“East west street” by Philippe Sands: piecing together family history and human rights

This book made me reflect for the first time how in the early C20 when long-established stable empires were beginning to crumble, “Each country, old or new, was free to treat those who lived within its borders as it wished. International law offered few constraints on the majority’s treatment of minorities, and no rights for individuals”. The European Convention on Human Rights was not signed until 1950.

 

A few years before writing this book, lawyer Philippe Sands received an unexpected invitation to lecture in the Ukrainian city of Lviv on the human rights cases in which he had been involved,  his academic work on the Nuremberg trials and their consequences for the modern world. The location of Lviv proved a remarkable coincidence on several counts. Being in the “Bloodlands” of Eastern Europe, it represents a microcosm of a succession of human rights abuses, not least the Holocaust. In three decades from 1914, the city changed hands eight times, passing from the collapsed Austro-Hungarian Empire between Russians, Poles and Germans before ending up in Ukraine, by turns named Lemberg, Lviv, Lvov and Lwów. It  also happened to be the home town of the author’s Jewish grandfather Leon, who  ended up living in Paris with his wife, never speaking of events which had destroyed most of their relatives.

 

The initial letter “L” appears again in the names of the two Jewish lawyers, Lauterpacht and Lemkin who played a significant role in the development of international human rights legislation, and happened to study in Lviv, being taught by the same lecturers in some cases but apparently not meeting each other in person at the time.  The final coincidence lies in the fact that Hans Frank, one of the key Nazis tried at Nuremberg, committed or turned a blind eye to  his atrocities when he was appointed Governor General of Nazi-occupied Poland  which included Lemberg, as it was then called.

 

Lauterpacht argued that “the well-being of the individual is the ultimate object of all law”, while Lemkin coined the term “genocide” to describe the destruction of groups. At first, Lauterpacht’s argument that a focus on the protection of groups would undermine that of individuals seemed to me like academic hair-splitting. It seems undeniable that people may be persecuted both as individuals or as distinct groups, from the Jews to the Palestinians and the Rohinjas of Burma in the present day.

 

However, I was swayed in the end by the author’s argument that, “the need to prove the intent to destroy a group in whole or in part, as the Genocide Convention requires can have unhappy….. consequences. ….The crime of genocide has distorted the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity, because it stirs up national outrage rather than the sort of ruthless examination of the record the country needs (as in the case of Armenians massacred in Turkey)….. People feel compelled to belong to groups and …… are killed because they happen to be members of a certain group…..The recognition of this fact in law tends to make more likely the possibility of conflict between groups by reinforcing the sense of group identity….  Defining the crime of genocide will end up giving rise to the very conditions it seeks to ameliorate”.

 

With its focus on this theme, the book is saved from unbearable bleakness by the author’s vivid evocation of life in Lviv, when Jewish communities lived with others on stable, reasonably amicable terms. Perhaps inevitably pursuing a forensic approach, Philippe Sands sometimes indulges in too much detail, as when he deploys a pair of law students to help him trawl through records from 1915-1919 to piece together Lauterpacht’s precise course of study, subjects, tutors and dates. The purpose is to understand what ideas may have influenced him, in common with Lemkin, but the inclusion of the details in the main text rather than an Appendix seems a bit excessive. On the other hand, I was fascinated by the photographs of the Nuremberg courtroom for which Sands  identifies individuals.

 

There is an unexpected human touch in the evident friendship formed between the author and Niklas, remorseful son of the unrepentant Hans Frank, eventually hanged at Nuremberg. The gentle Niklas keeps a photograph of his father’s body after the hanging, “To remind me, to make sure, that he is dead”.

 

Although overlong, also a little dry and repetitious in places, this distinctive book, hard to categorise by reason of being part detective story, part painstakingly discovered family history, but also a reflection on the impact of crimes against humanity,  is  certainly worth reading and lingers in one’s mind.

This book made me reflect for the first time how in the early C20 when long-established stable empires were beginning to crumble, “Each country, old or new, was free to treat those who lived within its borders as it wished. International law offered few constraints on the majority’s treatment of minorities, and no rights for individuals”. The European Convention on Human Rights was not signed until 1950.

 

A few years before writing this book, lawyer Philippe Sands received an unexpected invitation to lecture in the Ukrainian city of Lviv on the human rights cases in which he had been involved,  his academic work on the Nuremberg trials and their consequences for the modern world. The location of Lviv proved a remarkable coincidence on several counts. Being in the “Bloodlands” of Eastern Europe, it represents a microcosm of a succession of human rights abuses, not least the Holocaust. In three decades from 1914, the city changed hands eight times, passing from the collapsed Austro-Hungarian Empire between Russians, Poles and Germans before ending up in Ukraine, by turns named Lemberg, Lviv, Lvov and Lwów. It  also happened to be the home town of the author’s Jewish grandfather Leon, who  ended up living in Paris with his wife, never speaking of events which had destroyed most of their relatives.

 

The initial letter “L” appears again in the names of the two Jewish lawyers, Lauterpacht and Lemkin who played a significant role in the development of international human rights legislation, and happened to study in Lviv, being taught by the same lecturers in some cases but apparently not meeting each other in person at the time.  The final coincidence lies in the fact that Hans Frank, one of the key Nazis tried at Nuremberg, committed or turned a blind eye to  his atrocities when he was appointed Governor General of Nazi-occupied Poland  which included Lemberg, as it was then called.

 

Lauterpacht argued that “the well-being of the individual is the ultimate object of all law”, while Lemkin coined the term “genocide” to describe the destruction of groups. At first, Lauterpacht’s argument that a focus on the protection of groups would undermine that of individuals seemed to me like academic hair-splitting. It seems undeniable that people may be persecuted both as individuals or as distinct groups, from the Jews to the Palestinians and the Rohinjas of Burma in the present day.

 

However, I was swayed in the end by the author’s argument that, “the need to prove the intent to destroy a group in whole or in part, as the Genocide Convention requires can have unhappy….. consequences. ….The crime of genocide has distorted the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity, because it stirs up national outrage rather than the sort of ruthless examination of the record the country needs (as in the case of Armenians massacred in Turkey)….. People feel compelled to belong to groups and …… are killed because they happen to be members of a certain group…..The recognition of this fact in law tends to make more likely the possibility of conflict between groups by reinforcing the sense of group identity….  Defining the crime of genocide will end up giving rise to the very conditions it seeks to ameliorate”.

 

With its focus on this theme, the book is saved from unbearable bleakness by the author’s vivid evocation of life in Lviv, when Jewish communities lived with others on stable, reasonably amicable terms. Perhaps inevitably pursuing a forensic approach, Philippe Sands sometimes indulges in too much detail, as when he deploys a pair of law students to help him trawl through records from 1915-1919 to piece together Lauterpacht’s precise course of study, subjects, tutors and dates. The purpose is to understand what ideas may have influenced him, in common with Lemkin, but the inclusion of the details in the main text rather than an Appendix seems a bit excessive. On the other hand, I was fascinated by the photographs of the Nuremberg courtroom for which Sands  identifies individuals.

 

There is an unexpected human touch in the evident friendship formed between the author and Niklas, remorseful son of the unrepentant Hans Frank, eventually hanged at Nuremberg. The gentle Niklas keeps a photograph of his father’s body after the hanging, “To remind me, to make sure, that he is dead”.

 

Although overlong, also a little dry and repetitious in places, this distinctive book, hard to categorise by reason of being part detective story, part painstakingly discovered family history, but also a reflection on the impact of crimes against humanity,  is  certainly worth reading and lingers in one’s mind.

“Blood Orange” by Harriet Tyce: the consequences of actions

Harriet Tyce draws on her experience of working as a barrister in this gripping but unsavoury debut psychological crime thriller.

Remotivated by the chance to lead her first murder case, Alison intends to have only one drink with work colleagues before returning home to Carl, convenient house-husband and part-time therapist since being made redundant, and six-year old daughter Matilda. It soon becomes clear that, not for the first time, Alison will get horribly drunk and have rough sex with handsome but unpredictable and manipulative lawyer Patrick with whom she has drifted into an adulterous “secret” affair. At first, it is hard to believe how such a dysfunctional, often cringe-making and weak-willed individual in her personal life could possibly be an effective and respective barrister. How has kept his patience with her for so long?

