Monday, April 14, 2014
by Hari Balasubramanian
In January this year, I visited Hospitalito Atitlán, a health care center for the Tz'utujil Maya in the town of Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala. There were two reasons for this visit. First, much of my healthcare work has been limited to the US system; I wanted to get a sense of what was going on in other places. Second, for many years I've been trying to learn about the indigenous cultures of the Americas; this had led me in the past to Mexico, Peru and Bolivia. I welcomed, now, this chance to spend a few days in a Mayan town in Guatemala.
Santiago Atitlán, a town of 30-40,000, is a 3-hour drive from Guatemala City, at the southwestern edge of Lake Atitlán. The lake fills a caldera formed in an eruption 84,000 years ago, and is surrounded by lush-green volcanoes, rising to over 8,000 feet. The majority of the people who live in the surrounding towns belong to one of two Mayan groups: the Tz'utujil and Kaqchikel. Santiago Atitlán is almost entirely Tz'utujil, while San Lucas Toliman is mostly Kaqchikel. Tz'utujil and Kaqchikuel also refer to two of the twenty odd Mayan languages in Guatemala (there are a few others in Mexico). All of them are still spoken, in sharp contrast to the fate of indigenous languages elsewhere in the Americas.
I arrived in Santiago Atitlán on a Sunday morning. The town is set along a slope that eases into the lake; Volcan San Pedro rises dramatically across a narrow section of the water, dominating the view. For a small town, the streets were a maze, and I lost my way each time. Many of the homes were make-shift; the farther I ascended away from the town center, the poorer the homes were. Almost all the Tz'utujil women wore brightly colored yarn based textiles with intricate patterns. On the main road along the lake's circumference, Toyota pick-up trucks – a common mode of shared local transportation – carried passengers who stood in the open rear. Then there were the brightly colored tuk-tuks, exactly like the three wheeler autos I knew in India – every one of them that I saw in Atitlán was made by Bajaj.
The pick-up trucks, the tuk-tuks, and even many of the paved roads were all new, I was told – part of the economic growth here after decades of conflict. In the last half of the 20th century, Guatemala, like other nations of Central America – El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras – went through a violent upheaval. The Guatemalan Civil War lasted from 1960-1996. A brutal right wing government fought against insurgents in the largely indigenous countryside. The Lake Atitlán region did not go unscathed; hundreds of people from Santiago were killed or disappeared; "everyone you talk to lost someone in his or her family" [link]. Since 1996, there's been a return to normalcy. While the region still remains relatively poor, its coffee plantations have done well, and the beautiful lake setting draws plenty of tourists.
by Sue Hubbard
It takes a certain chutzpah for an artist to dig out his early student work and put it on display for the world to access, especially in a rarefied Mayfair Gallery hidden away in a gracious Georgian house just yards from Claridges Hotel. In the case of Peter Doig, such confidence may well be underwritten by the fact that his White Canoe - a dreamy painting of a boat reflected in a lake like some post-modern version of Charon's craft - fetched the staggering sum of £5.7m in 2007 when put up for auction by Charles Saatchi.
Doig is something of an outsider. Born in Edinburgh in 1959, the son of a peripatetic shipping accountant, he lived in Trinidad from the age of two to seven, then moved to Canada until he was nineteen, where he took up such northern rituals as skiing and ice hockey. After leaving for London to study painting at St. Martin's, followed by an MA at the Chelsea College of Art, he supported himself as a dresser at the English National Opera and became absorbed in the emerging club scene frequented by the likes of performance artist Leigh Bowery and experimental film makers such as Isaac Julien. Chelsea College was a very different proposition, then, to Goldsmiths, the conceptual kindergarten that spawned Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Angus Fairhurst under the éminence grise Michael Craig Martin. It was full of painters still interested in the possibilities of what paint could do, despite the popular mantra that painting was a dead form. Doig was never allied to the conceptualist YBAs, or included in Saatchi's watershed show Sensation at the Royal Academy in 1997. And, unlike many of the YBAs, he continues to work alone, without a studio full of assistants. It doesn't appeal to him be surrounded by people he has to keep busy; to become a production line. He likes the "simplicity" of paint; "the directness, the dabbling quality"; and still believes in the possibilities of being able to surprise and innovate in this most ancient of media. People are always asking him when he's going to make a film. But he's not interested. His outsider status has meant that like many émigrés, he responds best to places he knows when he is not actually there. Canada was painted whilst in London, the Caribbean from the vantage point of his Tribeca Studio.
Sunday, April 13, 2014
Steven Malanga in City Journal:
Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon’s heart was pounding in late November 1964 when he entered a remote Venezuelan village. He planned to spend more than a year studying the indigenous Yanomamo people, one of the last large groups in the world untouched by civilization. Based on his university training, the 26-year-old Chagnon expected to be greeted by 125 or so peaceful villagers, patiently waiting to be interviewed about their culture. Instead, he stumbled onto a scene where a dozen “burley, naked, sweaty, hideous men” confronted him and his guide with arrows drawn.
Chagnon later learned that the men were edgy because raiders from a neighboring settlement had abducted seven of their women the day before. The next morning, the villagers counterattacked and recovered five of the women in a brutal club fight. As Chagnon recounts in Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—The Yanomamo and the Anthropologists (originally published in 2013 and now appearing in paperback), he spent weeks puzzling over what he had seen. His anthropology education had taught him that kinsmen—the raiders were related to those they’d attacked—were generally nice to one another. Further, he had learned in classrooms that primitive peoples rarely fought one another, because they lived a subsistence lifestyle in which there was no surplus wealth to squabble about. What other reason could humans have for being at one another’s throats?
Over at Existential Comics:
David Meir Grossman in Tablet (Steve Reich, 2005. (Photo treatment Tablet Magazine; original photo Jeffrey Herman):
1. “You’re floating 10 feet off the Earth. Try to put your feet on the ground and ask the next question.” It’s Wednesday, March 26, and Steve Reich is haranguing me for my sucky interviewing skills. We’re talking over the phone because it’s two days before the Big Ears Festival, in Knoxville, Tenn., which Reich is headlining. That he’s less than pleased with my interviewing ability is in fact only making me more nervous, because Reich is a legitimate genius who has changed the shape of his chosen field. The New York Times called him “our greatest living composer,” and The New Yorker has said he’s “the most original musical thinker of our time.” So, if he says I’m blowing this, he’s probably right.
Reich is impatient, a quality that surely comes from having a mind that works 10 times faster than everyone else’s, most definitely including mine. At one point in our conversation I try to suggest that “WTC 9/11,” his disturbing 15-minute meditation on Sept. 11 that came out in 2011, reminds me of the Internet. The piece, written for the Kronos Quartet, uses one of Reich’s several trademark techniques, that of vocal sampling. Unlike other Sept. 11-related pieces, “WTC” does not offer redemption. Reich bumps the pre-recorded voices—friends, air-traffic controllers, first responders, cantors—shoulder-to-shoulder and cuts off the words mid-sentence, only to complete them later. It’s a tension-filling technique and can call to mind the way conversations take place over the Internet. Reich sees where I’m going with this and pointedly cuts me off. “I don’t follow chats, I don’t find it very interesting to do that. What I was doing on ‘WTC’ had nothing to do with the Internet whatsoever, OK?”
Corey Robin in Crooked Timber (image from Wikimedia Commons):
The first night of Passover is on Monday, and I’ve been thinking about and preparing for the Seder. I had a mini-victory this morning, when I was shopping for fish in Crown Heights. The guy at the fish store told me that thanks to the Polar Vortex, 90% of Lake Huron is frozen. Which means no whitefish. Which means no gefilte fish. So I put on my best impression of Charlotte in Sex and the City —”I said lean!”—and managed, through a combination of moxie and charm, to get him to give me the last three pounds of whitefish and pike in Crown Heights. Plus a pound of carp. Which means…gefilte fish!
