Archive for the 'history' Category

Literature and Auschwitz

January 23, 2020

61LxMjuBImL._AC_UY218_ML3_  71l2--J+pSL._AC_UY218_ML3_  91Zrixmwg7L._AC_UY218_ML3_   An article by Dan Jacobson in The Guardian about Auschwitz appearing in the titles of many works of fiction, as well as my distaste upon reading that someone had decided it would be a good thing to colourise the film made at the time of the liberation of the extermination camp by the Soviet Army, crystallised the idea of this post. The 75th anniversary of the liberation comes up shortly, of course, hence the media attention.

I visited Auschwitz half a century ago, at the age of fifteen. It’s an experience I’ve never forgotten, never can and never should. Heaven only knows what my sisters, even younger than me, made of it, but I firmly believe my father was right to take us. At the time it was used as a piece of Soviet propaganda, with a stark memorial claiming that four and a half million people had been killed there (nowadays the figure is more accurately put at more than a million) and the focus was not on remembering extermination of Jews but extermination of human beings.

That last is an interesting point. It is well-known that the Nazis attempted to eliminate European Jewry; less-known that in Eastern Europe everyone’s life was cheap, if not of no value, and there is documentation pointing to the fact that after the Jews, and after an eventual German victory in the war, the Poles and Russians were next on the list for elimination. Read Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, set in a world where Jews are only a historical memory. Six million Jews were murdered; six million Polish citizens were killed in the war.

I have always felt that the use of the word ‘Holocaust’ (which only came into wide use after the film Schindler’s List) somehow both shifts the focus away from the viewing of groups of people as subhuman and also in a way sanitises what the Nazis did: most of the killings took place not in extermination camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka but in nameless fields, forests and ditches in the vast depths of eastern Poland (as it then was), the Ukraine and the Soviet Union. The previous term used was ‘Final Solution’ which was what the Nazis called their approach to dealing with the Jewish population of Europe; that also hides enormity behind a euphemism. Above all we need to remember that the Second World War, started by the Nazis, led directly and indirectly to the death of over fifty million people…

Somehow an awful place like Auschwitz has now become another stop on a tourist trail, and there is plenty of documentation of appalling behaviour there by unthinking visitors. And yet, people must continue to go there, and the horrors which that place symbolises must not be forgotten. Which brings me back to Jacobson’s article, and writings about Auschwitz.

There has been much written in terms of history and personal memoirs, very little (until recently) in the way of fiction. And that has seemed appropriate, to me at least: to try and use one’s creative imagination focused on such matters appear perverse, in a way. And somehow, the idea of marketing a book because it has the ‘A’ word in the title is just wrong. I used The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne once as a class reader while teaching; it may have been a brave attempt at bringing the subject within the scope of school age children, but it was too toe-curling for me. Hans Peter Richter’s Friedrich was a much more powerful introduction to the topic.

I found Schindler’s Ark, by Thomas Kenneally, a very powerful read, but have never wanted to bring myself to watch the film; I was very moved by André Schwartz-Bart’s The Last of The Just, which traces a Jewish line down through generations until it is eliminated at Auschwitz. Vassily Grossman treads lightly in his novels Stalingrad and Life and Fate, and the result is very effective: the hero Lev Shtrum is haunted throughout by the death of his mother who was unable to flee the German advance whilst he was; he learns that she ended up dead in a mass grave, and he cannot forget this. Grossman is unremittingly truthful in his factual, journalist’s account of the liberation of the Treblinka extermination camp site by the Soviet Army.

Finally, I must mention Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) again. The opening chapters are truly horrific; a Nazi witnesses the blood and guts and the utter chaos on the Eastern Front as the extermination of the Jews in the East begins. It is mayhem, the stuff of nightmares, and the dedicated Nazi is determined that there must be a better, more efficient way to carry out the Final Solution.

