Books of the decade

Here's our top ten -- now name yours

Just in case you missed it, buried in the pile of goodies that was our Review of the Decade, here is our list of the top ten books of the past ten years. But what did we miss? Have your say in the comment box below.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

The definitive post-apocalyptic novel. An unspecified disaster has befallen America, and a father and son wander unconsoled and afraid through a blasted landscape. Charting the pair's peregrinations across this "cauterised terrain", McCarthy's prose achieves a pitch of poetic intensity and terrible beauty that few, if any, of his contemporaries could dream of matching.

The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen (2009)

Sen's magisterial critique of the dominant mode of liberal political philosophy, which chases after the chimera of an ideally just society rather than identifying existing injustices, confirmed him as the English-speaking world's pre-eminent public intellectual. By 2009, leading politicians from all sides were falling over themselves to claim Sen as their own.

Austerlitz by W G Sebald (2001)

Austerlitz was Sebald's final book; he died in a car crash shortly after it was published. Like its critically lauded predecessors, it mixes fiction and memoir in order to cast light on the darkest hours of European history in the middle of the 20th century.

The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda's Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright (2006)

The 11 September 2001 attacks may have shaped the world as we now know it, but al-Qaeda remains a mysterious and misunderstood organisation. Wright's meticulously researched account of the events leading up to the attacks shed light on Osama Bin Laden and his network of followers.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)

Didion has been one of America's sharpest essayists for many decades. In The Year of Magical Thinking, an account of the year that followed her husband's sudden death in 2003, she turns her skill as a writer to the most profoundly personal and traumatic events. The result is an unmatched study of grief.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)

Anticipating the public's hunger for books that explain the world with a catchy-sounding theory, The Tipping Point told us why certain ideas catch on, and others don't. The Tipping Point, like Gladwell's subsequent books, sold millions of copies and launched an entire new genre.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)

Written while Smith was still a literature student at Cambridge, White Teeth announced a major new talent. Drawing on her upbringing as a mixed-race child in north London, the novel captured a certain kind of confusion and longing at the heart of post-colonial Britain as it teetered on the edge of the 21st century.

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009)

Wilkinson and Pickett's study gave scientific weight to a long-held claim of the left: that people are happier and healthier when they live in societies where wealth is distributed more equally. But the book's influence stretches across party lines and its findings are likely to shape political debate for many years to come.

No Logo by Naomi Klein (2000)

This was the work that turned Klein, a Canadian journalist, into the world's foremost critic of globalisation. An investigation into corporate branding, No Logo was a rallying call for activists across the world. Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand radical politics -- including its failures -- during the past decade.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2003)

In the vein of Art Spiegelman's Holocaust tale Maus or Joe Sacco's Palestine, Satrapi's memoir was a comic book with literary weight. A global bestseller that was then turned into a film, the book struck a chord with western readers in particular, desperate for human stories behind their countries' antagonistic relationship with Iran.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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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