When historians fall out

Richard J Evans squares up to Timothy Snyder.

In this week's London Review of Books, the first four letters are devoted to discussing Richard J Evans's damning review of the American historian Timothy Snyder's recent book, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. In one of the missives, the distinguished historian of Poland, Norman Davies, writes that Evans's review had treated Snyder as "an egregious interloper fit only to be chased from the parish", while in another letter a leading historian of the eastern European Jewry, Anthony Polonsky, argues that "Evans attacks Snyder for overemphasising the sufferings of the Poles at the hands of both Stalin and Hitler, but Snyder's figures for Polish casualties are lower than those usually cited, and they reflect the most recent research."

In his review of Snyder's book published in the 4 November issue of the LRB, Evans berated Snyder for his focus on the geographical area (Belarus, Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Western Russia) that gives the book its title, Bloodlands: "By focusing exclusively on what he calls the 'bloodlands', Snyder also demeans, trivialises or ignores the suffering of the many other Europeans who were unfortunate enough to fall into Nazi hands." Evans went on in his review to list Snyder's apparent omissions from his account of Nazi and Soviet mass extermination, and accused him of writing with a geographical and historical myopia: "The fundamental reason... for the book's failure to give an adequate account of the genesis of the Final Solution, is that Snyder isn't seriously interested in explaining anything. What he really wants to do is to tell us about the sufferings of the people who lived in the area he knows most about."

In another of the letters in this week's LRB, Charles Coutinho points out that the particularly caustic criticism given by Evans in his review, may in part be due to a similarly disparaging critique of Evans's most recent book, The Third Reich at War, written by Snyder and published in the New York Review of Books in December 2009. Evans admits as much in his response to the letters (published alongside them), though is far from being apologetic:

Charles Coutinho does indeed put his finger on one of the many reasons Snyder's book made me so cross, which is that Snyder devoted all of what was meant to be a review of The Third Reich at War in the New York Review of Books to making erroneous and unsubstantiated claims about my supposed ignorance of Russian and Eastern European history. At the time I wondered what made a supposedly serious historian fall into such egregious error. After reading his book, I now know: it's Snyder, not me, who has an incorrigible desire to drive out fellow historians he sees as "interlopers" from what he considers to be his own "parish".

This debate will no doubt continue, with further salvos of letters from eminent historians addressed to eminent journals to be published in the future. The only thing that seems certain in this academic maelstrom is that, even if the historical veracity or value of Snyder's Bloodlands is questionable, the historiographical impact of its publication is not.

Read David Herman's New Statesman review of Bloodlands here.

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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