Food is the easy part of the seder. The hard part is making it all mean something. When I was a union organizer, I used to go to freedom seders. Being part of the labor movement, I found it was easy to to see points of connection between what I was doing and this ancient story of bondage, struggle, and emancipation (a story, however, that we never seem to really tell at Passover).
Then, as my feelings about Zionism became more critical, I found a new point of connection to Passover: using the Seder, and the Exodus story, as a moment to reflect upon the relationship between the Jews, the land of Israel, and possession of that land, to ask why we think of emancipation in terms of possession. For a while there, we’d hold seders with readings fromMichael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution and Edward Said’s brilliant critique of Walzer inGranta: “Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution: A Canaanite Reading.”
But nowadays, the Seder is harder for me. I’m more puzzled by the meaning of slavery and emancipation; I find it more difficult to make the connections I used to make. The Haggadah seems stranger, more remote, than ever.
Keith Robinson and Angel Harris in the NYT (image from Wikimedia Commons):
Over the past few years, we conducted an extensive study of whether the depth of parental engagement in children’s academic lives improved their test scores and grades. We pursued this question because we noticed that while policy makers were convinced that parental involvement positively affected children’s schooling outcomes, academic studies were much more inconclusive.
Despite this, increasing parental involvement has been one of the focal points of both President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and President Obama’s Race to the Top. Both programs promote parental engagement as one remedy for persistent socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps.
We analyzed longitudinal surveys of American families that spanned three decades (from the 1980s to the 2000s) and obtained demographic information on race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, the academic outcomes of children in elementary, middle and high school, as well as information about the level of parental engagement in 63 different forms.
What did we find? One group of parents, including blacks and Hispanics, as well as some Asians (like Cambodians, Vietnamese and Pacific Islanders), appeared quite similar to a second group, made up of white parents and other Asians (like Chinese, Koreans and Indians) in the frequency of their involvement. A common reason given for why the children of the first group performed worse academically on average was that their parents did not value education to the same extent. But our research shows that these parents tried to help their children in school just as much as the parents in the second group.
Even the notion that kids do better in school when their parents are involved does not stack up.
Chris Mooney in Slate (photo via PBS):
We all know the Darwin fish, the car-bumper send-up of the Christian ichthys symbol, or Jesus fish. Unlike the Christian symbol, the Darwin fish has, you know, legs.
But the Darwin fish isn't merely a clever joke; in effect, it contains a testable scientific prediction. If evolution is true, and if life on Earth originated in water, then there must have once been fish species possessing primitive limbs, which enabled them to spend some part of their lives on land. And these species, in turn, must be the ancestors of four-limbed, land-living vertebrates like us.
Sure enough, in 2004, scientists found one of those transitional species: Tiktaalik roseae, a 375-million-year-old Devonian period specimen discovered in the Canadian Arctic by paleontologist Neil Shubin and his colleagues. Tiktaalik, explains Shubin on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, is an "anatomical mix between fish and a land-living animal."
"It has a neck," says Shubin, a professor at the University of Chicago. "No fish has a neck. And you know what? When you look inside the fin, and you take off those fin rays, you find an upper arm bone, a forearm, and a wrist." Tiktaalik, Shubin has observed, was a fish capable of doing a push-up. It had both lungs and gills. In sum, it's quite the transitional form.
Kavita Bhanot reviewsThe Gypsy Goddess by Meena Kandasamy in The Independent:
This is not an easy novel to read. There is no intention to entertain. It is, as the blurb tells us, a “novel about the impossibility of writing a novel about a real-life massacre.” The massacre in question took place in 1968 in Kilvenmani village, in the Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu, South India when 44 landless Dalit agricultural labourers, including women and children, were locked in a hut by a group of landowners and burnt alive. This reluctant novel fictionalises the events that led up to the attack – a long-standing battle between powerful landlords and the Communist party, who organised resistance against landowners, demanding better wages and working conditions. It was over the demand for an additional half-portion of rice that the labourers in Kilvenmani were crushed so brutally.
In some of the novel's most stunning passages, the attack itself is described, as the fire “lick[s] away” at its victims. Then there is the battle for justice, an impossible fight when the police are on the side of the landlords, when the political and legal system are disconnected from the lives of those at the very bottom. The long trial, in a language they don't understand (English) is like an absurd play for the villagers who seek justice: “How can they sit for so long in one place and silently listen?” asks one of the characters. “Even my buttocks have fallen asleep on this bench.”
The tree my father grew
from his garden I take an axe
and branch by branch
I break the tree
and set to work
the million maddened bits,
the fire of night.
Only for ash I keep.
by Daljitt Nagra
from Look We Have Coming Dover
Faber and Faber, London 2007
Saturday, April 12, 2014
First, Ali Gharib in the Forward makes the case for the cancellation, at The Forward's Foward Thinking:
The university, in tandem with its notice to Hirsi Ali that her award was rescinded, invited her to campus to expound on her views in a forum that did not confer upon her any honor.
That latter invitation was the lynchpin in Brandeis’s strategy to correct its mistake — the initial offer of an honor — in the best way possible: by preserving the notion that universities should be bastions of free thought, even for deeply unpopular ideas.
And it is that invitation which renders moot Hirsi Ali’s complaint that “neither Brandeis nor my critics knew or even inquired as to what I might say. They simply wanted me to be silenced.” The issue with honoring Hirsi Ali was never what she may say — hence the standing invitation to speak — but rather what she has said.
Hirsi Ali’s record is plump with remarks that any tolerant, liberal institution should view with caution. Her personal narrative and work on women’s rights may tell a different, laudable story, but not one that outweighs the pattern of hostility toward a major world religion.
This hostility crosses boundaries beyond atheistic skepticism and into literal militant opposition to one faith in particular: Islam. Hirsi Ali claims her “critics have long specialized in selective quotation – lines from interviews taken out of context – designed to misrepresent me and my work.”
More here. Ayaan Hirsi Ali comments on the whole incidence, in The Weekly Standard:
When Brandeis approached me with the offer of an honorary degree, I accepted partly because of the institution’s distinguished history; it was founded in 1948, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, as a co-educational, nonsectarian university at a time when many American universities still imposed rigid admission quotas on Jewish students. I assumed that Brandeis intended to honor me for my work as a defender of the rights of women against abuses that are often religious in origin. For over a decade, I have spoken out against such practices as female genital mutilation, so-called 'honor killings,' and applications of Sharia Law that justify such forms of domestic abuse as wife beating or child beating. Part of my work has been to question the role of Islam in legitimizing such abhorrent practices. So I was not surprised when my usual critics, notably the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), protested against my being honored in this way.
What did surprise me was the behavior of Brandeis. Having spent many months planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement, the university yesterday announced that it could not “overlook certain of my past statements,” which it had not previously been aware of. Yet my critics have long specialized in selective quotation – lines from interviews taken out of context – designed to misrepresent me and my work. It is scarcely credible that Brandeis did not know this when they initially offered me the degree.
Gloria Fisk in The American Reader:
“World literature” is as heavily freighted as any of Apter’s Untranslatables, and many of its common usages have only slight relation to literary texts. It has worked historically to map the lines of inheritance—cultural and otherwise—that separate high from low, smart from dumb, timeless from temporary, haves from have-nots. When Goethe invoked weltliteratur in the early nineteenth century, it was to imagine how German poetry would supersede other nations’ to become “the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere and at all times in hundreds and hundreds of men.” That assertion of the global value of local goods was built intoweltliteratur from the start, and Karl Marx borrowed the term decades later to theorize the economic value Goethe implied. For Marx, world literature was a cultural effect of economic compulsion, a testimony to the market imperative that “chases the bourgeoisie over the surface of the whole globe,” compelling them to “nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.”
World literature still connotes an expansionary move that is distinctly capitalistic, and Apter makes that connotation work for her purposes. Addressing an audience that imagines the university in opposition to corporate interests, she yokes the scholarly impulse to “anthologize” and “curricularize” to the imperative to monetize that chased Marx’s bourgeoisie across their national borders. Establishing that loose rhyme between world literature and the economic processes of globalization, she frames her argument about Untranslatables as a critique of them both, although she does not address any economic questions directly. She renders herself an occupier of Wall Street—and an opponent of corporate influence in higher education—without leaving the subject of literary theory.
The first lecture was not uploaded, but you can find an intro summary here.
Alexis Petridis: Of all the books about teenage angst that I read as a kid, it wasn't that I didn't identify in some way with Holden Caulfield or Ponyboy Curtis in The Outsiders, it was just that Adrian Mole seemed most like me. He was suburban and he was hopeless: not in the romantic, doomed, Rebel Without a Cause sense, but in the unable-to-get-anything-quite-right sense. Like SE Hinton's anti-hero, he joined a gang, but they didn't "rumble" with rival gangs, or stab anybody, or hide out in a church with a loaded gun reciting Robert Frost poems: they just aimlessly hung around outside a chip shop. Holden Caulfield hired a prostitute, Adrian Mole "indulged in a bit of light petting" with Pandora before she went home with a headache: "I was racked with sexuality but it wore off when I helped my father put manure on our rose bed." I haven't picked up The Catcher in the Rye or The Outsiders in years, but I kept re-reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole and its sequel. They were always funny, but the books seemed to change as I got older. For one thing, I got more of the jokes – many of which had sailed over my 12-year-old head, in much the same way as his mother's behaviour with Mr Lucas passes Adrian by.
Chris Hayes in The New York Times:
Imagine you’re a scientist in some sci-fi alternate universe, and you’ve been charged with creating a boot camp that will reliably turn normal but ambitious people into broken sociopaths more or less willing to do anything. There are two main traits you’d want to cultivate in your recruits. The first would be terror: You’d want to ensure that the experimental subjects were kept off-balance and insecure, always fearful that bad things would happen, that they would be humiliated or lose their position and be cast out. But at the same time, it would be crucial that you assiduously inculcate a towering sense of superiority, the belief that the project they happen to be engaged in is more important than anything and that, because of their remarkable skills and efforts, they are among the select few chosen to be a part of it. You’d want to simultaneously make them neurotically insecure and self-doubting and also filled with the conviction that they and their colleagues are smarter and better and more deserving than anyone else.
As chronicled in Kevin Roose’s “Young Money,” this is basically how the first two years of a Wall Street investment banker’s life work. Roose found eight young aspirants who agreed to let him into their lives in exchange for anonymity, and he follows their trajectories as they move from college internships to grueling lives as Wall Street grunts. (One note of caution: In order to protect his sources’ anonymity, Roose writes in a prologue that “many personal details have been altered or obscured, and a few events have been reordered chronologically or given minor tweaks to make them less recognizable to the people involved.” That stuck with me as I read the book and had to wonder just what “events” and “personal details,” which are the stuff of narrative, weren’t actually accurate.)
Most people are used to owing money to others, but few think about what money may owe us: an equitable society, a functioning political system, a peaceful economy that can stay off the exhausting roller coaster of financial booms and crashes.
We don’t usually think of money as a tool to accomplish all that, but Felix Martin, an economist and former World Bank official and author of the compulsively readable new book “Money: The Unauthorized Biography,” says that money can give us all those things; it can deliver “both stability and freedom.” The catch is that we must radically rethink money itself. It’s not a fixed, physical thing, he argues, but a virtual “social technology” that should be used to enable a more democratic and equitable world, bring order to the banking system and foster “peace, prosperity, freedom and fairness.” Sign me up.
Martin’s best stories remind us of the quirky ways money existed in the past. He opens the book late in the 19th century in Yap, a Pacific island that favored as its currency enormous stone wheels the size of boulders. One especially rich family’s only proof of their wealth was a boulder at the bottom of the sea. (Talk about underwater homeowners.)
We seem to be reaching a consensus that there is something distinctly new about what Lydia Davis does. After awarding her the 2013 International Booker Prize over a slate of titans like Marilynne Robinson, Russia’s Vladimir Sorokin, and India’s Intizar Husain, the author and critic Tim Parks said that Davis deserved the award because he and his co-jurists “felt that we were reading something we hadn’t read before in any shape or form—that it really was sparkling and new and fresh, a new form for the short story, and that carried the day in the end.” Even discounting the hyped-up language of major literary awards, the claim is staggering: he essentially says that Davis is head and shoulders above nine of the greatest living writers in the world.
Such heady praise may owe something to the International Booker’s provincialism (Davis is their third Anglo out of five awards), but bear in mind that Parks is an estimable reader, and, more importantly, he is not alone. In awarding Davis one of its prestigious fellowships in 2007, the MacArthur Foundation raved, “eschewing the conventions of plot, character, and drama, Davis shows how language itself can entertain, how all that what one word says, and leaves unsaid, can hold a reader’s interest.” She “grants readers a glimpse of life’s previously invisible details, revealing new sources of philosophical insight and beauty.”
Grunge was often defined by its negativity. It was not a rebellious negativity but a passive negation, a cancelling out. If you asked grunge what it was for, the answer was, supposedly, “Nothing.” The same answer might be given if you asked grunge what it was against. This sentiment was encapsulated by Kurt Cobain’s famous – and perhaps most enduring – lyric, “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.” The sullen indifference (sometimes referred to as irony) of grunge – and the generation that produced it – was mind-boggling and infuriating to the generation of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, generations defined by wars and causes. Grunge had no external wars, no causes that felt immediate enough to be worth fighting for. The grunge generation was said to be internal – in other words, self-absorbed. This was true. Grunge looked mostly inward, as its war was with and about itself. Musically speaking, grunge’s most direct influence was punk. But where the full-blown nihilism and shock of punk still had the touch of theatre and play, grunge was all the more desperate for feeling it had nothing really to show. Punk was shredded, ripped-apart, exploded. Punk was dyed in brilliant colors, adorned with metal and combat boots. Punk was furious. “Kick over the wall, cause government’s to fall,” sang The Clash. Grunge was torn, faded, uncombed. It was the sweater your friend found in a thrift store and annoyingly left on your floor for a month, which you decided to start wearing for lack of initiative to get your own sweater. The image of grunge was, essentially, that of a homeless person.
a man enters the vineyard,
sits and weeps at the edge of the island,
where God no longer awaits the stars
to reveal himself to the sea,
the woman rises and jumps into the sea,
One and the Other are silent
I now know that nothing could have
happened: a jump is a jump,
the sea merely the sea, a lone star
just God who doesn’t want to be
questioned about this thing
by Miroslav Mićanović
publisher: Meandar, Zagreb, 1998
translation: 2011, Stipe Grgas
Friday, April 11, 2014
Paul Krugman in the NYRB (photo by Emmanuelle Marchadour):
Piketty throws down the intellectual gauntlet right away, with his book’s very title:Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Are economists still allowed to talk like that?
It’s not just the obvious allusion to Marx that makes this title so startling. By invoking capital right from the beginning, Piketty breaks ranks with most modern discussions of inequality, and hearkens back to an older tradition.
The general presumption of most inequality researchers has been that earned income, usually salaries, is where all the action is, and that income from capital is neither important nor interesting. Piketty shows, however, that even today income from capital, not earnings, predominates at the top of the income distribution. He also shows that in the past—during Europe’s Belle Époque and, to a lesser extent, America’s Gilded Age—unequal ownership of assets, not unequal pay, was the prime driver of income disparities. And he argues that we’re on our way back to that kind of society. Nor is this casual speculation on his part. For all that Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a work of principled empiricism, it is very much driven by a theoretical frame that attempts to unify discussion of economic growth and the distribution of both income and wealth. Basically, Piketty sees economic history as the story of a race between capital accumulation and other factors driving growth, mainly population growth and technological progress.
To be sure, this is a race that can have no permanent victor: over the very long run, the stock of capital and total income must grow at roughly the same rate. But one side or the other can pull ahead for decades at a time. On the eve of World War I, Europe had accumulated capital worth six or seven times national income. Over the next four decades, however, a combination of physical destruction and the diversion of savings into war efforts cut that ratio in half. Capital accumulation resumed after World War II, but this was a period of spectacular economic growth—the Trente Glorieuses, or “Glorious Thirty” years; so the ratio of capital to income remained low. Since the 1970s, however, slowing growth has meant a rising capital ratio, so capital and wealth have been trending steadily back toward Belle Époque levels. And this accumulation of capital, says Piketty, will eventually recreate Belle Époque–style inequality unless opposed by progressive taxation.
Why? It’s all about r versus g—the rate of return on capital versus the rate of economic growth.
Colin Marhsall in Open Culture:
Humanity has long pondered the relative might of the pen and the sword. While one time-worn aphorism does grant the advantage to the pen, most of us have entertained doubts: the sword, metaphorically or literally, seems to have won out across an awfully wide swath of history. Still, the pen has scored some impressive victories, some even in living memory. Take, for example, the CIA’s recently revealed use of Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago as a propaganda weapon. Repressed in Pasternak’s native Russia, the book first appeared in Italy in 1957. The following year, the British suggested to America’s Central Intelligence Agency that the book stood a decent chance of winning hearts and minds behind the Iron Curtain — if, of course, they could get a few copies in there. A CIA memo sent across its own Soviet Russia Division subsequently pronounced Doctor Zhivago as possessed of ”great propaganda value, not only for its intrinsic message and thought-provoking nature, but also for the circumstances of its publication. We have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government, when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country in his own language for his own people to read.”
Amitava Kumar reviews Zia Haider Rahman's ‘In the Light of What We Know’ (photo by Katherine Rose):
In diverse genres, but primarily in fiction, writers from India and (especially after the attacks of Sept. 11) from Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as Sri Lanka and Nepal, have released work that is riveting, often formally inventive and certainly relevant. Mohsin Hamid, Kiran Desai, Arundhati Roy, Suketu Mehta, Sonali Deraniyagala, Mohammed Hanif, Monica Ali, Samrat Upadhyay, Nadeem Aslam, Rahul Bhattacharya, Siddhartha Mukherjee — these are only some of the glittering names to glide into view alongside older, bigger planetary bodies like Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje, Vikram Seth and Anita Desai.
“In the Light of What We Know” is a debut novel whose author has worked as an investment banker on Wall Street. Like its protagonist, Zafar, Zia Haider Rahman was born in rural Bangladesh and educated at Oxford and other places before following a career as a trader and lawyer. The novel’s narrator is a Pakistani-American friend of Zafar’s from his days at the university, a rogue banker in London who has taken a fall after making a lot of money for his firm from mortgage-backed securities. The narrator’s task is to listen as Zafar tells his story after showing up at the door early one morning in 2008, disheveled and apparently destitute.
Zafar’s narration shifts registers — “this fluctuation from crystal clarity of exposition to a barely restrained fury” — and folds into lengthy but fascinating digressions. Like the narrator of W. G. Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn,” whose erudite riffing on anything from herrings to the execution of Roger Casement allowed him to make melancholic observations about the horrors of history, the Zafar of Rahman’s strange and brilliant novel is at ease drawing sharp lessons from subjects as varied as derivatives trading and the role of metaphor in determining the fate of pigeons.