Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Alain de Botton, Joseph Roth and Nathan Englander.

Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton

In the current New Statesman, John Gray acknowledges Alain de Botton's view that religion and atheism could enjoy a more positive dialogue, but says he ought to paint religion more as a broad, overarching institution than as a hinge for individual belief: "Where he could have dug deeper is the tangled relations between religion and belief. If you ask people in modern western societies whether they are religious, they tend to answer by telling you what they believe (or don't believe). When you examine religion as a universal human phenomenon, however, its connections with belief are far more tenuous."

Terry Eagleton, in the Guardian, bemoans de Botton's liberal aesthetic, conceding its benignity but questioning its social utility: "Like Comte, De Botton believes in the need for a host of 'consoling, subtle or just charming rituals' to restore a sense of community in a fractured society. He even envisages a new kind of restaurant in which strangers would be forced to sit together and open up their hearts to one another. There would be a Book of Agape on hand, which would instruct diners to speak to each other for prescribed lengths of time on prescribed topics. Quite how this will prevent looting and rioting is not entirely clear."

Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, edited by Michael Hofmann

In the Telegraph, Julian Evans wonders if Roth the neurotic may emerge from these letters more vividly than Roth the literary figure. But he acknowledges that, for Roth, only artistry gave him a coherent view of reality: "Some readers might be disappointed that Roth writes so much about his personal problems, so little about his books or the process of writing. But what is on offer here is not a suave biography: it is instead an all-inclusive picture of what it was like to be a writer who, as he said, only understood the world when he was writing - and wrote magically beautiful books when he did. Michael Hofmann's translation is superb."

David Herman, in the Jewish Chronicle, says it is precisely the savagery of Hitler's rise to power and its aftermath that affords this volume its stark resonance: "Roth died of alcoholism in 1940, his schizophrenic wife was murdered by the Nazis in 1940 and [his friend] Zweig committed suicide in 1942. But his papers were rescued in Paris and later brought to New York. Now, brilliantly put together, full of illuminating editorial material, Joseph Roth's letters give us great insight into one of the outstanding writers of the 20th century and to the terrible times he lived through".

* Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the New Statesman.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander

In the latest New Statesman, Sophie Elmhirst is struck by Englander's capacity for deft, subtle changes of pace and theme: "He switches voice with uncanny agility, swerving from the casual, easy first-person of 'Anne Frank to 'Sister Hills', a dark, historical fable of Israeli settler history told through the lives of two women. The tonal contrast is not mere ventriloquism: Englander has the confidence and versatility to embody multiple voices, to create a complete and complex world within a story, each one distinct from the last."

Anthony Cummins, in the Telegraph, admires Englander's employment of the short story form solely on its generic terms, rather than as a nefarious through route to realising a perennial literary objective: "...short stories in their own right...gems worth polishing to perfection, rather than mere stepping stones to the traditional big game of the Great American Novel ."

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser