Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Roddy Doyle, D J Taylor and a history of the Caucasus.

The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle

Nick Rennison in the Sunday Times finds problems with the structure of The Dead Republic: "The two halves of the novel, divided by 20 years, seem almost to belong in different books and perfunctory attempts to yoke them together towards the end fail to persuade." The book "skilfully weaves together its facts and its fiction", yet as the end of a trilogy, it "suffers from Doyle's determination to cram so much significance into the trajectory of his antihero's life". Tim Adams in the Observer wonders "when exactly does a novel become a yarn?" "Over the course of the three books," he complains, "reality becomes slowly diluted." He writes that this is the result of "the engine of plot" that runs insistently beneath the surface, and "by which he has to get through years and decades", rushing him into "a less satisfying fast-forward". For Cole Moreton in the Financial Times: "There is lovely, brutal detail, as well as a grand swoop over the timeline of Ireland and America, just like the kind of film they just don't make any more." He insists that a reader must "suspend disbelief . . . Go with the story. It's magnificent."

Let Our Fame Be Great by Oliver Bullough

Wendell Steavenson in the Sunday Times admits that this history of the peoples of the north Caucasus is "a complicated tale", but finds that Bullough is "perfectly adept at reconstituting history from second-hand sources". For Steavenson, "the book really comes to life in the final section on the Chechen wars of the past 20 years", where there are "several wonderfully told, bitter stories". He is most impressed that: "This is the first attempt to put together the history of the lost Circassians in any whole account." Iain Finlayson in the Times agrees. Bullough, he says, "brings us exciting news, presented as short, gripping stories that tell of the terrible things that happen to people caught up in constant warfare". Justin Marozzi in the Financial Times declares that the book has "struck a blow for the glory of the Caucasus and helped to give voice to the voiceless". He writes that "while sensitive as a historian, Bullough is also deft as a reporter", describing the volume as "impassioned". To George Walden in the New Statesman, the book is "part historical travelogue and part journalistic reflection on the past and present-day sufferings of the region's peoples". He asserts that: "There are moments when it might have been preferable to allow the facts to speak for themselves, without an occasionally sentimentalising authorial commentary. The hint of Rousseau-esque noble savagery does no service to their cause. At some points in the Chechen story, a more critical eye is needed."

At the Chime of a City Clock by D J Taylor

In the Independent, Jonathan Gibbs writes that At the Chime . . . should be subtitled "a thriller . . . for bookish types", finding that "Taylor paces his story brilliantly, but it is a gentle Sunday trot through his chosen genre, rather than a breakneck race". The novle is "a carefully wrought, warm and inoffensive sort of fun". Leo Robson in the New Statesman, on the other hand, sees the book as "pastiche", requiring "sleuthing or guesswork on the part of the reader". He concludes that "one's enjoyment of the novel does not depend on unpicking its complicated ancestry", and that: "The book provides a fine exhibition of this writer's unusual speciality -- parochialism with panache." David Grylls in the Sunday Times concurs: "Taylor's latest novel is a pastiche period thriller -- but one in which pastiche and period elements loom larger than the thrills". "Taylor constructs a crime novel," he writes, "but one that largely lacks suspense or excitement or any real sense of mystery. Not so much film noir as Ealing comedy, less Double Indemnity than The Lavender Hill Mob, the novel is essentially social history filtered through popular culture."

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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster