King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1998) – part two

I first read this book seven years ago and gave a reasonable summary of its content in a blog post.

Now I’m rereading it after reading three other books which cover at least part of the same subject matter, Frank McLynn’s Hearts of Darkness and Tim Jeal’s biography of Henry Morton Stanley and group biography of the five British explorers involved in the quest for the source of the river Nile. This blog post records impressions from reading Hochschild’s book second time round.

Leopold and Stanley

For a start, it’s quite a long time till the account of the atrocities committed in King Leopold’s Congo Free State kicks in. The book has about 320 pages of text and it’s only around page 130 that we begin to hear about the increasingly rapacious organisation of the Congo state and its appalling police service, the Force Publique. In other words, nearly half the book consists of background and buildup. And this mostly consists of a lot of biographical material on the two central figures, King Leopold himself and the explorer Stanley.

Leopold

Leopold II’s childhood was lonely and cold: he had to make appointments to talk to either his father or mother, who didn’t care much for him, so the king grew up aloof, distant, socially maladroit and compensated by obsessing over the minutiae of royal protocol.

During the course of his researches Hochschild has obviously come to loathe Leopold and he clearly relishes dishing the dirt on him, revelling in the fact that the king was a regular visitor to a chain of high-class brothels which traded in young girls, some as young as 12, who were guaranteed virgins to be deflowered by the cream of British and continental society.

But what comes over in spades from Hochschild’s account is what a two-faced, calculating and cunning manipulator Leopold was of all around him, which included ambassadors from all the major nations as well as leading philanthropists. They all fell for his humanitarian rhetoric and pose of selflessness, but there is much more, Hochschild detailing the care with which Leopold and his fixers bribed and cajoled and pulled the wool over the eyes of politicians, journalists and missionaries, inviting them to his palace, flattering and smooth-talking them. When bad news started to leak out about the atrocities being carried out in his colony, Leopold’s techniques for managing the press and damage limitation would put a modern PR company to shame.

Stanley

But it’s the Stanley material which is more striking. Hochschild is accepts the ‘black legend’ of Henry Morton Stanley hook, line and sinker, giving the kind of relentlessly negative account which Tim Jeal set out to single-handedly overthrow in his epic biography. Hochschild takes at face value:

  • Stanley’s own accounts of the size of his expeditions and the number of personnel lost during them (which Jeal shows to both be exaggerations)
  • Stanley’s own accounts of his brutal punishments of deserters and thieves (which Jeal shows to the exceptions rather than the rule, and shows only took place on particular, unusual occasions)
  • the harsh criticism of Stanley by other explorers (which Jeal says were motivated by jealousy, for example Richard Burton’s rancorous envy) and by the British press (which Jeal said was animated by anti-Americanism)

Hochschild goes out of his way to claim that Stanley’s bad luck with a string of failed fiancées (getting engaged to several young women, then breaking it off when he disappeared into Africa for years) was a result of his pathological ‘fear of women’.

He returns to the theme half way through the book when he describes Stanley’s 1890 grand public wedding in Westminster Abbey in considerable detail, noting that Stanley was chronically ill on the day, had to be helped up the aisle, and spent the entire reception lying in a darkened room in agony from gastritis. Hochschild uses his wedding to write confidently about Stanley’s ‘craving for acceptance’ and ‘fear of intimacy’ before going on to repeat Frank McLynn’s speculation that Stanley’s marriage to the society painter Dorothy Tennant was never consummated because of the lifelong revulsion from sex he picked up during his miserable childhood in a public workhouse (p.151).

God, I’d hate to be famous for anything and know that before the earth is cold on my grave rival biographers would be picking over my relationship with my family and every single woman I ever went out with, speculating the character of my mum and dad, using bucket psychology to pin me with their tawdry labels, using every blog post, letter or diary entry I ever wrote to work up their cheap theories about my psychology and sex life. God. The poor victims of the modern biographer.

That it’s all complete speculation leaps out at you when Hochschild concedes that other biographers think that Stanley did consummate his marriage. Some do, some don’t. You might as well flip a coin.

And not only is this all utterly speculative bucket psychology but it’s all out of date, for when Hochschild describes McLynn as Stanley’s ‘most thorough biographer’ the reader realises his book was written before Tim Jeal’s epic biography of Stanley, which benefited from access to thousands of previously unexamined letters, journals and so on in the royal archives in Belgium and so is in a position to paint a much more subtle, nuanced and sympathetic portrait of Stanley the man.

I find it surreal beyond belief that a whole succession of grown men – professional academics and historians – have devoted so much mental energy to the issue of whether Henry Stanley’s erect penis ever entered Dorothy Tennant’s vagina. In the middle of a book about atrocities committed against millions of Africans this dogged speculation about Stanley’s sex life is bizarre beyond belief.

That Hochschild is simultaneously repelled and bored by Stanley is indicated by his dismissal of everything Stanley did with sardonic repetition:

  • Stanley’s usual two-volume thousand-page bestseller turned out to be only one of many books written about the Emin Pasha expedition…
  • Stanley threw his usual temper tantrums…
  • As always Stanley bungled his choice of subordinates…

But despite his strong anti-Stanley animus, Hochschild can’t directly implicate Stanley in any of the atrocities themselves. The opposite: he shows in some detail how Stanley was edged out of Leopold’s plans as the late 1880s turned into the 1890s, for a number of reasons. 1. Leopold knew Stanley was stroppy and opinionated and would be difficult to manage and manipulate, as he manipulated so many other world leaders, Belgian politicians, missionaries and journalists.

2. More importantly, France. As the 1880s progressed, it became increasingly important to Leopold to placate France, the imperial power which claimed most of the territory to the north of the Congo, represented by the charismatic explorer, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza. Soon after completing his epic trek along the Congo in 1879, Stanley wrote letters and articles calling for Britain to take control of the Congo, a suggestion he repeated frequently, in public and which risked antagonising the delicate working relationship Leopold was forging with Paris.

The French were obsessed that Leopold’s amateur venture would collapse and that the hated British would then step in to run this huge area of central Africa and that this would amount to yet another slap in the face for the touchy Frogs.

Leopold managed to quell their anxieties for good by signing an agreement in law that if Belgian rule – and the companies he’d set up to manage it – collapsed, the French would legally have first dibs on the vacated territory. Not the hated British. The French were content with that and backed off, allowing Leopold to continue his plans his own way. But Stanley, far from being an accomplice of Leopold’s, represented a risk which is why the king kept him dangling on a retainer but never gave him the governorship he craved or any other significant work to do once the road was built by about 1884. Stanley was sidelined and out of the picture well before any of the atrocities began.

The post 9/11 perspective

As it happens I’m reading this book just after the Americans completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan on 31 August 2021 and just as we all approach the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on 11 September.

King Leopold’s Ghost is littered with Hochschild’s easy sarcasm about Victorian Europe’s claims to be bringing ‘civilisation’ to barbarians, to want to set up schools for the natives, end the slave trade, create a transport infrastructure, bring commerce and raise the living standards of the impoverished locals.

Absolutely all of this reads very differently as I watch the TV footage of the last American planes leaving Kabul airport and of hundreds of locals desperately chasing after them as the West i.e. America abandons its attempt to bring civilisation to the locals, to set up schools, end the Taliban’s oppressive rule, improve the transport infrastructure, bring commerce and raise the living standards of the impoverished locals.

Hochschild writes with lofty American disdain for 1. the hypocrisy of the European colonial nations who claimed to be bringing ‘civilisation’ but instead brought only hard-headed commercial transactions and exploitation. 2. He says the Europeans rode roughshod over the native culture and the complex web of tribes and traditional political authority which covered the region in multiple complex forms. 3. And his central theme is how quickly so-called ‘enlightened intervention’ descended into barbarism and exploitation, as native uprisings prompted terrible crackdowns and massacres. His book reeks of smug condescension.

But every time he made another sarcastic comment about the discrepancy between the European colonialists’ high-toned claims of bringing ‘civilisation’ and the reality of the crude violence and exploitation they inflicted, I thought: Iraq War. 150,000 dead, at a minimum (Wikipedia). Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse. ‘Enhanced interrogation techniques’ including waterboarding. Extraordinary rendition i.e. kidnapping people and spiriting them away to permanent imprisonment without trial in Guantanamo Bay. The Sunni Insurgency. Improvised explosive devices. An entire nation plunged into violent anarchy for a generation, while a large percentage of the trillion or so dollars America allegedly spent on the country went straight into the pockets of American arms manufacturers and private  security contractors.

Americans show European colonialists how to bring civilisation and respect for human rights to a developing country

And I thought Afghanistan. $2 trillion spent. Vast amounts on training the local security forces to cope with insurgencies. 110,000 Afghans killed or injured, over 3,500 coalition deaths. As many as 30,000 American private contractors making a fortune out of government contracts. And in the end, what was it all for? The security forces which the allies spent hundreds of billions training collapsed like a pack of cards within days of the Americans leaving. And many locals had been permanently alienated from the West and its puppet government by random and unpunished American atrocities. How mass killings by US forces after 9/11 boosted support for the Taliban.

Not as easy as you thought, is it, going into a developing country, overthrowing its government and expecting the locals to love you.

When Stanley flogged members of his caravan who tried to desert or stole precious food supplies in the 1870s, he did it in an age when flogging was still a legal punishment in schools and in the army, such as the Confederate Army which Stanley served in during the American Civil War. When the Americans captured, imprisoned, tortured and waterboarded their Iraqi suspects in the 2000s they were doing it sixty years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was meant to have abolished such practices for ever.

The Wikipedia article about extraordinary rendition quotes former CIA case officer Bob Baer saying:

‘If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear—never to see them again—you send them to Egypt.’

This is the mindset of the greatest military force the world has ever seen as it extended its grasp, overt or covert, across the Arab world after 9/11: kidnap, torture, murder and massacre.

All of this was being raked over on the TV and in newspapers and magazines day after day at the exact moment I was reading Hochschild telling me how wicked and hypocritical the nineteenth century European colonisers were, how bigoted against the Arabs, how quick to extreme violence, how hypocritical in cloaking their real commercial motives under high-sounding rhetoric.

While all around me the serious British media were reflecting on 20 years of US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya. Which Middle Eastern and Asian Muslim nations have not benefited from the carefully planned and skillfully executed interventions of peace-loving America?

In this respect, Hochschild’s book is a good example of the hubris shown by so many contemporary historians who feel free to glibly patronise people in the past and point out their manifold failings on the assumption that we, in our super-digital 21st century, are oh-so-morally superior to our ancestors. But are we?

And it’s all the more vexatious when the historian patronising European colonialists for their wretched interventions in developing countries is an American, writing from amid the ruins of American foreign policy and the beacon of enlightened democracy which was the Trump administration.

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:5)

‘Arab’ slave traders?

Hochschild also deploys his trademark sarcasm whenever the subject of ‘Arab’ slave traders comes up. Unlike the McLynn and Jeal books, and all the passages about the wickedness of the Arab slave trade they quote from the writings of Livingstone, Burton, Speke and Stanley – Hochschild goes out of his way to assert that hardly any of the slave traders were, in fact, Arab. He claims most were ‘Afro-Arab’ at best, ‘Swahili-speaking Africans’ who adopted Arab dress and Islam but ‘only some of them were of partly Arab descent’ (p.28).

Arab was a misnomer; Afro-Arab would have been more accurate. Although their captives often ended up in the Arab world, the traders on the African mainland were largely Swahili-speaking Africans from territory that today is Kenya and Tanzania. Many had adopted Arab dress and Islam, but only some of them were of even partly Arab descent. Nonetheless, from Edinburgh to Rome, indignant books and speeches and sermons denounced the vicious ‘Arab’ slavers – and with them, by implication, the idea that any part of Africa might be colonised by someone other than Europeans. (p.28)

Note the tell-tale sarcastic swipe at European amour propre in the final sentence. Anyway, this assertion is completely contrary to everything I’ve read in the other books on the subject.

1. Consider the most famous slaver of the era, Tippu Tip. According to Wikipedia:

Tippu Tip, or Tippu Tib (1832 to 1905), real name Ḥamad ibn Muḥammad ibn Jumʿah ibn Rajab ibn Muḥammad ibn Saʿīd al Murjabī (Arabic: حمد بن محمد بن جمعة بن رجب بن محمد بن سعيد المرجبي‎), was an Afro-Arab ivory and slave trader, explorer, governor and plantation owner…His father and paternal grandfather were coastal Arabs of the Swahili Coast who had taken part in the earliest trading expeditions to the interior. His paternal great-grandmother, wife of Rajab bin Mohammed bin Said el Murgebi, was the daughter of Juma bin Mohammed el Nebhani, a member of a respected Muscat (Oman) family, and a Bantu woman from the village of Mbwa Maji, a small village south of what would later become the German capital of Dar es Salaam.

So Tippu had a soupçon of African blood in an otherwise solidly Arab geneology.

2. Zanzibar became the centre of the East African slave trade when it was annexed by pureblood Arabs:

In 1832 Said bin Sultan, Sultan of Muscat and Oman moved his capital from Muscat, Oman to Stone Town [on Zanzibar]. After Said’s death in June 1856, two of his sons, Thuwaini bin Said and Majid bin Said, struggled over the succession…Until around 1890, the sultans of Zanzibar controlled a substantial portion of the Swahili coast known as Zanj, which included Mombasa and Dar es Salaam. (Wikipedia)

3. Or take the famous massacre of some 400 Congolese women and children at the village of Nyangwe the river Lualaba which Livingstone witnessed on 15 July 1871. This was carried out by armed men at the command of the notorious Arab slaver Dugumbé ben Habib.

Hochschild may have germs of truth in that some or many of the slave traders might have had African blood. But all the accounts I’ve read and the three salient facts I’ve just quoted tend to confirm that the majority of the trade was solidly in the hand of Muslim Arabs, Arabs who, moreover, I’ve read quotes from saying how much they despised Africans, how Africans’ live meant nothing until they could be sold in the slave markets of Zanzibar, and scores of accounts of Arab slave caravan captains shooting, tying to trees or burning alive slaves too sick to make the long trek from the villages where they were captured to the coast.

So why does Hochschild go out of his way to make his claim that the Arab slave traders weren’t really Arabs and for the rest of the book refer to ‘Arab’ slave traders in quote marks? Because it allows him one more way of slagging off the European nations and the ‘white man’. The tendency of his sarcastic comments is that Britain’s anti-slavery rhetoric was a hollow sham dressing up the fact that it allowed the white man to indulge his anti-Islamic bigotry. It justified rampant Islamophobia. Of those wicked wicked nineteenth century Europeans!

a) This is so contrary to the quotes from Livingstone, Stanley, Speke and even Baker that depict in great detail the genuinely evil ways of what all the witnesses unanimously agree was the Arab slave trade that it comes over as a slightly ludicrous twisting of the facts to fit Californian Hochschild’s anti-European bias. Livingstone really was disgusted and appalled by the wickedness of the slave traders, he wrote heartfelt letters back to England saying something must be done to save the Africans, and this prompted thousands of brave missionaries and educators to set off for darkest Africa to set up schools and guilted the British government into doing more to crack down on slavery, including forcing the Sultan of Zanzibar to close down its famous slave market.

b) His claim of anti-Arab bigotry sits oddly with the evidence that most of the British explorers and later colonial administrators were biased in favour of Arabs. Richard Burton spoke Arabic and admired the Arabs for their culture and religion, as did Samuel Baker, as did Sir Harold MacMichael, administrator of Sudan in the 1920s who respected the Arabs in the north and despised the Africans of the south – all part of a strand of pro-Arab British feeling which continued down to Lawrence of Arabia and bedevilled British attempts to manage their inter-war mandate in Palestine.

c) Hochschild’s defence of – by implication – the innocent ‘Arabs’ so horribly wronged in European accounts of the region reads very amusingly in a post-9/11 world, particularly in the early years after 2001 when you could read some very ripe comments from previously liberal and progressive American commentators about Arabs and Islam. Nothing any Victorian author wrote about Islam was as vitriolic as the opinions of scores of Yankee commentators after the twin towers were bombed.

Overall it now reads like rich, fat hypocrisy for Hochschild to accuse the late Victorians of dressing up commercially-motivated imperialism under anti-Islamic rhetoric, given everything which his country has done in Iraq and Afghanistan over the 20 years following 9/11.

George Washington Williams (1849 to 1891)

Williams was a rare example of a free black man in nineteenth century America who made his mark in an impressive variety of professions and ended up hobnobbing with the president. During his 41 year life Williams managed to serve as a soldier in the American Civil War and in Mexico before becoming a Baptist minister, politician, lawyer, journalist, and writer.

He appears in this narrative because during the late 1880s he developed a plan for returning Afro-Americans who were suffering under the so-called ‘Reconstruction’ of the American South back to Africa. The publicity surrounding the great philanthropist Leopold’s plans for the Congo spurred Williams to make the pilgrimage to Brussels (funding himself by contracting to write travel articles for an American magazine) for an audience with the great humanitarian himself who was, as usual, all smooth words and assurances.

So Williams then sailed on to the Congo which he travelled up slowly, taking extensive notes. What he saw shocked and horrified him. Scene after scene of violence, brutality and corruption. Many of the Congolese had been reduced to the level of slaves, whipped with the notorious chicotte and brutally intimidated into collecting what was, at that point, the colony’s key export, ivory.

From Stanley Falls Williams wrote ‘An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo’ in July 1890. Hochschild says it gave a good summary of the methods of exploitation and slave labour the Belgians were already using, as well as laying down the framework of criticism which was to be used by all later campaigners: that everything was done in the king’s name and so he was completely responsible for the mass mutilations and murders. Williams called for an international commission to investigate.

His letter was published as a pamphlet and caused a furore (p.112). Hochschild shows how Leopold set his tame pets in the press and positions of power to rubbish all the accusations. Travelling back to Europe up the Nile, Williams became ill in Cairo, and managed to get as far as Blackpool in north-west England where he died on August 2, 1891, aged 41. By that time over 1,000 Europeans had visited and worked in the Congo but Williams was the only one with the guts, and morality, to be horrified and tell the truth.

And he was, contrary to Hochschild’s sarcasms about the hypocrisy of the Western Christian concern for the African, a Western Christian, a devout and earnest Baptist, for it was Protestant missionaries who were to provide most of the testimony and evidence for the global campaign against Leopold’s brutal regime in the Congo which I will describe in my next blog post.

Notes and details

I’d forgotten that after the Mahdi and his army of Islamic fundamentalists took Khartoum (in January 1885), killed General Gordon and massacred the city’s army garrison and civilian population, he went on to rule the city and region uninterrupted for the next 12 years. And that – here’s the thing – soon after the conquest, the Mahdi sent a message to Queen Victoria demanding that she come to the Sudan, convert to Islam and submit to his rule (p.97).

Now that is a counter-factual scenario worth imagining! I’d love to see a painting in the realist late-Victorian style of a fat Queen Victoria kneeling and bending her forehead right down to the ground before the magnificently robed Mahdi who graciously accepts the obeisance of the queen-empress and the conversion of all her peoples to the True Religion.

Credit

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild was published by Mariner Books in 1998. All references are to the 2012 Pan paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Explorers of the Nile: the triumph and tragedy of a great Victorian adventure by Tim Jeal (2011) part two

‘[Dr Livingstone] left an obligation on the civilised nations of Europe and America, as the shepherds of the world, to extend their care and protection over the oppressed races of Africa.’
(Henry Morton Stanley in his obituary of Livingstone published in the Graphic magazine, 1873)

Expeditions covered in the second half of the book

  • Stanley’s expedition to find Livingstone, 1871 to 1872
  • Livingstone’s final expedition, 1872 to 1873
  • Stanley’s great expedition across Africa from East to West, 1874 to 1879
  • Stanley working for King Leopold II of Belgium, 1879 to 1885
  • The Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, 1886 to 1889

This is the third version of the meeting between Welsh workhouse boy-turned-American journalist Henry Morton Stanley and famous Scottish missionary and explorer Dr David Livingstone which I have read, and arguably the most effective.

This is because, in the preceding chapter (chapter 18) Jeal had given a clear and vivid description of how utterly prostrate Livingstone was, his obsession with tracing the river Lualaba crushed by porters paid by Arab slavers to refuse to accompany him, forced to return to the miserable slaver town of Ujiji on the west bank of Lake Tanganyika where he discovered that all the trading goods and supplies which had been carefully selected, bought and sent to him by Dr John Kirk, British consul in Zanzibar, had been treacherously sold off by the Arab in charge of delivering them, so that all his native porters abandoned him, leaving the man penniless, betrayed, abandoned and completely demoralised by the complete failure of his expedition to the Lualaba, the crushing of all his hopes as an explorer. That is the moment when Henry Morton Stanley walked into his compound, accompanied by hundreds of porters laden with supplies. So the reader understands why the meeting came as such a huge psychological relief to both men.

As to Stanley’s epic trek across Africa which revealed for the first time that the Luabala was a tributary of the Congo, I have covered that in my review of Jeal’s biography of Stanley.

The origins of the Nile and what is an ‘origin’?

On reflection, I think Jeal would have done better to have started this book with a factual description of the actual geography of the Nile, carefully explaining what we now understand of its modern course; because, with this information imprinted on our minds, the reader would be much better placed to understand the importance of all the discoveries and theories bandied about by the explorers whose expeditions he describes over the next 350 pages.

It is only on page 316, in the context of Stanley proving once and for all that the river Luabala did not flow north and east to form a tributary of the Nile, but instead flowed north and west to become the main tributary of the Congo, thus, in effect, confirming Speke’s discovery that the northern outlet of Lake Victoria is the origin of the White Nile – it is only here that Jeal, almost casually, comes clean and explains the entire modern understanding of the multiple sources of the Nile, referencing subsequent expeditions, in 1891, 1898, 1935, and as recently 2006, which have traced its origins further and further into obscure watercourses in Rwanda and Burundi.

And it is only tucked away in the heart of his book, that he raises a central question which is: How do you define the source of a river? Eventually all major rivers splinter into tributaries which themselves divide into contributory creeks and streams and springs and so on. How many do you include? How do you define The Source? Apparently Stanley said that, if you go that far, it was only a small step to attributing the origins of a river to the clouds passing overhead and the rain that falls.

Jeal, like the explorers, is happy to stop at the assertion that Lake Victoria is the source of the White Nile.

Some incidents

Stanley on the Congo

Stanley’s work for King Leopold II of Belgium, building a road up the river Congo, establishing way stations, transporting sections of steam ships along it which could be assembled above the Congo’s fearsome rapids, are all placed in the context of establishing the infrastructure for the wicked Congo Free State which Leopold was seeking to establish (described in detail in chapter 28).

De Brazza

Stanley’s work for Leopold is also placed in the context of international rivalry with France embodied by the attempts of French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza to claim the north side of the river Congo . This led, among other incidents, to the confrontation at Stanley Pool with Brazza, who had soldiers and tried to claim the south bank of the Congo for France. It was only by the resolute action of the British station chief at Kinshasa, young Anthony Swinburne, that the region, and what would go on to become Congo’s capital, remained in Leopold’s control.

The Congo situation was to be stabilised at the 1885 Conference of Berlin by the formal assignment of the vast region of the Congo to Leopold’s personal fief. Jeal covers all this but, because his focus is the Nile, he is most interested in the fate of central and East Africa.

Muslim versus Christian

Here the deep structural issue was whether the region would fall under Muslim or Christian domination. The Christian British were, in a sense, biased, identifying the cause of civilisation and progress with themselves and their religion. But most of the Brits involved knew the simple fact that Islam represented slavery, because east central Africa was being laid waste by a slave trade carried out entirely by Muslim Arabs, seizing black African slaves to ship them to the Arab Middle East, destroying entire villages, laying waste to areas, shooting slaves who were too weak or ill to trek the thousand miles to the coast.

Samuel Baker founds Equatoria

This is why those concerned for the region didn’t want it to fall under the control of Egypt, because Egyptian control would almost certainly involve the extension of slavery into the region of the Great African Lakes, Buganda, Bunyoro and so on.

Nonetheless, it was the noted explorer Sir Samuel White who penetrated south on the Nile with a host of soldiers and riverboats given by the Khedive of Egypt, and simply declared, without consulting any of the native rulers, the existence of a new southern province of Egypt which he named Equatoria, in May 1871.

This incident, peripheral to the quest for the source of the Nile, would go on to have long-term political ramifications which echo to this day.

Retreat to Fatiko

When Baker attempted to penetrate further south, he was met with fierce resistance from the army of king Kabarega of Banyoro and was forced to stage a fighting retreat to Fatiko, one of those defeats in the face of stronger African foes which were to be presented as a kind of moral victory in the British press (Isandlwana, 1879, Gordon and the Khartoum garrison massacred, 1885).

According to Jeal, it was the publicity surrounding Baker’s military expedition which first really publicised to many politicians and businessmen the geographic and commercial potential of opening up central Africa.

Stanley’s call for missionaries

This is why one of the most important events of the period was Stanley writing a letter, in May 1875, which was published in the Daily Telegraph, saying that the region was crying out for Christian missionaries to set up schools, educate the locals, encourage Western style trade, with a view to stamping out slavery and other barbarous practices like human sacrifices, to develop and raise the living standards of Africans. And the numerous missionary societies of Britain responded (p.302).

Almost inevitably, when the missionaries came, they faced the same kind of antagonism and sometimes horrific violence which the explorers had faced or witnessed but, by and large survived, because the latter had guns and were moving through, not settling in, dangerous territories.

Atrocities against missionaries

In January 1885 Mwanga king of Buganda, arrested the missionary Mackay and had three of his young black converts taken from the mission school, their arms hacked off, and then slowly roasted to death on a spit (p.348). In October 1885 Bishop James Hannington who had been sent by the CMS to become the first bishop of East Africa, was arrested by Mwanga and speared to death along with all 50 of his porters (p.349). On 30 June 1886 Mwanga arrested and executed 45 Catholic and Protestant converts, strangling several with his own hands, having the others castrated and burned alive (p.349).

These sorts of atrocities inevitably caused outrage in the newspapers and forced European governments to step in ‘and so something’ to protect our gallant missionaries. Thus the 1890s saw a wave of annexations and mandates, Malawi in 1892, Uganda declared a protectorate on 27 August 1894.

Rivalry with Germany

It must also be noted that, if the British endured a rivalry with a France determined to push east from their West African possessions, beyond Chad, across the desert and into Egyptian and Sudanese territory, and south as far as the Congo, the British also faced rivalry with Germany in East Africa.

Chancellor Bismarck sent envoys to sign deals with local rulers, amassing influence over such a large area that eventually it justified a full-blown diplomatic agreement between the two governments, in 1886, which secured for Germany the southern portion of the region which was to become Tanganyika, and present-day Tanzania.

In response, the British government approved the granting of a royal charter to Sir William Mackinnon’s Imperial British East Africa Company, sowing the seeds of what was to evolve into Uganda and Kenya (pages 362 to 363).

Wikipedia has two maps which vividly contrast territorial ‘ownership’ of Africa in 1880 and 1913, before and after the great ‘scramble for Africa’. Apart from showing the obvious way in which an entire continent was gobbled up by half a dozen European powers, the two things which stand out for me are 1. The extent of French possession, coloured blue. 2. The fact that German East Africa (dark grey) presented an impassible obstacle to imperialists like Cecil Rhodes who wanted to create one unified band of British colonies stretching the length of Africa. How frustrated he must have been!

Political geography of Africa 1880 and 1913. Source: Wikipedia

The Emin Pasha relief expedition 1886 to 1889

I’ve summarised the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition in my summary of Jeal’s Stanley biography. Suffice to say that, as in his descriptions of Livingstone’s two last expeditions or Stanley’s trans-Africa trek, arguably the summaries Jeal gives in this book are better than the ones in the Stanley book because they are much shorter, much punchier, and focus on the key events and decisions: I understood the importance of Stanley’s fateful decisions during the Emin Pasha expedition much better from the 10-page summary given in this book (pages 365 to 375) than from the several chapters devoted to it in the Stanley biography which, for me, buried the important things in a sea of details. In particular, the notorious moral collapse of the Rear Column into Kurz-like barbarism is much more vivid when compressed onto just two pages (pages 371 to 372).

Royal Navy anti-slavery

It gets very little publicity but the British government tasked the Royal Navy with maintaining squadrons whose sole purpose was to intercept slave ships and quell the ocean-borne slave trade.

During the nineteenth century, 17,000 members of the Royal Navy died as a result of their service with the West and East African Anti-Slave Trade Squadrons. (p.362)

Part two

Part two of Jeal’s book is titled ‘The Consequences’ and deals with just that, the long term consequences of all this imperial jostling for African territory at the end of the nineteenth century. I’d read almost all the stories Jeal tells of the earlier expeditions in his biography of Stanley or Frank McLynn’s book about African exploration. Part two of Jeal’s book leaves all that Victoriana behind to deal with the dawning era of state-sponsored exploration. It broadens out to be about the general Scramble for Africa during the 1880s and beyond – to my surprise, to a great deal beyond – in some instances (Sudan and Uganda) bringing the story right up to date, with summaries not only of their twentieth century histories, but their post-colonial political histories right up to the year the book was published, 2011.

Sudan

In both countries Jeal says the British made a series of fateful mistakes. In Sudan it was yoking together the utterly different Muslim Arabs of the north with the African animists and Christians of the south. Since the British got on better with the Arabs, who had more Western-friendly economic and social systems, the northerners inherited most of the political, economic and military levers of power and looked down on the black African southerners. Jeal singles out the British commissioner Sir Harold MacMichael (served 1916 to 1933) for refusing to even visit the south for his first seven years in post and then being so shocked by its primitive condition that he perversely refused to encourage investment in it.

All this made it almost inevitable that, once the country was granted independence, many in the south would want their own government. South Sudan tried to secede in 1955, leading to a civil war which continued on and off for over 60 years until South Sudan gained its independence as a nation state in July 2011. (With depressing inevitability a civil war then broke out within south Sudan in 2013 which lasted till last year, 2020.)

In other words, the long term consequence of Britain drawing the borders of the territory as it did, and administering it as it did, was long term instability, war and suffering.

Uganda

The other major British error Jeal lingers on, was not retaining the region of Equatoria, claimed and invented by Baker in 1872 in the name of the Khedive of Egypt, as a distinct country.

Although it contained numerous tribes, the inhabitants of Equatoria had the advantage of being related by language and tradition. Instead the British made the disastrous mistake of dividing Equatoria along a horizontal line through the middle and assigning the northern half to Sudan and the southern half to Uganda, a decision taken by Sir Harry Johnston in 1899. Jeal goes into some detail as to how the inclusion of the Equatorial kingdoms, of Baganda in particular, helped to unbalance the tribal makeup of Uganda from the start.

Jeal gives a brisk summary of Uganda’s history after it gained independence from Britain in 1962, namely: the rise of a typical African dictator or Big Man, Milton Obote; a crisis caused by how to handle the semi-independent nation of Buganda within Uganda: Obote suspends the constitution in a 1966 coup and rules as a dictator until he was overthrown by his military leader Idi Amin, who himself emerged as a murderous tyrant ruling for 8 years until himself overthrown when the army of neighbouring Tanzania along with Ugandan exiles invaded and restored Obote for the next 6 years (1980 to 1986). Currently Uganda is ruled by former general Yoweri Museveni, who overthrew the previous regime in 1986 and has ruled a one-party state ever since.

Summarising the plight of both countries, Jeal says:

Britain should have stayed longer in Sudan and Uganda, should have spent more money there and better prepared these countries for independence. (p.418)

The case for intervention

In his final pages Jeal recapitulates the case for European intervention in the area of central Africa he’s been describing. One of the central motives was to stamp out the slave trade which the big five explorers he focuses on (Livingstone, Burton, Speke, Grant and Stanley) witnessed, described and railed against with passion and persistence.

Jeal argues that if the Christian European nations had not intervened in central Africa, the area would not have remained a pristine paradise, as some anti-colonialists claim. It had already been heavily despoiled by the Arab slave trade which was encroaching deeper and deeper into the interior with every year, bringing devastation, mass murder and enslavement.

The whole of central equatorial Africa would have become part of the Muslim world, with slavery an inescapable part of it, unless the colonial powers had come to stay. (p.430)

On this reading the case against the Europeans isn’t that they colonised Africa, as such. Jeal goes out of his way to assert that the British in particular did bring impartial justice, schools, education, railways, roads and economic development which lifted most Africans out of grinding poverty to levels of affluence and literacy inconceivable only a few generations earlier.

No, the case against the European colonialists is that they made terrible decisions about borders and administrative regions, tried to run their colonies on the cheap, ignored native traditions and chieftains and kingdoms in preference for a British style central administration and parliamentary democracy and that, when they handed all this over to African rulers in the 1960s, it quickly became obvious that the countries couldn’t be ruled by Westminster-style politics, but only from the barrel of a gun in the hands of the country’s strongest institution – the army.

The criticism is not that Britain colonised Africa. It’s that the British did it so badly. Upon independence, the continent’s 3,000 ethnic groups ended up divided up into 47 nation states. Colonialism lasted just long enough to destroy centuries-old beliefs in animism, spirits and personal responsibility, but not long enough to imprint the universal literacy and faith in education which underpins the success of the West. The complete inappropriateness of imposing a Westminster-style parliamentary system onto nations with radically different traditions and definitions of power and authority, led almost all of them to collapse and be replaced by the rule of Big Men backed by the army. In the mid-1990s there were 31 civil wars raging in Africa, resulting either from the terribly drawn boundaries or the deliberate incitements of Big Men (p.434).

Responsibility

It seems to me attributing ‘responsibility’ or ‘guilt’ for the dire post-independence fates of many African nations is pointless. Identifying errors and mistaken decisions with a view to avoiding them in future or using the analysis to try and address current problems might be a worthwhile activity. But blaming some white guy for what he said or wrote 150 years ago seems futile. It’s only a form of self-promoting rhetoric and psychological bonding for the righteous who like to make those kind of criticisms. Blaming ‘the white man’ or ‘the West’ or ‘Europe’ hardly seems very practical to me.

As Jeal candidly admits, the violent and semi-genocidal actions of the Islamic government in Khartoum dwarf anything the colonial authorities ever did. Similarly, Idi Amin’s regime undertook large-scale repression of sections of Uganda’s population, which may led to as many as 500,000 deaths and the wholescale expulsion of the country’s entire Asian population (30,000 came to the UK, some 10,000 to other western nations).

The idea that what exactly Speke said to Burton in Aden 150 years ago is given more space in the book than the massacres commissioned by the governments of Sudan and Uganda almost amounts to a subtle kind of racism, or at the very least, bias, whereby what one white man said or wrote 150 years ago is considered more important than the death of 100,000 Africans in the recent past.

To put it another way, once your mind is contemplating the murderous post-independence regimes of Sudan or Uganda, being concerned about what exactly Speke said to Burton 150 years ago seems absurd and irrelevant. In a way the brutal realities Jeal describes in the last 30 or 40 pages of his book, make the entire account of the Victorian explorers seem like a fairy tale, like a weightless fiction, like Alice in Wonderland.

Attributing some kind of responsibility to the colonial authorities who took bad decisions from the late 1890s through to the 1950s is probably a more worthwhile activity, but Jeal zips through this final part of the book at top speed. The colonial and post-independence history of two nations like Sudan and Uganda are just too big and complex to be managed in such a short space, and by an author who is much more at home investigating Stanley’s father complex or Baker’s love for his slave wife. In other words, is happier retailing ripping yarns of Victorian derring-do than giving a dryer, cold-blooded analysis of contemporary African politics.

Still, I suppose it’s to Jeal’s credit that he doesn’t just end the book with the fiasco of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition in 1889, as he might have done but makes an attempt to bring it up to date, skimpy though it feels.

Up until the last 40 or so pages Explorers of the Nile: the triumph and tragedy of a great Victorian adventure is full of extraordinary stories of Victorian heroism and endurance, illness and obsession. It is entirely fitting that this book was turned into a series of BBC Radio 4. It has exactly that Radio 4 feel of comforting, white bourgeois, public school nostalgia. And if you’re in that kind of mood, why not? But the harsh realities described in the final passages make you realise that that world – of dashing Victorian chaps – only really survives between the covers of this kind of Radio 4-friendly history.

Logocentrism

Mind you, this aspect of Jeal’s book, namely the foregrounding of European written accounts over African oral or unrecorded accounts, is a subset of the larger bias embedded in Western practice, which is the privileging of the written word.

Livingstone, Burton, Speke, Grant and Stanley are the subject of so many books not only because they are such epitomes for those who like tales of Victorian adventure, but because they wrote so much and so much of it is stored in libraries and archives. This presents potentially endless opportunities for each generation of biographers to rework the sources and present new versions of their lives. It guarantees a steady little cottage industry which keeps their names in the public eye, sort of (among fans of this kind of thing at any rate).

Whereas where are the biographies of the Africans they met, of King Kamrasi of the Bunyoro or King Mutesa of the Baganda, to name a couple of the most notable? What of all the other chieftains and leaders, let alone their hundreds of thousands of subjects?

There is a profound structural inequality not just in the fact that the West or, in this case, Britain, with its public schoolboy taste for foreign adventure encouraged by its public schoolboy publishing and public schoolboy bookselling industries, will carry on writing, publishing and consuming books of imperial derring-do for the foreseeable future and getting them comfortably serialised on Radio 4. But in the way that we in the West foreground writing and written sources, written accounts and written description, journals, diaries, letters and every form of text over other types of record or history (predominantly oral).

In this deep sense, the very way the subject of history is conceived and practiced in the West militates against cultures with alternative methods of recording the past. Consigns them to eternal silence and subordinateness.

The sources of the Nile

My major practical criticism of the book isn’t any of these: you get what you pay for and Jeal delivers an intelligent and pacy account of the five great Victorian explorers of Africa.

But I think even on its own terms, the book would have benefited from a better explanation of the actual sources of the Nile, which are only partly explained in a throwaway few pages around page 316. I had to google the subject to find out what current knowledge on the sources of the Nile is (and to be surprised that, right up to the present day, explorers are still claiming to have found the ‘real’ source, tucked away in the rainforests of Rwanda, so that there is still, surprisingly, scholarly debate on the subject). I think this could have been stated and explained, with maps, much more clearly; and that, on balance, the best place to have put it would have been at the start so the reader had the clearest sense possible of the geography, before commencing the accounts of the explorations.

Chief Cammorro’s view

‘Most people are bad; if they are strong they take from the weak. The good people are all weak; they are good because they don’t have the strength to be bad.’

The words of Cammorro, chief of the Latuka, as quoted by the explorer Sir Samuel Baker, who is not necessarily a reliable witness and who, possibly, put into the chief’s mouth his own hard-bitten and cynical views. But in the context of the violent Africa described in this book, very apposite whoever exactly said it.

Credit

Explorers of the Nile: the triumph and tragedy of a great Victorian adventure by Tim Jeal was published  by Faber and Faber in 2011. All references are to the 2012 paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1962)

The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.

There is no pleasure more complex than that of thought.

In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity…

Borges wrote a surprising amount (some 70 books in Spanish) and yet he is principally known in the Anglo-Saxon world for just one work published 60 years ago, Labyrinths, a breath-taking collection of 40 mind-bending short stories, short essays, and ‘parables’, all of which reference, quote and play with a multitude of obscure and arcane texts and ideas derived from philosophy, theology and mysticism.

Penguin went on to publish a flotilla of four or five other volumes by Borges, but none of them hold a candle to Labyrinths which is one of the most important volumes of short stories in English in the second half of the 20th century. It is a scandal that, to this day, only a fraction of Borges’s output has been translated into English.

Adventures among books and ideas

Labyrinths consists of 23 ficciones, ten essays and eight ‘parables’. All the stories were written and first published in Borges’s native Spanish in Argentine literary magazines between 1941 and 1956. The first 13 stories are taken from a previous collection, Ficciones, published in 1945, which was expanded in successive editions, and the remaining ten were published in a collection titled The Aleph, published in 1949, and also added to in later editions. That’s a long time ago but when you look at individual stories it’s striking to see that most of them were first published in literary magazines much earlier, most of them at the very end of the 1930s, during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war years. Although he carried on writing into the 1980s, his greatest hits were composed in the 1940s.

Before I exhaust myself giving brief summaries of each of the pieces, let me make a simple point which is that, rereading Borges’s stories made me realise that possibly his major discovery was that, for the purposes of writing a short fiction, you can replace plot with ideas.

What I mean is that the best stories discuss philosophical and metaphysical or mystical ideas and, in doing so, refer to scores of obscure Latin and Greek, or Christian or Islamic texts and sources – and that it is this, rather than plots, character or dialogue, which fills his stories.

Most adventures are, almost by definition, about people, about named characters. Borges’s short fictions are adventures whose protagonists are ideas, ideas characterised by their multi-layered bookishness and whose explanation requires multiple references to all manner of arcane texts – and whose ‘adventure’ consists in the logical unfolding of far-fetched premises to even more-mind-boggling conclusions: such as the man who discovers he is a dream created by someone else; or that the entire universe is made up of an infinite library; or that all human activity is determined by a secret lottery; and so on.

It is immensely characteristic of this preference for ideas over psychology or emotions or feelings that, when the narrator of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius stumbles across an encyclopedia purporting to catalogue the fictitious planet of Tlön, he experiences a moment of delirious happiness i.e. emotion, feeling – but quickly stifles it:

I began to leaf through [the encyclopedia] and experienced an astonished and airy feeling of vertigo which I shall not describe, for this is not the story of my emotions but of Uqbar and Tlön and Orbis Tertius.

In fact various emotions do occur in the stories, there are characters and events, but this moment can stand as a symbol of the way that fiction’s traditional concerns for character and emotion and plot are, on the whole, in Borges’s stories, repressed or sidelined in order to make way for the adventures of ideas and books.

Borges’s bookishness is not for everyone

And I suppose there’s a point that’s so obvious that it’s easy to miss which is that you have to be fairly learnèd and scholarly, or at least fairly well-read, in order to really enjoy these works. On the first page alone of Deutsches Requiem Borges mentions Brahms and Schopenhauer and Shakespeare and Nietzsche and Spengler and Goethe and Lucretius. Now I not only know who these guys all are, but I have read some or much of all of them (a lot of Shakespeare and Nietszche, a book of Schopenhauer’s, some Goethe and Spengler) and so the mental edifice which invoking their names creates, the structure and framework of the story, are all entirely familiar to me and so I can enjoy how Borges plays with their names and references.

But I suppose there will be many readers who haven’t read (or listened to, in the case of Brahms) these authors and composers, and so might have to stop and Google each of them and, I suppose, this might well put off a lot of potential readers. It’s not that the stories are intrinsically ‘difficult’ (though sometimes they juggle with ideas on the edge of comprehension) so much as that the entire atmosphere of intense bookishness and scholarly whimsy which they evoke might well deter as many unbookish readers as it fanatically attracts fans and devotees among the literary-minded.

Contents – Fictions

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940)

Uqbar is a mythical land which the narrator and friends find mentioned in a ‘pirated’ edition of Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, but can find referred to nowhere else, despite ransacking the reference books of numerous libraries. The article explains that the literature of Uqbar was one of fantasy, featuring epics and legends set in two imaginary regions, Mlejnas and Tlön. In part 2 of the story we learn that Tlön is less an imaginary realm than an entire ‘planet’.

At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination; now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated, at least provisionally

Once he has posited the existence of this ‘planet’, the narrator goes on to recount the dizzying nature of its language and its many schools of philosophy:

  • one of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, that the past has no reality other than as a present memory
  • another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no
    doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process
  • another, that the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — is the scripture produced by a subordinate god in order to communicate with a demon
  • another, that the universe is comparable to those cryptographs in which not all the symbols are valid and that only what happens every three hundred nights is true
  • another, that while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men

This is what makes Borges’s stories so phenomenally packed and mind-bending: that each individual sentence is capable of introducing to an entirely new way of thinking about the world.

The postscript to the story describes the narrator stumbling on a letter which purports to summarise the process whereby magi in the early 17th century decided to invent a country, how the idea was handed down as the texts proliferate, till an early Victorian American decided they needed to be more ambitious and describe an entire planet. In 1914 the last volume of a projected 40-volume encyclopedia of Tlön was distributed to the cabal of experts. It is estimated it will become the Greatest Work of Mankind, but it was decided this vast undertaking would itself be the basis of an even more detailed account which was provisionally titled the Orbus Tertius. Slowly, the narrator claims, mysterious objects from Tlön have appeared in our world. This last part is set two years in the future and describes a world in which news of Tlön has become widespread and artefacts from the imaginary planet are appearing all over the world and beginning to replace our own.

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world…Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) “primitive language” of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty — not even that it is false… A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.

So it is, on a fairly obvious level, a kind of science fiction disaster story in which our world will eventually be taken over and/or destroyed by the imaginary creation of the cabal.

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

A story which opens with a book and is about a book. Its first sentence is:

On page 22 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for the 24th of July, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th….

The story is the account of Dr. Yu Tsun, former professor of English at the Hochschule at Tsingtao, a spy acting for the Germans, based in England, in Staffordshire, but is rumbled by a British officer, Captain Madden, so makes his way by train to the village of Ashgrove and the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, who describes the efforts of Yu’s ancestor, ‘Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost’. The story reveals that this labyrinth is metaphorical: it actually stands for the scattered manuscript of an incomplete book. The garden of forking paths is the novel promised by never completed. But the nature of the fragments is deliberate:

The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.

So it’s about a book which encompasses all time, and all possible permutations of time.

The Lottery in Babylon (1941)

Tells the story of the development of a hyper-complex lottery run by the all-powerful ‘Company’ in a fictional version of ‘Babylon’, which ends up becoming the basis for everything which happens, for every event in everybody’s lives.

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939)

This purports to be a brief article by a follower of the now deceased writer Pierre Menard. It starts by listing the complete works of the defunct writer, some 19 in all, thus establishing the hyper-bookish context; then goes on to describe the unprecedented attempt by Pierre Menard to rewrite (sections of) Don Quixote as if by himself, as if for the first time, as if written by a 20th century author, and the complexity and strangeness of the result.

The Circular Ruins (1940)

The unnamed man arrives in a canoe from the south, beaches it in the mud and climbs to the ancient ruins.

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though it was supernatural. He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality

He devotes years to dreaming, piece by piece, a perfect young man, who he then teaches in his dreams and who then finally becomes a real entity in the real world, who can pass painlessly though fire. But when a forest fire rages towards the ruins where he has been living the man walks boldly towards them – only not to feel a thing and to realise, that he himself is a dream-man who has been dreamed, in his turn, by someone else.

The Library of Babel (1941)

The narrator lives inside a library so huge, made up of infinite levels and extending through infinite galleries of hexagonal rooms, that he and all the other inhabitants regard it as the known universe. From this perspective, of an inhabitant of the infinite library, he shares with us the discoveries and/or theories of various other inhabitants who, through the centuries, have explored deeper into the infinite library, made discoveries and come up with theories as to its origin and purpose, for example the theories of the idealists (‘the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space’) or the mystics (‘The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls’) origin stories (‘Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi’), those who have given up trying to find meaning (‘I know of an uncouth region whose librarians repudiate the vain and superstitious custom of finding a meaning in books and equate it with that of finding a meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of one’s palm’).

Five hundred years before his birth the momentous discovery was made that the library contains all possible combinations of their language’s 25 symbols, in other words, contains all human knowledge, and much more, contains the history and future of everyone. This led to a wave of optimism and pride. This gave rise to a category of men named inquisitors who travel far and wide in search of these phantom volumes which will explain everything, and are named the Vindications. This was followed by the depressing realisation that, although these books certainly exist, in a library infinitely large anyone’s chances of finding them are infinitely small. Which gave rise to a semi-religious movement of nihilists, the Purifiers, who set out to examine and destroy all books which are not Vindications. But even their senseless destruction of millions of books made little difference in a library which is infinite in size.

The knowledge that everything has already been written has had a negative effect. Some have become religious hysterics. Suicides have become more common. The population of the hexagonal rooms has been depleted. He wonders whether the human species will be extinguished.

Funes the Memorious (1942)

Ireneo Funes was a dark, Indian-looking man from Uruguay. He died in 1889. The author of this piece is contributing a memoir of him to a volume to be published in his honour. Funes was a perfectly ordinary young man till a horse threw him aged 19. From that point onwards, he remembers everything which happens to him, every single impression, sight, sound and smell which his senses register, is recorded in the fine instrument of his memmory.

The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, a useless mental catalogue of all the images of his memory) combine in this dazzling idea. Not just memory, he notices everything.

He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world

And the ‘story’, really an essay based on a fictional premise, explores what it would mean to live in this state.

To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.

The Shape of the Sword (1942)

Not a bookish brain-teaser, this is a much more straightforward story. The narrator, who is referred to as Borges, is forced when travelling in the North to stay in the house of a man who has a reputation as a martinet and occasional drunk who is disfigured by a half-moon-shaped scar on his forehead. The man treats Borges to dinner then they get talking and finally the man tells him his story: how he was a fighter with the IRA during the Irish Civil War, and helped mentor and protect a vehement young recruit, one John Vincent Moon, a committed communist who shut down every discussion with his fervent ideology. On a patrol they were caught by a guard who shot and nicked Moon’s shoulder. They break into the abandoned house of an old Indian officer, to hide out. When the town they were hiding in was taken by the Black and Tans, he returned to the house to overhear Moon betraying him to the authorities on the promise of his own safe passage, whereupon he chased Moon round the house brandishing one of the swords belonging to its absent owner until he caught him and branded his face with the half moon with a sword.

All through the story you’d been led to believe the narrator was the strong man. Only at the end does he break down and confess that it was he who was the betraying coward, John Vincent Moon. And hence the scar cut into his face.

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1944)

A very short story which foregrounds its own fictiveness, as Borges admits it’s an idea for a story which could be set anywhere, then arbitrarily settles on Ireland where, he says, a man named Ryan is researching the famous assassination of an eminent Irish patriot, his great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick, in a theatre in 1824. His researches show him that Kilpatrick’s assassination shared many details with that of Julius Caesar, the parallels so eerie that for a while he develops a theory of ‘the existence of a secret form of time, a pattern of repeated lines’, and invokes the theories of Condorcet, Hegel, Spengler and Vico to back him up.

But then a stranger reality emerges. He discovers the oldest and closest of Kilpatrick’s companions, James Alexander Nolan, had translated the main plays of Shakespeare back in 1814. Finally the story that emerges is this: the conspirators kept being betrayed to the police so Kilpatrick had tasked his oldest comrade, Nolan, with identifying the traitor. At a secret meeting of the patriots Nolan announced that it was Kilpatrick himself. The great patriot admitted it. They discussed how to deal with him. They came up with a drama, a play, a theatrical event, which would ensure Kilpatrick’s punishment and death, and yet if he was said to have been assassinated at the theatre, people’s illusions about him, and the Cause in general, would be preserved. And so Nolan, the Shakespeare translator, arranged it all, even borrowing certain events (the unheeded warning) in order to make the ‘assassination’ more melodramatic and memorable.

And also, his disillusioned great grandson and biographer speculates, to leave messages to posterity. Some of the allusions were pretty crass. Maybe he, Ryan, was intended to discover the truth. After weighing the pros and cons, Ryan decides to suppress what he has learned, and write a straightforward biography climaxing in the great man’s tragic assassination. Maybe that, too, was part of the plan.

Death and the Compass (1942)

This is a murder mystery of a particularly arch and contrived tone, but reading it makes you realise Borges’s debt to the English yarn tellers of the 1890s, to Robert Louis Stevenson and especially Conan Doyle. We are introduced to Erik Lönnrot, another in the long line of hyper-intellectual freelance detectives with a taste for paradox and irony i.e. an entirely literary creation, who also, as per the tradition, plays off a phlegmatic police inspector, Franz Treviranus.

At the Third Talmudic Congress held in the Hotel du Nord, Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky goes to bed one night and his body is found dead, stabbed in the chest, the next morning. The dead man, of course, had a number of rare and arcane books of theology in his room. Which Lönnrot takes away and reads:

One large octavo volume revealed to him the teachings of Israel Baal Shem Tobh, founder of the sect of the Pious; another, the virtues and terrors of the Tetragrammaton, which is the unutterable name of God; another, the thesis that God has a secret name, in which is epitomized (as in the crystal sphere which the Persians ascribe to Alexander of Macedonia) his ninth attribute, eternity — that is to say, the immediate knowledge of all things that will be, which are and which have been in the universe…

Books books books. But then more bodies turn up dead – small-time crook Daniel Simon Azevedo, then the kidnapping and murder of one Gryphius. We know the three murders are linked because at the scene three sentences are written, ‘The first letter of the Name has been uttered’, and the second and the third.

After the third the police are anonymously sent a letter sent by ‘Baruch Spinoza’ asserting that a fourth murder will not be carried out. But Lönnrot has seen through all this. He Dandy Red Scharlach set out

to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother. I have woven it and it is firm: the ingredients are a dead heresiologist, a compass, an eighteenth-century sect, a Greek word, a dagger, the diamonds of a paint shop.

The Secret Miracle (1943)

Hladik had rounded forty. Aside from a few friendships and many habits, the problematic exercise of literature constituted his life…

Jaromir Hladik is an author of, among others, an unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, of Vindication of Eternity (which discusses immutable Being of Parmenides, the modifiable Past of Hinton, and the idealist philosopher, Francis Bradley) and of a study of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Böhme, he has translated the Sepher Yezirah and published studies of the work of Böhme, of Ibn Ezra, and of Fludd. He is another of Borges’s hyper-bookish heroes.

The Nazis take Prague and seize Hladik who is identified as a Jewish author and condemned to death. The story deals with the feverishly philosophical ideas which flood his mind during the days and nights he spends in his prison cell leading up to his sentence of death by firing squad, in which he discusses with himself various aspects of time and reality and God, and has a dream that God’s word is vouchsafed to him through a random book in a library, and in which he goes through the elaborate plot of his verse drama, The Enemies, which is itself a drama about reality and illusion. He begs God for a year to finish the work in order to justify himself and Him.

Finally he is led out to the shabby yard where the soldiers are hanging round bored, are rallied by their sergeant and line up to shoot him but, just as the order is given, time freezes, completely, but Hladik’s consciousness continues, observing the frozen world about him from his frozen body, at first in panic, and then realising that God heard his plea and has given him a year to complete his drama. And the final page of the drama describes how he does that, not needing food or water or bodily functions, but devoting a year of time to bringing the verse drama to complete perfection, And as the last phrase of it is completed in his mind, the world resumes, the firing squad fires, and Hladik slumps, dead.

Three Versions of Judas (1944)

Borges’s fiction is above all hyper-bookish, made out of references to arcane philosophical or theological texts from the Middle Ages or Antiquity. Most (if not quite all) the ‘stories’ mimic the style and approach of an old-fashioned scholarly article, not least in having textual footnotes which cite other scholarly volumes or references.

Instead of a description of a city or house or street or natural location, a time of day, or the physical appearance of a protagonist, Borges’s fictions set their scene amid books and references.

In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or evil improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Dante would have assigned him, perhaps, a fiery grave; his name would extend the list of lesser heresiarchs, along with Satornilus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preachings, embellished with invective, would survive in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or would have perished when the burning of a monastery library devoured the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead, God afforded Runeberg the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. There, in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas and, in 1909, his major book, Den hemlige Frälsaren. (Of the latter there is a German translation, made in 1912 by Emil Schering; it is called Der heimliche Heiland.)

Amid a dense forest of allusions to obscure works of theology and scores of beliefs held by the orthodox and heretical, Borges articulates the three theories developed by Danish theologian, namely:

  1. In his book Kristus och Judas, Runeberg asserts that Judas was a kind of ‘reflection’ of Jesus in the human world; just as Jesus was sent from heaven, so Judas took up the burden of being human in order to pave the way for Jesus to take the path to the crucifixion and salvation of humanity.
  2. Meeting fierce criticism from fellow theologians, Runeberg rewrites the book to assert that it was Judas who sacrificed more than Jesus, mortifying his spirit for the greater good.
  3. Then in his final book, Den hemlige Frälsaren, Runeberg develops this idea to its logical conclusion, which is that it was Judas not Jesus who made the ultimate sacrifice and truly laid down his life for humanity. Jesus hung on the cross for 6 hours but then he was translated to heaven, whereas Judas committed suicide, taking upon himself not only an eternal reputation for treachery and betrayal, but condemning his own soul to eternity in hell. Which one made the greater sacrifice? Therefore, Runeberg asserts, it was Judas who was the true incarnation of a God determined to make the most complete identification with humanity possible, even to the uttermost depths of human depravity and damnation.

The Sect of the Phoenix (1952)

Those who write that the sect of the Phoenix had its origin in Heliopolis and derive it from the religious restoration following upon the death of the reformer Amenophis IV, cite texts from Herodotus, Tacitus and the monuments of Egypt, but they ignore, or prefer to ignore, that the designation ‘Phoenix’ does not date before Hrabanus Maurus and that the oldest sources (the Saturnales of Flavius Josephus, let us say) speak only of the People of the Custom or of the People of the Secret.

Repeatedly the stories invoke the same kind of imaginative world, a world of arcane books and abstruse learning, which revolves not so much around pure philosophy – the academic subject of Philosophy which concerns rather mundane discussions of language or ethics which bothered Plato and Locke – but the swirling multi-coloured world of abstruse theologies and mystical visions of the divinity and cults and lost texts, of heresiarchs (‘the founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect’) and patriarchs, sectarians and mystagogues, Talmudists and Confucians, Gnostics and alchemists, adepts in secret rituals and concealed knowledge, and which has adherents down to the present day such as the heretical theologian Nils Runeberg from The Three Versions of Judas or the learned Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky in Death and The Compass, intense bookish eccentric figures who carry the convoluted world of medieval theology into obscure corners of our workaday world.

This brief story is an ostensible short scholarly essay by a narrator who claims:

I have collated accounts by travelers, I have conversed with patriarchs and theologians… I have attained on three continents the friendship of many devotees of the Phoenix

And so is in a position to know that devotees of ‘the sect of the Phoenix’ are everywhere, of all creeds and colours, speaking all languages, often not even realising it themselves. I think the essay is an answer to the question, What if there was a religion so widespread that its adherents didn’t even realise they followed it?

The Immortal (1949)

A princess (!) buys a second hand edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad off a book dealer, Joseph Cartaphilus, in London and later finds in the leaves of the last volume a manuscript, which then makes up the body of the story. It is a first person narrative by Marcus Flaminius Rufus, military tribune of one of Rome’s legions, who hears rumours of a land to the West where sits the City of the Immortals and so sets off with a troop of 200 soldiers and sundry mercenaries all of whom desert him in the face of all kinds of adversity, until he comes to consciousness in a settlement of speechless troglodytes before staggering on, exhausted, hungry, thirsty towards a high rocky plateau on which is built a mysterious city, but when he finally gains entrance he discovers it is not only abandoned and deserted, but built with an excess of useless passages and windows and balconies and details amid he becomes lost and then overwhelmed by its size and complexity and horrifying pointlessness.

When he emerges he discovers one of the speechless troglodytes has followed him like a loyal dog. He nicknames him Argos after Odysseus’s loyal dog and over the next few weeks tries to teach him to speak. Then, one day, there is a ferocious downpour of rain, and Argos suddenly speaks, responds to the name, recognises the classical allusion and, to the narrator’s astonishment, reveals that he is Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey and that the other haggard, grimy, speechless troglodytes, they are the Immortals, who long ago wrecked their beautiful city, rebuilding it as a surrealist testament to the unknown and irrational forces which control our fates, and withdrew to the caves and lives of inarticulate resignation.

Because he has drunk of the river that runs past the troglodytes’ caves he is now immortal and the narrative briefly covers his wandering life for the following centuries, until in 1929 he drinks from a stream in Eritrea and realises, with enormous relief, that it has restored his mortality.

The Theologians (1947)

An orgy of theological minutiae describing the academic rivalry between two sixth century theologians, Aurelian of Aquileia and John of Pannonia, who compete with each other in refuting the heresy of the so-called Monotones (namely that history is cyclical and all people and events recur again and again), which twists via a dense undergrowth of theological quotes and references to a climax in which Aurelian witnesses John being burned at the stake for the very heresy he had set out to refute, and then the two rival theologians meet up in heaven where, in true Borgesian fashion, they are revealed to be two aspects of the same person.

Story of the Warrior and the Captive (1940)

Droctulft was an eighth century Lombard warrior who, during the siege of Ravenna, left his companions and died defending the city he had previously attacked. Borges imagines this pallid denizen of the pagan forests and the boar hunt arriving at a city, his dazzlement at the order and clarity and architecture and gardens, and suddenly throwing in his lot with the citizens, fighting against his former comrades.

And this reminds him of his grandmother who was from England. She lived out on the borderlands. One day she was introduced to a young woman Indian who, it transpires, was English, from Yorkshire, her parents emigrated and were killed in an Indian raid and she was stolen away and married to a chieftain who she has already borne two children. Borges’s grandmother offers to take her away, to return her to civilisation, but the Englishwoman-gone-native refuses. She, like Droctulft, has made a deep choice.

Emma Zunz (1948)

Emma’s father commits suicide because he was swindled out of his share of the factory he set up. She vows to be revenged on the swindler, Aaron Loewenthal (all the characters in this story are Jewish) and, a shy 19, dresses up, goes hanging round in bars, in order to lose her virginity to some rough foreigner. This is to nerve her for the assassination, when she presents herself to Loewenthal in the guise of a stoolpigeon for the ringleaders of the disgruntled workers in the factory but, when he rises to fetch her a glass of water, impulsively shoots him, though she’s not very good at it and takes three shots. She then calls the police and pleads a story that Lowenthal tried to rape and outrage her, which, Borges says, is true, in spirit if not in detail, and her genuine outrage and sense of shame and hate secures her an acquittal at her subsequent trial.

The House of Asterion (1947)

The world seen from the perspective of the Minotaur. (The idea is related to the brief one-page summary Borges gives of a story he planned to write about the world seen from the point of view of Fafnir, the gold-guarding dragon in the Nibelung legend. You can see how you could quickly generate a list of stories ‘from the point of’ figures from myth and legend.)

Deutsches Requiem (1946)

Otto Dietrich zur Linde is a Nazi and a devout follower of Schopenhauer and his doctrine that nothing that happens to us is accidental (it is a happy coincidence that I’ve recently been reading Samuel Beckett, who was also very influenced by Schopenhauer, in particular by his attitude of quietism).

As the Second World War breaks out Otto Dietrich zur Linde is involved in a shootout which leads to the amputation of one of his legs. As a good Nazi he is eventually rewarded by being made, in 1941, subdirector of the concentration camp at Tarnowitz.

When the wonderful Jewish poet David Jerusalem is sent to the camp, zur Linde sets about systematically destroying him because, by doing so, he is destroying the compassion in his own soul which keeps him down among ordinary humans, prevents him from becoming Nietzsche’s Overman.

As the tide of war turns against the Germans, zur Linde speculates why and what it means before realising that Germany itself must be destroyed so that the New Order it has helped to inaugurate can come fully into being. This short text turns into quite a disturbing hymn to Nazism:

Many things will have to be destroyed in order to construct the New Order; now we know that Germany also was one of those things. We have given more than our lives, we have sacrificed the destiny of our beloved Fatherland. Let others curse and weep; I rejoice in the fact that our destiny completes its circle and is perfect.

Averroes’ Search (1947)

A classic example of Borges’s fascination with the byways of medieval mystical theology, and his ability to spin narratives out of it.

Abulgualid Muhammad Ibn-Ahmad ibn-Muhammad ibnRushd (a century this long name would take to become Averroes, first becoming Benraist and Avenryz and even Aben-Rassad and Filius Rosadis) was writing the eleventh chapter of his work Tahafut-ulTahafut (Destruction of Destruction), in which it is maintained, contrary to the Persian ascetic Ghazali, author of the Tahafut-ulfalasifa (Destruction of Philosophers), that the divinity knows only the general laws of the universe, those pertaining to the species, not to the individual…

It is a complex text, woven with multiple levels of references, which revolves round a dinner party attended in the then-Muslim city of Cordoba in Muslim Spain by the great medieval Muslim commentator on the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, and some colleagues and friends including one who claims to have travelled as far as the fabled land of Sin (China). When he was there he recounts being taken to a large hall with tiered banks of seats where many people on a raised platform acted out events. The other diners agree how ridiculous this sounds and we learn that, apparently, the traditions and culture of Islam did not have or understand the entire concept of the theatre and the drama.

The essay focuses on the way this conversation was relevant for Averroes because he was that day working on a translation of Aristotle and puzzled by two words he had come across, ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ which have no parallel in the world of Islam.

This is all fascinating and beautifully described amid the gardens and roses and civilised calm of the Muslim city, but on the last half page Borges twists the story onto a different level altogether by intruding himself as the author and declaring he only told this story as an attempt to describe a certain kind of failure to imagine something, and that, as the story progressed, he, Borges, realised that he was failing to imagine his own story, thus the story and the writing of the story, both addressed the same subject, in a kind of duet.

I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was as I wrote it and that, in order to compose that narration, I had to be that man and, in order to be that man, I had to compose that narration, and so on to infinity. (The moment I cease to believe in him, ‘Averroes’ disappears.)

Wow.

The Zahir (1947)

Clementina Villar was a model and celebrity, always appearing at the right place at the right time dressed in the height of fashion. She dies in a slummy suburb and Borges attends her wake. Decomposition makes her look younger. On the rebound from his grief he drops into a neighbourhood bar, orders a brandy and is given the Zahir among his change. The Zahir is an everyday coin but:

people (in Muslim territories) use it to signify ‘beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad.’

He can’t stop looking at it, he takes it home, he turns it over and over, it obsesses his sleep, eventually he gets lots in a maze of streets, slips into another bar and pays for a drink handing the coin over, goes home and has his first good night’s sleep in weeks.

The Waiting (1950)

An unnamed man checks into a boarding house in a suburb of Buenos Aires and tries to lead a completely anonymous life while he waits for his assassins to track him down and kill him.

The God’s Script

The story is told by Tzinacán, magician of the pyramid of Qaholom, an Aztec priest whose city was conquered and burned down by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado who tortured and mangled him to try and extract the secret of where all the native gold and treasure was hidden. Now he lies in a dungeon where he has been subsisting for years, but it is a strange prison because on the other side of the wall is kept a jaguar which paces up and down in his cell. Only at certain hours of the day, when the light is right, can Tzinacán see it. Over the years Tzinacán becomes obsessed with the idea that his god Qaholom must have foreseen the disaster which overcame his people,

The god, foreseeing that at the end of time there would be devastation and ruin, wrote on the first day of Creation a magical sentence with the power to ward off those evils. He wrote it in such a way that it would reach the most distant generations and not be subject to chance. No one knows where it was written nor with what characters, but it is certain that it exists, secretly, and that a chosen one shall read it.

So it is another story about a kind of secret knowledge, known only to adepts, occult and hidden. To cut a long story short, Tzinacán has a revelation which is indistinguishable from going mad, as he ponders the nature of this message from the gods, as he ponders at length what the language of a god would be like, how it would contain the whole world, not even in a sentence, but in one infinite word, and he suddenly perceives it in the shape of an infinite wheel, on all sides of him, made of fire and water, the secret of the world is contained in fourteen words of forty syllables, if he said them out loud the prison would disappear and he would be master of the land of Moctezuma – but he never will because he has ceased to be Tzinacán, he has ceased to have his concerns or aims, and therefore he knows the secret of divine power, but the very knowledge of it means he never has to use it.

Essays

The Argentine Writer and Tradition (1951)

The problems of national identity and literary heritage faced by the writer in Argentina are not something most of us have spent much time worrying about. Reading Borges’s essay on the subject mostly confirms that I know nothing whatsoever about Latin American literature. For my generation this meant entirely the magical realism school pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a cluster of related writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and, fashionable among feminists, Isabel Allende. I’m fairly well read but I’d never heard of any of the names or works Borges refers to, for example I had no idea the great Argentine epic poem is El gaucho Martín Fierro by Jose Hernandez which is, apparently, packed with gaucho colloquialisms.

Initially the essay dwells on obscure questions about the relative merits of ‘gauchesque’ poetry (which he takes to be the contrived nationalistic poetry of literary circles of Buenos Aires) vis-a-vis the poetry of payadas (improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes which reveal their true nationalism precisely by the absence of localising dialect) but both of which are almost meaningless to me since I can’t read Spanish and had never heard of Martín Fierro. (Borges had published in 1950 a study of the gauchesque, Aspectos de la literatura gauchesca and in 1953 an essay on Martín Fierro.)

But slowly emerges his main point which is more comprehensible, namely that ‘national’ poetry or literature does not at all need to limit itself to local colour and national subjects: witness Shakespeare who wrote about Italians and Danes, and Racine whose works are entirely set in the world of Greek myth. Thus:

The idea that Argentine poetry should abound in differential Argentine traits and Argentine local colour seems to me a mistake.

In Borges’s opinion, there are other elements of the Argentine character which distinguish their literature, among which he mentions: ‘ the Argentine’s reticence, his constraint’, ‘Argentine reserve, distrust and reticence, of the difficulty we have in making confessions, in revealing our intimate nature’. In demonstrating the unnecessity of having local colour, he cites the fact (observed by Gibbon) that there are no references to camels in the Koran. This is because Mohammed, as an Arab, so lived in the culture of camels that he didn’t even have to mention them. That is how local colour should be conveyed – by the subtlety of its absence. Thus when Borges reads Argentine nationalists prescribing that Argentine writers should write about the Argentine national scene using local colour and local words, he thinks they are dead wrong.

He goes on to speculate about the role of the Jews in European literature, and the Irish in English literature, both of which are over-represented, and it’s because they are outsiders and so not tied by tradition; they can be innovators.

For that reason I repeat that we should not be alarmed and that we should feel that our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an inescapable act of fate — and in that case we shall be so in all events — or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.

(In Labyrinths this appears as rather a one-off work, but in fact Borges wrote extensively throughout his career on Argentine subject matter, including Argentine culture (‘History of the Tango’, ‘Inscriptions on Horse Wagons’), folklore (‘Juan Muraña’, ‘Night of the Gifts’), literature (‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, ‘Almafuerte’, ‘Evaristo Carriego’), and national concerns (‘Celebration of the Monster’, ‘Hurry, Hurry’, ‘The Mountebank’, ‘Pedro Salvadores’).

The Wall and the Books

A meditation on the fact that the Chinese emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who commissioned the building of the Great Wall but also ordered the burning of all the books and libraries. It allows Borges one of his characteristic series of dreamy speculations. It is recorded that Shih Huang Ti’s mother was a libertine whom he banished. Maybe burning the books was a symbolically Freudian attempt to abolish the entire past which contained his personal shame. Maybe the wall was a psychological wall to keep out his guilt. He also forbade death to be mentioned and sought an elixir for immortality, so maybe fire and wall were to keep death at bay. If he ordered the building of the wall first then the burning of the books, we have the image of an emperor who set out to create, gave up, and resigned himself to destroying; if the order is reverse, we have the image of an emperor who set out to destroy everything, gave up, and dedicated himself to endless building. Dreamy speculations:

Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, perhaps Shih Huang Ti sentenced those who worshiped the past to a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the past itself. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in his empire because he knew that it was perishable and destroyed the books because he understood that they were sacred books, in other words, books that teach what the entire universe or the mind of every man teaches. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the erection of the wall are operations which in some secret way cancel each other.

A lazy Sunday afternoon of perhapses. The essay ends with a thunderclap, the notion that the way these two contrasting facts seem about to deliver some kind of revelation which never, in fact, arrives, the sense of a great meaning, which is never made clear:

this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

The Fearful Sphere of Pascal

‘It may be that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors.’ In which case he is examining one particular metaphor, that of the infinite sphere whose centre is nowhere, and pursues it through the works of Xenophanes of Colophon, Plato, Parmenides, Empedocles, Alain de Lille, the Romance of the Rose, Rabelais, Dante, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, John Donne, John Milton, Glanville, Robert South, Pascal.

This very brief trot through the different expressions of the same metaphor suggest very strongly a sense of the rise and rise in optimism in human thought up to a kind of breakthrough in the Renaissance, summed up in Bruno’s attitude, which then crumbles into the sense of fear and isolation expressed by Pascal. I.e. this tiny essay gives a powerful sense of the changing moods and contexts of Western civilisation.

Partial Magic in the Quixote

It starts by asserting that Cervantes set out to write an utterly disenchanted account of the sordid reality of the Spain of his day yet certain moments of magic and romance nonetheless intrude; but this fairly simple point then unfolds into something much stranger as Borges zeroes in on the fact that in part two of Don Quixote the characters have read part one and comment on their own existence as characters. Borges then lists a number of other examples of fictions which appear within themselves such the Ramayana of Valmiki which, late on, features an appearance of the Ramayana of Valmiki as a major part of the plot. Similarly, on the 602nd night of the Thousand and One Nights, Scheherezade summarises the history of the king which includes his encounter with her and her telling of the stories which make up the nights, including the telling of the 602nd night, which includes the telling of the king’s own story, which includes his meeting with her and her telling of all the stories over again, including the telling of the 602nd night, and so on, forever.

What is it that intrigues and disturbs us about these images of infinite recursion?

I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.

Valéry as Symbol

This brief note appears to be an obituary for the French poet Paul Valéry who died in 1945. Borges takes the surprising tack of comparing the French poet with the American poet Walt Whitman. On the face of it no two figures could be more different, Whitman loud, brash, confident, chaotic, contradictory, is morning in America, while Valéry, careful, sensitive, discreet, reflects the ‘delicate twilight’ of Europe. What they have in common is they created fictional images of themselves, made themselves symbolic of particular approaches.

Paul Valéry leaves us at his death the symbol of a man infinitely sensitive to every phenomenon and for whom every phenomenon is a stimulus capable of provoking an infinite series of thoughts.. Of a man whose admirable texts do not exhaust, do not even define, their all-embracing possibilities. Of a man who, in an age that worships the chaotic idols of blood, earth and passion, preferred always the lucid pleasures of thought and the secret adventures of order.

Kafka and His Precursors

A sketch at identifying precursors of Kafka’s ‘atrocious thought’, Borges finds precursors in Zeno’s paradoxes; in the ninth century Chinese writer, Han Yu; Kierkegaard; a poem by Browning; a short story by Léon Bloy; and one by Lord Dunsany. We would never have noticed the Kafkaesque in all these texts had Kafka not created it. Thus each author modifies our understanding of all previous writing.

The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

Avatars of the Tortoise

There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite.

He tells us that he once meditated a Biography of the Infinite but it would have taken forever to write. (Borges did in fact publish Historia de la eternidad in 1936.) Instead he gives us this fragment, a surprisingly thorough and mathematically-minded meditation on the second paradox of Zeno, the tortoise and Achilles. It is an intimidating trot through philosophers from the ancient Greek to F.H. Bradley and Bertrand Russell, in each one finding reformulations of the same problem in logic and various ways round it.

Only in the concluding paragraph does it become a bit more accessible when Borges brings out the meaning of Idealistic philosophy, that the world may be entirely the product of our minds and, as so often, ends on a bombshell of an idea:

We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.

In this view, Zeno’s paradoxes are among a putative small collection of problems or paradoxes or unnerving insights which are like cracks in the surface of the world we have made, cracks which gives us a glimpse of the utterly fictitious nature of ‘reality’.

The Mirror of Enigmas

A note on the verse from the Bible, First Letter to the Corinthians 13:12 in which Saint Paul writes: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ He considers half a dozen meditations on it by the author Léon Bloy which I found obscure. I preferred the final passage where he describes the thinking underlying the intellectual activity of the Cabbalists:

Bloy did no more than apply to the whole of Creation the method which the Jewish Cabalists applied to the Scriptures. They thought that a work dictated by the Holy Spirit was an absolute text: in other words, a text in which the collaboration of chance was calculable as zero. This portentous premise of a book impenetrable to contingency, of a book which is a mechanism of infinite purposes, moved them to permute the scriptural words, add up the numerical value of the letters, consider their form, observe the small letters and capitals, seek acrostics and anagrams and perform other exegetical rigours which it is not difficult to ridicule. Their excuse is that nothing can be contingent in the work of an infinite mind

A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. This dialogue is infinite… Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships…

I didn’t quite understand the thrust of this essay which begins by refuting the notion that literature is purely a game, and asserts that it involves and tone of voice and relationship with a reader, and then seems to go on to say that this is in some measure proven by the works of George Bernard Shaw whose philosophy may be derivative (Butler and Schopenhauer) but whose prolific invention of character is unprecedented in his time. The sardonic Irishman is an odd choice for the sly Argentinian to single out for praise.

A New Refutation of Time

Consists of two essays written in the 1940s. They are complex and hard to follow but I think he begins with the philosophical doctrine of Idealism which claims the human mind consists of a succession of sense perceptions and doesn’t require there to be a ‘real world’ out there, behind them all. Borges is, I think, trying to go one step further and assert that there need not be a succession of sense perceptions, there is no logical necessity for these impressions to be in the series which we call time. There is only the present, we can only exist in the present, therefore there is no time.

Parables

A series of very short thoughts, images, moments or insights which inspire brief narratives pregnant with meaning or symbolism. Kafka, of course, also wrote modern parables, parables with no religious import but fraught with psychological meaning.

Inferno, 1, 32

God sends a leopard kept in a cage in late 13th century Italy a dream in which he explains that his existence, his life history and his presence in the zoo are all necessary so that the poet Dante will see him and place him at the opening of his poem, The Divine Comedy.

Paradiso, XXXI, 108

Who of us has never felt, while walking through the twilight or writing a date from his past, that something infinite had been lost?

Maybe the mysterious thing which St Paul and the mystics saw and could not communicate appears to all of us every day, in the face of the street lottery ticket seller. Perhaps the face of Jesus was never recorded so that it could become the face of all of us.

Ragnarök

He has a dream. He was in the School of Philosophy and Letters chatting with friends when a group breaks free from the mob below to cries of ‘The gods! The gods’ who take up their place on the dais after centuries of exile. But during that time they have become rough and inhuman, they cannot actually talk but squeak and grunt.

Centuries of fell and fugitive life had atrophied the human element in them; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these outlaws. Very low foreheads, yellow teeth, stringy mulatto or Chinese moustaches and thick bestial lips showed the degeneracy of the Olympian lineage. Their clothing corresponded not to a decorous poverty but rather to the sinister luxury of the gambling houses and brothels of the Bajo. A carnation bled crimson in a lapel and the bulge of a knife was outlined beneath a close-fitting jacket. Suddenly we sensed that they were playing their last card, that they were cunning, ignorant and cruel like old beasts of prey and that, if we let ourselves be overcome by fear or pity, they would finally destroy us. We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.

Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

How could Miguel de Cervantes ever have guessed that his attempt to mock and undermine the glorious myths of the Age of Chivalry in his fictitious character, Don Quixote, would itself become a larger-than-life myth? (Well, anyone who has studied a bit of human nature and knows that humans are the myth-making species, constantly rounding out narratives, creating stories which explain everything in which larger-than-life figures either cause all evil or all good.)

The Witness

Borges imagines the last pagan Anglo-Saxon, the last eye-witness of the sacrifices to the pagan gods, living on into the new age of Christianity. What memories and meanings will be lost at his death? Which makes him reflect on what will be lost when he himself dies.

A Problem

A very abstruse problem: Cervantes derives Don Quixote from an Arab precursor, the Cide Hamete Benengeli. Imagine a scrap of manuscript is discovered in which his knightly hero discovers that in one of his fantastical conflicts he has actually killed a man. How would Quixote respond? And Borges imagines four possible responses.

Borges and I

The narrator, Borges, speculates about the other Borges. On a first reading I take this to be the Borges of literature, the Borges who both writes the stories and is conjured into existence by the stories, who is not the same as the flesh and blood Borges who walks the streets.

Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things

Everything and Nothing

A moving and beautiful meditation on the life of William Shakespeare which paints him as a hollow man, plagued by his own emptiness, who seeks to fill it with books, then with sex with an older woman (marriage to Anne Hathaway), moving to the big city, and involvement in about the most hurly-burly of professions, acting, before someone suggests he writes plays as well as acting in them, and he fills his soul with hundreds of characters, giving them undreamed-of speeches and feelings, before, an exhausted middle aged man he retires back to his provincial birthplace, and renounces all poetry for the gritty reality of lawsuits and land deals before dying young.

In a fantastical coda, he arrives in heaven and complains to God that all he wants is to have an identity, to be a complete man instead of a hollow man, but God surprises him with his reply.

After dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’


Labyrinths

A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men; its architecture, rich in symmetries, is subordinated to that end. (The Immortal)

The choice of this word for the title of the volume is no accident. The metaphor of the labyrinth, referring to endless tangles of intellectual speculation, crops up in most of the stories and many of the essays. It is a founding metaphor of his work.

  • Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
  • Haslam has also published A General History of Labyrinths
  • I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost.
  • I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars
  • Once initiated in the mysteries of Baal, every free man automatically participated in the sacred drawings, which took place in the labyrinths of the god every sixty nights (Babylon)
  • Another [book] (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters (Babel)
  • He is rescued from these circular labyrinths by a curious finding, a finding which then sinks him into other, more inextricable and heterogeneous labyrinths (Theme of the Traitor and the Hero)
  • I felt that the world was a labyrinth, from which it was impossible to flee… (Death and the Compass)
  • On those nights I swore by the God who sees with two faces and by all the gods of fever and of the mirrors to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother (Death and the Compass)
  • Meticulously, motionlessly, secretly, he wrought in time his lofty, invisible labyrinth (The Secret Miracle)
  • Intolerably, I dreamt of an exiguous and nitid labyrinth: in the center was a water jar; my hands almost touched it, my eyes could see it, but so intricate and perplexed were the curves that I knew I would die before reaching it. (The Immortal)
  • There were nine doors in this cellar; eight led to a labyrinth that treacherously returned to the same chamber; the ninth (through another labyrinth) led to a second circular chamber equal to the first. (The Immortal)
  • You are not lighting a pyre, you are lighting a labyrinth of flames. (The Theologians)

The most labyrinthine story is The Garden of Forking Paths in which the word occurs 18 times.

The labyrinth is a metaphor for the mind and the way it never stops speculating, creating unending streams of interpretation, of our lives, of the world, of each other, of everything, each more entrancing and futile than the one before (among which are ‘the intimate delights of speculative theology’). Thus many of his ‘stories’ feature hardly any characters, events or dialogue – all the energy goes toward capturing the beguiling, phosphorescent stream-of-ideas of an extremely learned, religio-philosophical, fantastical mind:

I thought that Argos and I participated in different universes; I thought that our perceptions were the same, but that he combined them in another way and made other objects of them; I thought that perhaps there were no objects for him, only a vertiginous and continuous play of extremely brief impressions. I thought of a world without memory, without time; I considered the possibility of a language without nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable epithets. (The Immortal)

And this endless stream of ideas reflects the way a mature world is full of infinite iterations of any given object. Looking at a coin in his hand:

I reflected that every coin in the world is a symbol of those famous coins which glitter in history and fable. I thought of Charon’s obol; of the obol for which Belisarius begged; of Judas’ thirty coins; of the drachmas of Laï’s, the famous courtesan; of the ancient coin which one of the Seven Sleepers proffered; of the shining coins of the wizard in the 1001 Nights, that turned out to be bits of paper; of the inexhaustible penny of Isaac Laquedem; of the sixty thousand pieces of silver, one for each line of an epic, which Firdusi sent back to a king because they were not of gold; of the doubloon which Ahab nailed to the mast; of Leopold Bloom’s irreversible florin; of the louis whose pictured face betrayed the fugitive Louis XVI near Varennes. (The Zahir)

And:

Money is abstract, I repeated; money is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee; it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold; it is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time, not the rigid time of Islam or the Porch.

Everything relates to everything else. Everything is a symbol of everything else, including the most profound categories of thought, hundreds, thousands of which have been dreamt up by the centuries full of metaphysicians and mystics. Anything can stand for anything else and that is, or should be, the freedom of literature, showing us how the infinite nature of human thought can liberate us, at every moment.

Tennyson once said that if we could understand a single flower, we should know what we are and what the world is. Perhaps he meant that there is no fact, however insignificant, that does not involve universal history and the infinite concatenation of cause and effect. Perhaps he meant that the visible world is implicit in every phenomenon, just as the will, according to Schopenhauer, is implicit in every subject… (The Zahir)

Or perhaps something else again, and something else again, and on forever, as long as we breathe, as long as we have consciousness, which consists of impressions, connections, moods, feelings and thoughts endlessly unfurling. Hence his interest in The Infinite, which is the subject of many of the stories (The Library of Babel) and the essay on Achilles and the tortoise which examines the infinitely recursive nature of intelligence. Speaking of the paradox, he writes:

The historical applications do not exhaust its possibilities: the vertiginous regressus in infinitum is perhaps applicable to all subjects. To aesthetics: such and such a verse moves us for such and such a reason, such and such a reason for such and such a reason…

And so on, forever.

Labyrinths as a labyrinth

I began to note how certain names and references recur in many of the stories, for example the name and works of Kafka or the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, Schopenhauer’s notion of the world as a fantasy, Spinoza’s that all things long to persist as themselves – when it occurred to me that these references and motifs which recur across so many stories and essays themselves create a matrix or web which links the texts subterraneanly, so to speak, and themselves create a kind of labyrinth out of the text of Labyrinths. That the totality of the book Labyrinths is itself a labyrinth.

And, rereading that definition – ‘A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men’ – maybe the enjoyment of this awesome book comes from savouring pleasurable confusions; maybe it is about entering a world of carefully controlled and contrived intellectual bewilderments.

The Borgesian

There’s an adjective, apparently, Borgesian, which means: ‘reminiscent of elements of Borges’ stories and essays, especially labyrinths, mirrors, reality, identity, the nature of time, and infinity’.

In his preface, André Maurois, in an attempt to convey the sense Borges’s stories give us of a vast erudition, says that Borges has read everything, but this isn’t quite true. His fictions very cannily give the impression that he has read widely, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he has read widely in a very particular kind of text, in a certain kind of semi-mystical philosophy and metaphysics, often venturing from the fairly reputable works of Berkeley or Hume or Schopenhauer out into the arcane and mysterious byways of Christian and Islamic and Judaic theology, with the occasional excursion into the wisdom of Chinese magi.

These attributes – the combination of reputable Western philosophers with obscure religious mystics, and the casual mingling of Western texts with dicta from the Middle East or China – are exemplified in probably most famous of all Borges’s stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. Here’s a complete list of all the books and ideas referred to in just this one short essay:

Books

  • The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917)
  • Ritter’s Erdkunde
  • Justus Perthes’ atlases
  • Silas Haslam: History of the Land Called Uqbar (1874)
  • Silas Haslam: A General History of Labyrinths
  • Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien (1641) by Johannes Valentinus Andreä
  • Thomas De Quincey (Writings, Volume XIII)
  • Bertrand Russell: The Analysis of Mind (1921)
  • Schopenhauer: Parerga und Paralipomena (1851)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)

References

  • the Gnostic philosophers’ belief that the world is a pale parody of the real Creation
  • the Islamic tradition of the marvellous Night of Nights
  • David Hume’s comments on the philosophy of George Berkeley
  • Meinong’s theory of a subsistent world
  • Spinoza’s attribution to the Almighty of the attributes of time and extension
  • a heresiarch of the eleventh century
  • Zeno’s paradoxes
  • The Tao Te Ching
  • The 1001 Nights
  • hermetic philosophy

And then there are the hoaxes for which Borges acquired quite a reputation. Silas Haslam does not exist, is merely a fictional author and, scattered throughout these 40 texts, among the pedantic footnotes citing genuine works of philosophy or theology, are scattered other fictional authors, thinkers and ideas. In Borges’s hands the worlds of fiction and ‘reality’ meet and mingle on equal terms. They are, after all, situated in the realm of discourse, and can there be anything more imaginary than that?


Related links

Borges reviews

A Universal History of Infamy by Jorge Luis Borges (1935, revd. 1954)

The book is no more than appearance, than a surface of images; for that very reason, it may prove enjoyable.
(Borges’s 1954 preface to A Universal History of Infamy)

Long ago

One thinks of Borges as a modern classic so it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn just how long ago he was writing. Born in 1899, Borges published his first book in 1923 and wrote steadily for the next 60 years (he died in 1986). In his long life he published an enormous number of volumes (‘In addition to short stories for which he is most noted, Borges also wrote poetry, essays, screenplays, literary criticism, and edited numerous anthologies’) and the Wikipedia bibliography lists 66 volumes of prose, poetry and essays, in total.

Which makes it all the more odd or unfair that he is still best known in the English-speaking world for more or less one volume, Labyrinths, and a handful of lesser works. Borges had published the following before we get to the book under review:

  • Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923) poetry
  • Inquisiciones (1925) essays
  • Luna de Enfrente (1925) poetry
  • El tamaño de mi esperanza (1925) essays
  • El idioma de los argentinos (1928) essays
  • Cuaderno San Martín (1929) poetry
  • Evaristo Carriego (1930) essays
  • Discusión (1932) essays

You’d expect poetry from a starter author, but it’s notable that so many of these early volumes contain essays, in other words short prose explorations of ideas – about other authors, historical events or topics etc. It was for his short essays on imaginary or fantastical subjects that he was to become famous and A Universal History of Infamy, more or less the earliest work by Borges you can read in English translation, gives an indication why.

A Universal History of Infamy

A Universal History of Infamy is not, in fact, a universal history of infamy or anything like that ambitious. In reality it is much smaller in scope, and consists of:

  • seven ‘biographical essays’ – witty, ironic accounts of legendary bad guys and women from history whose stories Borges has cherry picked from his highly eclectic reading
  • one relatively straightforward short piece of fiction
  • eight summaries of stories or anecdotes he had come across in arcane sources and which attracted Borges for their fantastical or humorous aspects

Most of the essays had been published individually in the Argentine newspaper Crítica between 1933 and 1934. The 1934 collection was revised and three new stories added in the 1954 edition. There are two English translations of the book. The one I own dates from 1972 and was translated by Borges’s long-standing English translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni. The 2004 English edition gives the stories slightly different titles.

The title A Universal History of Infamy derives from the fact that the seven biographical essays are fictionalised accounts of real-life criminals. The textual sources for each biography are listed at the end of the book: for example, the essay about the Widow Ching cites a 1932 History of Piracy as its source,  the essay on Monk Eastman cites Herbert Asbury’s 1928 history of The Gangs of New York, the essay about Lazarus Morell cites Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, the one about Tom Castro cites the Encyclopedia Britannica as its source, and so on.

So the sources are a) not particularly recondite and b) they were often fairly recent to Borges’s time of writing, in some cases published only a year or so before Borges wrote his potted summaries.

That said, Borges treats his sources very freely, changing dates, incidents and even names as he fancied to make his fantasy biographies deliberately fanciful and untrustworthy.

Part 1. Seven infamy stories

So these are stories Borges found in other books during his wide and eclectic reading and which attracted him for their elements of the macabre or gruesome, and which he chose to retell, dropping or adding details as he saw fit.

The Dread Redeemer

Lazarus Morell is poor white trash who grew up on the banks of the Mississippi and as an adult comes to be a leader of crooks who devise the following scam: they persuade gullible black slaves to run away from their owners and allow themselves to be sold on by the Morell gang who promise to liberate them and share the proceeds of this sale. But they don’t. They have ‘liberated’ some 70 slaves in this manner until the gang is joined by Virgil Stewart, famous for his cruelty, who promptly betrays them to the authorities. Morell goes into hiding in a boarding house, then, after 5 days, shaves off his beard and makes an escape to round up what remains of his gang and try to create a mass uprising of the southern slaves and lead a takeover of the city of New Orleans. Instead he dies of a lung ailment in Natchez hospital in January 1835 under an assumed name.

This story is quite florid enough to satisfy anyone’s taste for the lurid and melodramatic. What tames and raises it from being a shilling shocker is Borges’s dry wit and irony.

Morell leading rebellions of blacks who dreamed of lynching him; Morell lynched by armies of blacks he dreamed of leading – it hurts me to confess that Mississippi history took advantage of neither of these splendid opportunities. Nor, contrary to all poetic justice (or poetic symmetry), did the river of his crimes become his grave.

We expected a grand finale? Sorry folks.

If Borges’s narrative ends playfully, it opens even more so, with Borges referencing Spanish missionary Bartolomé de las Casas. Why? Because it was de las Casas who (apparently) had the bright idea of importing African slaves to work the silver mines of the newly discovered New World. Borges phrases this with characteristic irony (or is it facetiousness?)

In 1517, the Spanish missionary Bartolomé de las Casas, taking great pity on the Indians who were languishing in the hellish workpits of Antillean gold mines, suggested to Charles V, king of Spain, a scheme for importing blacks, so that they might languish in the hellish workpits of Antillean gold mines.

That is an example of what you could call literal facetiousness, the repetition of the initial heartless description being so unexpected as to be funny. But it then expands into a more grandiose type of joke as Borges goes on to deliver an unexpected perspective on the results of de las Casas’ brainwave i.e. the vast and numerous consequences of the invention of African slavery, and proceeds to a mock encyclopedic list of some of its untold consequences, namely:

W. C. Handy’s blues; the Parisian success of the Uruguayan lawyer and painter of Negro genre, don Pedro Figari; the solid native prose of another Uruguayan, don Vicente Rossi, who traced the origin of the tango to Negroes; the mythological dimensions of Abraham Lincoln; the five hundred thousand dead of the Civil War and its three thousand three hundred millions spent in military pensions; the entrance of the verb ‘to lynch’ into the thirteenth edition of the dictionary of the Spanish Academy; King Vidor’s impetuous film Hallelujah; the lusty bayonet charge led by the Argentine captain Miguel Soler, at the head of his famous regiment of ‘Mulattoes and Blacks’, in the Uruguayan battle of Cerrito; the Negro killed by Martín Fierro; the deplorable Cuban rumba ‘The Peanut Vender’; the arrested, dungeon-ridden Napoleonism of Toussaint L’Ouverture; the cross and the snake of Haitian voodoo rites and the blood of goats whose throats were slit by the papaloi’s machete; the habanera, mother of the tango; another old Negro dance, of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the candombe.

The intellectual pleasure derives from the combination of mock scholarliness with the pleasing randomness of the examples selected. And not only surreal but – and this is an important part of Borges’s appeal – conveying an enormous sense of spaciousness; the sense of an enormously well-read mind, overflowing with wonderful facts and references, from the obvious to the fantastically recondite and abstruse. And that by reading along with Borges, we too, become as fantastically learned and knowledgeable as him.

If you like this kind of subject matter, and the dry ironical tone, then the world of unexpected and outré references is like a door opening in your mind, hundreds of doors, revealing all kinds of wonderful, mind and spirit enhancing vistas and possibilities.

Tom Castro, the Implausible Imposter

Arthur Orton was born in Wapping in 1834. He ran away to sea and resurfaced decades later in Sydney Australia where he had taken the name Tom Castro. Here he became friendly with a stately, clever black man, Ebenezer Bogle and the two set up as con-men. In 1854 a British steamer sank in the Atlantic and one of the passengers lost was slender, elegant Roger Charles Tichborne, heir to one of the greatest Roman Catholic families in England. His mother, Lady Tichborne, refused to believe he was dead and advertised widely throughout the colonies for his return. With wild and hilarious improbability Orton and Bogle decide to reply to her and claim that obese illiterate Tom Castro is in fact her slender, elegant aristocratic son…after some years of living in Australia!

Most of this is comic but Borges milks it for further comic ideas, such as the notion that it was the very outrageousness of the entire idea which gave Bogle and Orton confidence; the more ridiculous it seemed, the more emboldened they were to tough it out in the light of lawyers and Lady Tichborne’s heirs who violently rejected their claim. Very funny is the notion that so mad is Lady Tichborne to have her son restored that she will accept anything Orton says and so when he completely invents some tender childhood memories, Lady T immediately accepts them and makes them her own.

Finally, the relatives bring a trial where all is going well until Bogle meets his death at the hands of a passing hansom cab and Orton loses all his confidence. He is sentenced to 14 years in prison but, here again Borges emphasises the humour, pointing out that Orton so charmed his imprisoners that he was let off for good behaviour and then took to touring theatres giving a one-man show retelling his story.

It is typically Borgesian that, at each venue, Orton is described as starting out maintaining his innocence but often ends up pleading guilty depending on the mood of the audience.

A story, any story, about anything, is infinitely malleable.

The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate

China at the turn of the 18th century and the story of a redoubtable woman pirate who, when her husband Ching is killed in battle, takes over his pirate crew and leads them in 13 years of ‘systematic adventure’. The emperor sends one admiral against her, Admiral Kwo-lang, who she comprehensively defeats, and before leading her ‘six hundred war junks and forty thousand victorious pirates’ on devastating attacks on China’s seaboards. A second expedition is sent under one Ting-kwei. This one defeats Madame Ching who, on the night after a huge and bloody battle, has herself rowed over to the admiral’s ship, boards it and presents herself with the appropriately flowery oriental rhetoric: ‘the fox seeks the dragon’s wing.’ She was allowed to live and devoted her later years to the opium trade.

There is something immensely satisfying in the way Borges creates a scene, a historical period, its key characters and conveys a series of big events in just nine pages. More than that, the first page is devoted to two women pirates of the Western tradition, Mary Read and Anne Bonney, before we even get round to China.

Their speed and brevity, their exotic setting and subject matter, the tremendous confidence with which Borges cuts from scene to scene, zeroing in on key moments and drilling down to one line of dialogue, and all told in a wonderfully humorous, often tongue-in-cheek style, make these bonne bouches immensely appetising and pleasurable.

Monk Eastman, Purveyor of Iniquities

Borges freely acknowledges his source for this narrative as Herbert Asbury’s 1928 volume The Gangs of New York, and gives a 2-page summary of some of the most notable hoodlums from New York’s Victorian underworld described in that book, before arriving at his potted biography of ‘Monk’ Eastman who is the particular subject of this narrative.

Born Edward Osterman, Eastman he was Jewish but grew into a ‘colossal’ and violent killer who lorded it over the whole goy underworld. He hired himself out as a hitman and led a violent gang. They were involved in a shootout so epic it became known as The Battle of Rivington Street, then a two-hour fistfight with the leader of the main rival gang, Paul Kelly, watched by a shouting crowd. He was repeatedly arrested and, after the final time, in 1917, decided to enlist in the US Army which had joined the war in Europe. This, like everything else in the story, is told with detached facetiousness:

We know that he violently disapproved of taking prisoners and that he once (with just his rifle butt) interfered with that deplorable practice…

On his return Monk quipped that ‘a number of little dance halls around the Bowery were a lot tougher than the war in Europe.’ He was found dead in an alley with five bullets in him. These throwaway endings, without any Victorian moralising, give them a Modernist, ‘so what’ aspect, a throwaway bluntness which contrasts vividly with the extreme scholarly punctiliousness about the sources.

The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan

Scenes from the life of William Harrigan aka Billy the Kid. For a start, it’s factually interesting to learn that Billy was a street hoodlum born in the very tough slums of New York before he headed out West. Borges amuses himself by assigning Billy’s life to different stages, namely:

  • The larval stage
  • Go West!
  • The Demolition of a Mexican
  • Deaths for Deaths’ Sake

He killed his first man aged 14. There’s a running joke that whenever Billy boasted about the number of men he killed he always added ‘not counting Mexicans’ who he held in utter contempt.

Borges’s wonderful fantasy-mindedness, the way he can introduce a mind-teasing idea into even the most obviously material occurs when he casually mentions that, despite his best efforts to turn himself into a hard-riding cowboy, Billy:

never completely matched his legend, but he kept getting closer and closer to it.

This implication that the legend of Billy the Kid existed before he began enacting it, and that he was fated to aspire to match his own legend… there is something wonderfully dizzying about this metaphysical-magical perspective, a dizzying magic metaphysical worldview which was to emerge more powerfully in his famous mid-career stories and excerpts.

The Insulting Master of Etiquette Kôtsuké no Suké

To be honest I didn’t understand this one, even after reading it twice. It’s set in Japan in 1702. An imperial envoy comes to stay with Asano Takumi no Kami who has been ‘trained’ by a rude and dismissive master of etiquette, Kira Kôtsuké no Suké. Asano was rude to the imperial envoy who, as a result, had him executed. Asano’s other retainers came to Kira Kôtsuké no Suké and told him, that since the error stemmed from his poor training of Asano, he should commit hara-kiri, but he refused and ran away and barricaded himself into a palace. Asano’s 47 retainers laid siege to the palace, broke in, discovered he had hidden, found him and killed him. That is why the story is sometimes called ‘The Learned History of the Forty-seven Retainers.

The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv

The story of Hakim, born in 736, who grows up to assume the identity of the Prophet of the Veil and establish a religion to rival Mohammed’s, by telling the impressionable that a messenger from God had come down from heaven, cut off his head and carried it up to heaven to receive a divine mission from Allah. He crystallises his position when, amid a crowded caravan, someone releases a leopard which Hakim appears to quell with the power of his eyes alone. He becomes the Veiled Prophet or Masked One and leads his followers to military victory, taking cities. He keeps a harem of one hundred and fourteen blind women.

He promulgated a belief system derived from the Christian Gnostics, namely that the world is a parody of Divine Reality, created by nine emanations from the original.

The world we live in is a mistake, a clumsy parody. Mirrors and fatherhood, because they multiply and confirm the parody, are abominations.

Five years into his rule, Hakim and his followers are besieged by the army of the Caliph when a rumour goes round from one of the women of his harem that his body has various imperfections. He is praying at a high altar when two of his captains tear away his permanent veil to reveal that Hakim bears the revolting disfigurements of the leper, and they promptly run him through with spears.

Part 2. A short story

Man on Pink Corner

This is a surprisingly poor short story and a good explanation of why Borges focused on writing his metaphysical-brainteasing essays rather than trying any attempt at conventional fiction. It’s the account of a street hoodlum, a junior member of a gang in the unfashionable poor north side of Buenos Aires, and a supposedly fateful night when he and his gang are at a dance hall when in crashes a massive hard man, Francisco Real, who muscles his way through the crowd to confront the head of the local gang, Rosendo Juárez, at which point, inexplicably, Rosendo backs down and Real takes his place as head honcho and steals his woman, La Lujanera.

I found a lot of this inconsequential, silly and hard to follow because nobody seemed to be obeying any rules of human nature I’m familiar with. Rosendo disappears, and Real takes La Lujanera outside, presumably to copulate with her in a ‘ditch’:

By then they were probably going at it in some ditch.

Our narrator wanders out to take the air then returns to the dance where old gang members and new gang members seem to be dancing happily. Then there’s a banging on the door, and in stumbles the huge bruiser Real with a big gash in his chest. He collapses on the floor and bleeds to death. The hoodlums of both gangs strip him of his clothes, appear to rip open his guts and pull out his intestines, cut off his finger to steal his ring, then chuck him out the window into the river Maldonado which flows just outside the building.

In the final paragraph, the narrator mentions Borges’s own name as if he is recounting this story directly to him:

Then, Borges, I put my hand inside my vest – here by the left armpit, where I always carry it – and took my knife out again…

And in the last sentence implies that it was he, the narrator who, when he slipped out, managed to fatally stab Real – in which case why wasn’t there a description of this presumably fairly melodramatic scene, how did he manage to do it if Real was shagging La Lujanera in a ditch? How come La Lunajera didn’t point out our narrator to everyone in the hall as the murderer?

It seemed to me a collection of 1930s noir crime, lowlife clichés thrown together with no plausibility and no account of human psychology. Borges himself seemed bemused by the story’s popularity. Thank God he abandoned this mode of altogether in favour of the ‘baroque’ and mind-bending essays gathered in Labyrinths.

Part 3. Etcetera Etcetera

Being short 2 or 3-page excerpts from scholarly books which presumably struck Borges because of the surrealism or bizarreness or humour of their content. The excerpts are interesting or amusing or ghoulish in their own right, but what really impresses is the arcane nature of their sources, and the range of reading and learning they imply.

A Theologian in Death

From the Arcana Coelestis by Emanuel Swedenborg (1749 to 1756).

The Protestant theologian Philip Melancthon (1497 to 1560) dies and goes to heaven but doesn’t realise this is what has happened because the angels recreate his worldly house and study. However, as a great and learned man, they pester him to write about charity. But Melancthon obstinately persists in writing that charity is unnecessary because, like a zealous Protestant, he believes we are justified by faith alone. The result is that the angels , as warning and punishment, slowly degrade his house and then his own body. Day by day ghost Melancthon awakes in a further degenerated condition, till the last that’s heard of him he is ‘a kind of servant to demons.’

The Chamber of Statues

From The Thousand and One Nights numbers 271 and 272.

In the Andalucian city of Ceuta was a citadel with a door to which each successive king by tradition added a lock. Then a wicked man usurped the throne and, against the advice of holy men, insisted on ripping out the locks and opening the door to find what was inside. He discovered a series of rooms containing wonders, the last of which contained an inscription saying whoever opened the door would be overthrown. And, indeed, within a twelvemonth, the Arab leader Tariq ibn-Ziyad overthrew the usurper and sold his women and children into slavery.

Tale of the Two Dreamers

From The Thousand and One Nights number 351.

A merchant in Cairo falls asleep in his garden with a fountain and a fig tree and has a dream in which angels tell him to seek his fortune in Isfahan in Persia. So he packs up and off he sets.

After a gruelling journey, overcoming numerous threats and natural disasters, he finally arrives in Isfahan and falls asleep by a mosque.

But that night a house next to the mosque is robbed, the owners raise the alarm, the stranger is apprehended, thrown into prison and tortured. He is brought before the captain who asks who he is and why he’s here.

The merchant tells the story of his dream, and the captain laughs and says he also has a dream of a garden of a house in Cairo with a fig tree and a fountain which has treasure buried under it, but he knows it’s just a dream and has never acted on it.

He lets the whipped merchant go, who returns all the way back to his house in Cairo, digs under the fountain, and discovers a vast treasure. So the dream came true, just not at all in the way expected.

The Wizard Postponed

From the Libro delos enxiemplos del Conde Lucanor at de Patronio (1335) by Juan Manuel.

A beguiling story in which a Dean from Santiago, wanting to learn about magic, visits the noted magician Don Illán of Toledo and promises him anything if he will teach him magic.

So the Don takes him down into a cellar deep underground and submits him to a test, namely telescoping the next thirty years of their lives together. In this quick journey through the future the Dean is blessed with a series of promotions within the Catholic church, ending up being elected Pope.

At each step of the way the Don asks for some grace or favour but the newly promoted Dean puts him off, until he finally gets fed up of him and tells the Don to stop bothering him or he’ll have him thrown in prison.

At which point the entire future they’ve lived through disappears in a puff of smoke and the Dean finds himself back in the deep cellar with Don Illán who says ‘I told you so’, escorts him to the door and wishes him a pleasant journey home.

The Mirror of Ink

From The Lake Regions of Central Africa (1860) by Richard Burton.

How the wizard Abd-er-Rahman al-Masmudi threw himself on the mercy of the tyrant of Sudan Yaqub the Ailing, who orders him every morning to show him visions and wonders, until one day al-Masmudi shows him a figure being dragged for execution. When Yaqub demands that the figure’s veil be taken off, it reveals his own face and he watches the executioner raise his great sword and, when it falls and severs the neck of the man in the vision, Yaqub the Ailing himself falls dead.

A Double for Mohammed

From Vera Cristiana Religio (1771) by Emmanuel Swedenborg.

Since the idea of Mohammed is so closely linked to religion in the minds of Muslims, Allah ensures that heaven is overseen by a kind of deputy or second Mohammed, whose identity actually varies. A community of Muslims was once incited by evil spirits to acclaim Mohammed as their God, so Allah brought the spirit of the actual Mohammed up from under the earth to instruct them.

The Generous Enemy

From the Anhang zur Heimskringla (1893) by H. Gering

In 1102 Magnus Barfod undertook to conquer Ireland. Muirchertach, King of Dublin, sends him a nine-line curse which, by roundabout means, ends up coming true.

On Exactitude in Science

From Travels of Praiseworthy Men (1658) by J.A. Suárez Miranda.

A fragment which tells of a magical empire where the geographers at first essayed maps so huge that the map of a single province covered the space of an entire city, and the map of the Empire itself an entire Province. These were eventually replaced by the ultimate map of the empire which was the same size as the Empire itself, and coincided with it point for point. Over the years it fell into neglect and now only a few tattered fragments survive in the Western Deserts, sheltering an occasional beast or beggar.


Borges’ approach

Bookish

The content of the seven infamy tales is lurid and melodramatic, with plenty of murders, assassinations, beheadings, shootouts and suicides. But they are all refracted through a highly bookish, ironic sensibility which does at least two things: 1. It is very careful to cite the sources of the story, in a parody of a learned or scholarly article, and 2. it mocks the content of his own story with irony and knowing humour.

The first quality (a showy, pseudo-academic concern with indicating sources) is most evident in the opening of The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv:

If I am not mistaken the chief sources of information concerning Mokanna, the Veiled (or, literally, Masked) Prophet of Khurasan, are only four in number: a) those passages from The History of the Caliphs culled by Baladhuri; b) The Giant’s Handbook, or Book of Precision and Revision, by the official historian of the Abbasids, Ibn abi Tahir Taifur; c) the Arabic codex entitled The Annihilation of the Rose, wherein we find a refutation of the abominable heresies of the Dark Rose, or Hidden Rose, which was the Prophet’s Holy Book; and d) some barely legible coins unearthed by the engineer Andrusov during excavations for the Trans-Caspian railway. (p.77)

‘If I am not mistaken’, that’s a nice touch. The effect of these kinds of learnèd references is to give the very pleasurable sense that you are entering the magical realm of books and stories. Not the everyday books we encounter in our lives or local bookshops, glossy gardening books or biographies of celebrity chefs or tedious accounts of adulteries in North London – but that we have been transported to the realm of old-fashioned stories, stories of extreme actions and derring-do and marvellous deeds in exotic settings.

Stories from our remembered childhood which fired our imaginations before we were forced to grow up and become sensible. It is a very old-fashioned tone and it’s no surprise that Borges, throughout his career, said his earliest and most enduring inspiration derived from the yarns of Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Exotic

This old-fashioned, bookish tone overlaps with the wonderfully exotic settings of many of the narratives: slave plantations of the Deep South; Australia; the China seas; 18th century Japan; the Wild West; 12th century Ireland; medieval Spain; medieval Persia.

In the first preface he mentions Robert Louis Stevenson as a source and you can feel Stevenson’s restless quest for exotic locations shared by Borges.

Intellectual themes

One of the most obvious recurring tropes of the stories is (the currently very modish theme of) ‘identity’. The seven historical characters freely change their names or have names assigned them by contemporaries or historians. Writing of Monk Eastman, he says:

These shifts of identity (as distressing as a masquerade, in which one is not quite certain who is who) omit his real name – presuming there is such a thing as a real name.

The most flagrant example is Tom Castro who has already changed his name once before he embarks on the criminal project of impersonating Roger Charles Tichborne, which leads to the sensational trial in which the nature of ‘identity’ is central. A great deal could be said on the subject of fiction and identity but I’m going to pass.

Two prefaces

After the fact, Borges commented on his own stories in two prefaces, one written for the 1934 edition, one for 1954.

1934 preface

The 1934 preface is only one page long and Borges admits that the stories stem, in part, from:

my rereadings of Stevenson and Chesterton, and also from Sternberg’s early films, and perhaps from a certain biography of Evaristo Carriego

combined with the over-use of certain tricks:

random enumerations, sudden shifts of continuity, and the paring down of a man’s whole life to two or three scenes

I found it very interesting indeed that he casually says:

They are not, they do not try to be, psychological.

Traditional literature, and many short stories, focus on a psychological crux, a decisive moment in someone’s life, and investigate the ‘moral’ and psychological aspects of it. Borges consciously turns his back on that tradition and exploits his sources to create pen portraits which are not at all concerned with anyone’s inner life, but use the content as 1. entertainment, creating striking scenarios and tableaux, as if in paintings or – as he frequently remarks – like scenes from movies. In the 1954 preface he elaborates that:

The book is no more than appearance, than a surface of images; for that very reason, it may prove enjoyable

They are intended to be all surface. That partly explains why they end so abruptly and with no moralising whatsoever: to emphasise their shiny metallic surfaceness.

2. What Borges doesn’t mention is that the stories are also quite clearly used as starting points for ironic and amused meditations on ideas, the more metaphysical and paradoxical the better. And that this was a harbinger of the work which was to come later.

1954 preface

The 1954 preface is twice as long as the 1934 one, being an extravagant 2 pages in length. Borges immediately launches into a consideration of ‘the baroque’, claiming it is a style:

which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all its possibilities and which borders on its own parody… [that] only too obviously exhibits or overdoes its own tricks.

He goes on to link this to a fundamentally comic worldview:

The baroque is intellectual, and Bernard Shaw has stated that all intellectual labour is essentially humorous.

I disagree. Having attended a big London exhibition about The Baroque I came away with the strong conviction that ‘the Baroque’ is above all about Power, the Complete Power wielded by monarchs who believed in their Divine Right to rule and the Total Power over all believers claimed by the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church.

Apart from anything else, Baroque works of art and churches are massive and imposing whereas Borges, if he is anything, is a precise miniaturist. He is more like a Swiss watchmaker than a Baroque architect.

But we are not reading Borges for accurate scholarship, in fact the precise opposite, we are reading him for his whimsical playing fast and loose with facts and figures and ideas for our amusement, an attitude he makes explicit when he writes that the stories are:

the irresponsible sport of a shy sort of man who could not bring himself to write short stories, and so amused himself by changing and distorting (sometimes without aesthetic justification) the stories of others.

Borges may be correct in using the term ‘Baroque’ to indicate an interest in following every detail or narrative possibility to its logical conclusion, in the compulsive inclusion of every finial and architectural flourish possible. But his work is at the opposite end of the scale from The Baroque style in art and architecture.

And the Baroque is, above all, deadly serious, whereas Borges’s work is informed throughout by a dry, metaphysical humour, that comes from somewhere else. This bookish humour is entirely Borges’s invention, filtered through the gentlemanly, ironic tone of the late Victorian British authors he loved so much.

Literary influence

Apparently (or, as Borges might write, ‘If I am not mistaken’) the Puerto Rican critic Angel Flores (1900 to 1994) was the first person to use the term ‘magical realism’ and dated the start of the Magical Realist movement from this book.

This is echoed by the blurb on the back of the Penguin edition which claims that Borges intended the stories simply to be light entertainments, newspaper squibs:

‘yet after its appearance in 1935 its influence on the fiction of Latin America was so profound that its publication date became a landmark in the history of Latin American literature.’


Related links

Borges reviews

The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898-1918 by Sean McMeekin

Memorandum on revolutionizing the Islamic territories of our enemies (Title of a paper written in October 1914 by German archaeologist and Orientalist Max von Oppenheim which argued for enlisting the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to call on the world’s Muslims to engage in a Holy War or jihad against the colonial powers, France and Great Britain)

This is a colourful and entertaining book about Germany’s military and diplomatic involvement with the Ottoman Empire in the decades leading up to, and then during, the Great War of 1914-18.

Kaiser Wilhelm’s enthusiasm for Islam

The first 80 pages or so provide background, describing Kaiser Wilhelm’s first state visit to Turkey in 1889 when he met the reigning Sultan, Abdul Hamid II, and his second visit in 1898 when Wilhelm grandiosely rode into Jerusalem through a breach specially made in its walls.

And they detail the very slow progress made on an ambitious commercial scheme to extend the railway line which already stretched from Hamburg on the Baltic Sea via Berlin to Constantinople, onwards across Anatolia, Syria and Iraq, to Baghdad and thence onto the Persian Gulf at Basra.

This railway project – to create a Berlin to Baghdad Railway – the focus of the opening 70 or 80 pages, although described in detail with lots of facts about the funding, selling bonds on various stock markets, the setting up of companies, the engineering challenges and so on – is really only a pretext or way in to the wider story about German-Ottoman relations, and how cultural, economic and political factors drew the two countries closer together in the years leading up the Great War.

McMeekin describes the Kaiser’s over-excitable whims and enthusiasms. One of the most notorious of these saw Wilhelm make a speech at Saladin’s tomb in Damascus on the 1898 trip, when he declared himself and his Reich a friend to the world’s 300 million Muslims. In private letters he announced that Islam was superior to Christianity, he was intoxicated by his visits and his receptions… only to largely forget his enthusiasms once he was back in Berlin.

German High Command develop an eastern strategy

But key elements in the German diplomatic and military didn’t forget; they built on this new idea of expanding German influence down through the Balkans into the Middle East. Germany’s European rivals, France and Britain, already had extensive empires with territories all round the world. Even the Dutch and the Italians had farflung colonies.

It was true the Germans had grabbed a few wretched bits of Africa during the notorious scramble for that continent in the 1880s, but now German strategists realised that extending her influence south and east, through the Balkans and into the Middle East was:

  1. a far more natural geographical extension of Germany’s existing territory
  2. fed into all kinds of cultural fantasies about owning and running the origins of Western civilisation in Babylon, Jerusalem and so on
  3. and offered the more practical geopolitical goals of:
    • forestalling Russian expansion into the area, via the Balkans or the Caucasus
    • breaking up the British Empire by seizing control of its most vital strategic asset, Suez Canal, and sparking an uprising of the tens of millions of ‘oppressed’ Muslim subjects of the British, specifically in British India

So the book isn’t at all a dry and dusty account of German-Ottoman diplomatic relations from 1889 to 1918 (although it does by its nature contain lots of aspects of this).

It is more a description of this GRAND VISION which entranced generations of German political and military leaders and a score of German entrepreneurs, spies and adventurers, a VISION which inspired official reports with titles like Overview of Revolutionary Activity We Will Undertake in The Islamic-Israelite World and Exposé Concerning The Revolutionising of The Islamic Territories of Our Enemies, a VISION of Germany sparking and leading a Great Uprising of Islam which would overthrow the British Empire and… and…

Well, that was the problem. The Big Vision was intoxicating, but working out the details turned out to be more tricky.

Apparently there’s controversy among historians about whether the German leadership had any kind of conscious plan to raise the Muslim East against the British before the First World War broke out in August 1914. But once war was declared, a combination of military and diplomatic officials dispatched to the Ottoman Empire and a colourful cast of freelance archaeologists and regional experts who fancied themselves as spies and provocateurs, give McMeekin the raw material for a book full of adventures, mishaps, farcical campaigns, ferocious Young Turks and double-dealing Arab sheikhs.

The book proceeds by chapters each of which focuses on an aspect of the decades building up to the First World War, then on specific historical events during 1914-18, or on leading personalities, often repeating the chronology as he goes back over the same pre-war period to explain the origins of each thread or theme. Topics covered include:

  • the brutal reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909) which combined attempts to modernise the Ottoman Empire with some notorious repressions of Armenians calling for independence, specifically the Hamidian Massacres of 1893 during which up to 300,000 Armenians were killed and which earned Hamid the nickname ‘the Bloody Sultan’
  • the revolution of the Young Turks who overthrew Abdul Hamid, and replaced him with a more compliant ruler during a series of complex events stretching from 1908 into 1909
  • the complex diplomatic manouevring which followed the outbreak of the war in 1914 by which the Central Powers (Germany and Austro-Hungary) tried to persuade the Young Turk government to take the Ottoman Empire in on their side
  • the intricate tribal rivalries in Arabia between fiercely rival tribes such as the ibn Saud, the Ibn Rashid of the Shammar, An-Nuri’s Rwala bedouin and so on

Why the Ottoman Empire joined the First World War

And of course, some time is spent explaining why the Ottomans did, eventually, come into the war, by launching an attack on Russian ports in the Black Sea on 29 October 1914, although this isn’t rocket science.

The Ottomans:

  1. resented French incursions into Lebanon and Syria
  2. really disliked the ongoing British ‘protectorate’ over Egypt (established in the 1880s) and encroaching British influence in Arabia and the Persian Gulf
  3. and very much feared the permanent threat of attack from Russia, their historic enemy, whose military chiefs and right-wing hawks harboured a long-standing fantasy about invading right down through the (mostly Slavic) Balkans and conquering Constantinople, restoring it as an Orthodox Christian city

This sense of being beset by enemies was steadily compounded through the 1900s as first France and Britain signed an Entente (the Entente Cordiale, 1904), and then Britain reached out to Russia to create the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907, thus creating what became known as the Triple Entente.

Compared to these three known and feared opponents who were slowly drawing together, the Germans were a relatively unknown quantity who, led by the Kaiser’s impulsive gushing enthusiasm for Islam, and combined with the Germans’ undoubted a) money b) engineering abilities, made them welcome partners in not only building the railway but trying to rejuvenate the crippled Ottoman economy.

The Ottoman Caliph proclaims his fatwas against the infidel

But the Germans didn’t just want the Ottomans as military allies. They saw huge potential in getting the Sultan, in his capacity as Caliph of the Muslim world, to raise the entire Muslim world in a Holy War against the infidel… well… the British and French infidel, not the German or Austrian infidel. Maybe the Italian infidel too, although at this early stage of the war nobody knew which side Italy would come in on (Italy entered the First World War on 23 May 1915 on the side of the Entente Powers).

So McMeekin details the diplomatic shenanigans (and the bribes, always the bribes) which led up to the great day, Wednesday November 11th, 1914, when Shaykh al-Islam Ürgüplü Hayri, the highest religious authority of the caliphate in Constantinople, issued five fatwas, calling Muslims across the world for jihad against the Entente countries (Britain, France, Russia) and promising them the status of martyr if they fell in battle.

Three days later, in the name of Sultan-Caliph Mehmed V, the ‘Commander of the Faithful’ (the puppet caliph who had been put in place by the Young Turk government) the decree was read out to a large crowd outside Constantinople’s Fatih Mosque and then huge crowds carrying flags and banners marched through the streets of the Ottoman capital, calling for holy war. Across the Ottoman Empire, imams carried the message of jihad to believers in their Friday sermons, and so on.

This was a seismic even and it had been very expensive – McMeekin calculates German payments to the Young Turk government of £2 million of gold, a loan of £5 million more, and massive shipments of arms on credit to persuade them to join the German side (p.233).

Missions and characters

OK, now the Germans had gotten the highest authority in the Muslim world to issue a holy order to rise up against the infidel (the British and French infidel, that is), now all that was needed was to organise and lead them. Simples, right?

The book devotes a chapter apiece to the missions of a number of idiosyncratic German adventurers who were sent out by the German military authorities to recruit Muslim allies in their fight against the allies.

Key to the whole undertaking was Max von Oppenheim, archaeologist and Orientalist who, in October 1914, had published a Memorandum on revolutionizing the Islamic territories of our enemies which argued for enlisting the Sultan to call on the world’s Muslims to engage in a Holy War against Germany’s enemies, France and Britain. Seeing the possibilities, the German High Command set up an Intelligence Bureau for the East in Berlin and made Oppenheim its head.

From this position Oppenheim helped plan, equip and select the personnel for a series of missions to be led by noted German archaeologist / linguists / explorers all across the Muslim world, with a view to raising it against the British (the French Muslim colonies of the Maghreb are mentioned a few times but were too far West along North Africa to be of any strategic importance to the European war).

These colourful expeditions included:

  • the mission given the ethnologist and archaeologist Leo Frobenius to stir up the Muslims of Abyssinia and Sudan against the British (pp.145-151)
  • the mission led by Austrian orientalist and explorer Alois Musil to recruit the bedouin of Arabia to the German cause (pp.154-165)
  • an ill-fated military campaign of Turks and Arabs to try and capture the Suez Canal, led by Freiherr Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, which was badly mauled by the British defenders (pp.167-179)
  • Max Oppenheim’s own negotiations with Feisal, son of Hussein, Sherif of Mecca, to recruit the guardian of the Muslim Holy Places onto the German side (pp.191-195)
  • the mission of Captain Fritz Klein to the leader of the Shia world, Sheikh Ali el Irakein, the Grand Mufti of Karbala in modern-day Iraq, ‘to spread the fires of Ottoman holy war to the Gulf’ (pp.203-8)
  • the even more ambitious mission of Oskar von Niedermayer to the Emir of Afghanistan, with a view to recruiting a force which could invade North-West India through the Khyber Pass and raise all the Muslims of India in rebellion against their imperial masters (pp.209-229)

Several things emerge very clearly from McMeekin’s detailed accounts of each of these missions, and slowly dawned on the German High Command:

1. The Muslim world was the opposite of united; it was surprisingly fragmented.

2. The Germans were disconcerted to discover that none of the Arabs they met gave a toss what the Turkish Sultan-Caliph declared in faraway Constantinople; in fact, on one level, the ineffectiveness of the Sultan-Caliph’s call to arms ending up emphasising his irrelevance to most Muslims and, in a roundabout way, undermining the authority of the Ottoman Empire as a whole over its non-Turkish subjects (p.258).

3. Again and again, in different contexts, different German emissaries made the same discovery – the Turks and the Arabs distrusted or even hated each other.

4. When it came to fighting the Germans could trust the Turks but not the Arabs. At Gallipoli the Arab regiments ran away, and had to be replaced by Turks, who held the line under the brilliant leadership of Mustafa Kemal’ (p.189). As soon as the shooting started during the Turco-German attack on the Suez Canal (3 February 1915), all the bedouin who had been so carefully recruited, turned tail and fled, followed by all the Arab conscripts in the Turkish ranks (p.177). The Turks didn’t trust any of the Arab regiments in their army, and made sure they were all led by Turkish officers.

5. All the Arabs were only in it for the money: whether it was the Arabian bedouin, the north African Arabs of Libya or Sudan, the Shia ruler in Karbala or the Emir of Afghanistan, all of them were currently being subsidised by the British and often their people were being supplied with grain and basic foodstuffs by the British. Therefore, the Germans found themselves having to outbid the British subsidies and handing over eye-watering amounts of money. The Emir of Agfhanistan demanded an annual payment of $15,000 before he signed up with the Germans. Ibn Rashid, headman of the Shammar tribe, had negotiated payment from Turkey of 50,000 rifles, a one-off bribe of 15,000 Turkish pounds (worth $20 million today), a luxury car and a monthly stipend of 220 Turkish pounds – but all that didn’t prevent him carrying out secret negotiations with the French to see if he could get a better deal out of them (p.163). And the Emir of Afghanistan demanded a lump sum of £10 million, the equivalent of $5 billion today, before he signed a treaty allying himself to the Central Powers on 24 January 1916 (p.228).

Gallipoli and the Armenian genocide

The book covers a couple of the best known episodes of the Great War in the Middle East, namely:

  • the catastrophic Gallipoli Campaign – February 1915 to January 1916 (pp.180-190)
  • the Armenian genocide – April 1915 to 1917 (pp.241-258)

But McMeekin is not interested in presenting comprehensive factual accounts of either. Plenty of other books do that. Both disasters feature in his account insofar as they affected German plans and policies.

For example, through German eyes the main aspects of the Armenian genocide were that:

  1. it could be used by Western propagandists against the German war effort
  2. most of the skilled labour on the still-unfinished Baghdad railway was Armenian, and now they were being rounded up and sent off to the wild interior of Anatolia, thus depriving the Germans of their labour forc

Hence the German authorities making complaints all the way up the chain of command until the Head of the German General Staff himself made a formal complaint to the Young Turk government, saying elimination of the Armenian workers was hampering work on the railway which was still – in 1915 – seen as a key logistical asset in carrying arms and ammunition to the Arab Muslims in Mesopotamia or the Gulf so they could rise up against British influence in the region.

The symbolism of the Berlin to Baghdad railway

The Berlin to Baghdad railway which dominated the first 70 or 80 pages of the book thereafter disappears from view for long stretches. As and when it does reappear, it snakes its way through the narrative as a symbol of the tricky and ultimately unworkable relationship between the Reich and the Ottoman Empire (the railway was still not completed in 1918, when the war ended in German and Ottoman defeat).

But the railway also stands as a symbol of McMeekin’s approach in this book, which is to approach an enormous subject via entertaining episodes, a peripheral approach.

This isn’t at all dry, factual and comprehensive account of Germano-Turkish diplomatic and military relations in the years leading up to, and then during, the First World War.

It is more a collection of themes and threads, each chapter focusing on a particularly exciting episode (whether Gallipoli or Niedermayer’s gruelling trek to distant Afghanistan) and McMeekin deliberately presents them in a popular and rather sensational style, emphasising the personal quirks of his protagonists. We learn that leading German Orientalist Max von Oppenheim built up a collection of some 150 traditional Turkish costumes, that the Emir of Afghanistan owned the only motor car in the country, a Rolls Royce, that the leader of the military mission to the Ottomans, Liman von Sanders was partly deaf which explained his aloof, distracted manner, and so on. Wherever he can, McMeekin adds these personal touches and colourful details to bring the history to life.

The end of the war

McMeekin’s account of the end of the war feels different from the rest of the book. Up till now we had spent a lot of time getting to know Max von Oppenheim or Liman von Sanders or Young  Turks like Enver Bey or Mehmed Talaat, leading amabassadors in Constantinople, Arabs like Feisal of Mecca or non-Arab Muslims like the Emir of Afghanistan. It had, to a surprising extent, been quite a human account, I mean it focuses on individuals that we get to know.

The end of the war completely changes the scope and scale and tone because, to understand it, you have to fly up to take a vast God-like view of the conflict. McMeekin has to explain the February revolution in Russia, how and why the Russian offensives of the summer failed and were pushed back, the dazzling success of the German scheme to send Lenin to St Petersburg in a sealed train, the success of the Bolshevik coup in October, Lenin’s unilateral declaration of peace, the long drawn out peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, and all the while describe the impact of these increasingly fast-moving developments on the main front between the Ottoman Empire and the Russians, fought in the Caucasus.

In other words, the last 60 or so pages of the book cease to have the colourful and sometimes comic tone of the earlier accounts of individual adventurers and two-faced Arab sheikhs, and become something much more faceless, high-level and brutal.

And complex. The fighting in the Caucasus involved not just the Russians and Turks, but a large number of other nationalities who all took the opportunity of the Russian collapse to push their hopes for independence and statehood, including the Georgians, the Armenians, the Kurds, the Azerbaijanis and many others. I can tell I’m going to have to reread these final sections to get my head round the chaos and complexity which carried on long after the supposed peace treaties had been signed…

Two big ideas

1. Bismarck had made it a lynchpin of his foreign policy to maintain the Holy Alliance first established as far back as 1815 at the Congress of Vienna and promoted by the Austrian diplomat, Metternich during the first half of the nineteenth century.

The Holy Alliance bound together the three Central and East European autocracies, Prussia (and its successor state, Germany), Austria-Hungary and Russia. According to McMeekin, within weeks of sacking Bismarck (in 1890), the cocky young Kaiser rejected overtures from Russia to renew Germany and Russia’s understanding, determined to throw out everything the boring old man (Bismarck) had held dear, and to embark on new adventures.

The impact on Russia was to make her even more paranoid about the ambitions of Germany and Austria in ‘her’ backyard of the Balkans – shutting down lines of communication which might have contained the Balkan Crises of the 1910s – and made Russia cast around for other alliances and, in the end, improbably, forge an alliance with the ditziest of the western democracies, France.

All this was explained on page ten and struck me as the most fateful of all the Kaiser’s mistakes and, in a sense, the key to everything which came afterwards.

2. After the peace treaties are finally signed, McMeekin presents an epilogue, which goes on for a long time and develops into a complicated argument about the links between Wilhelmine Germany’s encouragement of an anti-western, anti-Christian and anti-Jewish jihad – which his book has described at some length – and the rabid anti-Semitism which emerged soon after the German defeat of 1918, and which carried on getting evermore toxic until the Nazis came to power.

This strikes me as being a complex and controversial subject which probably merits a book of its own not a hurried 20-age discussion.

But before he goes off into that big and contentious topic, McMeekin makes a simpler point. Modern Arabs and Western Liberals like to blame the two colonial powers, Britain and France, for everything which went wrong in the Arab world after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the years after the Great War ended, and obviously there is a lot to find fault with.

But this over-familiar line of self-blame among Western liberals completely omits, ignores, writes out of history, the baleful impact of the prolonged, deep (and very expensive) engagement of Wilhelmine Germany with the Ottoman Empire, with Arabs from Tunisia to Yemen, with the Muslim world from Egypt to Afghanistan. And the fact that it was the Germans who went to great lengths to summon up jihad, to set the Muslim world on fire, to create murderous hatred against Westerners and Europeans, and at the same managed to undermine the authority of the Turkish Caliphate, the one central authority in the Muslim world.

Summary

So if there’s one thing The Berlin-Baghdad Express sets out to do, and does very well, it is to restore to the record the centrality of the role played by the Germans in the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, and the long-term legacy of German influence across the Middle East.


Other blog posts about the First World War

Art & music

Books

War Fever by J.G. Ballard (1990)

This is Ballard’s last collection of short stories, some very short indeed.

  1. War Fever
  2. The Secret History of World War 3
  3. Dream Cargoes
  4. The Object of the Attack
  5. Love in a Colder Climate
  6. The Largest Theme Park in the World
  7. Answers to a Questionnaire
  8. The Air Disaster
  9. Report on an Unidentified Space Station
  10. The Man Who Walked on the Moon
  11. The Enormous Space
  12. Memories of the Space Age
  13. Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown
  14. The Index

************

1. War Fever (1989)

Through the eyes of young Ryan we learn about the endless war in Beirut between small numbers of warriors divided into four factions, the Nationalists, Christians, Fundamentalists and Royalists. Ryan lives with his Aunt Vera and sister in a tiny apartment in a ruined tower block overlooking the wartorn city.

He is helped out by the kindly Dr Edwards, a United Nations medical observer (if I had a pound for every Ballard character who is a doctor). The story describes Ryan’s slow, faltering steps to bring about an end to the unending conflict, by asking everyone to adopt the blue hats of the UN peacekeepers, who man the main checkpoints but are forbidden from stepping in to stop the fighting for fear that outside powers will intervene.

Ryan’s scheme works surprisingly well and soon peace has broken out among a number of the factions. Ryan is just nervously approaching the formidable woman fighter Lieutenant Valentina when a series of colossal explosion occur across the ruined city. Ryan hares back to his apartment and discovers that Aunt Vera and his sister have been kidnapped!

Dr Edwards watches his face closely as he asks Ryan whether he’s going to rush back to his militia and resume the fighting. However, Ryan decides he is going to renew his determination to being about a truce. At which point Dr Edwards ties Ryan’s wrists together, pushes him into a jeep and drives him through umpteen checkpoints and right out of the ruined, smoke-filled city altogether.

Here, in a well-organised, clean depot and admin area packed with new guns and munitions, Dr Edwards explains to Ryan that Beirut is a huge scientific experiment. The whole of the rest of the world lives in complete peace: but they pay to support endless fighting in Beirut, supplying gun and ammo and orphans resulting from tragic accidents. Thus new generations of fighters are continually refreshing the depleted ranks of the four factions.

Why? In the same way that a handful of labs around the world keep supplies of smallpox which is otherwise eradicated: to study the war virus, to study what makes people fight, why they are motivated, how they organise and how far they will go.

It’s a version of The Truman Show with rocket grenades. Except that the exploding and the fighting gets perilously close. Dr Edwards rallies with the other UN behind the scenes staff and head back into the war zone. They drive to the wrecked sports stadium where Aunt Vera and his sister had been taken and should have been looked after. But Royalists managed to fight through the UN defences and kill everyone, the UN defenders, Aunt Vera and Ryan’s sister.

And it is then from the deep well of bitterness and anger at how and all of them have been played, that Ryan conceives his next Big Plan. He will unite the warring factions of Beirut. They will fight and overcome the UN forces. And then they will unleash the dormant virus of war and violence on an unsuspecting world!

2. The Secret History of World War 3 (1988)

A slight misnomer because this short squib is mostly a satire on American politics and the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

The narrator is a physician (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor) based in Washington DC, and this short story depicts a fictional future in which Reagan is replaced as president in 1989, but his successor is so lamentable that the American Constitution is amended so Ronnie can stand for president a third time and is, indeed, elected, at the ripe old age of 82. He’s so old that the media take to publishing regular updates on his health, the TV news starts having a President’s Health segment, and one day an ECG-type readout appears along the bottom of the screen. It’s Ronnie’s heartbeat. Soon half the TV screen is full of a panoply of readouts recording all aspects of the President’s health, and Ballard satirises the breathless commentary of TV hosts – the stereotypical craggy old guy and the glamourpuss blonde – and the way everyone in the country, including the narrator’s own wife, become more and more addicted to the second-by-second commentary which covers every burp and fart and bowel motion.

It is in the middle of this satirical vision of a celebrity president-addicted population, that mounting tensions between the superpowers (which have, satirically, only gotten the briefest of mentions on the news in between the analysis of what the President had for lunch) erupts into a sudden exchange of nuclear weapons which takes place on 27 January 1997 between 6.47 and 6.51pm. The Russians launch a handful of nukes which explode in Alaska, the Yanks launch a handful of nukes which explode in Siberia, then both sides come to their senses, end the war, and de-escalate the various tensions around the globe.

So the story isn’t really about World War Three in any way you might expect: it is a satire on the mediatisation of American politics, and the hopeless addiction to screens and an endless diet of celebrity news, bulletins and updates among the American public.

Thoughts

This story was published in 1988. Modern commentators think there is something new and unprecedented about twitter and so on, and of course smart phones and social media are new, in one sense: and yet here’s Ballard satirising a zombie president and the American public’s addiction to screens over thirty years ago. That’s why Trump and twitter just don’t seem that new to some of us: or are just the latest iteration of a very long-running issue.

3. Dream Cargoes (1990)

Johnson is thirty years old but comes across in this story as very simple minded. He’s the dogsbody on a decrepit cargo steamer named the Prospero. In the Far East its alcoholic captain, Galloway, lets himself be bribed into taking on board an extremely hazardous cargo of toxic chemicals and the steamer then chugs round South America and up the coast towards the Caribbean. But here a series of port authorities and customs officials forbid the Prospero from docking with a cargo which has slowly started leaking and discharging toxic fumes all over the ship as well as corroding its cargo hold and then the hull.

As the ship starts to list to one side and becomes wreathed in toxic fumes, Captain Galloway and the handful of crew decide to abandon the ship but Johnson stays on, deluded by dreams of being a ‘captain’. A day or so later he spots a small island somewhere off Puerto Rico and beaches the ship there.

Over the ensuing days the toxic waste spills everywhere and has a drastic effect on the local vegetation, which starts growing at a breakneck speed, while Johnson himself descends into the kind of malnourished-sick-fever-dream which is so familiar in Ballard’s fiction.

As new types of tropical plant burgeon all around him, Johnson realises the island is visited by a biologist, Dr Chambers (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor). She becomes involved in his dreams of becoming one with the island, of becoming one of the hyper-evolved giant birds and flying towards the sun (as in so many other Ballard stories) and (as in so many other Ballard stories) the way time is slowing down for him, as he goes into more and more trance or fugue states, so that his perceptions superimpose multiple images of the same object, creating a fragmented or crystal effect.

He stared at Christine, aware that the colours were separating themselves from her skin and hair. Superimposed images of herself, each divided from the others by a fraction of a second, blurred the air around her, an exotic plumage that sprang from her arms and shoulders. The staid reality that had trapped them all was beginning to dissolve. Time had stopped and Christine was ready to rise into the air…. He would teach Christine and the child to fly.

On the final page an American ship arrives and the US Navy lieutenant who comes ashore finds them both in quite a state – finds also that the giant flora seems to have overgrown itself and is now dying off. As he helps them leave the island Johnson reflects that he has gotten Dr Chambers pregnant and that their child might well be the first of a new species of human, and how they would fight to protect it from ‘those who feared it might replace them.’

4. The Object of the Attack (1984)

Cast in the format of diary entries by Dr Richard Greville (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor), Chief Psychiatric Adviser to the Home Office.

His diary entries concern a young psychotic who built and flew a glider over Windsor Castle during a state visit by President Ronald Reagan. But he got tangled up in some aerials, fell to earth and the police found he had loads of gelignite strapped to his body, wired to a detonator. Thinking he planned to assassinate the president and his entourage, the Boy, as everyone refers to him, is locked up in a series of mental institutes, where Dr Griffiths visits him.

Griffiths gives us a profile of this boy, Matthew Young, a devoted psychopath, who’s suffered from epilepsy all his life. He’s been through a whole raft of careers including trainee pilot and video game designer. What is common to them all is a pathological obsession with space flight, with the Apollo missions and the Space Shuttle.

This becomes entangled with the concept of an Ames Room. An Ames room is a space in which furniture and other elements have been carefully arranged so that, from one chosen perspective, likely a peephole, it creates a completely convincing optical illusion. The concept was invented by American scientist Adelbert Ames, Jr. in 1946.

Anyway, Young escapes from a mental institute in Daventry by insisting on going to the chapel and being left alone. being a psychotic genius, he creates an Ames Room optical illusion by arranging all the furniture in the room to look as if he’s kneeling at the altar praying, when in fact he had arranged the pews in a ladder up to the ceiling and was crouched forward undoing the screws of the ventilator.

So Young escapes and disappears, going underground. Here the content of this short story gets quite clotted. Because Griffiths has figured out, from meeting the Boy himself and reading his journals, that it was never Ronald Reagan he wanted to assassinate, it’s a figure called Colonel Stamford, one of the last Apollo astronauts, who went on to have a successful career in business, and has now turned into a major campaigner against the evils of Communism. That’s why he was accompanying Reagan on the state visit.

And now Colonel Stamford is due to return to the UK, to address big Billy Graham-style public meetings, hailed by Newsweek as ‘a space-age messiah’, the ‘founder of the first space-based religion’. So the story contains quite a lot of speculating about how the space programme has morphed into a popular religion!

Griffiths turns investigator and decides to revisit the locked-up garage in Highbury where Young had been living when he was arrested. There’s a policeman on guard who lets him through and Griffiths pokes through Young’s belongings, finding more evidence of the deranged young man’s obsession with space flight.

Then he remembers that behind the lockup is a disused Baptist chapel and goes through into this. Here he discovers a bizarre scene, for Young is not only here (just yards from the protecting policeman – how did he get past?) but has been hard at work creating another Ames room, using props and posters from Star Wars and Dr Who to create a bizarre illusionistic installation of an astronaut on the moon.

Except that it looks like the Boy had an epileptic fit while at the top of the ladder and has fallen to the ground, bruising his face, cracking some teeth. Around him are the disassembled parts of a stockless rifle which he had been oiling when the attack kicked in.

And here’s the thing: Griffiths leaves him be. He frees Young’s tongue and windpipe, then tiptoes out and strolls nonchalantly past the police guard. Cut to a few weeks later as Stamford arrives in the UK, addressing both Houses of Parliament calling for a crusade against the evil empire of the non-Christian world, for the creation of orbital nuclear bomb platforms, for the launching of laser weapons which can be targeted on Tehran, Moscow and Peking. the story ends with Griffiths quietly confident that Young will have recovered from his grand mal seizure, completed his preparations and will be attending that evening’s grand assembly at Earl’s Court where Colonel Stamford will be addressing a cheering audience and will, God willing, be shot down by his psychotic assassin.

Thoughts

As so often in a Ballard story, not just the subject but the construction, the shape of the narrative itself, seems slightly askew, off-kilter. What starts out as a fairly limited study of one epileptic psychopath morphs before our eyes into an increasingly garish fantasia about an ex-NASA astronaut who’s founded a New Age religion and is frothing at the mouth about destroying Communism and Islam. It’s quite an extreme trajectory in just ten or so pages and, as with so many Ballard stories, I couldn’t figure out whether it was brilliant or – as I was more inclined to think – ludicrous.

When he writes narratives about individuals – like the protagonists of Crash, Concrete Island or High Rise – Ballard well conveys a delirious sense of psychological dislocation or alienation, and attaches it very effectively indeed to the imagery of late-twentieth century life, mainly the brutalist architecture of concrete motorways, flyovers, multi-story car parks, airports and vertiginous high-rise blocks.

But as soon as he starts making generalisations about society at large, and going on about NATO and NASA and the Third World War and Ronald Reagan and the Queen… something ineluctably cartoonish enters the stories; they become silly and superficial.

5. Love in a Colder Climate (1988)

A sort of sci-fi spoof or satire.

It is 2010 and the spread of AIDS and related viruses has put everyone off sex or physical contact of any kind. Younger people have become celibate with the result that the population plummets. By the date of the story, 2010, the government introduces national service although, as Ballard would put it, of a very particular kind.

It is national procreation service. When they turn 21 young people are assigned partners by computer and have to report to the other person’s apartment – ideally dressed in one of the procreation-encouraging outfits – an Elvis Presley ‘Prince Valiant’ suit for men, a bunny girl, cheerleader or Miss America outfit for women – and are compelled to copulate. Satire. (Note how all these outfits are American. Born in 1930, America, American cars and movies and cigarettes and technology, represented The Future for Ballard from his boyhood on, as both volumes of his fictional autobiography – Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women – powerfully convey.)

Ballard lays on the satire with a trowel with the suggestion that each young person is monitored by a personal supervisor who is a priest – the religious thought to have the mentoring skills and moral subtlety required – while young women are mentored as to how to have sex, lots of sex, by nuns. Satire. Anyone who refuses to have sex goes through stages of rehabilitation, which starts with being forced to watch porn videos and progresses to chemotherapy.

Anyway, the protagonist, David Bradley, is himself super-reluctant and when he is sent round to the flat of a young woman, Lucille McCabe, discovers she doesn’t want to either. They fall in love on the spot, and during the following months Bradley makes elaborate precautions to become her protector, swapping shifts, hacking computers to remove appointments with other men, even faking her pregnancy with the help of a friendly lab technician.

All to no avail. Their ruse is discovered when another lover is sent round by the computer and Bradley can’t stand watching Lucille being bundled towards the bedroom, they fight, Bradley is arrested and brought before a tribunal.

Here he is convicted of believing ‘the Romantic fallacy’ and of having ‘an exalted and idealised view of women’ and sentenced to three years additional national service. The only way out of it is to refuse and force the authorities to implement the ultimate sanction, and castrate him. This he happily submits to if it means he can be with the woman he loves.

Thoughts

As a child of the 60s, well a widower who lived through the 60s and took full advantage of the Sexual Revolution, Ballard is clearly satirising the rightward and puritanical shift caused by Mrs Thatcher and AIDS. Is it a good story, or heavy-handed satire? It’s certainly not weird hard-core Ballard and can be categorised along with his other relatively ‘straight’ satirical stories.

6. The Largest Theme Park in the World (1989)

Another satire.

Set in the near future when Europe’s last remaining countries give in and join a United Federation of Europe. In that summer (of 1995) millions and millions of students, middle managers and workers go for their annual holidays on the 3,000-mile-long strip of beach which is the Mediterranean shore from the Costa Brava to Glyfada.

But this time they refuse to come back. They become full-time sun worshippers, they take to beach exercises and martial arts. They become trim and lean and fit. When the police of the Mediterranean nations come to turf them off the beach, there are pitched battles and the sun-worshippers win. The heady summer of 1996 rolls into the spring of 1997 and there is now an army of 30 million strong living on camps along this huge narrow territory, in effect a new nation.

So far, so like a vision of the social collapse envisioned in High Rise but applied to beach culture. Beaches have always fascinated Ballard. The Terminal Beach is one of his most famous stories, but the story in which the world’s population suddenly has some profound primal urge in our primitive minds activated by waves from outer space, and walks, as one man, into the sea, is the most haunting variation on the theme.

This story is much shallower story than that one and its satirical climax – which feels pretty forced – is that the armies of the beaches eventually arms up and marches back north into the so-called United Europe, determined to restore a Europe of nations, each jealous of its borders and customs and traditions.

So it turns into an oddly wonky satire on the EU.

7. Answers to a Questionnaire (1985)

A short and interesting format, this text consists of 100 answers to a questionnaire – in fact more like some kind of police interview – where we don’t see the questions, just the answers in a numbered list.

It’s surprising how much you can pack into a brief format like this. Without any of the questions, and just via the clipped answers, quite a complicated narrative emerges – in fragments and cryptic references – in which the narrator appears to have befriended a Middle-Eastern-looking down-and-out with severe injuries to his hands, who is obsessed with DNA and ice-skating, who is a whizz at hacking into cash machines and extracting large sums, which they seem to have spent on organising group sex sessions.

They spend some of the money setting up radio antennae on top of the Post Office Tower pointing towards the constellation Orion and the narrator appears to have heard the figure’s voice as transmitted from the star Betelgeuse some 2,000 years ago, and appears to know the secret of Eternal Life.

This leads to the figure becoming super-famous, selling out Wembley Stadium and attracting visits from all sorts of luminaries such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, with his claim to know the secret of Eternal Life by injecting new DNA into the human germplasm, extending life up to a million years!

The pound rises on exchange markets, a serum is created and millions of people queue up to be injected, in fact the injections became compulsory for everyone over the age of 11. The side effects were impotence and loss of libido, but this hardly mattered if everyone was going to live forever.

But the very intensive bond between the Christ figure and the ‘accused’, the man answering the questions, seems to have turned sour. The accused seems to have bought a handgun and shot him, from seven feet, with three shots.

It ends with a boom-boom punchline. Literally reading between the lines of the fragmented answers, it seems as if the injections which promised eternal life have not worked, that the ‘accused’, because he was in prison during the time of the mass vaccinations wasn’t given one – and so he is the only man in the UK, possibly the world, who still has functioning sex organs and so ‘the restoration of the birthrate is now his sole responsibility.’

A smart story and a snazzy format. My favourite answer was to question 71, where the accused reveals that the mystery figure ‘wanted me to become the warhead of a cruise missile’. Very Ballard.

8. The Air Disaster (1974)

One of the new 1,000-passenger jet airliners is reported as having crashed somewhere just off the coast of Mexico near Acapulco. The narrator is a not very successful journalist who’s covering a fashionable film festival. His editor, like everyone else’s editors, sends him off to cover the disaster, but there’s a chance encounter in the petrol station where he fills up with gas. Two other journalists are talking to the pump attendant and through the language barrier he appears to be telling them the plane didn’t crash out at sea at all but up in the nearby mountains. The other two hacks don’t believe him and head off for the coast, but the narrator is suddenly seized by an intuition that he’s right. It would only have taken a fractional difference of height and speed for it to have hit the mountains.

So he fills up with gas and heads in the opposite direction up into the hills. He passes through a series of peasant villages, each one more impoverished that the last, until the final one where he enters Ballard-land and becomes genuinely scared for his safety as he watches the dirt-poor illiterate peasants eyeing him, his car, his cameras and everything else about him which they could steal. Trying to impress the narrator addresses several of these toothless old men, waving a wad of cash about and asking if there’s been a crash BOOM in the mountains, and are there bodies, corpses, cadavers?

The primitive old men nod and smile and point up to the last peak, so the narrator clambers up to the final small canyon between the snowy mountain peaks and discovers… the thirty-year-old wreckage of some military jet which crashed up here a generation earlier and is thoroughly derelict and rusted, ‘a tattered deity over this barren mountain’.

The wrecked airplane is, of course, a central symbol in Ballard’s weird imaginarium, recalling the Cessna Sheppard crash lands Myths of the Near Future, the excavated Second World War planes in My Dream of Flying to Wake Island, the abandoned Japanese fighters Jim sits in in Empire of the Sun, or the still-going but decaying planes in Memories of the Space Age…

Anyway, we can imagine his disappointment and chagrin at having gone on this long wild goose chase. But the kicker is in the last page. As he returns down the hillside he goes through the last village he passed, the one where he had brandished wads of money and asked for cadavers. Only to realise that the villagers have dug up their dead relatives and lined their earth-covered, half-rotted corpses along the wall by the road, in the hope that they will pay them. Gruesome. Macabre.

9. Report on an Unidentified Space Station (1982)

A nice little brain teaser told in nine short snippets described as ‘surveys’.

A spaceship arrives at what its crew initially take to be a small space station, happy to find it as their ship needs repairs. They enter the station to find it contains concourses full of tables and chairs like a giant waiting space at an airport terminal. They walk along one of these concourses and slowly realise it goes on for some distance, giving out left and right onto further mezzanines and waiting spaces with tables and chairs. When they force open the doors of one of the lifts they can’t see a top or bottom to the shaft. They drop furniture down one of the lift shafts and hear no sound: there doesn’t appear to be a bottom.

Each of the reports updates us as they discover the larger and larger extent of the station. Then they notice the floor and ceiling has a slight curvature, lifting their hopes and making them think it might be circular and they might eventually circle round on themselves. But even this is an illusion. The station appears to curve very slowly, indefinitely, in all directions, as if it is expanding.

By the point of the final ‘survey’ the author has come to the conclusion that the space station is as big as the universe; in fact it might be bigger. The distance they travelled in their spaceship from the solar system might easily be incorporated within the confines of the space station. By the end of the text the author has gone reliably mad.

Our instruments confirm what we have long suspected, that the empty space across which we traveled from our own solar system in fact lies within the interior of the station, one of many vast lacunae set in its endlessly curving walls. Our solar system and its planets, the millions of other solar systems that constitute our galaxy, and the island universes themselves all lie within the boundaries of the station. The station is coeval with the cosmos, and constitutes the cosmos. Our duty is to travel across it on a journey whose departure point we have already begun to forget, and whose destination is the station itself, every floor and concourse within it. So we move on, sustained by our faith in the station, aware that every step we take thereby allows us to reach a small part of that destination. By its existence the station sustains us, and gives our lives their only meaning. We are so glad that in return we have begun to worship the station.

10. The Man Who Walked on the Moon (1985)

An eerie story. Part of what’s eerie is how totally Ballard thought the Space Age was over and done by the 1980s. There were six crewed U.S. Apollo landings on the moon between 1969 and 1972, and then that was it. I’m inclined to agree.

This story is set in Brazil. It’s a first person narrative. The narrator is a failed journalist, kicked off a succession of ever-smaller papers and forced into giving foreign language tuition. His wife and his mother, who lives with them, despise him, and virtually kick him out the house each morning to go and get a proper job.

Hanging round the cafes he get to learn about a sad, wasted figure, a certain Mr Scranton, who is introduced to tourists as ‘the astronaut’. He isn’t an astronaut and the waiters laugh at him, the American tourists have their photos taken by him in a jokey kind of way. Our narrator does some background research into him and discovers Scranton was a crop-dusting pilot in Miami during the moon landing era, but was never anywhere near NASA.

The story recounts the way our narrator is slowly slowly drawn into this impoverished, thin, wasted man’s weird delusory world. He jokily introduces himself and says he’s writing a piece about sci-fi movies and would like ‘the astronaut’s’ opinion. But slowly, over their next few encounters, he becomes haunted by Scranton’s faraway stare, his gaze through the people and buildings of this world, his other-planetary loneliness.

The narrator asks whether Scranton has proof of his experiences on the moon and Scranton nods slowly. He needs to be helped back to his squalid flat above a fleapit cinema, the Luxor. Here he shows the narrator his ‘photographs’, his ‘evidence’. It consists of pictures torn out of Life and Newsweek magazine (note, American magazines). He’s mad, delusional, and yet…

He has known the loneliness of utter separation from all other people. He has gazed at the empty perspectives of the planets. He sees through pedestrians and traffic as if they were fleeting tricks of the sun.

Sick and ill, Scranton, like so many Ballard figures, wastes away and dies. And hands on his mantle. The narrator takes his place at the seedy café. Without any effort he finds himself slowly erasing the memories of his family life, his wife and mother and failed carer in journalism slowly disappear, to be slowly replaced by an alternative past, one in which he trained hard as an astronaut, in which he remembers the coastline of Florida falling away beneath the giant rocket. A past in which he genuinely did walk on the moon.

11. The Enormous Space (1989)

The first-person narrator is a merchant banker named Geoffrey Ballantyne. His wife has divorced him and run off with her lover, he was recently in a car crash and is still recuperating. (This reminds us of another middle-class narrator who goes mental after recuperating from a car crash, Faulkner in The Overloaded Man).

The story begins as he takes the decision not to go out of his front door. Ever again. To use up all the resources within the house and then live on space and time. In the event, after reducing himself to the familiar Ballardian condition of hallucinating malnutrition, he takes to luring the neighbours’ dogs and cats into his garden, killing and cooking them. He becomes more and more detached from reality and the house appears to grow larger and larger, soon having as many rooms as the Palace of Versailles.

I have embarked on a long internal migration, following a route partly prescribed within my head and partly within this house, which is a far more complex structure than I had realised.

His wife, Margaret, pops in a couple of times, each time noticing the progressive degradation of both the house and the narrator, but each time he manages to bundle her out. His description of the house becoming steadily larger, until he can’t make it up the stairs any more, until he can’t eventually make it out of the kitchen and remains slumped against the powerless fridge, watching the horizons expand to infinity. Until his former secretary, Brenda, pops round worried about him. By this time we have accompanied Ballantyne so far on his trip into psychosis that it’s her who seems the odd one out, and we are utterly convinced of his psychotic point of view as he describes her stepping over him slumped in his kitchen.

She is walking towards me, but so slowly that the immense room seems to carry her away from me in its expanding dimensions. She approaches and recedes from me at the same time, and I am concerned that she will lose herself in the almost planetary vastness of this house. Catching her as she swerves past me, I protect her from the outward rush of time and space.

See, no exotic words or contrived sentences or purple prose. Fairly flat, functional prose which manages to convey a state of complete derangement.

Ballantyne kills her, chops up her body, eats some and puts her head in the freezer, reminding us of the genuinely horrific climax of High Rise. Christ, this is a terrifyingly delirious text.

12. Memories of the Space Age (1982)

To an extraordinary extent this is a rewrite of previous stories such as News From The Sun or an alternate version of the contemporaneous story Myths of the Near Future, from the premise of the story through to the narrative structure right down to the use of the name Anne for key figures in both stories.

Here again we meet a former NASA physician, Dr Edward Mallory (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor) who has travelled to the abandoned zone of Cape Kennedy from Canada where he specialised in treated Downs Syndrome and autistic children. He has come with his wife, Anne. They are both afflicted with the ‘space sickness’ which has been slowly spreading out from the old NASA launching centre. The space sickness is a disease of time; the victim experiences fugues or largos when their time completely stops and they’re stuck stationary.

So for the usual obscure reasons, Mallory has come to live amid the abandoned hotels and shopping precincts of the beach resorts opposite the old launch site, squatting in a derelict room on the firth floor of an abandoned hotel, and foraging for food in the dusty abandoned supermarkets.

And of course, as usual, there is an Antagonist – Hinton, a former astronaut and in fact, the first astronaut to commit a murder in space, when he locked his co-pilot Alan Shepley into the docking module and evacuated its air, live, in front of a global viewing audience of one billion viewers.

On landing, Hinton was sent to prison, to Alcatraz to be precise. Some twenty years later, as the space sickness slowly spread across America, Hinton escaped from Alcatraz using a home-made glider. Now Mallory discovers he is restoring and flying the vintage planes from a nearby airplane museum, very much as Olds restores defunct cars in The Ultimate City.

The same obsession with man-powered gliders, in this case a pedal-powered microlight with a huge wingspan is being flown by a woman, Gale (short for Nightingale) Shepley, who swoops over him one day on one of his forays from the hotel room while his wife sleeps.

She lands and introduces herself, a young blonde who is the daughter of the murdered astronaut, Shepley. She has come to the ruined zone because she is expecting her father’s space capsule to finally re-enter orbit and crash down here – just like all those other Ballard women who wait for their dead husbands or fathers to re-enter the atmosphere and crash land beside the ruined gantries e.g. Judith waiting for her dead lover’s capsule to crash back to earth in The Dead Astronaut.

Mallory has even brought a collection of ‘terminal documents’ like so many of these characters cart around, in his case:

  • a tape machine on which to record his steady decline
  • nude Polaroid photos of a woman doctor he had an affair with in Vancouver
  • his student copy of Gray’s Anatomy
  • a selection of Muybridge’s stop-frame photos
  • a psychoanalytic study of Simon Magus

Ballard’s gives a fuller, more explicit explanation of what exactly the space sickness is. It is the result of a crime against evolution. Human evolution has created a psychological aptitude to see Time as a stream with a past, present and future, a defence or coping mechanism which situates us within a dynamic timeframe.

The manned space flights cracked this continuum and now time is leaking away. Our perception of time is returning to its primeval one, an experience of all time in one continuous present, when Time – in the conventional sense – stops.

Mallory has a couple of encounters with Hinton who explains that the birds know about Time, they have never lost the primeval, reptile sense of Time. Which is why he’s trying to teach himself to fly by learning to fly each of the planes in the aviation museum in reverse chronological order, acclimatising his body to flight until, eventually, he can fly without machinery, and without wings.

In this context, Hinton’s ‘murder’ of Shepley was Hinton’s way of ‘freeing’ him from the tyranny of Time (exactly as the lunatic Sheppard in Myths of the Near Future appears to ‘free’ the birds by crushing them to death).

His wife is entering the end stage. Her fugues last nearly all day. In her few waking moments she begs to be taken up to the roof. She wants to see Hinton. She feels close to him because he is close to the secret. Eventually Hinton successfully kidnaps his wife. Mallory sees smoke coming from the old Space Shuttle gantry and takes a motorbike to ride there. He wakes up lying athwart it with his leg burning against the red hot engine. He had a fugue.

Gale arrives in her micro-glider to rescue Mallory and they travel on to the Space Shuttle gantry. Hinton has set fire to all the airplanes gathered at the bottom, and, as Mallory watches, Hinton and Mallory’s wife step off the platform and into thin air over the flames.

Maybe all shamans and primitive rituals, maybe all religions have been an attempt to escape from the prisonhouse of Time. Maybe the space sickness sheds light on why the Christian image of an afterlife isn’t an action-packed adventure holiday, but an eternal moment, an eternity of worship, stuck in stasis.

Gale keeps a menagerie by the swimming pool of the motel she’s camped in. Cheetahs, exotic birds and a tiger. As Mallory’s time winds down he hallucinates the tiger as a wall of flame. Gale is looking after him but, as always, there is a vast distance between Ballard characters and she is growing bored of him. She is only interested in the pending arrival of her father’s corpse as his space capsule finally re-enters earth’s orbit and comes streaming over their heads towards the space centre. One day soon Mallory will open the tiger’s cage and enter his wall of flame.

13. Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown (1967)

This is a really interesting experiment which I think totally works. It is based on one sentence of eighteen words:

A discharged Broadmoor patient compiles ‘Notes towards a Mental Breakdown’, recalling his wife’s murder, his trial and exoneration

and then each one of these words has a numbered note next to it.

A1 discharged2 Broadmoor3 patient4 compiles‘Notes6 towards7 aMental9 Breakdown10, recalling11 his12 wife’s13 murder14, his15 trial16 and17 exoneration18

And each of the numbers refers to a numbered footnote. So the story is in eighteen short sections, each one of which unpacks, analyses, dissects the precise meaning of its word, in the context of psychiatric and criminal case.

Thus you get to discover the narrative, the plot, the series of events, but in a beguilingly chopped-up, fragmented manner. I found it extremely enjoyable. It concerns the psychopath Dr Robert Loughlin (if I had a pound for every Ballard character who is a doctor) who has murdered his wife.

Obsessed with man-powered flight, Loughlin drove round the Suffolk countryside with his lover Leonora Carrington (this name is a straight copy of the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, and the story references what appears to be one of Ballard’s favourite works of art, Garden Airplane Traps by Carrington’s lover Max Ernst; maybe at the time Ballard wrote the story she was so unknown he thought only a handful of cognoscenti would get the reference). Anyway he drives her round the Suffolk countryside from one abandoned USAF airbase to another, mesmerised by dreams of World War Three (exactly as Ballard describes his younger self doing in The Kindness of Women). As his psychosis intensifies, Loughlin rearranges furniture in his hotel rooms to create a notional flying machine and, only a few weeks before the muirder, makes a mad attempt to hire runway 2 at Heathrow.

His wife Judith was dying of pancreatic cancer and, tired of Loughlin’s erratic behaviour and alcoholism, absconded with her lover, Dr Douglas (if I had a pound for every Ballard character who is a doctor) to Gatwick airport. Loughlin tracked them down and somehow boarded a jet airliner which he ransacked for her, leading to a fight with a security guard who he shot. Then he made his way to Judith’s hotel room, broke into it, found the lovers out, ripped out the suitcase and proceeded to have a bath fully dressed and fuddled by alcohol and amphetamines.

When Judith returned she found the hotel room trashed and her psychotic husband passed out in the bath so she (presumably) decided to put him out of his misery and pushed his head under the water. But this revived him and psychotics are strong.

Louhglin murdered his wife, then dressed her in a flying suit with helmet and goggles, positioned her in front of him on the bed, as if they were in a plane and he was giving her flying lessons, and arranged all the furniture in the room to create the outline of a plane. Then he set the room on fire. (Just writing this out is making me feel like I’m losing touch with reality.)

14. The Index (1977)

This is a clever and, that rare thing for Ballard, very funny little text. It is what it says it is, the imaginary index to the imaginary biography of an imaginary figure, one Henry Rhodes Hamilton (presumably so named because his initials satirically spell HRH – His Royal Highness), supposedly a ‘physician and philosopher, man of action and patron of the arts, sometime claimant to the English throne and founder of a new religion.

The first page – the only page of ordinary text – briefly explains who he was and, more teasingly, wonders aloud who compiled the index? Has the indexer included himself in the index? Did HRH ever in fact exist? Has the text of the biography, which the index is for, been suppressed because it revealed too many secrets? Or was it never written in the first place? Maybe the entire thing is the figment of some deranged lexicographer? Is the whole thing a hoax?

Reading this one page with its paragraph of teasing questions makes you realise that texts like this were purpose-written to go straight into academic English courses about metafiction and post-modernism and the Lacanian mirror phase and self-deconstructing texts, straight into the matrix of academic jargon without ever having to be read by non-academic readers.

Anyway the index itself is very funny, in  Zelig-type way HRH has known anyone who was anyone in the twentieth century and been present at pivotal moments. Karen Blixen proposes to him, Ernest Hemingway dedicates The Old Man and the Sea to him, T.S. Eliot dedicates Four Quartets to him, meets Gandhi, Freud et al, he is with Churchill at Yalta and suggests the famous Iron Curtain speech, he goes ashore on Juno Beach on D-Day (and wins a model), meets the Dalai Lama and Mao Tse-Tung…

And so it goes on, mingling HRH’s preposterous presence at key events and name-dropping key figures with the satirical narrative in which he founds a new religion and tries to set up an anti-papacy at Avignon. When Ballard addresses actual historical events and particularly when he starts making up religions etc, he quickly descends into childish cartoon mode (as described in the story about the American founder of a new religion in The Object of The Attack, but in this novel format it’s all very entertaining.

I laughed out loud when I read the index entry about Hitler:

Hitler, Adolf, invites HRH to Berchtesgarten, 166; divulges Russia invasion plans, 172; impresses HRH, 179; disappoints HRH, 181.

Yes, as he rather did the entire German people. Hitler, Adolf, impresses German people 1939, disappoints German people 1945.

The last entry appears to refer to the indexer himself, and suggests his mysterious disappearance:

Zielinski, Bronislaw, suggests autobiography to HRH, 742; commissioned to prepare index, 748; warns of suppression threats, 752; disappears, 761

Thus, right at the end of the text, the indexer indexes himself out of existence. It was this which prompted the speculation in the one-page introduction that the whole thing might just be the products of ‘the over-wrought imagination of some deranged lexicographer’. Quite.

This may be the only really funny story in Ballard’s entire oeuvre, and it was a brainwave to close this final selection with it, helping to cleanse the reader’s mind, or at least control, many of the deeply disturbed, psychotic images which preceded it.

Thoughts

A little exhausted by Ballard-land and Ballardism, I wasn’t sure I had the energy to read this, his final collection of short stories, but I’m really glad I did. It contains good examples of several key types:

  • satire on contemporary society – The Secret History of World War 3, Love in a Colder Climate, The Largest Theme Park in the World
  • classic psychodrama about astronauts – The Man Who Walked on the Moon
  • portraits of psychotics – The Object of the Attack, Memories of the Space Age
  • descriptions of complete mental collapse – The Enormous Space
  • tales of the macabre – The Air Disaster
  • mind-bending science fiction – Report on an Unidentified Space Station

As stories go, the ones in this collection seemed to me as powerfully imagined as almost anything in his earlier career.

But what has obviously gone, long gone, is the extraordinary verbal lushness and purple prose of the earlier works. Somehow the almost Oscar Wilde, fin-de-siecle level of prose pyrotechnics which characterises the early novels and stories got thoroughly washed out of the system by the ‘urban disaster’ novels of the early and mid-70s and from that point onwards his prose becomes a lot more straightforward and serviceable. Instead of lush and exotic sentences, he comes increasingly to rely on the repetition of a handful of key words – overlit, to the sun, calm, over-excited, deranged, time and space.

In later Ballard, repetition takes the place of elaboration.

And arguably the distinctive thing about the collection is the three short stories with experimental formats – Answers to a Questionnaire, Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown, and The Index, each one a clever, one-off idea which I think Ballard executes really well. They’re very short but very effective and, in some ways, the most successful pieces in the collection.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 – 2000 by John Darwin (2007)

Empires exist to accumulate power on an extensive scale…
(After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 – 2000 page 483)

Questions

Why did the nations of Western Europe rise through the 18th and 19th centuries to create empires which stretched around the world, how did they manage to subjugate ancient nations like China and Japan, to turn vast India into a colonial possession, to carve up Africa between them?

How did white European cultures come to dominate not only the territories and peoples who they colonised, but to create the modern mindset – a vast mental framework which encompasses capitalist economics, science and technology and engineering, which dominates the world right down to the present day?

Why did the maritime states of Europe (Britain, France, the Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese) end up either settling from scratch the relatively empty places of the world (America, Australia), or bringing all the other cultures of the world (the Ottoman Empire, Hindu India, Confucian China and Shinto Japan) under their domination?

Answers

For at least two hundred years politicians, historians, economists and all kinds of academics and theoreticians have been writing books trying to explain ‘the rise of the West’.

Some attribute it to the superiority of the Protestant religion (some explicitly said it was God’s plan). Some that it was something to do with the highly fragmented nature of Europe, full of squabbling nations vying to outdo each other, and that this rivalry spilled out into unceasing competition for trade, at first across the Atlantic, then along new routes to India and the Far East, eventually encompassing the entire globe.

Some credit the Scientific Revolution, with its proliferation of new technologies from compasses to cannons, an unprecedented explosion of discoveries and inventions. Some credit the slave trade and the enormous profits made from working to death millions and millions of African slaves which fuelled the industrial revolution and paid for the armies which subjugated India.

Lenin thought it was the unique way European capitalism had first perfected techniques to exploit the proletariat in the home countries and then applied the same techniques to subjugate less advanced nations, and that the process would inevitably lead to a global capitalist war once the whole world was colonised.

John Darwin

So John Darwin’s book, which sets out to answer all these questions and many more, is hardly a pioneering work; it is following an extremely well-trodden path. BUT it does so in a way which feels wonderfully new, refreshing and exciting. This is a brilliant book. If you were only going to read one book about imperialism, this is probably The One.

For at least three reasons:

1. Darwin appears to have mastered the enormous revisionist literature generated over the past thirty years or more, which rubbishes any idea of innate European superiority, which looks for far more subtle and persuasive reasons – so that reading this book means you can feel yourself reaping the benefits of hundreds of other more detailed & specific studies. He is not himself oppressively politically correct, but he is on the right side of all the modern trends in historical thought (i.e. is aware of feminist, BAME and post-colonial studies).

2. Darwin pays a lot more attention than is usual to all the other cultures which co-existed alongside Europe for so long (Islam, the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire, the Safavid Empire, the Chinese Empire, Japan, all are treated in fascinating detail and given almost as much space as Europe, more, in the earlier chapters) so that reading this book you learn an immense amount about the history of these other cultures over the same period.

3. Above all, Darwin paints a far more believable and plausible picture than the traditional legend of one smooth, consistent and inevitable ‘Rise of the West’. On the contrary, in Darwin’s version:

the passage from Tamerlane’s times to our own has been far more contested, confused and chance-ridden than the legend suggests – an obvious enough point. But [this book places] Europe (and the West) in a much larger context: amid the empire-, state- and culture-building projects of other parts of Eurasia. Only thus, it is argued, can the course, nature, scale and limits of Europe’s expansion be properly grasped, and the jumbled origins of our contemporary world become a little clearer.

‘Jumbled origins’, my God yes. And what a jumble!

Why start with Tamerlane?

Tamerlane the Eurasian conqueror died in 1405. Darwin takes his death as marking the end of an epoch, an era inaugurated by the vast wave of conquest led across central Asia by Genghis Khan starting around 1200, an era in which one ruler could, potentially, aspire to rule the entire Eurasian landmass.

When Tamerlane was born the ‘known world’ still stretched from China in the East, across central Asia, through the Middle East, along the north African shore and including Europe. Domination of all of China, central Asia, northern India, the Middle East and Europe was, at least in theory, possible, had been achieved by Genghis Khan and his successors, and was the dream which had inspired Tamerlane.

Map of the Mongol Empire created by Genghis Khan

But by the death of Tamerlane the political situation across Eurasia had changed. The growth in organisation, power and sophistication of the Ottoman Empire, the Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria, the Muslim sultanate in north India and above all the resilience of the new Ming dynasty in China, meant this kind of ‘global’ domination was no longer possible. For centuries nomadic tribes had ravaged through Eurasia (before the Mongols it had been the Turks who emerged out of Asia to seize the Middle East and found the Ottoman Dynasty). Now that era was ending.

It was no longer possible to rule the sown from the steppe (p.5)

Moreover, within a few decades of Tamerlane’s demise, Portuguese mariners had begun to explore westwards, first on a small scale colonising the Azores and Canary Islands, but with the long-term result that the Eurasian landmass would never again constitute the ‘entire world’.

What was different about European empires?

Empires are the oldest and most widespread form of government. They are by far the commonest way that human societies have organised themselves: the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, the Greek and Roman Empires, the Aztec Empire, the Inca Empire, the Mali Empire, Great Zimbabwe, the Chinese empire, the Nguyễn empire in Vietnam, the Japanese Empire, the Ottoman empire, the Mughal empire, the Russian empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, to name just a few.

Given this elementary fact about history, why do the west European empires come in for such fierce criticism these days?

Because, Darwin explains, they were qualitatively different.

  1. Because they affected far more parts of the world across far more widespread areas than ever before, and so ‘the constituency of the aggrieved’ is simply larger – much larger – than ever before.
  2. Because they were much more systematic in their rapaciousness. The worst example was surely the Belgian Empire in the Congo, European imperialism stripped of all pretence and exposed as naked greed backed up by appalling brutality. But arguably all the European empires mulcted their colonies of raw materials, treasures and of people more efficiently (brutally) than any others in history.

The result is that it is going to take some time, maybe a lot of time, for the trauma of the impact of the European empires to die down and become what Darwin calls ‘the past’ i.e. the realm of shadowy past events which we don’t think of as affecting us any more.

The imperial legacy is going to affect lots of people, in lots of post-colonial nations, for a long time to come, and they are not going to let us in the old European colonial countries forget it.

Structure

After Tamerlane is divided into nine chapters:

  1. Orientations
  2. Eurasia and the Age of Discovery
  3. The Early Modern Equilibrium (1750s – 1800)
  4. The Eurasian Revolution (1800 – 1830)
  5. The Race Against Time (1830 – 1880)
  6. The Limits of Empire (1880 – 1914)
  7. Towards The Crisis of The World (1914 – 42)
  8. Empire Denied (1945 – 2000)
  9. Tamerlane’s Shadow

A flood of insights

It sounds like reviewer hyperbole but there really is a burst of insights on every page of this book.

It’s awe-inspiring, dazzling, how Darwin can take the elements of tremendously well-known stories (Columbus and the discovery of America, or the Portuguese finding a sea route to India, the first trading stations on the coasts of India or the unequal treaties imposed on China, or the real consequences of the American Revolution) and present them from an entirely new perspective. Again and again on every page he unveils insight after insight. For example:

American

Take the fact – which I knew but had never seen stated so baldly – that the American War of Independence wasn’t about ‘liberty’, it was about land. In the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1756 – 63) the British government had banned the colonists from migrating across the Appalachians into the Mississippi valley (so as to protect the Native Americans and because policing this huge area would be ruinously expensive). The colonists simply wanted to overthrow these restrictions and, as soon as the War of Independence was over (i.e. after the British gave up struggling to retain the rebel colonies in 1783), the rebels set about opening the floodgates to colonising westward.

India

Victorian apologists claimed the British were able to colonise huge India relatively easily because of the superiority of British organisation and energy compared with Oriental sloth and backwardness. In actual fact, Darwin explains it was in part the opposite: it was because the Indians had a relatively advanced agrarian economy, with good routes of communication, business hubs and merchants – an open and well-organised economy, which the British just barged their way into (p.264).

(This reminds me of the case made in The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson that Cortés was able to conquer the Aztec and Pissarro the Incas, not because the Indians were backward but precisely because they were the most advanced, centralised and well organised states in Central and South America. The Spanish just installed themselves at the top of a well-ordered and effective administrative system. Against genuinely backward people, like the tribes who lived in the arid Arizona desert or the swamps of Florida or hid in the impenetrable Amazon jungle, the Spanish were helpless, because there was no one emperor to take hostage, or huge administrative bureaucracy to take over – which explains why those areas remained uncolonised for centuries.)

Cultural conservatism

Until about 1830 there was still a theoretical possibility that a resurgent Ottoman or Persian empire, China or Japan, might have reorganised and repelled European colonisers. But a decisive factor which in the end prevented them was the intrinsic conservatism of these cultures. For example, both Chinese and Muslim culture venerated wisdom set down by a wise man (Mohammed, Confucius) at least a millennium earlier, and teachers, professors, civil servants were promoted insofar as they endorsed and parroted these conservative values. At key moments, when they could have adopted more forward-looking ideologies of change, all the other Eurasian cultures plumped for conservatism and sticking to the Old.

Thus, even as it dawned on both China and Japan that they needed to react to the encroachments of the Europeans in the mid-nineteenth century, both countries did so by undertaking not innovations but what they called restorations – the T’ung-chih (‘Union for Order’) restoration in China and the Meiji (‘Enlightened rule’) restoration in Japan (p.270). (Darwin’s description of the background and enactment of both these restorations is riveting.)

The Western concept of Time

Darwin has a fascinating passage about how the Europeans developed a completely new theory of Time (p.208). It was the exploration of America which did this (p.209) because here Europeans encountered, traded and warred with Stone Age people who used bows and arrows and (to start with) had no horses or wheeled vehicles and had never developed anything like a technology. This led European intellectuals to reflect that maybe these people came from an earlier phase of historical development, to develop the new notion that maybe societies evolve and develop and change.

European thinkers quickly invented numerous ‘systems’ suggesting the various ‘stages of development’ which societies progressed through, from the X Age to the Y Age and then on to the Z Age – but they all agreed that the native Americans (and even more so, the Australian aborigines when they were discovered in the 1760s) represented the very earliest stages of society, and that, by contrast, Western society had evolved through all the intervening stages to reach its present state of highly evolved ‘perfection’.

Once you have created mental models like this, it is easy to categorise all the other cultures you encounter (Ottomans, Hindus, China, Japan, Siam, Annamite etc) as somewhere lower or backward on these paths or stages of development.

And being at the top of the tree, why, naturally that gave white Europeans the right to intervene, invade, conquer and administer all the other people of the world in order to ‘raise’ them to the same wonderful level of civilisation as themselves.

18th and 19th

I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the way that, if you read accounts of the European empires, there is this huge difference between the rather amateurish 18th century and the fiercely efficient 19th century. Darwin explains why: in the eighteenth century there were still multiple European players in the imperial game: France was the strongest power on the continent, but she was balanced out by Prussia, Austria and also Spain and Portugal and the Dutch. France’s position as top dog in Europe was admittedly damaged by the Seven Years War but it wasn’t this, it was the Napoleonic Wars which in the end abolished the 18th century balance of power in Europe. Britain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars as the new top dog, with a navy which could beat all-comers, which had hammered the French at the Battle of the Nile and Trafalgar, and which now ruled the waves.

The nineteenth century feels different because Britain’s world-encompassing dominance was different in kind from any empire which ever preceded it.

The absence of Africa

If I have one quibble it’s that I’d like to have learned more about Africa. I take the point that his book is focused on Eurasia and the Eurasian empires (and I did learn a huge amount about Persia, the Moghul empire, China and Japan) and that all sub-Saharan Africa was cut off from Eurasia by the Sahara, but still… it feels like an omission.

And a woke reader might well object to the relative rareness of Darwin’s references to the African slave trade. He refers to it a few times, but his interest is not there; it’s in identifying exactly where Europe was like or unlike the rival empires of Eurasia, in culture and science and social organisation and economics. That’s his focus.

The expansion of the Russian empire

If Africa is disappointingly absent, an unexpected emphasis is placed in each chapter on the imperial growth of Russia. I knew next to nothing about this. A quick surf on Amazon suggests that almost all the books you can get about the Russian ’empire’ are about the fall of the Romanovs and the Bolshevik Revolution and then Lenin or Stalin’s creation of a Bolshevik empire which expanded into Eastern Europe after the war. That’s to say it’s almost all about twentieth century Russia (with the exception of a crop of ad hoc biographies of Peter the Great or Catherine the Great).

So it was thrilling to read Darwin give what amounts to a sustained account and explanation of the growth of the Kingdom of Muscovy from the 1400s onwards, describing how it expanded west (against Poland, the Baltic states, Sweden), south towards the Black Sea, south-west into the Balkans – but most of all how Russian power was steadily expanded East across the vast inhospitable tundra of Siberia until Russian power reached the Pacific.

It is odd, isn’t it, bizarre, uncanny, that a nation that likes to think of itself as ‘European’ has a huge coastline on the Pacific Ocean and to this day squabbles about the ownership of small islands with Japan!

The process of Russian expansion involved just as much conquering of the ‘primitive’ tribal peoples who hunted and trapped in the huge landmass of Siberia as the conquest of, say, Canada or America, but you never read about it, do you? Can you name any of the many native tribes the Russians fought and conquered? No. Are there any books about the Settling of the East as there are thousands and thousands about the conquest of the American West? Nope. It is a historical black hole.

But Darwin’s account of the growth of the Russian Empire is not only interesting as filling in what – for me at any rate – is a big hole in my knowledge. It is also fascinating because of the role Russian expansion played again and again in the game of Eurasian Risk which his book describes. At key moments Russian pressure from the North distracted the attention of the Ottoman Empire from making more offensive thrusts into Europe (the Ottomans famously encroached right up to the walls of Vienna in 1526 and then again in 1683).

When the Russians finally achieved one of their territorial goals and seized the Crimea in 1783, as a result of the Russo-Turkish War, it had the effect, Darwin explains, of cracking the Ottoman Empire open ‘like an oyster’. For centuries the Black Sea had been an Ottoman lake and a cheaply defensible frontier. Now, at a stroke, it became a massive vulnerability which needed costly defence (p.175).

And suddenly, seeing it all from the Russian perspective, this sheds new light on the timeworn story of the decline of the Ottoman Empire which I only know about from the later 19th century and from the British perspective. For Darwin the role of Russian expansionism was vital not only in itself, but for the hemming in and attritional impact it had on the other Eurasian empires – undermining the Ottomans, making the Chinese paranoid because Russian expansion around its northern borders added to China’s sense of being encircled and endangered, a sense that contributed even more to its risk-averse policy of doubling down on its traditional cultural and political and economic traditions, and refusing to see anything of merit in the Westerners’ technology or crude diplomacy. A policy which eventually led to the Chinese empire’s complete collapse in 1911.

And of course the Russians actually went to war with imperial Japan in 1905.

Numbered lists

Darwin likes making numbered lists. There’s one on almost every page. They rarely go higher than three. Here are some examples to give a flavour of his careful, forensic and yet thrillingly insightful way of explaining things.

The 18th century geopolitical equilibrium

The geopolitical revolution which ended the long equilibrium of the 18th century had three major effects:

  1. The North American interior and the new lands in the Pacific would soon become huge extensions of European territory, the ‘new Europes’.
  2. As a result of the Napoleonic war, the mercantile ‘zoning’ system which had reflected the delicate balance of power among European powers was swept away and replaced with almost complete control of the world’s oceans by the British Navy.
  3. Darwin gives a detailed description of why Mughal control of North India was disrupted by invasions by conquerors from the north, first Iran then Afghanistan, who weakened central Indian power at just the moment the British started expanding from their base in Bengal. Complex geopolitical interactions.

The so-called stagnation of the other Eurasian powers can be characterised by:

  1. In both China and the Islamic world classical, literary cultures dominated the intellectual and administrative elites – the test of intellectual acumen was fitting all new observations into the existing mindset, prizes went to those who could do so with the least disruption possible.
  2. Cultural and intellectual authority was vested in scribal elites backed up by political power, both valuing stasis.
  3. Both China and the Islamic world were profoundly indifferent and incurious about the outside world.

The knowledge revolution

Compare and contrast the East’s incuriosity with the ‘West’, which underwent a cognitive and scientific revolution in which merit went to the most disruptive inventors of new theories and technologies, and where Darwin describes an almost obsessive fascination with maps. This was supercharged by Captain Cook’s three huge expeditions around the Pacific, resulting in books and maps which were widely bought and discussed, and which formed the basis of the trade routes which followed in his wake, and then the transportation of large numbers of convicts to populate Australia’s big empty spaces (about 164,000 convicts were transported to the Australian colonies between 1788 and 1868).

Traumatic impact of the Napoleonic Wars

I hadn’t quite realised that the Napoleonic Wars had such a traumatising effect on the governments of the main European powers who emerged in its aftermath: Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia. Very broadly speaking there was peace between the European powers between the 1830s and 1880s. Of course there was the Crimean War (Britain, France and Turkey containing Russia’s imperial expansion), war between Austria and Prussia (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War. But all these were contained by the system, were mostly of short duration and never threatened to unravel into the kind of general conflict which ravaged Europe under Napoleon.

Thus, from the imperial point of view, the long peace had four results:

  1. The Royal Navy’s policing of all trade routes across the Atlantic and between Europe and Asia kept trade routes open throughout the era and kept costs down for everyone.
  2. The balance of power which the European powers maintained among themselves discouraged intervention in either North or South America and allowed America to develop economically as if it had no enemies – a rare occurrence for any nation in history.
  3. The post-Napoleonic balance of power in Europe encouraged everyone to tread carefully in their imperial rivalries.
  4. Geo-political stability in Europe allowed the growth across the continent of something like a European ideology. This was ‘liberalism’ – a nexus of beliefs involving the need for old-style autocratic power to be tempered by the advice of representatives of the new middle class, and the importance of that middle class in the new technologies and economics unleashed by the industrial revolution and in founding and administering the growing colonies abroad.

Emigration

Emigration from Europe to the New World was a trickle in the 1830s but had become a flood by the 1850s. Between 1850 and 1880 over eight million people left Europe, mostly for America.

  1. This mass emigration relieved the Old World of its rural overcrowding and transferred people to an environment where they could be much more productive.
  2. Many of the emigrants were in fact skilled artisans. Moving to an exceptionally benign environment, a vast empty continent rich in resources, turbo-charged the American economy with the result that by the 1880s it was the largest in the world.

Fast

His chapter The Race Against Time brings out a whole area, an entire concept, I’ve never come across before, which is that part of the reason European colonisation was successful was it was so fast. Not just that Western advances in military technology – the lightning advances in ships and artillery and guns – ran far ahead of anything the other empires could come up with – but that the entire package of international finance, trade routes, complex webs sending raw materials back home and re-exporting manufactured goods, the sudden flinging of railways all across the world’s landmasses, the erection of telegraphs to flash knowledge of markets, prices of goods, or political turmoil back from colonies to the European centre – all of this happened too quickly for the rival empires (Ottoman, Japan, China etc) to stand any chance of catching up.

Gold rushes

This sense of leaping, hurtling speed was turbo-charged by literal gold rushes, whether in the American West in the 1840s or in South Africa where it was first gold then diamonds. Suddenly tens of thousands of white men turned up, quickly followed by townships full of traders and artisans, then the railway, the telegraph, the sheriffs with their guns – all far faster than any native American or South African cultures could hope to match or even understand.

Shallow

And this leads onto another massive idea which reverberates through the rest of the book and which really changed my understanding. This is that, as the spread of empire became faster and faster, reaching a kind of hysterical speed in the so-called Scramble For Africa in the 1880s (the phrase was, apparently, coined by the London Times in 1884) it meant that there was something increasingly shallow about its rule, especially in Africa.

The Scramble for Africa

Darwin says that most radical woke historians take the quick division of Africa in the 1880s and 1890s as a kind of epitome of European imperialism, but that it was in fact the opposite, and extremely unrepresentative of the development of the European imperialisms.

The Scramble happened very quickly, markedly unlike the piecemeal conquest of Central, Southern of North America, or India, which took centuries.

The Scramble took place with almost no conflict between the European powers – in fact they agreed to partitions and drew up lines in a very equable way at the Congress of Berlin in 1885. Other colonies (from the Incas to India) were colonised because there were organised civilisations which could be co-opted, whereas a distinctive feature about Africa (‘historians broadly agree about one vital fact’ p.314) was that people were in short supply. Africa was undermanned or underpeopled. There were few organised states or kingdoms because there simply wasn’t the density of population which lends itself to trading routes, settled farmers and merchants – all the groups who can be taxed to create a king and aristocracy.

Africans hadn’t progressed to centralised states as humans had in Eurasia or central America because there weren’t enough of them. Hence the poverty and the lack of resistance which most of the conquerors encountered in most of Africa.

In fact the result of all this was that most of the European governments weren’t that keen on colonising Africa. It was going to cost a lot of money and there weren’t the obvious revenue streams that they had found in a well-established economy like India.

What drove the Scramble for Africa more than anything else was adventurers on the ground – dreamers and fantasists and ambitious army officers and business men and empire builders who kept on taking unilateral action which then pitched the home government into a quandary – deny their adventurers and pass up the opportunity to win territory to a rival, or reluctantly support them and get enmeshed in all kinds of messy responsibilities.

For example, in the mid-1880s a huge swathe of West Africa between the desert and the forest was seized by a buccaneering group of French marine officers under Commandant Louis Archinard, and their black rank and file. In a few years these adventurers brought some two million square miles into France’s empire. The government back in Paris felt compelled to back them up which meant sending out more troops, police and so on, which would cost money.

Meanwhile, modern communications had been invented, the era of mass media had arrived, and the adventuring soldiers and privateers had friends and boosters in the popular press who could be counted on to write leading articles about ‘the white man’s burden’ and the torch of civilisation and ask: ‘Isn’t the government going to defend our brave boys?’, until reluctant democratic governments were forced to cough up support. Modern-day liberals often forget that imperialism was wildly popular. It often wasn’t imperialist or rapacious governments or the ruling class which prompted conquest, but popular sentiment, jingoism, which couldn’t be ignored in modern democracies.

Darwin on every page, describes and explains the deep economic, trade and financial structures which the West put in place during the nineteenth century and which eventually underpinned an unstoppable steamroller of annexation, protectorates, short colonial wars and long-term occupation.

The Congress of Berlin

The Congress of Berlin helped to formalise the carving up of Africa, and so it has come to be thought of as evil and iniquitous, particularly by BAME and woke historians. But once again Darwin makes you stop and think when he compares the success of the congress at reaching peaceful agreements between the squabbling European powers – and what happened in 1914 over a flare-up in the Balkans.

If only Bismarck had been around in 1914 to suggest that, instead of rapidly mobilising to confront each other, the powers of Europe had once again been invited for tea and cake at the Reichstag to discuss their differences like gentlemen and come to an equable agreement.

Seen from this perspective, the Berlin Congress is not so much an evil colonialist conspiracy, but an extremely successful event which avoided any wars between the European powers for nearly thirty years. Africa was going to be colonised anyway because human events have a logic of their own: the success was in doing so without sparking a European conflagration.

The Scramble for China

The Scramble for China is not as well known as its African counterpart,  the competition to gain ‘treaty ports’ on the Chinese coast, impose unfair trading terms on the Chinese and so on.

As usual, though, Darwin comes at it from a much wider angle and makes one massive point I hadn’t registered before, which is that Russia very much wanted to seize the northern part of China to add to its far eastern domains; Russia really wanted to carve China up, but Britain didn’t. And if Britain, the greatest trading, economic and naval power in the world, wasn’t onside, then it wouldn’t happen. There wasn’t a genuine Scramble for China because Britain didn’t want one.

Why not? Darwin quotes a Foreign Office official simply saying, ‘We don’t want another India.’ One enormous third world country to try and administer with its hundreds of ethnic groups and parties growing more restive by the year, was quite enough.

Also, by the turn of the century, the Brits had become paranoid about Russia’s intentions to conquer Afghanistan and march into North India. If they partitioned China with Russia, that would mean policing an even longer frontier even further way against an aggressive imperialist power ready to pounce the moment our guard was down.

Summary

This is an absolutely brilliant book. I don’t think I’ve ever come across so many dazzling insights and revelations and entirely new ways of thinking about a time-worn subject in one volume.

This is the book to give anyone who’s interested not just in ‘the rise of the West’ but how the whole concept of ‘the West’ emerged, for a fascinating description not just of the European empires but of all the empires across Eurasia – Ottoman, Persian, Moghul, Chinese and Japanese – and how history – at this level – consists of the endless juggling for power of these enduring power blocs, the endless and endlessly

complex history of empire-, state- and culture-building. (p.490)

And of course it all leads up to where we are today: a resurgent Russia flexing its muscles in Ukraine and Crimea; China wielding its vast economic power and brutally oppressing its colonial subjects in Tibet and Xinkiang, while buying land, resources and influence across Africa. And both Russia and China using social media and the internet in ways we don’t yet fully understand in order to undermine the West.

And Turkey, keen as its rulers of all colours have been since the Ottoman days, to keep the Kurds down. And Iran, as its rulers have done for a thousand years, continually seeking new ways to extend its influence around the Gulf, across Syria and to the Mediterranean, in eternal rivalry with the Arab world which, in our time, means Saudi Arabia, against whom Iran is fighting a proxy war in the Yemen.

Darwin’s books really drives home the way the faces and the ideologies may change, but the fundamental geopolitical realities endure, and with them the crudeness and brutality of the tools each empire employs.

If you let ‘morality’, especially modern woke morality, interfere with your analysis of this level of geopolitics, you will understand nothing. At this level it always has and always will be about power and influence, dominating trade and ensuring raw resources, and behind it all the never-ending quest for ‘security’.

At this level, it isn’t about following narrow, English notions of morality. Getting hung up on that only gets in the way of grasping the utterly amoral forces at play everywhere in the world today, just as they’ve always been.

Darwin stands up for intelligence and insight, for careful analysis and, above all, for a realistic grasp of human nature and human society – deeply, profoundly flawed and sometimes pitiful and wretched though both routinely are. He takes an adult view. It is absolutely thrilling and a privilege to be at his side as he explains and analysis this enormous history with such confidence and with so many brilliant ideas and insights.


Related reviews

Exhibitions

History

Imperial fiction

Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art @ the British Museum

European explorers

As John Darwin’s brilliant history of Eurasian empires, After Tamerlane, makes clear, quite a few things distinguished European culture from the culture of the other Eurasian empires (i.e. the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire in Persia, the Moghul Empire in northern India, the Chinese Empire and the Japanese Empire) in the centuries after the death of Tamerlane the Great in 1405.

Just two of them were a readiness, on the part of the Europeans, to travel and explore, and an endless curiosity which led to almost obsessive collecting and categorising and curating and exhibiting.

No Chinese explorers visited Europe during the 19th century and were so dazzled by its history and architecture and art that they made copious sketches and drawings, took photographs, bought up every quaint European curio they could get their hands on, and carried them all back to China to catalogue and categorise and trigger an artistic renaissance.

That kind of thing just didn’t happen because few Chinese travelled abroad. Very few wanted to, or had the means to, and anyway it was frowned upon because every educated Chinese knew that the Celestial Empire was the centre of the universe, the possessor of a perfect culture, which didn’t need or want to know anything at all about the outside world, overrun as it was by cultureless barbarians.

And Darwin shows how this complacent and self-centred attitude was echoed by the cultural and political elites of Japan, Moghul India, the Safavid Empire and the sprawling Ottoman Empire, for centuries.

No, the wandering, exploring, collecting bug seems to have affected Europeans on a completely different scale from any of the world’s other civilisations.

Thus it was that from the 1500s onwards a steadily increasing stream of travellers, explorers, soldiers and sailors, archaeologists and artists travelled all over the Muslim lands lining the North African coast and the Middle East – territory nominally under the control of the extensive Ottoman Empire – to explore and describe and paint and buy and plunder.

Inspired by the East

This ambitious exhibition delves into one aspect of this huge European enterprise by looking at the long and complex history of cultural interchanges between the Islamic Middle East and Europe from about 1500 onwards.

Not surprisingly several of the earliest objects are swords and helmets since the single most important fact about Islam is that it was a conqueror’s religion, spread by highly organised and zealous Arabs as they exploded out of Arabia in the 7th and 8th centuries to seize the Christian Middle East and North African coastline.

Gilt-Copper helmet, Turkey (about 1650) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman dynasty which began its rise to prominence in the 1200s was itself just the last in a line of dynasties which had vied for leadership of the Muslim world since the birth of Islam in the 630s.

The Ottoman Turks rose to dominate the area we call the Middle East during the period 1300 to 1453 (the year when the Ottomans seized Christian Constantinople and made it into their capital, Istanbul). I’ve reviewed several books about the decline of the Byzantine Empire as it came under relentless pressure from successive Muslim rulers, until its eventual fall to the Ottomans.

The Ottoman heyday is usually dated from the year of the fall of Byzantium – 1453 – to around 1600, during which they extended their power across all of North Africa and deep into Europe. It’s salutary to remember that twice the Ottoman army besieged Vienna, in 1526 and 1683, and was only just defeated both times i.e. they could have penetrated even further into Christian Europe.

As it was, throughout this period the Ottomans ruled the extensive territory of former Christian Europe which we call the Balkans, as well as Christian Greece and Christian subjects in numerous Mediterranean islands.

Mainly Victorian

A handful of pieces and a few wall labels in the exhibition gesture towards this long and complex early history of Ottoman rise and conquest and domination, including the striking portrait of Sultan Bayezid I by a painter from the school of Veronese, which has been used as the poster for the show.

A Portrait of Sultan Bayezid I by a member of the School of Veronese (c. 1580) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

But the exhibition really focuses on works from the much later period of the 19th and early 20th centuries, partly for the simple reason that the period 1800 to the outbreak of the Second World War saw a steadily increasing number of European travellers to North Africa and the Middle East.

Some of this was simply a function of continually improving transport, sailing ships giving way to steamships, the steady spread of railways, the industrial revolution creating a new leisured class, especially in Britain and France, who wanted to see the world, helped along by firms like Thomas Cook which launched its first cruises in the 1870s.

Many devout Victorians, such as the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt, wanted to tour the Holy Land and see for themselves the places where Our Lord had stood. Flocks of visitors drew and sketched and painted watercolours and oils and bought all manner of souvenirs, carpets and clothes, tiles and glasswork. By the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851 the British public was highly aware of the extremely diverse and colourful cultures of the peoples it ruled over.

But the thesis of this exhibition is that the Islamic culture of the Ottoman Empire bore a uniquely close and fractious relationship with Europe, was the predominant colonial and foreign cultural ‘Other’ for Europe throughout the period – a kind of backward cousin, a slothful and declining ‘Orient’ against which we could measure our ever-growing knowledge, technology and power. And that a huge number of craftsmen and artists and metalworkers and glassblowers and designers and artists and architects were particularly dazzled and influenced and inspired by Islamic and Middle Eastern art and culture.

So this exhibition, Inspired by the East, aims to bring together a wealth of artifacts to show a) some of the original Islamic arts and crafts from the era and b) the impact Islamic architecture, designs and patterns had on European craftsmen, artists and designers through a large selection of European objects.

Enamelled glass lamp made by Philippe-Joseph Brocard, France (about 1877)

Thus the exhibition includes wonderful, ornate and beautiful examples from a whole range of media and crafts such as:

  • tiles
  • glasswork
  • ceramics
  • metalwork
  • jewellery
  • clothing
  • architecture
  • design

I was interested to learn there was a genre called ‘costume books’ which simply showed the costumes of all the new races and peoples Europeans had discovered as they expanded and explored from the 1500s onwards and which, of course, featured books devoted to the clothes and garments of the Middle East.

I learned that all kinds of products by Islamic artisans were prized in the West from early on, such as Egyptian metalwork and Persian ceramics. During the 19th century Western craftsmen could use developing technology to reproduce much of this work. The exhibition includes Arab-inspired ceramics by Théodore Deck, a leading French ceramicist who in the late nineteenth century created a range of pieces directly inspired by Islamic originals.

Nearby is a section devoted to Owen Jones, one of the most influential tastemakers of the Victorian era. His pioneering studies on colour theory, geometry and form still inspire designers to this day. Jones was an architect, designer and design theorist and was Superintendent of Works for the 1851 Great Exhibition. His masterpiece was Grammar of Ornament, a huge and lavish folio displaying stunning patterns, motifs and ornaments in 112 illustrated plates, many of which featured Islamic decorations and motifs. Some of the Islamic plates from the book are on display here.

But but but… I was struck by several obvious problems.

Number one was that most of the works on display are by Europeans. They are not original works by the Islamic craftsmen and artists who are so praised. They are European copies, displayed with the intention of showing how widespread the impact of Islamic styles and motifs was on the European arts. If you’re looking for a world of authentically Islamic arts and crafts you’d do better to go the V&A.

Number two was that, despite the beauty of individual works, it became difficult to avoid a sense of scrappiness, a sense that the curators are trying to cover a lot of ground, in fact an enormous subject – the impact of the Muslim world on the art and culture of the West – with a surprisingly small range of exhibits.

Take my home area, history: A few helmets and a sword are accompanied by a paragraph or two about the extent of the Ottoman Empire – but this, the military rise and dominance of the Ottoman Empire, is a huge, a vast subject, which I felt was barely scratched and whose omission made the entire show feel one-sided i.e. presented only the Europeans as aggressive colonialists whereas, as I’ve explained, it was the Muslims who originally conquered half the Christian Mediterranean.

Similarly, the friend I went with is mad about Islamic tiles so was pleased to see a display of half a dozen beautiful and ornate tiles – but disappointed that they turned out to be made by a Victorian British manufacturer using Islamic motifs – and that that was it when it came to tiles.

Islamic architecture is distinctive and beautiful and exists over half the world, but it was dealt with via just a few British buildings which used Islamic motifs, such as the well-known artist Lord Leighton’s famous house in West London which he had modelled inside to recreate some of the rooms from the Alhambra in Spain, namely ‘the Arab Hall’. Leighton had the place covered in Islamic tiles designed by William de Morgan. There are photos of the interior and a lovely wooden model but… is that it?

The single most dominant impression was made by the paintings, a few scattered in the early sections but then leading up to a huge wall displaying about 20 classic, late-Victorian, Orientalist paintings.

In the Madrasa by Ludwig Deutsch (1890) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Orientalism

This brings us to the several meanings of ‘Orientalism’, a word and idea which are raised early in the exhibition and then referenced throughout.

1. The word Orientalism was originally, during the 19th century and first half of the 20th, a value-neutral term applied to all or any scholars, linguists, archaeologists or artists who specialised in ‘the Orient’, a vague expression generally taken to be Islamic North Africa and Middle East but sometimes stretching to include India. It survives in this neutral sense in many places to this day, for example in the name of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

2. However, the term underwent a revolutionary change in 1978 when the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said published his academic study Orientalism. In this book Said subjected the so-called ‘scholarly’ works of 19th century Orientalist academics to in-depth analysis in order to support one big radical idea: that almost all the supposedly scholarly and academic books and ideas produced by European scholars about the Orient were the witting or unwitting handmaids of Western Imperialism.

