Paul Kennedy: "It’s my contention that the story of the 'middle people' hasn’t been told"

The Books Interview.

You claim in your new book that the turning point in the Second World War occurred much later than is often argued. Does that put you at odds with the views of many of your colleagues?

It puts me at odds with many works! There’s a colossally stupid kind of claim, which is to say, “Moscow, December 1941, the battle that won the Second World War”. That would have surprised the Americans and the Japanese!

I’m also tilting against a very popular strand of literature that says, “The decisive battle, the decisive intelligence breakthrough” – I’m saying that history is much more complicated than that.

So I’m tilting against a) a historiography that is very populist and makes large claims and b) the notion that, by late 1942, it was downhill all the way for the Allies. I’m saying, “No, there were some really significant problems to be solved.”

You argue that the problem solvers were those you call the “middle people” – engineers rather than strategists, on the one hand, or troops, on the other.

It’s my very strong contention that their story hasn’t been told. When I was writing the book, I kept bumping into characters and organisations I didn’t know about.

For example, trying to find out about someone you’d think would be an American national hero, Ben Moreell, the founder of the Seabees, was so difficult. Weirdly, the best summation of who Moreell was and what he did is in a Wikipedia article by some anonymous buff.

Can we infer from this that you’re sceptical of history that concentrates on the doings of “great men”?

Yes, indeed. Not that I don’t think someone like Churchill wasn’t extraordinary – but I felt that there was too much history of the great man.

Some individuals emerge from the book with their reputations intact – Viscount Alanbrooke, for instance.

He recognised that without Winston, the British war would not be won. So he recognised that there was a great leader, someone who could articulate, lead, have ten ideas a day, eight of which were really awful but two of which were worth considering.

Alanbrooke’s great qualities were the toughness of mind of the Ulsterman, scepticism, a dislike of flashy people and a profound suspicion that if he and the British chiefs didn’t work every day, Winston would do something really stupid. He was very sceptical about trying to invade France as early as 1943; he just didn’t think it was possible.

One of the things you’re trying to do in the book is to explain how the Allies got themselves in a position to win the war, starting from the low ebb of January 1943.

I’m not just interested in trying to explain how you got out of the stasis of late 1942 and early 1943 but also in who did what. It was about developing a culture where the people in the middle levels could be encouraged to innovate and be eccentric. January 1943 is a good starting point. After the political leaders at Casablanca gave out the political statements – “Germany first”, unconditional surrender – there came the statements about what you had to do to achieve success.

How perilous was the situation in January 1943 when Churchill and Roosevelt met at Casablanca?

Churchill always kept an eye on the Atlantic and said it was the battle that had to be won. So he was anxious – especially when the merchant ship losses in February and March 1943 went shooting sky high. The thing about Roosevelt was that he had this innate confidence that once the massive productivity of the American industrial machine was geared up to full strength, then no matter what the setbacks, they were just going to be overcome. So I don’t think he was as worried as his advisers.

Despite claims that the war in the Pacific had turned at Midway and that the war on the eastern front had turned at Stalingrad, you still had some massive challenges facing the Allies.

Paul Kennedy’s “Engineers of Victory: the Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War” is published by Allen Lane (£25)

FDR and Churchill at the Casablanca meeting in 1942. Photograph: Getty Images

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism