Debris scattered around the sixth reactor building of the Fukushima power plant, whose reactors were built by General Electric. Image: Getty
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Snake Dance by Patrick Marnham: The self that is known

Under the care of the psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, Warburg was presented with a challenge: if he could successfully deliver a lecture to an invited audience of medical staff, patients and friends, he would be released.

Snake Dance: Journeys Beneath a Nuclear Sky
Patrick Marnham
Chatto & Windus, 352pp, £18.99

At the dead centre of this book’s snaking path down the friable face of human history stands Aby Warburg, a scion of the well-known banking family and a dilettante scholar at a time – and in a place – when to be so was still intellectually respectable. When Patrick Marnham writes that Warburg “mocked the keepers of academic purity as ‘border police’”, I suspect a strong sense of identification is at work. Michael P Steinberg, the translator of Warburg’s discipline-transgressing monographs on the snake dances of the Hopi, characterised his voice as one of “spiralling and endless mediation, between peoples, between pasts and presents, between the self that is known and the self that is secret”. I suspect that this, too, could be a description of Marnham’s own efforts in this book to which he would assent.

In the 1890s, Warburg travelled from his home in Florence to the American southwest with a view to substantiating theories he had about the endurance of pagan thinking in the Renaissance iconography. While there, he witnessed the snake dance of Marnham’s title, a ceremony in which the Hopi wrestle with live rattlesnakes and then expel them into the desert.

Many years later, in 1921, having sustained a terrible breakdown that Marnham hypothesises was a sort of collateral shell shock, Warburg was confined to an asylum in Kreuzlingen on the shores of Lake Constance. Under the care of the psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, Warburg was presented with a challenge: if he could successfully deliver a lecture to an invited audience of medical staff, patients and friends, he would be released. The subject Warburg chose to lecture on was the Hopi snake dance but the interpretation he placed on it – at least by Marnham’s account – was precursive of the theories of structural anthropology put forward by Claude Lévi-Strauss decades later.

For Warburg, the snake dance was an attempt by the Hopi to master the lightning that struck down from the heavens into their desert lands, the curves of the rattlesnake being an animate symbol of lightning – its flickering tongue the fork; mutatis mutandis, in contemporary culture Warburg identified the same electrical threat but this time from the technology of electrical simultaneity that collapsed the linear chains of causality on which the western Weltanschauung had been founded. But in keeping with Marnham’s desire to link places and peoples spirally, it isn’t simply the gravamen of Warburg’s argument that interests him: it’s the provenance of his research material, for the Hopi reservation where the sensitive scholar witnessed the primal ritual was only a few score miles away from Los Alamos, where the Manhattan Project scientists, under the direction of J Robert Oppenheimer, designed and built the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Snake Dance is short on “the self that is secret” as against “the self that is known” but its readers will learn at least this much about its author: initially interested in writing a biography of Oppenheimer, Marnham tells us that early on in his research he began to find himself quite viscerally repelled by what he was learning of his subject’s character, with its curious mixture of intellectual arrogance and braggadocio. He decided to pursue a different course – to investigate the genesis and meaning of Oppenheimer’s mind-children through a series of nuclear landscapes; New Mexico, but also the Belgian Congo, where the uranium that made the fissioning heart of Little Boy was mined; and also the exclusion zone around the nuclear power plant at Fukushima in Japan, following the meltdown after the tsunami of 2011.

Marnham, a veteran foreign correspondent with a distinguished record as both a journalist and a wide-ranging author of books about such diverse subjects as Georges Simenon, Jean Moulin and Mary Wesley, is in many ways the perfect guide for this centripetal odyssey in which all paths loop back towards a grim conclusion about the 20th century’s militarisation of technological advance. His prose is calm and unshowy, maintaining the same steady character whether recounting the terrifying course of an internal air flight in Congo or the toxic long tail that waggled out from Fukushima’s stricken reactor. He took a decade over Snake Dance, a book that is also, in part, a prose libretto for the moody and elegiac film of the same name made in tandem with the Belgian director Manu Riche. The book gives Marnham the opportunity to develop his thesis more thoroughly and less elliptically than the film, but even so it suffers from a form of post hoc reasoning that at times borders on tendentiousness.

The third person around whom Marnham triangulates his argument is Joseph Conrad and lengthy passages are devoted to retelling the story of the novelist’s short-lived career as a Congo River steamer captain and his exposure to the genocidal fiefdom established in Central Africa by King Leopold of Belgium. Marnham’s account, in situating the Belgian Congo as the foundational hecatomb of the 20th century, can’t help but bear comparison with W G Sebald’s Austerlitz, which also makes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness a choric link between natural devastation and techno-death.

Unfortunately – and somewhat inevitably – Marnham comes out the worse. Not only is Sebald’s lapidary prose, his masterful interfusing of the real and the fictive, superior in tone and feel to Marnham’s writing but his form of documentary fiction is better suited to putting forward a thesis that depends less on logical deduction than a willingness to let drop one’s disbelief in the chains of causality that Aby Warburg saw as crucial to maintaining good mental health in the electrical age. In his collection of lectures On the Natural History of Destruction, Sebald also lucidly expounded the thesis that lurks behind Marnham’s text; and this is, put bluntly, that military technology has an ineluctable productive inertia. The Allied bombing of German cities in the Second World War –which many, despite the inauguration last year of a pig-ugly memorial at Hyde Park Corner, still view as a prima facie war crime –was, according to Sebald, undertaken not for strategic reasons, nor simply as a punishment meted out to civilians for their collective culpability in Hitler’s wars and deranging atrocities, but because the bombers had been built, the crews trained and the ordinance manufactured. To justify the expense of all this, something had to be done with it.

Snake Dance applies this argument to the Manhattan Project, which, Marnham demonstrates, was initiated in advance of Pearl Harbor, when the US was still at peace, and further was prosecuted by a secret directorate, answerable to no democratic mandate. Even those who might wish to defend the Hiroshima bombing as essential to end the war (and this is by no means a defensible position: the Japanese were already suing for peace) can hardly claim that it was also necessary to incinerate tens of thousands of people at Nagasaki three days later, before the Japanese government had absorbed the impact of the first use of the atomic bomb.

Although these are urgent and important matters – all the more so because the global gaze, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has turned aside from the ever-present atrocity-in-waiting of nuclear war to concentrate its attention on the convenient and largely chimerical spectre of international terrorism – I’m afraid Marnham’s account, leaning heavily as it does on Richard Rhodes’s monumental The Making of the Atomic Bomb, adds little of substance.

Still, Marnham does have the solid virtue of boots on the ground. He writes penetratingly about the activities of the Belgian mining corporation at Shinkolobwe, speaks to the poor souls who now risk their lives to wrest a livelihood from the uranium workings deep in the jungle; and he is almost lyrical when he turns his attention to the beauty of the “America deserta” surrounding Los Alamos.

Where I found it harder to follow him was in his connection of the civil nuclear energy programme in Japan to the fomenting of the US military-industrial complex. He points out that the US government was the most persistent proponent of Japan’s programme and that the reactors – including those at Fukushima – were built by General Electric, often on woefully unsuitable sites, with the consequences that we have now seen.

In a way Marnham is simply a victim of his own clarity and lucidity: the Sebaldian contention depends for its terpsichorean effects on the numinous quality of the poetic truth that humanity has, for over a century now, been engaged in the mechanical annihilation of the thing that it loves. Put down starkly on the page as an accumulation of facts, this thesis risks being judged with the same kind of bean-counting mentality that enters unthinkingly into modern warfare as the extension of economic growth by other means.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era