Books in brief: Robert Walser, Michael Ruse and Hans Küng

Three new books you may have missed.

A Schoolboy’s Diary
Robert Walser

“I am certainly a proponent of the slackard’s life, laziness, happiness and peace,” writes Robert Walser’s narrator in the short piece “In the Military”. Walser, born in Switzerland in 1878, served in the National Guard and lived a precarious existence before ill-health confined him to a sanatorium in 1933. His many “prose pieces” (50 of which are collected here) capture what Ben Lerner, in his introduction, calls “a strange mix of exuberance and submission”. It is a curious outlook that sees freedom in military service but also “a million-strong crowd of . . . individuals who dispense with . . . thinking”, just before the Great War. “Is this not a picture to instil horror?” Walser asks casually.

NYRB Classics, 208pp, £8.99

 

The Gaia Hypothesis
Michael Ruse

The Gaia hypothesis – the idea that the earth is alive – has been scorned for the same reasons that it has been embraced. It melds biological science with feeling, mysticism and religion. Although the theory was brought to public attention by the English scientist James Lovelock in the early 1970s, the Gaia story is much older. Michael Ruse’s new book connects it with Plato through a long history of holistic thinking in order to explain why so many reject it as pseudoscience. As Lovelock said recently, “It has always seemed that many would have faith in Gaia . . . I prefer to keep a trust in Gaia; it is more consistent with science.”

University of Chicago Press, 251pp, £18

 

Can We Save the Catholic Church?
Hans Küng

Hans Küng is a progressive priest best known for publicly rejecting the doctrine of papal infallibility in the 1960s and for having been among the two youngest advisers at Vatican II (the other was the arch-conservative Joseph Ratzinger). Can We Save the Catholic Church? is an impassioned critique of the centristabsolutist DNA of the Catholic Church, which prescribes strong medicine for its “diseased patients”. A copy rests on the current Pope’s nightstand.

William Collins, 350pp, £12.99

The library of the National Assembly in Paris, France. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem