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15 June 2022

Reviewed in Short: New books from Ramon Pacheco Pardo, Preti Taneja, Leo Damrosch and Hanna Bervoets

Shrimp to Whale by Pacheco Pardo, Aftermath by Taneja, Adventurer by Damrosch and We Had To Remove This Post by Bervoets.

By Katie Stallard, Ellen Peirson-Hagger, Michael Prodger and Matthew Gilley

Shrimp to Whale: South Korea from the Forgotten War to K-Pop by Ramon Pacheco Pardo
Hurst, 280pp, £25

“A bear gave birth to Korea. Or so the legend goes.” Ramon Pacheco Pardo begins his engaging account with a sweeping history of the ancient kingdoms and warring empires that once ruled the Korean peninsula before it was divided in 1945, and the modern states of North and South Korea founded in 1948. The title invokes the old saying that Korea is a “shrimp between whales”, forever in danger of being crushed between the world’s great powers. But the author argues that South Korea has long since outgrown this depiction and now deserves to be seen as a “whale” in its own right.

This is no dry historical tome. Pacheco Pardo, a professor of international relations, declares his love for South Korea, weaving his personal recollections (and travel tips) into the narrative. He chronicles the rise and fall of authoritarian rule, the origins of the chaebol (literally “wealth clan”), industrial conglomerates and the “Korean Wave” that has won the country’s movies and K-Pop music international acclaim. Yet with income inequality rising, the threat from North Korea growing and a divisive new president in Seoul, a bright future is by no means assured.
By Katie Stallard

[See also: Philip Pullman on the end of the Costa Book Awards: a blow for children’s literature]

Aftermath by Preti Taneja
And Other Stories, 226pp, £12

If the terror incident at London’s Fishmongers’ Hall in November 2019 was harrowing, a dual connection to the event made it even more so for Preti Taneja. Jack Merritt, who died in the attack alongside Saskia Jones, was the novelist’s colleague. She had also previously taught creative writing to the attacker, Usman Khan, during his time in prison. Taneja’s approach to reckoning with such idiosyncratic grief is both personal and political. She identifies the systems that were complicit in the act: colonialism, racism, Theresa May’s “hostile environment”. She queries the use of writing classes in prison, and the purpose of prisons at all.

This is a tough book to read, because of the subject matter and sometimes too because of Taneja’s intellect – her keenness to turn to literary theory, or to break down events into their component philosophical parts. But it is too bold in its experimentalism, its unwillingness to conform to genre, to let grief rest easy. In Aftermath Taneja guides us through the “atro-city” – a place, “the outside world turned inwards”, as much as an event – and asks if together we can find a way out.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

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Adventurer: The Life and Times of Giacomo Casanova by Leo Damrosch
Yale University Press, 432pp, £25

Libertinage is, in contemporary parlance, problematic. Giacomo Casanova (1725-98), the great seducer, may be a fascinating historical figure but, notes his latest biographer Leo Damrosch, his story “is often disturbing and sometimes very dark”. Not all the bedpost notches that Casanova recounted in his own version of his career, Histoire de ma vie, were fully consensual: there were plenty of willing wives but also pre-teen girls, girls prostituted by their parents, mother-and-daughter threesomes and, in one case, his own daughter. Casanova’s get-out clause was that he believed women were entitled to pleasure too and, what’s more, he was almost permanently in love. Casanova was more than just a libido, however. He was a mathematician, lawyer, man of letters and librarian – as well as a con man, gambler and liar – whose professional and personal urgings took him across Europe, where he met many of the great men of the age. A contemporary declared that Casanova “would have been a very handsome man if he hadn’t been ugly” but ugly or not, morally reprehensible or not, truthful or not, in Damrosch’s adroit and balanced narration he is never less than enthralling.
By Michael Prodger

[See also: The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: liberal feminism under attack]

We Had To Remove This Post by Hanna Bervoets, translated by Emma Rault
Picador, 144pp, £12.99

Content moderators for an unnamed social media company are transformed by the abuse and conspiracy theories they police – this is the premise of We Had To Remove This Post by the acclaimed Dutch author Hanna Bervoets, her first work to be translated into English. It starts with racist and homophobic banter; then the characters begin applying the content rules to their real lives. When a man appears to be about to jump from a roof in the real world, Kayleigh, our narrator, decides this video “isn’t allowed”. Then a colleague becomes a flat Earther. Kayleigh is appalled but admits that “at this point I mainly knew arguments in favour of the notion that the Earth wasn’t round”. These parts of the novella – which follows a flurry of sharp, social-media-aware books such as Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This – are the most perceptive. Other characters and Kayleigh’s life outside of work are not so well developed.

Bervoets uses spare language to evoke the desensitising effects of social media. At its best, you don’t see the horrors coming until they are upon you, but the denouement in particular feels hasty.
By Matthew Gilley

[See also: Ottessa Moshfegh and the tedium of depravity]

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This article appears in the 15 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Big Slow Down