A dead body and questions better not asked

fatherland

Robert Harris: Fatherland ISBN 978-0-09-957657-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ What if Hitler had won? Well, if Hitler had won I most likely wouldn’t be writing this. Considering the background of my family, my grand-parents would not have led the life they led after 1945, my parents would most likely not have married and I would most likely not have been born. Hitler hasn’t won however, and so here I am writing a post about a book that I have looked forward to read for almost 20 years and never actually did. It only happened because I had forgotten another book at home and craved for something to read. The bookseller at the railway station made my day.

If Hitler had won, Germany would be ruling Europe from the Atlantic to Siberia, Moscow would be occupied by the Germans, Washington would be appeased by the same Germans and the United Kingdom would not play any role at all. The 1960s are Harris’ setting for the plot of a fantastic thriller. The dead body of a man missing one foot is found in Berlin. He leads to more dead bodies and a gruesome conspiracy to hide an even more gruesome crime. If most of the action takes place in Berlin, the reader is dragged for 24 hours to Switzerland to discover the Swiss understanding of a discrete banking place.

Detective Xavier March from the German Kriminalpolizei is leading the investigation, by pure chance as a matter of fact. He happened to be awake when the phone rang while is colleague on duty slept like a baby. March’s mistake was to pick up that phone. He is not exactly an enthusiastic Nazi, and once the Gestapo comes into play, it quickly becomes apparent that the secret police is not too keen that March solves the case, much to the contrary, the Gestapo does everything to dissuade March from asking the right questions and collecting evidence. The hunter becomes the hunted. As to how and why, if you haven’t read “Fatherland” yet, now is the right time. For two reasons.

First, it’s an excellent thriller. I had a hard time to put it down. Second, it has a message that is relevant today, never mind the harrowing setting: Once we suspect something is amiss with our friends, our neighbours, our colleagues – are we ready to ask questions? Or do we turn a blind eye to it because we are afraid to lose a personal privilege, our social position or the esteem of someone important? Once we have identified evil, what do we do to stop it? To change something? Do we wait for somebody else to take the initiative or do we stand up ourselves for justice, freedom, a life without fear?

These are the questions March is compelled to ask himself over and over. A family photo, showing the previous occupants of March’s flat, sets into motion a dangerous intellectual chain reaction in March’s brain, dangerous for him, dangerous for his hidden enemies. The Nazi rulers relied upon the fact that man often is too lazy to leave his comfort zone. Better not ask any questions. Better no dispute the official truth. Better not think. The question however is whether one strives to be a human being or just wants to be a shadow.

The composer Arnold Schönberg wrote music that was meant to reflect man’s progress, his active movement, his way forward to transform society. Here is his String Quartet No. 3:

A democratic revolution – all notes are equal

Blood, Sweat and Tears or the Delight to Be a Victim

heroic failure

Fintan o’Toole: Heroic Failure. Brexit and the Politics of Pain. ISBN 978-1789540987⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Now that Theresa May has failed to secure a majority for Brexit plan A, it begins to show that neither the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn nor May herself have a plan B. Actually, there shouldn’t even have been a plan A. The initiators of the 2016 referendum never meant it to succeed. They wanted to shake up the political establishment, but not to ruin their country by pushing it out of the European Union. Fintan o’Toole, an Irish historian, literature critic and columnist, has written a well-researched, well-articulated analysis of the British, or rather the English, psyche that led to the disgraceful spectacle we have observed over the past two years.

As my desperation has been nurtured over the past two years by the many lies told by Brexiteers to their unsuspecting victims, the British voters, I take the unusual step of wrapping a review of this interesting and irritating book in two distinct personal letters. My frustration has to be vented, and this is the place to do it!

Dear Brexiteers,

I know you are busy toppling your government and polarizing your country even further, so I will be brief and not detract your attention from serving your country. About Brexit – I wish you to leave the EU as fast as you can. Preferably without a deal. Because I want you to fall flat on your face. I want you to feel the heat of competition under WTO rules, the burden of bankruptcy of your inefficient economy, the dead weight of a dysfunctional public administration and the shame triggered by derelict infrastructure no longer funded by Brussels. I WANT YOU TO FEEL PAIN! ENORMOUS, UNBEARABLE PAIN.

Fintan o’Toole’s book pushed my anger at British politics at a new level. The book’s general idea is easy to understand. Emotionally, the UK has not overcome the fact that victory in World War II did not lead to prosperity and international prestige, but translated into economic hardship, the dissolution of the empire and a relative decline in global importance. I perfectly understand that this amounted to a huge disappointment. However the psychological trick that UK politicians used to deny this fact and to compensate this feeling of loss is appalling: self-pity.

The UK apparently feels best when it’s beleaguered, but once the enemy is vanquished, heroism has lost its purpose. O’Toole shows that politicians looked for a new villain that a) could be used as a scapegoat for all that went wrong (Thatcherism, the Falkland War etc.) and b) that could make Britons rally around the Union Jack. The EU was perfectly suited for both. Self-pity went viral through the endless repetition of “It’s all Brussels fault” and “Germany still is the enemy, only now it sails under the European flag.” If you marry self-pity with auto-suggestion, you end up with Brexit, hard or soft, depending on the size of your ego.

Why did all this work? O’Toole speaks of a perfect cycle of self-pity and self-love. “We deserve to be loved, but we are hated because we are so wonderful”, he says. British logic? British humour? The lack of recognition has over decades been sublimed and transformed into political masochism. “The political erotics of imaginary domination [by the EU] and imaginary submission are the deep pulse of the Brexit drama”, o’Toole writes. The pleasure to be a victim, the delightful feeling to be exempted from any responsibility, has become the goal of British politics. The EU’s function is “to be a more insidious form of Nazism”. O’Toole presents a horrifying analysis here, but I suspect it comes very close to the truth. You relish pain? You’ll get pain. Plenty of it.

Dear Remainers,

I wish you a lot of courage. The less enlightened part of your journalists and politicians has condemned you to spend blood, sweat and tears, and is far from certain that your coming sacrifices will ever be rewarded. These people have left the path of rationalism long ago, they discard the empirically verified for day-dreams and wishful-thinking as Fintan o’Toole shows with many examples at hand. Since those politicians have been democratically elected, there’s little to be done about that, as long as a majority of British voters prefer lies to truth. We, the European people, will offer you exile anytime, but unfortunately the United Kingdom can only be saved by its own people. That’s you.

O’Toole puts forward an interesting fact that should be considered by all Remainers. He reflects the improbable alliance between two social classes, far apart one from each other, that support Brexit: parts of the working class and parts of the upper class. As a binding agent he sees “the sheer joy of being able to fuck everything up.” It’s stupid to break stuff, but let’s do it anyway, just for fun. And never mind the consequences, says the political punk Boris Johnson. A little bit of “Dunkirk Spirit” and British improvisation will do miracles.

If this is the spirit of the Brexiteers, Remainers must acknowledge that the next generation will have to pay for the fun that old, bored, rich, white men like Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg have right now. This a point women are sensible to. They don’t want the future of their children being gambled away for the thrill of a former stock broker like Farage. Brexit is about emotions, o’Toole says. On both sides. Right. So let’s use emotions like the Brexiteers do. There are only 32 million men compared to 33 million women in the UK. That gives women a real majority. Use it! It may be too late to stop Brexit, but it’s not too late to shape a post-Brexit future limiting the damage Brexit will do.

Unless a miracle happens between today and March 23, the UK will hit a wall at full speed abd finally wake up and acknowledge the realities of the 21st century. Economically, it is of marginal importance, compared to heavy-weights like the China, India, the US and the European Union. As for its political and military potency, let’s not talk about it. The EU Council fares better without constant British interfering, and the UK’s nuclear weapons are just as obsolete as the British pound. Past sacrifices on Europe’s battlefields will not be forgotten, but the United Kingdom itself has made them irrelevant by not embedding them in a narrative of a sustainable European peace and prosperity after the war. Britons fought for Europe from 1940 to 1945, yet they fought against Europe almost since the German capitulation.

And before you get me wrong: The EU botched up a lot of things, as o’Toole underlines. But Brexit is going to make the situation worse, especially for the UK. Many on this side of the Channel are sick of trying to convince Britons that, on the long run, cooperation is better than confrontation for both sides. Dear friends, for you will remain friends, you can fight now with Russia, China and President Trump on your own. Soon, you will be alone. Good luck and good-bye.

Am I angry? You bet. What about music? I’ll settle for something violent and cruel tonight: Aribert Reimann’s opera “Lear”:

Lear – You are men of stone

Understanding Shostakovich

Rosamunde Bartlett (ed.): Shostakovich in context. ISBN 978-019-816666-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Any reader familiar with my music blog will be aware that I am a great admirer of Dmitry Shostakovich’s music. Both his works and his difficult life as a composer in the Soviet Union have been fascinating me for years. After the deception caused by the fact that “Testimony”, published by Solomon Volkov, is a falsification of Shostakovich’s memoirs, I was glad to read a collection of contemporary scientific essays dealing with Shostakovich’s works and exploring certain aspects of his life so far unknown to me. I will limit this review to those essays that interested me most.

Richard Taruskin shows us that the composer’s works intentionally carry ambiguous messages. Was he an ardent supporter of the Communist Party or a secret opponent? Both aspects shine through in his compositions, and his Soviet audience in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s was certainly able (and avid) to decipher the subtext of Shostakovich’s works. One can feel sympathy for, even believe in the Communist idea and still criticize the behaviour of party officials. One can officially acknowledge the all-powerful Soviet state and still write subversive music. There is no black-and-white in Shostakovich’s life, there is none in his works.

Laurel E. Fay, author of an excellent biography, offers new insight in Shostakovich’s relation to the Leningrad Association of Contemporary Music (LASM) and to his fellow composer Boris Asafiev. Asafiev was the éminence grise behind the LASM and initially gave Shostakovich a boost of confidence to have his first symphony performed. However, Shostakovich did not see the LASM as being representative of Soviet contemporary music, he leaned himself towards the less formal Circle for New Music, and when Asafiev failed to attend the premiere of the symphony, “the honeymoon ended”, as Fay writes.

Ludmila Mikheyeva-Sollertinsky illustrates the faithful relation between Shostakovich and his close friend Ivan Sollertinsky, professor at the Leningrad Conservatory and the artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic. Both lived Leningrad and saw each other very often up to World War II, nevertheless Shostakovich wrote no less than 150 letters to Sollertinsky. The analysis of the correspondence sheds a new light on the composer’s character and his sense of humour.

Finally I would like to highlight Manashir Yabukov’s study of the composition “Anti-Formalistic Rayok”, a sarcastic description of the Soviet cultural policy, performed only in Shostakovich’s private circle. I was unaware of this piece, and it is wonderful to discover not only a new piece, but also a real testimony of Shostakovich’s defying attitude towards the USSR. Lyudmila Kovnatskaya’s exploration of parallels in the life and works of Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten was of great relevance to me. Britten is one of those composer’s exerting absolutely no attraction on me. Why? I have no idea. Ignorance? Perhaps. If Shostakovich would lead me to become interested in Britten, now that would be an achievement!

Dmitry Shostakovich wrote revolutionary music, but one of his musical beacons was Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1850/51 he wrote a cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues, inspired by Bach’s “Well-tempered Klavier”:

A fugue or a prelude every third day

Out of Control

Woodward Fear

Bob Woodward: Fear. Trump in the White House.  ISBN 978-9-526-53299-8 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I knew that reading this book would not be a source of joy. Though it is meticulously researched and extremely well written, its subject, as it unfolds, comes close to a political horror trip. Welcome to the White House of President Donald Trump aka @realdonaldtrump. In Bob Woodward’s book, he is more real than ever, and it’s not a pretty sight.

I will not go into the details of Woodward’s description of how amateurish the Trump campaign was organized, how he hijacked the Republicans and how willfully unprepared he arrived at the White House. The old warhorse of the “Washington Post” does it much better than I could ever do. I will not delve into the daily chaos that marked the White House after Trump had taken office, triggered by the president’s emotional tweets, the absence of rules and procedures, the exit of hundreds of experienced public servants and the arrival of ignorant nobs. Woodward has interviewed hundreds of people, and his fact-checking team must have spent thousands of hours verifying each statement illustrating the pervasive anarchy. It’s all in the book, and it’s worth reading it.

You may be asking why. Perhaps you think the worst is over, now that the Democrats rule the House of Representatives. I would like to temper your optimism. It’s not yet over. Trump has already profoundly changed politics in Washington, and one may even say that he has profoundly changed the United States. Here are a few take-aways related to the book.

Polarize the Nation!

Steve Bannon, the alt-Right ideological sharp-shooter, the brain behind Trump’s electoral success and the first presidential decisions in 2017, set the tone for the political dialogue in Washington: Polarize the Nation! Attack the establishment! Annihilate any enemy, left, right, centre! Republicans inside and outside Congress went along with that strategy. And many subscribed to it in the recent mid-term elections. Us versus them. No prisoners taken.

This style appeals to those who voted for Trump in 2016: Disenchanted people, with no optimistic outlook that the “American Dream” will ever become a reality for them. The forgotten ones in the Midwest, in the Rust Belt, in the conservative south, those for whom globalization brought unsecurity and often misery. These people and their legitimate griefs will not go away. They will embrace Trump again or anyone emulating him. For they have nothing to lose.

Life in the Trump bubble

Since Inauguration Day, the White House is ruled by a man who seems to have lost touch with reality long ago. He lives in a bubble, shaped by excessive TV consumption, Fox News mainly, by the yes-sayers around him, by rallies with adulating crowds and the absence of any knowledge about economics and politics. According to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Trump has the comprehension of “a fifth- or sixth-grader”, as Woodward writes.

Trump lives in a world where smoking factory chimneys mean progress and prosperity, where climate change is a scientific fraud and where the United States is a self-sufficent country, capable of handling all kind of challenges on its own. This makes it so easy to manipulate the president, with unforeseen consequences for the United States and the rest of the world. You just need to dangle the right type of carrot in front of Trump. Russia quickly understood this, Steve Bannon’s alt-Right too. That reminds me of that wonderful bon mot “Now we have them exactly where they want us.”

Outbursts and lies

Trump’s virulent attacks on all kind of multilateral agreements, from the “Iran Deal” to the Paris Climate Agreement and free trade treaties, have changed the international landscape already. Stockmarkets are wary of trade wars, while former allies will distrust the US government for as long as Trump and his ideas are around. And for good reason. There is no coherent foreign policy and there is no orderly policy-making process in the White House anymore. It’s all emotions. The president gets set up by CNN or the “Washington Post”, by the investigation on his ties to Russia, by a staffer taking longer than 10 minutes to explain an issue, and all hell breaks loose. Trump throws a tantrum and has to break something: a treaty, the relationship with an ally, anything.

Speaking about the Russia investigation, I relished Woodward’s account of the US president’s interaction with his lawyer John Dowd, who did everything possible to protect Trump from himself. To do so efficiently, he needed Trump to trust him, to faithfully recall what had been said and done during the campaign… are you laughing already? That’s precisely the point. Trump didn’t know, didn’t recall, didn’t trust. Dowd faced a pathological liar, for whom reality and fantasy have become one. One must assume that most of the time, the US president doesn’t know himself which of his statements are true actually.

Donald Trump’s presidency is about destroying the current order without replacing it by anything else – just for the sake of media coverage. Trump’s presidency is about an embattled ego, longing for recognition. Trump’s presidency is about Trump. Nothing else. The title of Woodward’s book stems from a quote of the presidential candiate: “Real power is, I don’t even want to use the word, fear.” Trump spreads fear, no doubt. But his anger and his destructive actions are the symptoms of a suffering man.

As Woodward subtly shows, Trump himself is filled with fear. The fear to fail. He was filled with that fear probably since he was a boy, growing up in the shadow of his successful father, the New York real estate tycoon Fred Trump. What makes Trump dangerous, is his fear to fail. It makes him weak too. The first step to counter Trump and his disruptive potential is to let go any fear, to think for ourself and to speak our mind. There’s nothing to fear except our own fear that makes us helpless.

A dysfunctional system, not unlike the White House, has been described by the composer Aribert Reimann in his opera “Lear”, based on Shakespeare’s play:

Lear – You are men of stone

Exploring an Uncharted World below Sea Level

Jules Verne: Voyages extraordinaires: Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (English title: 20 000 Leagues under the Sea) ISBN: 978-2-07-012892-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ The ambition of Jules Verne (1828-1905) was to combine the scientific education of his readers with the pleasure of reading a thrilling adventure novel. The French writer succeeded marvellously, his books sold well, and quickly they became part of the classics of French literature. Verne was a visionary as far as science is concerned: His heroes flew into space decades before man had built a rocket capable to overcome the earth’s gravity, they explored the abysses of the oceans well before the technology of modern submarines had been invented. Verne had invented the genre of science-fiction literature avant la lettre and ranks among the best and most important European writers of all times.

I clearly recall my first contact with Verne’s fantastic worlds as a young boy. It must have been in the late 1970s in southern France, not far from Nice. I went shopping with my family at the first shopping mall I ever saw. It had a cart circuit on the roof – I made very big eyes when I saw it – and a movie theater. And so I watched “20 000 Leagues under the Sea”, shrieking in terror when the giant octopus grabbed the submarine with Verne’s heroes on board. I do recall nothing from the film, except this specific scene.

Curiously I had never read any of Verne’s novels up to now. I realized what I had missed once I had started with “A Journey to the Center of the Earth”. After the first pages, I had caught fire and read four Verne novels on a row, the last being “20 000 Leagues under the Sea” in the French edition of La Pléiade, beautifully illustrated, heavily annotated and with an excellent introduction. It was one of those books that I had trouble to put down; needless to say that it didn’t take me much time to read it.

I will not spoil your pleasure by giving away key scenes, but I will summarize the story nevertheless. In the late half of the 19th century from different spots in different oceans mysterious sightings are being reported. A giant whale? A man-made machine? Nobody knows, but everybody has an opinion. Some reports indicate that the mysterious object is capable (and willing) to attack ships, but the brightest scientists cannot come up with a convincing explanation. It is decided that an expeditionary team shall search the ocean and uncover the secret. Part of the team are the whale hunter Ned Land, the marine biologist Prof. Aronnax and his servant Conseil.

A dramatic event leads to a situation where the three heroes discover the truth behind the enigmatic sightings: The object is man-made. A technological miracle in many respects. Land, Aronnax and Conseil end up in a submarine named “Nautilus” and commanded by a mysterious man: Captain Nemo. His origin is unknown, his wealth unlimited. He sails the ocean and flees humanity, which seems to fill him with a singular hatred. A very intriguing man. Prof. Aronnax is fortunate enough to create a kind of intellectual bond with Nemo and slowly discovers the multiple facets not only of the submarine’s commander, but also of sea life as such and the hidden treasures of the oceans.

However, the three heroes are aware that being privy to Nemo’s world means that they will not be permitted to leave the “Nautilus”. While Ned Land develops quite a few escape plans, Prof. Aronnax is torn between his fascination by Nemo’s way if life and his desire to report the marvellous marine world that Nemo had made him discover and compels him to flee. Eventually they will flee, as to how and why and when – read the book! “20 000 Leagues under the Sea” is a real page-turner with a lot of suspense, at the same time Verne’s beautiful, elaborate language makes reading an almost sensual experience.

The “Nautilus” is the submarine of my dreams. Captain Nemo not only had a well-stocked library built into it, it also features an organ and a vast collection of sheet music. For all his hatred against mankind, he does not repudiate its cultural artifacts. Nemo names a few of his favourites: Weber, Rossini, Meyerbeer, Wagner and Haydn. Joseph Haydn precisely wrote an opera called “L’Isola Dishabitata”, that perfectly fits into the context:

A pocket-size opera inspired by Robinson Crusoe