Where I get to in my reflections on this appalling chapter of European history is that it must be taught so that it may never happen again, also that the events and the reasons (?) behind them are far more complex than most people can know, or admit or understand, and that there are people who will attempt to turn a profit or make political propaganda out of it. If it were possible, my view of our species is further diminished.

A tragedy and a shame

January 18, 2020

I was just about to turn 18 when the UK joined the Common Market in 1973. So I have lived my entire adult life (so far) as a European citizen, and have always thought of myself as European first, and English/Polish second. I will also admit, to my shame, that, swayed by Trotskyite propaganda, I voted for us to leave the Common Market in the 1975 referendum.

Shortly, against my will, I will cease to be an EU citizen. To all of my readers in Europe I say that for me this is a tragedy. In my years of travelling, pretty much all of which has been in Europe, I have grown to know and appreciate what we have in common as well as how we differ from each other as individual nations, and what we share feels so much greater than what separates or divides us. I have also learned the deeper meaning of the European project and its symbolism for those nations on the European mainland who suffered so much during the two world wars of the last century: this is at the root of Britain’s fateful decision to leave. We have never been occupied; we have not experienced such horrors as Auschwitz, Lidice or Oradour-sur-Glane on our soil.

There are times when I have felt that the EU was basically a neoliberal capitalist club; those aspects still anger me. And yet, the EU is not the unbridled capitalist chaos that is the USA, nor the thinly disguised dictatorship that is Russia, nor the surveillance and pollution nightmare that China seems to be; it is a wavering outpost of social-democratic, welfare state society that by and large seems still to espouse some of the freedoms and decencies hard-won after two world wars on its soil.

And so I do regard our departure as tragic.

But it is also a matter of national shame. Such a major decision, the full implications of which are still unknown, and the full effects of which will take several years to become clear, was taken by a minority of the electorate; in the recent election which allowed the steamroller to proceed, far more voters supported remain parties than those advocating departure: that is all history now, except for the disgrace that is our electoral system, and the disgrace of the liars who manipulated, cheated and deceived the nation’s voters.

Once we were a nation with a huge empire, built on conquest, racism and slavery. The price of US assistance in the last world war was the relinquishing of that empire. And yet, shamefully, we still try and behave like a world power, when we are only a small island off the coast of a continent, and now of far less importance, significance or influence than we have been for the last half-century or so. We are a country living in the past, unwilling to look at, never mind embrace the future. We can blame politicians of all hues for failing to engage with the European project properly, when, given our economic weight, we might have a major influence on the shape of the entire project.

So, shortly, our country severs the ties. I don’t accept that rupture. I will not ‘get over it’. I will not ‘make friends’ with the liars, idiots and crooks who engineered it all. I shall continue to see myself as a European first, I shall continue my travels in Europe and my encounters with its people for as long as I am able, and, as I always have done (bar that 1975 aberration) I shall continue to argue the case for the UK being a part of it all.

Friendly greetings to all my European readers!

Jozef Wittlin: The Salt of the Earth

January 18, 2020

71dXN6lPj0L._AC_UY218_ML3_   Yet another novel about the First World War that I didn’t know about, by a Polish author who wrote it in the mid-1930s. It was the first part of a trilogy the other two books of which were lost during the Second World War; only a fragment of the second book survives and is printed at the end of this novel.

Wittlin is as effective as Joseph Roth at conveying the send of the end of an era; there is a similar feeling to that evoked by Roth’s novels, The Radetzky March and The Emperor’s Tomb. Hindsight tells us the Austro-Hungarian empire and monarchy will not survive the coming years’ mayhem, and the overall atmosphere of the novel is dreamlike, trance-like, almost hypnotic as the immense wheels of war gradually grind into motion and begin to transform everyone’s world. It’s unnerving, because the overwhelming sense is of a world in mass movement, where individuals are completely swamped, overwhelmed by what is happening: it is completely beyond their comprehension.

There is a deliberate, calculated naivete in the narrative style, which reinforces the silliness, the stupidity of the war itself, and also the participants’ incomprehension of it all.

In and among the mass, individuals emerge: the hero is Piotr, an illiterate Hutsul peasant, not very bright. We grow to like this simpleton in just the same way as we grow to love Jaroslav Hašek’s idiot hero Švejk, and yet the two could not be more different in the presentation, with Švejk’s effectiveness coming through the comedy of the chaos which he sows everywhere he goes, and Piotr’s coming from his innocence and genuine love of life, his simplicity and earthiness. Other characters are the Jewish doctor with the inferiority complex at the draft board, and later on the regimental Sergeant Major who lives his life for drilling new recruits. Both of these might also have made very good comic characters in the hands of a Hašek; here instead Wittlin poignantly brings out their humanity, and we feel pity for them.

The unnaturalness of war in the way it uproots people from their lives comes across very effectively in the lengthy train journey from the end of nowhere, the very edge of the empire, to the training camp deep inside Hungary; a babel of different languages adds to the chaotic effect, and there is also the irony that the regiment Piotr is to join is in fact owned by the king of Serbia, who is now, of course, the enemy of the Austro-Hungarian empire…

Out of the mass emerge individuals, then, to help us identify with how war affect people; a good man is uprooted and dragged away from his people and home; another does a job – training men to die for the Emperor – that is consummate in its absurdity and yet everyone recognises how good he is at it. The first novel ends with the formal swearing of the loyalty oath as the new intake is put into uniform and readied for initial training. It is autumn 1914…

The short remnant that is all that survives of the rest of the trilogy is very powerful, focusing on the death of another recruit who emerges as an individual from the mass, as whose death is not caused by warfare, but by cruel regimental punishment…

I had no idea what to expect when I began this novel; it was very different from all the others I’ve read about that period, and in its own way just as powerful as any of them. It’s a great pity we do not have the rest of Wittlin’s work.

Thirty glorious years?

January 1, 2020

The French, in their supremely French way, have long referred to the years 1945-1975 as ‘les trente glorieuses’, thirty years of success, happiness, greatness and I don’t know what else. And it’s an interesting window through which to look back over my lifetime.

There was a determination to improve everyone’s lot after the horrors of the Second World War, and, as Europe re-built (with American help) there was an economic boom; most people’s living standards improved immensely as did their housing, health and life expectancy, especially with serious development of welfare states and the creation of organisations like Britain’s National Health Service and the European Union.

I grew up during this time. Life wasn’t easy, but the state looked after our health (who remembers free NHS orange juice, rose hip syrup and cod liver oil?), promised retirement pensions of a sort, provided unemployment benefits, and gave me a decent education, including a free university education through which I was supported by grants not loans.

It was a period where there seemed to be some kind of parity between the two sides of the economy, workers and bosses, although there was much conflict, and eventually the bosses had had enough and brought in Reagan and Thatcher’s economic neoliberalism to smash the power of workers for good. We are all still living with the consequences of this.

I do recall some grim times towards the end of the seventies. But what I don’t recall are food banks and thousands of homeless people living (and dying) in the streets of one of the richest countries on the planet. I don’t recall it being incredibly difficult for young people to try and buy a home. I don’t recall people on non-existent work contracts, not knowing whether they would have work the next day or not. I don’t recall being fleeced by companies for the essentials of daily existence like water power and transport.

It’s a truism that as we get older we get more nostalgic about the past, and tend to see our younger days through rose-tinted spectacles: as we grow older, life nears its end and we look back to those earlier, more carefree times when we seemed immortal, and surely those were better days?

And yet, I do feel very strongly that as a society we have lost something since those remote and more innocent days. Increasingly I have the feeling that those 30 years may have been a blip in our country’s and the world’s history, a very happy and fortunate time for those (like me) who grew up and enjoyed their younger years back then. I’m not enjoying growing old, and yet I’d not swap my time for the life of someone thirty years younger today.

2019: my year of reading…

December 30, 2019

I’ve not done anywhere near as much reading this last year as I normally would, for a number of reasons, and recently have not felt able to settle down to anything as demanding as a full-length book, so for the last couple of months it has been magazines and online articles, mainly. I have acquired 30 new books this year – so some success on cutting down how many I buy – disposed of a good many more than that, and actually read 53 books in total, so just over one a week. I never imagined the total would drop so low…

I realise on looking through my reading log that I’ve spent a fair amount of time re-reading this year. At the end of 2018, I began working my way through the novels of Philip K Dick again, and got about half-way through them before I got side-tracked; I also re-read some Raymond Chandler, some Garrison Keillor and quite a lot of Ursula Le Guin, prompted by her death earlier in the year. Her work remains as powerful as ever for me, in many different ways. I’m looking forward to tacking her epic Always Coming Home next year.

Why so much re-reading? Looking at my shelves I see that there are so many old favourites still there, which have survived the annual cull of books which head their way to Amnesty International, and I feel drawn to revisit them, and the pleasure I recall in the past. I used to have the feeling, “well, I’d like to re-read that one day…” and move on; nowadays, something follows that thought up with, “get on with it, then!” So I have.

Like many of you, I have a fair number of what might loosely be called “coffee-table books” in a dismissive sort of way: I mean the kind of large format, illustrated books that don’t necessarily lend themselves to a cover-to-cover read, but are for deep browsing; I’ve spent a good deal of time revisiting those this year, too, especially the ones on travel and exploration. Very satisfying.

But it hasn’t been completely a year of re-reads. New discoveries have included R H Mottram’s The Spanish Farm Trilogy – there seems to be a good deal of First World War fiction out there that I still haven’t discovered – and John Barton’s marvellous book on the history of the bible, which I really enjoyed and found very thought-provoking, too. And I really liked the French writer Gilbert Sinoué’s Le Livre de Saphir .

Now we come to statistics and awards. For some reason – and I do wish readers would enlighten me – the most popular post of the year by far has been my brief and instant reaction to Carol Ann Duffy’s poem The Wound in Time, which she wrote to mark the centenary of the end of the Great War. Other posts on poems from that war have also been pretty popular, along with my thoughts on Ismail Kadare’s novel about Stalinism in Albania, Le Grand Hiver. I’m pleased to be reaching such a wide variety of readers, and I still wish I head more from you…

My biggest disappointment this year has been my re-reading of Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series; I wish I hadn’t bothered and then I might have retained more of my original admiration for his achievement. When researching for the post I just published on him, I noticed there were some prequels and linked short stories, which I will not be bothering with.

Once again, there is no award for weirdest book: obviously I’m not reading weird books at the moment…

I’ll give Philip Pullman my award for best new novel for The Secret Commonwealth, the second in his Book of Dust series. It is on a par with the first one, and I know I’ll have to wait another couple of years for the last in the series.

I’m cheating a bit here, but my award for best novel goes to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, which is coming up for a re-read pretty soon, so that I can dig a bit deeper than just the plot, and admire what she has done in writing a sequel to a novel no-one imagined there could ever be a sequel to. It’s clever, it’s serious, it’s thought-provoking, and for me everything that a good novel should be.

I haven’t read a great deal of non-fiction this year, but John Barton’s A History of the Bible was outstanding in its erudition, its clarity and its honesty. He isn’t afraid to dig deeply or to ask awkward questions, and yet the Christian scriptures are not diminished or undermined by his forensic examination.

Vassily Grossman’s Stalingrad is easily my Book of the Year: it’s not a new novel, having been written before I was born and published in a number of incomplete versions in Soviet times. What we finally got this year was a very careful edition which is probably as complete and as accurate as can be with a work completed in such challenging circumstances, excellently translated and introduced, and superbly annotated: a work of love by Robert Chandler. It’s the prequel to the astonishing Life and Fate, which has rightly been called the twentieth century’s War and Peace. Only a Russian could have written it, and it is a tragedy that the horrendous experience of Russians during the Nazi invasion and occupation is not better known and understood in the West.

I wonder what next year will bring? So far, press articles about what’s coming up in the next few months have been rather unpromising. And I don’t have any particular plans in terms of what I want to read, although I am currently enjoying re-visiting old favourites, so there will probably more of those…

ed Niall Ferguson: Virtual History

October 26, 2019

41w7zIAhyvL._AC_UY218_ML3_   As a lifelong reader of SF, I’ve always enjoyed what I’ve known as alternative futures, although some now call them counterfactuals: works where writers imagine what the world would be like if things had gone differently at some point in the past. I suppose the current classic example is Philip Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in which the Axis powers were victorious in the Second World War, but there are numerous other examples. A couple of my favourites are Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, in which the Confederacy won the American Civil War, and Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, a dark tale set after seven centuries of Nazi power in Europe.

So I came back hopefully to this book which I last read twenty yers ago, only to be seriously disappointed. Niall Ferguson is a historian, albeit one with a far too right-wing take on things for me, and he provides a wide-ranging introductory essay to the subject, offering a taxonomy of counterfactual history, rubbishing Marx along the way, of course. Ultimately I found it impenetrable stuff, with its – no doubt simplified for the general reader – theories of history, and probably of no real interest to anyone except academic historians. In a paperback aimed at the general reader, it was incredibly self-indulgent.

None of the following chapters is fiction. Various historians tackle various moments which they have deemed crucial in history and survey the evidence and reflect on how things might have gone differently and what the consequences might have been. I found that the further they went back into the past the less relevant or interesting they were, so alternative outcomes to the English Civil War or the American revolution or the history of Ireland and Home Rule were tiresome. When they got on to the First and Second World Wars they were more interesting, but I did find myself wondering what historians would make of such musings.

The chapter on what the world might have been like if the Soviet Union had not collapsed was silly, because it was written far too close to the actual events, and the canter through an alternative past three centuries as an afterword failed because it was too telescoped.

I found myself thinking about how fiction does all of this so differently: history has happened, so re-imagining it is a futile exercise in many ways, whereas the fictional imagining of how it might actually have been to live in such alternate universes is creative and entertaining, as well as having the power to make readers think. Rather than being blinded by a snowstorm of hypothetical details in which historians have to locate names we know in order to remain anchored in their subject, we follow real people and daily lives and relationships in those altered worlds. Life in a world that has been under Nazi rule for centuries is grim, yet people have to live, and they still have minds and imagination, still think and act and desire. To hear in passing in that novel that there was once a race called the Jews, and then for the speaker to move on to something else straight away, has a chill-factor that no historian can generate… How Americans live their daily lives in a California occupied by the Japanese is an interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking act of the imagination.

The most interesting thing in this entire book was Dostoevsky’s comment on Brexit:

‘A man can wish upon himself, in full awareness, something harmful, stupid and even completely idiotic… in order to establish his right to wish for the most idiotic things.’

On peace and forgetfulness

September 26, 2019

When I reflect on my life, and seek the source of the contentment I feel in my later years, I am drawn back to feelings of gratitude for the greatest thing of all: that I was born, grew up and have lived in peacetime.

I have benefited from peace in Europe; I have been incredibly fortunate. Yes, I’m well aware that we had our own civil war in Northern Ireland for a quarter of a century, that Britain has been involved in wars in many parts of the world, and that Europe had its own extremely nasty conflicts when the Federation of Yugoslavia collapsed in the aftermath of the fall of communism. For me, and many like me, that was the stuff of newspapers and radio news bulletins. I’m aware that there was the Cold War: I think we also had saner and more intelligent politicians in those days…

I return to this idea of peaceful existence more and more often, because I see it under threat, by neglect, by those who should know better, by those who don’t think, and by those in positions of power who are acting irresponsibly. For example, many of those of the older generation, who support Brexit, are wont to bang on about the wartime spirit, the spirit of Dunkirk, that got us through those times and will get us through the coming chaos. And I think, not only were most of those people not alive during that war and even conscious of that alleged spirit – my mother who was a schoolgirl at the time, remembers sheltering under the kitchen table from German bombers on their way to and from Hull – but they will have grown up after the war in the times when everyone did pull together to rebuild the nation, and with the benefits of the greatest British achievement, the NHS. So yes, such people make me angry.

Time leads us to forget. We’ve been at peace in our corner of the world for a very long time: three quarters of a century next year. Most people now only know from history books where vile racism and nationalism lead. They do not imagine, cannot imagine, such perils ahead of them now.

My own family history, which I’ve referred to often enough in my blog, also makes me aware that most Britons’ notions of war are not those of other Europeans, who experienced occupation, starvation, deportations, persecutions and executions. You only have to visit battlefields anywhere in continental Europe, and memorials in any country to discover the traumatic effects of war, to see where entire cities and towns had to be rebuilt. Wherever I travel, I see and hear evidence of European nations determined to collaborate, to ensure that the horrors of the past do not return, their determination not to forget. Dad’s Army, the Blitz, and ration books are not how the rest of Europe experienced the Second World War.

Because in a sense peace is an absence – the absence of war – it’s hard to see its benefits. Then I visualise these advantages disappearing overnight, as, for example in former Yugoslavia or in Ukraine, and I can see how truly fortunate I, my family and almost everyone I know has been.

Richard F Burton: Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina

September 17, 2019

Many years ago I read Richard Burton’s Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina; recently as I’ve been travelling, I had the Librivox recording to listen to in the car. It is an astonishing work. Burton was a Victorian traveller, a polymath; at school we heard of him because we discovered his translation of the Kama Sutra

Non-Muslims are not allowed into the holy cities of Islam; in Burton’s day, discovery would have meant his death. He took the disguise of an Afghan and performed the Hajj along with many other Muslims, and was not detected. He describes the journey and the places, the food and the people in minute detail, a great achievement given that making notes and sketches and diagrams was a difficult and dangerous undertaking, too, when you are always under the watch of fellow-travellers. His knowledge as detailed in the book is positively encyclopaedic: all the religious sites are there, the practices, rituals and the necessary prayers. I do not imagine anything is missing, at the same time realising that much will have changed in the more than century and a half since his intrepid undertaking. And I do not know if there is a contemporary account to match and equal his.

Why did he do it? Because it was there? Real interest in Islam and the culture and way of life of the desert Arabs and Bedouin is there, and he was certainly not the first to travel widely in those regions; he regularly cites his predecessors. Several times in the Personal Narrative he makes it clear he is a Christian, that is, that he has not converted to Islam. And yet, he performs all the prayers and rites, apparently he was circumcised too; he knew a number of the languages of the region… and he is always reverent and respectful towards the Islamic faith. I am in awe, as well as confused by his motives and beliefs.

I also admire the Librivox volunteers who produced this recording. A number of them are non-native English speakers, which can make for tiring listening and vexing mispronunciations, but many of them make up for it by their familiarity with Arabic, for Burton’s account is peppered with Arabic words and phrases, both in the text and the footnotes, and every one is faithfully retained in the recording, and (to this non-Arabist) seemingly well-pronounced. However, it was Victorian practice when writing about sexual habits and activities to do so in Latin, and I’m afraid the garbled renditions of the volunteers made these possibly interesting extracts unintelligible…

Maps, again

August 28, 2019

51oKC5VfkGL._AC_UY218_  61gjZBNbkqL._AC_UY218_  414ejWraUnL._AC_UY218_  Every now and then I like to look through some of the larger books I’ve collected over the years, particularly atlases, turning the pages and stopping to stare and think wherever I fancy; I jokingly refer to this is as my map porn collection… Recently I took some time to look again at Cartographia, New Worlds (Maps from the Age of Discovery) and this tome which I acquired second-hand about ten years ago.

The Times Atlas of World Exploration is an astonishing tome which I’d heartily recommend to anyone who thinks they have the same bug for explorers and armchair travel that I have: it’s a very detailed and serious work of scholarship, put together by one of the leading writers in the field, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. There are literally dozens of small maps recording the journeys of many travellers, and larger maps which finally helped me to understand how important all the different winds and sea currents were in the days of small sailing ships and primitive navigation, and why travellers sailed at certain times of the year and by particular and not often logical-seeming routes. All this makes the journeys themselves seem even more astonishing.

Recent reading has also shown me just how much exploration was going on way back in the past. I recall the big names from geography lessons at school – Columbus, the Cabots, Magellan, but there were so many others risking all to discover – what? – something to make a fortune from. And I keep having to remind myself that this is almost all from the Western perspective, and that we don’t know what travellers from other regions of the world were up to in those more disconnected times; maybe there are still-undiscovered accounts languishing and decaying in libraries somewhere…

As I’ve remarked elsewhere, I am moved by the idea that people would spend ages travelling – years, often – without knowing exactly where they were headed, or what or whom they might meet, and where they would end up. It’s particularly hard to get my mind around some of the adruous journeys along the Amazon, for example. Clearly there was the usual motive of making a fortune, but some travellers went just to see: because it might be there, as it were.

Voyageurs de la Renaissance

August 14, 2019

81HFTMPlypL._AC_UL436_  This was a rather more academic volume than I’d anticipated from its publication in a standard paperback line – almost Hakluyt Society depth and detail, as well as a number of extracts not being in modern French… they do things differently there!

Very interesting, though, to read a wide range of extracts from Spanish, Portuguese and French travellers from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, just as Westerners were beginning to get to know (and occupy) far-flung regions. What strikes is the fascination and curiosity about those who are so different from ourselves, and also the determination, the sense of our duty and right, to forcibly convert all these peoples to Christianity for their own good. There is a common sense of Western superiority to foreigners, because we are Christian and have a higher level of development, and higher moral standards. One of the extracts showed Francis Xavier (a saint in the Catholic Church) trying to make sense of and explain Buddhism, and find connections between it and Christianity: his theological contortions and errors are astonishing and amusing.

Travellers to Turkey and the Ottoman Empire dwell on the harems and Turkish baths, often with many fascinating details, and also on apparent lesbian practices in the baths: there is a disapproving, prurient, News of the World-style to their descriptions.

There are also many short extracts about travels in Jerusalem and other holy places (for Christians). The accounts of French travellers to Florida and associated regions are rather tedious, but the first accounts of Cortez and other Spaniards of encounters with the Aztecs are very interesting: the days before they set out to conquer and destroy their civilisation, but already from the accounts of the quantities of gold and other precious metals, you can almost smell the cupidity. The accounts of human sacrifices are suitably gory, and the travellers are appalled. Similarly, in travels among native Americans, there is great fascination with cannibal rituals which are described in minute detail…

What I learned from the anthology was just how much travel and exploration there was going on so early; I’d heard of the well-known names and vaguely slotted them into the end 15th / early 16th time-frame, but there were so many people from so many countries out there, all hoping to make a fortune… the Portuguese were particularly numerous and widespread in the earliest days. Though it is interesting to see these first glimpses of how the West saw others, it’s also very depressing seeing how they treated them as simple folk, savages, to be fobbed off with trash and forcibly Christianised; the moral blindness in the travellers’ horror at human sacrifices and cannibal rites when they themselves will be complicit in genocide within a few years is truly shocking.

The overall concept of the book is an interesting one, but better than the execution, as ultimately it does come across as rather a mishmash. It’s scrupulously well-annotated, and there are many reproductions of original woodcut illustrations, but no useful maps, sadly.

%d bloggers like this: