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 who Borges ha 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 expands into a more grandiose type of joke as Borges does 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 then leads 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 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 subject of this narrative..

Born Edward Osterman, he was Jewish but grew into a ‘colossal’ and violent killer who lorded it over the 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, collapses on the floor and bleeds to death. The hoodlums of both gangs strip him of his clothes, possibly rip open his guts and put out his intestines, cut off his finger to steal his ring, then chuck him out the window into the river Maldonado which flowed just outside.

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 writing altogether in favour of his ‘baroque’ and mind-bending essays.

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 it because the angels recreate his worldly house and study, but 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, with the result that the angels slowly degrade his house and even his own body, day by day he 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 until 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 and 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 sets off and after a gruelling journey facing numerous threats and natural disasters, finally arrives 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 before being 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 treasure under the fountain but he knows it’s just a dream and has never acted on it. He lets the whipped merchant go, who returns to his house, digs under the fountain, and discovers a vast treasure.

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 which the Dean is blessed with a series of promotions within the Catholic church, ending up being elected Pope, and at each step of the way the newly promoted Dean puts him off until he 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 standing in the deep cellar with Don Illán who says ‘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. is careful to cite the sources of the story, in a parody of a learned or scholarly article, and 2. mocks the content of his own story with irony and knowing humour.

The first quality (showy 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 he was early on inspired by 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

I hate to say it but probably one of the recurring tropes of the stories is (the currently 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.

Aha. 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.

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

It’s 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 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 took away the strong conviction that the Baroque is about Power, the Complete Power of supreme monarchs and/or the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church in Italy. Apart from anything else, Baroque works of art and churches are massive and imposing whereas, if Borges is anything, he 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.

He may be accurate in invoking the idea of the 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. And the Baroque is deadly serious, whereas Borges’s work is informed above all by a dry, metaphysical humour, that comes from somewhere else. That is Borges’s invention, filtered through the gentlemanly, bookish, ironic tone of the late Victorian British authors he loved.

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

Spook Country by William Gibson (2007)

When she wrote about things, her sense of them changed, and with it, her sense of herself.
(Spook Country page 174)

The Sprawl trilogy

Gibson’s first three novels made up the Sprawl trilogy (1984 to 1988), science fiction stories set 50 or so years in the future (Gibson is on record as saying he thinks Neuromancer is set in 2035) in a society dominated by huge urban conurbations (the entire East Coast of America has ceased to be made up of distinct cities and is one endless dome-covered megacity known as the ‘Sprawl’). This future society is drenched in digital tech where hackers can plug their brains directly into the vast matrix of digital data flows. The narratives of all three Sprawl novels unfold grippingly complex plots, told in adrenaline-fuelled, cyberpunk prose, leading up to the revelations that these vast rivers of data are reaching an omega point whereby the combined power of the worldwide web is arriving at a transformational moment when it will gain full self-consciousness (exactly as the Skynet defence system does in the contemporaneous Terminator franchise of movies).

The Bridge Trilogy

Gibson’s next three novels formed the Bridge trilogy (1993 to 1999), set a more modest 20 or so years in the future, around 2010 or so, after a cataclysmic earthquake has struck California causing the state to be split in two. They take their name from the Golden Gate bridge which was so badly damaged in the quake that it was abandoned as a means of transport and was quickly squatted by all manner of lowlifes, the poor and marginalised, who turned it into a futuristic favela made up of home-made building units, streets and shops suspended from the bridge’s steel coils, a vivid and striking recurring image.

Against this backdrop were set the intertwining stories of Gibson’s quirky characters: a tough security guard down on his luck, a sexy bicycle courier, a mentally challenged digital ninja who spots patterns in the endless flow of data around the internet, a rock star who marries an entirely digital cyber-woman, a deaf and dumb street kid, a silent Taoist assassin. The techie ends of the plots involved digital headsets and some internet technology but there was a lot less of it than in the Sprawl novels and, similarly, the prose was still zippy and tight, but less densely street cool than in the earlier trilogy.

The Blue Ant trilogy

Then came the Blue Ant Trilogy (2003 to 2010) of which this novel is the middle instalment. These complete Gibson’s ‘retreat from the future’ and are set in the contemporary world, each one set more or less the year before they were published, so roughly 2002, 2006 and 2009 respectively.

I thought Blue Ant was going to refer to something cryptic and obscure and cool and so was very disappointed to discover it’s just the name of the secretive (fictional) advertising agency run by super-clever, super-rich philosopher-businessman, Hubertus Bigend. When I first read that name it struck me that Gibson was taking the piss out of his legions of fans and devotees in the book world, taunting them to swallow such a preposterous moniker. At that point, my willing suspension of disbelief in Gibson’s fiction snapped and I realised several things:

Irritating features

1. A little like J.G. Ballard in his final phase, Gibson has ceased being a writer of inspiringly visionary science fiction and has become the author of slick, very well-made but ultimately pretty traditional thrillers, with a bit of pop culture window dressing to tickle the style magazines, i.e:

Women

The protagonists are mostly young women (Cayce Pollard in book 1 of this trilogy, Hollis Henry in books 2 and 3).

Paint it black

Everyone wears black, black t-shirts, black leather jackets, black shades, black underpants, black jeans, black socks, black shoes, because black is cool, daddy-o. Groovy, man. Dig your black shades, baby.

Ethnic characters

There’s a lot of ethnic minorities involved, gesturing at our modern multicultural, cosmopolitan societies although, noticeably a) nearly all of them are East Asian – I mean Japanese or Chinese – with very few, if any people, of colour, and b) none of the lead characters are not Caucasian. In this, as in so many other ways, despite the superficial gloss, pretty traditionalist.

Digital

There’s still quite a lot of hi-tech digital gadgetry but it’s got more and more meh. Also, instead of being a prophet, his books have started to be wrong and misleading when it comes to the digital world. He is writing quite limited ideas of virtual art but this was overtaken even as Gibson wrote his books by the far more revolutionary impact of smartphones and social media.

In both Spook Country and Zero History the lead character, Hollis Henry, is researching and writing about a small group of ‘cutting edge’ artists who are creating holographic art works which exist in public spaces, on street corners, but can only be seen by people wearing the right hi-tech headgear. It’s called ‘locative’ art. Well, that never caught on, compared to Facebook, twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok and so on. The central revolution of social media is how mass it is, how many people have taken up, with plenty of anti-social and negative effects. None of this is anticipated in Gibson’s books.

Instead he is a) working on a very outdated cultural model that new developments will come among a tiny cohort of avant-garde artists and b) much more telling is the fact that the ‘locative artist’ Hollis first meets and interviews, Alberto Corrales, has gone to this enormous time and effort in order to create 3D holographic images of…. Jim Morrison and River Phoenix, the latter an image of Phoenix’s body lying dead of a drugs overdose outside the ‘legendary’ Viper Rooms in Los Angeles. In other words, fantastically dated and retro. Creating 3D images of dead rock gods and movie stars struck me as the opposite of cutting edge.

Rock music

I find it almost unbelievable how tiresome, dated and crappy Gibson’s obsession with rock music and rock bands is: characters constantly reference Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison as if they released their latest discs last week instead of having been dead for half a century. But far more important in terms of making the books almost unreadable is the fact that the central character of the second two novels, Hollis Henry, was actually in a rock band – she is the ex-singer of a now-defunct fictional rock band called The Curfew.

We learn next to nothing about how the Curfew actually omposed their songs or recorded or performed them because Gibson isn’t actually interested in music at all. As someone who plays piano and guitar and has played bass in various bands, I know something about these processes and feel embarrassed for Gibson as he fills his books with would-be ‘cool’ insights about the world of rock music and the practicalities of music making, which feel as they’re copied from the pages of naff style magazines from the 1980s.

There is nothing, nothing, about the actual music. No description of the chord structures, the guitar or piano or bass sound, the tempos or dynamics of any of the songs, the challenge of performing highly produced music live, nothing. If you are actually interested in rock music (as I am) these books are a desert, a black hole of zero information on the subject.

Instead rock music is used by Gibson as a marker of hip, of cool. It allows the characters to make endless ‘cool’ references, to be hip to drugs, man, and bleat about the traumas of being endlessly ‘on the road’ and smashing up hotels and having immense fights and then ‘breaking up the band’, man.

This isn’t an incidental detail, it’s central to the other characters Hollis meets and interacts with. During the novel she taps up the other members of ‘the band’: guitarist Reg Inchmale, drummer Heidi Hyde, and makes countless wistful references to Jimmy Carlyle, the bassist who managed to kill himself from a heroin overdose, his death bringing the band to an end.

It’s bad enough having to meet the ‘wise’ and dependable Inchmale and the super-angry, over-emotional Heidi Hyde in Spook Country but when all three characters are relocated to London in Zero History we have the added indignity of meeting other members of the ‘rock elite’ from other crappy, made-up bands, who are all as insufferably ‘cool’ as each other and all know all about the local ‘scene’, man.

You’d learn more about the dynamics of an actual band and actual music-making from watching Spinal Tap. Or The Blues Brothers in which actual music is actually performed. No music is performed in any of these books. God forbid. It would upset the hang of the characters’ black designer jackets.

Disappointing lack of insight into the present

Concurrently, Gibson has ceased writing about the future. Step by step each trilogy has retreated from the future and now Gibson is just writing about… the present, just like ten thousand other novelists and columnists.

The first two novels in the Blue Ant trilogy heavily referenced the big events of their day, namely 9/11 (2001) and the war in Iraq (2003). This should be riveting to someone like me, a close follower of contemporary politics, but, very disappointingly, Gibson’s novels have almost nothing to say about international or domestic politics or contemporary society. Contemporary society is a consumer paradise and, behind the scenes, it’s a bit corrupt, seem to be his big discoveries.

By now there are no ideas at all in his novels, which are really showcases for a 50-something’s Dad ideas of ‘cool’ – rock bands and rock chicks wearing black t-shirts and black leather jackets and black shades, impressing each other with snazzy gadgets, flying round the world on Hubertus Bigend’s bottomless expense accounts, on wild goose chases which have a disappointing tendency to fizzle out at the end.

The trouble with writing a ‘neat, up-to-the-minute spy thriller’ (as the London newspaper Metro described Spook Country when it first came out) is that neat, up-to-the-minute spy thrillers quickly go out of date. Who wants yesterday’s papers?

For example, Gibson seems proud of the way some of the characters ‘Google’ something on the internet, as if that’s a super-early use of the verb. His lead character is shown hacking into other people’s wifi rooters, as if how to do that is a big discovery. Bigend gives his employees bolt-on scramblers to attach to their phones. A central element in the plot is people using iPods as containers for contraband information. 14 years later this all seems very, meh, very yawn.

In interviews Gibson said the novel is set in the spring of 2006, before the financial crash and, more importantly, before the advent of Facebook, twitter and the rest of the social media programs. It is, therefore, a novel which claims to be with-it and futuristic, but now reads like a relic from an antiquated, pre-social media world.

The plot

As usual with all Gibson’s novels, there are three distinct storylines each featuring small groups of characters, appearing in self-contained, alternating chapters. For over half the novel these separate storylines appear to have nothing in common, so part of the book’s entertainment value is wondering how they will eventually impinge and collide, and being on the qui vive for the clues the author drops as he slowly weaves them together.

1. Hollis Henry

Hollis Henry is a young freelance woman journalist who’s been engaged by a magazine named Node, a fictional European version of the real-world tech magazine Wired (p.39) (so you have to have a feel for what Wired is about to fully place her. It is worth noting that Gibson has been a regular contributor to Wired magazine and featured on its cover in its first year, 1994 so he knows whereof he writes, and his writing in general confirms me in my suspicion that I never need to read a magazine like Wired.)

Hollis’s job is to write a piece about a digital artist named Alberto Corrales who uses ‘locative’ technology to create cutting-edge digital artworks in Los Angeles (you put on a headset and see 3-D versions of the corpses of famous Hollywood characters in various downtown locations).

Hollis was a member of the ‘legendary’ fictional band, The Curfew, alongside band drummer Heidi Hyde, guitarist Reg Inchmale and bassist Jimmy Carlyle, which impresses the people she meets, including the ‘locative artist’ Corrales, as well as the owner of Node, advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

2. Tito

Tito is aged 22 (p.11) and Alejandro (aged 30) are cousins, part of an extended family of immigrants to America.

‘They’re one of the smallest organised crime families operating in the United States. Maybe literally a family. Illegal facilitators, mainly smuggling. But a kind of boutique operation, very pricey. Mara Salvatrucha looks like UPS in comparison. They’re Cuban-Chinese and they’re probably all illegals.’ (p.230)

Tito lives in a crappy apartment in Manhattan. They are refugees from Havana, Cuba where, improbably, their grandfather seems to have been something to do with the KGB (p.72). Their aunt, Juana, is a devout believer in Afro-Cuban pagan gods of Santería, with numerous incense-laden shrines to them in her apartment.

It’s only a third of the way into the novel that we come to realise that both Tito and Alejandro are well-trained operatives in a Russian spy methodology. They have been raised in the way of the systema, the Russkie name for cutting-edge spycraft. It slowly emerges that they are following the orders of someone referred to simply as ‘the old man’ (we never learn his name but we do learn that ‘he looked a little like William Burroughs, minus the bohemian substrate’ (p.296), a characteristically dated, Beatnik reference.)

3. Milgrim

Milgrim (no indication whether this is his first name or last name) is an unusually literate drug addict who is fluent in Russian, and in particular an Anglicised form of Russian which is referred to as Volapük by the shady secret operative, Brown, who has sort of kidnapped Milgrim and keeps him dosed up with the prescription tranquiliser he’s addicted to, Ativan. (Milgrim’s drug dealer when was at liberty was Dennis Birdwell, p.100)

Having no money of his own, and being utterly dependent on the daily doses of drugs which Brown allows him, Milgrim is forced to tag along while Brown plants listening devices on what he refers to as an IF (short for Illegal Facilitator, page 17). Early on we learn that the apartment Brown is going to the effort of bugging, and the figure he is spying on from a camouflaged van full of surveillance equipment, is none other than Tito the Cuban refugee. Why? That’s precisely the question the reader is meant to ask, and which draws us into the ensuing 350 pages of tangled plot.

The MacGuffin

The pointless goal

According to Wikipedia:

“In fiction, a MacGuffin is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself. The term was originated by Angus MacPhail for film, adopted by Alfred Hitchcock, and later extended to a similar device in other fiction.”

In most of Gibson’s novel there is some secret which brings together the 3 or 4 separate groups of characters, in an elaborate interweaving of storylines towards whose revelatory climax the narrative hurtles with ever-increasing speed.

The incessant travelling

Something which isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article is that the MacGuffin often requires an extraordinary amount of travelling to find it. This is as true of the Holy Grail in the original medieval Arthurian legends as it is of, say, the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark or the endless driving and traipsing around Los Angeles required by Philip Marlowe, at the more humdrum end of the spectrum.

In hundreds of thousands of other narratives like these, the seekers after the MacGuffin must travel far and wide and undergo various perils in order to track it down.

And so it is that, in the second half of this novel, the three sets of characters make substantial journeys across America to arrive at the slightly unusual location for the denouement of the plot, Vancouver docks.

1. Tito and the old man are taken from New York by van to a private airfield, and flown in a plane which stops numerous times to refuel en route at remote rural locations across America, arriving on an island where they pick up a jeep concealed in brush, drive to the coast and are in turn collected by a boat which transports them by sea into Canada.

2. Hollis and Odile fly from Los Angeles to Vancouver, are greeted by a Blue Ant functionary who drives them to the astonishingly luxurious Blue Any apartment, complete with free cars and a hover bed.

3. Milgrim and Brown go by train from New York’s Penn station to a safe house in Philadelphia and then by swish Jetstream private jet to an island from where they are taken by boat across the border into Canada.

Trains and boats and planes. The extent of this gee-whiz travel and the fact that everything is paid for and pre-planned is one aspect of the novel’s fantasy escapism. How lovely to have someone lay on all this expensive travel without a moment’s hassle.

The mastermind paymaster

I still think naming the impresario who sets this and the previous novel in motion Hubertus Bigend is Gibson making a calculated snub to his readers. It is both a joke for those with the right sense of humour, but also a not-very-subtle way of saying, ‘If you suckers’ll buy this guy’s preposterous name, you’ll buy anything.’

The idea of this character is that Bigend is a fabulously rich, fabulously successful advertising guru, who is interested in off-the-wall activities which lead him into realms far outside advertising accounts, partly out of pure curiosity which he is rich enough to indulge, and partly because it helps maintain his ‘edge’ (Daddy-o) and sometimes inspires ideas for new campaigns. This motivation supposedly explains why Bigend is prepared to provide bottomless funding for the two sassy young women protagonists of Pattern Recognition and Spook Country…

(To justify the idea that the wild goose chases in these novels do have some kind of practical payoff, we learn on page 108 of this novel that the outcome of Cayce Pollard’s prolonged search for the video footage being released snippet by snippet in the previous book, Pattern Recognition, was that Bigend developed a thing called ‘Trope Slope… our virtual pitchman platform’ (p.108). I wonder if this is intended to sound as lame as it does. Maybe a similarly global quest featuring mysterious video footage was necessary to develop Tesco’s strapline, ‘Every little helps’.)

So there’s this elaborate justification woven around Bigend’s character and business practices but, at the end of the day, this is just the basic James Bond setup. Whatever fake passport and fake identity and flash gadgets and fast cars and plane tickets Bond requires to do his job, he is given. It’s exactly the same with the two women freelancers working for Bigend – they want it, they get it, and they fly off somewhere exotic.

In fact the novel contains a number of conscious echoes of James Bond and his world of glamour, gadgets and girls. Bigend’s enabler, the person Cayce or Hollis ring up to get plane tickets or a new car or laptop or whatever, is another supremely capable young woman, in this case named Pamela Mainwaring. She appears in all three novels in the trilogy as Bigend’s super-efficient fixer and she’s basically an updated version of Miss Moneypenney.

That Gibson realises at various points that he is, in effect, writing a Bond novel for the 2000s, Bond with a laptop, is acknowledged in several explicit Bond references, on pages 160, 166 and 344.

Personally, the idea of slightly puzzled agents in the field reporting back to an avuncular, all-seeing older man, who works from a series of secret locations equipped with vast screens, maps of the relevant cities and advanced tracking technology, reminded me of the Man from UNCLE TV series, and the mastermind paymaster figure of Alexander Waverly played by the lovely Leo G. Carroll. Despite all the shiny prose style and laptops, Gibson’s novels feel, deep down, that dated.

The payoff – spoiler alert!

In the end the entire plot turns out to be about Iraq and corrupt United States government money.

A hundred pages or so into the text we learn that Tito is being ‘run’ by an old unnamed man, who claims to have known Tito and Alejandro’s grandfather back in Havana. This, combined with lots of references to the KGB, and a couple of mentions of the surprising fact that Tito and Alejandro learned their ‘tradecraft’, their systema, from a Viet Cong-era Vietnamese operative, these are all, I think, deliberate red herrings dropped by Gibson to suggest that the plot is all some spooky global conspiracy involving the successor to the KGB, the scarey FSB. But no, in the end…

The old guy who is in charge of the entire scam which lies at the heart of the story, is just a retired US secret service guy who is pissed off at the grotesque amounts of US government money being wasted and siphoned off in Iraq (all explained in chapter 71).

(In fact, I later find out, ‘the old man’ is referenced in this novel’s sequel, Zero History, and one of his operatives there suggests that he is motivated ‘by some sort of seething Swiftian rage that he can only express through perverse, fiendishly complex exploits, resembling Surrealist gestes.’ Something like the Situationist ethic so beloved of media and literature students, and dating back, like so much in Gibson’s worldview, to the 1960s. [Zero History, chapter 51].)

Hacked off at the way billions of US dollars are being poured into the bottomless pit of Iraq and wondering what to do about it, ‘the old man’ and others like him have got wind of a particular shipping container containing $100 million in cash which had been sent off to Iraq by sea. However, something in the Iraq situation changed and the container got rerouted, then delayed and then cleverly ‘lost’ by the bad guys who wanted to steal it.

By ‘bad guys’ Gibson does not appear to mean Iraqis or Russians, but the kind of ‘rogue element’ within the US’s many security services and military operations who feature in movies like the Bourne series, bad guys based deep in the heart of Langley or the Pentagon or wherever. The plot then, once you get it straight, appears to be the very, very tired one of rotten apples inside the US Administration itself.

(It’s one of the many disappointing things about Gibson, once the facade of supercool hi-tech gadgetry is stripped away, that there is so much to say and think and write about how the sudden eruption [as it seemed to people who hadn’t been following it for years] of Islamic fundamentalism in 9/11, a decisive event which for years afterwards appeared to have tilted the entire world of geopolitics, security and culture on its side, but that Gibson has next to nothing to say about it. He has infinitely more to say about the minutiae of made-up rock bands and long-dead rock gods and fashion brands than about the fascinatingly shifting sands of international affairs. I find this deeply bathetic and disappointing.)

Anyway, the unnamed, retired, pissed-off ex-US secret service guy knows people who’ve hacked into the $100 million container’s tracking beeper, and so knows that it’s arrived in Vancouver, Canada. So he devises a scam and takes Tito in a plane across the States from New York to Vancouver, picking up a super-competent operative, an Englishman named Garreth (why not?) along the way.

After umpteen long-distance flights and boat trips this trio finally hole up in an arty loft conversion near the docks in Vancouver where they know from the tracker that the sky-blue container containing the swag has been unloaded, presumably to be shifted across the border into the States at some time.

They have hired this loft conversion because it gives an unimpeded view of the container across the way in the fenced-off dock area. That evening Garreth makes a big deal out of setting up one of those supercool sniper rifles with a tripod and telephoto lens which feature in every spy thriller of this type, up in this loft conversion, and fires nine bullets in a row along the bottom of the container.

Why? Because these are no ordinary bullets, they contain radioactive caesium stolen from a hospital or some similar cock and bull source. The idea is that the radioactivity will irradiate the entire container full of hundred dollar bills and make it impossible for the money smugglers to offload, launder or in any way use the stolen loot.

That’s it, that’s the scam, the MacGuffin and the climax to the novel. Why did the old man go to 360 pages worth of elaborate ruses to achieve this pretty simple goal? As he himself admits to Hollis, it’s a trivial amount in the grand scheme of things, but it makes him feel better. It doesn’t change anything in the real world, it just pisses of some super-criminals and makes the old man feel better.

See what I mean by Gibson’s novels having a tendency to hurtle in their supercharged prose towards a Grand Conclusion which is…er… a bit disappointing.

And Tito? He’s been brought along because if the container had a set of neat bulletholes in it officials would become suspicious. Tito’s role is to be smuggled into the waterfront container port on the same evening as the radioactive bullet shooting, with a coil of rope under his shirt and a hard hat to fit in with all the other stevedores, and to make his way among the milling dock workers till he’s just below the target container as Garreth shoots his 9 magic bullets… Then Tito’s job is to swarm up the side of the containers (the target one is the top one of a pile of three) and use a rope harness suspended from the top of the container to abseil carefully along the row of bulletholes and plug them each with a set of small, supermagnetic metal disks he’s been given for the job. Then slip back down, loosen the rope with a whiplash movement of the wrist, dump it and all other incriminating gear in a ‘dumpster’, scramble over the barbed wire and so to safety.

Actually into the arms of a rock band who happen to have been passing by (the docks are right in the city so there are roads running alongside the perimeter) and, when Tito says he can play keyboards, drive him off for a beer and a jam with the band. Seriously. You begin to wonder if Gibson’s obsession with rock bands might be a recognised mental disorder.

And Hollis Henry? Her assignment to interview the ‘locative’ artist (who creates holograms of dead celebs in Los Angeles streets) had led her to the hyper-secretive tech wizard, the man who actually enables and produces these holograms, one Bobby Chombo, ‘an expert in geospatial technologies’.

Hubertus Bigend, who has by now introduced himself to Hollis so she knows exactly who she’s working for and what he’s looking for (namely, intellectual thrills), explains to Bigend that it is Chombo he really wants to meet and/or work with. But only days after Corrales takes Hollis to Chombo’s pad to meet him for the first time, the paranoid genius disappears along with all his kit leaving an empty loftspace.

Where has he gone? Well, Vancouver, where he’s been summoned by the ‘old man’ supervising the scam. How does Hollis discover that’s where he’s gone? Well at the start of the story Hollis is staying with Odile:

‘A curator from Paris who specialises in locative art’ (p.251)

Gibson concocts a ridiculous coincidence whereby Odile turns out to know Chombo’s sister, Sarah Ferguson, who one day phones her to say she’s just seen her brother, Chombo, in their home town Vancouver (chapter 62), news which Odile passes onto Hollis. Pretty convenient coincidence!

When Hollis tells Hubertus that’s where this reclusive tech guru has gone, he immediately authorises whatever she needs, plane or train or automobile, to get her to Vancouver, so off she flies with Odile tagging along.

And a a day or two later, Hollis has only just tracked down Chombo’s new location to a building down a back alley in Vancouver when she is spotted and swept inside by calm omni-competent Garreth, and into the briefing meeting being given by the old man to Tito and Garreth. Because, as luck (or the conveniences of thriller fiction) would have it, Hollis has stumbled on their secret hideout only hours before they are scheduled to go on the big radioactive shoot.

Just about the one real divergence from action thriller clichés is that, rather than just ‘waste her’ as the bad guys would in any number of the shockingly brutal American thrillers we’re nowadays used to, these guys make Hollis feel right at home, order her takeaway pizza (while they have curry) and ask if she’d like to come along and witness the climax of the whole story.

Which, as an aspiring journalist, she willingly does, going along to the hired space opposite the docks, watching Garreth set up his super-duper gun, fire the radioactive bullets, dismantle the gun, and returning with him to the others. At which point they simply let her walk away once she’s given her word she won’t tell anyone. And she doesn’t. Aren’t people nice? What a lovely story!

And Brown and Milgrim? In the middle of the story they are involved in a complex red herring / distraction / bit of cooked-up plot surrounding iPods. The unnamed old man has known for some time that Brown, a disaffected member of some other branch of the vast and many-headed US security services, has been on their tail. So the old man has concocted a preposterously complicated red herring whereby Tito or others in his ‘family’ send iPods packed with geospatial information about the whereabouts of the $100 million container, carefully coded amid reams of harmless music so as to appear highly secret and terribly important, to a poste restante address in San Juan, before being forwarded on to another, secret location.

Brown and his people have been taken in by this elaborate ruse and are willing to go to any lengths to get hold of what are, in fact, completely worthless iPods. Not only that but Hubertus Bigend was also taken in by this elaborate and completely irrelevant red herring, and we the readers are also forced to put a lot of energy into piecing it together until we’re told, towards the end of the book, that it was all an elaborate waste of time. Completing a Sudoku puzzle would be more rewarding.

But Brown is told by his controller about the other team (old man, Tito and Garreth) making for Vancouver and so he drags drug-addicted Milgrim with him on a long complicated journey by train to a safe house in Philadelphia, then by plane on to somewhere else, ending up at an island on the US-Canada border, and then finally arriving in Vancouver itself.

Here, by another incredibly far-fetched coincidence which the narrative tries to gloss over, they are driving along in their rented SUV when they, by complete coincidence, accidentally see Tito walking along the road. He is in fact on his way, as the reader knows, towards the Vancouver docks because this is the evening when the radioactive shooting will take place.

In a flash, the easily-angered Brown floors the accelerator and tries to run Tito down, but the boy is agile and leaps out of the way, while Brown rams his rental car into a fire hydrant and injures himself. Brown is limping around on the sidewalk as they hear the sirens of approaching police cars but when he calls Milgrim (who was in the car with him) to heel, Milgrim, for the first time in the novel, simply says ‘No’. In the confusion of the crash he had simply reached over to Brown’s briefcase, for once unattended, and helped himself to a substantial supply of the tranquilisers he’s addicted to (brand name Rize), grabs the coat Brown had supplied him and an envelope full of hundred dollar bills they’ve been using as petty cash, and simply walks off in the opposite direction.

There’s a bit more: Milgrim stumbles into the empty loft space soon after Garreth had fired his shots from it, (watched by Hollis) and discovers Hollis’s handbag which she had carelessly left behind, steals her money and phone, dumps the rest. That’s the last we hear of this strange and attractive character, Milgrim…

Meanwhile Hollis has made it back to her hotel in one piece and her old bandmate Reg Inchmale turns up for coffee and conversation. In a sudden switch of focus, Hubertus loses all interest in the locative art and now makes Hollis and Inchmale a massive offer if they’ll re-record their greatest hit but with new lyrics, for a Chinese car commercial he’s doing…

But basically it’s a happy ending. No-one gets killed, hardly anyone really gets hurt, more or less everyone gets what they want. These My Little Pony happy endings are an unexpected feature of Gibson’s fiction.


Things which drive me nuts about William Gibson’s later novels

Young women protagonists

This and its predecessor, Pattern Recognition, both have young female lead protagonists. So, come to think of it, did some of the Bridge and Sprawl novels. Presumably this is intended to be very liberated and modern and manga, but I find Gibson’s impersonations of women significantly younger than him (half his age, in this book) a bit creepy.

In this novel the lead character is Hollis Henry, a freelance journalist who discovers that she (like the young freelance fashion expert, Cayce Pollard, in Pattern Recognition) is working for a company owned by advertising guru, Hubertus Bigend, himself a creepy, domineering character who takes Holly for a long car ride without explaining where they’re going, making her considerably anxious, exactly as he did to Cayce Pollard in the previous book.

It feels very close to an abduction, and although Gibson moves to neutralise him (Hollis describes him as ‘like a monstrously intelligent giant baby’) episodes like the creepy car drive made me envision Bigend as looking and behaving like Harvey Weinstein.

Dad rock

This lead woman character, Hollis Henry used to be the singer in a rock band (oh dear) named The Curfew, yawn, which had a female drummer (like the Velvet Underground, like Talking Heads). Gibson hasn’t grasped the obvious truth that all fictional rock bands sound stupid. This rock band background goes on to become a central theme of the book, as various people she meets are bowled over to be meeting the Hollis Henry, singer with the Curfew. But this is not impressive, I found it tiresome.

Leading off this central premise are other creaky old ‘rock’ references. One of Alberto Corrales’s virtual reality artworks is of Jim Morrison, which gives rise to a little flurry of learnèd analysis of the appeal of The Doors (1967 to 1971) and the band’s internal dynamics (Ray and Robbie, man, how they managed to keep the surly old drunk in line, man).

There’s many more laboured rock references: half a page of ponderous humour about rock stars having big noses in the Pete Townsend-Keith Moon tradition (p.56).

He mentions Kurt Cobain, not bad going considering Kurt killed himself in 1994 only 13 years before the novel was published, although that is getting on for 30 years ago from today’s perspective (p.63).

More typical is the reference to a Grateful Dead concert (p.323). And Gibson namechecks Anton Corbijn (p.85), superfamous rock photographer of the 1970s and 80s (and, his Wikipedia entry tells us, ‘creative director behind the visual output of Depeche Mode and U2’) who is also thanked in the Author’s Thanks at the back of the book and so is, presumably, a buddy of Gibson’s.

Presumably this is all meant to press the buttons of ageing rock fans (U2! Depeche Mode! Jim Morrison! The Grateful Dead!) Gibson was pushing 60 when this book was published and it shows: all these Rolling Stone-type references feel incredibly dated and old.

It’s a tremendous irony that Gibson is marketed as a prophet of the future and yet so many of his cultural references are to a dusty old era of rock music from forty and fifty years ago.

Black

Gibson is obsessed with the colour black, everything is coloured black, black leather jackets, black jeans, black socks, black pants, black shades, black Range Rover, black Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, black leather pork pie hat, black-painted plastic spyhole covers, black conference table, black thigh-length leather coat, black wool watch cap, black knit skull caps, black, button-studded leather, a black Passat, black trash bags, heavy duty black masking tape, high-topped black shoes, loose black cotton shirt, black shirt and tie, black Oxford shoes, black vinyl hanger bag, black three-button jacket, black leather wallet, black nylon carryall, Bigend’s magnetic bed is a perfect black square supported by braided cables of black metal, a black Zodiac boat, made of black inflated tubes, a hard black floor and a black outboard motor, black plastic Pelican case, black-framed sunglasses, black filter-mask, a large black pickup, a black t-shirt under a black jacket, black tripod, black climbing rope, black respirator, black badge case, spring-loaded black flap, black tanks, black bungees, black lens cap, black SUVs, bulky black-clad special forces officers, black doors, black houses, black streets (blacktop), black sky, and some heavy-duty, enormous black dudes in New York (chapter 41), because big black guys in this kind of white man fan fiction are, well, just cool cf Live and Let Die, the films of Quentin Tarantino, and every blaxploitation movie ever made.

A few other colours occasionally make an appearance but the relentless foregrounding of black everything gives the text a laughably old rock journalist chic, black shades, man, black leather, man, just like the Velvet Underground, man, characters wear black coats, black leather jackets, black t-shirts, drive black cars up to the jet black facade of fashionable bars (the Viper Rooms where River Phoenix died). Sooo achingly cool if you’re a child of the 60s and 70s but otherwise… so lame.

Brand namechecking

Almost as big as Gibson’s Dad rock and his infatuation with all things black, is Gibson’s obsessive brand namedropping.

Gibson is described as a pioneer, and he certainly was in his first half dozen novels, set as they are in gripping sci fi futures. But by the time of Hubertus Bigend he had settled into producing pretty mainstream Yank thrillers with a twist or two of digitech gimmicks, and one of the most tedious aspects of your modern American thriller is their obsession with brands, their compulsive need to know exactly what brand of car, gun, phone, jacket, handbag, jet, or phone etc which every character is toting, driving, flying, wearing or dialling. Thus in just the first 30 pages or so we have references to:

a Philip Starck elevator, Bluetooth, Adidas trainers, a classic VW beetle, iPod, Red Wing boots, counterfeit Prada, the Ikea couch, the Casio keyboard, Paul Stuart overcoat, Ziploc bag, Yohji Yamamoto, Tower Records, Virgin records, Chesterfield cigarettes,  Hamburger Hamlet, Schwabs, Aeron chairs, Lacoste golf shirt, Nyquil, Marlboro cigarettes, winkle-picker Keds shoes, faux Oakley keds, Adidas GSC9s, Starbucks, Cuisinart

The names of umpteen cars are reeled off: Passat, Econoline, Grand Cherokee Laredo Jeep, Ford Taurus, Phaeton, Ford. The planes include a vintage 1985 Cessna Golden Eagle described in some detail (p.221). There’s even careful brand naming of the Zodiac motorboat which Brown hires to take him and Milgrim up to Vancouver.

One way of viewing this obsessive naming of branded products is as an extension of the basic thriller idea of competence. The classic thriller hero, from Philip Marlowe to Jack Reacher, is not only physically strong and resourceful but knows everything – he is an expert at guns, cars and the ways of the underworld, can explain what’s going on to all the sidekicks and dames he picks up along the journey, is savvy and streetwise in ways you and I, dear suburban reader, can only gawp at in admiration.

The modern thriller’s obsession with brand names is, from one perspective, just an extension of that expertise, of that whip-smart super-awareness, into the over-saturated world of American consumer capitalism. The modern thriller narrator can name and identify any brand of anything. It is part of his omnicompetence.

That said, an equal and opposite way of interpreting it might be as satire on the super-saturation of American life with brands and endless adverts; a satire on the way that 21st century American culture is nothing but products, and American citizens are increasingly secondary to the master brands they purchase. A world in which human beings are the disposable appendages of the brands which now own their lives: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Instagram et al.

At some point early in the history of The Thriller this brand obsession may have been an innovative device for positioning both narrator and characters and the action itself, for quickly describing and placing them in the evermore complex mid-twentieth century society. But in Gibson’s hands the obsessive iteration of brand names becomes really irritating. It’s like being stuck inside a ten-hour-long ad break, like being locked up for a week in an American shopping mall lined with huge glass windows full of lifeless models demonstrating an endless array of glossy, vacuous products. Gibson knows this. At one point he refers to:

another concourse of heavily trademarked commerce (p.367)

But nowadays this brand obsession doesn’t convey anything at all except the complete lack of depth in American life, which has slowly and steadily become almost entirely about surfaces. Even in politics, anything resembling ‘ideas’ is being squeezed out of public life, until all that matters is appearances. Are you black or white? Are you a man or a woman? These seem to be almost the only two issues left in American political or cultural life. It represents the triumph of surfaces and the death of depth. ‘If you’re white you can’t understand…’, ‘if you’re a man you can’t understand…’ Until eventually there is nothing left beneath the surface of the American mind except people squabbling about their ‘identities’. Until it’s just Kim Kardashian in culture and Black Lives Matter in politics. All ideas are annihilated in a world of appearances.

And thus it is that, although he lost the 2020 Presidential election, the certifiable dunce Donald Trump actually increased his vote. Mind-boggling evidence that America has become a nation of dunces, but dunces who know their brands to a T, who can spot the difference between a Prada and a Ted Baker and a Gucci handbag, or an Alfa Romeo Stelvio, a Jaguar I-PACE or a Toyota Highlander Hybrid, at a hundred paces.

For me the obsession of American thrillers with ‘brands’ and products long ago lost any rationale in terms of either authorial ‘competence’ or biting satire, and simply became one more extension of the empty world of style magazines and TV makeover shows. It represents an apotheosis of empty-headed consumerism, the kind of mindless consumption which is eating up the planet and turning Yanks into the tens of millions of depthless cretins who voted for Donald Trump. Twice. Gibson is aware of it, the drowning consumerism of American society. There’s a little dialogue between Brown and Milgrim:

‘People say Americans are materialistic, do you know why?’ ‘Why?’ asked Milgrim… ‘Because they have better stuff,’ Brown replied. (p.256)

So you can see why Gibson’s brand obsession is a big problem for me. In interviews he claims to be ‘analysing’ or ‘critiquing’ contemporary society but, for me, his books are just another embodiment of flashy, empty American shallowdom. Completely in thrall to designer labels, ageing rock references and flashy digital gimmicks, Gibson’s novels are part of the problem, not the solution.

The odd good thing about Gibson’s later novels

Gibson’s command of language

Gibson still has a wonderful way with words, although he has got noticeably less zingy as the years have gone by. Still, there are plenty of places where he makes the English language turn on a sixpence, expressing neat insights with tremendous style.

  • Odile shrugged, in that complexly French way that seemed to require a slightly different skeletal structure. (p.222)
  • Nature, for Milgrim, had always had a way of being too big for comfort. (p.263)

Although he is not above what you might call fairly obvious druggy jokes in the manner of Tom Wolfe:

The sky had a Turner-on-crack intensity… (p.154)

And, above all, his consistent thing is using language to suggest edges, spaces of the mind, perceptions on the periphery, weird angles just on the edge of consciousness or perception. These crop up regularly and are very pleasurable. Thus when our heroes arrive at the huge warehouse loft where they’re going to set up the sniper rifle, Hollis notices:

It generated white noise, this place, she guessed, on some confusingly vast scale. Iron ambients, perceived in the bone. (p.329)

Interesting word, ‘ambients’. Gibson takes a lot of trouble to make his prose special, to find the phrases to express the peripheral insights he is trying to capture and he does capture this, these fleeting perceptions, with dazzling fluency, and this effort and prose achievement should be celebrated. At the end of the adventure Hollis returns to Bigend’s enormous apartment in Vancouver with its huge windows overlooking the bay:

She went upstairs. Dawn was well under way, lots of it… (p.350)

He can throw this kind of thing around with apparent ease, every page has generous doses of stylish phrasing. But, imho, the zingy style doesn’t make up for the disappointingly lame content.

Medieval mysticism

Milgrim is a drug addict and steals things but he is also a university graduate who once had a respectable career as a Russia translator before he became addicted to prescription drugs. He is, in other words, a perfect invention for a book like this, a man who combines lowlife street drug knowledge with extravagant flights of scholarly fancy.

Milgrim’s adbductor, Brown, gives him an overcoat to wear which has been stolen from somewhere and in it Milgrim unexpectedly finds a dog-eared copy of a serious history book about Christian heresies and millenarian sects of the Middle Ages. This is an unlikely subject to find in a techno-thriller. But this pretext gives Gibson no end of scope to have Milgrim get thoroughly stoned and have all manner of psychedelic fantasies or make long fantastical associations about weird and wonderful religious leaders and colourful practices. Sometimes Milgrim dreams of specific named medieval millenarians, or has waking visions of Hieronymus Bosch-style scenes. It lends the novel a pleasing patina of literacy and depth.

Kidnap psychology

In fact, arguably the best thing about the novel is the description of the peculiar bond between Brown, the renegade security operative, and Milgrim the drug-wrecked Russian translator he not so much abducts as rescues and then keeps like a stray dog. Brown feeds and doses Milgrim with his pills and orders him to carry out (pretty innocuous) tasks, like translating the occasional text they’ve intercepted being sent to or from Tito, or accompanying him to change the battery in the listening device he has (very amateurishly) hidden in Tito’s New York apartment.

All that stuff, the spook stuff, is a bit crap compared to either the Master of Spy Glamour (James Bond) or of Shabby Espionage (John le Carré). What is good and is almost worth reading the novel for in its own right, is the peculiar, undefined and shifting nature of the strange master and servant or kidnapper and abductee psychology which runs through the Brown-Milgrim storyline. This is unusual, unexpected, strange and worth the read.

The Orishas

Another notable strand or flavour in the book is the fact that Tito and Alejandro’s ‘aunt’, who brought them to New York from Havana when they were babies, Aunt Juana, worships a set of occult Cuban gods. They are referred to as the Orishas, who are deities in the Santería religion (named deities include Ochun, Babalaye, He Who Opens The Way, p.70, Orunmila, Elleggua, p.94).

There’s more detail on page 163. Oshosi gives Tito power in chapter 42. Oshosi saves Tito from Brown’s car ramming in chapter 75. Ochun helps him dangle from the harness beside the contained and seal the bullet openings in chapter 77.

Looking it up online we learn that the gods of the Santería religion are ultimately derived from the beliefs of the black slaves who were brought over from Africa to Cuba and, forbidden to practice their own beliefs, were forced to superimpose them onto the permitted icons and figures of Christianity. Thus in this belief system, shrines may contain images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary but these are ‘fronts’ for the older pagan gods.

What makes this more than local ‘colour’ is that at key moment in the book – namely when Tito is sent into Vancouver docks to patch up the bullet holes in the container – the text suggests that the Orishas literally take over his body and mind, giving him reflexes which keep him out of danger and a sense of purpose which guarantees the job will be done.

This is weird and powerful, although it actually has precedents in Gibson’s work. Something very similar happened with the voodoo spirits which appear in the second and third Sprawl novels, as somehow voodoo embodiments of the personas of pure data flow within the web. In both that and this novel, the irruption of voodoo gods into the mind of the protagonists doesn’t really make any sense but is nonetheless very compelling, as a weird, uncanny experience for all concerned.

No sex, no violence

Given the rather harsh things I’ve said about Gibson’s addiction to brands and the way the narrator’s omnicompetence with brands and travel arrangements and scrambled phone lines and surveillance technology and safe houses makes him sound exactly like every other contemporary thriller writer… one big thing certainly does distinguish Gibson’s thrillers from the competition, and it’s not the use of cutting-edge ‘locative’ or ‘geospatial’ technology. It’s the almost complete absence of sex and violent death in his books.

Actually, really high-end thrillers as a genre generally underplay sex. Characters may have sex, but it is rarely described, in fact most thrillers draw a Victorian veil over the act itself. Does Jack Reacher have much sex, I can’t remember. This, I guess, is because sex or, shall we say, making love, is generally quite a slow sensuous affair which can leave both participants feeling mellow and blissed out. Well, that is precisely the opposite of the jittery, hard-edged tone most modern thrillers strive to achieve. It would be like having a big ad break in the middle of an action movie. It would last just long enough to undermine the edgy atmosphere, the sense of constant threat, and the fast-moving action. Hence – surprising absence of sex.

What makes it more notable in Gibson’s novels is his penchant for female protagonists which sort of, at moments, might lead you to expect a flash of boob or some such sexual reference. But no nothing like that, nothing tasteless or porny ever, ever happens in a Gibson novel. He never refers to the sexuality of his women protagonists.

Instead, Chevette Washington in the Bridge trilogy, Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition and Hollis Henry in Spook Country function just like robots, like androids. They don’t seem to have any of the emotions I associate with women, or indeed people generally (love, compassion, empathy, fear, worry) nor any of the bodily functions experienced with female biology; they don’t seem to have periods, stomach cramps, any of the other physical conditions which women of my acquaintance experience.

At most they briefly pee or shower but this is referred to in, at most, a sentence before they dress quickly and efficiently and get on with the action. Gibson’s female protagonists are curiously sexless. It’s like reading the adventures of a shop window mannekin.

Ditto the violence. Nobody gets killed during the narrative of Pattern Recognition and nobody gets killed in this novel, either. It’s remarkable how, for a modern thriller writer, Gibson manages to keep the body count right down. He maintains a constant sense of threat and anticipation and yet… almost nobody actually gets hurt in a Gibson novel, nobody at all in this one.

It’s one more thing which gives them their distinctive flavour, along with the sexless women, the voodoo gods, the tangential psychology of many of the characters, the obsession with Dad Rock and flashy brands, and the consistently disappointing climaxes when the hurtling tension of 350 pages give way to a happy ending, in which no-one is hurt and more or less everyone gets what they wanted:

  • Tito and Garreth and ‘the old man’ successfully pull off their job
  • Milgrim walks free from bondage to Brown
  • Hollis gets enough detail to write her magazine story about ‘locative art’
  • and Hubertus, never really sure what he wanted except the thrill of the chase into unknown areas of the matrix, appears to be satisfied and swiftly moves on to ask Hollis and Inchmale to record a version of their only hit single which he can use on an ad for a Chinese car

So everyone is home in time for tea and an early night. In the end, it’s an oddly comforting book, in its politics-free, product-obsessed, shiny, sexless way.


Credit

Spook Country by William Gibson was published by Putnam’s in 2007. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon but it wasn’t too badly damaged, only the back cover covered in marks and the last 15 or so pages bent and folded.

Other William Gibson reviews

The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe (1589)

‘But I perceive there is no love on earth,
Pity in Jews, nor piety in Turks…’
(Abigail, after learning her father conspired to get her true love murdered)

Provenance

First recorded performance: 26 February 1592, by Lord Strange’s acting company.

First published: 1592.

Earliest extant edition, 1633. This was published to coincide with a revival of the play, which included a performance before King Charles and his wife Queen Henrietta Maria, for which a new prologue and epilogue were written.

Full title: The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta. Note that, although the 1633 quarto divided the play into acts, it wasn’t divided into scenes, there were no indications where scenes were set, or which bit of dialogue were asides to the audience. All of these were added by the Reverend Alexander Dyce in his 1876 edition of the plays, and have been copied by most modern editors.

Like Tamburlaine, the Jew has a large cast of 25 speaking characters, plus numerous unnamed citizens of Malta, Turkish janizaries, guards, attendants and slaves. In other words, it was a theatrical epic, in its day.

Executive summary

The Governor of Malta seizes the wealth of all Jewish citizens to pay the Turks not to invade. In revenge the richest Jew in Malta, Barabas, designs a barrage of retaliation against the governor, helped by his slave, Ithamore.

Barabas’ murderous deeds include:

  • getting the governor’s son killed in a duel
  • terrorising his own daughter, who joins a nunnery for safety but is afterwards poisoned by her father, along with the entire nunnery
  • the strangling of an old friar and the framing of another friar for the murder
  • poisoning his servant Ithamore when he deserts him, along with the prostitute and her pimp, who had threatened to expose him

Finally, Barabas betrays the entire population of Malta by helping the Turks conquer Malta Town, but he is then outwitted when the Christian governor turns the tables on him, leaving him to burn alive in the trap he had set for the Turks, but is led to fall into himself. Subtle, it ain’t.

Historical fact check: Barabas and Ferneze are fictional characters, there never was a Jew of Malta or a governor of that name. Malta never fell to the Turks, and never paid them tribute. The entire storyline is a product of the playwright’s imagination.

The play

Prologue The ghost of Machiavelli introduces Barabas, the Jew of Malta. In Marlowe’s time there were only a few hundred Jews in London. They were better known from popular stereotypes of greed or cunning than from personal contact.

It is appropriate, then that one stereotype of cunning is introduced by another. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) was an Italian Renaissance diplomat, philosopher and writer best known for The Prince, a handbook of statecraft which eschews any notions of religion or morality in favour of hard-nosed advice about what actually works when it comes to ruling a state. Machiavelli’s attitude is typified by these lines from the prologue:

I count religion but a childish toy,
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.

Machiavelli’s bluntness and his rejection of Christian morality, in an age drenched in Christian values, caused his name to be associated with complex and unscrupulous scheming – as it has remained, right down to the present day.

Might first made kings, and laws were then most sure
When, like the Draco’s, they were writ in blood.

Anyway, the ghost of Machiavelli introduces Barabas as one of his own – an amoral, cunning schemer.

Act 1

Scene 1 Barabas is counting his wealth. He envies factors for the rich mines of India, and the Moors who (according to legend) simply have to bend down to pick rare stones from the earth. This opening scene establishes Barabas as very rich, very greedy, and the possessor of a Marlowe-sized imagination, rich with exotic and evocative names and visions of boundless riches.

Give me the merchants of the Indian mines,
That trade in metal of the purest mould;
The wealthy Moor, that in the eastern rocks
Without control can pick his riches up,
And in his house heap pearl like pebble-stones,
Receive them free, and sell them by the weight;
Bags of fiery opals, sapphires, amethysts,
Jacinths, hard topaz, grass-green emeralds,
Beauteous rubies, sparkling diämonds,
And seld-seen costly stones of so great price,
As one of them, indifferently rated,
And of a carat of this quantity,
May serve, in peril of calamity,
To ransom great kings from captivity

And of course Barabas’s occupation is a trader in the rarest, most precious jewels, clothes and valuables in the world, so it is an open invitation for reams of Marlovian sensual luxury.

Two merchants come to tell Barabas his ships have arrived from various destinations, including Egypt via Cyprus, bearing rich goods. When they leave he soliloquises on how much more successful the practical Jews are than faithless Christians, name-checking a number of other Jewish millionaires, saying he’d rather be hated as a Jew and be rich, than be accepted as a Christian and be poor.

Three Jews arrive to tell the ominous news that an embassy of Turks has arrived to see the governor and that all the island’s Jews are summoned to the senate house. Barabas assures them they are wrong to have misgivings. When they exit, he continues to tell himself that the Turks and Maltese are at peace, so there will be no trouble. And even if there is, he is only concerned about himself and his daughter.

The scene establishes what will become a format of the play which is the many times Barabas is talking to someone saying one thing – but then makes an aside to the audience in which he reveals he is thinking something quite different.

Scene 3 The senate house The Turkish leader, the Sultan’s son Selim Calymath, makes it clear to the governor of Malta, Ferneze, that they demand ten years worth of tribute – a hundred thousand crowns. Ferneze begs a month to raise it and Calymath agrees, leaving with his retinue.

The governor calls in the island’s Jews, explains Calymath’s extortion and says he is going to raise the lion’s share of it by mulcting them, demanding half their estates. He is quite venomous about it:

SECOND KNIGHT: Have strangers leave with us to get their wealth?
Then let them with us cóntribute.
BARABAS: How! equally?
GOVERNOR FERNESE: No, Jew, like infidels;
For through our sufferance of your hateful lives,
Who stand accursèd in the sight of Heaven,
These taxes and afflictions are befall’n,
And therefore thus we are determinèd. −

So the Christians put up with the Jews but not far beneath the surface hate and despise them. The Governor announces he will confiscate half the Jews’ wealth and anyone who hesitates will a) be forced to convert to Christianity and if they still hesitate, b) all their goods will be confiscated. The other Jews immediately say they’ll surrender half their wealth, but Barabas is outraged, criticises them and tries to haggle with the Governor. Who promptly orders all Barabas’s wealth to be confiscated!

When he protests at this, one of the governor’s knights the governor’s entourage consists of members of the Order of the Knights of St John) suggests they confiscate Barabas’s house and turn it into a nunnery, which the Governor immediately accepts and orders.

The governor and his officials exit and Barabas sinks to his knees to call down a world of vengeance upon them. The other Jews tell him to reflect on the story of Job but Barabas dismisses it, saying he was vastly richer than Job, has lost more, is hugely more inconsolable.

Scene 4 Barabas’s daughter Abigail comes to meet him. She is in tears, she has heard the bad news. He reveals a secret – he had hidden quite a lot of wealth away. But Abigail tells him they have already confiscated the house and started to convert it into a nunnery! Barabas laments his lost gold and jewels, pauses, then comes up with a Cunning Plan. Abigail will convert to Christianity, enrol as a nun and, once she’s in, pull up the floorboards under which the loot is hidden, and return with it to her father.

Abigail agrees but doubts whether she can carry it off. Confidence is all, her father tells her. They exit.

Enter Friar Jacomo, Friar Barnardine, Abbess, and a Nun. They have barely made a few remarks about the new nunnery before Abigail re-enters, identifies herself as the daughter of the Jew, and begs forgiveness, penitence and asks to be enrolled in the order. Improbably the friars and abbess agree.

At which point Baraba re-enters and puts up a pretence of being appalled that his daughter is going over to the enemy. He curses and anathematises her as the Christians try to intervene, but interspersed between his curses, Barabas whispers instructions on how to find the floorboard with the secret mark and find the treasure. They all leave the stage.

Enter Mathias, a young man who, we soon learn, is in love with Abigail and dejected to see her going off to a nunnery. His friend Lodowick enters – who just happens to be the governor’s son – and asks Mathias why he’s in the dumps, allowing Mathias to explain at length his love for Abigail. While he does so, he reveals that she is scarce fourteen-years-old. Lodowick says that if she’s as beautiful as his friend claims, it would be good to visit and see her. They exit.

Act 2

Scene 1 Before the House of Barabas, now a Nunnery Enter Barabas who explains a) that it is night but he can’t sleep, and b) he’s awaiting a signal from Abigail. Enter Abigail, obviously in the balcony of the theatre, where she describes: finding the floorboards, digging up the treasure, coming to the window, whispering to her father waiting below, then throwing him the bags of gold, at which he rejoices and praises her.

Scene 2 The Council House The Governor interviews the Spanish captain – Martin del Bosco – of a ship recently docked in the harbour who describes how his ship was set upon by Turks, how they fought them off and seized one of their ships, whose crew they have come to Malta to sell as slaves.

The governor initially says no, because he is afraid of the Turks, but some of his advisors encourage del Bosco to shame the governor, to tell him not to submit to the Turks, specially after their recent capture of Rhodes (seized from the order of the Knights of St John in 1523).

Del Bosco succeeds in firing the governor’s fighting zeal. He offers to write to the king of Spain for help. Ferneze appoints him military ruler of the island and challenges the Turks to do their worst. If necessary, like the garrison on Rhodes, they’ll fight and die to the last man.

Scene 3 The market place Two officers are lining del Bosco’s captured men up to be sold as slaves. Enter Barabas who tells us he has used the gold to buy a house as big as the governor’s and his daughter has left the convent. He tells us he hails from Florence where he learned to bow and fawn and curtsey to faithless Christians and then to spit into their collecting bowls.

Enter Lodowick and he and Barabas engage in a stylised conversation in which Lodowick asks whether Barabas has a diamond, and Barabas replies, yes a pretty one – by which they both mean Abigail – the dialogue being interspersed with Barabas’s bitter vengeful asides to the audience in which he reveals what he’d really like to do to the governor’s son i.e. poison him.

Having mutually agreed to rendezvous later, Lodowick now accompanies Barabas to the slave market, where they size up the merchandise and chat to the selling officers. He rejects one costing 200 crowns, not least because he looks fit and healthy so will cost a fortune to feed, instead buys a leaner one, from Thrace, named Ithamore, for 100 crowns. Aside to the audience Barabas explains that he is buying the slave solely to further his plans of revenge!

Enter young Mathias and his mother to the slave market, and discuss the wares. We now learn that Barabas knows his daughter and Mathias are in love but plans to foil their love. Nonetheless, he enjoys leading Mathias on. Everyone exits, leaving Barabas alone with Ithamore. Barabas tells him, if he is to please his master, he must forget the Christian virtues of ‘Compassion, love, vain hope, and heartless fear’ and lose pity. He goes on to give a magnificent speech describing his own biography.

As for myself, I walk abroad o’ nights,
And kill sick people groaning under walls:
Sometimes I go about and poison wells;
And now and then, to cherish Christian thieves,
I am content to lose some of my crowns,
That I may, walking in my gallery,
See ’em go pinioned along by my door.
Being young, I studied physic, and began
To practice first upon th’ Italian;
There I enriched the priests with burials,
And always kept the sexton’s arms in ure −
With digging graves and ringing dead men’s knells:
And, after that, was I an engineer,
And in the wars ‘twixt France and Germany,
Under pretence of helping Charles the Fifth,
Slew friend and enemy with my stratagems:
Then, after that, was I an usurer,
And with extorting, cozening, forfeiting,
And tricks belonging unto brokery,
I filled the gaols with bankrouts in a year,
And with young orphans planted hospitals;
And every moon made some or other mad,
And now and then one hang himself for grief,
Pinning upon his breast a long great scroll
How I with interest tormented him.

There’s nothing like a good stage villain. You can imagine the actor taunting the Elizabethan audience, who enthusiastically booed him and threw rotten tomatoes. Boo, hiss, villain! And it turns out that Ithamore is a perfect match. When Barabas asks how he has spent his life, Ithamore gleefully replies:

Faith, master,
In setting Christian villages on fire,
Chaining of eunuchs, binding galley-slaves.
One time I was an hostler in an inn,
And in the night-time secretly would I steal
To travellers’ chambers, and there cut their throats:
Once at Jerusalem, where the pilgrims kneeled,
I strowèd powder on the marble stones,
And therewithal their knees would rankle so,
That I have laughed a-good to see the cripples
Go limping home to Christendom on stilts.

He was raised in Arabia and has served the Turks till his recent capture, so it appears Ithamore is a Muslim i.e. a) like Barabas, an enemy of Christians and b) circumcised. ‘We are villains both; Both circumcisèd; we hate Christians both.’

Scene 4 Now they are in front of Barabas’s new house and enter Lodowick to keep his appointment. Barabas lets him into the house and orders his daughter to entertain him. (In asides he whispers to Abigail to pretend to Lodowick she is in love with him, to lead him on, she protests it is Mathias she loves, Barabas orders her to do it. He plans to kill them both [Lodowick and Mathias]).

Enter Mathias and Barabas play acts that he supports his suit for his daughter’s hand but is having a hard time fighting off Lodowick. Only recently he snuck into his house to see Abigail. He tells Mathias to hide and watch. They both watch Lodowick come out of the house hand in hand with Abigail, as if in love. Mathias makes to draw his sword and kill him, but Barabas says ‘not in my house; contain your wrath; there will be other occasions’ and Mathias exists, mighty angry.

Lodowick sees him depart, asks Barabas about him, who explains that Mathias is mad with jealousy and plans to kill him (Lodowick). He encourages Lodowick’s suit for Abigail, and tells her to continue pretending to be in love with him, doing so in strongly anti-Christian phraseology, which is designed to play up the Christian audience’s stereotypes of wicked Jews, describing Lodowick as:

This offspring of Cain, this Jebusite,
That never tasted of the Passover,
Nor e’er shall see the land of Canaan,
Nor our Messias that is yet to come;
This gentle maggot, Lodowick, I mean

And as to the ‘morality’ of the situation:

It’s no sin to deceive a Christiän;
For they themselves hold it a principle,

Abigail promises herself to Lodowick – then immediately turns to the audience and shares her regret. (This happens throughout the play, it’s one of its leading features – the very high amount of speaking aside, to let the audience hear a character’s true feelings of intentions, as opposed to what they say.)

Lodowick is puzzled why Abigail looks pale and faint. His doubts vanish when he sees that villain Mathias enters and makes as if to attack him. Barabas tells him to hold and leave, while he (Barabas) sorts out the situation. Barabas then tells Mathias that he – Barabas – just saved his life from the incensed rival, Lodowick. He encourages Mathias to attack Lodowick next time he sees him.

Barabas is, as we can see, adopting the role of impresario which emerges clearly as the central role in the city comedies of a decade later, written by Ben Jonson and colleagues – in which the play itself contains a trickster figure who concocts ever-more elaborate scams and schemes to humiliate or punish other characters.

Abigail has witnessed all this and has, of course, played a lying part, deceiving Lodowick. Now she bursts into tears and asks her father why he’s setting the two young men against each other. Barabas orders Ithamore to put her in the house which he does, presumably none too gently. Then Barabas gives Ithamore a letter to deliver to Mathias, as if from Lodowick, challenging him to a duel. Ho ho ho, he rubs his hands with malevolent glee, the audience boos and hisses.

Act 3

Scene 1 The Veranda of the House of Bellamira Enter Bellamira. Who is Bellamira? A courtesan. She laments that business has dried up since the Turks besieged the island. Enter her ‘bully’, meaning either pimp or associate, Pilia-Borza, who has stolen a bag of silver from Barabas’s house, through the window. At that moment, Ithamore enters, Pilia-Borza drags Bellamira away, but not before Ithamore sees her and falls in love at first sight. In passing, he tells us he’s delivered Barabas’s fake letter to Mathias.

NOTE: Ithamore, as a slave, and Pilia-Borza, as a criminal, both speak in prose, unlike every other character in the play who speak in verse.

Scene 2 Mathias and Lodowick encounter each other in the street and have a swordfight while Barabas watches gleefully from a balcony. They kill each other. Enter their respective parents, governor Ferneze Lodowick’s father and Katherine, Mathias’s widowed mother. After initial antagonism, Ferneze and Katherine lock hands in grief, promising to bury the dead boys in one mausoleum, and to discover what drove the former friends to kill each other. Ooops. Sounds ominous for Barabas.

Scene 3 A room in Barabas’s house Ithamore is cackling over the two dead Christians when Abigail enters. Ithamore laughingly tells her that her father was responsible for the scam to fool Lodowick and Mathias into killing each other.

Outraged (and not really that upset) Abigail orders him to go fetch a friar from the nunnery. She gives a little speech which is enough time for Ithamore to go and return with Friar Jacomo. Abigail tells him she wants to enter the nunnery. ‘What, again?’ Jacomo asks. She tried it once and almost immediately left. What’s changed? She’s learned more about life, she replies.

ABIGAIL: Then were my thoughts so frail and unconfirmed
And I was chained to follies of the world:
But now experience, purchasèd with grief,
Has made me see the difference of things.
My sinful soul, alas, hath paced too long
The fatal labyrinth of misbelief,
Far from the Son that gives eternal life!

She is being positioned as the Good Jew, the one who converts to Christianity.

Scene 4 Barabas has heard that Abigail has entered a nunnery. Does she suspect him of murdering her sweetheart? What has made her betray him? Who gave him away? Ironically, at the moment Ithamore enters and, with absurd exaggeration, Barabas now calls him his only hope.

BARABAS: Come near, my love; come near, thy master’s life,
My trusty servant, nay, my second self;
For I have now no hope but even in thee,
And on that hope my happiness is built.

Ithamore begins to explain that it was he who told Abigaill about the murder plot, but Barabas, thinking he is about to defend his daughter, cuts him off and says, henceforth ‘she is hateful to my soul and me.’ Rashly and grotesquely he says he’ll adopt Ithamore as his heir.

But still his servant… He bids Ithamore fetch the pot of rice off the oven. When the servant brings it, Barabas explains that he is going to use it to poison Abigail. Yes, he now shows Ithamore and the audience a vial of ‘precious powder’ that he bought off a bloke in Ancona, which binds, infects and poisons deeply.

He sprinkles the poison powder onto the rice, mixes it in, and tells Ithamore to go and leave it in the dark entrance to the nunnery where people leave offerings when they want to be anonymous. (The reader/audience can immediately foresee unintended consequences i.e. poisonings.)

Ithamore enthusiastically sets off with the pot. As soon as he’s left, Barabas says he will pay Ithamore back, too. Ooh he’s such a bad baddie.

Scene 5 The Council House Apparently it’s a month after the first scene with the Turks, for now a Turkish envoy has arrived to tell the governor the month is up, so where’s the gold? If you remember, governor Ferneze had been encouraged to break his word to the Turks by some of the Knights and the Spaniard Martin del Bosco, and so now he tells the Turkish basso (pashaw) that he will have no tribute and defies the Turks to do their worst. They will, the basso replies and exits.

Ferneze makes a brief speech summoning the young men of Malta to war.

Scene 6 Interior of the nunnery Friar Jacomo and Friar Barnardine announce that all the nuns are sick. In fact as they enter the nunnery one appears to say that all the nuns are dead – except for Abigail, who now meets them, herself grievously sick.

Jacomo goes off and Abigail confesses to Barnardine that her greatest sin or regret is knowledge that her father conspired to set Lodowick and Mathias against each other, and she shows them papers to prove it. But she begs them not to reveal this to anyone and, as it was said in confession, they can’t. And then Abigail dies – poisoned by her father.

Jacomo rejoins Barnardine to see Abigail’s body, and confirm that the nuns are all dead. Barnardine asks him to accompany him to confront the Jew.

Act 4

Scene 1 A street Barabas is malevolently gleeful that all the nuns are dead, poisoned by him! Listen to those Christian bells ha ha ha. There’s a monastery nearby. Ithamore enthusiastically offers to poison all the monks, but Barabas says that won’t be necessary. Since they were all sleeping with the nuns, they’ll all die of grief. Ooooh, you could bottle the malevolent cynicism!

Along come the two monks, to a famous line from Ithamore: ‘ Look, look, master; here come two religious caterpillars.’ There is a clever, stylised dialogue where Bardnardine keeps trying to accuse Barabas of gross sins but Barabas interrupts him to deflect the charges with confessions of more minor sins. The most famous exchange comes at the end , famous because it was used as an epigraph to one of his own poems by T.S. Eliot.:

FRIAR BARNARDINE: Thou hast committed −
BARABAS: Fornication: but that was in another country;
And besides, the wench is dead.

But when Barnardine finally manages to mention Mathias and Lodowick, Barabas panics that his daughter confessed everything, he will be hanged for murder, and makes a panic-stricken appeal to convert to Christianity. As part of which he says some notable lines calumniating his own religion:

Is’t not too late now to turn Christiän?
I have been zealous in the Jewish faith,
Hard-hearted to the poor, a covetous wretch,
That would for lucre’s sake have sold my soul;

Which sounds like libelous anti-Semitism, but consider the context. He is sucking up to two Catholic officials, he wants to make the best possible impression. Of course he’ll tell them what they want to hear.

Anyway, Barabas makes asides to Jacomo about how much wealth he’ll give his monastery, if can make the other leave, which he tries to do but the monks end up poking and pushing each other and then break out fighting, egged on, one imagines by the audience who are thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Barabas and Ithamore part the fighting friars, and Barabas continues to promise them, separately, his bounty. Ithamore takes Barnardine into Barabas’s house, Barabas promises Jacomo he’ll have a special meeting with him that evening.

Left alone onstage, Barabas reveals his plan which is – to murder them to stop them talking about the Lodowick-Mathias con:

Now I have such a plot for both their lives,
As never Jew nor Christian knew the like:
One turned my daughter, therefore he shall die;
The other knows enough to have my life,
Therefore ’tis not requisite he should live.

Scene 2 Inside Barabas’ House Ithamore tells Barabas Father Barnardine has eaten and fallen asleep in a chair. Barabas orders him to take off his girdle and make a noose from it. They pull back the curtain of the stage’s inner room to reveal Barnardine asleep in a chair, startle him awake, slip the noose round his neck and strangle him. Ithamore is pleased that the rope left no mark on the friar’s neck.

He has an idea and they prop the corpse up against a wall holding a staff. He looks large as life. They exit the room.

Scene 3 It’s 1 in the morning. Friar Jacomo has come to keep his appointment. He spots Barnardine, apparently blocking his way, addresses him, is irritated by his silence, eventually gets angry, seizes his staff and strikes him down. At this moment Barabas and Ithamore come out the house and feign horror to discover that Jacomo has murdered his fellow friar. Ithamore makes fun of ‘these Christians’ who murder each other. Jacomo is panic-stricken. Then horrified when Barabas and Ithamore piously make a citizen’s arrest.

Scene 4 Veranda of Bellamira’s house Haven’t seen much of her, have we? She greets Pilia-Borza who returns from delivering a letter to Ithamore. She asks where he found him? At the public gallows watching the hanging of a friar (presumably Jacomo).

Now Ithamore enters. The other two greet him lavishly. Ithamore is not wrong to think they’re planning some scam. They flatter him and Bellamira feigns sexy love for him, while they try to establish how much money Barabas has, where it is hidden, and whether Ithamore will help them steal it. Yes, is his answer, but the Jew buries it secretly every night.

Ithamore is comically ready to write a letter to Barabas threatening to reveal all unless he sends him a hundred crowns. ‘Two hundred’ says Pilia. Ithamore changes it, signs it and hands it to Pilia, condescendingly, who exits.

Now Bellamira takes Ithamore’s head into her lap and calls her servants for food and to bring rich silks to dress her lover in. It is pure comedy the way Ithamore takes to this role immediately. She tells him she’s not married. He says they’ll get married and go to Greece, and then – strikingly – breaks into verse, producing a variation on Marlowe’s famous lyric, ‘Come live with me and be my love.’

Pilia returns and the Jew only gave him ten crowns. Outraged, Ithamore springs up and scribbles another letter demanding at least 500. Pilia departs. Bellamira kisses Ithamore, then takes him inside for a banquet of love i.e. sex.

Scene 5 Barabas’ house Barabas is outraged at Ithamore’s defection, and almost as much by the skinny, hacked-about appearance of Pilia-Borza, ‘a shag-rag knave’. Whining self-pity:

BARABAS: Was ever Jew tormented as I am?

At which moment Pilia appears with the new demands. More demands! Barabas adopts a wheedling tone and tries to persuade Bilia to share a meal (which he will poison) but Pilia is having none of it and simply wants the money.

Scene 6 Bellamira’s veranda Bellamira and Pilia get Ithamore drunk and to confess his role in the murder of Lodowick and Mathias, that he carried the poisoned broth which killed an entire nunnery and strangled Friar Barnardine.

Bellamira and Pilia are just agreeing between themselves that they’ll take this intelligence to the governor, when enter Barabas disguised as a French musician with a lute, offering to play love music. He has a conspicuous nosegay in his hat and Bellamira takes a fancy to it. Barabas graciously hands it over and the other three all take a deep smell of it – which is what Barabas planned, because it is poisoned.

They tell Barabas to play his lute and, as he does so, drunken Ithamore regales the other two with a series of scandalous libels on Barabas’s stinginess and personal hygiene – to each of which Barabas-in-disguise responds with angry asides to the audience. Finally Barabas can stand it no more and – still in disguised as the French musician – makes his excuses and departs.

Drunken Ithamore thinks he needs to send for one more lot of money and now dispatches Pilia, without a letter, just with a verbal threat to reveal all – then goes back inside with Bellamira.

Act 5

Scene 1 In the Council House The governor is just warning the knights that the long-threatened Turkish assault is about to begin, when Bellamira and Pilia-Borza push their way through and blurt out that Barabas is responsible for the death of the governor’s son and the dead nuns and the friar. Ferneze is inclined to dismiss them but they say they have his servant at their place, drunk: he’ll vouch for it.

Ferneze dispatches officers to fetch Barabas and Ithamore and they return approximately ten seconds later. This is theatre, a forum for entertainment not realism or plausibility. Ithamore has belly-ache (from the poison – Barabas kicks himself that he did not administer more, sooner) and readily confesses everything to the governor.

Quick-wittedly, Barabas dismisses the other three as bad witnesses, but Ferneze doesn’t buy it and tells his officers to take all four of them to the cells.

Enter Katherine who wants to know whether it’s true that ‘the Jew’ was responsible for the murder of her son. Yes, the governor tells her. Barely a minute after being taken away, an officer re-enters to say all four of them are dead! Ferneze says bury the other three, get someone to throw the Jew’s body over the wall at the Turks. Everyone exits, leaving Barabas’ corpse lying onstage.

Scene 2 Not exactly to our surprise, Barabas wakes up. He took some kind of fancy sleeping potion (actually explained to be ‘poppy and cold mandrake juice’). Now he is outside the city walls. He gets up and vows vengeance on the city, vows revenge and not in a subtle way:

I’ll be revenged on this accursèd town;
For by my means Calymath shall enter in:
I’ll help to slay their children and their wives,
To fire the churches, pull their houses down,
Take my goods too, and seize upon my lands.
I hope to see the governor a slave,
And, rowing in a galley, whipt to death.

Enter Calymath, Bassoes, and Turks to whom Barabas immediately explains who he is, why he is not a spy, and why he will help them take the town. He explains there’s a secret vault dug under the town to let streams pass under and out. He’ll lead a force of 500 along it and up into the centre of the town, surprise everyone and open the gates. Turkish leader Calyphas says: it’s a deal!

Scene 3 The next scene jumps forward to the city having been stormed by the Turks with Barabas’s help. Enter Calymath, Bassoes, Turks, and Barabas with Ferneze and Knights prisoners. As reward for his help, Calyphas makes Barabas governor of the town and says he can do what he wants with his prisoners – then exits. Barabas orders his new troops, his Janizaries, to throw the governor and his entourage in prison.

Scene 4 Residence of Barabas the governor Barabas soliloquises that he is not safe while the entire population hates him, He must be wary, ‘circumspect’.

Ferneze is brought in and, after he’s finished shouting at Barabas, Barabas surprises him by saying he plans to ‘save’ Malta. How about a plan to trap Calymath and all his men in an out-house and set it on fire? Ferneze is impressed and interested, says he will give Barabas even more wealth if he keeps his word. Barabas promptly grants Ferneze his freedom, and the shake on the deal.

Ferneze exits and Barabas reflects that he will use anyone to suit his ends. He makes what at first seems an anti-semitic remark i.e. invoking anti-Semitic stereotypes:

Thus, loving neither, will I live with both,
Making a profit of my policy;
And he from whom my most advantage comes,
Shall be my friend.
This is the life we Jews are used to lead;

But then backs it with the crucial addition – after all, this is how Christians behave:

And reason too, for Christians do the like.

So the entire play might be a monstrosity of anti-Semitic stereotyping, but Barabas makes a point of repeating that he is only behaving as the faithless Christians do.

Scene 5 Calymath and his officials have finished a tour of the ruins and the island, and Calymath is just musing on its geographical advantages when a messenger arrives inviting Calymath and his men to a grand feast, the men in a big out-house, Calymath and his officers at his house.

Scene 6 A very short scene in which we see Ferneze briefing Martin del Bosco and the Knights about the signal which will tell them it’s the moment to attack the feasting Turks.

Scene 7 Barabas is in his grand hall with carpenters as they finish some big contraption. He pays them to go and drink. In fact he hopes they drink and die. Barabas has arrived at the extreme limit of misanthropy:

BARABAS: For, so I live, perish may all the world!

A messenger arrives to say Calymath will attend the feast.

Then enter Ferneze who hands over to Barabas the sum agreed for freeing Malta from the Turks, 100,000 pounds. Barabas explains his plan: the monastery where the Turkish troops are to be feasted is mined with gunpowder; at the right moment it will be set off, the whole place blown sky high and all the Turkish soldiers massacred.

Meanwhile – Barabas explains – in this hall the carpenters have fixed it so that, at the height of the feast, at a signal Ferneze will cut a cord and the floor will part throwing Calymath and his generals into a deep pit. The Turks approach, Ferneze hides, and Marlowe makes Barabas directly address the audience. Asides are one thing but Barabas ‘breaks the fourth wall’ to boast of his ingenious evil:

A kingly kind of trade, to purchase towns
By treachery, and sell ’em by deceit?
Now tell me, worldlings, underneath the sun
If greater falsehood ever has been done?

Calymath and his entourage enter and salute Barabas up in the gallery who is guilefully greeting them when…. Ferneze steps forward from his hiding place and says he will show Calymath the trap Barabas had prepared. All this time Barabas has been up in the ‘balcony’ section of the theatre. Now, at the sound of a distant trumpet, Ferneze cuts the cord, the floor opens beneath Barabas and… he falls into the vat of boiling oil.

The amazed Turks watch Barabas writhing and screaming for help. Barabas makes a death-moment confession to all his crimes, admits he was going to massacre the Turks, and dies:

Die, life! fly, soul! tongue, curse thy fill, and die!

The Calymath rallies his entourage and says they will fly. They won’t get far, says Ferneze: the trumpet they heard was the signal for the outhouse to be blown up and the entire Turkish army liquidated. Calymath is appalled. Ferneze blames it all on the machinations of the Jew. Now he explains he will hold Calymath hostage, until his father pays the reparations necessary to restore Malta to its former state.

And the play ends on that note: the Christian governor, Ferneze has outwitted both the fiendish ‘Jew’ – seeing him come to a richly deserved end – and the warlike Turk, come out on top and won the day for Christian Malta. Hooray!

Thoughts

Obviously, The Jew of Malta is a garish and extreme entertainment, in some ways not unlike a pantomime where the audience is encouraged to boo and hiss every time the baddie comes onstage. Marlowe’s aim was obviously to create the villainest of villains, as Tamburlaine had been the most megalomaniac of rulers.

Giving him a villainous sidekick was sort of obvious, but the character of the ruthless Muslim, Ithamore, is inspired. They egg each other on to increasingly extreme outrages while the audience hiss and boo them like Alan Rickman playing the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood, and Ithamore’s scenes with fellow lowlifes Bellamira and Pilia-Borza, are very much played for pantomime laughs, including Pilia-Borza’s ridiculous sense of himself as tall and knightly when he is – according to Barabas – a gangling piece of war wreckage, and Bellamira’s absurd declarations of love.

Anyway, all this garish and crowd-pleasing comedy is why it’s not worth bothering with the play’s many inconsistencies and illogicalities, let alone considering it as a ‘moral analysis’ of anything.

The most glaring plot fault is the notion that Barabas is motivated entirely by revenge for being reduced to utter poverty… and yet by act 4 he is pretty much restored to his former position of super-wealth, having bought a house bigger than the governor’s and, as he tells the friars, once again having investments in ships bringing goods from round the Mediterranean. I.e. the real engine of his revenge has disappeared. It is a theatrical illusion, a motive which is required to quickly set the plot in motion and then just as quickly dropped.

As for the end, it is a wonderful piece of over-the-top theatrical sadism, a Hammer House of Horror, a London Dungeon level of populist, tub-thumping poetic justice, no doubt cheered to the rooftops by the very groundlings Barabas had been boasting to only minutes before.

Historical footnote – the Knights of St John and the Turkish threat

The Order of the Knights of Malta was founded in 1048, when a group of Christian merchants were given permission by the Egyptians to run a hospital in Jerusalem to care for Christian pilgrims travelling to the Holy City. The First Crusade captured Jerusalem in 1098 and the organisation running the hospital, by now called the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, expanded to provide armed escorts for pilgrims, becoming known as the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

When the Holy Land fell to the Saracens in 1291, the Order of St John (popularly known as the Hospitallers) moved their
headquarters to the island of Cyprus, from which the order continued to protect pilgrims travelling to Palestine by sea.

The Knights bought the island of Rhodes in 1310. In 1523 the Ottoman Turks laid siege of the island and after six months, the Knights were forced to surrender but were permitted to leave Rhodes with full military honours.

Meanwhile, the island of Malta came into the ownership of the Crown of Aragon in 1282 and passed into the control of the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1530 the Emperor Charles V granted Malta to the Knights of St. John who had been forced to abandon Rhodes in 1523. From that point the order took the name by which it is most familiarly known, the Knights of Malta. These are the knights who are advising governor Ferneze in The Jew of Malta.

Malta was repeatedly besieged by the Ottoman Turks but never fell to them (as they repeatedly tried to capture Venice). It had been besieged in 1565, the year after Marlowe was born and 25 or so years before the play was performed. In 1569 the Ottomans captured Crete and in 1570 Cyprus. That said, the Turks’ seemingly unstoppable advance was stalled at the sea Battle of Lepanto, where an alliance of European powers defeated the Ottoman navy.

It’s worth pointing out that some 12,000 Christian slaves – of the 37,000 slaves chained in the Turkish galleys – were liberated during and after the battle. Not all slaves were black.

The Muslim Turkish threat to Europe was still very real during Marlowe’s lifetime. So Marlowe’s depiction of Ithamore isn’t picking on a helpless ‘minority’ but a caricature of a race who were threatening to seize control of the Mediterranean and invade Europe. It was as if, during the Cold War, a comic playwright created a fiendish Russian communist who took every opportunity to criticise and scheme against ‘capitalist running dogs’, ‘reactionary troglodytes’, ‘bourgeois pigs’ and so on.

Different values, ideologies and buzzwords – but the same basic structure that an overwhelming military threat to civilisation from the East was invoked and then neutralised through theatrical representation and, in this case, crude caricature.


Related links

  • The Jew of Malta This excellent website gives you a choice of reading the play script unencumbered by notes, or a very comprehensively annotated text full of fascinating facts.

Marlowe’s works

The supermarket of history

I have just read S.H. Steinberg’s History of the Thirty Years War. I came to it fresh from reading Peter H. Wilson’s 2010 book on the same subject, in which Wilson sets out to ‘overturn received opinion’ about many aspects of the conflict, lining up ‘traditional’ interpretations of the conflict in order to question and reinterpret them.

So I chuckled when I read in the opening sentences of the preface to Steinberg’s book that he also sets out to ‘reorientate and reinterpret’ the familiar story of the Thirty Years War.

Sometimes it seems like this is all historians ever do – overturn everything the previous generation thought. Is there any professional historian anywhere who isn’t a ‘revisionist’, I wonder?

Historians are like a succession of Oedipuses rebelling against their fathers, each successive generation producing dazzling new reorientations and reinterpretations of increasingly distant and remote events. If you buy a newish history on almost any subject, you can pretty much guarantee it will be a ‘revisionist’ account that sets out to ‘overturn established narratives’, ‘tell the untold story’, letting us hear previously ‘unheard voices’, and so on.

Since historians are society’s professional gatekeepers to the past, we readers kind of have to go along with the narratives they give us – but the more history you read, the more you realise that, in a sense, ‘history’ just consists of commentaries on the past which can be as varied and contradictory as newspaper and magazine commentaries on the present.

If you want a right-wing analysis of Covid or Brexit, read the Telegraph and the Spectator. If you want a woke interpretation, read the Guardian. If you want a tabloid version featuring loads of celebrities in bikinis, read the Mail, and so on.

Similarly, if you want a feminist slant on a historic event or figure, read Mary Beard or Lucy Worsley, a Marxist slant, read a Marxist historian like Eric Hobsbawm or E.P. Thompson, a black or an lgbt+ interpretation, read David Olusoga or gay historians. If you want a solidly right-wing view, read Niall Ferguson, if you want social history, then read the likes of David Kynaston, if you want history seen from particular regions read John Morrill on Cheshire or David Underdown on Somerset, and so on.

After a while, you realise that ‘history’ is a supermarket of opinions. Stuff definitely happened in the past, vast amounts of stuff – but which bits you choose to emphasise, how you choose to interpret it, and what you make it mean, are entirely down to the school of history and the historian you choose.

If you like the 18th century, you can choose to dwell on the rarefied heights of Enlightenment philosophy or on the bloody brutality of slavery, on society portrait painting or colonial wars, according to your taste and interests. Do you prefer Persil or Ariel?

As modern marketers like to say, it entirely depends on which values you identify with and therefore which brand reflects those values.

To equate the practice of history with some kind of search for ‘The Truth’ seems to me a ludicrous misunderstanding of history as an academic specialism and, in wider society, as a cultural practice (I mean the result of the efforts of a wide range of people from local historical societies and amateur historians and historical tours and TV and radio history programmes and so on).

Just like a good lawyer can take any set of ‘facts’ and twist them into a narrative which supports his client, so a good historian can argue any side when it comes to clashes of interpretations. Or, if they’re not quite so flexible as lawyers, you can certainly find the historian who will back up your view (feminist, Marxist, BAME, neo-liberal, neo-traditional).

And, quite obviously, the bigger the event or the longer the period, the larger the scope for multiple interpretations to be put forward for the same events. In other words, we the readers and viewers are free to enjoy a multiplicity of viewpoints. In one mood I can think about the First World War as a seismic event in international affairs, in another mode can focus on the transformation in women’s place in society as they were recruited into factories and change which led to the vote, in another mode read about the not-very-well-known role of the hundreds of thousands of Indian and African labourers who fought on the Allies’ side, and so on. You pays your money, you chooses your perspective.

And we mustn’t forget the role played in the production of ever-changing interpretations by the blunt fact that historians have to earn a living. A lawyer needs new cases, an advertising agency needs new clients, and historians need to produce new interpretations to justify their tenure at universities. They need to publish new papers and books and do new research to pass reviews, fulfil departmental targets, achieve organisational KPIs and so on.

Thus, there are simple bread-and-butter considerations which explain the need of historians to come up with new perspectives, or adapt emerging perspectives (BAME, feminism, LGBT+) to subjects and eras they haven’t previously been applied to.

I saw this up close as a would-be academic considering whether to do an English PhD in the 1980s. My girlfriend of the time did, and a couple of close friends. The advent of identity politics in the 1980s was a godsend to humanities professionals because it gave them a suite of new perspectives which could then be applied to the entire subject.

Thus, from a feminist point of view, all of world history needs to be re-researched, rethought and rewritten to ‘restore women’s voices’ and give ‘women’s points of view’ and so on – which is more than enough work to keep thousands of feminist scholars employed for the rest of their lives. My girlfriend of the day began a PhD giving a feminist interpretation of woman as muse figure in the poetry of Robert Graves and other contemporary poets.

Ditto black and post-colonial interpretations – for academics of this persuasion, mining this particular seam, all of world history needs to be reinterpreted from the point of view of black people, of the slave trade, of peoples oppressed by European colonialism, native Americans, aborigines, you name them, it will be a vast and potentially endless undertaking. And jobs. And careers.

Ditto LGBT+ interpretations.

Each new ‘school’, each new focus or emphasis means the same old ground can be raked over, but from an entirely new perspective, and that means academic papers, conferences, books and careers.

So thinking of History as some kind of pure and noble Search for Truth strikes me as a very naive view. History, whatever else its proponents may say it is, is a type of discourse which is 1. embedded in its cultural moment i.e. heavily affected by the cultural and political fashions and indeed demands of the day, and 2. driven by financial incentives i.e. the need of professional historians to justify their pay by coming up with a steady stream of ‘revisionist’ interpretations.

Like everything else in a consumer capitalist society, it is driven by the need for novelty.

Asking whether this or that version of history is ‘true’ is like asking whether a Range Rover or a Fiat Uno is ‘true’. They’re different ways of doing the same general thing (getting from A to B in the case of cars, informing yourself about the past, in the case of history), but which one you prefer is down to individual choice.

Europe’s Tragedy: A New History of The Thirty Years War by Peter H. Wilson (2010)

Introduction

This is an enormous book (weighing in at 997 pages, including index and notes) which covers an enormous subject, in enormous depth.

The Thirty Years War lasted from 1618 to 1648. It was in fact made up of a series or sequence of wars featuring different antagonists. The central strand linking them is that the staunchly Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II was fighting mainly Protestant opponents, and that he mostly won. The war is usually divided into four phases:

  • The Bohemian Revolt 1618-20, a rising of the Protestant Bohemian ‘Estates’ against Habsburg rule (‘The revolt was not a popular uprising, but an aristocratic coup led by a minority of desperate militant Protestants’, p.269), which was decisively crushed at the Battle of White Mountain on 8 November 1620.
  • The Danish intervention 1625-30, also referred to as the Low Saxon War or Emperor’s War, when Christian IV of Denmark (who was also Duke of Holstein and Schleswig which lay within the Empire) led an army in support of north German protestant states against Imperial forces. After five or so years of fighting, the war was concluded with the Treaty of Lübeck in 1629.
  • The Swedish intervention 1630-35, when King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden led an invasion of north (and mostly Protestant) Germany. He was motivated by a) alarm at the Emperor’s harsh reimposition of Catholicism on the German states under the Treaty of Lübeck b) the goal of gaining economic influence in the German states around the Baltic Sea. Like Christian IV before him, Adolphus was heavily subsidized by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister of Louis XIII of France, who gave him a million livres a year. Gustavus Adolphus died in battle in 1632 but his forces continued the war until the Peace of Prague in 1635 brought peace between most of the Empire’s Protestant states and the Emperor.
  • The French intervention 1635-48, as you can see this is the longest single part of the war. Cardinal Richelieu feared the power of the Habsburg empire on his eastern border and used innumerable policies, treaties with the Danish and Swedes to try and limit and hamper Ferdinand. Finally this broke out into overt war.

This summary nowhere near conveys the complexity of the wider context within which these conflicts took place. When the war broke out, Spain was stuck in a never-ending conflict with its provinces in the Netherlands, what would eventually be called the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) and where its brutal suppression, inquisition, torture and execution of Protestant rebels laid the foundation for the Black Legend of Catholic Spain’s scheming brutality, compounded, in 1588, when the Spanish launched the Great Enterprise, the plan for an amphibious invasion of England to overthrow the Protestant monarch and return to England to being a good Catholic country under Spanish tutelage – what we refer to as the Spanish Armada.

France was a fellow Catholic country and so should have supported both the Emperor and Spain, but in fact politicked against both of them at every turn. For example, the French government supported the Dutch against the Spanish in order to keep the Spanish bogged down, wasting money in the Netherlands, and so presenting less of a threat to French power.

There were other flashpoints such as in Italy where Spain controlled the duchy of Milan. Italy was where the (relatively small-scale) War of the Mantuan Succession (1628–31) broke out and drew in the other European powers in parallel to the 30 Years War. Savoy in north-west Italy, which maintained a precarious independence from the Empire while being eyed by France, was another flashpoint.

In the south-east of Europe, the Holy Roman Empire was threatened by attack from the Ottoman Empire, whose power stretched far into modern-day Hungary (although for long stretches the Turks were distracted by the war they were fighting on their Eastern border against the Persian Empire under Shah Abbas the Great (p.100) who launched a fierce invasion capturing Baghdad in 1623 (p.103.)

North of Hungary there were repeated clashes over the border territory of Transylvania, and this drew in two other powers to the East of the Empire, namely Russia (or the Duchy of Muscovy, as it was commonly referred to), and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, who periodically fought each other.

When Gustavus Adolphus invaded north Germany it was not only to support the struggling Protestant German states, but in order to solidify his power in the Baltic as a whole, specifically projecting his power into Polish territory, who Sweden was, at one stage, directly at war with.

In other words, the Thirty Years War only makes sense – or you can only understand the motives of all the sides – if you appreciate a) the total context of European geopolitics of the time and b) you grasp that all the numerous states of Europe and beyond were continually prepared to use ‘war’ to further their ends.

Accustomed to two disastrous world wars, it is hard for us to reach back to a mindset in which wars were envisioned as relatively limited operations and completely acceptable methods to achieve power-political and territorial ends. To give an example of how it worked, we read time and again of kings or emperors continuing to deploy their armies, while at the same time hosting peace talks and negotiations, each victory or defeat in a local battle, strengthening or weakening their bargaining positions.

Discussions, negotiations, conferences and diets and assemblies, embassies and missions continued between all parties even while armed conflict broke out, was carried on, or suspended during truces.

The role of individual rulers

After the first 500 pages or so I realised I was becoming heartily sick of reading about the endless fighting over the same bits of territory, mainly because the little battles and squabbles come to seem utterly senseless. From the hundreds of separate micro-conflicts which made up the big ‘wars’, what came over most strongly to me was how many of them were driven by personal ambitions.

The entire social structure of the day was build around a fractious, rivalrous and competitive aristocracy who paid nominal homage to their king or emperor but who in reality were endlessly jostling for titles and land and possession. Apparently this was particularly true in France, with senior members of families related to the royal line (‘princes of the blood’) continually conspiring and politicking against each other (p.372).

The Holy Roman Empire was different and vastly more complex because it was made up of four major ‘states’, within which sat 40 or so duchies and princedoms, within which or alongside existed a large number of free cities and autonomous regions – from the very large to the very small, each with their own rulers and constitutions and parliaments or ‘Estates’, as they were called, their traditions and fiefs and privileges and customs and taxation systems, who were joined by a variety of links to the figure of the Emperor.

There were seven Electors, so-named because they were the electorate who chose each new emperor, being the archbishops of the imperial cities Mainz, Cologne and Trier, then the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony, the Margrave of Brandenburg. There were fifty spiritual and 30 lay fiefs held by lords of princely rank and then some 200 lesser fiefs, and then 400 or so baronial and knightly families. There were 80 ‘free and imperial cities’. States which were large enough earned the right to attend the imperial Reichstag which was more of a consultative body than a parliament, where the emperor was meant to get his way through negotiation and concessions.

Everyone was competing against everyone else. Everyone wanted more land, more power, to expand their territory, seize new towns and ports and cities and bishoprics and titles and forests and land. And warfare offered a quick way of achieving these ambitions, not only for the rulers who owned armies but for their generals. A massive motivation for being a general in the army was that, if you were successful, you were rewarded with titles and land.

At a very high level the wars can be presented as conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, or between France and the Empire, or between Spain and the Dutch. But at the level Wilson describes, the conflict breaks down into scores of micro-conflicts between Electors and local rulers who had their eye on this or that piece of nearby territory, fighting or negotiating to acquire bishoprics or cities or control of fisheries or forests.

And when large states were defeated, the leader of the victorious forces (for example Gustavus Adolphus or Ferdinand, in the middle Swedish part of the war) was able to parcel out and award all the conquered territory to his successful generals and followers. Thus ‘ownership’ of land could pass through multiple hands which, of course, created an ever-expanding set of grievances and wishes for revenge or reconquest etc.

Seen from a really high level the war amounted to a succession of armies tramping across the same old territory, fighting each other to a standstill or dropping like flies from dysentery and plague, while ravaging the land around them, burning villages and towns, consuming all available food and ruining agricultural land and livestock, devastating the very territories their lords and masters were squabbling over like spoilt children. It is estimated that around a third of the Empire’s cultivable land had been abandoned by 1648 (p.802). Grain production didn’t return to 1618 levels until 1670 (p.806).

And this is what amounted to statecraft in early modern Europe. Endless rivalry and conflict, continually spilling over into ruinous wars.

Why is the Thirty Years War important?

Wilson explains why the Thirty Years War was and is important in his (relatively brief) introduction:

About 8 million people died in this huge, prolonged and devastating war. Many regions and cities of Germany didn’t recover for a hundred years.

The war occupies a place in German and Czech history similar to that of the civil wars in Britain, Spain and the United States, or the revolutions in France and Russia. A defining moment of national trauma that shaped how a country regards itself and its place in the world.

For most Germans the war came to symbolise national humiliation, and was blamed for retarding the economic, social and political development of the country, condemning Germany to 200 years of internal division and international impotence, until Bismarck began the process of German unification in the 1850s.

Wilson’s interpretations

Right at the start Wilson explains that his huge history has three big underlying aims which deliberately set it apart from most ‘traditional’ histories of the conflict:

1. Most accounts simplify the extraordinary complexity of the war. Wilson seeks to restore all of its complexity and the complex way it evolved out of, and interacted with, other parallel conflicts in the Europe of the time (notably the Spanish-Dutch war). But above all he wants to show how the central thread running through the war is their common relationship to the imperial constitution. The emperor wanted to secure peace in his Empire, to enforce the imperial constitution.

2. Thus Wilson wants to assert that the war was not a war of religion. It is true that the Emperor was a staunch Catholic and the Bohemian rebels, the king of Denmark and the king of Sweden were Protestants, and Protestant imperial states (notably the Palatinate and Saxony) allied with them. But Wilson wishes to emphasise that the primary causes were not religious but were – in his view – driven by conflicts over the rights and freedoms allowed the states by the imperial constitution, a constitution the Emperor Ferdinand II had sworn to uphold. Contemporaries rarely spke or wrote abour rarely about Protestants or Catholics – they spoke about Saxons or Bavarians or Swedes or Danes or French or Spanish troops. In Wilson’s view, the focus on Protestants and Catholics is a construction of 19th century historians who a) had their own religious culture wars to fight and b) sought to simplify the war’s complexity.

3. It was not inevitable. The Empire had been at peace after the 1555 Treaty of Augsburg, in fact the period from 1555 to 1618 was the longest period of peace Germany experience until after 1945. Meanwhile civil war raged in France and a bitter struggle in the Netherlands. So war was not inevitable and not the result of inevitable religious divisions. It was more the result of fortuitous and contingent events, starting with the decision taken by a small number of Bohemian aristocrats to rebel against imperial rule, which triggered a conflict in which some of the Protestant states (namely Saxony and the Palatinate) decided to take sides, before the king of Denmark made an unpredictable and personal decision to take advantage of the confusion in north Germany to try and expand his territory. And when the Danish venture had clearly failed, by 1629, the king of Sweden then decided to have a go himself, in order to seize north German territory and solidify his power in the Baltic.

None of these three events were inevitable, they were the contingent decisions of small groups of individuals, kings and their advisors, who decided to use warfare for the traditional goals of expanding their territories and power.

The deep historical context of the Thirty Years War

Wilson’s account doesn’t arrive at the outbreak of actual hostilities until page 269, nearly a third of the way into the book.

This is because, to understand a) why the war broke out b) why it spread c) why it became so horribly complicated – you need to have as full a grasp as possible of the history and complex constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, and of all the neighbouring countries which had an interest in what was happening in Central Europe.

This includes (going in clockwork direction) Spain, France, Britain, the Spanish Netherlands, the Dutch, Denmark, Sweden, Russia (Muscovy), Poland (the Commonwealth of Poland), Transylvania, Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Serbia, Croatia, the Republic of Venice and various other Italian states, not least the Papacy, and Savoy.

Wilson gives us the deep history not only of the Holy Roman Empire itself, but of all these other countries, for each of them delving back into the 1500s, often into the 1400s, sometimes as far back as the 1300s, in order to explain the dynastic struggles, arranged marriages, land grabs and redistributions and wars which formed the mind-bogglingly complex web of political and military relations across the Europe by the start of the 17th century. (I think the earliest reference is to 1160, the year when the Hanseatic League was founded, page 176.)

The war was deeply bound up with the complex practices of inheritance, for example the routine appointment, in noble families, of younger sons as prince-bishops or prince-abbots, and the complexities of dynastic marriages between ruling families of different states and principalities.

The Holy Roman Emperors

I found the sequence of Holy Roman Emperors a little hard to follow, though on the face of it there’s a simple enough succession:

  • Rudolph II (1576-1612)
  • Matthias (1612-1619)
  • Ferdinand II (1619-1637)

Looks simple, doesn’t it, but Wilson places this trio and their reigns within the context of the vast Habsburg empire ruled by Charles V (1519-1556). Charles inherited extensive domains, including all of Spain and its new colonies in South America, Austria and territories scattered all across Germany, Hungary and Bohemia, in the Netherlands, and large chunks of Italy (e.g. Sicily and Naples). (Wilson gives an extended description of the growth of Spanish colonies in the New World, their use of slavery, and the importance of the silver trade, pp.116-121.)

It was Charles V who decided he had to divide this unwieldy entity into two massive parts (p.50), the Habsburg Partition of 1558. He gave Spain, the Netherlands and the New World to his son Philip II of Spain, and Austria and the Imperial territories of central Europe to his younger brother, the Emperor Ferdinand I (1556-1564).

Thus the creation of a Spanish branch and an Austrian branch of the Habsburgs or ‘family firm’.

But of course it was more complicated than that because 1. the Austrian emperor had numerous other titles, and these were awarded by a range of bodies within his scattered states, each with its own constitution and procedures. Thus the Austrian ruler was at the same time King of Bohemia, King of Hungary and Croatia. But he needed to be elected King of Germany by the seven electors (see the list, above). In general the next-in-line to the throne was elected while the current one was still alive, and received the honorary title ‘King of the Romans’ (a bit like our Prince of Wales).

Incidentally that title indicates the deeply held belief that the emperor was descended from the rules of ancient Rome and, like the later Roman emperors, carried the responsibility for the defence of all Christendom.

And 2. because the emperor was elected, this meant there were other candidates – although in practice this meant only other Habsburgs, in Ferdinand’s case, his brothers. Nonetheless these might be supported by various nations or special interest groups within the Empire because they thought this or that candidate would give them advantages and payoffs.

So as the Holy Roman Emperor who ruled just before the war broke out – Rudolf II – sank into madness or mania, his eventual successor Matthias had not only to face rival candidacies from his brothers Ernst, Maximilian and Albert, but found himself drawn into a prolonged conflict with Rudolf which lasted so long and was so destructive that it gained a name of its own, the Brothers’ Quarrel. As Wikipedia puts it:

The Brothers’ Quarrel was a conflict between Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and his brother, Matthias in the early 17th century. Their other brothers – Maximilian III and Albert VII – and their cousins – especially Ferdinand II and Leopold V – were also deeply involved in their dispute. The family feud weakened the Habsburgs’ position and enabled the Estates of their realms to win widespread political and religious concessions.

Supporters and opponents in this intra-Habsburg rivalry came not only from within the Empire, but from the other wing of the Habsburg firm, in Spain, as well as a range of nations bordering the Empire. (So, for example, we find the King of Spain leaning on Matthias to make his older cousin, Ferdinand, his successor [which is what happened] in preference to the more unpredictable cousin, Leopold.)

So, even before he was elected, the Holy Roman Emperor had to have advanced political and diplomatic skills.

Early 17th century issues facing the Holy Roman Emperor

And when he finally did come to power, the Emperor faced a number of ongoing issues, which Wilson describes in detail, including:

  • the religious wars in France from 1562 to 1598, which the emperor had to be careful not to get involved in
  • the immense Eighty Years’ War or Dutch War of Independence (1568–1648), the revolt of the Seventeen Provinces of what are today the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg against Philip II of Spain, the sovereign of the Habsburg Netherlands – which frequently spilled over into north-western territories of the Empire
  • ongoing wars between Denmark and Sweden for primacy in the Baltic
  • the Time of Troubles, a period of anarchy, famine and civil war in Russia, 1598 to 1613
  • war between Poland and Russia
  • and, of course, the largest threat of all – from the Ottoman Empire, ‘the terror of Europe (p.76), whose power stretched into Hungary and which permanently threatened to invade up the Danube into the Austrian heartland itself. This threat has flared up most recently in the Long Turkish War or Thirteen Years’ War, fought over the Principalities of Wallachia, Transylvania and Moldavia from 1593 to 1606.

These were just some of the geopolitical issues which the Emperor inherited, continually having to assess which side, if any, to back in all these wars, and prevent physical or political damage to polities within the Empire. And that was before you get to the issues and conflicts bubbling away in the territories which he directly ruled.

In this high-level map of the European context, note:

  • how far into Europe the Ottoman Empire extended, pressing up through Hungary, and why Wallachia and Transylvania were important border states
  • Spain’s territory in Italy, and the south or Spanish Netherlands
  • the distinction between the Holy Roman Emperor’s inherited Austrian holdings (in pink) and the German states which he ruled over but which had independent princes, Electors, margraves and so on (in orange)

The Thirty Years War in its European context (source: International History blog)

The role of religion in the Thirty Years War

And then there was religion. The disaffected monk Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation in 1517. His reformed version of Christianity spread quickly through some parts of the empire, gaining princely converts who were able to protect the feisty monk and theological rebel.

Despite Catholic attempts to crush it in the 1520s and 30s, by the 1540s the existence of large populations and important leaders who had converted to the new religion quickly became a fact of life within the Empire, which was finally ratified in the Treaty of Augsburg in 1555.

But this new religious conflict was just the latest in a litany of conflicting histories, traditions, cultures and languages, constitutions and processes which differentiated and separated inhabitants of the 1,800 or so states which made up the Empire(!).

What distinguished religion was that religious belief struck home to the real core of a person’s identity and psychology; and that the more devout the believer, the more they considered religion a matter of life and death, not only for themselves but for the world. Wilson has a fascinating passage (pp.261-262) describing the rise of apocalyptic writings and end-of-the-world interpretations of Bible texts which, he thinks, were partly sparked by the economically disruptive change in Europe’s climate which we now refer to as the Mini Ice Age.

That said, Wilson goes out of his way to emphasis that religion wasn’t an inevitable cause of conflict, and describes in detail a number of religious clashes in the late 16th and early 17th centuries where rulers sought and achieved compromise and peace. Thus it’s true that a Protestant Union was set up in 1608 and a Catholic Liga in 1609, but by 1618 the Liga had been dissolved and the Union marginalised (p.239).

Religion – like other cultural differences – only becomes a problem if some people are determined to make it a problem, in either of two obvious ways, 1. as a cynical tool to gain advantage or power 2. because the trouble-makers genuinely believe that theirs is the Only Religion, and that their opponents are infidels, heretics, the Devil’s spawn etc.

Some leaders and some states were determined to use religion as a tool, namely the Protestant ruling class of the Palatinate, a fragmented territory in central and west Germany. For zealots like these the election of the devoutly Catholic Ferdinand II presented a threat.

But the Important Point to grasp is that, although all the successive Emperors were devout Catholics, they also had a good grasp of Realpolitik and so realised that they had to find peaceful accommodations and practice toleration for all their citizens. The emperors tried to hold the ring and contain and limit religious conflicts wherever they arose.

Another flaw with the argument that it was a religious war, is the fact that both ‘sides’ – the Catholic and Protestant ‘sides’ – were deeply divided among themselves, something Wilson explores in great detail (chapter 7), not only among themselves (there was a big gap between Lutherans and Calvinists), but also with their foreign sponsors or backers, e.g. Catholic Spain was at odds with Catholic France who, in 1635 went directly to war with the Catholic Emperor.

Thus Wilson opposes historians who see the war as an ‘inevitable’ result of the religious divide which ran through the Empire. He gives much more importance to the prolonged uncertainty about the Imperial Succession i.e. the Brother’s Quarrel, which pitted the ailing Rudolph against his likely successor Matthias (p.255 ff). In this prolonged struggle both sides conspired to weaken the other which, of course, merely weakened the Habsburg Dynasty as a whole, and handed more power to the Parliaments and Estates and other constitutional bodies which ran the Empire’s numerous constituent states, from big kingdoms like Bohemia and Hungary, through large German states like Saxony and Bavaria, down to the tiniest principalities.

Wilson sees the real cause of the war more in the wish of the states to consolidate the power they had wrested from a weakened Habsburg administration and, if possible, to opportunistically extend it.

Events leading up to the Thirty Years War

Having described this complicated situation in great detail, Wilson then describes a series of events which didn’t cause the war, but help to explain the attitudes and policies of the key players when the war broke out, including such little-known incidents as:

  • The Bocskai Revolt 1604-6
  • The Donauwörth Incident 1606
  • The Jülich-Cleves crisis 1609-10
  • The Uskok War 1615-17

There are others and with each one, I realised a) the complexity of European politics in the 17th century b) that I know nothing about it.

The defenestration of Prague 1618

The elite of upper-class Bohemian nobles (just to explain that Bohemia was for centuries the name of the territory which, in the 20th century, was renamed Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic) felt aggrieved by Imperial decisions and appointments. A small number of conspirators decided to take direct action and one evening stormed the castle in Prague and three a couple of Imperial representatives (and their servant) out the window of their state apartment and into the moat.

However the three men did not die, but limped away, were hidden and made good their escapes. This was a bad omen, for the rising of the Protestant Bohemian nobility which the conspirators were aiming for wasn’t as whole-hearted as they wishes and, although some of the Empire’s Protestant states joined their rebellion (Saxony and the Palatinate) most didn’t, wisely waiting the outcome of events.

Briefly, after two years of battles and skirmishes across Bohemia and beyond, the Bohemian rebellion was crushed at the decisive Battle of the White Mountain in November 1620 and Prague was occupied by Imperial forces.

However, the rebellious Protestant provinces of central Germany still had to be brought to heel and this took three more years. And that process was only just being wound up when King Christian of Denmark decided to invade, so inaugurating the second of the four main phases of the war listed above.

I don’t have anything like the time or space or energy to even summarise what happened next. For a detailed account read the Wikipedia article.

The Edict of Restitution 1629

So the really key turning points are:

  • 1618 start of the Bohemian rebellion
  • 1620 The Battle of the White Mountain, where the initial Bohemian rebellion was crushed
  • 1625 The entrance of Denmark under King Christian IV into the war
  • 1630 the entrance of Sweden under King Gustavus Adolphus

But there’s another one – the passage of the Edict of Restitution in 1629. Having defeated Denmark’s forces, the Emperor Ferdinand II felt in a strong enough position to impose the Edict of Restitution. This attempted to turn back all the changes in ownership of religious land and property which had taken place since the 1555 Peace of Augsburg. In the intervening years there had been a steady flow of archbishopric, churches, monasteries (‘the secularised archbishoprics of Bremen and Magdeburg, 12 bishoprics and over 100 religious houses’) which had been expropriated by Protestant princes and rulers. The Edict attempted to reverse all these changes.

The result in 1629 and 1630 was a great transfer of power and property away from the Protestants to the Catholics. Thousands of Protestants had to leave places they’d lived in for generations and flee to Protestant territory.

The Edict applied especially to north-eastern Germany where the Emperor’s writ had been weak for a century. Ferdinand appointed Imperial administrators to take over the secularised states and cities in a bid to re-establish Imperial authority in areas where his control had become weaker.

Apart from alienating a lot of Protestant opinion, the Edict had two consequences. In 1630 Frederick had to call a meeting of Electors to have his son, also named Ferdinand, elected King of the Romans i.e. emperor in waiting.

However, some of the Protestant Electors stayed away from the meeting in protest at the Edict and others demanded, in exchange for supporting his son, that the Emperor sack his hugely successful but contentious general, Wallenstein. Reluctantly, Ferdinand did so, a victory for the dissident Electors and Protestant faction – and evidence for Wilson’s central thesis, that the war was more tied up with the complexity of the Imperial constitution and Imperial power than with religion per se, i.e. the Emperor could never just do what he wanted, but always had to work through the Reichstag, the Electors, the Estates and so on, in an ever-changing web of complicated negotiations.

Anyway, the second result was that the Edict provided the figleaf the king of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, needed for undertaking his invasion of north Germany.

The role of Sweden

As a newcomer to this vast and tortuous history, it’s hard to avoid the fairly simple conclusion that most of the war was Sweden’s fault. The Bohemians, the Danes and many of the Protestant states had been fought to a standstill by 1630, and the war could have been ended. Gustavus Adolphus’s invasion of north Germany meant that the war continued for another eighteen years – and, from what I understand, it was these later years which were by far the most destructive.

So the entry-level questions, for me, are: 1. why did Gustavus invade, and 2. – more importantly – why did the Swedes stay on in Germany for sixteen years after Adolphus died in battle in November 1632?

There appear to be three answers to question 1. Because Gustavus saw the chaos in north Germany as a) an opportunity to seize territory there and b) to consolidate Swedish control of the Baltic (against rivals Poland and Russia). And c) he and his chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, presented themselves as ‘Champions of Protestantism’, rescuing the Protestant German states threatened by the Emperor’s Edict of Restitution (cynically or sincerely, who can say?).

So much for question 1. But it seems to me that the biggest question about the whole war is: Why did the Swedes stay on for a further 16 years, causing epic destruction and ruination across vast swathes of central Europe? The war caused devastation across all central Europe, but the Swedish armies alone may have destroyed up to 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages, and 1,500 towns in Germany, one-third of all German towns! They presented themselves as the champions of the Protestant cause, but in the final months before peace, the Swedes attacked and pillaged the area around Protestant Prague. Surely they weren’t ‘saviours’ but great destroyers?

(Wilson confirms my two-part interpretation on page 719, where he explains that, from Ferdinand’s point of view, the war fell into two parts – 1. the initial Bohemian rebellion which triggered revolts among various other Protestant rulers in Germany (namely the Palatinate and Saxony) and which was finally concluded with the Peace of Lübeck and the Restitution Edict); and 2. the Swedish part, by far the longest and most ruinous part.)

Historical events alongside the Thirty Years War

Eighty years war Throughout the duration of the war, Spain was at war with the rebellious northern provinces of the Netherlands, although both sides managed to keep their conflict from the German war going on next door, even if there were localised incursions or aid, specially from the Protestant Dutch to some of the Protestant states.

British civil wars In 1639, rebellion by Presbyterian Scots led to the First Bishops War, which triggered the descent of Britain into what is variously called the British Civil Wars or the Wars of Three Kingdoms (or the Great Rebellion by contemporary Royalists). It is fascinating to learn that irritation at Charles I’s support for the Emperor led Sweden to send arms and some officers to support the Scottish rebellion. (And also to learn that so many Scots served in the Swedish army, sometimes for decades, and had built up a wealth of practical knowledge of modern warfare. Meaning that, when in 1639 they returned to their homeland they were able to help Scotland thrash England in both Bishops’ Wars, 1639 and 1640).

I was also fascinated to read about two rebellions Spain faced, which added to her long-running war with the Dutch and the conflict with France. These were the rebellions of Portugal and Catalonia.

Portugal The Portuguese rebelled in 1640, in what became known as the Portuguese Restoration War and lasted until 1668, eventually bringing an end to the union of the Spanish and Portuguese crown (the Iberian Union) and establishing the House of Braganza as Portugal’s new ruling dynasty, replacing the Spanish Habsburg who had ruled the country since 1581. It was a member of this ruling dynasty, Catherine of Braganza, who Charles II of Britain married in 1662, soon after his restoration, thus acquiring the territory of Tangiers, not much money, and a wife who proved incapable of bearing an heir, thus indirectly triggering the eventual overthrow of the Stuart dynasty.

Catalonia The Reapers’ War Catalan revolt sprang up spontaneously in May 1640, leading King Philip IV sent an army to suppress it, which sacked several Catalan towns before being defeated outside Barcelona. The French seized the opportunity to take the country of Roussillon from the Spanish and sent arms and soldiers to help the Catalans in exchange for which the Catalans half-heartedly accepted the French king Louis XIII as King of Catalonia. The rebellion dragged on until 1659 when it was wound up as part of the wider peace settlement between Spain and France (the Peace of the Pyrenees).

Brazil A small but fascinating sidelight is Wilson’s detailed account of the rivalry between the Dutch and the Portuguese in Brazil. Basically the Dutch in the 1630s confidently seized a lot of Portugal’s colonial holdings, but Portugal fought back, retaking most of the colony, leaving the Dutch to concentrate on their new colonies in the East Indies.

The Peace of Westphalia

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Thirty Year War was its conclusion, and the long peace conference which led up to the Treaty of Westphalia. Wilson makes the – to me – fascinating point that the peace conference invented the model of international negotiation which was consciously copied at all complex European peace negotiations ever since, at Utrecht in 1714, the Congress of Vienna in 1815, at the Versailles Conference in 1918-19 and which underpins the modern system reflected in the United Nations.

Early modern society was utterly drenched in the notion of hierarchy, starting with God at the top and moving down though his Son, to the angels, to the created world which had Christian kings at the top and their aristocrats, sharing top billing with the Pope and the top notables of the church on one wing, before finally reaching the urban bourgeoisie, and so on down to the peasants, squatting at the bottom. Then the animals.

In this hierarchical view, various nations of Europe fiercely competed to be Top Dog, which in their world meant being the Most Christian nation. It was a status claimed by Spain whose monarchs, after Ferdinand and Isabella had expelled the last Arabs in 1492, thus winning the title of Their Most Catholic Majesties – but also claimed by the Holy Roman Emperor who thought of himself as the Protector of all Christendom – while French kings tried to dignify themselves as the Arbiters of Christendom, and so on.

Certainly, there were lots of flunkeys and carriages and servants and grand display at the peace conference venues in the two Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Münster. And yet, when it came down to negotiating, the various powers (chief among them the Emperor, Spain, France and Sweden, but also the Electors and other key German princes) were forced to acknowledge the interests and concerns of each other as free and independent entities.

In other words, through the long course of the negotiations (which began in 1643, and so lasted some five years) the conflicting parties were forced to abandon the Early Modern theory of Hierarchy, and adopt what we think of as the Modern Theory, that all nation states are free and independent, have absolute rights and interests and must be negotiated with as individuals.

The positive interpretation of Westphalia regards it as the birth of the modern international order based on sovereign states interacting (formally) as equals within a common secularised legal framework, regardless of size, power or internal configuration. (p.754)

The Emperor could no longer intimidate his dependent states with fine words and a big crown, but had to address their anxieties and requirements.

The final deal consisted of two treaties: the Peace of Osnabrück in which the Emperor settled all issues with Sweden and the states within the Empire, and the Peace of Münster, which settled outstanding issues with France, although carefully excluding the duchy of Lorraine which remained occupied by French troops (p.747).

Devastation and disease

The Thirty Years War became a byword for savagery and brutality even while it was going on. Contemporary accounts emphasised the burning and looting, raping and casual murders which infested the territory, and many artists captured this in disturbing visual form, such as the contemporary engravings of Jacques Callot.

Pillaging a house, plate 5 from the engraving series The Miseries and Misfortunes of War by Jacques Callot (1633)

(Other artists who documented the atrocities of war include Valentin Wagner, Rudolf Meyer and Pieter Snayers.)

But as you might expect, Wilson takes a sophisticatedly revisionist attitude to this as to every other aspect of the war. He labels the view that the war was an unmitigated catastrophe the ‘Disastrous War’ school of thinking, pointing out that different regions had widely differing experiences, which also varied over time. He takes a long cold look at the figures, pointing out all kinds of problems with contemporary records and definitions (for example ’cause of death’).

Nonetheless, it is clear that some regions of Germany saw a loss of 50% or more of their populations. There is agreement that some areas didn’t see a return to their 1618 population figures until 1710 or 1720 (p.795).

It used to be said that around a third of the total population of the Empire perished, but more recent figures revise this down. Still, to put it in context, Wilson points out that the Soviet Union is widely seen to have suffered extraordinary levels of death and devastation as a result of the 1942 Nazi invasion – yet fewer than 12% of the population perished. So even a ‘low’ estimate of 15% of the Empire perishing implies spectacular destruction.

But for me the standout insight is the usual one about almost any war, even into modern times:

Disease proved more potent than muskets, swords and cannon. (p.790)

And again:

The pattern of civilian deaths conforms the general picture of military casualties. Disease was the main killer. (p.792)

Human societies are very fragile things, often only just about able to provide food, clean water and sewage facilities for their existing populations. The second you start a war, and start displacing people, you interrupt the growth, harvesting and distribution of food and deprive people of clean water and sewage facilities. Within days populations begin to starve and become prey to waterborne diseases like typhoid and dysentery.

Human efforts are feeble compared to the forces of nature which are poised all around to massacre us as soon as we let our highly organised but fragile defences slip. This felt like a slightly eccentric minority view till the spring of this year. Hopefully now everyone can agree with it.

Anyway, the usual diseases of war (typhoid, dysentery) were compounded by plague, still a common disease and one which ravaged specific areas. Beyond the bounds of the war, large parts of Italy were decimated by plague in the 17th century, but troops of dirty soldiers traipsing all across the Empire brought it too, and some areas of Germany were laid low. As a tiny example, Wilson describes the town of Ingelfingen where 241 people died in 1634, of whom precisely 7 died during its violent capture but 163 died of plague. 20 times as many.

Although, even here, Wilson is cautious and careful, making the good point that a large number of these people might have died anyway, because plague recurred at ten-year periods throughout Europe. How many died of illnesses they would have got anyway, and how many died because the privations of living in a warzone made them susceptible? Contemporary records are not sophisticated to let us calculate.

Summary

I found this a very hard book to read.

Long

Partly because it’s long, very long – very, very long – and very detailed, so it is easy to put down, then pick up again and have completely forgotten where you were and who Maximilian, Frederick or the Elector Georg are, or which precise part of Germany their armies are tramping over and where they’re headed and why.

Writing about war requires special skills

Eventually I came to realise that Wilson doesn’t write about war very well. Max Hastings or Anthony Beevor manage the brilliant trick of giving a full and clear explanation of the high-level reasons for a war and the strategic changes and developments which develop as a result, alongside brutal eye-witness accounts which convey the fury and horror of individual battles. They clearly signpost key moments, key personalities and key decisions so that they stand out amid the endless sequence of events.

Not enough signposting of key events

Reluctantly, I came to the conclusion that Wilson can do neither. On page after page I found myself lost or confused as I read that Georg marched east to take the three main towns of Upper Saxony while Tilly was heading west to join up with the forces of Wallenstein who had recently seized the imperial cities of x, y and z. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of pages made up of prose like this.

The truce allowed Oxenstierna to move Lennart Tortensson and 9,700 men from Prussia. These troops began arriving in Pomerania in late October 1635 along with a morale-boosting delivery of new clothes for Banér’s ragged army. Tortennson’s units surprised Marazzino, prompting Johann Georg to fall back to protect Berlin in December, while Banér retook Werben and relieved Magdeburg in January 1636. The unpaid, hungry Saxons retreated to Halle. (p.578)

Maybe I’m dim, but by the end of that sentence I was thoroughly confused, and there are hundreds and hundreds of pages just like it.

Ferdinand regarded the third army of the Guelphs as already lost. He formally enfeoffed the elector of Cologne with Hildesheim on 22 August, and authorised Hatzfeldt to enforce this in October and compel the Guelph troops to join the imperial army. Piccolomini had already moved his 15,000 men from Luxembourg in September to assist. Duke Georg responded by tightening his mutual defence pact with Hessen-Kassel on 9 November, while Melander broke the Hessian truce to capture Bielenfeld. (p.617)

All these endless troop movements eventually blurred into one, and I lost any sense of why they were important, who their leaders were and where any of these places were. At first I thought it was me, but eventually concluded it is Wilson.

Suddenly out of the blue he’ll mention that all this marching has led up to one of the key battles of the war or marked some decisive turn — but there isn’t nearly enough scene-setting or signposting in the text. He doesn’t prepare us for the Big Events well enough, and then doesn’t bring out their consequences fully enough. I began to drown in the endless tide of detail.

When I did an apprenticeship in journalism, years ago, this was called ‘burying the lead’. If something Big happens you make sure it is flagged up with a headline and a clear statement of the main event at the top of the copy. The headline and the opening sentence grab you and convey the key information.

The most glaring example of Wilson’s failure to think or write dramatically is the following. The Emperor Ferdinand II was the leading figure of the war from his accession in 1619. He is mentioned on every page, it is he who makes key decisions large and small, appoints generals, sets strategy and negotiates with other states and rulers. Ferdinand is the dominating figure of the narrative and the war. And yet his death only casually mentioned in parentheses on page 586.

Archduke Ferdinand was duly elected as King of the Romans on 22 December 1636 (just in time, because his father died a month after the congress closed).

That’s it, that’s all you get on the passing of this gigantic figure, and then the tide of details flows on as if nothing had happened. There is no build-up, no lead-up to this signal event – not even any explanation what Ferdinand died from, no mention of a funeral, no summary of what he had achieved during his reign. It’s a quite astonishing dereliction of the historian’s responsibility to explain.

Same happens with two other massive figures, Cardinal Richelieu of France and the French King Louis XIII, whose deaths in 1642 are briefly mentioned in the same sentence before the text moves briskly on with no mention anywhere of their importance, what their goals were and whether they achieved them, their responsibility in the war. Nothing.

It is a staggeringly cavalier attitude, and a prime example of the way Wilson is not writing history in a way designed to engage you with individuals and personalities, to make the story exciting or gripping, but with other aims in mind.

Wilson’s revisionist intentions Part of the reason for this lack of good storytelling is that Wilson is more of an academic writer than Hastings or Beevor. You feel he is not setting down the welter of details in order to tell a good story, but because Wilson wants to make academic points. You begin to realise his primary motivation is overturning ‘traditional interpretations and asserting his revisionist account.

And you begin to recognise the moments when he does this as they all follow a similar template or formula – he writes that so-and-so event is usually interpreted as meaning x, but that he is going to reinterprets it as meaning y.

The general conclusion is that Wallenstein represented the last of the condottiere, or great mercenary captains who emerged in the Italian Renaissance. Such figures are thought to represent a transition in historical development as expedients employed by states until governments were capable of organising armies themselves. This is misleading. (p.542)

Or:

The war is customarily portrayed as entering its most destructive and meaningless phase after 1640, as it allegedly descended into ‘universal, anarchic and self-perpetuating violence.’ The development is often attributed to the deaths of the ‘great captains’ like Gustavus, Wallenstein and Bernhard, and is associated with the supposed internationalisation of the war… Much of this is a myth. (p.622)

In other words, for Wilson the text doesn’t exist as a dramatic story studded with key moments which represent massive historical and cultural turning points (like the Czech defeat at the Battle of the White Mountain or the death in battle of Gustavus Adolphus or the murder of the legendary Imperial general Wallenstein). These highly dramatic moments are almost peripheral to his real concern which is to take on the received ideas and interpretations of previous historians and to give key moments his own interpretation.

Thus in chapter 21, towards the end of the book, Wilson goes to great lengths to proves that, far from leaving the Empire a ‘hollow shell’, as many, especially 19th century critics of the treaty claimed, it in fact rejuvenated the Empire,

injected new life into its constitution and strengthened its political culture. (p.778)

But there’s another problem with this approach, beyond making the book lack narrative drive and consistently failing to signpost key moments so that the book ends up feeling like one damned thing after another for 850 pages of dense and detailed text.

This problem is that, to really get the most out of his new takes on old issues – to really understand how Wilson is upending traditional interpretations and giving new readings and slants on well-known events, people or policies – you have to know what the traditional interpretations are.

You have to have a good grasp on how historians have traditionally interpreted, say, Wallenstein’s character or Gustavus Adolphus’s motives, in order to really appreciate how Wilson is giving them a new interpretation, but the feeling that this would help your understanding of what Wilson is trying to do adds to the levels of complexity and slight anxiety I experienced reading his book.

This is, quite simply, asking too much of the average reader – that they should have a detailed enough knowledge of the traditional picture of the Thirty Years War in order to appreciate Wilson’s innovations and new readings.

Wilson’s interest in the finances of the war Just a mention that Wilson’s book is very, very thorough about the financial aspects of the war. He devotes a great deal of space to the ongoing financial tribulations of the Emperor, and the kings of Spain, France, Denmark and Sweden. He explains how they all had to borrow to finance the war, and then were reduced to various extreme expedients, raising taxes, extorting money from conquered territories, looting gold and silver, squeezing Jewish financiers, a whole range of desperate measures, to pay the money back, and often never did.

Towards the end of the book he has a fascinating passage about the so-called ‘Kipper and Wipper’ hyperinflation which afflicted the Empire as states debased their currencies to pay for the exorbitant costs of war, which itself mostly meant paying the wages of the huge numbers of mercenary troops employed by both sides (pp.795-798).

Included in this theme is the fascinating fact, which I knew from other sources but still blows my mind, that although Spain was extracting huge amounts of silver from its mines in the New World (working to death slave labour populations of local Indians and then importing African slaves to carry out the work) it still managed to go bankrupt repeatedly throughout the later 16th and most of the 17th century. Basically, the Spanish Empire wasted all that treasure and more, on its stupid, futile wars, chief of which was trying to suppress the Protestant Dutch for 80 years. An epic example of historic futility.

Back with Wilson’s focus on finances, his summary of the Westphalia settlement includes a detailed consideration of the demobilisation of the troops of all sides stationed in garrisons, castles and cities all over the empire, and the cost of demobilisation. Peace treaties of the time usually included a so-called ‘satisfaction’ money i.e. money given by the loser to the victor to pay off his armies. Earlier in the book, Wilson explained the fascinating fact that it was often difficult to end local conflicts and even entire wars, because armies refused to be demobilised until they were paid.

This book contains an astonishing amount of information and shows an encyclopedic knowledge of the myriad of issues and subjects involved in the history of the period.

Lack of maps Finally, it is a scandal that an 850-page-long book about the most complicated conflict in European history has precisely one map. And quite early on I realised that many places mentioned in the text aren’t even on it. This made it difficult-to-impossible to understand page after page after page of the text which describes this army marching from x to y via the river z, and meeting up with the army of p near the town of m not far from the lake of c — if none of these places are indicated on the book’s one and only map.

Of course, you can try googling all these placenames and, sure enough, find the places on Google Maps (although sometimes the names have changed and it takes a while of checking and double checking to be sure you’ve got the right one). But of course Google Maps doesn’t show the way the territory looked in the 17th century, nor does it show you the route of the complicated army manoeuvres you’ve just read about, or where the armies camped or set up and fought, or anything that you really need to see in order to understand the text.

The complete impossibility of establishing where half the things Wilson was describing were taking place was another big reason why the text eventually became a blur of similar-sounding names and places which became impossible to keep track of.

Conclusion

This book is an awe-inspiring achievement. To have reviewed so much material, to have consulted so many sources, in so many languages, in so many libraries, and to have mastered the early modern history of almost all European countries, and not least the terrifying complexity of the Holy Roman Empire and the complex web of power structures whose failure helped to trigger the war – and then to set it all down into an enormous, lucid, calm, reasonable, well-judged and balanced account like this is an awesome, almost a supernatural achievement.

Nonetheless, my conclusion would be that you should only consider reading this book if you want a really, really, really detailed account of the minutiae of the Thirty Years War, complete with academic reassessments of received historical opinions, and stripped of almost all excitement, drama and interest.

For most normal people, reading the Wikipedia article about the war (and all the related conflicts and key figures) will be more than they’ll ever need to know.

Video

Here’s a video of Peter H. Wilson himself delivering a lecture about the war. The main thing that comes over in this lecture which isn’t obvious from his book, is his simple explanation of why the war lasted so long – which is that both the Dutch and the French wanted to prevent it ending – for if it ended, the Austrian Habsburgs would be in a position to fully support their Spanish cousins to finally defeat the Dutch rebels.

Obviously the Dutch didn’t want this to happen, but neither did the French who were worried about being surrounded by Habsburgs to the south, east and north – and so first the Dutch and then, increasingly, the French, subsidised first the Danish intervention, and then the longer-lasting Swedish invasion of the empire, and then finally, the French themselves became directly involved in the war in 1635.


Appendix: Where does the word ‘Protestant’ come from?

A ‘diet’ or imperial conference was convened at the city of Speyer, in Germany in 1529. Its aims were:

  1. organising the German states to deal with renewed Ottoman Turkish attacks in Hungary
  2. to settle the religious question

The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, himself a devout Catholic, was prepared to take a conciliatory approach to the Empire’s princes and dukes who had converted to the new ‘reformed’ religion of Martin Luther. But the diet was managed by his brother Ferdinand who took a harsher, non-negotiable line. He condemned all those princes who had interpreted a previous diet held at Speyer just three years earlier as allowing them to choose what religion was practiced in their states. No, they couldn’t, Ferdinand said. On the contrary, Ferdinand ordered that all states within the Empire must follow Catholicism, that all church reforms must be scrapped, and that any further reform was punishable by death. The Lutherans’ lives were to be spared, but more radical reformers like Zwinglians and Anabaptists were simply to be executed out of hand. Ferdinand and the Catholic rulers present – the majority – voted for these proposals.

The Lutheran members of the Diet (namely the rulers of Saxony, Brandenburg, Braunschweig-Luneburg, Hesse, Anhalt and the representatives of fourteen imperial cities) entered a formal protest against the decision and appealed to the Emperor Charles V (who had not attended the diet) to reverse its dictates.

Their protest against the harsh results of the second Diet of Speyer led to them becoming known as the protestors or the Protestants and the name became attached to all followers of reformed religion, whatever their precise thrology or practice.

Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave by Aphra Behn (1688)

Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn (1640 – 1689) is generally considered the first known professional female writer in England. She was a very successful playwright, producing at least 15 plays, mostly Restoration comedies. She was a widely published poet, translator, essayist and writer of prose fictions.

She lived through troubled times – growing up during the civil wars (1637 – 53) she was 9 or so when King Charles was executed in January 1649, lived through the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell and was 20 or so when Charles II was restored. There are at least four biographies of Behn, plus numerous introductions to her work. They all agree that she welcomed the return of the Stuart dynasty, was popular with Charles II, and even did some spying for him abroad (on a journey to Antwerp). Back in London she was part of the set of rakish poets and playwrights which included John Wilmot Earl of Rochester, to whom she dedicated a poem.

‘Behn was a lifelong and militant royalist, and her fictions are quite consistent in portraying virtuous royalists and put-upon nobles who are opposed by petty and evil republicans/Parliamentarians.’ (Wikipedia)

Charles II died in 1685 (in Oroonoko he is referred to as ‘his late Majesty, of sacred Memory’) and was succeeded by his brother James II, triggering an uprising by Charles’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, in the Protestant cause.

Monmouth’s rebellion was successfully defeated, but three years later:

  1. James’s Catholic wife, Mary of Modena, giving birth to a son, who everyone knew was set to be raised a Catholic, with the threat that Britain would become a Catholic country
  2. coincided with James’s foolish decision to prosecute seven Anglican bishops for seditious libel

The combination of these events triggered a rebellion by England’s richest Protestant landowners, who a) expelled James b) invited Prince William of Orange (a state in the Low Countries) – who had a sort of legitimacy because he was  married to James’s (solidly Protestant) daughter, Mary – to come and rule Britain in his place.

This seismic event in British history and all its political and legal consequences, for a long time referred to as The Glorious Revolution, had barely bedded in when Behn died, aged (if her birth date is correct) just 49.

Oroonoko

Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave is the longest and most successful of Behn’s prose pieces. It was a bestseller in her lifetime, was quickly turned into a successful stage play and went on to have at least three other stage adaptations and revivals.

Basically, it’s a tragic love story. Oroonoko is a prince of Coramantian, the 17th century name for what later became known as the Gold Coast, and later still became modern-day Ghana. Oroonoko is the grandson of the king of Coromantian, who has an impressive harem of wives. By the age of 17 Oroonoko is a heroic warrior and goes to war under the guardianship of the people’s greatest general, and blossoms into:

one of the most expert Captains, and bravest Soldiers that ever saw the Field of Mars: so that he was ador’d as the Wonder of all that World, and the Darling of the Soldiers.

The text has that tone throughout – Oroonoko is depicted as the greatest, noblest, most educated, wisest and wittiest and bravest and manliest man that ever lived.

Oroonoko is available in several OUP and Penguin paperback editions, all of which are introduced by feminist scholars, all of whom make the same point that Behn was an ‘outsider’ in the ‘man’s world’ of literary Restoration England. Thus they all point out the poignancy / structural appropriateness of Behn depicting another type of outsider to the ‘white supremacist, racist, misogynist discourse’ of Restoration England – a black man. One outsider writing about another.

Except that, as I read Oroonoko, it seemed to me Behn makes her black hero less of an outsider than you might expect. In fact he comes over as an epitome of civilisation, conceived very much along European lines:

for his Discourse was admirable upon almost any Subject: and whoever had heard him speak, would have been convinced of their Errors, that all fine Wit is confined to the white Men, especially to those of Christendom; and would have confess’d that Oroonoko was as capable even of reigning well, and of governing as wisely, had as great a Soul, as politick Maxims, and was as sensible of Power, as any Prince civilis’d in the most refined Schools of Humanity and Learning, or the most illustrious Courts.

Not least because Oroonoko has had European tutors and governors:

Some Part of it we may attribute to the Care of a Frenchman of Wit and Learning, who finding it turn to a very good Account to be a sort of Royal Tutor to this young Black, and perceiving him very ready, apt, and quick of Apprehension, took a great Pleasure to teach him Morals, Language and Science; and was for it extremely belov’d and valu’d by him. Another Reason was, he lov’d when he came from War, to see all the English Gentlemen that traded thither; and did not only learn their Language, but that of the Spaniard also, with whom he traded afterwards for Slaves.

Thus:

Oroonoko, who was more civiliz’d, according to the European Mode, than any other had been, and took more Delight in the White Nations; and, above all, Men of Parts and Wit.

So Oroonoko is not quite the ‘outsider’ or ‘other’ figure that the politically correct introductions led me to believe.

It’s also striking that Behn deliberately removes from her hero some of the most prominent physical characteristics of people of colour.

His Nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat: His Mouth the finest shaped that could be seen; far from those great turn’d Lips, which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes. The whole Proportion and Air of his Face was so nobly and exactly form’d, that bating his Colour, there could be nothing in Nature more beautiful, agreeable and handsome. There was no one Grace wanting, that bears the Standard of true Beauty. His Hair came down to his Shoulders, by the Aids of Art, which was by pulling it out with a Quill, and keeping it comb’d; of which he took particular Care.

He does not have a large nose, or ‘great turn’d lips’, or frizzy Afro hair, but a Roman nose, flat lips, and shoulder-length, straight hair. He sounds more like a native Indian than an African. As educated as a European? Looking more like an Indian than an African? this is not quite the African prince I had expected.

Anyway, back to the love story. In the heat of the battle, the brave old general sees an arrow heading for Oroonoko and throws himself in front of it, dying from his wound. The general had one daughter, Imoinda, so Oroonoko goes to see her to tell her how bravely her father died.

Imoinda is, of course, a stunning beauty. The leading quality of Behn’s mind is exorbitance: everything is the bestest of the best.

This old dead Hero had one only Daughter left of his Race, a Beauty, that to describe her truly, one need say only, she was Female to the noble Male; the beautiful Black Venus to our young Mars; as charming in her Person as he, and of delicate Virtues. I have seen a hundred White Men sighing after her, and making a thousand Vows at her Feet, all in vain and unsuccessful. And she was indeed too great for any but a Prince of her own Nation to adore.

And Imoinda’s wonderful appearance is confirmed when Oroonoko actually visits her:

When he came, attended by all the young Soldiers of any Merit, he was infinitely surpris’d at the Beauty of this fair Queen of Night, whose Face and Person were so exceeding all he had ever beheld, that lovely Modesty with which she receiv’d him, that Softness in her Look and Sighs, upon the melancholy Occasion of this Honour that was done by so great a Man as Oroonoko, and a Prince of whom she had heard such admirable Things; the Awfulness wherewith she receiv’d him, and the Sweetness of her Words and Behaviour while he stay’d, gain’d a perfect Conquest over his fierce Heart.

The point of giving these three long quotes is to show how Behn’s prose works – with long sentences which swell with Romantic clichés and stereotypes – the language of Restoration poetry which was devoted to describing a narrow group of stereotyped qualities – Beauty of body and face; Love with its world of sighs and passions; Warrior qualities of sternness and bravery; and the Tragic Mode of grief and tears.

And every Important word is in Capitals.

Slavery

In another reversal of the politically correct interpretation of Oroonoko as a victim of white imperialism, he quite calmly gives the fair Imoinda a gift of slaves which he captured in the recent battle. The casualness with which Behn describes this suggests that slave-taking, selling and giving were part and parcel of the African societies of the time, or at least that Behn thought so:

So that having made his first Compliments, and presented her an hundred and fifty Slaves in Fetters, he told her with his Eyes, that he was not insensible of her Charms; while Imoinda, who wish’d for nothing more than so glorious a Conquest, was pleas’d to believe, she understood that silent Language of new-born Love; and, from that Moment, put on all her Additions to Beauty.

Note how the 150 slaves are mentioned only in passing and don’t merit as much space as the looks of love which the two lead characters exchange.

In fact the text then goes on to make it perfectly plain that Oroonoko is a slave trader in his own right. When an English ship arrives on the coast:

The Master of it had often before been in these Countries, and was very well known to Oroonoko, with whom he had traffick’d for Slaves, and had us’d to do the same with his Predecessors… To this Captain [Oroonoko] sold abundance of his Slaves…

So when Oroonoko is himself made a slave, it is no more than the fate he has dealt out to hundreds of his countrymen. In fact, when he is caught and sold into slavery Oroonoko he will meet many of the blacks he himself sold into slavery in the previous years.

Some of the mechanics of slavery are explained from what is, presumably, first hand experience.

  • how merchants in the West Indies contract with the captains of slave ships to bring back specified numbers of slaves
  • how the slave traders break up the slave into ‘lots’, deliberately mingling men, women and children from different tribes, so that they often speak different languages and dialects, to prevent them conspiring together
  • how the slave owners ignore the slaves’ real names and give them simpler, easier English names (as Oroonoko will be renamed ‘Caesar’, see below)

The narrator

The tale is told in the first person by a woman narrator, made plain in several places, including:

his Misfortune was, to fall in an obscure World, that afforded only a Female Pen to celebrate his Fame; tho’ I doubt not but it had lived from others Endeavours, if the Dutch, who immediately after his Time took that Country, had not killed, banished and dispersed all those that were capable of giving the World this great Man’s Life, much better than I have done.

The narrator tells us that she lived in Surinam, and spends a couple of pages describing the character of the native inhabitants with whom she and the other white colonists deal and trade. Among these is the description of an elaborate native head-dress the narrator was given and which she later donated to ‘the King’s Theatre’ for a production of The Indian Queen.

Now this was a real historical play which was produced in Behn’s London, so many critics see the story as overt autobiography, linking the narrating voice directly with Behn herself which – along with the vividness of her descriptions of the local climate, flowers and wildlife (armadillos) – persuades some modern scholars that Behn did indeed travel to Surinam and personally witness much of what she describes.

Whereas other modern scholars completely disagree, and point out that Behn could have gathered every scrap of detail she uses in the narrative from current books of exotic travel and description.

You pays your money and you believes whichever version takes your fancy.

The plot

Oroonoka falls in love with Imoinda and they perform a ceremony of troth-making, though not officially getting married.

The king of Coramantia – Oroonoka’s grandfather – hears about Imoinda’s wondrous beauty and also that Oroonoka is wooing her. He has her brought to his palace to join his harem, specifically to join him in the royal bath. Imoinda throws herself on his mercy and begs her innocence. The king ignores her pleas, takes her into his bath and into his bed. However, we are assured quite a few times that he is old and impotent – therefore he may ogle her and caress her but cannot ‘possess’ her. This is to ensure she remains a virgin for Oroonoka.

A word about virginity

In The Vicar of Wakefield, and Pamela and Oroonoko I am fascinated by the intense importance – the moral and emotional and legal and religious importances – that are put on the quality of female virginity, and also by the numerous flowery periphrases which are used to tastefully describe it.

 whether she was robb’d of that Blessing which was only due to his Faith and Love.

I am not yet known to my Husband.

’Twas not enough to appease him, to tell him, his Grandfather was old, and could not that Way injure him

for Imoinda being his lawful Wife by solemn Contract, ’twas he was the injur’d Man,

I believe he omitted saying nothing to this young Maid, that might persuade her to suffer him to seize his own, and take the Rights of Love.

… the Vows she made him, that she remained a spotless Maid till that Night, and that what she did with his Grandfather had robb’d him of no Part of her Virgin-Honour; the Gods, in Mercy and Justice, having reserved that for her plighted Lord, to whom of Right it belonged.

the old King had hitherto not been able to deprive him of those Enjoyments which only belonged to him,

But as it is the greatest Crime in Nature amongst them, to touch a Woman after having been possess’d by a Son, a Father, or a Brother, so now he looked on Imoinda as a polluted thing wholly unfit for his Embrace;

In part, then, Oroonoko joins the vast record of humanity’s complete inability to sensibly organise relationships between the two sexes which we find the human species cast into.

Millennia from now visitors from Mars will leaf through these records in disbelief at the enormous weight of importance which was put on the insertion of a part of the male anatomy into a part of the female anatomy – an event of such vast importance that it inspired murders, suicides, drove people to ruin their own and other’s lives, inspired tribes and entire nations to go to war about it. The Martians will flick through these records and their coy circumlocutions in disbelief at the trouble it caused.

More plot

Oroonoko is struck down with despair at the news his beloved has been taken off by the king. But his own life is in danger if the king thinks he still loves her. So Oroonoko has to feign indifference to Imoinda, even when they are both at court, even when he sees her, at the end of the evening’s entertainment, being led off into the king’s bed-chamber.

Luckily, Oroonoko recruits one of the king’s courtiers, the handsome Aboan, to his cause. This young man chats up one of the older ‘discarded’ mistresses of the king’s harem, Onahal, and persuades her to let him and Oroonoko in a back entrance of the palace one night. Oroonoko goes straight to Imoinda’s chamber, where:

I believe she was not long resisting those Arms where she so longed to be; and having Opportunity, Night, and Silence, Youth, Love, and Desire, he soon prevail’d, and ravished in a Moment what his old Grandfather had been endeavouring for so many Months.

While Aboan has to pay the price of old Onahal’s helping them, namely allowing the old woman to take him to bed. Here you can see the deliberate pairing of the Serious and the Comic, our hero’s coupling with the beautiful heroine paralleled by the essentially comic coupling of May and December in another bedroom nearby. You can see how this is designed to prompt fine sentiments about the former, interspersed with comedy or comic revulsion, at the latter.

Dawn comes too quickly, servants try to enter Imoinda’s chamber, Oroonoko threatens to kill them, calls the chamber the chamber of love, kisses her one last time then makes his escape. The servants report back to the king, confirming all his worst suspicions. Well, now she has been ‘possessed’ by another man, she is not fit for the harem and so the king orders Imoinda (and Onahal, who obviously helped her) to be sold as slaves.

Then he repents (or Behn contrives for him to repent) in such a way as to come round to respecting the couple’s young love. According to the twisted of the day, the king cannot undo Imoinda’s fate, but he can make it ‘respectable’ by declaring he had her executed. That is less shameful than being sold a slave. And so the king sends messengers to Oroonoko telling him he’s had Imoinda executed.

Oroonoko was at the army camp expecting an attack from the enemy. He slumps onto the carpet in suicidal despair. The enemy attacks and is winning and the captains come to beg Oroonoko snap out of it. Eventually he does, declares he will die in battle, storms out of his tent, and leads the army to a famous victory. He captures the enemy leader, Jamoan, single-handed, and comes to respect his nobility and dignity.

You can see how it is less a plot than a succession, a kind of gallery of scenes presenting the highest type of noble figure – kings, princes, generals – displaying the noblest emotions – true love, true grief, valour in battle, chivalry to a defeated opponent.

The weeks and months pass and Oroonoko becomes an accepted figure at the court; he has forgiven the king and the two rub along OK, but he has never overcome his grief at the supposed execution of his true love.

And English ship docks in the port and the captain, a man of culture and education, treats Oroonoko and his followers to a grand feast and tour of the ship – at the climax of which they seize them, throw them in chains and sail away. Oroonoko tries to kill himself, first by beating his head against the floor or walls, then starving himself to death, but the captain and he have a lengthy wordy exchange which results in the Oroonoko being given liberty of the ship on the basis that he will be freed when they reach the next port.

But they’re not. They arrive at Surinam, an English colony. Here Oroonoko is sold off in a lot of seventeen slaves. He throws a parting curse at the captain of the ship and worthlessness of the God he swore his vows by.

Oroonoko is sold to a Cornish man, Trefry, who hears Oroonoko speak and realises he not only speaks English but us a man of ‘quality’. He impresses everyone who meets him. Trefry gives him the slave name Caesar. They travel upriver for days. When they arrive Caesar behaves more like a governor than a slave – many of the other blacks on the plantation were slaves he himself consigned to their condition but, recognising natural Nobility, instead of stoning him, they flock to worship him and prostrate themselves at his feet!

Trefry entertains him at the plantation mansion telling him, among other things about a beautiful young slave woman they’ve christened Clemene, and who everyone is in love with. Trefry takes Caesar to see her and, of course, she is none other than Imoinda! She faints, he runs to catch er, Trefry is delighted this little romance has played out on his plantation. Hidden in all the alarums is the surprising news that Imoinda is only 15 or 16. Or, as Behn puts it, in her operatic baroque style:

Trefry, who was naturally amorous, and delighted to talk of Love as well as any Body, proceeded to tell him, they had the most charming Black that ever was beheld on their Plantation, about fifteen or sixteen Years old, as he guess’d; that for his Part he had done nothing but sigh for her ever since she came; and that all the White Beauties he had seen, never charm’d him so absolutely as this fine Creature had done; and that no Man, of any Nation, ever beheld her, that did not fall in love with her; and that she had all the Slaves perpetually at her Feet; and the whole Country resounded with the Fame of Clemene, for so (said he) we have christen’d her: but she denies us all with such a noble Disdain, that ’tis a Miracle to see, that she who can give such eternal Desires, should herself be all Ice and all Unconcern.

Then again, we know that Oroonoko entered the army and had become a noted captain by the age of seventeen:

as soon as he could bear a Bow in his Hand, and a Quiver at his Back, was sent into the Field, to be train’d up by one of the oldest Generals to War; where, from his natural Inclination to Arms, and the Occasions given him, with the good Conduct of the old General, he became, at the Age of seventeen, one of the most expert Captains, and bravest Soldiers that ever saw the Field of Mars:

So it’s a love story between a 17 year-old and a 16 year-old.

At this point the narrator enters the story. She has been introduced to Oroonoko, who has told her the story of  his life to date, corroborated by the French tutor who was captured along with the prince and his courtiers, and brought across the ocean, though cannot be enslaved (because he’s a Christian). She has assured Oroonoko she will petition the governor to get him freed. We also learn that Imoinda’s body is decorated, as is Oroonoko’s:

and tho’ from her being carved in fine Flowers and Birds all over her Body, we took her to be of Quality before, yet when we knew Clemene was Imoinda, we could not enough admire her. I had forgot to tell you, that those who are nobly born of that Country, are so delicately cut and raised all over the Fore-part of the Trunk of their Bodies, that it looks as if it were japan’d, the Works being raised like high Point round the Edges of the Flowers. Some are only carved with a little Flower, or Bird, at the Sides of the Temples, as was Cæsar; and those who are so carved over the Body, resemble our antient Picts that are figur’d in the Chronicles, but these Carvings are more delicate.

‘Carved’? ‘Cut and raised’? Does this mean tattooed, or scarred so as to create patterned ridges of scar tissue?

Oroonoko and Imoinda live – and are accepted by everyone – as man and wife. She becomes pregnant. The couple are always at the narrator’s house, eating, and she teaches them about history and Christianity which, however, Oroonoko doesn’t understand and mocks.

There is a pause in the narrative while the narrator explains that she sailed to Surinam with her father who was meant to become Lieutenant-General of 36 islands ‘beside the continent of Surinam’ but died on the voyage out. Nonetheless, she is put up in the finest house in the colony, Parham House.

It is important to grasp that Orinooko does not live the life of a slave at all – occasionally they go and visit the ‘Negro villages’ where the slaves live. Instead, he lives a life of leisure and diversion with the narrator and other white gentry. In this holiday capacity Oroonoko has several adventures:

  • he’s one of a party with the narrator who are surprised by a massive female tiger which threatens them but Oroonoko kills with one sword stroke
  • he hunts and kills another tiger which has been terrorising the neighbourhood
  • he fishes for the legendary numb-eel and is struck so numb by it he falls into the river and is carried some distance downstream, unconscious, before being rescued

Some kind of war breaks out with the native Indians, who attack white settlements and kill white settlers. The narrator, some others and Oroonoko go on a long journey down the river to visit a village of Indians and we are treated to an extended ethnographic description of their appearance and customs.

They meet some Indians of a different height and style, who tell them they’ve returned from the mountains where gold tumbles down in the streams. Once known this spurs gold fever in the settlers. More than once the narrator laments that the British government (well, Charles II) let the Dutch take over the colony of Surinam as a result of the third of the three brief Dutch wars of the 1660s (under the Treaty of Breda in 1667).

As Imoinda becomes more heavily pregnant, Oroonoko chafes more and more at, not exactly his slavery, because he isn’t used as a slave, but certainly at his lack of freedom. He calls together the Negroes on their free day and inspires, not a rebellion, but an exodus: they pack up all their stuff and leave, planning to cross rivers, mountains and forests and set up their own colony of the free.

They are followed by the governor-general, William Byam, and about 600 men. They catch up with the renegades and there’s a fierce fight, but the rebel blacks are slowly defeated or persuaded to stop fighting by their womenfolk, until only Ceasar and his most loyal lieutenant, Tuscan, are fighting on.

The governor promises them safe passage if they yield, and honourable Trefry goes talk to them and persuades them to surrender. They are all taken back to the plantation where Caesar and Tuscan are suddenly seized, tied to stakes, and whipped till the flesh falls off their bones. Many of the whippers are the very slaves he tried to free and who pretended to worship him. They rub pepper into the wounds and tie him to the ground.

The narrator didn’t witness this. She and the other white women, when they heard Caesar had led the slaves away, all fled to the safety of the river (?) where they were put in charge of the gallant Colonel Martin. When they hear the rebellion is put down they return to their house on the plantation (Parham House) then go to see Caesar in his wretched condition. They have him released, put into a bath to wash away the pepper, and surgeon called to administer healing balm. Caesar thanks them and respects Colonel Martin but says he vows to live solely to take his revenge on Governor Byam.

The Governor calls his council (of white trash, exiles and renegades) who call for Caesar to be hanged. But Trefry nobly points out the council has no authority over his estate (where they’ve brought Caesar to recuperate) and so he lives.

He lives but he vows eternal vengeance on Byam. But then he quavers in his determination, knowing he will not survive the murder and – worse – his beautiful Imoinda will be punished, maybe raped or gang-raped. Therefore (in the twisted logic of high opera) he resolves to kill her first.

He takes her up to a hilltop, explains his plan – to kill Byam, then take the punishment, but doesn’t want to leave her exposed – and she agrees, and amid tears and noble declamations – he stabs her to death!

while Tears trickled down his Cheeks, hers were smiling with Joy she should die by so noble a Hand, and be sent into her own Country (for that’s their Notion of the next World) by him she so tenderly loved, and so truly ador’d in this: For Wives have a Respect for their Husbands equal to what any other People pay a Deity; and when a Man finds any Occasion to quit his Wife, if he love her, she dies by his Hand; if not, he sells her, or suffers some other to kill her. It being thus, you may believe the Deed was soon resolv’d on; and ’tis not to be doubted, but the parting, the eternal Leave-taking of two such Lovers, so greatly born, so sensible, so beautiful, so young, and so fond, must be very moving,

Mind you, the details are extraordinarily gory:

All that Love could say in such Cases, being ended, and all the intermitting Irresolutions being adjusted, the lovely, young and ador’d Victim lays herself down before the Sacrificer; while he, with a Hand resolved, and a Heart-breaking within, gave the fatal Stroke, first cutting her Throat, and then severing her yet smiling Face from that delicate Body, pregnant as it was with the Fruits of tenderest Love.

He waits two days by the body but is then distraught to discover that excess of grief and lack of food have made him weak. When he tries to stand, he staggers. He rests another six days but only becomes weaker and weaker.

Meanwhile the narrator and his friends have become alarmed at the disappearance of Caesar and Imoinda and send out no fewer than hundred servants and slaves to find him. They find him in a clearing thanks to the smell of Imoinda’s rotting corpse.

Good God, why has he murdered his beautiful wife? He explains his plan but is too weak to move. He cuts flesh from his neck, then disembowels himself.

He stabs to the heart the first man who approaches him, but then Tuscan disarms him (be receiving the knife in the arm) and the other catch him and carry him back to Parham House. He is now skin and bone, like a death’s head.

Then one of the governor’s wretched criminal confederates comes and seizes Orookoko, not realising all he wants is to die and be with Imoinda. So when they tie him to the whipping post and announce they are going to kill him, Oroonoko is delighted.

Piece by piece they dismember his living body – cutting off his ‘members’, then his ears and nose and throwing them into the fire. Then hacking off one arm, then the other, at which point he dies. They quarter his body and send the quarters to different plantations to frighten the slaves.

Thus died this great Man, worthy of a better Fate, and a more sublime Wit than mine to write his Praise: Yet, I hope, the Reputation of my Pen is considerable enough to make his glorious Name to survive to all Ages, with that of the brave, the beautiful and the constant Imoinda.

Anti-colonialism

Nowhere does Behn express any explicit statements against slavery: it was too much a part of contemporary society, not just in Europe but in Africa and the colonies, for it to have come to seem monstrously unjust. Its evils and injustice and cruelty is amply described, but without any sense that the trade and institution itself could or should be stopped.

Instead, what Behn focuses on is the unfairness of enslaving a prince, a man of natural Nobility and Culture. The Wikipedia article and Penguin introduction both emphasise that the central pillar of Behn’s beliefs was her devotion to the principle of Monarchy. Nations need kings. Hence her enthusiastic support for Charles II. Once you grasp that this is the central principle of Behn’s worldview, then you understand:

– why she doesn’t criticise slavery, as an institution, but she does criticise the injustice of seizing Oroonoko

– why the issue of keeping one’s word is much more laboured over than slavery; for Behn, keeping one’s promise was the basis of trust, faith and society; her harshest criticism isn’t reserved for slavers as such, but for people like the sea captain who invites Oroonoko and his followers to a feast, then breaks his word to them – who promises to set them free at the next port, but breaks his word again; and for the governor of Surinam, Byam, who promises Oroonoko safe passage after his rebellion, but instead, once he gives himself up, orders his extreme whipping. In Behn’s view, men like that undermine the possibility of a civilised society, which must be based on trust and good faith.

– why the narrator is at such pains to repeated that Surinam lacks a proper governor, a representative of the king who would underpin good government. Instead it has the troth-breaking and treacherous governor Byam, and his treachery is intimately connected to the lack of his monarchical abilities. Without a True King a colony, like a nation, collapses.

– and this principle explains why Oroonoko’s Nobility and natural dignity outshine and shame the squalid brutality of his persecutors. The final scenes in which he continues smoking a pipe while his punishers cut off his members, his ears and nose and arms, is absurd from a ‘realist’ point of view, but an important token of Behn’s fervent belief in Royalism. Oroonoko is a king in the same way that Jesus was a king, full of sanctity and dignity, and beside his natural princely dignity the colonists seem like barbaric animals.

– and finally, it explains the narrator’s repeated disparaging references to the Dutch. The Dutch received the colony of Surinam as part of the Treaty of Breda of 1667 (the British received the settlement of New Amsterdam, which was to grow into New York City) and the narrator laments King Charles’s short-sightedness in giving away such a rich colony. But edge is added to her criticism because the Dutch were republicans and democrats. In Behn’s royalist view, every nation needs a king, and this is why she laments what she sees as the inevitable decline of the colony once it was handed over to democrats who, by definition, have no idea how to run a state.

Feminist scholars and critics have written scores of books and thousands of articles about Aphra Behn, raising her to sainthood in the pantheon of women writers. In doing so, they tend to equate her with their own politically correct and ultra-liberal views. They prefer to overlook the central fact that Behn was, from start to finish, in all her poems, prose and plays, a fervently right-wing, anti-democratic royalist. She would have voted for Mrs Thatcher.

Feminism

Behn is a feminist saint but it doesn’t prevent her depiction of the female lead, Imoinda, being the most clichéd and stereotypical imaginable, which will have come over from my plot summary.

On the other hand, the narrating voice, the persona she creates for herself within the text, is interesting, flexible and highly intelligent. She begs the reader’s indulgence for having a merely ‘female pen’, but this comes over as merely one of the polite formalities of the day, like the dedication and the preface and the verse prologue and so on attached to the text.

These conventional disclaimers shouldn’t distract us from her intelligence and skill, and the interest and curiosity she displays about the wildlife and climate of both the Africa of Oroonoko’s youth and the Surinam where the second half is set.

Feminist scholars and critics by the thousands have written scores of books and thousands of articles about Aphra Behn, raising her to sainthood in the pantheon of women writers. In doing so, they tend to equate her with their own politically correct and ultra-liberal views.

They prefer to overlook the central fact that Behn was, from start to finish, in all her poems, prose and plays, a fervently right-wing, anti-democratic royalist. She would have voted for Mrs Thatcher.

Is it a novel?

No, would be my answer, it is more like a Restoration play than a novel, and a restoration play – with its stock in trade of princely heroes and only the noblest and most highfalutin’ of emotions – is more like an opera than a modern play.

And towards the end it becomes more like the kind of sensationalist, penny-dreadful tracts hawked around scaffolds when criminals are to be executed, hanged or beheaded, another genre altogether.

One moment struck me as exemplifying the gap between the high-minded rhetoric of the text and the probable realities which underpin it. When Trefry describes the beautiful Clemene whose beauty ravishes everyone, Caesar asks him why he doesn’t just ‘ravish’ her, and Trefry replies:

‘I confess (said Trefry) when I have, against her Will, entertained her with Love so long, as to be transported with my Passion even above Decency, I have been ready to make Use of those Advantages of Strength and Force Nature has given me: But Oh! she disarms me with that Modesty and Weeping, so tender and so moving, that I retire, and thank my Stars she overcame me.’

I think a moment reflecting on this testimony, or text, or bit of discourse, suggests how utterly unlike the real world Behn’s fiction is, how it exists not to depict a ‘reality’ but to showcase the finest sentiments from a succession of noble characters. Indeed:

The Company laugh’d at [Trefry’s] Civility to a Slave, but Cæsar only applauded the Nobleness of his Passion and Nature…

(I wrote this observation before the final passages describing Oroonoko being whipped and peppered, murdering his wife, then wasting away, then being hacked to pieces. These final scenes seem, to me, to belong to a different genre altogether, certainly to a different register, and I wasn’t surprised to read, in the Wikipedia article about Oroonoko, that many of the details of the whipping and dismemberment might have been copied from written accounts of the appalling end of a white settle in Surinam, John Allin, which was described in detail in a contemporary publication.)

Is Oroonoko a novel? Well, it’s a long, connected narrative fiction, which is one definition. And you do get a cumulatively persuasive view of the narrator – the narrator’s tone and intentions and explanations seem assimilable to modern logic and understanding.

But the text itself, the actual story, seems to me too much like a Restoration tragedy, a contrived scaffold for unrealistically high sentiments all the way through – until it collapses in the last pages into its polar opposite, a blood-thirsty account of ‘true life crime passionel‘.

It is undeniably a precursor of the flexible, adult type of narrative which we call ‘the novel’, and yet…


Related links

Blog posts about slavery

Content warnings at Tate

Warning: This blog post contains strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including depictions of slavery, violence and suffering.

Baroque Britain

When I visited the Baroque Britain exhibition at Tate Britain I was surprised that there was a Content Warning at the entrance to the second room. This warned us that some of the images were disturbing and might upset visitors. Specifically, a massive painting by Benedetto Gennari the Younger which shows black people in collars and chains. Slaves, in other words.

Portrait of Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin by Benedetto Gennari the Younger (1674)

A handful of other paintings show rich people – men and women – being served or accompanied by black servants, but this is the only one where the black people (all boys, I think) are wearing very obvious metal slave collars round their throats.

William Blake

This is the second warning notice I’m aware of Tate putting up. The William Blake exhibition last year also warned visitors, in these words:

The art of William Blake contains strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including some depictions of violence and suffering.

That’s putting it mildly, seeing as Blake illustrated Dante’s Divine Comedy with its extensive descriptions of thousands of sinners being subjected to all sorts of tortures and torments in Hell, and Milton’s Paradise Lost which opens with Satan and the fallen angels languishing in agony in a lake of fire. Presumably it was these images of fire and brimstone which the warning was talking about.

Satan, Sin and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell by William Blake (1807)

Although when you actually look at Blake’s images, they are pretty inoffensive, aren’t they? Is an image like the above really thought to be so scary that visitors to an art gallery need a warning about it?

I wonder if the curators have ever seen a Hollywood film? Or even an average episode of Eastenders? Chock full of threat and violence. I can think of plenty of other Tate exhibitions which were full of much more genuinely upsetting images.

Notes and queries

Maybe visitors do need to be warned that art galleries and exhibitions contain images of slavery or violence or threat, but this new trend obviously raises a few questions:

Slavery 1 – black slavery

There must be thousands of images of black slavery scattered around the art world. Will every single one of them eventually require a Warning? For example, the huge memorial sculpture to slavery by Kara Walker currently on display in the atrium of Tate Modern. I don’t recall there being a warning for visitors about to encounter this. Should there be one?

Much more appalling and upsetting than any painting is actual period photographs of black slaves, which survive by the tens of thousands. I suppose if there’s an exhibition about slavery, or about these kinds of photographs it will be self-evident but, presumably if they’re included in exhibitions focused on other subjects – like the American Civil War or American history – presumably any photos of slavery will require a warning, as well.

Slavery 2 – white slavery

Most pre-modern societies had some form of slavery: ancient Rome and ancient Greece were based on slavery, and the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings traded in slaves (it’s estimated that at the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066, 1 in 10 of the British population were slaves).

The Mayans and Aztecs kept slaves in the Americas, as did the Sumerians and Babylonians in the Near East. The Egyptians employed huge numbers of slaves, including Israelites, Europeans and Ethiopians. Slave armies were kept by the Ottomans and Egyptians.

In Imperial Russia, in the first half of the 19th century, one third of the population were serfs who, like the slaves in the Americas, had the status of chattels and could be bought and sold.

In fact the English word ‘slave’ is derived from Slav, the white ethnic underclass of Eastern Europe that provided the bulk of medieval-and-later slaves, not only to Europe but to the Turks, Arabs and Tatars.

SLAVE – late 13the century, ‘person who is the chattel or property of another’, from the Old French esclave (13c.), from Medieval Latin Sclavus ‘slave’ (source also of Italian schiavo, French esclave, Spanish esclavo), originally ‘Slav’; used in this secondary sense because of the many Slavs sold into slavery by conquering peoples. (Etymological dictionary)

Will any gallery displaying any images of slaves from any of these historical cultures, from any period of history, from anywhere around the world, require there to be warning messages for visitors?

‘Trade negotiations in the country of Eastern Slavs by Sergei Vasilyevich Ivanov (1909)

If not, why not?

Violence 1 – secular

Human history is more or less the ceaseless history of wars and empires, human history is saturated with conflict and violence. Will notices warning of ‘strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including some depictions of violence and suffering’ have to be placed outside every gallery which includes any images of conflict and war?

The first VC of the Great War won by Capt Francis Grenfell of the 9th Lancers at Audregnies, Belgium on 24th August, 1914 by Richard Caton Woodville

Violence 2 – religious

Christianity is saturated with violence. Its central image is of a man being tortured to death, and is closely accompanied by the stories and images of countless thousands of other Christian martyrs, most of whom died blood-curdling deaths.

Will all of these images require a warning notice? They would have to be put up in every gallery which includes images of the Passion of Christ or of the saints and, if we follow this logic through, outside every Roman Catholic church in the world.

Crucifix at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, USA

Why now?

Why now? The painting by Benedetto Gennari the Younger has existed for 340 years and been sporadically on public display throughout that period, the Blake images for over 200 years during which they have featured in numerous books and exhibitions.

Why are these warning notices making their appearance now?

It’s not as if we are suddenly more opposed to slavery – the Campaign to Abolish the Slave Trade got going during the 1780s, 240 years ago, and used as many images of atrocities against slaves as it could find. Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest international human rights organisation, was founded in London in 1839 and is still very active. I.e. graphic images of slavery have been in the public domain for over 200 years.

As to images of threat or violence, my God what have most movies for the past 100 years been about, plenty of plays and countless hundreds of thousands of art works not to mention millions of photographs taken of every war since the Crimea or the Indian Mutiny.

What is it in contemporary society which suggests that art lovers, old and young, native and foreign, have, for the last 300 years or so, been able to confront and process images like this without any kind of warning… but now they can’t.

Re. the slavery images, is it because the black population of the UK has reached a kind of tipping point where images like this are no longer acceptable, even in an obviously academic and historical context?

Have changes in social attitudes across the British population suddenly made images of black people in chains unacceptable?

But what about the warning about Blake’s pretty harmless cartoons? That doesn’t make any sense at all.

Or is it not British society, is it the attitudes of art curators which have changed?

Is it not the British public that the curators are concerned about? Is it the art curating profession which has been swept by progressive views, and whose modern woke training has told them that images like this are objectionable.

When they envision visitors being offended, is it really themselves and their progressive cohorts who they are envisioning?

Conclusion

So I’m not belittling the impact that images of black slavery might well have on black, or any other, visitors to an exhibition like this, or the emotional impact of images of threat or violence might have on gallery goers more broadly.

But up until a year or so ago, curators of pretty much every gallery and museum in the world were happy to assume that gallery visitors were grown-up enough, adult enough, to take images like this in their stride. To be shocked, maybe, maybe even to have an emotional response, but to be able to cope with it.

I’m genuinely curious to know 1. what has changed and 2. where this new trend will go.

And 3. am I going to have to put warnings at the top of every one of my blog posts which is about war or slavery or violence or conflict or threat? Because that’s most of them…


Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Fuck America, or why the British cultural elite’s subservience to all things American is a form of cultural and political betrayal

Polemic – a strong verbal or written attack on someone or something

WHY are progressive publications like the Guardian and Independent and Huffington Post, and all the BBC TV and radio channels, and most other radio and TV stations and so many British-based culture websites, so in thrall to, so subservient to, so obsessed by the culture and politics of the United States of America – this shameful, ailing, failing, racist, global capitalist, violent, imperialist monster nation?

WHY are we subjected every year to the obsessive coverage of American movies and movie stars and the Golden Globes and the Oscars? American movies are consumer capitalism in its purest, most exploitative form.

WHY the endless TV programmes which send chefs, comedians and pop stars off on road trips to the same old destinations across America, or yet another tired documentary about the art scene or music or street life of New York or California?

WHY the endless American voices on radio and TV, on the news and in the papers?

WHY is it impossible to have any programmes or discussions about the internet or social media or artificial intelligence which are not dominated by American experts and American gurus? Does no-one in Britain know anything aboutn the internet?

SURELY the efforts of the progressive Left should be on REJECTING American influence – rejecting its violence and gun culture and political extremism and military imperialism and drug wars and grotesque prison population – rejecting American influence at every level and trying to sustain and extend traditional European values of social democracy?


Fuck America (a poem to be shouted through a megaphone on the model of Howl by Allen Ginsberg)

Fuck America with its screwed-up race relations, its black men shot on a weekly basis by its racist police.

Fuck America, proud possessor of the largest prison population in the world (2.2 million), disproportionately blacks and Hispanics.

Fuck America with its ridiculous war on drugs. President Nixon declared that war in 1971, has it succeeded in wiping out cocaine and heroin use?

Fuck America, world leader in opioid addiction.

Fuck America and its urban decay, entire cities like Detroit, Birmingham and Flint abandoned in smouldering ruins, urban wastelands, blighted generations.

Fuck America with its out-of-control gun culture, its high school massacres and the daily death toll among its feral street gangs.

Fuck America with its shameful healthcare system which condemns tens of millions of citizens to misery, unnecessary pain and early death.

Fuck America with its endless imperialist wars. The war in Afghanistan began in 2003 and is still ongoing. It is estimated to have cost $2 trillion and failed in almost all its objectives.

Fuck America with its hypertrophic consumer capitalism, its creation of entirely false needs and wants, its marketing of junk food, junk music and junk movies to screw money out of a glamour-dazzled population of moronic drones.

Fuck America and the ever-deeper penetration of our private lives and identities and activities by its creepy social media, phone and internet giants. Fuck Amazon, Facebook and Google and their grotesque evasion of tax in their host countries.

Fuck American universities with their promotion of woke culture, their extreme and angry versions of feminism, black and gay rights, which originate in the uniquely exaggerated hypermasculinity of their absurd Hollywood macho stereotypes and the horrors of American slavery – an extreme and polarising culture war which has generated a litany of abusive terms – ‘pale, male and stale’, ‘toxic masculinity’, ‘white male rage’, ‘the male gaze’, ‘mansplaining’, ‘whitesplaining’ – which have not brought about a peaceful happy society but serve solely to fuel the toxic animosities between the embittered minorities of an increasingly fragmented society.

Fuck America with its rotten political culture, the paralysing political polarisation which regularly brings the entire government to the brink of collapse, with its Tea Party and its Moral Majority and its President Trump. Nations get the leaders they deserve and so America has awarded itself a bullshit artist, a dumb-ass, know-nothing, braggart, pussy-grabbing bully-boy. Well, they deserve him but he’s nothing to do with me. I didn’t vote for him. He doesn’t rule me. Like all other Americans, he can fuck off.

It’s a disgusting indictment of a bloated, decadent, failing state.

So WHY ON EARTH are so many ‘progressive’ media outlets, artists, writers and gallery curators so in thrall to this monstrous, corrupt, violent and immoral rotting empire?


References

The American War on Terror

Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, and Linda Bilmes of Harvard University, have stated the total costs of the Iraq War on the US economy will be three trillion dollars and possibly more, in their book The Three Trillion Dollar War published in March 2008. This estimate does not include the cost to the rest of the world, or to Iraq. (Financial cost of the Iraq War)

Between 480,000 and 507,000 people have been killed in the United States’ post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. (Human Cost of the Post-9/11 Wars)

The cost of nearly 18 years of war in Afghanistan will amount to more than $2 trillion. Was the money well spent? There is little to show for it. The Taliban control much of the country. Afghanistan remains one of the world’s largest sources of refugees and migrants. More than 2,400 American soldiers and more than 38,000 Afghan civilians have died. (What Did the U.S. Get for $2 trillion in Afghanistan?)

American Torture

‘After the U.S. dismissed United Nations concerns about torture in 2006, one UK judge observed, “America’s idea of what is torture … does not appear to coincide with that of most civilized nations.”‘ (Torture and the United States)

American Drone Attacks

The Intercept magazine reported, ‘Between January 2012 and February 2013, U.S. special operations airstrikes [in northeastern Afghanistan] killed more than 200 people. Of those, only 35 were the intended targets. During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.’

During President Obama’s presidency, the use of drone strikes dramatically increased compared to their use under the Bush administration. This was the unforeseen result of Obama’s election pledges not to risk US servicemen’s lives, to reduce the costs of America’s terror wars, and to be more effective.

Black men shot by police in America

The American Prison Population

The United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population but houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners, some 2.2 million prisoners, 60% of them black or Hispanic, giving it the highest incarceration rate, per head, of any country in the world. The Land of the Free is more accurately described as the Land of the Locked-Up. (Comparison of United States incarceration rate with other countries)

American Drug addiction

‘The number of people suffering from addiction in America is astounding.’ (Statistics on Drug Addiction)

The American Opioid epidemic

Every day, more than 130 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids. (Opioid Overdose Crisis)

American Urban decay

Motor City Industrial Park

An abandoned car company plant known as Motor City Industrial Park, Detroit (2008)

Extreme poverty in America

An estimated 41 million Americans live in poverty. (A journey through a land of extreme poverty: welcome to America)

American Gun culture

‘The gun culture of the United States can be considered unique among developed countries in terms of the large number of firearms owned by civilians, generally permissive regulations, and high levels of gun violence.’ (Gun culture in the United States)

American Mass shootings

Comparing deaths from terrorist attack with deaths from Americans shooting each other (and themselves)

‘For every one American killed by an act of terror in the United States or abroad in 2014, more than 1,049 died because of guns. Using numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we found that from 2001 to 2014, 440,095 people died by firearms on US soil… This data covered all manners of death, including homicide, accident and suicide. According to the US State Department, the number of US citizens killed overseas as a result of incidents of terrorism from 2001 to 2014 was 369. In addition, we compiled all terrorism incidents inside the United States and found that between 2001 and 2014, there were 3,043 people killed in domestic acts of terrorism. This brings the total to 3,412.’

So: from 2001 to 2014 3,412 deaths from terrorism (almost all in 9/11); over the same period, 440,095 gun-related deaths. (CNN: American deaths in terrorism vs. gun violence in one graph) Does America declare a three trillion dollar war on guns? Nope.

American Healthcare

‘About 44 million people in this country have no health insurance, and another 38 million have inadequate health insurance. This means that nearly one-third of Americans face each day without the security of knowing that, if and when they need it, medical care is available to them and their families.’ (Healthcare crisis)

‘Americans spend twice per capita what France spends on health care, but their life expectancy is four years shorter, their rates of maternal and infant death are almost twice as high, and, unlike the French, Americans leave 30 million people uninsured. The amount Americans spend unnecessarily on health care weighs more heavily on their economy, Case and Deaton write, than the Versailles Treaty reparations did on Germany’s in the 1920s.’ (Left Behind by Helen Epstein)

American Junk Food

‘Obesity rates in the United States are the highest in the world.’ (Obesity in the United States)


So

So WHY are British curators so slavishly in thrall to American painters, sculptures, artists, photographers, novelists, playwrights and – above all – film-makers?

Because they’re so much richer, more glamorous, more fun and more successful than the handful of British artists depicting the gloomy, shabby British scene?

In my experience, British film and documentary makers, writers and commentators, artists and curators, are all far more familiar with the geography, look and feel and issues and restaurants of New York and Los Angeles than they are with Nottingham or Luton.

Here’s an anecdote:

In the week commencing Monday 20 February 2017 I was listening to radio 4’s World At One News which was doing yet another item about Brexit. The presenter, Martha Kearney, introduced a piece from Middlesbrough, where a reporter had gone to interview people because it had one of the highest Leave voters in the country. Anyway, Kearney introduced Middlesbrough as being in the North-West of England. Then we listened to the piece. But when we came back to Kearney 3 minutes later, she made a hurried apology. She explained that she should, of course, have said that Middlesbrough is in the North-East of England

Think about it for a moment. The researcher who researched the piece and wrote the link to it must have thought Middlesbrough is in the North-West of England. Any sub-editor who reviewed and checked the piece must have thought Middlesbrough is in the North-West. The editor of the whole programme presumably had sight of the piece and its link before approving it and so also thought that Middlesbrough is in the North-West of England. And then Kearney read the link out live on air and didn’t notice anything wrong, until – during the broadcast of the actual item – someone somewhere finally realised they’d made a mistake. Martha Kearney also thought Middlesbrough is in the North-West of England.

So nobody working on one of Radio 4’s flagship news programmes knows where in England Middlesbrough is.

How do people in Middlesbrough feel about this? Do you think it confirms everything they already believe about Londoners and the people in charge of everything?

But there’s a sweet coda to this story. The following week, on 26 February 2017 the 89th Academy Awards ceremony was held in Los Angeles. There was an embarrassing cock-up over the announcement of the Best Picture Award, with host Warren Beatty initially reading out the wrong result (saying La La Land had won, when it was in fact Moonlight).

The point is that the following Monday, 27 February, Radio 4’s World At One had an item on the story and who did they get to talk about it? Martha Kearney! And why? Because Martha just happened to have been attending the Oscars ceremony and was sitting in the audience when the cock-up happened. Why? Because Martha’s husband works in films and was an executive producer of the Academy Awards nominated short documentary Watani: My Homeland (about Syrian refugees, naturally).

And Martha’s background?

Martha Kearney was brought up in an academic environment; her father, the historian Hugh Kearney, taught first at Sussex and later at Edinburgh universities. She was educated at St Joseph’s Catholic School, Burgess Hill, before attending the independent Brighton and Hove High School and completing her secondary education at George Watson’s Ladies College in Edinburgh (a private school with annual fees of £13,170.) From 1976 to 1980 she read classics at St Anne’s College, Oxford.

So: private school-educated BBC presenter Martha Kearney knows more about the Oscars and Los Angeles and the plight of Syrian refugees than she does about the geography of her own country.

For me this little nexus of events neatly crystalises the idea of a metropolitan, cultural and media élite. It combines an upper-middle-class, university-and-private school milieu – exactly the milieu John Gray and other analysts highlight as providing the core vote for the modern urban bourgeois Labour Party – with an everso earnest concern for fashionable ‘issues’ (Syrian refugees), a slavish adulation of American culture and awards and glamour and dazzle, and a chronic ignorance about the lives and experiences of people in the poorer provincial parts of her own country.

To summarise: in my opinion the British cultural élite’s slavish adulation of American life and values is intimately entwined with its ignorance of, and contempt for, the lives and opinions of the mass of their own countrymen and woman, and is a form of political and cultural betrayal.


Importing woke culture which is not appropriate to Britain

Obviously Britain has its own racism and sexism and homophobia which need to be addressed, but I want to make three points:

1. Britain is not America The two countries have very, very different histories. The history of American slavery, intrinsic to the development of the whole country and not abolished until 1865 and at the cost of one of the bloodiest wars of all time, is not the same as the history of black people in this country, who only began to arrive in significant numbers after the Second World War. The histories of masculinity and femininity in America were influenced after the war by the gross stereotypes promoted by Hollywood and American advertising and TV (John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Marilyn Monroe). These are not the same as the images of masculinity and femininity you find in British movies or popular of the same period (Dirk Bogarde, John Mills, Sylvia Sim).

These are just a handful of ways in which eliding the histories of these two very different countries leads to completely misleading results.

I’m not saying sexism, racism and homophobia don’t exist in Britain, Good God no. I’m trying to emphasise that addressing issues like sexism and racism and homophobia in Britain requires a detailed and accurate study of the specifically British circumstances under which they developed.

Trying to solve British problems with American solutions won’t work. Describing the British situation with American terminology won’t work. Which brings me to my second point:

2. American rhetoric inflames The wholesale importing of the extreme, angry and divisive woke rhetoric which has been invented and perfected on American university campuses inflames the situation in Britain without addressing the specifically British nature and the specifically British history of the problems.

3. Eliding American problems with British problems, and using American terminology and American political tropes to describe British history, British situations and British social problems leads inevitably to simplifying and stereotyping these problems.

For British feminists to say all British men in positions of power are like Harvey Weinstein is like me saying all women drivers are rubbish. It’s just a stupid stereotype. It doesn’t name names, or gather evidence, or begin court proceedings, or gain convictions, or lobby politicians, or draft legislation, or pass Acts of Parliament to address the issue. It’s just generalised abuse, and one more contribution to the sewer of toxic abuse which all public and political discourse is turning into, thanks to American social media.

Importing American social problems and American political rhetoric and American toxic abuse into the specifically British arena is not helping – it is only exacerbating the fragmentation of British society into an ever-growing number of permanently angry and aggrieved constituencies, a situation which is already at a toxic level in America, and getting steadily worse here.

Where does it all end? Well, what have all the efforts of a million woke American academics and writers and actors and film-makers and artists and photographers and feminists and black activists and LGBT+ campaigners led up to? A peaceful, liberated and enlightened land? No. To President Donald Trump.

WHY on earth would anyone think this is a culture to be touched with a long barge pole while wearing a hazchem suit, let alone imported wholesale and gleefully celebrated?

In my opinion it’s like importing the plague and saying, ‘Well they have it in America: we ought to have it here.’

Advertising posters on the tube today 27/2/2020

  • TINA: The Tina Turner musical
  • THE LION KING musical
  • 9 TO 5 the musical
  • THE BOOK OF MORMON musical
  • THRILLER the musical
  • WICKED the musical
  • PRETTY WOMAN the musical
  • TATE membership, promoted by an Andy Warhol silkscreen of Marilyn

Which is why, in this context and amid this company, when the curators of the Masculinities exhibition at the Barbican choose to promote it with a photo of a black man they may think they’re being radical and diverse: but all I notice is that their poster is featuring one more American man photographed by an American photographer to promote an exhibition stuffed with American cultural products, which takes its place alongside all the other American cultural imports which saturate our culture.

Think I’m exaggerating?

Recent British exhibitions celebrating American artists and photographers


Related blog posts

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe (1972)

This is a phenomenally careful, elaborately structured and disorientatingly weird work of art.

It’s made up of three novellas of about 70, 50 and 100 pages each. They are wildly dissimilar in style and approach, and each of them is, in its own way, extremely dense and elliptical.

By elliptical I mean that Wolfe very deliberately leaves out loads of backstory. In most popular, pulp or genre fiction, either the narrator sets the scene right at the start or one or other of the characters sooner rather than later gives an explanation of what’s going on and what is at stake.

Instead, Wolfe adopts a deliberately puzzling and bewildering strategy of postponing any kind of explanation of what’s going on, indefinitely. To be honest, I never really, fully grasped exactly what was going on in any of these three stories – for example I’m not sure if the second one is intended as a fiction or a true account.

The sense of bewilderment is exacerbated by:

  1. Wolfe’s unusually baroque prose style
  2. the extremely weird science fantasy settings and details of the stories

The Fifth Head of Cerberus (70 pages)

A first-person account by a narrator who early on drops that he’s been in prison and is looking back at events from a distance.

It is an account of his childhood, brought up in an elaborate, Gormenghast-like establishment, La Maison, with barred windows which looked out over a front garden, and a roof garden above where parties are held, sharing a room with his brother, David, both of them being pedantically tutored by ‘Mr Million’ who, it emerges, is a kind of robot which runs on wide wheels and has some kind of hologram embedded in its metal casing, in which a human head talks to them, setting them subjects to debate, correcting and reproving them. There’s a vivid attempt to capture Mr Million on the cover of one of the SF Masterworks editions.

The boy’s life changes around his seventh birthday when his father starts calling for him every evening to be brought to his study, where the boy is held down on a chaise longue and injected with drugs while his father asks him penetrating psychological questions, IQ tests, free association sessions and so on.

We never learn the narrator’s name, and his father decides to call him Number 5. Occasionally the boy gets sight of his aunt, an upright stark figure who, in a striking scene, he realises doesn’t walk but glides, eventually realising that she doesn’t have any legs but her body sits on a kind of saddle-like device which suspends her at leg height.

From scattered remarks we are also able to piece together that the establishment he’s being brought up in is a high-class brothel, with plenty of eminent male customers in top hats and formal wear (later we learn that a visitor, Marsch, wears a top hat and a cape like a Victorian gent, p.154). Customers are greeted by girls who seem to have been surgically enhanced to have super-pert breasts, bulging eyes, and be abnormally big.

Oh, and it’s all taking place on another planet, Sainte Croix, a planet which was settled a century or more earlier by humans travellers across space. Sainte Croix circles closely around a sister planet named Sainte Anne and they are both some 20 lightyears from earth.

Piecing together casual asides, the reader deduces that the planets were originally settled by the French – hence the French names of the planets and settlements (‘the original French-speaking colonists’ -p.40) – but at some later time was violently seized from them in a war (‘the destruction of the records of the first French landing parties by the war’, p.131 – and that most of the French lost arms or legs in the war, p.132, ‘the log of that first ship was lost in the fusing of Saint-Dizier’, p.171 ‘Both were originally found and settled by the French’ ‘Who lost the war’ p.183).

And so Number 5 and his brother David go on for years, being tutored and taken for polite walks in a nearby park by Mr Million, and in the evening taken off for a regular session of drugs and intensive questioning. Slowly Number 5’s health deteriorates, he experiences extended blackouts.

On a couple of occasions he meets his unsympathetic aunt, who at one point asks if he is familiar with Veil’s Hypothesis – the theory that the Sainte Anne aboriginals could mimic the human settlers so perfectly that they killed them and took their places; in other words, that all the human characters are in fact descendants of chameleon-like aborigenes.

Number 5 is thrilled when he meets a visitor, John Marsch, an anthropologist, who has come, in fact, from earth, a place he has heard so much about. Number 5 desperately tries to keep Marsch busy and question him in the parlour but Marsch is impatient to meet Aubrey Veil, inventor of the hypothesis (p.30). You and I assume this to be Number 5’s father, so it is a big shock to all of us when Aubrey turns out to be Number 5’s aunt!

In the park one day he encounters a pretty girl, Phaedria, despite the efforts of her governess to keep them apart. Incongruously, she, he and David help set up an amateur dramatic society and put on productions all through the summer. When money runs short they decide to break into a slave trader’s warehouse – a gripping and grotesque scene, as they first go down through a floor of huge chained barking mastiffs, before getting to the floor of chained slaves.

They get past these alright but, in the small cash room, come across a grotesquely engineered human, a human creatures with four arms who attacks and nearly kills them before they can spear him and escape.

But Number 5 realises that the creature’s face bears a resemblance to him, and his father. And now he realises that this fact explains the fondness Mr Million has shown all the way through his boyhood for often stopping off at the slave market en route to or from their outings to the park. (Slaves! the slave market?) Now Number 5 really pays attention, he realises that a regular number of the slaves look like his father and him.

At some point during these events the reader realises that Number 5 is a clone and, presumably, so are the slaves he sees – hence their similar appearance. Marsch pays another visit and casually lets drop that so is his father – they’re all clones of the man whose hologram is inside Mr Million, namely his grandfather. (Sometime during the process it dawns on some readers that the narrator’s name may reflect his genetic origin: what better name for a clone than Eugene, or Gene?)

The story reaches a climax as Number 5 decides he is going to murder his father, a decision he reaches quite coolly and dispassionately. When he arrives at his father’s study for the evening drug-induced interrogation, he thinks his father sees it in him, as if this is a ritual which must be gone through.

The narration speeds up and the narrator briskly describes how he kills his father but is then discovered, arrested and sentenced to nine years of harsh imprisonment. When he is finally released he makes his way back to the big family home where, we are told, he takes his father’s place as head of the family estate.

Wow. My head is spinning and so much has been left unexplained. The slaves? The clones? Mr Million? How does it all… fit together?

‘A Story’ by John V. Marsch

This is a really out-there text. Forget it being a ‘story’ by Marsch the anthropologist in any conventional sense of story – it is a third-party account of a few weeks in the life of an aborigine dating from – presumably – before the Terrans arrived, and describing the completely alien, primitive society of the time.

We are on Sainte Anne, the sister planet to Sainte Croix. We are told of the birth of John Sandwalker, twin to another boy, John Eastwind (all boys are named John – or whatever native word ‘John’ is translated from), to their mother Cedar Branches Waving, at a holy birthing place among the rocks and barren desert.

Some indeterminate time later Sandwalker is on a quest in the fierce, barren outback to find a priest who lives in a cave under a waterfall. He is starving. All the humans are hungry. Most of them die if they don’t hunt something after three days. Many are born but most die. There is no agriculture and the beings he describes are cannibals, although hedged round with bizarre taboos.

Sandwalker, like the other ‘humans’ described, powerfully confuses or intermingles sleep and waking, sleeping dreams being full of all kinds of omens and meanings.

Sandwalker goes out to hunt and meets the Shadow Children, a strange nocturnal race who seem to be a) half the height of people b) only come out at dark c) are hard to see clearly d) appear to contribute to each other’s existence, in the sense that it takes a number of them to bring their spokesman, the Old Wise One into being.

Sandwalker appears to make some kind of peace with them, in exchange for which they share a tick-deer they have killed. Singing is a big part of both cultures and Sandwalker shares in the Shadow Children’s singing.

Walking on, he meets a girl named Seven Girls Waiting and her baby, Pink Butterflies, at a rare oasis. She has been abandoned by her people for reasons I didn’t understand. He hunts food for her and her baby. They have sex. There is an odd exchange about trees. Sandwalker points out that all people come from trees out of women. Later his tree is hard. So ‘tree’, on one appearance, seems to mean penis – but there are many more occasions when it actually seems to mean tree. And trees are holy. When he first approaches the oasis he keeps his eyes on the one and only tree as a mark of respect, and asks its permission to come closer.

Sandwalker goes hunting for more game to take to the cave under the falls. He then decides to travel down the river which flows through the story downstream towards the marshmeres and, ultimately, the sea.

Here Sandwalker, walking, trekking, singing through the outback on his own, comes across some Shadow children who he rescues from enemy marshmen who he kills. But then he learns that his mother, Cedar Branches Waving, and tribe members Leaves-You-Can-Eat and Bloodyfinger, have been captured by other marshmen and taken away. So he sets off to rescue them.

Instead he is captured and thrown into a deep sandy pit, along with the Shadow children who have followed him. Here there is a series of confusing conversations – first with a couple of his own people who have been captured and are in the sandpit – but mostly with the Shadow Children who reveal all kinds of secrets.

Confusingly, they make references to earth, or to earth culture, in a roundabout and elliptical way which seems to imply that they are the degraded descendants of colonists who might have come from earth a very long time ago.

(But if all this is happening before the planets are colonised, does this mean there was some earlier wave of space travel and colonisation? How? When?) At one point the Old Wise One mentions a string of places which mostly seem nonsense but in the middle of which are mentioned ‘Atlantis’ or ‘Africa’ as possible origins for the Shadow children. What? After such a long time, during which they seem to have mutated into another form of life completely, how would he remember those names? It’s mind-twisting.

The three men, Sandwalker’s mother and the girl are brought up out of the sandpit and forced out into the ocean where a crowd of the other tribe chant excitedly and two of Sandwalker’s group are ritually drowned. Someone explains that the ritual killing is so the dead men’s souls will enter the river and carry messages from the other tribe to the stars.

Supervising all of this and clearly a man of status in his tribe is Sandwalker’s long-lost twin brother, John Eastwind. There is absolutely no human love or affection between them, just the conflict of two beings from a culture immeasurably distant from our own.

Sandwalker and the others are taken back to the pit and thrown back down into it, although a couple of the Shadow children are killed on the way back. The cruder members of the other tribe gloat to Sandwalker how the marshmen will feast on their bodies tonight. Hunger, in fact starvation, is an ever-present fact of these people’s lives.

The next day Sandwalker, his mother, Seven Girls Waiting, and the surviving Shadow children are brought up out of the pit again, and marched the same route to the estuary of the river into the ocean to be ritually drowned except that… one of the Shadow children refuses to go quietly.

The whole text is written through the eyes of its pre-literate protagonists and so takes seriously cult and taboos and dreams and spells, to such an extent that it is often difficult to figure out what is going on. Wolfe doesn’t make it obvious or easy. He expects his reader to pay attention and put in a lot of work.

Here at the end, the story reaches an apotheosis of obscurity as two things happen.

1. One of the Shadow children refuses to go quietly and, disobeying the instructions of the by-now very wispy Wise Old One, reveals that for many years the Shadow children have projected some kind of force field out into space and so protected their world from discovery by alien races (which – we think – they were once themselves).

This Shadow child now, abruptly, decides to turn off the force, and we feel from Sandwalker’s perspective, what it feels like for a great shudder to pass over the world and it suddenly to feel much bigger.

Within moments one of the many ‘starcrossers’ which have been periodically referred to, falls from the skies, with a flare of… of what? of engines? Does this mean there’s been a busy traffic of spaceships to and fro past the planets which have been somehow been rendered invisible – and now, at the flick of one of the Shadow children’s minds, they have become somehow visible and inviting to passing astronauts? Is this event the arrival of the first (or current wave) of colonists, whose descendants feature in the first story?

Confusing? Yes, very.

2. Meanwhile, back with the crowd of marshpeople who have assembled to watch the ritual drowning, Sandwalker takes advantage of the confusion and the sense that the other tribe have lost the initiative, to seize control of the situation.

In a puzzling development he and his twin brother break the loopy roots of something like a mangrove tree which is lined with razorsharp shells, and proceed to whip to death the priest who had been supervising the ritual drownings, Lastvoice.

Then, Eastwind and his brother are debating what to do next when Sandwalker grabs his brother’s hair and is bending him backwards into the sea to drown him… when the surviving Shadow children intervene, telling him part of him will die with his twin if he kills him.

While he hesitates, a Shadow child darts forward and sinks his teeth into Eastwind’s arm and the latter’s eyes go blank. Is this because the Shadow children (we learn, latterly) are addicted to chewing a leaf which, rather like coca, appears to have powerful druggy effects? Or is it because, as he bit him, the Shadow child told Eastwind that he made him Sandwalker and Sandwalker Eastwind? Does Eastwind believe he has changed places with his brother because the Shadow child said it? Or can the child work magic?

Impatient of all this, Sandwalker abruptly drowns his passive, glazen-eyed twin. But then doesn’t know whether he is Eastwind or Sandwalker any more… Neither does the Shadow child. Neither does the reader.

The exchange of identities between the brothers is extremely confusing even to them, if it indeed happens – but it is definitely a big and deliberate theme.

In the last paragraph, as his dead brother floats in the surf, the Shadow child points out a disturbance further along the ocean shore. A green object is bobbing in the sea. Three men stand nearby swathed in leaves (does this mean, wearing clothes?) and speaking a tongue none of them understand (does this mean they are astronauts? they got her pretty quickly).

As Sandwalker walks towards them, they stretch out their hands, palms out, empty, to gesture that they have no weapons. But nobody on this planet has ever known weapons. So are we to take it these are the first arrivals from space, the first colonists? And is that the meaning of the last sentence?

That night Sandwalker dreamed that he was dead, but the long dreaming days were over. (p.122)

So were Eastwind and Sandwalker the aboriginal shapeshifters who were referred to throughout the first novella? In which case, what relation do they have to the Shadow children, who seem to come from different stock but can hardly be called human, since they are small, transparent, and barely exist as individuals? Did the Shadow children really come from earth aeons and aeons earlier? From Africa or Atlantis? Or long long before that?

How?

V.R.T.

The third of the tales is clearly linked to the first two, and is full of subtle allusions, picking up many of the threads of the first one, clearing up some questions, but creating more ones.

It is told from the point of view of a brutal security officer connected to a Sainte Croix jail who, one bored day, is presented with a big box containing all the materials relating to the interrogation of a prisoner for treason. Bored and only half paying attention, he leafs through diaries, notes, letters, transcripts of interrogations including tape recordings – at random, skipping bits, throwing sheafs of paper away, dipping in and out of various narratives.

So it’s in this manner that the reader is presented with a very jumbled assortment of texts, snippets and cuttings, none of which ‘finish’, but through which we slowly gather that the prisoner under arrest and interrogation is none other than John Marsch, the anthropologist we met in the first section and who – supposedly – ‘wrote’ the second story (though I, for one, took the story as a true account of events rather than an experiment in anthropological fiction). (Unless I’m completely missing the point somewhere.)

We learn that Marsch has been kept in prison, in solitary confinement for over a year, and the brutal security officer (we see him casually slapping and beating his ‘slave’ – then we see him brutally ‘using’ the tired woman courtesan or prostitute who services him) is now reviewing his case.

One of the texts describes in some detail an expedition Marsh undertakes, with the son of a local man, into the outback. The father jokes that the boy is part-aborigine (but then, everyone in all the stories is haunted by this idea that the aborigines never died out, but are such adept shapeshifters that they simply assumed the shape of the colonists, the most extreme theory being Veil’s Hypothesis that, in fact, there are no remaining abos for the simple reason that they murdered and replaced the colonists and then forgot the fact. The colonists who worry about and go searching for the abos are in fact… themselves the abos!)

In fact the text strongly hints that the boy is the abo he literally believes himself to be, since he a) believes he is (which may be half the trick) b) is useless with tools or anything practical, which the father says is a sign of the abos – which can appear like a man but can’t use tools, being animals.

In eerie scenes, the boy guides Marsch through the territory which we realise we’ve seen so vividly described in the previous story – namely from the brackish marshes of the big river delta (the river the colonists call the Tempus), steadily upstream to where the river is narrower and very fast, even resting at a place the boy considers holy which was almost certainly a resting place for Sandwalker, and they are, supposedly, in search of the priest’s cave under the waterfall which featured in that story.

So is the overlap because they are eerily, spookily retracing the steps of Sandwalker? Or is Sandwalker a fictonal invention, and the previous story genuinely is a conscious fiction, written by Marsch, as a kind of fictional way of theorising about the abos?

There is similar linkage with the first story, because in some of the documents, specifically a long account of his arrest, Marsch says it took place late on a night when he had attended the Cave Canem – and we know this is a nickname for the brothel run by Number 5’s father – in fact Marsch specifically mentions that the father had been asking his advice on what to do with his ‘son’. In fact, he might have been arrested on the same night that Number 5 murdered his father!

Intercut with the account of the night of his arrest (which is a parody of the arrest of Joseph K in Kafka’s novel, The Trial, right down to the scuffiness and unnerving humour of the arresting ‘officers’) is an account of Marsch being taken out by boat by an old fisherman from Frenchman’s Landing who claims to be an ancestor of one of the abos, and proceeds to confirm many of the details from the previous section.

The old fisherman is a famous drunk in the small fishing community, and scrapes a living telling tall tales about the abos and their traditions (by the way, I use the word ‘abos’ because that is the word used throughout the book; in fact in this section in particular, the anthropologist prefers to refer to them as the ‘Assenes’). So is he a useless drunk and liar? Hardly seems like it since he knows a lot about the supposed customs and appearance of the Assenes.

For example, at various points, he mentions that when they’re not shape-shifting, in rare glimpses, they look like wood, like fenceposts.

Anyway, in the fishing boat the old man and the boy take Marsch out to the very location where the first ‘starcrosser’ spaceship landed, and tell the story that this is where the first French astronauts came across the body of an abo which had been whipped to death, and then had their first encounter with Eastwind, who the fisherman claims as an ancestor.

So did those events really happen? Or is the text we read really only a fiction, a short story made up by Marsch on the basis of the old fisherman’s yarns?

Many other details of the other two stories are confirmed. For example, one of the records of Marsch’s interrogations confirms that he saw several plays put on over the summer by a company of young or child actors – which presumably refers to the company set up by Number 5 and Phaedria.

In the interrogations, we get a feel for the polite, insistent and sceptical character of the interrogator. And in the last twenty or so pages two narratives converge – the account of Marsch’s interrogation intercutting with Marsch’s diary account of the expedition into the outback he undertook with the uncanny boy – and a third element – Marsch’s diary from prison which, we learn, is pretty hellish, consisting of a concrete space wide enough to spread his arms and legs but only a little over a metre high.

To cut a confusing story short, what seems to happen is that the trip in-country with the boy becomes more and more uncanny. They find themselves trailed by animals, an enormous flesh-eating ‘ghoul’ which Marsh shoots, but also a friendly cat. The reader gets the strong impression these are uncanny, that they’re shapeshifters, or something.

Then in the climactic scenes, as they penetrate deep into the dreamtime, spooked outback, the boy seems to have an accident but… was it the boy…? Marsch’s diary records him learning lessons about anthropology quicker and quicker, copying Marsch’s handwriting… was it the boy who had an accident or…

Was it Marsch? Did the boy take over Marsch? Is it like the obscure exchange of personas between Sandwalker and Eastwind?

Flesh is put on the story by the account of the interrogator, who points out to Marsch that after years (apparently) wandering the outback, he suddenly appeared in a completely different coastal settlement, without the boy, wearing new clothes. He took up his anthropological position at a colonial university but the authorities weren’t interested in him and so he caught a shuttle to the sister planet, Sainte Croix.

The interrogator explains the difference between the planets, namely that Sainte Croix has slavery, while Sainte Anne doesn’t, and gives a twisted defence of slavery (how does a man know that he’s free, unless he’s got slaves?)

The actual charge of conspiracy is based on some figures found in the back leaves of some of the books he brought from Sainte Anne – along with the accusation – we learn on almost the last page – that he was somehow involved in the murder of Number 5’s father.

Anyway, in the last ten or so pages, two things happen:

1. It seems from the way Marsch’s diary is written that he IS the boy abo, that the boy abo did completely take over his body and mind – because Marsch’s later diary entries merge seamlessly with memories of the boy and his mother, and of the boy growing up in the household with a shapeshifter mother and terrestrial father.

2. Right at the very end of the book, we get to read the official letter from officer’s superior, who lists the charges against Marsch, and says he believes he is a spy sent by the military junta on the ‘sisterworld’ i.e. Sainte Anne. The unnamed officer through whose eyes and mind we have read all these disparate letters, diaries, journals, interrogation notes and so on, writes a brisk professional reply saying that, having weighed the evidence, he recommends that Marsch continue to be held in solitary and interrogated until the authorities ‘secure complete cooperation’ (whatever that means).

And he packs all the documents back into their crate, along with his recommendation, and gets his slave to promise to take it post-haste to ‘the commandant’ along with the message that he, the officer, stayed up all night to review the case.

In one of the many weird details about this section, we get to see the slave’s glee at being able to perform a genuinely useful service for his master, and the officer’s pleasure in giving him that glee.

Right up to the very end this book is full of unnerving and genuinely other perceptions, states and ideas.

It demands to be read at least twice, so you can notice all the intricate threads and themes and links which have been sewn through it. But even then, nothing would change the heartbreaking final pages when the prisoner – whether he is Marsh himself or the abo boy, whatever his identity – is heartlessly condemned to an indefinite further period of imprisonment in his hellish box.

After the slave has left with the crate, the officer finds a leftover spool of interview tape which had rolled behind the lamp on his table, and thoughtlessly chucks it out the window, into the neglected flowerbed outside. Because the account of his arrest is so redolent of Kafka’s Trial, I couldn’t throw off the feeling that the entire third story is suffused by the spirit of Kafka’s other, appallingly horrifying and heartless story, In the Penal Colony.

It is difficult not to be profoundly depressed by the final, complete indifference of the universe to the incredible story of John Marsch and the shapeshifting alien.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard man Gulliver Foyle is looking for vengeance
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undergo a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve read
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away which revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ original shapeshifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything

1980s
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero, while the daughter of a Japanese ganster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

Kara Walker @ Tate Modern

Kara Walker

Kara Walker was born in California in 1969. She is an American contemporary painter, silhouettist, print-maker, installation artist, and film-maker. I have previously come across her work in:

1. The big exhibition of prints held at the British Museum in 2017, where I wrote:

In this room the standout artist for me was Kara Walker, with her stylised black-and-white silhouettes of figures from the ante-bellum Deep South. I’ve seen an exhibition of these before, so there’s an element of recognition and familiarity in my positive response. Coming towards the end of a rather exhausting exhibition featuring over 200 images, the clarity, purity of line and savage humour of her work sets her apart.

But her style is also capable of a strange dreamlike quality, fantasias of colour, exploitation, journeying across the seas, converting history into eerie illustrations for a very grown-up set of fairy tales.

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

2. The other place I’d come across Walker is in the huge book, Women, Art and Society by Whitney Chadwick (2012) where Chadwick writes:

  • Works like [Kara Walker’s] installation Narratives of a Negress (2003) raise complex issues about history, memory, and ethnic, gender and cultural identity. (p.492)

So I was familiar with Walker’s crisp, black silhouettes, and the way that, despite their often emotive titles the actual illustrations are often more teasing, strange and fantastical than the apparent straightforward obsession with slavery would suggest.

Slavery! Slavery! by Kara Walker (1997) Installation at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Kara Walker and the Queen Victoria Memorial Monument

So when Tate announced that this year’s annual commission would be given to Walker, anyone familiar with her work will have expected it to touch on the issue of slavery – and she didn’t disappoint. She has created a huge sculpture which parodies the Queen Victoria Memorial Monument outside Buckingham Palace.

To understand how Walker has parodied the original, let’s take a moment to refresh our memories.

The Queen Victoria Memorial, outside Buckingham Palace, London

The Victoria monument is 25 metres high and contains 2,300 tonnes of white Carrara marble. As well as a solid, matronly Queen Victoria seated holding the orb and sceptre, the memorial also carries statues representing courage, constancy, victory, charity, truth and motherhood. The central monument, created between 1906 and 1924, is by Sir Thomas Brock, but the whole design, including the nearby Memorial Gardens, was conceived by Sir Aston Webb and the Memorial was formally unveiled by King George V in 1911.

Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus

Walker decided that, in London, home of the slave trade for so many centuries, and a city stuffed to the gills with very white marble statues of and monuments to very white imperial heroes, it would be an interesting gesture to create a memorial, on a similarly imposing scale, to all the victims of the transatlantic slave trade.

The result is Fons Americanus (Latin for American fountain), an enormous monument made up of various human statues and a water feature spouting water into a set of concentric pools at its base, also filled with miscellaneous statues of people and a surprising number of sharks.

Installation view of Fons Americanus by Kara Walker (2019)

Walker replaces the smooth Victorian allegorical figures of the original with crudely carved cartoon figures representing archetypes from the slave trade, topped off with a staggering female figure spouting water from her breasts (and also from a nasty gash in her neck).

Each of these figures has a symbolic meaning and, although it’s not immediately obvious, most of them actually reference works of art from the British tradition, nineteenth century paintings of rafts and slaves and so on. There’s a full list of the different figures and explanations on the Tate website:

Broadly speaking, Walker replaces the British or imperial icons, depicted in the smooth neo-classical style of the original monument, with figures from various aspects of the slave trade – a weeping boy, a native woman instead of smug Queen Vic, a generic sea captain, a kneeling praying man in chains, and a tree with a noose dangling from it to represent the countless Africans who were hunted down, tortured, lynched and hanged.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood


First thoughts

1. Scale

The most obvious thing about filing the Turbine Hall is that your work must be big, and Fons Americanus is big alright. You can view it from the ground floor walkway but it’s worth going down to the lower level to walk around it and really get a sense of its hugeness. It towers over the mere mortals at its feet.

2. Aesthetics

All the Tate labels and webpages emphasise that the point of Fons Americanus is to subvert and parody the smooth surfaces of traditional monuments, as those monuments in their turn smooth over and gloss over the violence, and horror and exploitation which lay at the basis of the British Empire.

And that this explains why the surfaces of all the figures have been left deliberately pockmarked and rough to the touch. And, in the same spirit, explains why the human figures aren’t perfectly proportioned human figures based on the ancient Greek ideals of standardised beauty; instead they are deliberately rough and crude, because life is crude and real people are rough.

I understand the intention. I understand all that. But it’s still ugly. It’s still hard not to be repelled by the crudeness and ugliness of the figures.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood

Maybe she’s intending to give repellent content a repellent appearance, I understand the intention. But it’s notable how drastically Fons Americanus with its lunking crudity is unlike the silhouettes which brought her to fame. The silhouettes were notable for their style and grace and elegance of design.

I can’t help thinking that anyone familiar with the imaginative world of her silhouette works will be surprised and pretty disappointed by the blunt crudity of this enormous object.

3. Irony

There is a sort of politico-aesthetic irony here: I have read here and about other exhibitions, that Walker and many other BAME artists and writers are protesting against the white canons and the white rules of beauty which have dominated European and American art and media for so long. My impression is that for the past fifty years or more a lot of black artists and writers and film-makers have been campaigning to have black beauty, black pride, black appearance, black hair and black faces incorporated into much more diverse and inclusive notions of ‘beauty’.

OK, I understand the aim.

But there’s a kind of irony here that Walker seems to be playing to the crudest of racist stereotypes and clichés by making her black people so insistently and defiantly brutish and ugly, unfinished, rough and repellent. Maybe we are intended to overcome our repulsion from these crudely drawn figures and make the imaginative effort to sympathise for any human in dire need, no matter how crude and ungainly and clumpishly they’re depicted? Maybe the aesthetic clumsiness is part of a kind of moral test?

4. Patronising

But the biggest problem with this installation is the wall labels, the press release and all the relevant pages on the Tate website.

They all seem to assume that we’ve never heard of the Atlantic slave trade – that the existence of slavery 200 years ago will come as a massive surprise to Tate gallery visitors – and that the work will shine a dazzling new light on a previously unknown subject, confronting ‘a history often misremembered in Britain’ as the wall label puts it.

Misremembered by whom exactly? By art gallery visitors? Probably the most bien-pensant, liberal cohort of people you could assemble anywhere.

The notion that the slave trade is an obscure historical event which needs more publicising struck me as an extraordinary claim, especially since I went to see this sculpture during the 32nd Black History Month.

Had none of the previous 31 Black History Months mentioned slavery? Have no books been written on the subject, or TV documentaries made, or articles written or exhibitions about it held anywhere else? That assumption, which is taken as the premise of all the curator commentary, seemed astonishingly patronising, to me.

In fact I gave up reading the Tate web-page about the installation when I came to the sentence carefully explaining that London was ‘the capital of the British Empire’… OK. It was at that point that I realised the entire commentary was either for schoolchildren, or for people who have little or no knowledge about Britain or British history. But are these the kinds of people you are liable to meet at Tate Modern or Tate Britain?

In fact the type of person you meet most at Tate Modern are tourists. Every time I go, I end up helping some hapless foreigners find their way about, or explain the escalators and lifts, or the layout of two buildings to them (yesterday I had to explain to a family of Italians in the lift with me that they were going to the correct floor but in the wrong building).

Almost all the voices I heard as I walked round the installation were foreign: I particularly remember a French family who were posing their little kids for charming tourist pics on the edge of Fons Americanus‘s the pool, and plenty of other family groups were posing and taking family snaps around it, just as they do by the fountains in Trafalgar Square or at any number of other great big imposing public monuments in London.

What does its radical deconstruction of the tradition of neo-classical, British imperial monumentalising mean to them, I wonder?

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Ben Fisher

5. Artists and history

History, as a professional activity, is about the careful sifting of evidence. Historians undergo an extensive training in the use of archives and other sources, and ways of judging and assessing documents, speeches, books and so on.

Historians can obviously still be terribly biased, or commissioned by the state to write propaganda, and completely ‘objective’ history is probably impossible – but nonetheless the notion of objective history is still an ideal worth preserving and striving for, and most historians generally adhere to professional standards of presenting and interpreting evidence, which is or should be made available for others to sift and assess in their turn.

And hence the intellectual discipline of History – which amounts to an endless debate about all aspects of the past backed up by evidence.

Compare and contrast this meticulous approach with the worldview of artists, who are free to make great sweeping generalisations about life and art and society and capitalism and God and anything else they feel like, with little or no comeback, with no requirement for proof or evidence.

This is fine if they want to make provocative works out of industrial junk or surrealist paintings. But if they take it upon themselves to create works designed to be a complete reinterpretation of history over a period of hundreds of years – and if their new interpretation of history is going to be taught to schoolchildren and explained to school groups – then they assume a certain amount of responsibility.

In other words, to put it really bluntly – you shouldn’t rely on artists to teach you anything about history. You should rely on historians. That’s why they’re called historians. It is because they are lifelong specialists in an area of intellectual enquiry which is defined by rules, best practice, and policed by a community of peers, in academic journals and so on.

That’s Argument Number One against artists teaching history.

Argument Two concerns the idea of respecting the complexity of human history.

In my opinion, good history should try above all to capture the complexity of human motives and experiences. It’s a mistake not to take account of the extent to which people of the past were just as multi-faceted, complicated and capable of contradictory feelings, beliefs and actions, as we are today. They were people like us, not one-dimensional caricatures.

In order to create the space to let your imagination and empathy work, in order to fully enter into the spirit of another time and try to understand the people who lived in it and the multiple pressures and compulsions they lived under – we should not rush to judgement. As the American historian David Silbey writes in his incisive account of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion against Western imperialist forces in China:

Passing judgement is a dangerous role for a historian to play. (p.202)

The kind of history I like is continually upsetting my expectations, presenting me with counter-intuitive ideas, making me stop and think and really reconsider my existing beliefs. Thus the book about Eurasian empires, After Tamerlane, which I read recently, overturned my ideas about all sorts of aspects of the past, made me view lots of general trends and specific areas of history (such, for example, as the importance of the imperial conquests of Russia) in a completely new light.

My view is that Walker’s version of history doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know – that you weren’t taught at school and haven’t had reinforced by countless books, documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles and Hollywood movies about slavery – and by thirty-two Black History Months with their annual outpouring of exhibitions, articles and documentaries.

Instead of making you really stop and think, of prompting unexpected insights and new ways of seeing, for me, at any rate, Fons Americanus seems to set out to confirm all your prejudices and stereotypes –

  • to confirm your impression that all blacks in all of history were helpless victims of the slave trade
  • to confirm the stereotype that all white masters were racist sadists
  • to erase the fact that the slaves were sold to the traders by Africans who made a fortune by enslaving their fellow blacks
  • to erase the hundreds of thousands who worked or bought their way out of slavery, set up businesses or had lives as fulfilling as plenty of the miserably poor whites (and other ethnic groups) they lived among
  • to erase the role of Britain and the Royal Navy in abolishing slavery and then policing the world’s oceans to try and prevent it. As James Walvin points out in his history of slavery, ‘Between 1820 and 1870 the Royal Navy seized 1,600 slave ships on the Atlantic and freed 150,000 slaves, especially heading to Cuba and Brazil.’ Somehow, I don’t think we’re going much about these positive achievements in the deluge of wokeness coming our way.

In other words, I feel nervous about the reduction of an immense and extraordinarily complicated history of the multifarious experiences of tens of millions of people over several hundred years down to half a dozen, crudely-drawn, Simpsonsesque cartoon figures.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood

Fons Americanus is big. It’s very big. American big. Like a skyscraper or a Big Mac.

But I recoiled from it a) aesthetically – it is crude and ugly and repellent, and b) intellectually – it is crude and patronising and dangerously simplistic.

Second Thoughts

To be honest, a lot of my negative response was triggered by Tate’s wall labels and by the Tate web-pages about Fons Americanus and the slave trade – commentary and labels which I found worryingly simple-minded, and single-minded: simplifying an enormous, complex, multifarious epoch of history down into a handful of slogans and images, and into a new, and worryingly simple-minded, orthodoxy.

My argument was, to a large extent, with the written interpretation of the work.

But there’s a different and much more obvious approach to the commission and presence of Fons Americanus here in Tate Modern, which is to ask: among all the hundreds of memorials and monuments and statues to countless white men and generals and politicians, most of whom served under the British Empire in one shape or another and which litter London’s public spaces: should there be a memorial to commemorate the transatlantic slave trade?

To which the answer is almost certainly an emphatic YES, Yes, there should be.

In which case the follow-up questions are:

  1. Should it be this one?
  2. and, Where should it go?

Where would you put it?


The Hyundai Commission at Tate Modern and global warming

Every year Tate commissions a contemporary artist to fill the vast space of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. The funding comes from Hyundai.

Hyundai is a South Korean multinational automotive manufacturer headquartered in Seoul. It manufactures nearly 5 million automobiles, luxury cars and commercial vehicles each year. If green activists have woken up to the fact that many art exhibitions are sponsored by oil companies, and violently object to their contribution to global warming, indeed have gone to the trouble of pouring oil at the front of the National Portrait Gallery which each year hosts the BP Portrait Awards… how long before the penny drops that oil is only actually a pollutant when it is burned to produce CO2 and a host of toxic poisonous chemicals hazardous to human life and all other life forms?

In other words, I wonder for how much longer a company which manufactures toxic, air-polluting ‘automobiles, luxury cars and commercial vehicles’ will be allowed to sponsor works of art and installations like this?


Related links

Other posts about slavery / American history

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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