However, as the tale progresses, one begins to develop another perspective. Apart from the fact Alison is paying the bills, Carl often seems something of a control freak, unduly quick to criticise her efforts to be a good mother, even in front of Matilda, or denigrate her efforts at cooking – can it really be as bad as he implies? He seems over-protective of his daughter, keen to monopolise her affections. Is he really trying to undermine Alison’s relationship with her child, even demoralise her to the point of doubting her sanity?

The novel also touches on deeper themes concerning the problems for women seeking to succeed “in a man’s world”, or to hold down a complex job with irregular hours without neglecting their children. Has Alison become a “high-functioning” alcoholic, apparently on the brink of total collapse, because of the training which meant spending time in the pub after work getting on good terms with the senior colleague who could put vital work her way? If she were a drunken, adulterous man, would she “get away” with it more easily?

Reminiscent of “Appletree Yard”, I imagine this being made into a television mini-series. Yet although I understand the critical acclaim and popularity gained with the public, it would have been a better book for me if it had been more subtle, rather than laying on the drama with a trowel in ludicrously exaggerated dollops. When Alison picks her daughter up from school very late, an officious teacher, “a solid barrier of dun-coloured knitwear”, blocks her exit, demanding an instant fine of £20 cash which will increase to £30 if not paid until the next day. Tell me if I am wrong, but I cannot imagine any modern-day school imposing such a penalty. Also, is it likely that Alison would interview her client suspected of murder, not in her office but at a busy restaurant, where the waiter almost pours red wine over her confidential paperwork and the medium steak ordered proves so bloody that it seems the one thing that is apt, if ghoulishly?

Creative writing classes seem to plug the use of a dramatically violent or sinister prologue as a “hook”, but apart from making modern novels seem “formulaic”, in this case it amounts to a spoiler for readers with memories of a past scandal and would have been more effective if presented as one of the twists in the somewhat contrived conclusion. To be more than a smutty romp in the wake of “Fifty Shades of Grey”, this novel needed to have less emphasis on, I quote, “booze”, “shit”, “vomit” and sex, and more character development. It amounts to a simplistic theme in which essentially well-intentioned women rise above their flaws to win out over dominant but irredeemably vile men who deserve to pay with their lives. But what made them so bad, and are there no extenuating factors, as in real life? Also, it may well be that some barristers are drunken and unethical in real life, but this book seems to condone some very ambiguous moral values, quite casually suggesting that “wrong actions” are readily acceptable if taken for the “right” reasons.

“The Accident on the A35” by Graeme Macrae Burnet: “in world that is neither true nor false, what is real?”

To get the most impact from this book, I would advise readers to leave the potentially slightly distracting “Foreword” to the end. Advertised as a sequel to “The Disappearance of Adèle Bédeau”, also featuring Inspector Georges Gorski, this can be read as a stand-alone novel. Reading the two books “in order” may help to clarify Gorski’s personal situation, but I think “The Accident on the A35” has a better pace and more interesting characters and wry humour.

When local lawyer Bertrand Barthelme, an influential figure in the provincial French backwater of St. Louis in Alsace, is killed in a road accident one Tuesday night, foul play is not suspected. Unable to resist pleasing Bertrand’s pretty and surprisingly young widow Lucette, Gorski goes beyond standard procedure in an attempt to check on Bertrand’s final movements, discovering in the process that he has been lying to his wife for years for some unknown reason. Meanwhile, Bertrand’s seventeen-year-old son Raymond embarks on his own sleuthing exercise, intrigued by the discovery in his father’s desk of a scrap of paper bearing an address for the nearby centre of Mulhouse, in what looks like a woman’s flamboyant handwriting, quite out of keeping with his father’s stern image.

The detective story proves incidental to the essence of the book, which is the in-depth psychological study of the two main characters, Georges and Raymond, together with convincing little portraits of the supporting cast, bringing them alive as authentic characters with recognisable foibles. Added to this is the strong sense of place: the claustrophobic, inward-looking conservatism of a small town where mediocrity is expected and dullness is the comfortable norm. Yet this being set in , I think, the early 1970s, there is a flicker of dangerous revolt in the reference to Sartre, whom Raymond is absorbed in reading: a novel is “neither true nor false” but is must seem “real”.

Reminiscent of Simenon, the strong sense of being in France is heightened by the author’s skill in producing what purports to be a painstakingly precise translation of a French novel, clear, concise and vivid in style but also constrained, rather like the main characters themselves. Although very different in theme from the author’s prize-winning “His Bloody Project”, both the “Gorski” books continue the common factor of a sensitive, troubled adolescent boy denied affection and empathy by a harsh or uncommunicative male figure. Raymond cuts (sometimes literally) an often amusing but poignant figure, secretive and observant, easily embarrassed, desperately worried about what people think of him, unable to prevent himself from antagonising those whom he likes or loves, with occasional bursts of short-lived euphoria when, no longer controlled by his father, he manages to kick over the traces with some “real”, however bizarre, action in a dull “unreal” world.

Gorski seems similarly emotionally stunted, the son of a deceased pawnbroker who “plays the part” of a detective, potentially very successful with his perceptive, persistent approach, but oddly passive in his personal life, and like Raymond, finding it hard to engage with others, estranged from his wife, and frequently the butt of mockery, dismissed as a plodder.

I found this book a page turner, ramping up a high degree of tension towards what seemed likely to be a fateful but unpredictable end. Both very abrupt, and leaving a great deal to my imagination, the ending disappointed me initially, despite some ingenious twists. On reflection, I decided it is actually quite subtle and effective.

I was also irritated at first by the repeat of the quirky device used in “The Disappearance of Adèle Bédeau”, namely the claim that both books are the work of the author Raymond Brunet – not a spoiler since we are told this in the Prologue. There is speculation as to the extent to which “The Accident on the A35” is autobiographical, accounting for Brunet’s own trouble personality. Since the two novels would stand quite well without this extra twist, I am not sure it is beneficial, particularly since it serves to distance the reader somewhat from the drama.

Having said this, Graeme Macrae Burnet manages to engage us with the characters by the sheer quality of his writing, saved from bleakness by moments of humour, and the promise that there may be a third book in the trilogy – another manuscript also having come to light in 2014.

Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa – “Where should the birds fly after the last sky?”

The opening chapters give a somewhat romanticised view of life in the ancient village of Ein Hod, said to be granted to Palestinian ancestors by Saladin, with flute playing in the olive groves after a day’s harvesting, yet perhaps this serves to heighten the brutal shock of “El Nakba”, the catastrophic expulsion of the Arabs from the land they had occupied for centuries, by soldiers in support of Israeli settlers.

Based on both respected written sources and her own experience of the refugee camp in which she was born, and of taking the chance as a teenager to study in the US, ending up living with her daughter in Pennsylvania, author Susan Abulwhawa has written a searing tale of Amal, a spirited Palestinian girl whose family members suffer terribly in various ways as they are forced out of Ein Hod to a UN-financed adobe box in the camp at Jenin. An infant brother is kidnapped by an Israeli soldier to comfort his young wife who has been left infertile after ill-treatment at the hands of the Nazis – in such ways the author shows sympathy with the sufferings of the Jews and an understanding of how it has so tragically fed their own determination to create a state of their own, whatever the cost.

Amal’s mother, a once lively Bedouin girl, is traumatised by events, only able to deal with her emotions by internalising them, thus seeming cold and distant to her daughter, who in turn treats her own child in the same way, through a fear of loving what one is doomed to lose. Amal’s cultivated, innately gentle father is radicalised to take up arms in the attempt to regain his property and freedom. Her brother Youssef is consumed by the desire for revenge, and so on.

Although leavened with humour and the strong sense of community, the bleakness of real events, and the unrelenting destruction of innocent families, seem at times too much to take, but anger and outrage kept me reading, together with the sense that to give up implies a lack of respect for those suffering a grave injustice which is still ongoing.

Another aspect is the style of writing, about which I have mixed feelings. I appreciate that there has been an attempt to emulate the flowery, convoluted style of Arab writing, but for a British reader it can become exhausting in its overblown repetition. Since I assume English is the author’s second language, I am not sure to what extent the often unusual use of words is deliberate. Certainly, at times it creates a vivid, poetic quality to convey fear, violence, internal reflections on one’s state. I particularly liked the sensitive translations of Arab poetry. By contrast, the author’s style is frequently jarring, and in moments of intimacy may appear cloying and cringe-making.

The most authentic and engaging sections of the novel are those set in Palestine. In the safety and opportunity of the United States, Amal succeeds in her studies and work, but always seems like a transient observer, detached from her surroundings and characters who seem somewhat two-dimensional. There are some interesting if arguable insights, such as her sister-in-law’s belief that Americans do not love like Palestinians because “they live in the safe, shallow parts that rarely push human emotions into the depths where we dwell…the terror we have known is something few Westerners ever will. Israeli occupation exposes us very young to the extremes of own own emotions, until we cannot feel except in the extreme.” These sound like the author’s own personal reflections.

Bearing in mind that it seems even UN reports have counted some massacres of civilians as justifiable actions by Israel against militants, and in view of an apparent general lack of awareness of the details of the Palestine-Israeli problem, this unflinching and moving novel is an effective way of spreading the word about a major injustice.

To quote from Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet”:

“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself….
You may give them your love, but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow which you
cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”

“Le cordonnier de la rue triste” by Robert Sabatier – looking on the bright side

At first, I was put off by the twee sentimentality and the continual interjections of the coy narrator, who suggested that he might be one of the inhabitants of “la rue triste”. Yet although this short novel is not a page turner, it sucks the reader into the evocative atmosphere of a 1940s Parisian street where life goes on despite the Occupation. The last novel of the prolific French author Robert Sabatier, written in his eighties, this seems to draw on his own memories of growing up in Paris, orphaned young, apprenticed to the printing trade, drawn to literature and poetry, largely self-taught and ending up a writer.

Perhaps there is something of himself in the central character Marc, an unusually handsome boy who becomes a skilful cobbler, but loses the use of his legs as a result of an accident when pursuing his passion for running. This tragic event is somehow lightened not only by Marc’s spirit, but also the help given by an assortment of local characters: Jack-of-all- trades Paulo, resembling a comic strip character but with a talent for inventions, not least a workable wheel chair for Marc; Madame Gustave, the kindly manageress of a local bistro who keeps Marc supplied with food, or Rosa la Rose, the tart with a heart.

Every now and again, events begin to take a dramatic turn, but tend to subside like small waves on a beach. What makes this book worth reading is the poetic style, with occasional insights, such as how attempts to reconstruct the past often lack something “impalpable”, like “un reflet dans un miroir déformant”, whereas the strongest witness comes from the first-hand experience of writers like “Erich Maria Remarque”, author of “All quiet on the Western Front”. More than sixty years later, with an old man’s perspective, Marc observes with irony the individuals walking along “la rue triste” like automatons, a mobile phone to one ear, as preoccupied as if their lives depended on the call”. The gift of a TV from a grateful customer introduces him to the ludicrous world of shows in which the audience laugh at the presenter’s inane comments, and applaud not only the rights answers to simple questions but even seem to applaud themselves, like so many “performing seals”.

The novel is like an adult fairy tale, just about saved from mawkishness by some sharp dialogues and ironic humour. It also reminds me of the highly regarded “Stoner”, in its ability to capture the thoughts of “ordinary” people, and what it means to be alive.

Scrublands by Chris Hammer: angel of death

In this debut novel, Chris Hammer makes good use of both his first-hand knowledge of journalistic procedures, and his travels through the Murray-Darling Basin of Eastern Australia to research the impact of the 2008-9 drought.
Like Jane Harper’s “The Dry”, with which it is often compared, although with a distinctly different plot, this is another novel on the crimes triggered by the unrelenting heat and hardship caused by lack of predictable rain in rural Australia.

Traumatised by an ordeal suffered in Gaza, with questions over his ability to hold down his post, once successful foreign correspondent Martin Scarsden is given the supposedly straightforward task of covering how the run-down, drought-ridden town of Riversend is coping a year after its charismatic priest has inexplicably gunned down five local residents, before being shot dead himself by the local copper. Despite his grim motel room at “The Black Dog”, Martin finds himself reluctant to leave, caught up in the desire to find out exactly what motivated the priest Byron Swift to commit such an ungodly crime, but his quest is complicated by the apparent tendency of virtually all the local inhabitants to lie and have something to hide. Using the present tense throughout to heighten the tension, Chris Hammer keeps the suspense going by gradually revealing information, but keeps us guessing until the end as to the precise reason for the atrocity. Also, with the local population so divided against Swift, some of those with most reason to hate him being most surprisingly keen to describe him as a kind of saint, the priest’s true character remains an enigma almost to the end.

