Reviews Round-up

The critics's verdicts on William Dalrymple, Sheila Heti and Lucy Hughes-Hallett.

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple

Barnaby Rogerson of the Independent praises the vivid writing of Darlymple’s account of the first Anglo-Afghan war. The historical characters are full of “passion, vivacity and animation ... you feel you have marched, fought, dined and plotted with them all”. However, Rogerson finds that “the parallels between the disastrous British occupation of Afghanistan in 1839, and the post 9/11 occupation of Afghanistan by the US and some of its NATO allies, are so insistent that they begin to sound like the chorus of a Greek tragedy.” Rogerson deems this a book rich with insights into how this war shaped modern Afghanistan. “The destruction of a British Army of the Indus ... gave Afghanistan its national identity and self-esteem,” he writes. The war also “forged the very concept of Afghanistan as a separate, Islamic nation dominated by an alliance of Pathan tribes ruling from Kabul”. In addition, “the bizarre political frontiers of our modern age were directly created in this period.”

Rupert Edis, in the Daily Telegraphpraises Dalrymple’s use of “remarkable new Afghan and Indian sources”. However, he takes issue with the book’s “unwonted contemporary or didactic relevance”. Edis argues the “Britain’s First Afghan War does not have the ‘clear and relevant parallels’ claimed for it ‘with the current deepening crisis’ of the latest invasion of Afghanistan”. He adds: "It is strongly arguable that the situation in Afghanistan is improving, not worsening, and writing that Afghanistan may end up as in 1842 ‘ruled by the same [Taliban] government which the war was originally fought to overthrow’ is plain wrong. The West’s justified war aims in 2001 of toppling the Taliban and destroying al-Qaeda in Afghanistan have been achieved. “ Nevertheless, Edis concedes that, “overwrought comparisons with the present aside, this book is a masterpiece of nuanced writing and research.”

For Anatol Lieven in the Financial Times, there is much to be learned from this book. He praises Dalrymple for his “unflinching look at British imperial atrocities”. For Lieven, “it is to be hoped that any future British leader contemplating intervention in Afghanistan, or any other part of the Muslim world, will read Dalrymple’s book”. It shows us the dangers of “civilisational hubris,” and how “every intervention in Afghanistan has turned out to be far more expensive than was foreseen by its planners". Finally, Dalrymple reminds us of "the need to understand Afghanistan on its own terms, and not fit it into simplistic international frameworks". Lieven concludes: “In view of this past record, it would not surprise me in the slightest if in the years to come the west finds itself relying on the Taliban to create order in large parts of Afghanistan. Certainly, the British survivors of 1842 would have found nothing unexpected in such an outcome. But then, one of the most depressing aspects of Dalrymple’s account is that most British officials only really tried to learn about Afghanistan when they were on the verge of abandoning the place.”

Return of a King will be reviewed by Sherard Cowper-Coles, formerly Britain's special representative in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the next edition of the New Statesman.


How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti

Holly Williams, writing in the Independentgives an indication of her opinion of this book in the opening line of her review: “My, what a beautiful navel I have.” “Is it fiction? Memoir? A half-arsed play?” Williams asks. It is not clear how much of this "supremely self-indulgent" book is taken from real life. The "fragmentary first-person story of recently divorced twenty-something Sheila – trying to write a play; failing" is "written by [that] fateful label 'voice of a generation'". Williams adds:"British readers may find that it speaks to them less." There is "vague philosophical musing about how to live, how to be a beautiful person, and how to create art, but there's little plot." Williams finds "reading How Should a Person Be? [to be] like listening in to someone gossip on public transport. You both groan inwardly and strain to catch the next revelation. It is frequently maddening – I don't often find myself actually rolling my eyes at a book – but also terribly compelling."

For Claudia Yusef in the Daily Telegraph, “Sheila Heti’s semi-autobiographical novel is a humorous, quixotic quest for selfhood in a generation that sometimes seems defined by celebrity, triviality and Paris Hilton’s sex tapes.” “Heti makes great comic mileage of her generation’s narcissistic, prolonged adolescence.”  “[It is]hard to know, she goes on, "when, if ever, Sheila wants us to take her seriously... the jokes about weeding out all the ‘ugly people’ from their lives feel less self-satirising and more a probable statement of affairs. And, suddenly, the whole enterprise feels less self-aware and less insightful than an episode of Sex and the City." Emily Stokes of the FT comments: “Heti’s book has stirred controversy, being called both sloppily written and formally inventive, radically feminist and worryingly self-conscious.” Comparing the book to Girls, the HBO comedy about “smart girls making stupid decisions,” Stokes says this book is a case of “smart girls making no decisions.” Sheila is “a puer aeternus, Peter Pan-like, constantly seeking purpose in new things.”

According to Olivia Laing, writing in the New Statesman, “the novel is constructed from multiple materials, including snippets of emails and long sections of dialogue. In its self-referential intertextuality and its offbeat wit, it recalls Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, as well as Warhol’s bizarre novel a (1968), in which he taped and had badly transcribed 24 hours of amphetamine-fuelled conver - sation between various logorrheic Factory members.” She finds How Should a Person Be? to be "a profoundly ironic production – or, perhaps more accurately, it is a production profoundly concerned with how to live authentically in a world saturated by irony.”

Sheila Heti was interviewed in the New Statesman here.


The Pike by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

He inspired Mussolini, was once Italy’s most famous poet, and created and led an independent state during the First World War, so how come no one really knows about Gabriele D’Annunzio?  He might have died nearly 80 years ago, but his life, as Lucy Hughes-Hallett proves with this biography, is worth remembering. She recounts the exploits and horror stories of a man who was as much of a genius as he was morally corrupt and repulsive.

In his review for the Telegraph, Jonathan Keates warns his readers that they will probably want to “give up in disgust after a few chapters”, or have a “cold bath or a jog around the park” if they decide to finish it. He is, however, quick in adding that “there is much to be learnt from the rise and fall of […] an  Italian poet, novelist and dramatist who blagged, blustered, fantasised and fornicated his way to international notoriety”.

After all, he was admired by Proust, and seen as one of the most talented writers of the 19th century – along with Tolstoy and Kipling – by James Joyce. He also wrote 48 books and poetry (including three before the age of 18), had several dozen lovers from all around Europe, and presided over the temporarily independent state of Fiume for over a year, before trying – and failing – to start a war with his own country.

As Ian Birrell points out in the Guardian, D'Annuinzio’s greatest work of art was himself: in many ways, he was the ultimate "pioneer of modern celebrity culture"; he "understood the fantastic soft power of fame". When still a teenager, he managed to trigger nationwide publicity for his first published book by writing to newspapers saying that the author of the poems had died before publication.

The trick, then, would seemingly to be that of recounting the life of such a compelling yet morally compromised character without falling into either accidental praise or predictable contempt. And according to both critics, Hughes-Hallet manages to avoid both extremes: as Birrell writes, she “dances her way through this extraordinary life in a style that is playful, punchy and generally pleasing”. By attempting to “separate the man from his myths, […] she allows the poet to hang himself”. After all, this is a man who famously wanted "the world [to] be convinced that [he was] capable of anything”, which, in a dark, twisted way, is precisely what he achieved.

"The Pike" will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Gabriele d'Annunzio and Benito Mussolini in 1935. [Photo: Henry Guttmann/Getyy Images]
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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis