Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Claude Lanzmann, Andrew Motion and A N Wilson.

The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir by Claude Lanzmann

In the Telegraph, Nicholas Shakespeare delights in stories from the French director's life. Though Lanzmann is famous for Shoah, his 1985 documentary about the Holocaust, and lived life on the edge fighting for the French resistance, Shakespeare believes that the book has light as well as shade: "his memoir is also - surprisingly and triumphantly - a childlike celebration of life as Lanzmann sees it epitomised by the singularity of another hare that bounds out of the darkness". Though some dates don't seem to add up in this "dense" memoir, Shakespeare approaches such inconsistencies with ease, claiming they do not detract from the remarkable undertaking Lanzmann has attempted at the age of 86.

In this week's New Statesman, George Walden is similarly awed by Lanzmann's execution in condensing such a remarkable life into one (albeit large) volume. Calling it "a breathless book", he writes: "the zest for adventure is compelling, the writing - beautifully translated by Frank Wynne - fluent and inventive...the character and topographical sketches dazzling, the action sequences enthralling". But Walden is less forgiving of Lanzmann's embellishments, and does not hesitate to suggest that "A politician must justify his actions in the light of history; a writer and cineaste, it appears, is permitted his modish enthusiasms".

Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion

There's high praise for Andrew Motion's attempt to pick up where Robert Louis Stevenson left off in the beloved Treasure Island. In the Independent on Sunday, Suzi Feay claims the book convincingly recreates the style and scale of the 19th Century novel. "Motion is never afraid to slow the action in order to create some glowing effect of atmosphere or setting". In terms of its relationship to the Stevenson's classic, Feay believes it is a sensitively rendered homage: "The narrative's darker meditations and developments may stray into the territory of Joseph Conrad, but in a real sense, RLS is on this voyage too ... I think he'd approve of this rich and thrilling narrative which so ingeniously complements his own".

Writing in the Sunday Express, Martin Newell perceives that "Motion, probably for the first time in years, is having fun with this". The style, he says, is "airy, almost carefree, rapidly drawing the reader in", and has an "elegance" befitting the poet in Motion. Newell is also convinced by the attempt to recreate the world of Treasure Island, going so far as to say, "it is sometimes hard to perceive the join between their books".

Hitler: A Short Biography by A N Wilson

A N Wilson's take on Hitler and Nazism has, to say the least, received a mixed response. In the Observer, Nick Cohen describes this "short, sharp" work as "a liberation" when compared to the innumerable hefty biographies of Hitler, and praises the attempt to refresh a subject that has been exhausted by others: "Wilson refuses to play the 'parlour game' of counterfactual history and ask what if Britain and France had found the strength to stop the Nazis in 1936. The historian should only study what happened, he says". Cohen also writes that Wilson "is superb at putting himself in the shoes of others and sketching the mood of a time with a few strokes of the pen". But his adulation ends abruptly at Wilson's closing sentiments, which he believes let the entire book down since they are merely "witterings that are so asinine Thought for the Day could broadcast them".

Historian Richard J Evans dismisses not only the ending as misinformed, but the entire biography. In an acerbic attack in the New Statesman which spares no aspect of the book, he writes : "What might do as background research for a novel won't do as preparation for a serious work of history. Nor does he seem to have thought very hard or taken much care over what little reading he has done". Evans proceeds to list just a few of these failings, turning Wilson's claims inside out. Furthermore, he notes that "There are many contradictions in the book's arguments", and Wilson often uses "material that is marginal or irrelevant". Incredulity is the dominant note: "It's hard to think why a publishing house that once had a respected history list agreed to produce this travesty of a biography".

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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