The Month in Books - August 2009

At the start of 2009, I set a goal to read 30,000 pages by year's end. I am measuring progress in pages, rather than titles, to avoid last year's bias toward shorter books. Here's what I read in August:

  1. The Great War for Civilisation - Robert Fisk (review)
  2. A Savage War of Peace - Alistair Horne (review)
  3. Guns, Germs, and Steel - Jared Diamond (review)
  4. The Rise of American Democracy - Sean Wilentz (review)
  5. The Human Stain - Philip Roth (review)
  6. The House of the Spirits - Isabel Allende (review)
  7. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - James Joyce (review)
  8. The House of the Seven Gables - Nathaniel Hawthorne (review)
  9. Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh (review)

Pages Read: 4,539
Year-to-Date: 26,210

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

joyce_portrait.jpgWhen the Modern Library released its controversial list of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, James Joyce was honored with the first and third entries on the list, for Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, respectively. This was quite the accomplishment, considering that no other author had two entries even in the top twenty-five. While a great deal of criticism was poured upon the list, and anyone can quibble with the particular ranking of books (or the nature of the project itself), there was little effort to deny the importance of Joyce's work. Even the Radcliffe list, published in response to the dearth of female authors on the original list, put both books in the top fifteen.

The earlier book, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is largely autobiographical, with many of Stephen Dadelus' experiences seemingly culled straight from the author's life: the alcoholic, financially destitute father, the education at the Jesuit Clongowes and Belvedere schools, the breach with Catholicism in favor of an artistic life. But the substance of this bildungsroman is not what set it apart so much as its style. Joyce is lauded today for his innovative literary techniques, presented most famously in Ulysses and most extremely in Finnegans Wake, and his resulting influence on the course of 20th-century literature. Many of those techniques are on display in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, though the more straight-forward nature of the underlying narrative renders the book substantially more accessible than Joyce's later works.

The books opens with Stephen as a small child, recalling a song his father sang, his childish understanding of the members of his family, and his early school experiences. Though presented in a third-person narrative, the narration is consistent with the capacity of Stephen's age, and presents his experience of the story rather than a simple recitation of that story:

It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and that he did not know where the universe ended. He felt small and weak. When would he be like the fellows in poetry and rhetoric? They had big voices and big boots and they studied trigonometry. That was very far away. First came the vacation and then the next term and then vacation again and then again another term and then again the vacation. It was like a train going in and out of tunnels and that was like the noise of the boys eating in the refectory when you opened and closed the flaps of the ears. Term, vacation; tunnel, out; noise, stop. How far away it was! It was better to go to bed to sleep.

As Stephen grows older and gains a better grasp of the world around him, the narration becomes somewhat more sophisticated. Yet Stephen is still an impressionable young man, without any clear guidance in the world beyond the poor example of his father's failures, the blustering machismo of his schoolmates, and the rigid guidance of his church. Thus when his father's financial situation necessitates a family move to the city of Dublin, Stephen is ill-prepared to chart a middle path for himself. First he veers toward the abyss, wandering into a seedy part of town and having his first sexual experience with a local prostitute, setting off waves of paralyzing guilt:

A cold lucid indifference reigned in his soul. At his first violent sin he had felt a wave of vitality pass out of him and had feared to find his body or his soul maimed by the excess. Instead the vital wave had carried him on its bosom out of himself and back again when it receded; and no part of body or soul had been maimed but a dark peace had been established between them. The chaos in which his ardor extinguished itself was a cold indifferent knowledge of himself. He had sinned mortally not once but many times and he knew that, while he stood in danger of eternal damnation for the first sin alone, by every succeeding sin he multiplied his guilt and his punishment. His days and works and thoughts could make no atonement for him, the fountains of sanctifying grace having ceased to refresh his soul.

Now enrolled in another Jesuit school, Stephen's moral suffering continues and is exacerbated by an extraordinary dozen-page series of lectures on sin, judgment, and hell that utterly convince him that he must seek immediate salvation. Stumbling onto a neighborhood chapel, Stephen confesses his sins and uses this absolution as an opportunity to enter a new phase of his life, pivoting 180 degrees and focusing his efforts on pious devotion:

Every morning he hallowed himself anew in the presence of some holy image or mystery. His day began with an heroic offering of its every moment of thought or action for the intentions of the sovereign pontiff and with an early mass. The raw morning air whetted his resolute piety; and often as he knelt among the few worshippers at the sidealtar, following with his interleaved prayerbook the murmur of the priest, he glanced up for an instant towards the vested figure standing in the gloom between the two candles which were the old and the new testaments and imagined that he was kneeling at mass in the catacombs.

Stephen makes such accomplished strides in his newfound piety that the director of his school calls him to a meeting to discuss the possibility of entering the priesthood. Though Stephen toys with the idea, the prospect of merging the remainder of his life into the church actually has the opposite effect, shaking him from his unquestioned devotion. He decides to pursue a university life, and while awaiting news of his application, a walk on the beach results in an epiphanous encounter with a beautiful young woman:

Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy. Her eyes had called him and his sould had leaped at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life! A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasty the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!

Thus Joyce's protagonist progressed from the limited perceptions of childhood to the uncontrollable urges of puberty to the reactionary application of rigid self-restraint to a mature grappling with the beauties of the world in all its mystery and ambiguity. Stephen decides to pursue an artistic life, and to do so he feels he must break free of the ties that bind him to his homeland, pursuing foreign exile like Joyce himself.

The irony of Joyce's massive influence over the past century of literature is that his work, so raw and shocking at the time, cannot possibly seem so original or innovative to the 21st-century reader. The absence of quotation marks around dialogue, for example, is practically de riguer in modernist prose. Likewise the focus on the protagonist's subjective psychological experience of the world vice an objective narrator's portrayal of such. It is surely unfair to hold against Joyce the fact that his innovations have been splendidly re-rendered and slavishly copied by subsequent generations, but there it is.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

allende_house.jpgIn November 1970, in his fourth consecutive campaign for the office, Salvador Allende was elected President of Chile, becoming the first socialist leader to gain power in the Western Hemisphere via the democratic process. He immediately began an ambitious plan to restructure Chilean society, nationalizing major industries and introducing the government into the administration of education, health care, and other areas of life in which Allende saw too great a disparity between the haves and have-nots. Less than three years after his election, Allende was overthrown and died during a military coup d'état supported by the United States and led by General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet proceeded to install a military dictatorship which would rule for more than 15 years, oversee widespread murder and torture, and eventually result in Pinochet's infamous arrest in Britain in 1998.

In 1982, a remarkable debut novel, The House of the Spirits, was published in Barcelona to widespread acclaim. Its author, Isabel Allende, was a cousin of the late Chilean president (not his niece, as commonly reported, due to confusion in translation between Spanish and English), and was living in Chile before and during his presidency. She remained in Chile for several years after the coup, apparently assisting those wanted by the military in finding safe passage out of the country; in 1976, she herself fled to Venezuala. In 1981, upon learning that her grandfather was dying, Allende began writing him a letter.

That letter would become The House of the Spirits, a book that functions both as a roman à clef about the political upheavals in Chile and as a vivid example of magical realism, a sort of matriarchal counterpart to Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Like Garcia Marquez's masterpiece, Allende's debut follows several generations of the same family, interweaving their lives with elements of Latin America's evolving politics, religion, and culture.

As the novel opens, the protagonist Clara is still a small girl, the youngest child of the Del Valle family, and the strangest as well: Clara is a clairvoyant, able to foresee future events and engage in telekinesis. As in other works of magical realism, these powers are recognized as rare, but not irrational or unbelievable. Clara's elder sister, Rosa, is famed for her ethereal beauty, and engaged to a young man who is slaving away in a distant mine to build his fortune, Esteban Trueba. Unfortunately, Chilean politics quickly introduces tragedy into both Clara and Esteban's lives, as Rosa becomes the unintended victim of an assassination plot against her father, who was running for Congress:

The night that Dr. Cuevas and his assistant cut open Rosa's corpse in the kitchen to establish the cause of her death, Clara lay in bed with here eyes wide open, trembling in the dark. She was terrified that Roaa had died because she had said she would. She believed that just as the power of her mind could move the saltcellar on the table, she could also produce deaths, earthquakes, and other, even worse catastrophes. In vain her mother had explain that she could not bring about events, only see them somewhat in advance. She felt lonely and guilty, and it occurred to her that if only she could be with Rosa she would feel much happier... She did not speak again until nine years later, when she opened her mouth to announce that she was planning to be married.

And married to none other than Esteban Trueba, her late sister's fiancee. In the intervening years, Esteban's personality had grown hard and angry, but he had channeled his passion into material success. He returned to the long-abandoned Trueba country estate, named Tres Marias. There, through sheer force of will, Esteban brings discipline to the tenant farmers and restores the hacienda to its former glory, as he relates in one of several interludes dispersed through the novel in which the third-person narration gives way to Esteban's own reminiscences:

No one's going to convince me that I wasn't a good patron. Anyone who saw Tres Marias in decline and who could see it now, when it's a model estate, would have to agree with me. That's why I can't go along with my granddaughter's story about class struggle. Because when it comes right down to it, those poor peasants are a lot worse off today than they were fifty years ago. I was like a father to them. Agrarian reform ruined things for everyone.

I used all the money I had saved to marry Rosa, and everything the foreman sent me from the mine, to pull Tres Marias out of misery, but it wasn't money that saved the place, it was hard work and organization.

This "by the bootstraps" experience would forever control Esteban's view of society. The poor, by his estimation, were stupid, lazy, or both; and they were largely at his disposal, as he engages in a reign of terror, violence, and rape on his hacienda in the years before he settles down and marries Clara. Later in his life, Esteban would successfully seek to put his conservative principles into broader action through political power, putting him at odds with the rest of his family who had gravitated in one way or another toward the reform movement. And when the reactionary forces he supports establish a violent military dictatorship, rather than a return to aristocratic republicanism, Esteban will suffer for the folly of his stridency.

But that is jumping to the end. In between is a long, tumultuous family saga involving Clara, her daughter Blanca, her granddaughter Alba, as well as two women who gave loving devotion to the family: Nana, who came to serve them from the Del Valle household after the death of Clara's parents, and Ferula, Esteban's sister who came to show a tremendous devotion to her brother's wife. Despite his efforts at controlling those around him, Esteban is never able to control these women. His wife is kind, but aloof, treating him with no greater affection or attention than anyone else. He becames violently jealous of his sister's relationship with Clara, eventually lashing out and banishing Ferula from the house.

Nowhere is the independence of these women more striking than in their relationships. Blanca, who splits her childhood between the family's city home and the Tres Marias hacienda, forms a friendship with the son of her father's foreman, a boy named Pedro Tercero Garcia. This friendship blossoms into love, and Blanca pursues the relationship even after her father drives Pedro Tercero from the land for spreading socialist philosophy amongst the farmers:

During the months that they were separated, Blanca and Pedro Tercero exchanged burning letters, which he signed with a woman's name and which she hid as soon as they arrived... Blanca spent the winter knitting a sweater made of Scottish wool in her sewing class at school, with the boy's measurements in mind. At night she slept with her arms around the sweater, inhaling the scent of wool and dreaming that it was he who spent the night beside her. Pedro Tercero, meanwhile, spent his winter writing songs on the guitar that he would sing to Blanca ... Both young people awaited the coming of summer with aching impatience. When it finally arrived and they met once again, the sweater Blanca had knit for Pedro didn't fit over his head, because in the intervening months he had left his childhood behind and acquired the dimensions of a man, and the tender songs he had composed now sounded ridiculous to her, because she had a woman's bearing and a woman's needs.

Eventually this relationship produced a daughter, Alba, and it is she that takes the story to its conclusion. Like her mother, she found love with her grandfather's enemies, this time with a young man named Miguel who supported the opposition party:

Miguel talked about revolution. He said that the violence of the system needed to be answered with the violence of revolution. But Alba was not interested in politics; she wanted only to talk about love... Out of love for Miguel, and not for any ideological conviction, Alba sat in at the university along with the students who had seized a building in support of a strike by workers.

Unfortunately for Alba, love was not enough during those times, and she was dragged half-willingly into the political upheaval that would eventually turn tragically violent. The consequences for Alba, and for several other characters who had no particular ideological involvement in the turmoil, vividly demonstrates the ways in which politics and revolution can strike into any life, even those motivated simply by love, compassion, or charity. Thus the novel is a study not just of a period of dramatic political upheaval, but also of love, family, devotion, and the intersection of each.

Of the many themes explored in The House of the Spirits, I was particularly struck by the importance of names. Most obviously, the names of the three generatiosn of Trueba women can all be translated as variants of the color white: Clara, Blanca, and Alba (as can the name of Clara's mother, Nivea). But there are further examples of the power of names, including Esteban's failure to give his name to any of his illegitimate children, and the renunication of the Trueba name by family members who seek independence from Esteban's hegemony. The numerous interactions between the Del Valle, Trueba, and Garcia familes also point to Allende's emphasis on the importance of taking the long view of history, a point made explicit near the book's end:

[M]emory is fragile and the space of a single life is brief, passing so quickly that we never get a chance to see the relationship between events; we cannot gauge the consequences of our acts, and we believe in the fiction of past, present, and future, but it may also be true that everything happens simultaneously... And now I seek my hatred and cannot seem to find it.

It is hard to resist the conclusion that Allende was speaking for herself in these lines, and that the writing of The House of the Spirits was in part an attempt to ensure that her experience of the Chilean tragedy was not left solely to the frailties of memory. In that effort, she has surely succeeded beyond measure.

The Human Stain by Philip Roth

roth_human.jpgPhilip Roth has always been a remarkably steady producer of literature, publishing fifteen books in the thirty years following his 1959 debut, Goodbye, Columbus. But he really knocked his prolificacy up a notch in the early 1990s, publishing a novel nearly every other year for the past two decades. And since 2006, it has risen to a book per year, with projected publication dates already set for volumes coming in the autumn of 2009 and 2010.

For many Roth fans like myself, and with no disrespect to his earlier and most recent works, the 1990s was his Golden Age (or at least his first Golden Age; who knows how many books he's got left in him). In the span of just eight years, Roth won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and two Pen/Faulkner Awards, each for a different novel. At the heart of this success was the so-called "American Trilogy" featuring Roth's fictional alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman and exploring the public and private spheres of post-war American society: the 1960s in American Pastoral, the 1950s in I Married a Communist, and the 1990s in the novel I've just finished, The Human Stain:

It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk--who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty--confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college...Her name was Faunia Farley, and whatever miseries she endured she kept concealed behind one of those inexpressive bone faces that hide nothing and bespeak an immense loneliness. Faunia lived in a room at a local dairy farm where she helped with the milking in order to pay her rent. She'd had two years of high school education.

The summer that Coleman took me into his confidence about Faunia Farley and their secret was the summer, fittingly enough, that Bill Clinton's secret emerged in every last mortifying detail--every last lifelike detail, the livingness, like the mortification, exuded by the pungency of the specific data.

As the opening paragraphs indicate, much of the book is devoted to the issues of political correctness and the tensions between public and private morality. The hypocrisy of American prudeness is a particular target of Roth, who has made quite a living off of delving into the morass of American sexual psychology. But for Coleman Silk (and indeed for the now 65-year old narrator Zuckerman, impotent and incontinent after prostate surgery), sexuality is just one of several areas of his life in which the public and private spheres have clashed:

It was about midway into his second semester back as a full-time professor that Coleman spoke the self-incriminating word that would cause him voluntarily to sever all ties to the college--the single self-incriminating word of the many millions spoken aloud in his years of teaching and administering at Athena, and the word that, as Coleman understood things, directly led to his wife's death.

The class consisted of fourteen students. Coleman had taken attendance at the beginning of the first several lectures so as to learn their names. As there were still two names that failed to elicit a response by the fifth week into the semester, Coleman, in the sixth week, opened the session by asking, "Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?"

Later that day he was astonished to be called in by his successor, the new dean of faculty, to address the charge of racism brought against him by the two missing students, who turned out to be black, and who, though absent, had quickly learned of the locution in which he'd publicly raised the question.

Silk had made his share of enemies on the faculty during his tenure as dean, and in the ensuing months of controversy even his presumed friends fail to come to his defense. Then, in the think of this battle, his wife Iris suffers a fatal stroke, sending Silk into an apoplexy of rage in the belief that it was the ongoing dispute that killed her. It is this rage which drives Silk to the home of reclusive writer Nathan Zuckerman:

There is something fascinating about what moral suffering can do to someone who is in no obvious way a weak or feeble person. It's more insidious even than what physical illness can do, because ther is no morphine drip or spinal block or radical surgery to alleviate it. Once you're in its grip, it's as though it will have to kill you for you to be free of it. Its raw realism is like nothing else.

This suffering last upwards of two years, until Silk meets Faunia and begins life anew. And things might just have worked out but for the baggage that both are carrying with them in the form of the book's supporting cast: Faunia's violent Vietnam veteran ex-husband, Lester, and Professor Delphine Roux, the young chair of Athena College's languages and literature program and Silk's last boss. Between Lester's gradually more-intrusive stalking and Delphine's accusatory letter ("anonymously" drafted in her readily-identifiable handwriting), the new couple comes under steady attack. That's before everyone else starts rendering their own moral judgments, including Coleman's own children.

And these people are already damaged goods: in addition to the abuse she suffered at the hands of Lester, and her stepfather before that, Faunia has also lost both her children to asphyxiation from a space-heater fire. And Coleman not only lost his wife and his career, he did so in circumstances of the most tragic irony. It turns out that while this is yet another novel in which Roth plumbs the meaning of American-Jewish identity, he does so in the most unusual of ways. Coleman Silk is not the man he claims to be:

He could play his skin however he wanted, color himself just as he chose. No, that did not dawn on him until he was seated in the federal building in Newark and had all the navy enlistment forms spread out in front of him and, before filling them out, and carefully, with the same meticulous scrutiny that he'd studied for his high school exams--as though whatever he was going, large or small, was, for however long he concentrated on it, the most important thing in the world--began to read them through. And even then it didn't occur to him. It occurred first to his heart, which began banging away like the heart of someone on the brink of committing his first great crime.

And thus begins the journey of a light-skinned black man, a dropout of Howard University, into a life in which he will cut off all contact with his mother and siblings, claim to be an orphan and an only child, and a Jew. All this unbeknownst to his wife, their children, any of his co-workers, indeed anyone at all until Nathan Zuckerman meets Coleman's sister at his funeral and starts putting together the pieces of this back story, which become flashbacks in his narration.

There are obviously quite a number of threads woven though this book, and particularly in the portrayals of Coleman and Faunia. Roth's great success in exploring their unlikely union, and the forces that brought them together, is only partially dampened by the shortcuts he takes with the supporting cast. Lester, with his Vietnam PTSD, and Delphine, with her subconscious envy of Faunia and her stilted, insular academic life, are realized in the book through a series of interludes which rest too heavily on archetype, and don't measure up to the creativity of the rest of Roth's invention. And really, why is it that older male writers find it so compelling to portray younger women in sexual relationships with senior citizens?

That said, The Human Stain does feature what Roth does at his best: capture the country's mood at a particular moment, and craft a narrative that conveys all America's glory and disgrace, its idealism and hypocrisy, its comedic ironies and its fundamental, continuing tragedies.

The Rise of American Democracy by Sean Wilentz

wilentz_rise.jpgThe past decade has seen a major revival of interest in America's revolutionary and founding era, demonstrated most prominently by the success of works by popular historians like David McCullough (John Adams, 1776) and Joseph Ellis (Founding Brothers, American Creation). And the Civil War publishing mill has not shown many signs of slowing down, with dozens of new books about America's internecine conflict hitting the shelves every year. Yet the half-century or so that falls between these events has traditionally received only a fraction of this attention, with most texts about the founding era ending at or before Jefferson's first inauguration, and most concerning the Civil War starting, at the earliest, with the Compromise of 1850 or the Kansas-Nebraska Act. To the extent any consideration is given to this period, it is usually devoted solely to the presidency of Andrew Jackson.

Two authors have, in the past several years, made valiant contributions to correct this deficiency. To cover the period from 1815-1848 for the slowly-expanding Oxford History of the United States, UCLA Professor Daniel Walker Howe wrote What Hath God Wrought, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History last year. Taking on a slightly more expansive timeframe, if narrower subject matter, was Princeton Professor Sean Wilentz, who published The Rise of American Democracy in 2005 with the apt subtitle "Jefferon to Lincoln." The Founding Fathers considered "democracy" an epithet, yet fifty years later a visiting Frenchman would achieve widespread success with two volumes titled De la démocratie en Amérique. That evolution is Wilentz' subject:

The changes were astonishing, but neither inevitable nor providential. American democracy did not rise like the sun at its natural hour in history. Its often troubled ascent was the outcome of human conflicts, accomodations, and unforeseen events, and the results could well have been very different than they were. The difficulties and contingencies made the events all the more remarkable. A momentous rupture occurred between Thomas Jeferson's time and Abraham Lincoln's that created the lineaments of modern democratic politics.

The early chapters of Wilentz' book are the most familiar, charting the revolutionary period, the early outbursts of populist strife (like Shays' Rebellion), and the growing breach during the Washington administration between Hamilton on the one hand, and Jefferson and Madison on the other. This breach erupted into near-open warfare during the Adams administration, culminating in the first truly contested presidential election for the young republic:

Jefferson's "revolution of 1800" did leave open some major questions about the democratization of American politics. The egalitarian fundamentals of his appeal, along with the democratic electioneering efforts undertaken by his supporters, surpassed anything seen before in national affairs. The Republicans' absorption of the techniques and the constituency of the city democracy... had created both a Republican infrastructure of newspapers, public events, and loyal operatives, and a national colaition of planters, yeoman, and urban workingmen allied against a Federalist monocracy...

Yet Federalism was far from dead, at least in the northern states. And the Republican coalition of city and country democrats, built in part ouf of the elements of the Democratic-Republican societies, was still commanded by Virginian gentry slaveholders. Traditional political arrangements, conducted by elected officials -- gentlemen for the most part, well removed from the voters -- still largely determined national political affairs. It remained far from clear that the patrician Republican leaders considered partisan popular politics -- described by Jefferson as recently as 1789 as "the last degradation of a free and moral agent" -- as anything more than an unfortunate and temporary expedient to ward off monocracy.

Indeed, the next two decades seem, from a distance, to have been a time of political drift. The quarter-century of rule by the Virgnia dynasty was notable not for its ideological purity, but for the various ways in which the Republicans had to compromise on so many of their ideals, like their supposed hatred of a national bank (the Second Bank of the United States was charted the Madison administration). The once-insurgent Republicans came to be seen as the party of privilege and inertia, exemplified most strikingly (if inaccurately) by the supposed "corrupt bargain" which saw John Quincy Adams appoint Henry Clay as Secretary of State after he won the 1824 presidential election in the House of Representatives (Clay was Speaker of the House).

Thereafter, the largest vehicle for expanding democracy became the flawed Jackson Democracy. Organized as a movement of reform to eliminate a perceived recrudescence of privilege, the Jacksonians combined the evolving city and country democracies into a national political force. They also created a new kind of political party, more egalitarian in its institutions and its ideals than any that had preceded it, unabashed in its disciplined pursuit of power, dedicated to securing the sovereignty that, as its chief architect Martin Van Buren observed, "belongs inalienably to the people."

...Yet the Jacksonians were hardly consistent egalitarians, nor did they encompass all of the democratic impulses that were breaking out in the 1830s. Above all, in order to preserve the spirit of the Missouri Compromise and their party's intersectional unity, the Jacksonians joined in the attack on the radical abolitionists and bent over backward to placate southern outrage, short of disunion, at attacks on slavery.

Indeed, the only major example of the Democratic leadership standing up to the south was the 1828 Nullification Crisis, which foreshadowed the extremist doctrine gaining sympathy in southern circles. Otherwise virtually every major event, from the "Compromise" of 1850, to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, to the Lecompton Constitution, to the Dred Scott decision, signified an effort to placate or substantiate southern sectionalism. Wilentz makes repeated references to the major constitutional defect which contributed to this outsized southern power: the Three-Fiths Compromise, which ensured that even as the country as a whole became more democratic, the South was overrepresented in the House of Represntatives and thus the Electoral College. But as the decades past, the ability for the political parties to withstand these centrifugal forces diminished, such that by 1860 they were either destroyed or irreparably divided:

Two factors -- the expansionist pursuit of Jefferson's empire of liberty, and the extraordinary continued growth of plantation slavery thanks to the cotten revolution -- upset the Democratic and Whig Parties that had formed by 1840, and hastened the growth of the antagonistic northern and southern democracies. Americans experienced the crack-up primarily as a political crisis, about whether slavery would be allowed to interfere with democratic rights -- or, alternatively, whether northern tyranny would be allowed to interfere with southern democracy. Over those questions, which encompassed clashes over northern free labor and southern slavery, the political system began falling apart in the mid-1840s.

From here the story becomes familiar again, particularly to those who have read any of the major Civil War histories (like James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, reviewed here) or one of the great Lincoln biographies of the past several years (like Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, reviewed here). Northern outrage at the 1850s' series of surrenders to the South, the perfection of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian electoral strategies by the infant Republican Party, and the fatal sectional division of the Democratic Party lead to Lincoln's election, secession, and civil war.

Wilentz's review of America's political history from Jefferson to Lincoln is undoubtedly thorough. If anything, too thorough, as it becomes rather difficult to follow the state-by-state analysis he conducts at various stages of the book, despite the colorful names of the antagonists (e.g. Locofocos). And those looking for a broader scope, touching on social, cultural, economic, military, or other historical forces, will be largely disappointed. Wilentz touches on these elements only insofar as they inform the political sphere. Still, a useful book for those who seek a fuller understanding of the development of this country's political system and the relationship between the government and the people.

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

diamond_guns.jpgA simple glance around the modern world makes it clear that some continents, some peoples, have seen greater success, at least insofar as success is measured in terms of material wealth and territorial conquest. Europeans, and their descendants, have by and large achieved the highest levels of financial, technological, and political "progress," and have successfully supplemented native populations on several continents (North and South America, Australia). In the past week, I have already reviewed two books which in some part reflect the recent aftermath of the centuries of European ascent (Robert Fisk's The Great War for Civilisation, reviewed here, and Alistair Horne's A Savage War of Peace, reviewed here).

Most people probably take this reality for granted, without wondering much why history took that particular course. Others who have considered the question have relied upon facile attributions to supposed cultural or racial advantages for Europeans vis-a-vis the rest of humanity. In his controversial, Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, UCLA professor Jared Diamond aimed to answer this immense question, offering his own provocative thesis:

We all know that history has proceeded very differently for peoples from different parts of the globe. In the 13,000 years since the end of the last Ice Age, some parts of the world developed literate industrial societies with metal tools, other parts developed only nonliterate farming societies, and still others retained societies of hunter gatherers with stone tools. Those historical inequalities have cast long shadows on the modern world, because the literate societies with metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies. While those differences constitute the most basic fact of world history, the reasons for them remain uncertain and controversial...

Authors are regularly asked by journalists to summarize a long book in one sentence. For this book, here is such a sentence: "History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples' environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves."

Diamond explains that the desire to investigate this phenomenon arose during his field research in New Guinea, the large island north of Australia that remains home to an incredibly diverse number of tribal and linguistic groups (accounting for more than 1,000 of the world's ~6,000 surviving languages). While there, he was asked by one of his New Guinean friends why it was Europeans who had come to his land, and brought all sorts of advanced tools and products, and not the other way around. Diamond was intuitively skeptical of any explanation based on innate intellectual differences, based in part of the lack of any robust studies demonstrating such difference, and in part on his own observations of the intelligence of New Guinea's native population.

Recognizing immediately that a broad cross-disciplinary approach would be necessary to approach this question, Diamond found himself well-situated. The child of a physician and a linguist, Diamond studied physiology and biophysics at Harvard and Cambridge, pursued an interest in the ornithology of New Guinea, and developed an expertise on environmental history. His Wikipedia biography claims fluency in twelve languages, and prior to Guns, Germs, and Steel, he had published works in the fields of ecology, ornithology, human evolution, and human sexuality. Throughout the book, Diamond uses a variety of well-documented historical examples to define, test, and then illustrate his thesis, from New Guinea to . In his effort to redefine human history as a science, he draws from the fields of archaeology, linguistics, botany, zoology, sociology, geology, chemistry, biology, and more. As stated in his thesis, he believes environmental factors to be the prime mover in the broad course of human history, and he identifies four in particular:

The first set consists of the continental differences in the wild plant and animal species available as starting materials for domestication. That's because food production was critical for the accumulation of food surpluses that could feed non-food-producing specialists, and for the buildup of large populations enjoying a military advantage through mere numbers even before they had developed any technological or political advantage. For both of those reasons, all developments of economically complex, socially stratified, politically centralized societies beyond the level of small nascent chiefdoms were based on food production.

But most wild animal and plant species have proved unsuitable for domestication: food production has been based on relatively few species of livestock and crops. It turns out that the number of wild candidate species for domestication varied greatly among the continents... As a result, Africa ended up biologically somewhat less endowed than the much larger Eurasia, the Americas still less so, and Australia even less so...

The early chapters devoted to food production are amongst the most interesting in the book, which might not seem intuitively obvious. I myself was a bit skeptical as to how much attention I could pay to the domestication of wheat and so on. But Diamond's exploration of the junction between random mutation, natural selection, and human intervention through selective breeding is surprisingly compelling. Even more so is his discussion of the world's wildlife, and the factors which make some large mammals (e.g. cattle, sheep) more susceptible to domestication than others (e.g. lions, rhinos). That the distribution of domestication-prone animals so greatly favored Eurasia is one of the most striking revelations in Diamond's book.

[A] second set of factors consists of those affecting rates of diffusion and migration, which differed greatly among continents. They were most rapid in Eurasia, because of its east-west major axis and its relatively modest ecological and geographical barriers. The reasoning is straightforward for movements of crops and livestock, which depend strongly on climate and hence on latitude. But similar reasoning also applies to the diffusion of technological innovations, insofar as they are best suited without modification to specific environments. Diffusion was slower in Africa and especially in the Americas, because of those continents' north-south major axes and geographic and ecological barriers.

The best examples Diamond provides of this phenomenon lay in the contrast between Eurasia and the Americas. Consider the tremendous contacts made between the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, Europe, and China. And these contacts were not all one-way. Though evidence exists for the earliest food production arising in the Fertile Crescent, successive millennia would see innovations headed both east and west. In the Americas, however, even the great civilizations of Peru and Mesoamerica, the Incas and Aztecs, failed to engage in any analogous cultural or technological exchange. As Diamond laments, the Native Americans were never able to link up the one large domestic animal, the llama of the Andes, with that vital innovation, the wheel.

Related to these factors affecting diffusion within continents is a third set of factors influencing diffusion between continents, which may also help build up a local pool of domesticates and technology. Ease of intercontinental diffusion has varied, because some continents are more isolated than others. Within the last 6,000 years it has been easiest from Eurasia to sub-Saharan Africa, supplying most of Africa's species of livestock. But interhemispheric diffusion made no contribution to Native America's complex societies, isolated from Eurasia at low latitudes by broad oceans, and at high latitudes by geography and by a climate suitable just for hunting-gathering. To Aboriginal Australia, isolated form Eurasia by the water barriers of the Indonesian Archipelago, Eurasia's sole proven contribution was the dingo.

The chapters charting the course of intercontinental diffusion were some of the most difficult for me to work through, whether focused on the Austronesian movement through Southeast Asia or the Bantu expansion through sub-Saharan Africa. Much of the evidence for these progressions is found either in archaeological analysis of pottery or linguistic scrutiny of common words. Comprehensive? Yes. Convincing? Certainly. But this is the only place where the narrative really drags. One exception, rooted solely in the bizarre nature of the case, is the migration of Austronesian peoples all the way from their likely origins in Indonesia all the way across the Indian Ocean to the African island of Madagascar, eventually resulting in a remarkably complex demography.

The fourth and last set of factors consists of continental differences in area or total population size. A larger area or population means more potential inventors, more competing societies, more innovations available to adopt--and more pressure to adopt and retain innovations, because societies failing to do so will tend to be eliminated by competing societies. That fate befell African pygmies and many other hunter-gatherer populations displaced by farmers. Conversely, it also befell the stubborn, conservative Greenland Norse farmers, replaced by Eskimo hunter-gatherers whose subsistence methods and technology were far superior to those of the Norse under Greenland conditions. Among the world's landmasses, area and the number of competing societies were largest for Eurasia, much smaller for Australia and New Guinea and especially for Tasmania. The Americas, despite their large aggregate area, were fragmented by geography and ecology and functioned effectively as several poorly connected smaller continents.

In addition to the geological realities described above, Diamond also places heavy emphasis on various positive-feedback loops. Food production and population size are the most notable of these. Though unable to ascertain definitively which is the chicken and which the egg, it is clear that the surpluses of sustenance created by food production will support a larger population than hunting and gathering alone. Not only can this larger population then produce more food, it can spare manpower for other uses, such as professional warfare, politics, and science, which will expand the community's power and its capacity for further innovation. And so on.

Guns, Germs, and Steel was widely-read and quite controversial upon publication, and it has remained so in the years since. A quick glance at the book's Wikipedia page gives a decent summary of the various lines of criticism that have been leveled in Professor Diamond's direction, some directed at the substance of his thesis, some focused on particular gaps or weaknesses in his arguments. Some are attributable to the nature of the book, which consists of a mere 400-odd pages of non-technical prose; this ensured a wide audience, but Diamond himself admits the difficulty of purporting to examine 13,000 years of global human history in so few pages.

That said, what Diamond accomplishes in his 400-odd pages is rather impressive. He takes his reader on a rewarding survey of the chronological and geographic scope of human civilization, with fascinating insights gained from fields as diverse as agriculture and linguistics and examples from every inhabited continent. Diamond explicitly intended the book to be provocative, and in his final chapter he advocates for a more scientific approach to the field of human history. At the very least, Guns, Germs, and Steel forcefully demonstrates how vital an appreciation of ecology, biology, and the other sciences is for understanding, if not justifying, the course of our civilization.

A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne

horne_savage.jpgThe Algerian War of Independence must surely be the most fascinating war that I knew nothing about. Certainly, I knew that Algeria used to be a part of France. I've read Albert Camus' The Plague and The Stranger, after all. But I had no idea that the separation of Algeria from France was so bloody, so destructive, and so riveting. Fortunately, this remarkable episode in history has been captured by one of our best historians, Alistair Horne.

Written in 1977, fifteen years after the end of the war, A Savage War of Peace tells the story of the birth of one nation, the near-collapse of another, and a combustible mix of colonialism, nationalism, Cold War politics and civil-military relations. Many of the characters are simply larger than life, from the Algerian guerrilla leaders to the French paratrooper colonels to France's own indispensable man: Charles de Gaulle. In the original preface to the book, Horne explained the importance of the conflict:

To Algeria it brought birth. But, during that war, more was involved than simply the issue of whether nine million Muslims should gain their independence or not. Not merely one but several "revolutions" were taking place on a variety of distinct levels; there was, inter alia, a profound social revolution going on within the framework of Algerian Muslim society; and, on the French side, "revolutions" first by the army and later by the OAS against the political authority of France. Finally, there was the tug-of-war for the soul of Algeria as fought externally on the rostrum of the United Nations and the platforms of the Third World, and in the councils of both Western and Eastern blocs.

One of the most surprising aspects of the war was how threatening it was to France itself. One might reasonably think that the greatest danger posed to a colonial power by a war of independence is the loss of the colony. But the Algerian war presented almost surreal potential for destruction to the mother country:

I also happened to be in France on two other occasions when events in Algeria threatened the very existence of the Republic--in May 1958 and again in April 1961, the latter the most dangerous of all when ancient Sherman tanks were rolled out on to the Concorde to guard against a possible airborne coup mounted from Algiers...The war in Algeria (which lasted nearly eight years--almost twice as long as the "Great War' of 1914-18) toppled six French prime ministers and the Fourth Republic itself. It came close to bringing down General de Gaulle and his Fifth Republic and confronted metropolitan France with the threat of civil war.

How could this be? The mighty nation of France, survivor of two world wars, laid low by a rebellion in North Africa? To gain some sense of how this came to pass, Horne takes us through a whirlwind tour of French Algeria, from the landing of an expeditionary force in 1830, to the 1848 French constitution which converted Algeria from colony to part of France proper, to the 1865 decree which guaranteed full nationality for European colonists (the so-called Pieds-Noirs), but made citizenship for Muslims based on the intolerable condition that they renounce the authority of their religious courts. The entire Algerian relationship was anomalous, even amongst French colonial possessions:

At the top, Algeria - since it had been annexed as an integral part of France - was governed through the French Ministry of the Interior. This was in sharp contrast to its closely related Maghreb neighbours, over whom France established only "protectorates" during the nineteenth century and which were consequently dealt with by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

This policy made sense only insofar as Algeria was to be considered as much a part of France as Normandy or Provence, and it is worth comparing what relatively peaceful transitions both Morocco and Tunisia made from French colonies to independent nations. But how seriously could anyone take this idea, when 90% of the population were non-citizen Algerian Muslims? Quite a few people, as it turned out. The two communities, pied-noir and Muslim, tenuously co-existed, with the Europeans enjoying absurdly unfair privileges in governance and commerce. This system was clearly unfair, never more so than when Algerian Muslims who fought for France in World War II returned to their homeland to find they were still to be treated as second-class citizens:

[W]hen, early in 1943, a Muslim delegation approached the Free French leader, General Giraud, with a petition of reforms, they were headed off with "I don't care about reforms, I want soldiers first." And indeed, Algeria did provide France with soldiers - as in the First World War: magnificent Tirailleurs and Spahis, to whom General Juin was heavily indebted for his victorious progress through the grinding Italian campaign. These Algerian soldiers at the front were either largely unaware of, or had their backs turned upon, the turmoil brewing at home - until Sétif. But the camaraderie of the battle-front, their contact with the more privileged British and American troops, as well as the training they received, were things not to be lightly forgotten.

The 1945 Sétif_massacre, an account of which opens Horne's book, resulted in more than 6,000 Algerian deaths and marked the birth of the nationalist movements which would break into open rebellion in 1954. There was not one unified movement, and the story of the internal politics and violence within the revolutionary movement receives due attention throughout the book. Of particular note for comparison to other recent revolutionary movements was the tension between the FLN leaders in exile and those who were doing the actual fighting, the "exterior" and "interior":

In the first instance the row was over the continued failure of the external delegation to provide the arms demanded by the "interior". An angry exchange of correspondence in April 1956 culminated with this insulting ultimatum to Ben Bella: "If you cannot do anything for us outside, come back and die with us. Come and fight. Otherwise consider yourselves as traitors!"

An array of military and economic measures were deployed by the French in the early years of the war, alternately trying to use the carrot to ease Muslim complaints while deploying the stick to destroy or deter insurgent violence. The leaders of the FLN recognized the principle of guerrilla warfare that "a resort to blind terrorism provoke the forces of law and order into an equally blind repression, which in turn would lead to a backlash by the hitherto uncommitted, polarise the situation into two extreme camps and make impossible any dialogue of compromise by eradicating the "soft centre". The FLN took this step on the outskirts of the city of Philippeville, where the violence deployed was almost unspeakable:

It was not until two o'clock that a forest guard managed by a miracle to dodge ambushes and bring the news to Philippeville on foot; and still another hour and a half elapsed before a para detachment could reach the village. An appalling sight greeted them. In houses literally awash with blood, European mothers were found with their throats slit and their bellies slashed open by bill-hooks. Children had suffered the same fate, and infants in arms had had their brains dashed out against the wall. Four families had been wiped down to the last member; only six who had barricaded themselves in a house in the centre of the village and had held out with sporting rifles and revolvers had escaped unscathed. Men returning from the mine had been ambushed in their cars and hacked to pieces. Altogether thirty-seven Europeans had died, including ten children under fifteen, and another thirteen had been left for dead.

This horrendous violence would recur again and again, driving both sides to unthinkable acts of brutality. The French military and police would stoop to the types of torture from which their society had so recently suffered under German occupation, and in the waning days of the war the pieds-noirs would form their own bands of vigilantes to rain terror upon Muslim civilians. All of which worked to the FLN's ends, to eliminate the so-called "Third Force," the interlocuteurs valables with which the French government would seek to compromise, rather than concede to the unbending demands for independence levied by the militants.

The situation was complicated immensely by the pied-noir problem. Not only could the French not simply abandon the million-plus citizens residing in Algeria, but those citizens had voting rights and thus representatives in the French government. And in the pathetically fragmented post-war Fourth Republic, the pied-noir caucus could swing a vote of confidence and bring down a government. This instability was intolerable to the military, which saw it is an impediment to victory, thus leading to the May 1958 in which the Algerian-based paratroopers effectively threatened to invade Paris and overthrow the government if Charles de Gaulle were not brought back to power:

On the morning of the 27th the crisis reached its peak. Parisians looked up nervously at every plane overhead; Simone de Beauvoir had Freudian nightmares about a python dropping on her form the sky; and in the Ministry of the Interior Jules Moch received an intelligence report that "Resurrection" was now scheduled to take place on the following night. He ordered his C.R.S. force to prepare to defend government buildings. Meanwhile, young para officers were arriving in the capital in civilian clothes, carrying suspiciously heavy suitcases. Among their targets was the kidnapping of Jules Moch himself, and with them - on his own mission - came Lagaillarde. Then, early in the afternoon, de Gaulle - apparently as a result of the mounting pressures upon him - issued a communique announcing that he had begun the "regular process" of forming a legitimate republican government, and condemning any threat to public order.

This would not be the last, nor the most dangerous of the attempted military coups. It was amazing to me to read how close the government of France, which today we celebrate as a stable member of the sisterhood of democracies, came so close on several occasions to being overthrown by its own military. But Horne, while not defending this treason, does attempt to provide some perspective:

To understand what to other Western minds may seem incomprehensible and shocking, the disaffection within the French army which was to culminate in full-scale revolt in less than eighteen months' time, one needs to consider the stresses imposed by French history beyond merely the unbroken chain of humiliation that stretched from 1940 up to the Algerian war. Since the execution of Louis XVI in 1793, the French army had been subject to the First Republic, the Directory, the Consulate, the First Empire, the First and Second Restorations, the "Bourgeois Monarchy" of Louis-Phillipe, the Second Republic, the Second Empire, the Commune, the Third Republic, Petain's Vichy and de Gaulle's Free French Committee, the Fourth Republic, and now the Fifth Republic. Each change of regime had contributed fresh division within the army, and added new confusion as to where loyalties were ultimately due - a compound of experience shared by no other army in the world (outside, perhaps, Latin America).

Indeed, the only even remotely comparable analogy I could muster in modern American civil-military relations was the open disregard shown for President Truman by General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War, resulting in MacArthur's prompt dismissal from command and (eventual) widespread consensus that the general had gone too far. As far as I can remember, there were no colonels in the airborne divisions plotting to jump into D.C. to force a regime change.

Ultimately, this was a war the French could probably never win. The era of colonialism was coming to an end, and whatever distinctions the French saw between Algeria and their other former colonies, the rest of the world was unsympathetic. The Algerian rebels played a stellar game of shuttle diplomacy, eventually getting support or at least neutrality out of the Americans, the Chinese, and the Soviets (no mean feat in the early 1960s!). They had the numbers, they had the willingness to resort to terrible acts of violence, and they were not playing for the short-term. The FLN knew that they could simply outlast the French, and in the end they were right.

Horne's book has gained a new following since the start of the Iraqi insurgency, coming back into print in 2006. The new cover advertises that it is "on the reading list of President Bush and the US military," and it was apparently recommended to the then-President by no less than Henry Kissinger (whose authorized biographer is, wait for it, Alistair Horne). Now certainly it is on the reading list of some in the US military, yours truly for starters, but I'm not entirely sure the book holds anything but bad news for America.

In the first place, I'm not entirely sure how apt the analogy is. Yes, the Algerian war for independence can be described as an insurgency. But this is a land that had been considered part of France proper, at least by the French, for well over a century. By the time of Algeria's independence in 1962, there were a million pieds-noirs, with full French citizenship and voting rights, born and raised in Algeria. Yet even overlooking the vast differences between the situations, what about the Algerian experience is instructive for America? The war took down the very structure of French government, inspired two military coup attempts, resulted in almost total political defeat for France (despite tremendous military success once the resources were finally committed), the mass migration of the pieds-noirs, the slaughter of France's erstwhile Algerian allies, and the eventual disintegration in Algerian civil society leading to a full-blown civil war beginning in 1991. Not a lot there to be happy about, though it does make for a great read.

The Great War for Civilisation by Robert Fisk

fisk_great.jpgAs tragically widespread as violence was in the 20th-century, surely no geographic region saw a greater share of warfare and dislocation than the Middle East. From the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, through the turmoil of the dying days of colonial occupation, to the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflagration, the three Iraqi wars of the past three decades, and so on, not a year has gone by without some form of revolutionary, civil, or interstate armed conflict in the region. The very fact that I, an American soldier, am writing this book review from a U.S. military base in the country of Kuwait, is a further testament to the continuing volatility of the Birthplace of Three Religions.

No journalist, and probably no person of any occupation, has experienced more of these conflicts in the last thirty years than Robert Fisk. A Beirut-based British reporter employed by The Times as Middle East correspondent from 1976, in its pre-Rupert Murdoch days, and by The Independent since 1989, Fisk has covered nearly every episode of regional strife since the start of the Lebanese Civil War. In 2006, Fisk collects his three decades of reporting into an expansive thousand-page survey of modern conflicts in the Middle East, titled The Great War of Civilisation. Largely a narrative compilation of Fisk's years of reporting, the book also provides some historical background to each of the violent episodes he recounts, tying the chaos in the Middle East to the disastrous post-World War I peace settlement in Paris, which carved up the region into European colonial mandates and set the stage for a century of clashes:

My father was a soldier of the Great War, fighting in the trenches of France because of a shot fired in a city he'd never heard of called Sarajevo. And when he died thirteen years ago at the age of ninety-three, I inherited his campaign medals. One of them depicted a winged victory and on the observe side are engraved the words: "The Great War for Civilisation."

After the allied victory of 1918, at the end of my father's war, the victors divided up the lands of their former enemies. In the space of just seventeen months, they created the borders of Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia and most of the Middle East. And I have spent my entire career--in Belfast and Sarajevo, in Beirut and Baghdad--watching the people within those borders burn.

In his lengthy career in the Middle East, Fisk was on-hand for the aforementioned, long-running Lebanese Civil War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the First and Second Palestinian Intifadas, the Algerian Civil War, the Persian Gulf War and the subsequent failed Shia uprising, the aftermath of 9/11, and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. All of these conflicts, and more, fill one or more chapters in The Great War of Civilisation. Early in the book, Fisk lays out his journalistic philosophy, which frankly it would be nice to see adopted by a few more of the obsequious hacks currently posing as reporters:

I suppose, in the end, we journalists try--or should try--to be the first impartial witnesses to history. If we have any reason for our existence, the least must be our ability to report history as it happens so that no one can say: "We didn't know--no one told us." Amira Hass, the brilliant Israeli journalist on Ha'aretz newspaper whose reports on the occupied Palestinian territories have outshone anything written by non-Israeli reporters, discussed this with me more than two years ago. I was insisting that we had a vocation to write the first pages of history but she interrupted me. "No, Robert, you're wrong," she said. "Our job is to monitor the centres of power." And I think, in the end, that is the best definition of journalism I have heard: to challenge authority--all authority--especially so when governments and politicians take us to war, when they have decided that they will kill and others will die.

The beauty of Fisk's book rests in both the depth and breadth of his personal experience in that territory. Thus the chapters of this book offer a new perspective for most readers on two fronts: first, he goes places most reporters don't, and thus tells stories they can't tell. The easiest, and most famous, examples are his three interviews with Osama Bin Laden from 1993 to 1997. But the pages of The Great War of Civilisation also find him sneaking back into Afghanistan after the Taliban took power, confronting Boeing executives with the fragment of a Hellfire missile the Israelis shot into a Lebanese ambulance, and a particularly harrowing experience riding a Russian Army column making its way toward Jalalabad:

There was little evidence of the ambushed convoy in front save for the feet of a dead man being hurriedly pushed into a Soviet army van near Charikar and a great swath of crimson and pink slush that spread for several yards down one side of the road. The highway grew more icy at sundown, but we drove faster. As we journeyed on into the night, the headlights of our 147 trucks running like diamonds over the snow behind us, I was gently handed a Kalashnikov rifle with a full clip of ammunition. A soldier snapped off the safety catch and told me to watch through the window. I had no desire to hold this gun, even less to shoot at Afghan guerrillas, but if we were attacked again--if the Afghans had come right up to the truck as they had done many times on these convoys--they would assume I was a Russian. They would not ask all members of the National Union of Journalists to stand aside before gunning down the soldiers.

I have never since held a weapon in wartime and I hope I never shall again. I have always cursed the journalists who wear military costumes and don helmets and play soldiers with a gun at their hip, greying over the line between reporter and combatant, making our lives ever more dangerous as armies and militias come to regard us as an extension of their enemies, a potential combatant, a military target. But I had not volunteered to travel with the Soviet army. I was not--as that repulsive expression would have it in later wars--"embedded." I was as much their prisoner as their guest. As the weeks went by, Afghans learned to climb aboard the Soviet convoy lorries after dark and knife their occupants. I knew that my taking a rifle--even though I never used it--would produce a reaction from the great and the good in journalism, and it seemed better to admit the reality than to delete this from the narrative. If I was riding shotgun for the Soviet army, then that was the truth of it.

The second front on which Fisk offers most readers, at least most American readers, a different perspective is his critical take on Israel's behavior vis-a-vis Palestine and Lebanon. In Europe, there is tolerance for a broad diversity of public opinion on the Israel/Palestine situation. In the United States, not so much. It is getting better, but it is still difficult to express much public opposition to actions by the Israeli state without incurring the wrath of the pro-Israel lobby. Whatever the right answer, if there is one, I think there is at least a need for a wider range of discussion on the topic than is currently prevalent in America's public dialogue about Israel. Though there are those out there who would tar Fisk as an anti-Semite because of his views, I think he fits solidly within the range of reasonable opinion. I do not agree with all of it, but that's not the point. He made me think hard about Israel and Palestine in a way that few authors have:

When Palestinians massacre Israelis, we regard them as evil men. When Israelis slaughter Palestinians, America and other Western nations find it expedient to regard these crimes as tragedies, misunderstandings, or the work of individual madmen. Palestinians--in the generic, all-embracing sense of the word--are held to account for these terrible deeds. Israel is not. Thus, over the years, a strange confusion has emerged in the Western response to Israeli misdeeds, a reaction that is ultimately as damaging to Israel as it is to the West itself. When Israeli soldiers or settlers murder Palestinians, they are semantically distanced from their country.

Fisk has been a popular target of conservative journalists and bloggers, particularly after his vocal opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, even being the namesake of the dubious verb "fisking," or critiquing a written work one line at a time. If there is one substantive criticism I have of Fisk's book, it is the frequent negative references to the Bush administration and the Iraq War he sprinkles throughout the book. Though I certainly share much of his anger and frustration at the unnecessary bloodshed, some of the attacks seem gratuitously out of place with the surrounding narrative. That said, the book was probably mostly written in 2005, when the U.S. effort in Iraq was at its nadir, and Fisk does have exactly the pedigree to provide the sort of historical perspective that was so disastrously lacking in the White House and Pentagon under Bush and Rumsfeld:

Bush spoke of the tens of thousands of opponents of Saddam Hussein who had been arrested and imprisoned and summarily executed and tortured--"all of these horrors concealed from the world by the apparatus of a totalitarian state--but there was no mention that these same beatings and burnings and electric shocks and mutilations and rapes were being readily perpetrated when America was on very good terms with Iraq before 1990, when the Pentagon was sending intelligence information to Saddam to help him kill more Iranians. Indeed, one of the most telling aspects of the Bush speech was that all the sins of which he specifically accused the Iraqis--a good many undoubtedly true--began in the crucial year of 1991. There was no reference to Saddam's flouting of UN resolutions when the Americans were helping him. There were a few reminders by Bush of the gas attacks against Iran--without mentioning that this very same Iran was no supposed to be part of the "axis of evil."

The only other aspect of the book that might frustrate those who read it with an open mind is that it feels, at times, episodic. In three consecutive chapters, Fisk moves from the Iran-Iraq War, to his father's participation in World War I, to the Armenian holocaust. There's a natural reason for this: Fisk is a journalist, and each chapter essentially covers the period of time in which Fisk was reporting from that country. And certainly by the end of the 1000+ pages of text, any reader will be tremendously better informed on the modern Middle East than before. But this tome is not intended to be a comprehensive contemporary history of the region, so there are a number of loose ends, which Fisk, probably called away to cover yet another outbreak of violence in the region, was unable to tie up. Nevertheless, an incredible book from a man who has put his body and soul into telling the stories of a land where the reign of violence and suffering has been undeterred by the tolling of a new century.

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon

lazarus_arthur.jpgI seem to have stumbled into a string of novels rooted in real-life historical episodes. Russell Banks' Cloudsplitter (reviewed here) centered on the life of the violent abolitionist, John Brown. Then there was Julian Barnes' Arthur & George (reviewed here), which explored the events that led Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to publicly advocate for the exoneration of wrongfully-convicted solicitor George Edalji. There is something particularly satisfying about these types of books. Whether because they satisfy both my love of history and my love of literature, or because they present a particular type of imaginative blurring of the line between truth and fiction, I have greatly enjoyed these works.

Most recently I finished a work by Bosnian-American author (and MacArthur "Genius") Aleksandar Hemon, titled The Lazarus Project, which takes its name from the 1908 death of a young Eastern European Jewish immigrant at the hands of Chicago's Chief of Police. Lazarus Averbach was just 19 years old, a survivor of the Kishinev pogrom, and he came all the way to America only to be shot dead in the foyer of Chief George Shippy's home. The truth about Averbach's purpose for going to the officer's home is still disputed, but Hemon's opening chapter offers a portrait of Averbach as a dispossessed, wayward soul:

The young man descends the stairs, open the gate (which also creaks ominously). He puts his hands in his pockets, but then pulls his pants up--they are still too big for him; he looks to the right, looks to the left, as though making a decision. Lincoln Place is a different world; these houses are like castles, the windows tall and wide; there are no peddlers on the streets; indeed, there is nobody on the street. The ice-sheathed trees twinkle in the morning drabness; a branch broken under the weight of ice touches the pavement, rattling its frozen tips. Someone peeks from behind a curtain of the house across the street, the face ashen against the dark space behind. It is a young woman: he smiles at her and she quickly draws the curtain. All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is all that the world is.

More than eight decades later, Lazarus Averbach's mysterious death continues to fascinate Vladimir Brik, a young man who immigrated to Chicago from Bosnia in 1992, just before the disintegration of Yugoslavia turned most violent (like Hemon himself):

I am a reasonably loyal citizen of a couple of countries. In America--that somber land--I waste my vote, pay taxes grudgingly, share my life with a native wife, and try hard not to wish painful death to the idiot president. But I also have a Bosnian passport I seldom use; I go to Bosnia for heartbreaking vacations and funerals, and on or around March 1, with other Chicago Bosnians, I proudly and dutifully celebrate our Independence Day with an appropriately ceremonious dinner.

Brik's quest to understand Averbach's journey, and to eventually trace it back to Eastern Europe, makes up half of The Lazarus Project's dual narrative. The other half is occupied by the aftermath of Averbach's death, and particularly its effect on his sister, Olga. The villainization of Averbach by the police and the press (personified in the character of Mr. Miller), including the publication of grotesque photos of Lazarus' body propped up on a chair, duly reproduced in the novel, inspires a wave of anti-anarchist rhetoric and violence. Olga herself becomes the subject of police harassment and interrogation; her neighbors are beaten, and she is constantly followed and observed. All the while, this grieving women is trying to make sense of her brother's sudden disappearance from this life, as she tries to piece together whether he really did have some hidden anarchist life, or was merely a lost man in the wrong place at the wrong time:

She walks home through the frigid drizzle, her bones light with hunger and the sense that everything is turned inside out; her legs hurt. Why was Lazarus at Shippy's house? Isador took him to those anarchist meetings, but she thought it was all just angry talk--young men like angry talk. He could not have become part of some crazy conspiracy. He was always prone to fantasies, always with one foot in some other world, but he would never do anything about it; he was a dreamer. She did not listen to him when the told her about his ideas, thoughts, fears, stories he was planning to write; she was always too tired. He had no anger, no violence in him. He he would never hurt anybody. She used to go look for him in the evenings. She would shout his name, until he hollered back from the woods or the back alley, wherever he was waiting for her to come and get him--he did not see well at dusk. He was a child when she left him behind, he wasted his boyhood in a refugee camp in Czernowitz, he landed in Chicago as a young man. How did she miss it all? When was it that she'd lost him? How did he become who he was? Who was he?

The similarities between Brik and Averbach are obvious. Both fled from violent areas of Eastern Europe, both found themselves unable to happily blend into the supposed melting pot of America, ignored or misunderstood by the women they lived with, and both ultimately found themselves unable to conform to the expectations of the American experience. Yet beyond these facile parallels, it's not clear what Hemon is trying to say. That the immigrant experience of the early 20th-century was not that different from that of the late 20th-century? Surely true, but I'm hesitant to credit Hemon with originality on that point. That assimilation is difficult, or at least undesirable? Perhaps more interesting is Hemon's implied commentary on the role of the press in shaping (and inventing) the narrative of tragedy; surely it is no mere coincidence that the vile "journalist" who pesters Olga Averbuch shares a name with the gloryhound whom Rora escorts around Sarajevo.

Nevertheless, Brik is sufficiently narcissistic (he goes all the way to Eastern Europe on a grant to study Averbach and spends most of the time studying himself) and self-loathing, particularly in his cold attitude toward his more successful wife, that the chapters devoted to Olga Averbuch are easily the better half of the book. They plumb the depths of anti-Semitism in early 20th-century America, as well as the irrational frenzies of the anarchist scare that would sadly be just one example in a pattern that would recur when Communists, Japanese-Americans, and Muslims became the enemy du jour. Any novel that can find a way to work Emma Goldman into the plot can't be all bad.

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

barnes_arthur.jpgSir Arthur Conan Doyle is rightly famous, of course, for his series of novels and stories featuring the inimitable detective, Sherlock Holmes. Less widely known is Doyle's devoted interest in Spiritualism, and its belief that the spirits of the dead can contact and be contacted by the living. Even more obscure is his involvement in the appeal of the bizarre prosecution of George Edalji, a solicitor of Indian descent who was accused of mutilating horses in the farms near his home. It is this latter episode which is given a fictionalized account in Julian Barnes' 2005 novel, Arthur & George.

Barnes structures most of the book in short chapters alternating between the lives of Doyle and Edalji, portraying the parallel if disparate biographies of the two men. As Doyle's father declines into alcoholism, the young boy designates himself as protector of his beloved "Mam." Sent off to boarding school through the benevolence of his paternal uncles, Doyle develops the skills, inherited from his mother, that will lead to literary fame and fortune later in life:

Early on, he began telling his fellow pupils the stories of chivalry and romance he had first heard from beneath a raised prridge stick. On wet half-holidays, he would stand on a desk while his audience squatted around him. Remembering the Mam's skills, he knew how to drop his voice, how to drag out a story, how to leave off at a perilous excruciating moment with the promise of more the next day. Being large and hungry, he would accept a pastry as the basic price of a tale. But sometimes, he might stop dead at the thrill of a crisis, and could only be got going again at the cost of an apple.

Thus he discovered the essential connection between narrative and reward.

George, meanwhile, endures a lonely, insular childhood in the Vicarage that his clergyman father inhabits. A product of the unusual19th-century union between his Indian immigrant father and Scottish mother, George's life revolves entirely around the family home. He develops a keen mind, but is unable to develop a social life to match his intellectual one:

He rarely feels the lack of what he does not have. The family takes no part in local society, but George cannot imagine what this might involve, let alone what the reason for their unwillingness, or failure, might be. He himself never goes to other boys' houses, so cannot judge how things are conducted elsewhere. His life is sufficient unto itself. He has no money, but also no need of it, and even less when he learns that its love is the root of all evil. He has no toys, but does not miss them. He lacks the skill and eyesight for games; he has never even jumped a hopscotch grid, while a thrown ball makes him flinch. He is happy to play fraternally with Horace, more gently with Maud, and more gently still with the hens.

This seemingly tranquil, if isolated, family life is interrupted in George's teenage years by the dismissal of a maid suspected of writing nasty letters to the family. This episode is followed by an even more curious one, in which an unrecognized key is found on the vicarage doorstep. George's attempt to return it to police is met with suspicion by the desk sergeant, and several days later George is physically accosted by the sergeant, who proceeds to accuse George of stealing the key from a school. When George's father complains to the constable, Captain Anson, he receives a reply virtually threatening prosecution of the teenager. Though merely disturbing at the time, these interactions would prove to be portents of even darker events to come for George and his family. The strange, anonymous, threatening letters continue to be sent to the Vicarage, and further objects as well, which George and his father attempt to intercept before discovered by his mother or siblings:

After the key and the milk churn, other items appear at the Vicarage. A pewter ladle on a window sill; a garden fork pinning a dead rabbit to the lawn; three eggs broken on the front step. Each morning George and his father search the grounds before Mother and the two younger ones are allowed outside. One day they find twenty pennies and halfpennies laid at intervals across the lawn; the Vicar decides to regard them as a donation to the church. There are also dead birds, mostly strangled; and once excrement has been laid where it will be most visible. Occasionally, in the dawn light, George is aware of something that is less than a presence, a possible observer; it is more like a close absence, the feeling of someone having just left. But nobody is ever caught, or even spotted.

And now the hoaxes begin.

Indeed, a series of fake newspaper advertisements, uninvited guests, unsolicited deliveries, and other pranks signal the commencement of a new phase of the harassment of the Edalji family. And then, suddenly, they stop. The letters, the items, the hoaxes, all of it.

Both Arthur Doyle and George Edalji emerge from the challenges of youth to seek professional degrees; Doyle pursues medicine while George studies law. Doyle meets and marries a young woman named Louisa and they begin a family. George begins clerking with a law office and even manages to make friendly acquaintance with a couple of the other young solicitors. There is no sense that these two lives will ever intersect; indeed, it will be more than halfway through the book before they do. But much earlier than this, there is a single short chapter which bears both their names, the first to do so. And this chapter describes the terrible act which will, several years in the future, link these two men together:

Still stroking and murmuring, the man slipped the feed-bag from the horse's neck and slung it over his shoulder. Still storking and murmuring, the man then felt inside his coat. Still stroking and murmuring, one arm across the horse's back, he reached underneath to its belly.

The horse barely gave a start; the man at last ceased his gabble of nonsense, and in the new silence he made his way, at a deliberate pace, back toward the gap in the hedge.

And with this horrific mutilation of a peaceful animal, just one in a series of such crimes to sweep the district, George Edalji's life would be irrevocably altered. For upon Inspector Campbell's arrival to investigate the crimes, an anonymous letter is received, claiming the mutilations were conducted by a gang, the latest perpetrated by "Edalji the lawyer." Thus begins a bungling investigation, leading inevitably to George's arrest and prosecution. And despite the best efforts of George's solicitor, and the lack of anything beyond innuendo, circumstantial evidence, and outright perjury, George is convicted and sentenced to 7 years confinement. The 50-odd pages detailing the prosecution are a frightening account of the systemic flaws in criminal procedures which existed even into the 20th-century in the country that gave birth to the common law (indeed, the irregularities in Edalji's case were a major impetus for the creation of an appellate system for reviewing criminal convictions):

Afterwards, Mr. Meek assured George that the second day was often the worst for the defence; but that the third, when they presented their own evidence, would be the best. George hoped so; he was struggling with the sense that, slowly yet irrevocably, his story was being taken away from him. He feared that by the time the defence case was put, it would be too late. People--and in particular, the jury--would respond by thinking, But no, we've already been told what happened. Why should we change our minds now?

It is only after George is abruptly released after serving just--just?--three years of his sentence, and finds himself unable to resume his legal practice because the conviction still stands, that Doyle learns his name. Doyle's life has been listing, staying technically loyal to his long-suffering invalid wife while establishing a platonic friendship with Jean, a young woman who rekindled many of the desires his wife's illness deprived him of. Yet with his wife's death, he finds himself adrift, no longer fired by a passion for Jean that he could finally consummate after her many years of waiting. Fortunately, at just this time he receives a package of articles from George Edalji, who has been unsuccessfully pleading his case for a pardon in the public forum. Doyle finds himself outraged by the injustice of the prosecution, and decides to re-engage with the world, as he makes clear in his first meeting with George:

"I am going to do something different. I am going to make a great deal of noise. The English--the official English--do not like noise. They think it vulgar; it embarrasses them. But if calm reason has not worked, I shall give them noisy reason. I shall not use the back stairs but the front steps. I shall bang a big drum. I intend to shake more than a few trees, George, and we shall see what rotten fruit falls down."

Doyle is a man of convictions, but he is also a man who convinces himself first and then seeks to have everyone else fall in line. This is even how he describes his method of writing, "beginning with the ending." And as he as convinced of the reality of Spiritualism as he is of George's innocence, there are certainly moments when it seems questionable whether Doyle's zeal is appropriate, or even warranted. There were undoubtedly serious flaws in George's prosecution, and there is never a serious doubt that George is innocent of the charges, but Doyle becomes equally obsessed with determining the true perpetrator of the crimes as he is of demonstrating the injustice of the original prosecution:

He is as good as saying I botched it, thinks Arthur. No, don't be absurd--it's merely that he's far more interested in his own vindication, and in making absolutely sure of that, than in Sharp's prosecution. Which is perfectly understandable. Finish item one before proceeding to item two--what else would you expect of a cautious lawyer? Whereas I attack on all fronts simultaneously.

And though Doyle makes mincemeat out of the so-called professional investigators (much like his fictional counterpart), the alternate theory he proffers is plausible, persuasive even, but ultimately still resting on the same foundation of hearsay, inference, and circumstance that saw George Edalji spend 3 years in confinement. Nowhere is the disparity between George and Doyle's approaches to the case more apparent than their handling of the issue of race. George, who was raised by his family to think of himself as English through and through, refuses to consider that any of his misfortune is attributable to his mixed origins. Doyle sees that as the basic truth underlying all the hostility and injustice that George has suffered:

"So if you are proposing that my ordeal has been caused by race prejudice, then I must ask you for your evidence. I do not recall Mr. Disturnal ever alluding to the subject. Or Sir Reginald Hardy. Did the jury find me guilty because of my skin? That is too easy an answer. And I might add that during my years in prison I was fairly treated by the staff and the other inmates."

"If I may make a suggestion," replied Sir Arthur. "Perhaps you should tr occasionally not to think like a lawyer. The fact that no evidence of a phenomenon can be adduced does not mean that it does not exist."

Perhaps most astonishing is the revelation in Barnes' author's note that aside from one letter from Doyle's second wife, "all letters quoted, whether signed or anonymous, are authentic, as are quotations from newspapers, government reports, proceedings in Parliament, and the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle." At first blush one might think this detracts from the splendor of Barnes' work; after all, has he not leaned rather heavily on the words of others? Unlike, say, the wholesale invention seen in a work like A.S. Byatt's Possession (reviewed here). But with due consideration, I think the historical origins of the letters and quotes actually adds to the glory of what Barnes has accomplished: first in recognizing that this was an inherently fascinating episode with words worth reproducing, and then for seamlessly integrating these letters and historical accounts into his narrative.

Khrushchev by William Taubman

taubman_khrushchev.jpgIt is often difficult for the successors of powerful leaders to escape the shadows of those they follow. In the American experience, think of John Adams, Andrew Johnson, or Harry Truman. Outside of America, look at John Major or Thabo Mbeki. There are any number of reasons for this: perhaps the predecessor was governing on the basis of a personal popularity unavailable to the next guy, or his power enabled him to ignore a pending crises that erupted after he left office, or perhaps he himself was the source of the trouble.

And of course the more powerful the leader, the more popular and dominant his reign, the greater the struggle for the next in line. It is hard to think of an example, in the 20th-century at least, of a man who had more governmental authority vested in his person and personality than Joseph Stalin. Of course not only did the Soviet Union not have a constitutional line of succession in place upon his unexpected death, Stalin had spent the past several decades periodically purging anyone who gained enough power to be viewed as an heir apparent. Thus the emergence of the man who eventually surfaced as Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, was not grounded in precedent or consensus.

As historian William Taubman notes in the opening lines of his 2004 biography, Khrushchev, what "many Westerners, and not a few Russians" recall about the former Soviet leader is that he was a "crude, ill-educated clown who banged his shoe at the United Nations." Those with a bit more memory of the Cold War might also remember that it was Khrushchev who went eyeball-to-eyeball with JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and, as Dean Rusk put it, "the other guy blinked." Taubman argues that the truth about Stalin's successor was a bit more abstruse:

[T]he short, thick-set man with small, piercing eyes, protruding ears, and apparently unquenchable energy wasn't a Soviet joke even though he figures in so many of them. Rather, he was a complex man whose story combines triumph and tragedy for his country as well as himself.

Complicit in Stalinist crimes, Khrushchev attempted to de-Stalinize the Soviet Union. His daring but bumbling attempt to reform communism began the long, erratic process of putting a human face (initially his own) on an inhumane system. Not only did he help prepare the way for Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin a quarter of a century later, but Khrushchev's failure to set a stable and prosperous new course for his country anticipated the setbacks that would thwart their attempts at reform.

Born in a small Russian village in 1894, there was little about Khrushchev's youth to lead one to believe he would rise to rule one of the world's two superpowers:

Beginning at age six or seven, village boys fetched water and wood and tagged along with their fathers to work in fields. At eight or nine they tended cattle or sheep, and by thirteen they worked alongside their fathers from dawn to dusk... We have no photograph of Nikita as a boy, but it is not hard to imagine an energetic towhead, wearing only a long peasant shirt until age six or seven, then rough, crude trousers home-sewn out of flax or wool. He recalled going barefoot as a boy from spring until late fall.

Moved to the Ukraine during his childhood, Khrushchev became political during the Revolution, and he served as a political commissar in the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. He then began his march up the ranks of the Communist Party, serving as director of a mine he had previously worked at and then a series of progressively greater party positions. Khrushchev came under the tutelage of Lazar Kaganovich, then head of the party in Ukraine, further enhancing his rise. But it was to be in the 1930s that Khrushchev's career would take its greatest strides, a decade otherwise marked primarily by massive suffering amongst the Russian people and vicious party purges by Stalin:

Between 1939 and 1938 Khrushchev's career rocketed upward: May 1930, head of the Industrial Academy's party cell; January 1931, party boss of the Bauman District, in which the academy was located; followed six months later by the same job in Krasnopresnensky, the capital's largest and most important borough; January 1932, number two man in the Moscow party organization itself; January 1934, Moscow city party boss and member of the party Central Committee; early 1935, party chief of Moscow province too, a region about the size of England and Wales with a population of eleven million people. Even in an era of extraordinary upward mobility, Khrushchev's was stunning. Yet during the same decade in which he reached the heights, his country experienced nothing short of a holocaust.

The details of Stalin's purges, and the disastrous consequences of his policies for the rural masses, are well-covered by Taubman, largely tracking the story of paranoiac bloodletting described in Simon Sebag Montefiore's recent biography of the dictator, Stalin (reviewed here). Khrushchev was able to ride out some of the bloodiest episodes from his safe perch in Ukraine, where he was made party head in early 1938. He was to stay in the West into World War II, accompanying the invasion forces into Poland in 1939 and was later present in Stalingrad during the infamous siege:

Khrushchev served as chief political commissar (although that term itself was no longer used after 1941) on a series of crucial fronts. Military councils of which he was a member consisted of the front commander, the chief of staff for the area, and the top political officer. The latter's responsibility was equal to the commander's; no order could be issued without his signature. Actually, many commanders wanted only formal equality, preferring that their commissars concentrate on keeping up morale and lobbying with the Kremlin for supplies and reinforcements. However, Khrushchev wanted a voice in operational matters, and as a member of the ruling Politburo he got it.

Khrushchev emerged from the war as a member of the Soviet elite, but was still not viewed as a likely successor to the top spot. And in fact, after Stalin's sudden death in 1953 power was quickly seized by the butcher Beria, whose sadistic reign as security chief had involved numerous personal acts of rape, torture, and murder. Whether out of personal ambition or self-preservation, the other aspirants to the throne briefly united to oust Beria, at which point Malenkov was seen as the leading figure, only to be outmaneuvered by Khrushchev in late 1953 and early 1954. Khrushchev solidified his power over the next several years, culminating in his decision to make the famous "Secret Speech" in which he sought to justify his rise and his proposals by denouncing Stalin's cult of personality and those who had enabled it (naturally ignoring or minimizing his own part):

Khrushchev's speech denouncing Stalin was the bravest and most reckless thing he ever did. The Soviet regime never fully recovered, and neither did he. Before he spoke, Malenkov and Molotov seemed defeated politically. Just to make sure, he had stacked the congress with his supporters and strengthened his position in the Central Committee. He was now first among supposed equals, perfectly positioned eventually to expel his rivals from the party.

The remainder of Khrushchev's decade or so of power is punctuated by a series of high-risk, high-reward endeavors. His triumphs included the success of the Soviet space program, the establishment of the Warsaw Pact, and his visit to the United States. Notably less triumphant were the violent crackdown on the 1956 Hungarian revolution, the disintegration of relations between the Soviet Union and China, the support for building the Berlin Wall, the repeated failure to meet his lofty economic goals, and the near-catastrophic decision to place nuclear missiles in Cuba:

Khrushchev had not thought things through or prepared backup plans for various contingencies. He badly misjudged the American response, improvised madly when he was found out, and was fortunate the crisis ended as safely as it did... [These actions] reflect Khrushchev's domestic and personal position in 1962: besieged by troubles; increasingly irritated as setbacks mounted; determined to prove himself (to himself as well as to his colleagues); ready to lash out and take risks to regain the initiative. In that sense the Cuban missiles were a cure-all, a cure-all that cured nothing.

In many ways, Khrushchev was doomed from the start. It would have taken the most extraordinary of leaders to follow in the footsteps of a personality like Stalin and achieve success without doubling-down on the repression of the past. Khrushchev largely managed to avoid the worst excesses of the Stalinist instinct, but this left him with one less tool to suppress the various forces unleashed by the dictator's demise. He seemed to have a greater personal tendency toward freedom than Stalin (he could hardly have less, I suppose), but with a faltering economy beneath him and potential rivals surrounding him, he was in a rather difficult situation.

Fundamentally, Khrushchev did not have what it takes to be that extraordinary leader. In some ways what made him so interesting was simply how unexpected his success was, and the tumultuous nature of the times in which he presided on the world stage. But the aspects of his personality that made his rivals constantly underestimate him, particularly his lack of education and his crudity, were in the end true obstacles to his success. He did not have a strategic perspective, or a methodical mind. He often reacted impulsively, and he valued bombastic rhetoric over pragmatic planning. His development as a leader was also limited not just by his personal characteristics, but the nature of the system in which he rose. And that was a reality that would hamper the parade of successors whose tenures would be even more ignominious than the "crude, ill-educated clown who banged his shoe at the United Nations."