Initially slow-paced, but punctuated with dramatic events like the “hook” of the shooting outside the church in the prologue, the plot twists start to come so thick and fast that I began to feel bombarded. Martin’s frequent repeated summaries of events, either in his own mind or to update another character, prove very useful, making me wonder whether some editor advised this. If the book is made into a film, as I think is planned, some of this clarification may be lost.

Although the style at times seems formulaic and clichéd and some characters stereotyped, together with the, for female readers at least, common male fantasy of a romance with an impossibly beautiful much younger woman, the novel is saved partly by the vivid, closely observed descriptions of the landscape. “The sun slams down like a hammer on the anvil of the car park”; “where the river should be…there is a mosaic of cracked clay, baked and going to dust….There is nothing to hear; the heat has sucked the life from the world: no cicadas, no cockatoos, not even crows, just the bridge creaking and complaining as it expands and contracts in thrall to the sun”. Perhaps a surfeit of alliteration, but vivid and evocative writing. Crossing the barren stretch which separates Riversend from the greener civilisation of Bellington, with the temperature over 40 degrees, Martin hallucinates that his car is stationary, with world moving beneath him at the speed of 110 kilometres.

The author is also strong on the moral dilemmas and contradiction of being a journalist. Martin gets a buzz from being the first to submit a scoop, but his hubris over a run of good luck is shattered by the realisation that he has inadvertently published errors which may harm a third party, but cannot expect any support from bosses concerned only to save their own skins. Martin inhabits a “dog eat dog” world of wheedling, lying and moral blackmail to extract information, with the use of subterfuge to prevent others from getting hold of a story before there has been time to file it. He begins to see his past self in others, from the time when he was able to observe and therefore report brutal events so dispassionately, whereas post-Gaza he finds himself discarding details likely to cause pain to others, even though, at the risk of breaking a relationship, he can’t resist the drive to expose the truth as a whole – “It’s what I do”.

This succeeds well as a page-turning yarn but needs to be more concise, with the conclusion a little less neatly sewn up, shorn of corny romance, and devoting more care to the development of Bryon Swift’s puzzling character to be on a par with, say, a Graham Greene classic.

Crashed – How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World

A decade on, there is a case for a reassessment of the financial crash of 2008 which first became evident in the US, together with its aftermath on a global scale. Apart from the risk of producing a work that is simultaneously both overly superficial by reason of being so wide-ranging, and too confusing when it comes to referring to complex investment procedures, there is the question of whether a book is directed narrowly as academics or intended to enlighten reasonably well-informed general readers. There are many examples of books which manage to straddle both stools, page turners backed up with impressive bibliographies. I have the impression that this is what “Crashed” is meant to be, but for me it does not succeed in this.

One problem here is that the book requires such a good grasp of economics, financial speculation and politics that anyone possessing it would be unlikely to need to read it in the first place. Adam Tooze makes a promising start, explaining mortgage-backed securities (dodgy if based on loans issued to buyers who may not be able to repay them) or the “repo” system” – a risky form of speculation involving paying for a purchase of securities by reselling them. However, in describing how the crisis developed not only in the States but also the UK and the Eurozone, the author gets on a roll of journalese and no longer troubles to explain obscure acronyms and jargon of the trade. If one is only grasping the gist of the argument, of which one was already aware, is there any point in continuing?

There are also too many distracting digressions such as at the outset in Chapter 1, where the author goes on about the “The Hamilton Project” commenced on Obama’s watch, without clearly stating what it was.

The book contains a number of interesting insights on, for instance, the role of China in financing rampant speculation with its bloated trade surplus, or on the economic and political role of Germany , but I found that digging these out of the verbiage was hard work.

I recommend finding more systematic and focused studies of this fascinating subject, before perhaps returning to this book, which is perhaps better dipped into for reference , or read with the selection of specific chapters of interest, forearmed, of course, with a proper understanding of the working of government bonds, exchange and interest rates and so on.