East West Street, Philippe Sands

The shared humanity that binds us has had a few moments when all hope seems lost. Humanities ability to be inhumane is well documented; none more so than the Nazi era. There is no series of events that have shaped every aspect of culture for so many. It still lingers through art, literature and film. And here Sands passionately and elegantly with how the people and their actions of Nazi Germany helped shape international human rights, international treaties on genocide and set precedents for laws protecting the individual from the state and groups from other groups. The only good thing coming from the close to 20 year period of Nazi influence over Europe? Perhaps. 

Sands maps a personal and professional connection from Polish-German-Ukraianian-Russian city of Lviv through World War I, the Great Depression, through the early days of Hitler and the subsequent human crisis of World War II. The deeply personal connections are so well drawn showcase how we are all interconnected and if only we realised this deep connection could we prevent what was to come. 

This is deeply satisfying and sad addition to the story of  a world where Nazism was dominant. I found the legal evolution of crimes against humanity and genocide profound. There’s so much of the language that the Nazi used still being thrown around today- about refugees, about Muslims, about groups against groups. Is there another period of humanities inability to see their connections? 


The Schooldays of Jesus, J.M Coetzee

We join the central character from Coetzee’s 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus, as he strives to adapt to his new country; he continues to question, he continues to inspire and frustrate. It is the simplicity of how Coetzee draws together the people of the town, the intricate details of the dispossed- work, relationship, art and confronting the world as if for the first time.

Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of Coetzee’s characters; unlike his earlier novels it is the unseen, the unanswered that is the cause of fear. This isn’t violently confronting like Disgrace or as sparse as The Life and Times of Michael K. You can’t forget what he has written before. But you don’t have to hold this novel within the Coetzee canon. And that’s what some may forget: if this wasn’t written by Coetzee, what would you think of it?

Simon and Ines, after taking serious risks for David settle that they don’t have to be together just for the boy. When their entire lives revolve around David, they forget themselves. He sucks all air out if them. It is reaction- to turn to the assistant at the museum that see the majority of the plot flow together. 

David and Demtri’s relationship is preverse. What is it that he sees in the boy? What is the effect on each character? Demtri recurs throughout the novel- provoking, speaking for and of David. 

As poetic as ever, Coetzee creates an eccentric and spellbinding world. 

The Children Act, Ian McEwan

London. Trinity term one week old. Implacable June weather.

So begins Ian McEwan’s 2014 novel The Children Act. More of a novella, at just 213 pages, other writers may try to pack as much into a 500 page epic. That’s the beauty of McEwan, his simplicity, his respect for elegant prose. McEwan always writes on different levels. Each exists in a reformed, but as vibrant London as ever. Here like other McEwan novels (see Atonement or Sweet Tooth), a female character is at the centre of period of just a year. Within that year, High Court June’s personal, martial and work life is transformed.

She entered, the court rose, she sat and watched the parties below her settle. At her elbow was a slim pile of creamy white paper beside which she laid down her pen. It was only then, at the sight of these clean sheets, that the last traces, the stain of her own situation vanished completely. She no longer had a private life, she was ready to be absorbed.

Fiona is one of the most compelling characters in any novel. I did wonder if McEwan had read Tim Winton’s Eyrie. Both have female characters that are compassionate, successful, brilliant in their careers. As a male, McEwan has this ability to write female characters. He allows for flaws without hysterics or at the fault of the males.

The high-ceiling end Victorian ward was clean and orderly, the frightening ward sister protective towards her youngest patient…

For Fiona, there is Jack. Her academic husband, while not as ambitious, a success in his field. He sips from a drink as he proposes an open marriage. This brilliant person, a highly successful barrister, a member of a esteemed group of people on the High Court, ironically specialising in family law, feels her marriage falling apart. Her reaction? Go for it, but don’t live here.

Professional and social madness. In memory, the actual contact, flesh on flesh, tended to extend in time.

Fiona throws herself into work. It consumes the same afternoon of the proposal. The legalese flows effortlessly from McEwan. His novels are always rich with his research. His basis for the case at the centre of the novel is based upon two case on either side of the turn of the century. This case is different for Fiona. Religion and her own childless marriage intersect. She has to make a choice for a young man with cancer. His religion says he can’t have the blood transfusion that would save his life.

At least he was no longer saying he loved her.

The novel completes an entire cycle. Nephews and nieces visit Fiona and Jack. She travels north to sit on cases involving the ‘greedy and the greedy.’ All the while, the boy with cancer, now recovered and questioning his parents indoctrination, communicates with her. The letters and poetry do not receive reply, but to say they are forgotten by Fiona would dismiss her analysis of the words for her.

She was beyond speech and the crying would not to stop and she could not bear any longer to be seen.

The last part of the novel is surreal triumph. Music and the interlinking world of law coming together. Fiona, still a beacon of strength and integrity, plays for her peers. Her performance gains a standing ovation. No matter what moves in her private life or the news of Adam can match the room flowing from beneath the stage and her fingers on the piano.

A novel of faith and community. As Fiona says no child is an island, the welfare of one is the matter of all. The act of adults, no matter their religion or background are excused from that fact.

Underground, Andrew McGahan

Leo is the Prime Minister’s older brother, by fifteen minutes.

Of course, the state of emergency was only supposed to last until things settled down again. But here we are, two years later, and it’s still in force.

The city of Canberra- that one of porn, public servants and roundabouts has been destroyed by a nuclear bomb. Of course, a Muslim group is to blame. Soon all prints of democracy are withdrawn. Ghettos of Muslims are created. Walls lock them in. Checkpoints and citizenship tests and ID cards are the norm. ASIO and the Federal Police have been expanded. Freedoms curtailed.

Indeed, if you ask me, we Australians have faced only one real challenge in the last twenty years, and that was the challenge of preserving what the previous generations handed down to us- quite simply, a free country. A small enough thing to ask you’d think. But have we even done that?

Australian literature doesn’t have a rich history of dystopian novels. I can only assume that our recent colonial and post-colonial period and the treatment of the indigenous people means Australians don’t have to create dystopian world of oppression. Not that long ago it was reality for us.

Leo is a prisoner. He begins writing to his interrogators. His first memory is a horrific cyclone named Yusuf. A category five. All around Leo his world of glass, landscaped gardens, white elephant developments, is being broken into tiny little pieces. A perfect metaphor for his Australia.

I see the rise of the new nationalism. I see the declaration of the war on terror. I see the outlawing of refugees. I see security laws pass time and time again, each regime more oppressive than the last. I see dozens of organisations banned. Protesters locked away. Freedoms disappear. Coercion legalised…
But nowhere, anywhere, do I see the Australian people saying no. The monster is silent. We arrived at this position- this George Orwell nightmare- in which we all now live- willingly, it seems.

Australia does not have an Orwell, a Huxley or a PD James. It is rare to see a dystopian Australian novel such as McGahan’s post 9/11 novel. Written at the peak of Howard’s prime ministership, the past week in Australia resonates within every page of Leo’s monologue. With every security warning and announcement of another million dollar anti-terrorism measure and every new military hardware purchase, McGahan’s Australia is not too far from our Australia. A novel of hate, ambiguity and fear.

Life & Times of Michael K

There is a strong sense of the individual and isolation in every sentence of J.M Coetzee’s 1983 novel, Life & Times of Michael K. Michael is a simple, but strong individual. He has a marathon runner’s body. The early scenes with his mother are compassionate, heartfelt and tragic. Coetzee sets up the relationship as one of mutual need. The mother, sick, incapable of moving from the war torn suburb relies upon her son. Michael continues his daily routine, he keeps going to work in the midst of the creeping war. After some failure and being forced back by nameless soldiers, he finds himself on the road to his mother’s home land. 

When dusk fell he broke from the road, crossed a fence, and found a place for the night in a dry rover-course. He made a fire and ate the second can of beans. He slept close to the embers, oblivious of the night noises, the tiny scurryings across the pebbles, the rustle of feathers in the trees.

The evocative images of Michael’s journey across the veld are deft touches of poetry; the understated tone, the simple prose of Coetzee makes the landscape live beyond the assumed African context. The mother and son moving around troop movements, through check points, avoiding other humans could easily be current day Syria or Iraq. Refugees in their own country, the pull of his mother’s home land draws Michael through every moment of everyday.

He gazed up at the ceiling for a long while, like an old man consulting the spirits, then spoke. ‘My mother worked all her life long,’ he said. ‘She scrubbed over people’s floors, she cooked food for them, she washer their dishes. She washed their dirty clothes. She scrubbed the bath after them. She went on her knees and cleaned the toilet. But when she was old and sick they forgot her, They put her away out of sight, When she died they threw her in the fire…’

Michael finds himself in detention. Accused without evidence of being a terrorist, of leading attacks. These images provoke the constant smell of political fear. The concentration camps are akin to those of the South African War and every war since. I can imagine Coetzee reading by the window in Adelaide and thinking of the camps set up in our name. Those camps have their own Michael K, some of the poorest people in the world, fleeing like Michael, only to be locked up. The passages from the point of view of the nurse are some of the most compelling pages. Her humanity within the system that dehumanises the individual contrasts with the brutal layer of inhumanity.

He thought of the farm, the grey thornbushes, the rocky soil, the ring of hills, the mountains purple and pink in the distance, the great still of blue empty sky, the earth grey and brown beneath the sun save here and there, where of you looked carefully you suddenly saw a tip of vivid green, pumpkin leaf or carrot-brush.

Look who’s Back, Timur Vermes

With the provocative cover and premise, this novel has been a commercial success in the writer’s native Germany. Vermes, a journalist, has a simple style; it is the fact that the narrator is Hitler that is so enticing.

Evidently the television set had realised that I had been watching other broadcasts in the meantime, for a narrator now summarised what I had missed.

Hitler awakes in Berlin, 2011. The simpleton voice, the arrogance, the cliche is easily mimicked by Vermes. What is most disturbing is that Hitler’s critique of society-from the mindless repetitive tv, the constant flicking of mobile phones, the attacks on the political class and journalism- begins to haunt the reader: you will find yourself to start to begin to agree with the Fuhrer. Finding yourself agreeing with Hitler isn’t funny.

There was not a single man on the left who knew how to smash a beer tankard against the skull of his political opponent…

The best satire- Catch 22, 1984, Animal Farm etc- is remembered because of one the fact: the art is close to the truth. People are easily persuaded. The cult of celebrity isn’t new; Hitler was first a populist, he told people what they wanted to hear. The Fuhrer hasn’t changed; his racial overtones are harsh, childish; but can be heard in how some politicians can say that refugees are clogging the roads in Sydney, or how people will still refer to half/quarter blood. His monotone diatribes full of xenophobia, a distaste for females in positions of power, hatred of science and any one with a different political stance is the same recipe used by shock jocks and the Murdoch press in Australia.

This Hitler, a product of the First World War, the depression, adapts seamlessly into the 21st century. A question that arise early is just that, without the same political, economic and social pressures, would Hitler be different in this era? No. Vermes allows Hitler to pick the mood with ease, pulling the most basic strings of fear that may be real or perceived. Hitler rejoices with the modern propaganda. Working under the thin disguise of a comedian, Hitler proclaims he is:

a standard bearer for the broadest freedoms of opinion and speech…

That must resonated: a man full of failings, hatred, without talent or substance, promoting his bigotry as the ultimate freedom of speech.

This is a clever novel; it is a powerful deconstruction of the 21st century; while the Hitler does not start building concentration or death camps, the ease of the new followers, convinced that clinging to Hitler will bring commercial gains is a sad statement on fame and the media. However that would be too simple as Hitler points out the Final Solution was one of two things:

“Either there was a whole Volk full of bastards. Or what happened was not the act of bastards, but the will of the Volk.”

That politicians still demonise the poor, evoke the basic perceived fears around xenophobia, deny science, lie and cheat. This says more about the citizens than about the politicians.

The Plot Against America, Philip Roth

…a long-standing member of the great overpowering majority that fought the Revolution and founded the nation and conquered the wilderness and subjugated the Indian and enslaved the Negro and emancipated the Negro and segregated the Negro, one of the good, learn, hard-working Christian millions who settled the frontier, tilled the farms, built the cities, governed the states, sat in Congress, occupied the White House, amassed the wealth, possessed the land, owned the steel mills and the ball clubs and the railroads and the banks, even owned and oversaw the language, one of those unassailable Nordic and Anglo-Saxon Protestants who ran America and would always run it- generals, dignitaries, magnates, tycoons, the men who laid down the law and called the shots and read the riot act when they chose to- while my father, of course, was only a Jew.

Through the fictional eyes of a Philip Roth, a Jewish family is describes in vivid detail. Philip’s innocence when describing his older brother Sandy, his insurance sales man father and stoic mother has the backdrop of the frantic period of 1940’s America.

The live in Newark, in a Jewish community, surrounded by characters that hover around the fear of the anti-Semitic few. This is Roosevelt’s America, there is still racism and a fear of a repeat of world war 1 and the Great Depression. The voices are captured with the ease of a veteran writer. Roth, the writer, not the character, is the consummate professional.

The Nazi stain transcends the Atlantic when the charming Charles A. Lindbergh is elected president. The constant fear, often silent steps around a boy growing up in the suburbs, is precise and realistic.

…harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.

The America is one of isolation and narrow minded leaders. The US stays out of the war in Europe, Nazi leaders visit the White House. Only a few Jew speak against the tide of hate. I found the mother figure comforting, the glue. A brilliant depiction of an all American woman.

A novel for a post-9/11 America, an America of Obama and Fox News; it tells us so much about that period-of course, it is fiction- but it tells us more about now and how fear is still used to incite and control.