised 2011 novel Quiet Flows the Una (Knjiga o Uni), even though it was written several years in advance. Both books deal with the Bosnian war of 1992-5, a conflict during which Šehić himself served in the Fifth Corps of the Bosnian army. In many ways Under Pressure is the brutal counterpart to the eddying, lyrical prose of Una, an unflinching look at life and death on the front line that leaves little room for poetry. Army life is a rough, sordid, frequently terrifying existence, interrupted by drunken binges in small-town cafés. Death and disfigurement often comes from shells or shrapnel fired by an adversary you can’t see; only occasionally do you catch sight of the people you are shooting at. Unlike many war books, which follow a narrative of attacks and retreats, defeats and victories, often leavened by hard-won insights into human nature, Under Pressure describes a hellish war in which there never seems to be any progress, and precious little in the way of uplifting epiphanies. The guttural vulgarity of soldier-talk makes this a risky book for a translator: Mirza Purić rises to the challenge by giving the characters a northern English lilt: “gotta die any road”, says one character early on. The passionate rawness of Šehić’s prose doesn’t just come from a need to describe what happened to his generation; he is also warning us that the darkness might rise up again.
It was on July 7 1949 that the first batch of 28 prisoners arrived on Goli otok, the correctional island where pro-Moscow communists were brutalized and broken by Yugoslavia’s Titoist regime. Stalin had ejected Yugoslavia from the Cominform in June 1948, assuming that loyal Yugoslav communists would depose Tito and install a more pliable junta. Tito, surrounded by comrades with whom he had fought during the partisan war, held on to power and went on to develop a form of communism that was very different from the Soviet model. To begin with, however, Tito used Stalinist methods to deal with his domestic opponents. Supporters of Stalin were sent to a number of brutal reeducation camps, of which Goli otok (“Bare Island”) was the most notorious.
Relying on interviews with inmates as well as archive sources, Croatian historian Martin Previšić has written what may well turn out to be the definitive account of the prison island. Previšić is an elegant writer and an engaging explainer, passionate about doing justice to his material while even-handed in his judgments. However pro- or anti-Tito you might be, this book will add to your knowledge without stoking your prejudices at the same time. With witnesses to the period gradually dying out, the book offers important testimony to Yugoslav communism’s early, totalitarian phase.
Goli otok has long been famous for its unique cruelties: beatings, humiliations and punishments were meted out by privileged prisoners to those lower down in the pecking order. Previšić reveals in detail how this system worked. Hardened prisoners from other camps were imported into the island community to brutalize the others, therefore creating a hierarchy of violence that required little intervention from camp guards.
Political prisoners were interned on Goli otok until the mid-Fifties, when it became a camp for “regular” criminals, finally closing in 1988. The camp’s legacy remains ambiguous: arguably the clampdown on opponents saved Yugoslavia from a Stalinist coup; however it was also an Orwellian exercise in political terror that cared little for who was actually innocent or guilty.
One of the biggest disinformation campaigns of 2019 was an attempt by Moscow and its allies to persuade us that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had not acted in concert to destroy Poland in 1939, and that the outbreak of World War II should really be blamed on the duplicity of others. One of the reasons why this particular piece of non-history can seem so persuasive is because the Nazi-Soviet war against Poland is not particularly well known outside Poland itself, where the anniversaries of the German invasion (on September 1) and the Soviet invasion (September 17) are marked solemnly, year after year.
As Roger Moorhouse makes plain in his introduction to this book, the anglosphere tends to celebrate its own grand moments of World War II, often to the exclusion of the roles played by others. Poland, the war’s first victim, put up tenacious resistance to the German Blitzkrieg, but was undone by poor equipment, a dysfunctional command structure, and by the Soviet incursion from the east. The story of this war deserves to be more widely read, not just out of respect to Polish heroism, but also because many of the themes which we associate with World War II – mass killings, civilian deportations, vicious racist violence, and ultimately the Holocaust – were already taking shape in the invasions of Poland in September 1939. One of the things to emerge strongly from Moorhouse’s account is that the practice of killing civilians was established right at the start of the war. Towns and cities were bombed from the air. Special detachments charged with pacifying conquered territory came in the wake of the German advance; their mission to clean up resistors was frequently used as an excuse to shoot whoever they found. People were murdered simply because they were Poles; or simply because they were Jews. Advancing from the east, the Red Army killed civilians too, and laid plans for the mass deportation (and in many cases, mass-shooting) of the Polish elite.
This elegantly written and compellingly dramatic account of Poland’s September war is also an outstanding example of the continuing relevance of good old-fashioned narrative history: it’s only by putting events in the right chronological order that you can combat the fake narratives spread by others.
The Poles of course, carried on fighting: either by going underground or by escaping to join the allies. Moorhouse doesn’t go on to cover this in the present volume: a suggestion, perhaps, that he is already planning his next book…
Poet and translator George Szirtes arrived in Britain as a refugee, aged 8, in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. His parents were both Holocaust survivors; his father László had spent the war in the forced labour battalions organized by the Hungarian army; his mother Magda had passed through the concentration camps of Ravensbruck and Penig. His mother in particular symbolized the vicissitudes of Central European history, having grown up in Cluj, a largely Hungarian-speaking city that had become part of Romania in 1918 (and was warded to Hungary in 1940, before being regained by Romania in 1945).
Szirtes’s mother trained as a photographer, and it is the role of the photograph, as a means of prompting recollections and shaping memories that plays a central role in this extraordinary memoir. Szirtes begins with his mother’s death and follows the threads of her life backwards, back to Budapest, back through Ravensbruck, back to Cluj. At the start of the book Szirtes can rely to a certain extent on his own memories, but the further he goes back the more important the photographs, and the family anecdotes spread by others, become. Family history is so often a creative riff based on the fragments we have at hand. Szirtes’s intimate portrait of his mother is also a form of testimony, bearing witness to a Central European culture which no longer exists. His mother’s side of the family mostly perished in the Holocaust: the fact that we meet them at the end of the book, in a world that could have turned out differently had radical politics not intervened, is a moving conclusion to a book of deft, understated power.
People in the anglosphere traditionally think that populism, state capture, corruption, authoritarianism and fascism are the kinds of things that happen to countries less democratically developed than themselves. This book is Turkish journalist Temelkuran’s way of saying wake up, it can happen to you too – indeed the preconditions are already there.
Her warning is delivered in the form of seven chapters on the seven steps to authoritarian takeover, from forming a movement (step one) through changing the political conversation (step two), disabling the justice system (step four) to reinventing the country in one’s own image (step seven).
Temelkuran knows what she is talking about, having observed the rise of Erdogan in her own country, and witnessed the way in which he manipulated the 2016 coup to strengthen his control still further. Her considerable experience as a journalist allows her to venture far and wide in exploring the common factors that characterize populism’s key practitioners, from Venezuela’s Chavez to America’s Trump and Italy’s Salvini. It’s an uneven book that ranges from one country to the next at breakneck pace; but the whole thing is held together by the passion which Temelkuran invests in her arguments, and the breadth of knowledge she deploys in their support. And having seen her own country trundle down the road of the lost, she is pretty scathing in her criticism of public figures elsewhere who fail to recognize approaching dangers. Hence her treatment of left-wing intellectual Slavoj Žižek and his assertion that a victory for Donald Trump in the presidential elections of 2016 would give US politics the shake-up that it needed, and lead to the emergence of an authentic left. One of Temelkuran’s most important insights is that the left all too often assume that a bit of right-wing deviation will only make more inevitable their own glorious revolution. History teaches us otherwise: standing aside while liberal democracy crumbles will not hasten the triumph of the left; on the contrary, it will render such a triumph more unlikely. (Just look at Italy in 1922, or Germany in 1933.) Temelkuran is a courageous writer well aware that her books make enemies; this volume is a convincing argument to keep on writing, and keep on reading.
© Jonathan Bousfield