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Archive for the category “World”

Tulku (book review)

TulkuTulku by Peter Dickinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve just read it for the third time. Perhaps that should make me an expert on the book, but reading it at intervals of 19 years meant that I don’t remember much from one reading to the next.

Theodore Tewker, orphaned 13-year-old son of an American missionary in China, meets up with an Englishwoman who is collecting botanical specimens. They travel together to Tibet (which at that time was independent of China) and spend some time at a Buddhist monastery. That much I remember from two readings, and I could have learnt it from the blurb. So it was like reading it for the first time.

I’ve read other books by Peter Dickinson, and as with this one, I find it had to remember the plot. The others were children’s books, and I remember that one of them was about Merlin, and that it reminded me a bit of That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis, which I have also read several times, but in that case I remember the plot pretty well. So that is an interesting phenomenon. I re-read C.S. Lewis’s books, even though I am familiar with the plot, for the small details and nuances that I may have missed on previous readings. One such in That Hideous Strength was a passing reference to Cecil Rhodes — see That hideous strength and Rhodes must fall | Khanya.

But Tulku I re-read not for the finer details, but because I had forgotten the broad outlines of the plot. I would like to re-read some of Dickinson’s other children’s books, but neither bookshop nor library seems to have them.

Tulku isn’t exactly a children’s book, though the protagonist, Theodore, is a child bang in the middle of puberty. At least it doesn’t feel like a children’s book. If my recollections of being that age are accurate, then I suppose my thought processes were pretty similar to Theodore’s, but I didn’t really take much time to reflect on my thought processes, and reading this book at age 13 would lay on me the demand that I did.

The other day a 13-year-old asked a question on the question-and-answer web site Quora, saying that he preferred to read adult books and found children’s books boring. And I dare say he might have found Tulku boring too. When I was 13 I read an “adult” book, The Wages of Fear by Georges Arnaud. I found it was gripping stuff, and made me think I wanted to be a lorry driver when I grew up. I wanted to see the film, but it had an age restriction — no persons 4-16 — but I persuaded my mother to take me to see it, and pretended I was 16. It wasn’t quite as thrilling as the book, and I was mystified by the age restriction. But my comment to the 13-year-old who found children’s books boring was that he might enjoy them more when he was older. And I suspect that that may be the case with Tulku.

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Baffled by Brexit

For the last three years a lot of my Brit friends have have been debating the issue of the UK leaving the EU. It’s something that keeps cropping up on social media and in blogs but the more the issue is debated, the more opaque it seems to become to outsiders like me.

As far as I’m aware it’s been going on for nearly 60 years. I first became aware of it when the Brits applied to join and General de Gaulle gave a resounding Non! Flanders and Swann made it memorable by writing a song about it: “Eyetie, Benelux, Germany and me, that’s my market recipe.” Eventually the Brits did manage to get in (over de Gaulle’s dead body) and now they want out. But it seems that having decided that they want to go, they want the assurance that they can have their cake and eat it.

I don’t have a dog in this particular fight. It’s no skin off my nose whether they stay or leave. But sixty years!

One blogging friend whose blog I’ve been following for years has just written an article about it in the Church Times, Are the Bishops really listening to Leavers?:

The bishops write: “The levels of fear, uncertainty and marginalisation in society, much of which lies behind the vote for Brexit, but will not be addressed by Brexit . . .” One way in which power is experienced as abusive is when those with power (such as a bishop) say to those without power (a normal voter) that the voter does not know what he or she really wants. To say that there is something that “lies behind the vote for Brexit” is to disparage the desire for Brexit in and of itself, and thus is an exercise in disempowerment.

Leavers have become accustomed to being slighted in this way, to having their understanding and integrity impugned, to being told that we voted for Brexit only because of X, and, if those in power solved X, well, we don’t need Brexit any more, do we? This is not the product of genuine listening: it is the imputation of false consciousness and a rather un-Anglican attempt to “make windows into men’s souls”. It is essential that, if there is to be a reconciliation between the different sides on Brexit, such language is abandoned.

But I suspect you have to have been following the issue closely for the last 60 years to know what he’s on about.

It seems to me, looking from a distance, that the result of the 2016 referendum was pretty close, and they really should have looked for a 2/3 majority before deciding to change. They should also have specified that there should be at least a 55/45% majority in favour of “leave” in each of the four countries of the UK. As it is, England and Wales wanted to leave, Scotland and Northern Ireland wanted to remain in the EU. But the fact is that the UK government did decide to leave and set the whole leaving process going.

One of the difficulties this creates is a land border between the EU and the UK in Northern Ireland. Why this creates a special difficulty is rather puzzling, since there are other land borders between the EU and non-EU countries, 23 of them actually. Why not do whatever they do there, since it is simply a matter of adding a 24th land border?

So my question is, why doesn’t the UK opt for one of the following:

  1. England and Wales leave the EU and the UK simultaneously, while the rump UK (Scotland and Northern Ireland) remains in the EU.
  2. The UK leaves the EU and Scotland and Northern Ireland leave the UK and go their separate ways, applying to rejoin the EU if they wish.
  3. Have another referendum stipulating a clear majority (at least 55%-45%) in each country.

Can any of my UK friends explain why the present indecision is better than any of those, or which of those might be better than the present shilly-shalying?

 

 

 

An obsessive search for erasure

The ZahirThe Zahir by Paulo Coelho
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can’t decide whether this is a profound book or a superficial one.

The protagonist is a novelist living in Paris, rather like the author himself, whose wife disappears without a trace, and he becomes obsessed, not so much with finding her as with discovering why she left him. This leads him to some deep (or shallow) philosophical reflection, from which he concludes that in order to discover himself as a person he needs to forget and erase his personal history.

Since the protagonist is a writer and in many ways resembles the author, I found parts of it gave me an incentive to work on things that I myself am writing. Those bits made me want to give it four stars. But part of his personal history, which he wants to erase, is that his wife was the one who inspired him to write in the first place, and when he goes on about that, in a rather banal and boring way, I want to give it one or two stars. In the end I compromised and gave it three stars.

One thing that gave the book a bit more interest is that part of the search took him to Kazakhstan in Central Asia, which has cropped up in other books I’ve been reading recently.

Another puzzling aspect of the story is that the protagonist (also like author Paulo Coelho himself) had been on a pilgrimage to St James’s Cathedral at Compostela, which had been a life-changing experience, and had written a book about it. Yet this, too, was apparently part of his personal history to be erased and forgotten. And if that is the case, why should anyone buy and read his book about it?

I suppose that one reason for my inability to sympathise with this particular aspect of the story is that I rather enjoy rereading my journals of 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 years ago each morning. I think of people I knew then, some I am still in touch with, others not, and I wonder what has happened to them. Even if I don’t know what has happened to them, I don’t think they can simply be erased. Their fate may not be known to me, but it is known to God, who values them, and perhaps if nothing else, I can offer a short prayer for them, wherever they may be. And if they have died, pray that their memory may be eternal. That is the opposite of forgetting.

 

 

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Travels on the old Silk Road

The Road To Miran: Travels In The Forbidden Zone Of XinjiangThe Road To Miran: Travels In The Forbidden Zone Of Xinjiang by Christa Paula
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Christa Paula was a student of history and archaeology specialising in Central Asia, and thirty years ago she travelled there to see some of the sites on the ancient Silk Road, the main trade route between the Roman Empire and China. At that time China only allowed limited travel to foreigners and the restrictions increased after the Tianamnen Square massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators. Pro-democracy demonstrations were more successful in Paula’s own country, Germany, and she had news of the fall of the Berlin Wall while on her travels.

Many of the sites she most wanted to visit, including Miran itself, were in restricted areas, and she was arrested a couple of times, and often had to sneak into places on the principle that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.

The book alternates between descriptions of contemporary travel and life in Western China (Xinjiang), and historical descriptions of ancient kingdoms on the Silk Road, based on the archaeological sites Paula visited or tried to visit. She hooked up with a Chinese friend, Chang, who helped her a great deal with arrangements for accommodation and travel.

One of the things that struck me about the book was the similarities between Communist China and apartheid South Africa. Encounters with the police, travel restrictions and requirements for permits sounded very familiar indeed, and very similar to Namibia when it was ruled by South Africa. Some of her descriptions of how she had snuck into places when she couldn’t get permits were very similar indeed to Namibia under South African rule. And in many ways the apartheid was the same too. There was, apparently, quite strict apartheid between the Han Chinese and the local Uighurs they ruled. Some hotels were for Han Chinese only, as were certain events at which local people and foreigners were not welcome.

Central Asia is far from southern Africa, and to me a rather unfamiliar part of the world. In the centre of the area visited by Christa Paula is the Taklamakan Desert, described in another book as The Worst Desert on Earth. To the south lies Tibet, to the north-east Mongolia, and to the north-west Kazakhstan. One of the few works of fiction I’ve read dealing with that area is Water touching Stone. The Uighur people living there are mostly Muslim, but in the historical period studied by Paula most were Buddhist, but since it was a major international trade route the main towns were fairly cosmopolitan.

I’ve written a few more comments on this book on my other blog here.

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One flew over the cuckoo’s nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been aware of Ken Kesey for a long time, since I’ve read books by or about people he associated with, like Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. I’ve also been aware of this book for a long time, and knew it was set in a lunatic asylum, but had never read it before.

But though I have known about it for a long time, it was not long enough. I should have read it in my late teens or early twenties, which was when I was most concerned about the boundaries between sanity and madness. That was when I most appreciated Ginsberg’s poem Howl, written for his friend Carl Solomon, who had the electric shock therapy that was then a fashionable treatment for certain kinds of mental illness.

Most of the action in the book takes place in a ward of a mental hospital, presided over by a tyrannical nurse, whose measure of her patients’ progress is how amenable and cooperative they are with her arbitrary rules. Her rule is threatened by a new patient, McMurphy, who questions the rules and the values behind them, and keeps demanding changes, while the nurse keeps threatening him with electric shock therapy.

The book was written in 1960 and published in 1962, and that is when I should have read it. Like Ken Kesey, I was too late for the Beat Generation and too early for the hippies. Americans seem to have names or letters for all sorts of generations, but no one mentions ours, the Beat-Hip Generation.

In 1960 I was studying Sociology I at Wits University. The Sociology Department was presided over by Professor G.K. Engelbrecht, a disciple of the functionalist school, whose mantra was “youth must adjust”. The function of social institutions, like schools, churches, universities, families and all the rest was to facilitate the adjustment process.  Those who failed to adjust were dysfunctional members of society, and, in extreme cases, were labelled as mentally ill, and that is what the book is about. Mental illness carried a stigma, the stigma of failure to adjust.

It is no longer mental illness, but mental health that carries a stigma

All that has changed. Psychology in the 1960s was all about -phrenias and -pathys, which have all but disappeared. Today it is no longer mental illness, but mental health that carries a stigma.

Halfway through my year of Sociology I with Prof G.K. Engelbrecht I went to a student conference where an Anglican monk, Brother Roger, read a paper on Pilgrims of the Absolute, which pointed out how countercultural Christianity really was, and characterised “adjustment” as the selling of one’s heavenly birthright for the pottage of this sinful world. As for one’s mental balance, the devil take it, and indeed he took it long ago. What happened at the Fall? The whole world lost its balance; why should I be concerned about keeping mine?

So in the book McMurphy is a disruptive influence in the ward, at least in the eyes of the nurse, but he manages to secure a brief respite for some of the patients when he organises a deep-sea fishing trip away from the hospital, and they have to cope with all kinds of obstacles that threaten to scupper it. Are the loonies managing to function in a sane society, or are they in fact the only sane ones in a mad society where everyone seems out to get them and make their lives miserable?

In some ways McMurphy is a secular version of the Fool for Christ. He plays the part of the silly fool, and the English word “silly” is derived from the Greek saloi, which means blessed.

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Everyone’s talking about Jordan Peterson

It seems that everyone’s talking about Jordan Peterson, including Jordan Peterson.

Jordan Peterson was apparently invited (or, according to some accounts, invited himself) for a visiting fellowship with the Cambridge University Faculty of Divinity, and the invitation was subsequently withdrawn by the university, leading Peterson to get into a snit and invoke a biblical curse on the Cambridge Divinity Faculty, wishing it the obscurity it so richly deserved. In that article he comes across as petulant child having a temper tantrum.

Jordan Peterson

I first heard of Jordan Peterson at our monthly literary coffee klatsch a year ago, and have been debating with myself whether it would be worth the effort to find and read any of his books, and have discovered huge debates about him. It seems that he is a secular guru who is widely (and controversially) discussed in Christian circles, Some seem to regard him as a kind of prophet for our age, while others seem to regard him as a false prophet to be denounced. It seems, from what I’ve heard, that the Cambridge Divinity Faculty are about equally divided on this point.

So I am like Topol in the film Fiddler on the Roof, saying “on the one hand” and “on the other hand”, and being unable to decide.

One thing that prejudices me against Jordan Peterson is that he and another secular guru, Jonathan Haidt, appear to have overlapping fan groups, Saying that they have overlapping fan groups does not necessarily mean that they know each other, or agree with each other, or that they are in cahoots with each other, though since both are engaged in the same discipline (psychology) it is quite possible that they have met. I’m not even sure about their overlapping fan groups — that could be a misperception on my part. What I do know, however, is that Jonathan Haidt promotes a set of values that are very different from Christian values. And I do wonder about the wisdom of Christians running after fashionable Western secular gurus, particularly psychologists.

So I’m still thinking “on the one hand” and “on the other hand”.

On the one hand, why would a Faculty of Divinity invite someone from a different discipline, psychology, as a visiting fellow? Of course one can have interdisciplinary studies, but interdisciplinary studies should surely be founded on something more than celebrity. I am reminded of what another blogger once wrote:

Rational debate about the existence/ non-existence of God, and the ethical implications thereof, is good. It belongs to human dignity to seek to discern what is true.

There is an academic discipline which studies questions such as what constitutes a warranted belief, what religious language ‘means’, whether it has a possible reference and what it means for our conceptions of the good life. That discipline is philosophy. There is also an academic discipline whose remit of study includes the atrocities committed in the name of religion. That discipline is history.

So why, when Channel Four want to air a programme about these issues do they give air-time to a biologist with no training whatsoever in either discipline? Moreover one whose previous pronouncements in this area have only been published because he has piggy-backed on his (justified) scientific reputation and which, considered in their own right, are unworthy of a moderately bright A-level student..

Yet another example of the ignoring of the humanities in mainstream culture and, in spite of the irrationalism of our age, the persistence of the Victorian cult of the polymath scientist. Boo, hiss.

In both cases it seems to have been the celebrity of Peterson and Dawkins that led to the invitation.

On the other hand there is a sense in which theology is too important to be left to the professional academic theologians. Of all academic disciplines, theology should be most open to hearing from those from outside, because theology claims to be the Queen of the Sciences, the one that makes sense of all the others, That gives people like Dawkins and Peterson as much right to make pronouncements on theology as anybody else.

There is another aspect of this particular incident, however, which also seems to be ambivalent, and that is the reasons given for withdrawing the Fellowship at Cambridge — that Peterson’s views were not representative of the student body. That seems to go against the liberal ideal of a university as a place where different views can be vigorously debated, and seems to reflect a growing authoritarian tendency in many universities.

When I was a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg (now UKZN) in the 1960s it was regarded as a liberal institution in a very conservative society. It was, many would say, only comparatively liberal. But even that minimal liberalism seems more liberal than Cambridge University today. Students were open to hearing different views, at least to the extent that the government allowed them to. Every year the local committee of the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) arranged a Reality Week, at which representatives of different political parties were invited to debate on campus. The National Party debated with the Liberal Party. The United Party was too afraid to appear on the same platform as the Progressive Party, so they spoke at separate meetings. The Communist Party, the ANC and the PAC were banned by the government, and so could not appear, but if they had been able to the students would have given them a hearing, as they gave to the others. Even though there was vigorous disagreement, the differing views were heard. At the root of that lay the liberal concept of academic freedom.

Of course there are limits to academic freedom, limits which quacks and loonies sometimes try to push by promoting bogus academic disciplines (one that did a lot of damage in South Africa, whose effects are still felt today, was Fundamental Pedagogics). But Jordan Peterson is not one of those. He’s a professor in a recognised department of a recognised Canadian university. So why is a British university apparently purging people whose views seem to differ from the official party line? Ought a university to have an official party line?

But though I think it bad that people should try to suppress the views of people like Jordan Peterson, I’m still not convinced that I should lash out money on any of his books, Not a good excuse, I suppose, because I did read Dan Brown’s The da Vinci code even though I knew beforehand that it was probably rubbish, and reading it only confirmed that. But mass-market paperbacks are cheaper than academic books. And lest anyone say that a lot of Peterson’s stuff is on YouTube, let me say that I don’t do YouTube because (a) it’s also expensive, like books, (b) it usually tells me my browser doesn’t recognise any of the formats available, and (c) even if it does recognise the format, it’s usually so broken up that I can’t hear it,

Update

Since writing all that stuff above I’ve come across a review that reminds me of the reservations I had about Jordan Peterson when I first heard of him. I had forgotten the lobster factor, which Duncan Reyburn had mentioned at our literary coffee klatch. But this review reminded me of it again: Review: 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson | Kate Manne:

Rule One is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”, to avoid seeming like a “loser lobster”, who shrinks from conflict and grows sad, sickly and loveless – and is prone to keep on losing, which is portrayed as a disaster.

And I recall that that was what made Jordan Peterson’s stuff incompatible with, and indeed contrary to Christian values — it espouses worldly values, like being a winner. It is diametrically opposed to the Beatitudes, which tell us “Blessed are the meek”, but if we follow Peterson’s advice, that is all wrong, because in this world, Blessed are the pushy, for they shall get what they want.

Racism as an Orthodox problem

Someone recently posted a link to an ostensibly Orthodox web site that seems to be pushing a racist and white nationalist agenda. 15,000 White South Africans Flee Racist Persecution, Plan Move to Russia – Russian Faith:

…the whole notion that Boers see Russia as a possible new homeland is telling and it is huge in its implications. It is happening, as I predicted a few years ago, that white Christian peoples (which is by definition–a European root) will increasingly see Russia as their salvation.

The racism in that article is bad enough, but the idolatry is worse. The Orthodox Church teaches salvation in Jesus Christ, not salvation through Russia.

I’ve followed links to the “Russian Faith” web site in the past; it often has pictures of pretty Orthodox Churches, and a veneer of Orthodoxy. But looking to Russia for salvation rather than to Christ really is idolatry. There’s even a Russian word for it, dvoeverie — dual faith, double mindedness. Believing in Christ and something else; putting your faith in Christ and… Christ and Russia; Christ and whiteness; because Christ alone is not enough. Which is perhaps why St James tells us that a double minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8).

So I’ll no longer be following or sharing links to the Russian Faith website on social media, because it seems to be promoting the Russian faith, that is faith in Russia, rather than the Orthodox faith, which is faith in Christ.

In pointing out the errors, the phyletism, the heresy, of web sites like Russian Faith, however, one must be careful not to be sucked into the opposite error — the currently-fashionable Russophobia of the Western media, where anything linked in any way to Russia is seen as ipso facto evil. In the eyes of the Western media, to say that someone has “Russian connections” is enough to damn them. I believe that there is such a thing as Holy Russia, exemplified by countless Russian saints, but Holy Russia was the Russia that followed the Orthodox faith, faith in Christ, not faith in whiteness or in Russia itself.

This is Orthodoxy: the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, His Beatitude Theodoros II, visiting the Diocese of Kisimu in Western Kenya, whose bishop, His Grace Anthanasius (on the Pope’s left), served as a priest in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg and Pretoria for 13 years, and was beloved by all his parishioners, black and white (Photo by Amadiva Athanasios).

Just because this article was sparked off by something posted on a Russian website does not mean that Orthodox Christians who are not Russian are exempt from the danger of falling into heresies like phyletism, I once heard someone say, at coffee after Divine Liturgy at a church in Johannesburg, “The Orthodox Church is not missionary because its purpose is to preserve Greek culture.” And there is that slogan I have heard from many people Hellenism is Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy is Hellenism. That too is phyletism, and dvoeverie.

 

Fathers and sons

Fathers and SonsFathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading about this book for fifty years or more, usually in connection with Nihilism as a worldview. Nihilism: nothing exists, nothing is knowable, nothing has value. A dreary philosophy, perhaps, but one expounded by one of the characters in this novel.

Back when I first heard of it, I was an Anglican, and the description of Nihilism reminded me of the Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity:

Almighty God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal. Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our Lord. Amen.

And so I conceived of a nihilist as someone for whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy. And without God, Nothing is very strong indeed.

This was later reinforced by a computer game called Mazeland, which entailed exploring a monster-filled maze, where one encountered ever more powerful monsters, the most powerful of which was a Nothingness. The game usually ended with the sentence. “The Nothingness hit you 264.76 times. The Nothingness killed you.”

I pictured the book as being in some little winter-bound Russian peasant shack, with father and son shivering in front of the stove having deep philosophical discussions.

Then my son gave me a book voucher for my birthday, and at last I saw the book and bought it.

It utterly failed to live up to my expectations.

It is the story of a couple of university students on their summer vacation. They visit the parents of one, then on their way to visit the parents of the other stop in a town, go to parties, meet interesting people, chat to them, go to the parents of the other, then repeat. On their travels they fall in love, fall out with each other, and do lots of other things that students do on vacation.

This could be any students at any time, but Turgenev manages to describe conversations between the characters that seem to have a hidden meaning, and infuse this picture of everyday student life with something deeper.

At the particular historical juncture in Russia when the story takes place, there was the emancipation of the serfs, and perhaps in South Africa today with all the talk of land reform it rings bells for us in our history too.

I don’t know if Anglicans still use that Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity; I don’t even know if they still have a Fourth Sunday after Trinity. But at the end of the book I wanted to read that collect, and it seems to be the most fitting epilogue to the story. Let the reader understand.

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Conflicted about Trump

This last week has seen lots of controversy involving US President Donald Trump. He has been accused of disrespecting world leaders at the G7 summit. Very undiplomatic.

So there are all these cartoons and photos showing Trump as being immature and childish, and how bad it will be for the USA if he annoys these important world leaders who are supposed to be US Allies.

And then I recall that in the past when these G(numeral) summits have been held there have been massive protest demonstrations at the summit venues, which have tended to be very disrespectful towards the gathered world leaders. I don’t recall reading about such demonstrations this time. Perhaps they were there, but if they were, the media didn’t report on them much. According to the media reports, the one carrying the anti-globalisation flag this time was none other than the much-despised Donald Trump.

Now Trump is meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

And on TV there is this bloke complaining bitterly that Trump is not going to demand that North Korea give up nuclear weapons totally and unconditionally  Not that he expects that the US would offer to give up nuclear weapons unconditionally itself as a quid pro quo. That seems to be quite unthinkable in the eyes of the media pontificators. Previous US presidents were criticised for being too imperialistic, but now Donald Trump is being criticised for not being imperialist enough.

So if a world leader like Donald Trump does the right thing for the wrong reasons, is he any worse than his predecessors who did the wrong thing for the “right” reasons — like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair with their “humanitarian” wars?

 

Between mountains

Between MountainsBetween Mountains by Maggie Helwig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At one level this is a love story. Daniel is a journalist who has been reporting on the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession. He meets Ljilja, who is an interpreter at the war crimes tribunal at the Hague. One of her professional obligations is confidentiality, she should not speak to journalists about anything she hears. And Daniel’s obligation as a journalist is to report what happens, while protecting his sources. They are attracted to each other, but their professional obligations are in conflict.

Once a month a small group of us meet at a cafe for informal discussions of Christianity and literature and when we met last week my wife Val mentioned this book, which she had just finished reading. I’ve already mentioned some of the things that struck her in a report on that gathering here Neoinklings: alienation and otherness | Khanya. One of the bits she read out at the gathering was about the Orthodox monks at Decani in Kosovo, who gave asylum to those fleeing from the violence, and urging people to talk instead of fighting.

And that is really what the book is about — the inability to communicate, which breaks down into violence.

One of the things that struck me, and which is alluded to in the book in passing, is that at the very time when South Africa was turning from violent confrontation to talking, and abandoning apartheid, much of Eastern Europe was going in the opposite direction. I’ve also dealt with this more fully in this article Nationalism, violence and reconciliation, which I think also gives some of the background story for this novel. And so the book rings true.

I recall a member of our church, a school teacher who originally came from Dubrovnik, whose father was an Orthodox priest, saying that people she had grown up with and gone to school with, whom she had regarded as friends and neighbours, would no longer talk to her, no longer answer her letters, because of the hatred being fostered between different ethnic groups.

And the descriptions of those rising ethnic barriers captured for me the essence of the spirit of apartheid. Yugoslavia was entering a nightmare that we were just leaving. One of the characters, accused of war crimes and awaiting trial…

He had felt the cold clear satisfaction of a job done well, the decisive pleasure of colours shifting on a map, the weight of a gun at his waist. But only because it had to happen, there was a force of history behind him, if it had not been him it would have been someone else, anyone else, history would have its way.

And I could picture the apartheid apparatchik in his office in Pretoria, looking at his map with satisfaction on receiving a report of these people moved from that area, those people moved to this place, as the territory and its population changed to conform to the Platonic ideal of a map in his office.

And again the same character in the novel, echoing the same faceless bureaucrat in Pretoria:

To be able to say, I will draw this line here, and these people will be on the other side of it. Apart from us. So that we can be alone, and pure and safe, and these people will be the darkness of the other side. No one who has not had this chance could understand the sweep of it. The exaltation.

And there it is again, the essence of the unclean spirit of apartheid, exorcised from South Africa, moving to the Balkans, but not excluding the possibility of returning. No, not at all.

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