Acres of oilseed rape in flower amid the limestone hills of Yunnan, southern China. Photo: George Steinmetz/Corbis
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There is nothing very lovely about oilseed rape

Don’t be fooled by its seas of scented acid-yellow blooms, the plant otherwise known as canola is one of the world’s most unethical crops.

It was an awkward moment. I had been in Yangzhou a week, one of a dozen foreign writers attending the Slender West Lake Poetry Festival, and throughout the trip, our very diligent hosts had conspired to show us all that was best about the local culture, from brush painting to fine cuisine to the live traditions of calligraphy and guzheng (Chinese zither).

Best of all, for me at least, were the gardens, from the parkland around the lake itself to classical courtyards where extraordinary specimens of penjing (the Chinese equivalent of bonsai) stood proud amid the jade flowers and flowering plums. Every turn had presented new pleasures: not just the orientalism that this hurried description might suggest, but living examples of how human beings can get it right in their dealings with the land. Yet, according to my hosts, one particularly memorable sight was to come.

From the one hint I’d been given I should have guessed – I would see a great expanse of sweetly scented yellow flowers, running all the way to the horizon. But how could I have known, in that Eden of cherry groves and jade flowers, that the coming treat would be nothing more than a Chinese version of those industrial-scale oilseed rape fields that, supported by extravagant subsidies, have come to dominate the British landscape? Was it possible, as we descended from our coach after a two-hour drive, that we, and the thousands of others abandoning their cars anywhere they could and streaming down this gridlocked road, had come to see a rape field?

It was, as I say, an awkward moment – and yet there was something magical about it, too. Unable to push any further through the crowds, our driver had simply stopped and let us off to walk the last mile with the other pilgrims, some carrying babies and toddlers in their arms, many wearing surgical-style masks over their mouths. By the roadside, enthusiastic country folk peddled rapeseed honey (apparently considered to possess healing properties) and when we finally reached the main field, a five-storey pagoda at its centre, something like a fair was in progress, with people selling everything from pig meat to inflatable plastic toys. The smell – boiled pork mixed with candy sugar and rapeseed pollen – was overwhelming, but the exhilaration was strangely contagious, and when one of our host party turned to me, smiling, waiting for my positive reaction, I found myself nodding and mumbling that most British of compliments. “Lovely,” I said. “It’s just . . . lovely.”

But is it? For many, oilseed rape (marketed as “canola” in the United States after the original tag, “Lear” – for “low erucic acid rapeseed” – failed to catch on) is a classic indicator of all that is dubious about industrialised agriculture.

It was made infamous when the agrochemical giant Monsanto sought damages of $400,000 from Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian grain farmer, after he was found to be growing Monsanto’s patented genetically modified rapeseed. The seed had blown into Schmeiser’s field: a common problem, as most North American rapeseed production is GM-based. Rape is prized for its high tolerance of herbicides, while the oil is commonly obtained by solvent-based processes, with further chemicals employed to bleach and deodorise it. Moreover, after these initial treatments, it is often used in the production of processed food where, some researchers claim, trans fatty acid levels of up to 40 per cent can occur during hydrogenation.

The jury is still out on the consequences for land use and consumer health. So, as pretty as it may be in full flower beneath the early summer sun, oilseed rape may not be so lovely after all.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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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