Almost all the nineteenth-century Orientalists declared the Ottoman Empire corrupt and stagnant, Islam itself incapable of change. The people living there were stereotyped as somehow more primitive, dressing in loose but colourful clothing, slothful and lazy and corrupt.

Probably the most notable idea was the fascination the institution of the harem had for repressed Westerners who projected all kinds of sexual fantasies onto Oriental woman and painted no end of soft porn depictions of the sultan and his slaves and concubines and slave auctions and so on.

So powerful was Said’s critique that it spread and prospered in the academy, becoming the new orthodoxy and casting a critical shadow back over everything written or painted about the Middle East in the previous 200 years or more. Since its publication almost everything any European said, wrote or painted about the Ottoman Empire has been reappraised to appear in a much more sinister light, either furthering malicious racist stereotypes, aiding in imperial exploitation, or the shameless appropriation of a weaker culture’s art and designs.

Schizophrenia

Now the woke young curators of this exhibition are fully paid-up subscribers to Said’s unforgiving views about Western exploitation of the Middle East. This isn’t a guess on my part. They quote page one of Orientalism in the very opening wall label which introduces the exhibition:

The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant… The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture.

And every other wall label takes pains to remind us that the plate or vase or tile or translation of The 1001 Nights or any other cultural product which we’re looking at and which references Islam may well seem beautiful to us but, tut tut, we should be aware that it was part of the wicked European fashion to appropriate Islamic patterns for vases or the exploitative trend for mock Moorish architecture, or the thieving use of Arabic script in picture frames and so on.

And that behind all of this detail, all of these individual examples of cultural appropriation, lies the huge looming shadow of Western Imperialism!

Four tiles by William De Morgan & Co, Britain (1888-1897)

Cumulatively, these hectoring labels and panels created, for me at any rate, a strange sense of schizophrenia. In one and the same wall label the curators might both praise the craftmanship of a western tile maker or architect – and yet accuse them of being part of the general movement of cultural appropriation. Praise and damn almost in the same breath.

As so often in modern exhibitions, I began to feel that I got more visual and aesthetic enjoyment if I just stopped reading the hectoring labels – felt less harangued and nagged to feel guilty about things which happened 150 years before I was even born.

Orientalist painting

It’s probably in painting that the Orientalist issue is most obvious, or most familiar to most of us because the antique shops of the West are awash with third-rate late-Victorian depictions of the Arab world, of mosques, old men in long gowns with even longer beards, camels crossing the desert, Oriental markets, scantily dressed concubines and so on.

Said’s idea is that, although these images are fairly harmless looked at individually, taken together they become condescending, sexist and racist, depicting a fantasy world of harems and sultans, long-gowned scholars in picturesque mosques, colourful markets or the desert at dawn – all of which, taken together, creates a patronising distortion of the complex realities of the many peoples and tribes and ethnic groups and nations scattered across North Africa and the Middle East.

Moreover, taken together, they all tend in the same direction, promoting an ideology claiming that all these cultures and peoples might well be noble and beautiful, but were also backward and in decline, and therefore needed to be taken in hand, taken over, guided and ruled by us, the enlightened West.

At Prayer by Ludwig Deutsch (1923)

The big wall hanging of twenty or so massive Orientalist paintings which I mentioned earlier are obviously meant to represent a kind of ‘Wall of Shame’. Tut tut, we are encouraged to think: look at all these stereotypical markets and mosques and rugs and carpets. Look how oppressive they are.

However, I just didn’t feel the moral outrage I think the curators intend us to feel. The real impact of hanging so many Orientalist paintings next to each other was, in my opinion, to make you feel a bit sick, as if you’d been let loose in a sweetshop and eaten everything in sight. They are self-consciously opulent and gorgeous to the point of absurdity.

Another, more objective result of examining so many of these over-ripe productions was that, pace Said, most of them are not from the imperial nineteenth century, nor, surprisingly, were many of them produced by the classic imperialist powers who carved up the Middle East between them, France and Britain.

At least half of them were from the twentieth century, many from after the Great War (the two above are from 1913 and 1923). And quite a few were by either German or American painters, not by the cultural Anglo-French cultural appropriators. Neither the Germans nor the Americans had any colonial presence in the Middle East till well after the Great War and even then, not very much.

Orientalism or Romanticism?

As I read yet another wall label pointing out how the Orientalist painters fantasised and romanticised and embellished lots of the subjects they painted, as if this was a shockingly immoral and exploitative thing to do, a simple thought occurred to me: Didn’t all 19th century artists?

There are thousands and thousands of Victorian genre paintings which romanticise and glamorise all kinds of subjects, from their own working classes (cf the exhibition of cheesy paintings of Victorian children I saw earlier this year at the Guildhall) to windswept Hebridean crofters.

In other words, wasn’t the entire artistic movement of Romanticism about, well, stereotypically romantic subject matter – about mountains and storms at sea and heroic adventures and tormented heroes and shy maidens with heaving bosoms who needed rescuing from dragons (I’m thinking of the amazing late-Victorian fantasies of Edward Burne-Jones as recently displayed at Tate Britain).

The same exaggerated depiction of popular conceptions of subjects was applied to everything – I bet medieval knights weren’t as manly and knightly as they appear in Victorian paintings, that Highland crofters weren’t as proud and noble, or our brave soldiers quite as manly and beautifully kitted out, as they appear in those big hearty late-Victorian paintings.

Don’t all Victorian paintings depict extravagant stereotypes in lush and glamorous colours? In other words, there is nothing particular or exceptional about this hyper-romantic style being applied to ‘Oriental’ subjects: it was applied to countless other subjects as well.

The Guard by Antonio María Fabrés y Costa (1889)

The harem

I was especially looking forward to the section about the harem, not because I was expecting to be particularly titillated but because I was anticipating the orgy of outraged feminism it would prompt in the commentary.

After all, one of the most obvious and much-repeated claims of anti-orientalist, politically correct literary critics, feminists and curators is that Western white men used the Ottoman institution of the harem to concoct a vast number of soft porn, erotic fantasies which bore no relation to reality at all, but merely satisfied the gloating gaze of fat, rich, white, male collectors.

So the most astonishing single thing about this exhibition about Western depictions of the Orient is the complete absence of even one decent painting showing a classic, late-Victorian harem scene. Not one.

I thought I must have missed a room somewhere and went back through the exhibition to check, but eventually realised that the little collection of five or so chaste drawings and one painting – none of which show a nude woman, all of them very restrained – is all they have! 

There’s a tiny photo of one of the classic nude-in-a-Turkish-bath paintings by Ingres, but any actual huge, beautiful and sexy harem scenes by him or Eugène Delacroix or John Frederick Lewis or any number of their followers and copyers… nothing! None!

I think I could go to my nearest antiques shop and find more cheesy old Victorian paintings of scantily-clad maidens in a supposed harem than there were in this exhibition. It is an astonishing gap. The big oil painting I mentioned is of a fully-clothed woman who could be more or less anywhere.

Off to one side there is one little drawing of a woman playing a musical instrument by a French artist we are assured, by the conscientious curators, was a notorious Orientalist – though it could hardly be less offensive. Does this image strike you as being offensively racist and sexist, stereotyping the Orient and providing visual underpinning for Western imperialism? It doesn’t, to me.

Study of a girl playing a stringed instrument by Jean Léon Gérôme (1886)

In fact it raises a related politico-aesthetic question, because the curators point out that the artists, Jean Léon Gérôme, was well known for his meticulous sketches and drawings he made preparatory to making an oil painting. Which made me reflect: I n what way can these artists be accused of peddling lazy stereotypes if they were carefully and meticulously depicting what they saw, what was actually in front of them?

The sex object bites back (or photographs itself wearing clothes)

The absolute of real killer harem scenes is all the more puzzling because it is meant to set up the final part of the exhibition, which is devoted to contemporary works by modern Muslim women artists.

The curators have chosen to interpret these contemporary Muslim women artists as responding to the despicable tradition of Western Orientalism. They are ‘speaking back to Orientalist representations of the east’. They are ‘subverting and undermining works by earlier European and North American artists’.

But alas the curators’ plan doesn’t really work because we have not seen any of the sexy, sexist Orientalist representations of the east which these contemporary artists are kicking back against. We pretty much have to imagine them, or remember them from other exhibitions or books.

In fact I thought all four of the women artists on display here were very good, very very good, in their way better than the rest of the exhibition. Best of the four was a triptych of images by Lalla Essaydi, part of a large series of works titled Women of Morocco.

In them Essaydi or her models adopt the poses of the scantily-clad women draped around in famous Orientalist paintings, only here the women are chastely and Islamically dressed and – and this is the distinctive thing from a visual point of view – both they, their clothes and the studio backcloths are covered in Islamic script. I thought it was a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed, to produce really vibrant and exciting images.

Les Femmes du Maroc by Lalla Essaydi (2005) © Lalla Esaydi

Conclusion

Inspired by the East feels, in the end, like a rather thin exhibition.

Firstly, it claims to be a look at the interaction between East and West, so you’d expect it to be divided into two parts; How East affected West and how West affected East.

As noted, there’s plenty of examples of the way Westerners appropriated Eastern designs and motifs and patterns, architecture and design (although this felt like a much larger subject which really deserved to be investigated in much greater depth – All over London are buildings which incorporate Islamic motifs; if you add in tiling and ceramics and metalwork you have a huge subject).

But as to West affecting East, this section felt very skimpy indeed, with just one small room showing a couple of photo albums by pioneering photographers in Istanbul and a map or two. Is that it?

Secondly, there is the big shadow of Edward Said and his embittering theory of Orientalism threaded throughout the show, the premise that all depictions of the Middle East and all forms of appropriation of its culture were handmaidens to the wicked, Western imperial exploitation of the area.

But this rather harsh and inflexible approach militates against the more nuanced vibe of the ‘cultural interactions’ parts of the show. One minute the curators are praising Western craftsmen; the next they are berating the subtle cultural imperialism of copying Islamic designs.

Hence my comment about the unsettling schizophrenia I thought the show suffered from.

3. And when I got to the section on the harem and realised how tragically thin it was, it suddenly crystallised for me how skimpy the rest of the exhibition feels. It feels like it’s trying to address two or three really big issues and not quite doing any of them quite properly.

Alhambra vase, Spain 1800–1899 © Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia

Writing versus art

I read Orientalism at university four or five years after it was published, when it still had ‘the shock of the new’, before it settled down to become the new orthodoxy taught to each new generation of humanities and art students.

And Said’s book is almost entirely concerned with Orientalist writing – with the supposedly factual works of Orientalist ‘scholars’ (who he systematically debunks) and with the Western literary writers who perpetuated stereotypes about the Exotic East (Byron, Nerval, Flaubert just for starters).

A lot of this kind of writing was produced in the nineteenth century and so Said had a rich vein to draw on, and was able to show how the supposedly ‘scholarly’ writing, and the literary works, easily morphed into official, governing and imperial writing, could be co-opted into government reports and assessments, how anthropological studies could be quoted in business cases for invading Egypt, say, or Iraq.

But it is much harder to divine a particularly patronising, racist or imperialist motive behind a set of porcelain which just happens to use an Islamic motif, or in picture frames which use Arabic script as decoration, or in glassware which incorporates Islamic patterns.

It’s easier to imagine that they were just one among the millions of other ranges of pottery and ceramics and frames produced during the consumer boom of the nineteenth century, which cannibalised motifs and patterns from all available sources – from India and China and Japan to name just a few – if it produced something which would sell.

To see most of the objects in this exhibition as part of an enormous explosion of art and crafts products which catered for the burgeoning middles classes as, to some extent, they still do today.

So my last thought is that maybe the bittiness and thinness of the exhibition is owing to the fact that the curators are trying to illustrate a basically literary theory with works of art and museum objects. And not nearly enough of them to really round out the argument.

Whatever the reason, for me this exhibition contained an entertaining pot-pourri of lovely objects, but didn’t really hang together either as history, or as a sustained exploration of the themes it purports to address.

Promotional video

Curators

  • Julia Tugwell
  • Olivia Threlkeld

Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Sir Stamford Raffles: collecting in Southeast Asia 1811-1824 @ the British Museum

As it is in just one room upstairs at the back of the British Museum, and is FREE, I thought this would be a relatively light and small exhibition to enjoy, but I was wrong. It’s a surprisingly packed exhibition which gives a panoramic view of Indonesian, and particularly Javanese, culture – at least through the eyes of one of its earliest European collectors.

Puppet of the comic character Sabda Palon, one of Damarwulan’s servants (Central Java, probably Surakarta, 1700s) © Trustees of the British Museum

Stamford Raffles, a potted biography

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781 – 1826) started working for the East India Company when he was 14, and spent most of his life as an East India Company official in Southeast Asia. In 1811 he was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Java when the British seized it from the Dutch, but in 1815, when we gave it back to the Dutch at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, he was forced to stand down and returned to England.

Raffles arrived back in Britain with a substantial collection, almost 450 puppets, over 700 coins, more than 350 drawings, over 130 masks, more than 120 small metal sculptures and five small stone sculptures. His collection quickly became the talk of academic London and Raffles settled down to write what became a massive two-volume History of Java. On its publication in 1817 he dedicated it to the Prince Regent and was rewarded with a knighthood. That’s how to make friends and influence people!

Portrait of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles by James Thompson (1824)

In 1817 Raffles went back out East when he was chosen to be Lieutenant-Governor of Bengkulu (Bencoolen), in southwest Sumatra, where he served until 1824. It was during this period that he took advantage of a succession dispute between local rulers to seize the small village of Singapore, as the perfect location for a trading post for the British East India Company half way between India and China.

This ‘foundation’ of Singapore took place in 1819, and this explains why this exhibition has been mounted – indirectly to mark the bicentennary of what went on to become one of the most vibrant commercial cities in the world.

Post-imperial reappraisal

But, as you might expect of any leading figure in the British Empire, Raffles is nowadays frowned on by academics, by historians and curators (not to mention the inhabitants of Java and Indonesia, or those who are interested enough in their history to have heard of him).

Raffles has become, in other words, a controversial figure, one of thousands of similar controversial imperial figures, once revered in their European homelands for deeds of derring-do and seizing territory from foreigners – now undergoing reappraisal from academics and curators who are, because of their positions, more than usually aware of the need for respect and diversity in our modern multicultural societies.

A demon, Buta Kimul, Cirebon, Western Java, late 1700s-early 1800s

The Raffles collection

Anyway, the exhibition explains that Raffles was an avid collector of objects from the region, particularly from Java but also from China, Sumatra (now part of Indonesia), India, Burma (Myanmar) and Siam (Thailand). He had the true collector mentality, he was fascinated with bargaining and bartering for obscure objects, and then categorising them and arranging them.

Eventually he accumulated some 2,000 objects which provide us with a vital record of the art and court cultures of Java from approximately the 7th century to the early 19th century.

This exhibition presents the cream of Raffles’s personal collection and adds some loan objects from the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, seen here in the UK for the first time. So it’s a collaborative exhibition and will transfer to the Singapore museum next year.

The exhibition is divided up into quite a few sub-sections, each devoted to a specific type of artefact. These include:

  • Hindu and antiquities
  • bronze Buddhas and bodhisattvas
  • protective amulets
  • theatrical puppets
  • theatrical masks
  • musical instruments
  • stone sculptures
  • metal sculptures

In all there are 130 objects, many of them very beautiful. I think the curator was wise to begin with a dramatic display of theatrical face masks and stick puppets from across Java, since these are by far the most colourful and attractive objects.

Javanese theatre masks

We learn that Java and the nearby islands were home to a combination of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, until Islam arrived around 1400. This explains the number of Hindu and Buddhist statues on display.

It also explains another particular thread of Raffles’s collection, which was the organised visits he paid to a series of famous Hindu and Buddhist archaeological sites. Each of these is given its own section in the display cabinets, with a label explaining its location (and a map), a photo of the modern site, and then examples of drawings made at the locations. Often these drawings are not by him; he bought them off Dutch antiquarians who had visited and sketched the various sites.

To be honest, I found these worthy but a bit boring – one for the specialist in the religious architecture of medieval Java, maybe.

Pair of drawings showing a temple covered in foliage (right), and as imagined in a complete state (left), with commentary by G. P. Baker. H. C. Cornelius (1774–c.1833), around 1807

The curator makes the interesting point that what’s interesting about many of these drawings is the way they have been ‘beautified’ i.e. touched up to appeal to the late-eighteenth century taste for ruins, especially ruined temples, churches etc. Most of the buildings remain today and don’t look remotely as weathered and picturesque as these stylish drawings.

Raffles’ colonial motivation

Raffles had an ulterior motive for making such an extensive collection. The British had seized Java from the Dutch when the latter allied with Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars. However, we gave it back to the Dutch with the peace of 1815, but Raffles thought this was a mistake. He thought Indonesia ought to be a British colony. According to the curator this was based not only on straightforward mercantile considerations, but also on a particular view of history.

Raffles subscribed to one of the many theories of history floating around during the Enlightenment, in his case the view that civilisations rise and fall in a continual ebbing and flowing.

He thought the impressive ruins which he visited, and the highly crafted artifacts which he bought, showed that Java had once had a great civilisation… and could do so once again, if carefully tutored and supported by a benevolent patron, namely the British.

Therefore Raffles made his extensive collection, at least in part, to persuade his British masters that the island was worth taking over as a British protectorate. Same goes for the enormous two-volume History of Java which contains a monumental survey and history of the island state. In it Raffles provides a comprehensive ethnographic description of the island’s society, describing its economy, trade, languages and dialects, and religious and social customs, together with a detailed history of the island, including a discussion of the introduction of Islam.

He was a true collector and early ethnographer, but also a man of his time and a thorough colonialist. This exhibition is a truly fascinating insight, less into the man, than into the history of the place whose artifacts and objects he collected so assiduously.

Finally, from the whole collection of masks and puppets and statues and swords and ceramics and drawings, I thought by far the most winning object was one of the ‘additional’ objects on loan to the exhibition and not actually collected by Raffles himself, but from a much later generation – this wonderfully intricate model ship made entirely out of cloves!

Model boat from the Maluku islands, made of cloves and fibre, late 19th century

Curator

Alexandra Green


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

TPG New Talent 19 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

TPG New Talent

TPG New Talent (TNT) was launched in 2019 by The Photographers’ Gallery as a way to identify and champion under-recognised or emerging UK-based artists and photographers who use photography as a key part of their practice.

It continues a tradition of programmes designed by TPG to support practitioners and confirms an ongoing commitment to ensuring new photographic practices are given a public platform.

Showing a range of approaches to both the medium and exhibition making, the artists selected for the first edition of TNT present works which encompass the full spectrum of photographic practices today. From the experimental to the documentary, both the works and presentations test the capacity and materiality of the form, using found imagery, surface manipulation, collage and 3D processes to document contemporary stories through personal memories and collective myths.

A long list of entrants was whittled down by TPG’s curatorial team, and then a final selection made by the American photographer and artist, Jim Goldberg.

In addition to the forthcoming exhibition showcase, the artists each receive twelve months of individual mentoring. Working with TPG curators to identify a particular area of their wider practice needing development and support, each artist will then be paired with a carefully selected mentor from the creative field, who will provide specific and ongoing advice and tutelage. Over the course of a year the mentorship will include studio visits, meetings, discussion and critiques relating to their work.

In other words, a fantastic opportunity for young photographers and artists to get support and help with their careers.

Barely British

My first reaction on reading the wall label was a twinge of disappointment. I had caught the phrase about the scheme being for ‘UK-based’ artists and so mistakenly thought the show would showcase young British talent. Not at all. Of the eight finalists, only two are British and, given that the final judge was American (why an American?), I felt there was only a slender connection between the exhibition and Britain.

Barely photography

The next obvious point is that many of the exhibits aren’t narrowly about photography. To quote again, they ‘present works which encompass the full spectrum of photographic practices today… using found imagery, surface manipulation, collage and 3D processes…’ This explains why the eight finalists are not referred to as photographers, but as artists.

This, in itself, is an interesting fact to mull over. The leading gallery of photography in London (maybe in the UK) runs a competition for young photographers, but frames it as not being about photography per se, but uses a much broader definition to encompass all kinds of art, which may, or may not, use photographic processes or elements. Hmmm. This is good, open, imaginative and inclusive. But there is the slight implication that, these days, simple photography is not enough.

The eight artists

Rhiannon Adam (b.1985, Ireland)

Adam has produced a wall-sized montage about the remote Pacific island of Pitcairn.

Big Fence / Pitcairn (2015-18) by Rhiannon Adam

Pitcairn is the last British Overseas Territory in the South Pacific and might ring a few bells because it was here that the mutineers from HMS Bounty settled after turning on the tyrannical Captain Bligh, and taking over the ship, as portrayed in numerous books and movies. More recently Pitcairn was in the news because of a child sex abuse scandal, which led to the conviction of eight men including the mayor.

Adam made the long journey to Pitcairn and, due to the infrequent shipping schedule, was caught there for three months. The island is a tiny volcanic strip measuring just two by one miles, and is several days sail away from the nearest airstrip. Weary of intrusive journalists and outsiders, the islanders were understandably wary of Adam’s interest and reluctant to be photographed.

To create this wall-sized installation Adam used expired Polaroid film to take some photographs, creating a sense of decay. The installation also combines blow-ups of newspaper articles, alongside stills from the various movie versions of the mutiny on the Bounty, contemporary colour photos, a glass case containing a model of the Bounty, as well as a book on a shelf jutting out from the wall, and headphones on which you can hear voices of some of the islanders Adam interviewed. As the curators pithily put it, ‘a selection of audio, archive and ephemera’.

The general idea is Paradise Lost. Whereas the 1950s movies portrayed Pitcairn as a tropical paradise, the child sex scandals exposed it as being just like anywhere else, sordid and in thrall to bullying perverts. The population of the island has nowadays dwindled down to 40 adults and one child. In other words, the island is doomed. Cheerful stuff.

Miguel Proença (b. 1984, Portugal)

Miguel Proença’s series of colour photos Behind the Hill investigates ancient religions and traditional healing.

Extracts from the series Behind The Hill by Miguel Proença

Proença set out to photograph individuals and scenes remote from our 21st century technological civilisation. The result is traditional colour photos masks, rituals and objects that offer their adherents and practitioners good health and prosperity, for example the guide to palm reading in the middle of the bottom row. And the photo, top left, of a boy wearing a bright red traditional mask is stunning.

Giovanna Petrocchi (b. 1988, Italy)

Opposite Adam’s wall-size collage from Pitcairn is this weird, striking and attractive assembly by Giovanna Petrocchi.

Modular artefacts, Mammoth remains (2019) by Giovanna Petrocchi

Petrocchi combines personal photographs with found imagery and hand-made collages with 3-D printing processes. She creates imaginary landscapes inspired by surrealist paintings, virtual realities and ancient cultures. Influenced by museum displays and catalogues, Petrocchi populates these landscapes with her own collection of surreal artefacts.

I really liked the images themselves, whether presented untouched, or distorted by the surreal addition of masks or limbs.

I liked the way the small, framed, colour images were pasted onto the larger black and white images, breaking up their flow and symmetry.

I liked the way glass cases stick out from the wall.

The curators reckon her work:

aims to question the very idea that culture can be contained by national boundaries and institutions, revealing instead an entity in constant flux, subject to transformative processes of migration and exchange.

Maybe. But my first, initial, visual and emotional gut reaction was how elegant and tasteful her assemblies were. Beautiful, even, if we may use that old-fashioned word.

Alberto Feijóo (b. 1985, Spain)

Feijóo’s work is at the more experimental end of the spectrum. He combines photography, collage, book design and model making, creating results which might be more associated with architects and engineers. Hence the unappealing plywood construction on display here.

New Babylon by Alberto Feijóo

Sparse, isn’t it? The coloured models didn’t do it for me, neither did the layout of the ‘rooms’ with coloured bits stuck on. Or the big plywood frame in the background with much larger colour photo montages stuck on it. Allegedly, it offers:

a space for the viewer to encounter the incorporated objects and images like a roaming character within an extended tableau.

And:

His structures are further inspired by artist Constant Nieuwenhuys’s New Babylon, which imagines a utopian city through the construction of a series of models.

As my son would say, ‘Meh.’

Alice Myers (b. 1986, UK)

Alice Myers works with photography, sound and video to engage with specific communities and places. Made over the course of two years in collaboration with refugees and migrants in Calais, Nothing is Impossible Under the Sun incorporates sound recordings, conversation transcripts, found snapshots, moving image, drawings and closely observed photographs.

Using her role as an outsider to observe how events unfold around the camera, Myers rejects neat linear narratives to evoke disorientation in both her book and video works. This mirrors the physical and psychological spaces that people without documents are consigned to.

The same bien-pensant motive, in other words, which fuelled many of the illustrators and writers featured in the recent exhibition about refugees and migrants at the House of Illustration.

Myers’ work was presented on three video screens which are impossible to capture on a stills camera like mine. When it comes to assessing art videos, it’s relevant that I used to be a television series producer. I hired and fired series directors. Every day directors sent me their showreels on spec, looking for work, which I would sit and watch. Sometimes these showreels were stunningly briliant. Some of the short pieces haunt me to this day. This explains why art videos have to be really outstanding to make an impression on me. These ones didn’t.

And they also didn’t register when compared with almost all the work by or about refugees in the House of Illustration show. Much of that was moving, brilliant and inspiring.

Seungwon Jung (b. 1992, South Korea)

This was the best body of work by far.

From the series Bark by Seungwon Jung

Jung prints fragmented photographic images onto fabric, then uses this as a surface to further work into, apply onto and remove from, different elements. Starting with a completely printed length of fabric, she then submits this to various physical processes including de-threading, unpicking, rethreading and reconfiguring.

The results are stunning. There’s a set of three framed smaller images which are lovely. But it is these two big works, attached to scroll-like sheets of paper hanging from the wall, which really convey the power of the techniques she’s developed. And they are both trumped by an enormous semi-transparent hanging fabric on which she has printed the bark of what looks like a plane tree and which divides the room in half (you can see the three smaller framed works behind it). Wow. Visually and physically stunning. What a great idea. So simple but so effective.

Installation view of Seungwon Jung at TPG New Talent 19 at the Photographers’ Gallery

Adama Jalloh (b. 1993, UK)

Adama Jalloh is a black woman photographer from South London and her work:

explores themes such as identity, race and culture.

Jalloh’s work is straight-up, black-and-white, social documentary photography, and very good, too. There’s a sequence recording a ‘Sara’, an Islamic custom in the Sierra Leonean community that involves Imams praying for a deceased family member or friend. Offerings of traditional food and money are given and condolences are expressed. Visitors are also allocated matching fabrics (known as Ashobi) which they can style to their individual taste.

Photos by Adama Jalloh

If you do a Google image search or go to Jalloh’s website, you’ll quickly see how all her photos are immediately evocative and characterful, conveying a powerful feel for black people and communities.

Frankly the half dozen photos here easily stand out as beautifully composed and printed, but lest this section be ‘merely’ about photography, there’s an interactive element. There are some headphones hanging on a hook, which we’re meant to put on so we can listen to an audio conversation between family members spoken in the Krio and English languages.

Chiara Avagliano (b.1988, Italy)

Chiara Avagliano’s work is another combination of photographs with sculpture and other materials.

All the works here relate to ‘Val Paradiso’, an imaginary valley created by Avagliano and based on real locations from her childhood in Northern Italy. The valley is the setting for a semi-fictional coming-of-age tale told from different points of view and ‘explores the rituals of female friendship, childhood, mythology and make-believe’.

The photos themselves are big, colour and entirely conventional, if haunting.

Val Paradiso by Chiara Avagliano

At the heart of Val Paradiso is a magical lake, Lake Tovel, which turns red in the summer months. By this stage I wasn’t sure what was fact, fiction or magical realism in this display, but I didn’t care. It’s fun. Apparently, Avagliano collaborated with her sister and friends to stage events from the fictional stories and photographed themselves doing it, which explains some of the images here.

And not all of them are photographs. There are a few contour maps of the valley in cases fixed to the wall, and in a big display case a wooden model of the mythical lake.

Model of the mythical lake at the heart of Val Paradiso by Chiara Avagliano

Once I’d understood the intention, I liked this project. It doesn’t have the dramatic impact of Seungwon Jung’s bark hangings, or the vivid street vibe of Adama Jalloh’s black Londoners, or the elegant surrealism of Giovanna Petrocchi’s altered museum pieces.

But the idea is simple and haunting, and the photos are wonderfully atmospheric. I can imagine it being a really good piece of teenage girl fiction, of the kind my teenage daughter reads (and sometimes lends to me).

The artists’ websites

Curators

The TPG New Talent was selected by Jim Goldberg, curated by Karen McQuaid, art direction and graphic design is by Sarah Boris.

Demographics

The exhibition is housed in two rooms on the fifth floor of the Photographers’ Gallery. When I visited, at one o’clock on a Wednesday, it was completely empty, which was very restful on a hot day in central London but not, I imagine, what the Photographers’ Gallery like to see.


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

%d bloggers like this: