Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on André Brink, Artur Domoslawski and Claire Kilroy.

With the Man Booker shortlist scheduled to be announced in under a month the review columns are still busily ingurgitating the long list. Last week many of the papers focused André Brink’s Philida, named after its protagonist, a black slave who decides to lodge a complaint against her lover after he reneges on his promise to free her.

Peter Kemp’s review in the Sunday Times was less than adulatory. Recurrent references to tight-knit artistry can’t conceal the fact that Brink gets himself into a hapless ­tangle” he writes, appearing actively affronted by the fact that “the obscene maltreatments of slaves are regularly mentioned but seem to exist in a different realm from the one in which she [Philida] dauntlessly overrides menace”, as a result of which the book “nullifies any sense of the danger and terror her real-life counterpart must have suffered.”

Other reviewers were more positive. Alex Clark writes in the Guardian that it is “an impressively nuanced and ambiguous piece of work” whose “strength lies in the delicate understanding of subtle shifts in power in the Cape Colony's teetering ecosystem”. With these shifts come similarly subtle plays on the reader’s affections: “Brink's achievement is to invoke a measure of sympathy for the fading Dutch colonialists as well” that for their slaves. Yet this doesn’t challenge Philida’s position as the heroine and whilst she “can occasionally feel like a mouthpiece for a rather overworked metaphor … she can also be brilliantly irreverent and almost ribald”. This playfulness acts as a good contrast against the book’s more haunting moments, and these elements of “light and shade that Brink has skillfully introduced into his augmented family history make for a compelling and memorable novel.”

Patrick Flanery, writing in the Telegraph, called it “moving story” that “vividly dramatises the courage required to lay claim to the protections of the law.” “Slaves – both male and female – are repeatedly reminded in Philida that their bodies are not their own”, yet “this is not to suggest that Philida is a passive victim. If she lacks the physical strength to repel unwanted attention from her owners, her command of language becomes ever more defiant.” Whilst it is “familiar territory for Brink”, whose earlier novel Chain of Voices explored a slave rebellion that is also referenced in Philida, and “a familiar story, it is one that must continue to be told, not least by white writers willing, as Brink is, to disinter the histories of complicity buried in their own ancestries.” For it turns out that Philida's "owner" Cornelis, is the brother of one of Brink's ancestors.

The marriage of fact and fiction also occurs in the work of Ryszard Kapuscinski, though somewhat more unfortunately considering his position as a journalist. As such, one of the primary concerns of Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life, biography by Artur Domoslawski, is to chart these inaccuracies.

Ian Birrell remarks in the Guardian that though “as a reporter, his actions were indefensible”, one cannot overlook “the brilliance with which he turned frontline journalism into a form of literature.” Thus, by the end of his “masterful” and “inquisitive” biography, “Domoslawski finally understands his friend and mentor: ‘Ryszard Kapuscinski – the hero of Ryszard Kapuscinski books – is also a fictional character.’” As a result of the the controversies unearthed, the biography “caused a furore when published in Poland two years ago” gripping the country with the “confirmation of collusion with the communist authorities. But what makes it so interesting is that the author does not shred Kapuscinki's reputation, not does he ignore the mounds of uncomfortable evidence. Instead, he peels away and probes with understanding, producing not just a fascinating biography of an important writer but also a subtle study of life under authoritarianism”. Though “at times Domoslawski's style, possibly due to its translation from Polish, seems almost self–consciously to echo its subject's writing”.

Marek Kohn’s review in the Independent, however, sees more of a contrast between the work and its subject. "It refuses to adopt the strategy favored by its author's friend and mentor", for whom the "harmony of the composition counters the disturbance aroused by his accounts of war and the physiology of power." Domoslawski "never spares his readers his discomfort and dismay … He is dedicated in pursuit of evidence… [and] leaves the surfaces unsmoothed and the edges jagged.” Though Kohn does note that “both the text and its subject are tissues of complexes, striving to construct themselves out of their own insecurities.” Despite this shortcoming, he calls the result the “first comprehensive reckoning” with Kapuscinski.

Though Claire Kilroy's The Devil I Know, the fictional testimony of an Irish moneylender named Tristram, isn't poised to court controversy in the way that Domoslawski's book does, Sheena Joughin notes in the Telegraph that “the cover of [her] fourth novel declares her 'a writer unafraid to take risks', which is undeniably true.” What she is doubtful about is whether the risks always pay off, pulling out one of the protagonist's quotes "what precisely the whole sorry mess goes to show – I cannot yet say” with the wry comment that “Kilroy’s greatest risk is perhaps that readers may feel the same way.” "The prose is peppered with puns, sub-Beckettian deadpan, and much inscrutable free-association" and "lacks drama, since Tristram is never excited by the boom his company facilitates, as he would have to be for his oddly insubstantial story to engage us."

Amber Pearson's review in the Daily Mail is less damning, calling the satire “energetic” and “at times genuinely creepy”. The novel “takes delight in literary allusions and diabolical puns, but despite the humour there’s real fury in her portrayal of the casual greed, corruption and wilful delusion that pervaded society ‘like the pox’, creating a belief in a kind of modern alchemy: the conviction that Ireland’s soil could be turned to gold.”

Polish author Ryszard Kapuscinski is the subject of Domoslawski's biography (Photo: Getty Images)
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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