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Two non-fiction books that have impressed me lately

04 Nov

star_icons25 star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 1. Tariq Ali, The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (2008)

Yes, I know: Tariq Ali, famous 1968 alumnus and “wild man” of the Left. But even London’s Spectator, hardly famous for Marxist leanings, concedes, while also drawing attention to the book’s very pleasing style:

… Tariq Ali’s universal cynicism might have been oppressive, but in fact his narrative is funny and gossipy, the high points being his own encounters with key players, including Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir and Indira Gandhi. He believes that the country’s satirists, writers and poets serve as Pakistan’s collective conscience and uses writers and poets such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sahir Ludhianvi, Habib Jalib and Ustad Daman to provide the moral compass for his wanderings.

Political turbulence has revived interest in stories from an earlier period of Muslim in the region, Ali says. He relates a 16th-century story that — with some modifications — sums up life in today’s Pakistan with painful accuracy. A man is seriously dissatisfied with a junior magistrate’s decision. The latter, irritated, taunts him to appeal to a senior judge.The man replies, ‘But he’s your brother, he won’t listen to me’. The magistrate says, ‘Go to the mufti’. The man replies, ‘But he’s your uncle’. The magistrate says, ‘Go to the minister’. The man replies, ‘He’s your grandfather’. The magistrate says, ‘Go to the King’. The man replies, ‘Your niece is engaged to him’. The magistrate, livid with anger, says, ‘Go to Hell then’. The man replies, ‘That’s where your esteemed father reigns. He’ll see to it that I get no satisfaction there.’

The government, the political parties, the civil service, the mullahs and the army all have reason to be angry with Tariq Ali and The Duel will outrage as many in Washington as in Islamabad. But Americans should read it for its explanation of why so many in Pakistan hate the US, blaming it for the dire situation in which they now find themselves.

In fact this sprightly romp should be read by anyone who wants real insights into Pakistan. It is as good a primer on Pakistani politics as you will find, with the caveats that it is not the whole story, it is not always accurate and Ali’s prejudices are his own.

Yes, but he makes more sense of this part of the world (including Afghanistan as these stories are inseparable) than most. I see a great love for his subject despite what the Spectator calls cynicism – and indeed cynicism seems to me quite rational in this case.

See also Democracy Now and The Independent. There is also a one hour YouTube and some shorter ones you may access from there.

star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 2. Peter Ackroyd, Shakespeare: The Biography (2005)

THE biography – a touch presumptuous that! But this is nonetheless a feast of a book which until recently I had just nibbled at for reference purposes. Some say Ackroyd speculates too much, but I find many of the speculations fruitful. It is also very grounded in excellent social history. Here’s a quick taste.

… Of his earthly life there was much less certainty. In the sixteenth century, the mortality of the newly born was high. Nine per cent died within a week of birth, and a further 11 per cent before they were a month old; in the decade of Shakespeare’s own birth there were in Stratford 62.8 average annual baptisms and 42.8 average annual child burials. You had to be tough, or from a relatively prosperous family, to survive the odds. It is likely that Shakespeare had both of these advantages.

Once the dangers of childhood had been surmounted, there was a further difficulty. The average lifespan of an adult male was forty-seven years. Since Shakespeare’s parents were by this standard long-lived, he may have hoped to emulate their example. But he survived only six years beyond the average span. Something had wearied him. Since in London the average life expectancy was only thirty-five years in the more affluent parishes, and twenty-five years in the poorer areas, it may have been the city that killed him. But this roll-call of death had one necessary consequence. Half of the population were under the age of twenty. It was a youthful culture, with all the vigour and ambition of early life. London itself was perpetually young.

The first test of Shakespeare’s own vigour came only three months after his birth. In the parish register of 11 July 1564, beside the record of the burial of a weaver’s young apprentice from the High Street , was written: Hic incipit pestis. Here begins the plague. In a period of six months some 237 residents of Stratford died, more than a tenth of its population; a family of four expired on the same side of Henley Street as the Shakespeares. But the Shakespeares survived. Perhaps the mother and her newborn son escaped to her old family home in the neighbouring hamlet of Wilmcote, and stayed there until the peril had passed. Only those who remained in the town succumbed to the infection.

The parents, if not the child, suffered fear and trembling. They had already lost two daughters, both of whom had died in earliest infancy, and the care devoted to their first-born son must have been close and intense. Such children tend to be confident and resilient in later life. They feel themselves to be in some sense blessed and protected from the hardships of the world. It is perhaps worth remarking that Shakespeare never contracted the plague that often raged through London. But we can also see the lineaments of that fortunate son in the character of the land from which he came…

See also Looking at Shakespeare, in 3 Different Ways.

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