Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Otto Dov Kulka, Tracey Thorn and Henry Hitchings.

Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination by Otto Dov Kulka

Otto Dov Kulka, professor emeritus of Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, attracts widespread praise for his memoir of his childhood incarceration in Auschwitz.

Linda Grant, writing in the New Statesman, describes the book as a “short memoir of inquiry [which] consists of ten chapters that are transcripts of tape recordings he made in the 1990s, followed by three extracts from his diaries. It is almost unclassifiable.” Grant praises the way the book “tries to penetrate the maze of established fact and personal experience in order to arrive at what seems unreachable.” She concludes, “nothing else I have read comes close to the profound examination of what the Holocaust means. ...The journey strikes me as a quest similar to the attempt to describe the face of God or the structure of the universe. They are too vast and mysterious, not that it stops us, or this author, from trying.”

Arifa Akbar, in the Independent, describes the book as composed of “philosophical inquiries into the relationship between memory and forgetfulness - what a boy remembers of such traumatic events and how memory re-processes the trauma.” Made up of “descriptions, reflections and dreams, emotionally restrained but so intense that they read like nuggets of interiority ... Kulka's reflections have an unsettling rawness.” Kulka describes a world in which death is ever present: “it is the dark stains left by blood in the snow during the evacuation of the camp. It is there in the ritualised violence of public beatings and the magnetic force that surrounds inmates." Yet, “there are also moments of protest, black humour and beauty.” Akbar finds a “grave, poetic and horrifying account of the Holocaust which does not so much revisit the Auschwitz of the past, but the Auschwitz of Kulka's inner world.”

Simon Schama in the Financial Times begins by setting out the pitfalls of writing about the Holocaust: "language, especially the wrought language of literature, struggles to register atrocities unrecognisable as the acts of sentient humans. Yet however unequal to the task, writers persist in their efforts to give form to smoke; to match words to madness...chroniclers of what Otto Dov Kulka calls ‘the Great Death’ continue to be torn between redundancy and futility.” In Landscapes, Schama finds “not so much a book about Auschwitz as one about coming to terms with the shock of survival ... the writing hovers around the incineration, as he puts it, ‘like a moth circles a flame.’” In “Kulka’s patient but exacting self-interrogations; his postwar circumlocutions and confrontations” Schama finds something “bony and austere, with scarcely a note of literary striving in the hundred-odd pages.” For Schama “what, ultimately, makes Kulka’s book unlike any other first-hand account written about the camps is the authenticity of its vision of an 11-year-old boy .. .All this is unimaginably horrifying, yet through the eyes of little Otto we can, again, apprehend it.”

 

Sorry! The English And Their Manners by Henry Hitchings

George Pendle, writing in the Financial Times, describes how “tripping from medieval documents to contemporary popular culture, Hitchings traces the role manners have played in the history of England, not to mention the considerable role the English have played in the history of manners.” “Hitchings ranges widely, ducking into psychiatry – ‘in the absence of good manners, the rawness of our primal urges burst forth’ – and physiology – ‘feelings of affiliation and attachment cause the hormone oxytocin to be released’ – to explain our use of manners.”  "As befits the author of The Secret Life of Words (2008) and The Language Wars (2011)," Pendle writes, "it is the English language that he sees as shedding the most light on his subject. ‘Good manners are like the principles of grammar,’ he writes, ‘we make use of them all the time but also violate them frequently.’”

Robert McCrum in the Observer says Hitchings “has been suffering from a mild case of anglophilia for some years ... Now, he has succumbed to a full-blown case of anglomania, a study of English social behaviour through the ages whose title – Sorry! – suggests that he knows his affliction is both contagious and untreatable.” McCrum sees this as part of “the agonies of the ‘British’ question. The catalogue of commentarians who have been driven to the edge of insanity by this topic is long and distinguished ... The English have never ceased to find themselves, and the complexities of their island inheritance, fascinating.” For McCrum, “the best parts of Sorry! are when Hitchings re-examines the English ‘manners’ of, for example, Samuel Pepys, Lord Chesterfield, who invented ‘etiquette’, Edmund Burke, or Fanny Trollope (Anthony's mother) and her entertaining strictures about the vulgarity and self-belief of Americans.” However, “as his exposition of English manners, and why we behave the way we do, approaches the present day, the rigour of Hitchings's absorbing analysis starts to break down as he becomes distracted by myriad contemporary issues and concerns ... His research becomes impressionistic and personal.” It is concluded that “Hitchings has made a bold, entertaining, and often imaginative, assault on a fundamentally impossible subject. Perhaps in writing Sorry! he will have found a cure for his affliction.”

Simon Heffer in the New Statesman finds Sorry! “an undisciplined book.” It “lapses into social history or rudimentary sociology , not exploring manners as such as asking why communities are less cohesive than they used to be.” Heffer criticises the way in which “Hitchings introduces little chats with passers by... And there is a lot about the US, which as far as I remember is not in England at all and not even in many cases a useful point of comparison.” Heffer comments “there are some interesting observations and facts in this book...But - if its not rude to say so – it should have been better edited and about half as long.”

 

Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star by Tracey Thorn

Judging by the usual content of musicians autobiographies, you’d expect this memoir to be an all round celebration of alcohol, drugs, and the joys of casual sex on tour. Bedsit Disco Queen is, in fact, quite the opposite: for a start, Thorn met her husband (and other half of Everything But The Girl) Ben Watt on her first day at university in 1981. She also barely mentions any use of narcotics, apart from one vague brush with barbiturates.

Not that we should focus on what this book is not – as Zoe Williams points out in the Guardian, “the gift of an interesting protagonist allows its author to be somewhat reticent about the aspects that other musicians would have to go large on”.

Whilst talking about her teenage years and various musical projects, Thorn manages to show a side of the 1980s that is often forgotten – a world of “John Peel on BBC Radio 1 every night; a world of bands, including EBTG, who played benefit gigs for striking miners”, writes Isabel Berwick in the Financial Times. She is also a refreshingly honest narrator, making it clear that she was always ““awkward” woman who just happened to become a pop star”.

And this is essentially why Bedsit Disco Queen works: as Williams explains, it manages to be a “critical but sensitive portrait of an idiosyncratic but intensely appealing character” as well as a story music lovers will enjoy. The anecdotes about Paul Weller, George Michael and others are sweet and funny, and the reflections on her relationship with Watts, professional and personal, will satisfy EBTG fans, as it is the first time either of them has talked openly about their private lives.

All in all, Thorn’s memoir touches on a lot of things – music, politics, intimate memories – except maybe what we might have been expected of her. It's about, as Berwick puts it, "everything but the glitz".

"Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star" will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Good manners: Roger Moore opening the door of his Volvo for Isabelle McMillan [Photo: Len Trievnor/Getty Images]
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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era