The Seventh Gate by Richard Zimler

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This is an uncomfortable book to read, but so are most of Richard Zimler’s books. It shows how a circle of friends in 1930s Berlin are targeted by the Nazis because one is severely autistic, one has giantism, two have dwarfism and some are Jewish.  We also see former communists rushing to cover up their political pasts and present themselves and their families as Nazis.  Quite a lot of the plot is centred on the Nazi policy of forced sterilisation, and it does focus the reader’s mind on the persecution of groups of people whose treatment has not always been given as much attention as it should have been.

It’s supposed to be the fourth (and final) book in the Zarco series, but, although one of the main characters is a descendant of the other Zarcos and there are various references to the Kabbalistic mysticism of the other books, there isn’t really much of a link. The Zarco books are essentially connected with Portugal, and Portugal doesn’t feature in this one at all.  It also involves a relationship between a teenage girl and an elderly man, and there’s a murder mystery mixed up in it all as well.

Richard Zimler’s books are quite weird generally, and this one’s actually considerably less weird than the second and third Zarco books!   Part of it reads a bit like a Judy Blume book about a girl’s issues with school and boyfriends and hairstyles, and then there’s all this absolutely horrific stuff about what the Nazis did to her friends.  It does a good job of portraying the huge contrast between the culture of Berlin in the early 1930s – think Cabaret – and what came next, as seen through the eyes of Sophie, who links all the other characters together, and of the horrors of the Nazi era and how it tore apart the lives of people who were just minding their own business.

I have to say that I preferred the three earlier books in the series, but that’s probably just because Nazi Germany isn’t particularly “my” subject. This one’s worth reading because there are very few novels, or books in general, about the groups of people represented by some of the characters in this book – Hansi, the boy taken to hospital for TB treatment and gassed to death because he was classed as mentally disabled, Heidi, the female dwarf who was forcibly sterilised without her knowledge whilst being treated for a miscarriage, and Vera, the giantess who was forced to attend a medical appointment where an abortion was performed on her and she was then forcibly sterilised. There were also many other groups of people who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, and their stories need to be told.  It’s happening, but, even now, it’s only happening gradually.

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Till the Boys Come Home by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

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The “War at Home” series has got better and better as it’s gone on.  This one – which includes a slight crossover with the much-missed Morland dynasty series – takes us up to the Armistice, making it clear to us as we go through 1918 that a German invasion was a very real possibility in the spring and that there seemed to be no end in sight even by late summer.  It was only in 1918 that compulsory rationing was introduced, risking letting people go short of food apparently having been deemed preferable to interfering with market forces (too socialist!), and, with so many deaths, Russia pulling out of the war and the arrival of the first wave of the Spanish flu, things were looking pretty grim … and yet life went on, with moments of joy as well as sadness for most of the characters.

There are a lot more scenes actually at the Front than in the previous books.  I’ll try to avoid spoilers (in case anyone is actually reading my drivellings, and is also reading the books), but we get scenes with the Army, the Air Force, and with Laura Hunter driving an ambulance and running her hostel close to Ypres/Ieper.  However, it’s not a military book, and most of the action does still take place on the Home Front, with the Hunter family and their domestic staff.  We even get to attend a meeting with Lloyd George and Haig, at which the introduction of rationing is discussed.

The overall sense is of war weariness.  It’s not a gloomy book in any way, and it’s never less than entertaining, but the sense of war weariness is very well conveyed.  I quite understand about Liberal ideas of laissez-faire and all the rest of it, but it almost beggars belief that compulsory rationing wasn’t introduced until 1918.  Whilst food shortages here were obviously never as bad as they were in Russia, it’s incredibly impressive that people did put up with it.  We all know the jokes about the British forming orderly queues, but standing in orderly queues, knowing that there might be no food left by the time you got to the front of it, would have been no bloody joke.  And this was after more than three years of war, with no end in sight … and there can’t have been anyone, by early 1918, who hadn’t lost people who were important to them.  Even hearing of the death of someone you only vaguely knew, maybe even someone you didn’t like, must have been just beyond distressing.

The only people who don’t seem to be war weary are young lads, still hoping that the war isn’t going to end before they can get in on the action.  Meanwhile, men up to the age of 51 are being called up.

At home, it’s total war.  Most of the book’s set in the countryside, away from the air raids.  We don’t see anyone working in munitions factories.  The female domestic staff, and the older male domestic staff, are still in their old jobs.  Yet the sense of total war still comes across.  People look back at their lives before the war and feel that they were different people then.  That’s particularly so for the women of the better-off classes – to whom the war’s brought opportunities, as well as sorrow.  Unfortunately, some of the characters from the earlier books don’t really feature in this, so we don’t get to see how Audrey, the Hunters’ cousin, is going on in her managerial role in her father’s business, and we don’t get to see much of their cousins Jack and Beth either.  I suppose only so much could be fitted into one book, and it seemed better to concentrate on the core family and their servants.

There is a lot about the servants – but what there isn’t is any real sense of a change in the class system.  And we don’t really see the effect of the war on the working-classes: we hear about food shortages, and we’re told that the Spanish flu has killed many people in the poorer neighbourhoods, but we don’t actually see that, because the focus is on an upper-middle-class household.  That’s not a criticism, because the books are what they are and they do centre on this household, but it means that there are major aspects of the war at home which we don’t see.

On the other hand, the book shows aspects of the effect of the war which most Great War novels, or any war novels, don’t.  We get to see how a young man invalided out of the war at any early stage – David Hunter – copes with his injuries, and with his feelings of uselessness and helplessness.  We also get several romances involving older couples, which is unusual and rather nice.

A couple of minor points.  The Morland crossover is only that David is treated at the Southport Hospital, and we don’t actually get to see any of the Morlands again; but it was still nice to have that mention there.  And is Cynthia Harrod-Eagles a big Noel Streatfeild fan?  She talks about being “all over” things rather than “covered in” things, which is very Streatfeild, and Munt the gardener refers to elevenses as “beaver”!

I feel as I’m not saying very much, but I can’t say that much more without giving the game away.  Like the Morland dynasty books, nothing actually goes that deep.  The Kirov trilogy books, which IMHO are the best ones Cynthia Harrod-Eagles has ever written, go so much deeper!   Let’s say that there are births, and marriages, and deaths.  The book actually ends with a death.  It’s the death of a very minor character, but it says a lot that Cynthia Harrod-Eagles wanted to end that way, with a death at the Front on the very day of the Armistice, rather than with scenes of wild joy and rejoicing.  Yes, the war is over, but too many of the boys won’t be coming home.

I assume that this isn’t the end of the series, because a lot of loose ends have been left rather than tied up.  And I just keep thinking that the next one will inevitably involve the Spanish flu, and that that’s going to mean more deaths.  And I want to shout, no, please don’t kill off anyone else, I can’t take it.  That’s reading a book about fictional people.  How must it have been to have actually lived through that time?  Thankfully, we don’t know – but we can get quite a good sense of it, or at least of aspects of it, from these books.  At a time when the Great War is much in the news, they give you a lot to think about.

 

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

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This is an awkward book. There isn’t really a plot as such, it jumps backwards and forwards between different years and different characters, and it doesn’t go into much depth about anything.  However, set mainly in Bavaria in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, it raises a lot of very challenging issues about the experiences of German women during the war, and the extent of complicity and collective guilt about the Nazi atrocities and how people did and didn’t deal with that.  It also makes the reader think about the general chaos in post-war Europe, about the differing attitudes of the Allies towards the German people – ranging from the American Quakers who sent Christmas presents for German children to the Soviet soldiers who brutally abused German and Austrian women – and about how the Nazis were able to win control in the first place.  It even mentions Salem school, briefly attended by Prince Philip.  Then it seems to come to the rather impractical conclusion that the best answer is to get away from Germany and move to the United States, the country where – don’t start discussing this bit with Donald Trump – everyone can start again.

There’s the odd horrendous historical blunder, notably referring to Namibia as “a former Habsburg colony”, but it seems to be accurate otherwise. The author, who’s American but has one German parent, is very familiar with Germany, and says that she wrote the book after finding out that her German grandparents were both committed Nazis.  I don’t know how you’d deal with that, and I don’t know how Germany’s dealt with it.  I think Germany’s tried, though.  It doesn’t try to make out that it was a victim.  And it doesn’t refuse to discuss what happened during the war – whereas Osaka has just broken off its twinning agreement with San Francisco, because San Francisco’s put up a statue honouring the women forced into brothels by wartime Japan.  Somehow, societies move on.  The states of the former Yugoslavia have done that, more recently.  Somehow.

There are three main characters in the book. Marianne, a Prussian aristocrat, is probably the central character.  The Bavarian castle in the title belonged to her late husband.  He, and her childhood friend Constantine – known as Connie, which really annoyed me, because he was supposed to be this very handsome, dashing, Alpha Male, and I’m not sure what was the idea of giving him such a feminine-sounding name! – were involved in the von Stauffenberg plot, and were executed as a result.  The book’s very vague on exactly what Marianne’s involvement was, and how come she and her children weren’t punished.  It’s also vague on how she came to marry a Bavarian, and the impression’s given that she always thought she and Connie would end up together, but it’s never really gone into.

Marianne had promised the two men that she’d try to take care of any other women whose husbands had been executed due to their role in the resistance. Maybe she’s the person the author wishes her grandmother had been – always vehemently opposed to the Nazis, unable to understand how everyone didn’t realise how evil they were, and unwilling to try to forgive anyone who’d played any sort of role in carrying out Nazi atrocities.  She can’t cope with living in Germany, and, in the end, she moves to America.  In old age, she publishes her memoirs of being a heroine of the Resistance.  Presumably her readers hear all about her role in the von Stauffenberg plot: it’s very irritating that we don’t!   And it’s then, eventually, that she accepts that maybe things weren’t as black and white as she thought.

Early on in the book, she traces Connie’s widow, Benita, and young son, Martin. Martin had been taken to a home for the children of “traitors”.  He copes well with the post-war world, but he ends up in America as well.  But Benita really suffers.  Like so many women in Germany and Austria, she was repeatedly raped by Soviet soldiers.  All credit to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee for the decision it made about this year’s awards.  Rape was used as a weapon of war throughout the war in the former Yugoslavia, and is being used now this minute in Rakhine province in Burma/Myanmar, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The incredible Nadia Murad’s highlighted what IS did to Yazidi women.  The violence during Partition in the Indian sub-continent’s another example.  It’s thought that up to two million women were raped by Red Army soldiers in 1944-45.   Even some concentration camp survivors were attacked.  It hasn’t really been spoken about until recently.  It wasn’t only the Soviet troops, but it was particularly the Soviet troops.  Annoyingly, the book repeatedly uses the word “Russian” for “Soviet”, but that’s not unusual.

The Soviet attitude, insofar as there was one, seems to have been that the Germans and Austrians deserved everything they got, and that their troops were entitled to do what they liked after their part in defeating the Nazis. No. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

We learn that Benita was part of the League of German Girls, as a teenager. She had no great interest in politics, and regarded it as something like the Girl Guides.  She struggles, not surprisingly, to cope with what happened to her, but eventually forms a relationship with a former Nazi.  Marianne, who can’t understand this, persuades the man that it would be wrong for him to marry the widow of a former resistance hero.  He breaks off the engagement.  Benita eventually kills herself.

The most interesting of the women is Ania. Marianne brings her to the castle on the understanding that she’s the widow of someone Connie had worked with.  She manages the best of any of them, eventually remarrying and making a new life for herself on a farm.  But then it turns out that she isn’t who she says she is: she’d taken someone else’s papers.  She’d actually been deeply involved with the Nazis for years.  She’d bought into all the ideology: she’d been committed to it.  But she had, eventually, realised that she was wrong.

Ania’s story makes it frighteningly easy to see how an ordinary person could have been complicit in the Nazi atrocities. Her family and community had suffered badly as a result of the Great War.  They were then embittered further by the harshness of the post-war settlement, and by the occupation of the Rhineland by British and French troops, and the reparations demanded of Germany.  What a mess that settlement was: I saw on the BBC website earlier this week that the South Tyrol question’s reared its head again.  The Nazi youth groups seemed like good fun. They organised trips out into the countryside, and sports matches.  Everyone else belonged to them.  And the Nazis promised to make Germany great again.  Ania and her husband ran Nazi camps for young men.  She saw herself as a sort of housemistress.

She had some idea of what was going on, but she didn’t think about it much. It seemed distant, like something happening a long way away.  What do you do?  We have 24/7 news these days.  We know all about the Rohingya crisis, about Yemen, about Syria, about the Democratic Republic of Congo … what do we do about any of it?  Maybe share an article about it on Facebook.  Press the “sad” emoticon if one of our friends shares an article about it on Facebook.  I did sign a petition asking the Government to do something when news of the IS treatment of the Yazidi women first emerged, but I’m not sure what good I expected it to do.  Send the odd tenner to the Red Cross.  That’s all.

But at least you accept what’s going on. You don’t try to kid yourself that it isn’t happening.  You acknowledge that, and you hate it.  Ania can’t forgive herself for being complicit, and she also can’t forgive herself for her self-deception, for letting herself believe that people were just being “resettled”.  When babies and toddlers arrived at her camp, and were then taken away, she’d told herself that they were going to foster homes or orphanages.  It was when she’d accepted that they were being taken away to be killed that she’d left.

She makes a new life for herself, but never forgives herself. But her daughter, another one who ends up in America, working for a human rights organisation, does forgive her.  Ania reflects on the modern culture of baring your soul on TV chat shows and feeling that you’ve earned forgiveness that way, but knows that no amount of talking or soul-baring can ever put right what happened in Nazi Germany.

The book ends with a very minor character, the daughter of the man to whom Benita was briefly engaged, reflecting on how Nazism permeated everywhere in Germany, and how everyone’ll have old photos somewhere of parents or grandparents in Nazi uniform and or making the Nazi salute. Most of us will have photos of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts or great-uncles during the war, and hopefully we’re all very proud of them.  It’s hard to understand how Germany deals with that.  I’ve been to Germany several times, and will hopefully be going again next month.  I’ve got absolutely no problem with modern Germany, or with today’s Germans.  But is it always there?  When Angela Merkel said that all Syrian refugees were welcome in Germany, people said that she, someone who wasn’t even born until nine years after the end of the war, was still trying to make up for what the Nazis did.

The idea of collective guilt and collective responsibility was certainly very much to the fore in 1945. The book touches on the de-Nazification programme but, frustratingly, only touches on it.  We’re told that there are leaflets and posters showing concentration camp victims, as part of the de-Nazification programme – that the Americans are trying to make the Germans face up to what happened.  But that most of the locals try to ignore them.  There were films too, although the book didn’t really mention them.

In the American zone, everyone had to fill in a form, and they were then all categorised as either Major Offenders, Offenders, Lesser Offenders, Followers or Exonerated Persons. The idea was to implement a full, detailed, de-Nazification programme.  But there just wasn’t the administrative manpower for it, especially once attention turned to the Cold War.  In the British zone, only those applying for official jobs had to fill in the forms.  In the French zone, they didn’t really bother at all.  As early as 1946, “de-Nazification” was handed over to the German authorities.  Not much happened – lack of time, lack of manpower, too much paperwork, other things to do – and it was abandoned as a bad job in 1951.

The book says too little about it, only that most people hoped to get away with being classed as Followers. It also touches on the vast numbers of people in Displaced Persons Camps, and on the post-war food crisis, but it doesn’t really explain any of it.  There’s too much it doesn’t explain, but what it does do is make you think.

Final thought. All the characters agree that they can start anew in America, where there’s openness, and where there’s no guilt.  The people who emigrate seem to have no trouble being allowed into America.  There was a ship called the St Louis, which took nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees to Cuba in 1939.  Cuba wouldn’t let them in.  The United States wouldn’t let them in.  Canada wouldn’t let them in.  I’m not having a go at those three countries:  there are all sorts of stories about people desperately pleading at every foreign embassy in Germany and Austria to be granted a visa, and being turned down.  Eventually, the ship had to sail back across the Atlantic.  I’m pleased to say that Britain agreed to take a third of those on board.  The others were eventually admitted to France, Belgium and the Netherlands: 254 of them were murdered after those countries were occupied by the Nazis.  In a couple of weeks’ time, Justin Trudeau will be issuing a formal apology for Canada’s refusal to take the refugees.  A lot of apologising goes on these days.  No guilt?

I’m not sure what I wanted from this book. I was hoping for more of a sense of Bavaria, but it said almost nothing about Bavaria: the castle could have been anywhere.  The idea of a castle being returned to a family who’d opposed the Nazis reminded me of Marie von und zu Wertheim, nee Marie von Eschenau, a favourite character in the Chalet School books; but there wasn’t much about the castle either.  It was a very unsatisfying book all round, but it certainly contained a lot of food for thought.

A Weaver’s Web by Chris Pearce

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Oh dear. The author of this book thinks that Middleton Road is full of creeks, and that the population of Regency-era Manchester existed solely on potatoes and lived in fear of a Vulgaria-esque child catcher.  He also thinks that Methodist ministers are addressed as “Father”, Methodist chapels have stained glass windows and ornate altars, millowners are classed as aristocrats, and “well-bred” Georgian girls worked as housemaids.  And, yes, it is supposed to be a serious historical novel: he claims that he spent ages researching it!   The basic plot isn’t bad, and the section on Peterloo’s actually quite good, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across so many inaccuracies in a single book before.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!

I don’t like being negative about things – I’m sure the author put a lot of work into this – but it was just cringeworthy. The language was all wrong, for a kick off.  I didn’t expect someone writing in the 21st century to sound like Georgette Heyer, but having characters in the early 19th century referring to their mate James Johnson as “Johnno”, or saying “You’re still in the 18th century.  It’s not a problem these days”, or talking about “citizens” (unless they’re in France!) was just plain silly.   Not to mention “wow” and “holler” and various other expressions that just did not belong in a book set in the 1810s.  Even the names were wrong: the name Albert wasn’t used in the UK before Queen Victoria’s marriage.  And no-one ever refers to Manchester as “the city”.  If you live locally, it’s “town”.  If you live a bit further out, it’s just “Manchester”.  OK?!

It’s a shame, because the general idea wasn’t bad at all. It started with a handloom weaver in Middleton, determined that he was going to remain working independently and not be forced into working in a factory.  Very interesting premise for a book, especially one incorporating the Peterloo Massacre.  Middleton was obviously chosen because of the connection with Samuel Bamford.  I’m still rather put out about the way Bamford was portrayed in the Peterloo film: he came across much better in this book.   However, the comments about eating nothing but potatoes, battling against the frequent gales (?) and hoping that the factory agents coming from “the city” would fall into a creek – on Middleton Road?! – were just bizarre.

Bringing in the growth of Methodism was a good idea, but surely anyone, however little interest they may have in religion, knows that Methodists do not have fancy church buildings and address their ministers as “Father”?!   Bringing in Hampden Clubs was also a good idea, but rather spoilt by the fact that our hero, one Henry, went off to spend all his money on prostitutes after the meeting, and convinced his family that he’d dropped the said money in a puddle … whereupon they all solemnly went off to search every puddle in Middleton for a pile of coins.  What??

One of Henry’s kids then ran away to “the city” to get a job in a factory, and, eventually, the rest of the family moved there too. There then followed various strange scenes involving some kind of child catcher – I can only think that the author had got the Industrial Revolution mixed up with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – who went around town trying to catch kids to work in factories, and chaining them up.  Meanwhile, our pal Henry, by dint of stealing and gambling, managed to set up his own factory, and thus became an aristocrat (the word “aristocracy” was frequently used to describe millowners).  The rags to riches storyline, again, was a good idea, but it was executed very poorly.  It also involved a gentlemen (i.e. millowners!) versus players cricket match.  That would have worked fine in a village setting, but not in the centre of a big industrial city!

However, things did not work out for Henry. Apparently this was supposed to remind the reader of The Grapes of Wrath.  One of his kids was transported to Australia.  He managed to arrange for him to be brought back, but was set upon by highwaymen on his way to Liverpool to meet him at the docks, and then it turned out that the kid wanted to stay in Australia.  This was a bit far-fetched, but it made more sense than the child-catcher and the creeks.  Then his wife, who couldn’t cope with having to socialise with all the “aristocrats”, was put in an asylum.  Again, good points about the harshness of the criminal justice system and the treatment of mental health problems; but it all got rather ridiculous.  The wife was eventually rescued from the asylum by one of the sons, who pretended that he wanted to hire one of the inmates as a prostitute and then hid his mum under his coat.  As you do.  And then a group of Luddites burned down the factory.

I can see how it could have worked really well.  A lot of the important issues of the time were brought into the story.  There was the idea of someone thinking they’d made it and then everything crumbling to bits.  And the section about Peterloo, which was the reason I read the book in the first place, really did work fairly well.  But so much of it was just utter twaddle.  It was self-published because a load of publishers turned it down.  The author claims that he can’t understand why it was turned down.  Oh, to be that confident!

I don’t like being overly critical of someone else’s work, but I paid good money for this, and, to put it mildly, it really wasn’t worth it.   Oh well.  I suppose it gave me a few laughs!  But give this one a miss.

The Matriarch by G B Stern

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Gladys B Stern, born in London in 1890, changed her middle name from Bertha to Bronwyn because it sounded more romantic, converted from Judaism to Catholicism, studied in Switzerland, was introduced to her future husband by Noel Coward, frightened off umpteen different secretaries, and liked to be addressed as Peter. I’m not entirely sure how you get “Peter” from “Gladys”, but, hey, in the inter-war years, Anything Went.  As for the actual book, it’s supposed to be a feminist novel written before its time (although that’s actually mainly because the men are all presented as being useless), and it’s also a Jewish novel in a way that I really don’t think you could write now.  So … yes, something a bit different.

It’s essentially a family saga, set mainly in the last two decades of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century, and mainly in London.  The main theme is fairly universal – an older generation who want to control things, and younger generations who are either desperate for their elders’ approval, want to rebel and go their own way, or feel bound by guilt and duty to do as their elders want.  The matriarch of the title is Anastasia Rakonitz, who’s born in the Austrian Empire (the Hungarian part, but pre Ausgleich!) but spends most of her life in London, and the other main character is her granddaughter Toni.  There are absolute hordes of other characters, though.  It’s rather confusing trying to remember who’s who, and it’s quite frustrating that there are a lot of bit part characters whose stories are never fully developed, but the author explains that she created a huge array of characters because she wanted to give the sense of an extensive family network, stretching across many countries.

There isn’t actually that much history in it. It starts off in Anastasia’s grandmother’s girlhood, during the Napoleonic Wars, when we’re reminded of the crucial role, often overlooked, that Napoleon played in the granting of civil rights to religious minorities and the reduction of the power of the religious authorities.  The man might have done a lot of damage in other ways, but he deserves a lot of credit for that.  It soon leaps forward in time, but the events of 1848 don’t really get a look-in, the Ausgleich isn’t mentioned, and the Franco-Prussian War, although it’s the reason that Anastasia (having previously moved to Paris) ends up in London, is only mentioned in passing.  The Great War does play more of a part, but only in terms of who is and isn’t involved in the fighting: it seems to have strangely little impact on the Home Front.  So it doesn’t actually say that much about the period during which it’s set, but it says a lot about the 1920s, when it was written.

It’s been described as a feminist novel written before its time. Now, having grown up in the age of Barbara Taylor Bradford, Jackie Collins et al (don’t you just love an ’80s blockbuster?!), a family saga in which the female characters dominate seems quite normal to me 🙂 , but this book was published in 1924, when a lot of women in Britain still didn’t even have the vote.  Anastasia is the one pulling the strings.  Then, when the family loses its money following a bad investment in a fraudulent ruby mine, it’s her granddaughters who pick up the pieces.  However, the women only really dominate because the men are so utterly useless in times of trouble.  And, whilst Anastasia might be a strong female lead, it’s made clear that she’s only really interested in her sons and grandsons, not in the young women of the family.

Is that feminism?   It’s not equality.  I suppose it depends on what you class as feminism. Anastasia really isn’t very appealing: she’s controlling, demanding, self-obsessed and doesn’t treat other people well.  Is the idea that women have to be bossy and controlling in order to impose their authority?  She walks all over her daughters and daughters-in-law.  I don’t know that I’d call this a feminist novel, but then we are talking about nearly a century ago … ugh, how on earth can the 1920s be nearly a century ago?!

“Rags to riches” is another common theme in novels – riches to rags rather less so. Jewish novels set in Britain (or America) usually start with rags.  This one starts with riches.  By the time Anastasia and her family arrive in London, the family has a well-established diamond business stretching across Europe – the Austro-Hungarian Empire, France, Italy … and I feel as if I should be saying Belgium or the Netherlands, seeing as diamonds are involved, but they don’t really come into it!   They live a life of luxury in London.  Then the money goes, and Anastasia cannot adopt: it’s her granddaughters who take charge.  This was published five years before the Wall Street Crash, so it’s quite prescient in a way, but the author’s own family had lost their money thanks to an investment in jewels going wrong.

Nobody actually struggles that much. It’s hardly Helen Forrester: no-one’s living hand to mouth.  But there’s this idea of lost luxury, of faded grandeur.  We don’t sympathise with that, do we?  We sympathise with the middle income people reduced to poverty, but we don’t sympathise with the wealthy family reduced to circumstances that for most people class as normal.  Or even with middle income people who are struggling, but not that much.  That’s quite an interesting thought.  It’s very mean-spirited, really, especially as people can be quite sneery about it.   It can be quite problematic, as well – look at all the huffing and puffing over well-dressed Syrian refugees carrying fancy mobile phones, as if you can’t be a proper refugee unless you’ve got nothing but the clothes you stand up in.  But we clearly are meant to sympathise with the Rakonitzes, just as we’re meant to sympathise with all those characters in children’s books in the period who lose their private incomes because of dodgy solicitors or guardians.  And we should do, really.  I just don’t think we do.  Is that some sort of really nasty Schadenfreude?!

There are also struggles over health. Anastasia suffers from some sort of mental health problem – it’s not clear what, but it comes and goes – in later life.  And Toni is “delicate” – and it’s made clear that this is because her grandparents, Anastasia and her husband Paul, were first cousins.  Now there’s a subject you don’t hear mentioned much.  I’m feeling quite uncomfortable just writing about it – even though it’s something that comes up over and over again in history books, because of royal marriages, and because marriage between first cousins is/has been banned by civil or religious law in many places.  Is this a post-Nazi thing?  Does it come too close to sounding like eugenics, and is that why I’m feeling uncomfortable mentioning it? Would someone include a storyline like that in a book written now?   And how much of a divider is the Second World War, or, more specifically, how much of a divider are the Nazi atrocities, in terms of what authors might or might not include in books?

That’s particularly relevant because this is the saga of a Jewish family. I said “a Jewish novel”, but maybe it isn’t a Jewish novel.  Like Csardas, which I read a few months ago, religious practice doesn’t really come into it – there’s very little about religious festivals, or religious services, and no-one seems very bothered about things like eating kosher food – and many of the Jewish characters marry people who aren’t Jewish.  The idea of the multinational clan … the best-known example is the Rothschild family, but there are others too.  The Rakonitzes certainly aren’t in their league, but apparently they are based on the author’s own family, i.e. a real family.  Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, featuring a similar clan, is also based on his own family.   The Sassoons also spring to mind (I went to China last year and did a lot of reading up on Shanghai beforehand).  The Oppenheims.  The Goldsmiths.

I’m just feeling incredibly uncomfortable writing this, especially in the current climate, I got this book because it was going free on Kindle, and because I actually had the impression that it was set in Austria-Hungary and I always struggle to find books set there: I wasn’t expecting to be writing all this multinational financial dynasty stuff.  As I said, the Rakonitzes are hardly the Rothschilds, but still.

There shouldn’t be anything to feel uncomfortable about. Religious minorities do tend to dominate finance and business, having traditionally been excluded from the professions.  Look at some of the big name British banks.  Lloyds, founded by Quakers.  Barclays, founded by Quakers.  Look at the big High Street names: Methodist and Jewish founders abound.   But you get all these vicious conspiracy theories.  There are some very odd and clearly preposterous stories about the Rothschilds, and have been for a good 200 years.

Obviously it happens with other groups as well. It doesn’t happen so much now, but it certainly used to happen with Catholics, at least in Britain and America.  Freemasons.  Muslims, at the moment.  And the Rakonitzes, as I’ve said, don’t have that much financial influence: the multinational aspect of their family is more of a cultural thing than anything else, with children who don’t toe the line being packed off to stay with relatives abroad, and a lot of talk about everyone eating Central European food.  But still … it’s not the easiest of topics to write about.

Maybe it’s the idea of “The Other”. That expression’s come up a lot recently, following some of the ill-judged comments made by certain prominent politicians. And yet it’s all meant to be so positive in this book.  London is described as “Cosmopolis”.  OK, it was the name of a crap film with Robert Pattinson, but, other than that, I’ve never heard the term used before.  The author clearly means it as a compliment.  And she wants us to see the Rakonitzes as being glamorous and colourful and exciting, and she clearly means that in a very positive way … but it all kind of comes across as being “The Other”.

Two of the grandsons, Richard and Daniel, and especially Richard, can’t handle that. They don’t want to be colourful or different.  In 2018, I don’t think most people do.  There are always going to be some people who do, but I think most people are way past wanting to be seen as exotic or flamboyant or whatever because of their religion, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity or anything else: people just want to be seen as themselves.

But the 1920s were all about flamboyance. This book doesn’t tell us that much about the 1880s, 1890s or 1910s, when most of it’s set, but it tells us a hell of a lot about the 1920s!   It probably couldn’t have been written at any other time.  I really don’t think anyone would write anything like this now.  Not a criticism, just an observation 🙂 .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple

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According to William Dalrymple, all the problems of the world are due to Evangelical Christians and Islamic fundamentalists. And no, he wasn’t talking about today – he was talking about the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58.  Let’s say that this isn’t the most balanced and unbiased view of events that I’ve ever read!  He makes some good points, though, and a lot of the writing is quite gripping – not always easy to achieve when writing about military events.  And he’s used some previously unpublished information which he came across whilst doing his research.

Dalrymple is also the author of White Mughals, about a relationship (a true story) between a British man and an Indian noblewoman, and he clearly feels very strongly about the changes in British attitudes towards Indian people as the 19th century went on, and links that closely to changes in religious culture.  This was something I also mentioned when I was waffling about the Who Do You Think You Are? Episode about Olivia Colman’s mixed race ancestor – welcomed into the family and British society, in the early 19th century, in a way which she sadly wouldn’t have been a few decades later.   There was definitely a change in attitudes, and it certainly wasn’t for the better.

The book’s actually supposed to be about Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor – as the title suggests. Also an Urdu poet and a Sufi mystic.  You associate the Mughal Empire with the 16th and 17th centuries, and tend almost to forget that there was still a Mughal Emperor, even if his rule was confined just to parts of Delhi, until the Mutiny.  Popular amongst both Hindus and Muslims, he was, at the age of 81, proclaimed Emperor of Hindustan by the mutineers … and he dithered whilst 52 Westerners were murdered at his palace, and then pretty much took the blame.  A British major then executed two of his sons and one of his grandsons.  Many other male members of his family were also executed by the British – it reads a bit like the Bolsheviks wiping out the Romanovs – and, according to Dalrymple, many of the women ended up working as prostitutes.  Zafar was exiled to Burma.  And Delhi was wrecked.

It was not the British Empire’s finest hour – although an amnesty was proclaimed for all mutineers not actually involved in murder.  It should also be noted that the press didn’t help, by exaggerating what had gone on, particularly with false claims about mutineers sexually assaulting British women.  The press in the second half of the 19th century seem to have been very good at whipping up hysteria: they did the same in the 1870s, during the Russo-Turkish War.

And, as we all know, the rule of the East India Company was then replaced by the British Raj – although it should be pointed out that large areas of India remained under the control of local rulers, and also that a royal proclamation was issued, promising Indians under British rule the rights of British subjects.

The Mutiny’s covered in two of my all-time favourite books, God is an Englishman (retrospectively) by R F Delderfield and A Dark and Distant Shore by Reay Tannahill.   Both make it clear that there was horrific violence on both sides – and that’s where I think Dalrymple could do with seeing both sides a little more clearly.  He does follow the experiences of a number of British people, men and women, in Delhi during the Mutiny, and he does make it clear that some of them were murdered, but he doesn’t seem to express the same horror about that as he does about the atrocities committed by the British forces.  Two wrongs, especially two such horrific wrongs, do not in any way make a right; but it is important to recognise that there was wrong on both sides.  His view doesn’t seem particularly balanced, and a lot of that seems due to his conviction that relations between the British and the Indians went wrong because of Evangelical Christianity.

He does also deal with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, so maybe he has it in for religious extremism in general. It’s hard to argue with anyone on that score!   But his argument seems to be everything that was going wrong revolved around cultural changes in British attitudes towards India, associated with the rise of Evangelical Christianity, whereas there were all sorts of different reasons for the Mutiny.  And, yes, I know that not everyone uses the term “Mutiny”, but it’s the one I’m used to.

Going back to God is an Englishman and A Dark and Distant Shore, neither of them – and obviously they’re novels, not academic books – focus on Delhi.  Books by British authors do usually focus on Cawnpore (Kanpur) and Lucknow and the sufferings of British civilians there, but this one does very much focus on Delhi, and the Indian viewpoint.  I’m saying “Indian”, but obviously we’re talking about a subcontinent of three major religions and many different ethnic groups, and that needs to be borne in mind.

The cause I first remember reading about was the use of beef and pork fat on cartridges used to grease guns. Soldiers had to bite the cartridges open.  What a stupid, insensitive thing to do – upsetting both Hindus and Muslims, and it could so easily have been avoided by using goat or mutton fat.  But that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.  There was so much else going on.  Interference in religion and culture, yes.  Fears that attempts would be made to make mass conversions to Christianity, yes.  Economic policy – free trade is a wonderful thing, but not when it interferes with local traditional ways of doing things.  The Doctrine of Lapse, by which the British authorities helped themselves to princely states with no direct heir, refusing to recognise the traditional practice of adopting an heir in such circumstances.  And it wasn’t called the Mutiny for nothing – there was widespread discontent in the Army, over pay, lack of opportunities for promotion, and, as British holdings in India expanded, men being sent further and further afield.

So it was hardly all about religious/cultural ideas.  And it’s pushing it to suggest, as Dalrymple does, that Evangelical Christians were making all the decisions about British policy in India, and I also think it’s pushing it to say that Evangelical Christians were to blame for all the negative aspects of imperialism … even if it does make a change from the often-made suggestion that British attitudes towards Indians changed for the worse when more British women began going to India, which is very objectionable!  A lot of the trouble in China was caused by Catholic missionaries, rather than Evangelicals, incidentally.  And the people who did look at expansion and imperialism as some sort of religious thing were part of a wider culture of Western-centrism, which was about race and industrialisation as much as it was about religion.  It’s the whole “White Man’s Burden” thing.  And the American term “Manifest Destiny” goes right back to just before the Mexican War.  It’s horrible, and it’s frightening, but it went way beyond religious activism.

These people did actually mean well, I suppose. And, as much as it’s easy to criticise their ideas of cultural superiority, you can see why they thought that, for example, trying to end the practice of widows committing suicide was a good thing.   This still goes on today.  Should people be criticised for trying to end Female Genital Mutilation, which is a traditional practice in some areas? And David Cameron was accused of cultural imperialism when he quite rightly criticised the very poor record of some Commonwealth countries on LGBT rights – ironically, a subject on which Evangelical Christians would probably oppose change in the countries concerned.   All cultures can learn from other cultures. Look how many English words have come from Urdu and Hindi. We use some of them every day. Shampoo. Pyjamas. But that has to come in the right way, and that wasn’t what was happening in 19th century India.

I can’t abide preachy people who think they have the right to tell other people what to do, and who think that they’re morally and culturally superior to others. Thinking about missionaries in India always makes me think about St John Rivers, Jane Eyre’s cousin, one of the most annoying characters in classic literature – and that says a lot!  And some of the stuff coming out of the US at the moment is genuinely frightening.  But I do think Dalrymple’s a bit hard on them.  It’s worth remembering that Evangelicals played an important role in Abolitionism … although don’t get me started on the subject of William Wilberforce opposing holding of an inquiry into the Peterloo Massacre.  And the negative side of colonialism and imperialism was scarcely all their fault.  There were a lot of other factors at play.  Power politics.  The Mutiny broke out the year after the end of the Crimean War: the two things weren’t linked, but there was always “the Great Game” to be thought about.  Money – let’s never forget money!    Well, trade.  If only everyone had stuck to thinking about trade!

We do all need to try harder to see different sides of everything.  That’s becoming more and more of a rarity: increasingly, people will shout down anyone whose views differ from theirs, and hurl insults at them.  I recently read an obituary of Senator John McCain which referred to the respect that he and Barack Obama showed for each other.  Fewer and fewer politicians show that respect towards opponents now, and it’s the same with the press, and, in many cases, with people in general.

Back to the Mutiny. Was it Niall Ferguson who said that Britain somehow ended up with “the wrong empire”?  We were supposed to be after trade, not colonies and certainly not all this “white man’s burden” stuff.  There’d been criticism in Britain for years of Spanish behaviour in Latin America, all the “Black Legend” stuff.  Was the Mutiny the point at which it changed?

There’s a lot to think about, in this book, beyond the actual events of 1857-58. Poor old Zafar himself.  The final end of the Mughal period – that great Empire, the Empire of the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort and, for so many years, religious harmony.  What happens to emperors after their empires have gone?  Zafar only lived a few years afterwards, and the senior Romanovs were wiped out, but spare a thought for the various Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns and others still dotted around the world.  And, finally, back to the question of Evangelical Christians and Islamic fundamentalists – and add the religious right-wing elements of Judaism, Hinduism and other religions into that as well.   One of the few good things that Oliver Cromwell did for this country was to show people that religious extremism is best kept out of politics.  It usually is, here.  It’s a great shame that that isn’t the case everywhere.

Nobody can agree on the Indian Mutiny.  Mutiny?  War of independence?  Either way, you can’t argue that it wasn’t a big deal.  However, that’s usually seen in terms of the change from the rule of the East India Company to the rule of the British Crown – and, yes, that was the main effect, but the fact that it did finally end the Mughal Empire, even if the “Mughal Empire” was by then only one part of one city, deserves recognition too, and that’s what this book was about.  Even if it did go on rather too much about religious attitudes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Seamstress by Maria Duenas

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This book is set partly in Madrid, partly in and around Lisbon, partly in Tangier, then a multicultural international zone associated with everything from artists to espionage, and mostly in Tetouan, which served as the capital of the Spanish protectorate of Morocco from 1913 to 1956. Four fascinating cities, and an interesting story set mainly during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, with a mixture of real people and fictional characters.

It’s not a spy story – I don’t really do spy stories, apart from James Bond! – but a lot of it does involve the Special Operations Executive. I generally associate Special Operations Executive with Occupied France – and I’m afraid that that’s just made me think of ‘Allo ‘Allo, but never mind – and the Norwegian heavy water sabotage, and don’t think very much about Spain and all the other countries where operations were taking place; and I think there’s also a tendency to think of Spain and Portugal as being outside mainstream European history during the period of the fascist dictatorships there, despite the well-known links between Franco and Hitler.

Also, despite the Rif War and its effect on Spanish politics in the 1920s, and for all the ongoing rows over Western Sahara (why does no-one make a fuss over the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara?), and the fact that Spain holds Ceuta and Melilla, it’s easy to forget that Spain was, and still is, involved in North Africa – it wasn’t all about France, Italy and (in Egypt) Britain. As the book points out, Spain didn’t really get involved in the Scramble for Africa, but it did, after losing control of Cuba and the Philippines, make an agreement with France which gave it control of a couple of bits of Morocco.  Tetouan, a city with a complicated history (involving a lot of pirates, back in the day!), and a mixed population of Arab Muslims, Berber Muslims and Sephardi Jews, was the administrative centre of the southern bit.

I’m not sure that we really got the distinction between Arabs and Berbers, though: there were just a lot of references to “Moors”. I was slightly bemused in Sicily recently to see a sign warning people to beware of “Saracens” in cafes.  I assume that it was in the sense of the old-fashioned English term “street Arabs”, but you just wouldn’t dream of using that term in English now, and you wouldn’t really say “Moors” when talking about the 20th or 21st centuries.  Anyway, things are presumably different in Spanish and Italian … and I have now got off the point.  I just have a lot of sympathy with the way that the Berbers have been treated in Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and elsewhere.  And, having said all of this, there were quite a few references to “Riffians”, and Riffians are Berbers.

OK, OK, back to the point!   Amongst the Spanish officials there in the 1930s were the pro-British Juan Luis Beigbeder y Atienza, later Franco’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Franco’s pro-German brother-in-law, who would eventually replace Beigbeder as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ramon Serrano Suner.

So some pretty influential people. Both of them, especially Beigbeder, feature in the book, as do Alan Hillgarth, the British adventure novelist who was an intelligence agent in Spain in the 1930s and 1940s, and Rosalinda Powell Fox, Beigbeder’s lover and a British spy.  Churchill’s supposed to have said that “the war might have taken a very different course were it not for Rosalinda”.

None of them are very familiar figures. It’s not a part of twentieth century history that gets a lot of attention.  Too much else going on at the time, to be fair!

The main characters, though, are the fictional ones. The first person protagonist, the seamstress of the title, is Sira Quiroga.  The early part of her life’s a bit like a cross between Evita and a Georgian melodrama – she’s the illegitimate daughter of a Madrid seamstress and her married former lover, grows up in poverty, and dumps her nice boyfriend for someone who is clearly bad news.  Her long-lost dad reappears on the scene, gives her a load of money and jewellery, and suggests that she get out of Spain because trouble (the civil war)’s coming.  She and the new boyfriend go off to Morocco, and, whaddaya know, he runs off with her money and jewellery and leaves her with a huge pile of debts.  She gets involved with various shady characters, and sets herself up as a high-class dressmaker in Tetouan, where most of her customers are the wives of Nazis hanging around there, but where she also meets and becomes friendly with the aforementioned Rosalinda Powell Fox, and is recruited by the British Special Operations Executive.

She goes back to Madrid, and is sent on a mission to Lisbon, and there’s a lot of chasing around and jumping off trains … it is all a bit James Bond, but it’s largely a historical novel, full of information about what was going on in the Spanish protectorate and in Spain itself at the time. What would have happened if Spain had joined forces with the Third Reich and Mussolini’s Italy?  It could well have happened.  Maybe it’s best not to think too much about it.  It sounds a bit weird that a book should start off as a tale of poverty and dodgy boyfriends and then turn into a wartime thriller, but it does work really well.  I love the idea of writing notes in Morse code, made to look like the stitches for a sewing pattern!

And it’s been made into a TV series, under its original title – El Tiempo Entre Costuras (The Time Between Seams) – in Spain, but unfortunately it’s never been shown in the UK. Sky Arts used to show some good Spanish drama series – I really enjoyed Grand Hotel and Isabella – but they don’t any more, which is a shame.

The ending is really annoying, though. We see Sira reunitedwith Marcus Logan, a British spy with whom she’d become involved in Tetouan and then (as you do) just happened to bump into whilst she was on her secret mission to Lisbon.  After they’d dramatically got off the train together to escape the agents of the Spanish double agent who’s working for both the British and the Nazis (I did say it was all a bit James Bond), and it’d turned out that he knew her long-lost dad (yes, OK, it did get a bit far-fetched), but we don’t actually find out what happens to them after the war – we’re told that it’s all a mystery.  Sorry, but that’s a rather silly way to end a book!

But, apart from the ending, and the fact that some of the spy adventure stuff is a bit bonkers for a book that isn’t actually a spy story, it’s very entertaining, and very interesting. It really is easy to think of Spain and Portugal as having been outside the mainstream of European history for much of the twentieth century, and maybe even the second half of the nineteenth century too.  They weren’t.  And Tetouan – I love Morocco, but I knew nothing about Tetouan before reading this book, but what a fascinating place it sounds!  And, come on, Sky Arts, give us some more Spanish drama!