Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on José Saramago, Jacek Hugo-Bader and William Rees-Mogg.

Cain by José Saramago

Nobel prize-winning author José Saramago's last novel, Cain, is published posthumously in English (Saramago died in June 2010). Ian Sansom in the Guardian notes that Cain is "a rewriting of the biblical story...Cain gets to enjoy his endless exile, ambling aimlessly through a number of other biblical episodes and scenes." Cain concludes from his travels that God must be mad. "[T]he only alternative explanation -one already mooted in Saramago's Gospel - is that God might be 'evil pure and simply'", writes Ángel Gurría-Quintana in the Financial Times.

Sansom praises the novel as a "fitting conclusion" to Saramago's career: "Cain's is the story of mankind, and Saramago was one of those authors much concerned with the plight of mankind". While Gurría-Quintana observes that, "Saramago takes great pleasure in pointing out the gratuitous cruelty of the Old Testament's God, and the idiocy of the priapic patriarchs who committed atrocities in his name."

Allan Massie writes in the Scotsman that "Every page of this novella, translated with a fluent and light touch by Margaret Jill Costa, has its charm. Every page raises difficult questions. That over the centuries we have found no satisfying answer to these questions...doesn't make them less compelling."

White Fever by Jacek Hugo-Bader

Based upon a road trip across Siberia, Polish journalist Jacek Hugo-Bader's White Fever is about "a society in moral and social breakdown" reports Luke Harding in the Guardian. It also includes "plenty of unexpectedly joyous moments",

White Fever, Harding argues, shows that after Communism's fall, "Russia has failed to come up with a new national idea...While some Siberians have turned to mysticism in search of meaning, others cling to the old Soviet faith ... The strength of this book is that it dwells on human stories that lie outside the parameters of conventional newspaper reporting." Harding also praises the translation from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones as "pitch perfect".

Carl Wilkinson writes in the Financial Times that White Fever is "a funny, enlightening and thoroughly engaging piece of reportage. Hugo-Bader eschews grand descriptions in favour of brilliant vignettes of his encounters with the people who live there." "

Memoirs by William Rees-Mogg

William Rees-Mogg has been editor of the Times, vice-chairman of the BBC and "has known every British Prime Minister since Anthony Eden...and most Popes and American Presidents," notes Allan Massie in the Scotsman. Peter Preston's review in the Guardian describes Mogg's memoirs as "thought-provoking...a voice from the recent past still resonant beyond the columns he writes for the Mail on Sunday and the Times."

"Most of the main political questions between the 1950s and the present are examined dispassionately and lenient judgments pronounced," finds Paul Johnson in the Spectator. "What distinguishes his memoirs is a lack of malice. There are no unpleasant stories". Mogg has a "distaste for sharp personal criticism. This gives his book magnanimity, to put it mildly, but it makes for dull reading." By contrast, Massie finds that "There are many amusing anecdotes and observations...The passages about his family background, education and home life are full of charm and interest."

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit