21 lessons for the 21st century by Yuval Noah Harari (Jonathan Cape)

21lessons

“In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power”

YUVAL – after three books I feel we are on first person terms – has a political yardstick of communism, liberalism and fascism, which is fair enough, although as he opines here all three tenets have somehow flunked out leaving us  – the literate, book buying elite that remains – faced with an option worse than all three, no faith, no religion, at all, nihilism in fact. Bewilderment at world events.

Yuval is not against breaking out of these political constraints as if he also has other accepted beliefs like faith, empathy, sympathy, compassion, friendship, companionship, veganism, existentialism even, all safely locked up in his own personal larder, thank you very much. And then there is the question of when he says we, does he really mean we, as in me, as in readers in general, as in you/us, as in us undergraduates enrolled in the university of Harari? Or is he writing for some superhuman human, (as predicted by Stephen Hawking) about to inherit the planet, or perhaps he is applying for a job, major domo to said future superman/woman. It is a point Yuval touches on as we go along. The question of identity.

Which also asks the question if thought or thinking can alter the course of say climate change or any other foreseen calamity? Knowing there were Nazis around the corner did not stop them coming around and killing those of a non arian persuasions. We know about climate change, but what to do? Our parochial national political frameworks were not designed for such challenges.

Is there a point that for some, perhaps for most us, all this is irrelevant because we will be washed away anyway? Yuval set out as some liberal samurai but as time has passed – he cities Trump and Brexit as axiomatic truths of the modern era and if Russia did not meddle in those elections he takes it as a given someone will soon – events are upon us, or if not us, then somebody else. It is not such a comfortable perspective if you were/are looking from the Middle East or China or Asia or Russia…or in Palu. Are these just lessons for the affluent? For decision makers?

That said there is a certain flattering frisson in being treated as a master of the universe. Bask in this great sunshine of academia. Read this on a park bench to reassure others that you have things under control. You are taking here accepted texts. Be Moses for a day. Be an intellectual. Buy a life raft tomorrow…move to New Zealand, southern island.

The point of departure as Yuval looks into the future is bewilderment. Accept that life is complicated. Let us not be daunted. That just maybe machines and algorithms might help. And then we move into potential impacts, AI on jobs, algorithms in medicine, compassion as in nursing or looking after the elderly may it seems may still survive as new jobs. Some of this is not so new at all I suspect to many of us for whom Amazon is already busy supplying us with new reading suggestions each week and whose smart phones are hacked by advertisements of just the right saucepan that I did not know I needed but do now.

How much better might it be if Amazon’s algorithm might also suggest new partners for us based on our buying choices? Or a new more suitable job? Maybe Amazon’s big A could do it better because, as he points, out although we make a big deal of our free will, we as humans, don’t always make particularly good choices of career, loved ones or anything else however precious we regard our notional freedom of choice. Progress. The difficult part, he unnervingly suggests, is we are not very good with changes as radical as those in the pipeline.

“Democracy in its present form cannot survive the merger of biotech and infotech,” he points out. There are intricate reasons for this assertion but in one explanation it is globalization, which on the one hand horizontally speaking brings down borders between countries but on the other perspective, the vertical, it reduces each of us to anonymous, potentially irrelevant cogs depending on our access or ability to afford to Big Data. And that is the nub. Who owns the data? And what will they use it for?

The pleasing thing amid all this nervousness is that Yuval is wonderfully articulate, like an engine driver pulling us passengers along. Toot Toot. The nearest thing that I can ascribe to this towering piece of thinking is that he has become the Karl Marx of our day.

 

 

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Colour by Victoria Finlay (Random)

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“I had thought, when I set out on my travels – when I first tumbled through that paintbox – that I would somehow find, in the original stories of colours, something pure.”

THE many journeys Finlay undertakes in search of the sources of her artists’ colours mark this history as more than just a text book, rather it is a very visual, very personal, romance. She etches the characters she meets in like a painter herself brushing in a minor person in the crowd – the lonely Afghan lapis miner who replies to her question of what was the best time of his life: when my wife and I were newly wed and locked together like horses.

Like a great war reporter she spends as much time getting permissions and visas to travel to her sources in her great, global quest. She brings an artist’s eye to her expositions along with the histories of colours, now synthetically made but back in the day each had to be ground out in the chemist’s workshop to blend natural minerals and compounds that lie behind the perfect names on pencil shafts like cadmium red or the Persian blue so familiar now from Ming vases and which of course are the mark of all the great art before 1900. Finding colour at all was more than half the job of the apprentices, some concoctions were so extreme like orpiment or Chinese yellow they could be deadly. There was so much arsenic laced into the green and yellow of Napoleon’s bedroom wallpaper, it may even have killed him.

Finlay recites her father taking her to Chartres cathedral and pointing out a piece of blue stained glass as her point of inspiration. And then. “Dutch pink: a fugitive yellow lake made from buckthorn ‘made me swoon with its paradox, I was smitten’”.

So we embark on an odyssey starting in the Vatican archives, then to northern Australia for ochre and the morbid, tangled, shady history of Aboriginal masterpieces – a much more detailed and enlightening exposition than BBC4’s recent attempt – and so on, for each part of the globe has its own secret hue.

Not all is what it might seem, black for example. “In Claude Monet’s Gare Saint-Lazare, the pitch black locomotives in his busy station are actually made up of extremely vivid colours – including bright vermillion red, French ultramarine blue, and emerald green”. Conservationists have revealed he hardly used any black pigment at all.

And then for yellow, we are in Bihar, which may have been the start of painting as we know it, to validate if the source of the famous Indian yellow could really be from the urine of cows fed on mango leaves. That proves a riddle too far. For saffron we start in Kashmir, move up to Tibet, then to La Mancha and back to Saffron Walden where it arrived in the middle ages perhaps in a pilgrim’s hat but died out by 1790, to Iran now the world’s biggest supplier, all the time looking for a delicate flower that only blooms for a day a year, the lowly crocus, and has to be harvested in the morning.

Not only does she have a zeal for her subject and a traveller’s eye for the people she meets but she also has a way with words themselves:

“It is an irony that the old silk roads are the least smooth pathways in the world. In rocky road hierarchies this one was king, and our Soviet jeep had been protesting in a language of clonks and crunches for some hours. Some of the gradients against which the engine would curse in its diesel-fumed Russian were so seemingly impossible that it was a miracle we achieved them each time”.

The history of an everyday craft, a singular human activity, that brings our world, our collective struggles and achievements to light.

 

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The gallows pole by Benjamin Myers (Bluemoose)

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“Soot and ash. Snot and spume. Quag and sump and clotted moss. Loam.”

THE opening playful poetry should not distract you… we are off to a flying start, it is 1767, we are on a secret errand, we pass the tortured body of the poacher hung for taking a stag, Mrs Hartley is pleasuring her husband and then we are accosted in the road by a menacing boy with a slingshot plus we already know that this is the stuff of legend, a real story even, from around the valleys of Halifax…

The language is rich and poetic. This is describing the local butcher

“How is that corn-mouthed, collop bollocked, jug eared bastard?”

It is akin to His Bloody Project but in technicolour with surround sound. It won the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction but did not make the Man Booker short list last year, which seems a bad aberration.

I might accept it is not necessarily a book for everyone. It sides with the visceral, the raw. The violence is Shakespearean. Women do not get much of a look in, but are canny enough to stash their savings in the chicken coop. This is a man’s world, as it might well have been. This is Deadwood, only it is Halifax, Yorkshire, a century before. You might imagine it being spun in a snug over a few pints of beer. A film version I hear is in the pipeline, a compelling thought which won’t have to drill as deep as the novel into the guts and grime.

The history is slipped in carefully, talk of the mills and industrialization, the arrival of the turnpike, these are free men of the moors whose world is being appropriated. Insurrection is in the air.

The writing is rich, leathery, brambly because more than everything, towering over everyone are the moors themselves, animated, lusted after, reducing men as in Ben’s dad the charcoal burner to mere smoke.

Try this passage

“Autumn arrived like a burning ghost ship on the landscape’s tide…the ravens took flight to the highest climes as leaves fell like flung bodies..

Or this one in the Red Lion…

“The sharp sting of several types of smoke scented he air: the burned leaves of a bonfire, the greasy oil smoke of the hanging lanterns and the narrow plumes from clay pipes that clicked against black and broken teeth”.

Myers catches a very northern idiom, of men coming together, his characters breathe, they have names, they have desires. Academics could tease out a parallel with the Bible and Judas, or even a contemporary Brexit style we-want-to-take-control. It is multi layered, an immersive travelogue down a time shaft to less comfortable world.

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Normal People by Sally Rooney (Faber)

sallyrooney
“Marianne amswers the door when Connell rings the bell.”

BY coincidence I heard a radio broadcast where a well known doctor admitted to flunking out of Oxford because of an unhappy love affair and where the plot details do not match we are in the same ballpark, a contemporary teenage-student love affair. For a moment in the opening pages you might think you had picked a copy of the Four Mary’s transferred to the small town of Carricklea in Ireland, but Rooney quickly grows up into her characters as they move from school to Trinity College, Dublin. The normal are the other people, supposedly.

Marianne and Connor are not normal, intelligent, distant, studious. She lives in the big house where his mum is the cleaner, the rather lovely Lorraine. Marianne has no friends, reads books, gets A grades, Connor reads books and plays centre forward for the school team. Rooney herself has a bit more of a crush on Connor and forgives him his moody foibles rather more quickly than she does Marianne who has a dark side apparently, or so we are told, though she does not give much away herself. She is almost without emotion but in its place she has a need for reassurance. It is a small town in Ireland and they keep their feelings to themselves, united in awkwardness and brilliance which lends their conversations a certain crackle beyond the nervous intensity of their friendship. Like Ondaatje’s Warlight it did not make the cut for the short list of the Man Booker 2018, which is a shame. for me both would have been a worthy, popular contenders.

There is a stinging rebuke of literature in universities towards the end: “A lot of literary people in college see books primarily as a way of feeling cultured…culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys…” The Man Booker comes to mind, a subject I will return to next week with an analysis of a book that was not shortlisted last year but which demonstrably has more virtues and depth than the actual winner.

Rooney has a natural, fresh ease with words and story so much that though you probably would not, if you were competitive, want to share a literature class with her because she would surely walk off with the prize for the best Day-in-the-life-of-a-£1-coin prize or whatever fiction titles are in use these days.

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The shepherd’s hut by Tim Winton (Picador)

shepherds hut

“When I hit the bitumen and get that smooth grey rumble going under me everything’s hell different”

THERE is a sticker on my edition proclaiming that this has been a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime, which is a bit odd, Winton being more of a pirate radio of a writer and I am not so sure this is really late night reading unless you like the feeling of hunkering down by the salt lakes. One of Winton’s strengths is opening up the western Australian outback and in a sense this is an Aussie western complete with metaphysical Christian allegorical finale. The first part is told in a series of violent flashbacks, the second part we are on the run through the salmon gums. And like in a western it has an easy going, bad arse first person narrative. On the surface nothing much is happening only go a little deeper and there is a psychological purging afoot. All good movie materials with tough-as-boots characters central to which is teenage Jaxie Clackton, butcher’s boy, abused, delinquent, feral, on the run, in the wild, a lost soul facing up to his own demons and staring down those in the bush. All for the love of Lee who is a character and half herself. The openings of each chapterette give a feel for the pace and style:

“The day the old life ended…

”Being a cheap bastard is what killed him…

“First two days I stayed right away from the highway”.

His prose is like a prize fighter with short jabs moving around the plot, ducking and diving through a bunch of memories and a faint glint of glory ahead. Jaxie joins a short, estimable literary list of tearway teens as defined by Holden Caulfield in Jerome David Salinger’s in Catcher in the Rye, although he is a lot more punk than the country rock band feel of the last book of Winton’s I reviewed in Dirt Music which has a different feel of another kind of journey…

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Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (Jonathan Cape)

 

warlight

“In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.”

 

I RECOMMEND that you do not read too many reviews of this brilliant contender for the Man Booker 2018 prize. Or even listen in to the chat that will surround its nomination. The story telling is so careful and intense that even straying a few pages into the novel to offer a synopsis or too much flavour might spoil the enjoyment. The context is brilliantly researched. Post world war 2, London is all moody and foggy and filled with dodgy characters on the make. The dog track and the river are early themes. Like Ondaatje’s Booker of Booker winning title the English Patient he pulls back the sheets on an obscure, unobserved corner of the the theatre of war which he colours in precisely before pulling out slowly for the big picture.

London is emerging from the wounds of the blitz. At the centre we have the teenage Nathaniel and his sister Rachel roaming pretty much as feral kids in the rubble and underworld. He gives us an early clue – everyone has nicknames, so may not be quite who they seem. Nathaniel likes maps, to draw things as they are, to sketch in the world that lives in the boundaries. He is a selfish, driven adolescent which sort of serves to blinker the narrative rather cleverly.

 “I felt I was a caterpillar changing colour, precariously balanced, moving from one species of leaf to another.”

And he is joined in this murky, half world by the man the children refer to as the Moth and the former boxer, The Darter, Pimlico’s formerly finest and his girlfriends and the lovely waitress Agnes whose name is not really Agnes at all.

The opening 100 pages or so drift masterfully creating a rich overture that might swerve in any direction…anyone looking to write could/should  jump into a few chapters. Here is a short sample of the children’s new housemate:

“For a private man who loved classical music…he had the loudest of sneezes. Bursts of air were expelled not just from his face but seemed to originate from the depths of that large and friendly stomach…late at night they could be heard, fully articulate, travelling down from the attic rooms as if he were some trained actor whose stage whispers could reach the furthest row.”

Outstanding.

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The president’s hat by Antoine Laurain (Gallic)

“Daniel Mercier went up the stairs at Gare Saint-Lazare as the crowd surged down.”

 

THE hat in question – and in the original French edition – belongs to president Francois Mitterand.

It is probably just coincidence that two of France’s notable novels of the last few years have featured the socialist president with enhanced, almost mystical qualities but it underlines the point that French writers are more interested in contemporary political allegories. Mitterand also feaurues as a lynchpin in Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language. Here Laurain uses a simple fable-like conceit of the missing hat to draw the fault lines through the Gallic political landscape: The horror of old school aristocrats at the rise of socialism at all and the left wing associations not so much with the workers but with artists and the moneyed media. From the quotes that adorn my copy I am not sure English reviewers actually get that point.

But as with his Red Notebook, Laurain manages to tell a light hearted tale that mixes mystical powers ascribed to the hat itself and its wearer with a nuanced and structured pastiche of modern society linking a financier to a mistress to a failed perfumer in therapy and finally a businessman each in their own way finding salvation or nirvana in the wearing of the missing hat and draw out an alternative politic. Curiously each of the different characters is voiced by different translators in Louise Rogers Lalaurie, Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken. Chapeau as the French say. Good fun but with a sinister twist at the end.

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