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8 February 2023

From Brian Dillon to Tara Zahra: new titles reviewed in short

Also featuring Masters of the Lost Land by Heriberto Araujo and I Am Still With You by Emmanuel Iduma.

By New Statesman

I Am Still With You: A Reckoning with Silence, Inheritance and History by Emmanuel Iduma
William Collins, 288pp, £16.99

During the late 1960s shocking images were shared around the world of emaciated residents of Biafra, who had been starved by a strategic blockade of the secessionist state by Nigerian forces. They prompted a global outcry. Less attention was paid to the roughly 100,000 military casualties of the Nigerian Civil War, including the uncle of the author and critic Emmanuel Iduma, the man after whom Iduma was named.

Yet he knows little about his uncle, who enlisted in the Biafran army shortly before the war and never came back. Following the death of his father, Iduma returns to Nigeria after years spent in New York and decides to embark on a fuzzily defined mission to retrace his uncle’s final days. In doing so, he also hopes to locate his own place in Nigeria’s history by “travelling to the heart of the mystery that is the Biafran War”. It is in many ways an impossible task. But in weaving together personal memories with family interviews, historical research and his haphazard travels to “places where violence unfolded” in clear, elegiac prose, Iduma’s search leads to an affecting conclusion.    
By Megan Gibson

Masters of the Lost Land: The Untold Story of the Fight to Own the Amazon by Heriberto Araújo
Atlantic, 432pp, £20

It is easy, when reading Heriberto Araújo’s account of the violent development of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, to draw parallels with the settlement of the American west. The author, an investigative journalist now based in Beijing, even makes the comparison himself. But while tales of injustices on the American frontier have had their effect tempered by the passing of time, those now playing out across the Amazon are all too raw. Of the 2,000 land and environmental activists killed worldwide this century, one-third have been Brazilian.

Araújo has decided to explore this devastation via the story of a single family: that of José Dutra da Costa, the leader of the rural workers’ union in Rondon do Pará, who was murdered in November 2000, and his wife, Maria Joel Dias da Costa. At times the degree of detail can feel overwhelming, and the story might be better suited to a film than a non-fiction book. Yet such narrative diligence also feels like a necessary corrective to a reality mired in crime and cover-up. By revealing some of the political and legal complexity of life on the front line of rainforest destruction, as well as the human pain, this book tells a story we all need to hear.
By India Bourke

Against the World: Anti-Globalism and Mass Politics Between the World Wars by Tara Zahra
WW Norton, 384pp, £27.99

The changing nature of globalisation is a prevailing concern for intellectuals and policymakers. Do today’s trade wars, geopolitical rivalry, resource scarcity and intensifying ideological divisions mean we are witnessing “de-globalisation” – the slowdown or retrenchment of the transnational flow of people, ideas, goods or capital? Or is it “re-globalisation” – a reinvention of the global economic system?

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This question is hardly new. As the American historian Tara Zahra writes in her superb history of the interwar period, the history of globalisation has been “punctuated by pauses and (attempted) reversals”. This was especially true between the First and Second World Wars. In Against the World – told through the histories of protagonists including intellectuals, Czech shoemakers, feminist activists, unemployed veterans, economists and migrants – Zahra has produced one of the best and most timely works of global history of the past few years. She shows how utopian visions of an earth that “belonged to all”, as Stefan Zweig said, were wrecked by hard realities that now look unnervingly familiar. 
By Gavin Jacobson

Affinities by Brian Dillon
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 320pp, £13.99

In his latest book of interlinked essays, the Irish critic and writer Brian Dillon explores his relationship to works of creative endeavour and worries away at what it is that makes them appealing and intriguing – what, for him, makes them art. The images he is most drawn to are photographs, by the likes of Julia Margaret Cameron and Diane Arbus among others, but he also applies his interrogative musings to Samuel Beckett, the designer couple Charles and Ray Eames, to Brideshead Revisited, the film-makers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and, of course, Goethe’s novel Elective Affinities.

This is a deeply personal enterprise but Dillon goes to great lengths to keep at a distance. The collection may amount to a sort-of autobiography but each essay is about the life of the artist or the work itself, not about him. He is careful of his subjects and scrupulous in neither over-interpreting them nor projecting his emotions on to them. Nevertheless, each means something profound to him and each is a pixel that builds into a creative work of his own: a picture of his own aesthetic and the constituent parts of its canon. 
By Michael Prodger

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This article appears in the 08 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Silent Sunak