Neal Ascherson is the author of The Struggles for Poland, Black Sea, and Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland. He is an Honorary Professor at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London.
 
(February 2016)

Jews: Ambivalent and Admirable

Rabbi Erwin Zimet singing with the twelve Jewish children whom Ian Buruma’s grandparents rescued from Nazi Germany in early 1939, at the hostel they set up for the children in Highgate, North London
Some eighteen years ago, Ian Buruma wrote a wise but melancholy review about Anne Frank—or rather about the merciless vendetta that had settled over the dramatized version of her diary.* In it, he suggested that no side in that controversy was exclusively right, neither those led by her father, …

Love, Lies, and War

Andrew O’Hagan at Christie’s auction house, London, 2010
There are many illuminations in Andrew O’Hagan’s ambitious light show of a novel. It’s set partly in Scotland and partly in Afghanistan. But in every part of the British Isles “the Illuminations” is a reference to Blackpool, that old proletarian seaside resort in northwest England that switches on its multicolored …

In Love with the Judge

Ian McEwan, Berlin, October 2013
This is Ian McEwan’s sixteenth book of fiction, by my count, and among the best and most accomplished novels he has ever written. His particular thread of success, it seems to me, has been to compose passages that burn a scar into memory, like star-shells on a flinching retina. In …

How Could They?

Martin Amis has set a love story in Auschwitz. More precisely, among the SS staff of the camp and their wives. He makes no apology for doing this—who would expect it of him, and why should he?—but neither does he explain his choice. This leaves the reader to do his …

The Resurging Dubliners

A cemetery of stolen cars in the Darndale Housing Estate, Dublin, 1993
Jimmy Rabbitte learns that he has cancer. He is middle-aged now and trying not to turn into his father, Jimmy Senior. But this is the same Jimmy Rabbitte who, as a grand and brilliant lad twenty years earlier, put together a Dublin soul band called the Commitments—the band that exploded …

Pamuk on the Eve

An anonymous photograph from Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, which displays his vast collection of images, objects, and ephemera that relate to his novel of the same name. A catalog of the museum’s collection, <i>The Innocence of Objects</i>, has just been published by Abrams.
What does it mean to write “on the eve” fiction? In the first place, it means situating a novel’s characters in a wider landscape that is in social and political movement. There is, usually, nothing they can do to arrest or reverse these changes. They stand as outlines against a …

They Ate Their Sleep

Herta Müller in Frankfurt, Germany, shortly after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, October 2009
On their way back to the labor camp, the women would scour the heaps of rubble for edible weeds. Their favorite was orach, a spiky-leaved plant sometimes called mountain spinach. Picked in spring when the leaves were still tender, it could be boiled into soup or eaten as a soft …

How Millions Have Been Dying in the Congo

A poster of President Joseph Kabila on a campaign car two days before the run-off election that returned him to office, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, October 27, 2006
Jason Stearns does not believe in the glory of monsters. Neither does he accept a “Heart of Darkness” view of the Congo as a zone of hopeless, endemic monstrosity. This is a country he knows well (if it is possible to know well a place so enormous and so roadless). Stearns led the 2008 UN mission to study violence there, and worked on conflict and human rights in the Congo with a series of agencies and charities.

The Most Insidious Forgery

Umberto Eco; drawing by Tullio Pericoli
The Paris Freemasons had sided with the Commune, and the Communards had shot an archbishop. The Jews had to be involved in some way. They killed children, so killing archbishops was hardly a problem. One day in 1876, while Simonini was pondering this question, he heard the bell downstairs. At …

The Smell of Russia

Lake Baikal, Irkutsk, Siberia, 1989
“When I was in my early forties, I became infected with a love of Russia.” This condition, in his case chronic and untreatable, hit Ian Frazier as hard and suddenly as pneumonic plague when he came off the plane at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, into the Russian smell: There’s a lot …

Love in a Moment of Hope

The rolling sidewalk at the Paris Universal Exposition, 1900
About once in each century, the British allow themselves to hope. The humorous resignation slips away; the people described as the only nation to feel Schadenfreude about themselves sense that they can transform their lives; the air of a rainy springtime fills British lungs. The last time this happened was …

London: A Pilgrim’s Progress

Rose Tremain, Norwich, England, 2000
When Alexander Herzen came to London in 1852, an exiled stranger in the richest city on earth, he found its indifference reassuring. The place was dreary, unhealthy, monstrously unjust but also unchanging: One who knows how to live alone has nothing to fear from the tedium of London. The life …

In a London of Infinite Possibilities

In his story “The Body” (2002), Hanif Kureishi made his main character reflect on London. The place, he thought, was no longer part of Britain—in my view, a dreary, narrow place full of fields, boarded-up shops and cities trying to imitate London—but has developed into an independent city-state, like New …

Do They Crave War?

“War kills. That is all it does.” The words come from Michael Walzer’s book Just and Unjust Wars, and Carolin Emcke has used them as the epigraph for her first chapter. Maybe she took them out of some context that would modify their meaning. I hope so, because they are …

A Far-Flung Correspondent

Nature, everyone’s nature, is to avoid what’s gonna bring you closer to danger and risk…. I’m telling him [the boxer Elvis Muriqi] how to be a brute and not just survive. A trainer’s got to lead a fighter into a dark place, and not too many want to go. David …

The Writer and the Tyrant

The first pages of the book find Wole Soyinka returning to his country in 1998, after years of exile during the blood-drenched dictatorship of Sani Abacha. For so long frantically active as an organizer of resistance to the Abacha regime, he feels suddenly drained of feeling. “Surely it is …

Ghosts

“It is the most touching, the cruelest story of the war that I tell, a story of the purest and most brutal symbolism.” In these words, written in the 1930s, the French journalist Paul Bringuier revealed to his readers the tale of a “living unknown soldier,” the man they called …

The Breaking of the Mau Mau

I met Pordy Laneford in Cyprus. We had arrived on the same flight from Africa, and were assigned a room to share in the Astoria in Nicosia. It was in the late 1950s, that decade of colonial wars. In Cyprus, the British were struggling to crush the EOKA nationalist movement; …

Africa: The Hard Truth

In the newspapers and on television, the tide of bad news from Africa rises again. Once more, the tiny butcher-bird of Rwanda is pecking at the eyes of the dying elephant which is the Congo. Once more, concerned white reporters crouch by emaciated babies, as the camera zooms in on …

Forbidden Knowledge

The middle-aged woman looks out of the window of her new house. She is a music teacher, recently obliged to accept “early retirement.” The little house stands in a new housing development, on the fringes of a dreary post-industrial village in northern England. Dorothy is alone when she looks out …

In the Black Garden

Thomas de Waal belongs to a very special order of journalists, the small corps of Western reporters who have covered events in the Caucasus over the last ten or twelve years—in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, in Dagestan and in Chechnya. Some of them lost their lives. Others who come to …

Goodbye to Berlin

The rediscovery of Joseph Roth by the English-speaking world is almost complete. A variety of publishers in Britain and the United States have brought out his novels, in new translations, culminating last year with Michael Hofmann’s superb rendering of Roth’s masterpiece The Radetzky March.[^1] In the United States, Overlook Press …

At War with Stupidity

Some writers, and many great ones, remain in their books. They may devastate your feelings and change your ideas, but they stay in the pages. Others, for no reason that I can define, move forward and enter your life. Primo Levi, and perhaps Tolstoy, are figures who have to be …

Surviving for Art

When Theodor Adorno said that it was barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz, he unwittingly launched ten thousand essay questions. The remark still resounds, not only in Germany and not always in ways that Adorno would have wished it to be understood. But one of its legitimate implications, it seems …

In the Pit of History

Landlocked countries used to grow a special crop of daydreams. (“Used to,” because the Boeing and the Airbus long ago replaced the steamship; nobody needs a seaport to fulfill escapist fantasies, and “landlocked” scarcely survives as a category.) Nations that lacked a seacoast or a colonial empire, or were locked …

The Remains of der Tag

Could a Jew become an English butler? Or was this, perhaps, one of those mysteries in which training could never be a substitute for the right genetic stuff? As fugitives from Nazi Germany pressed into British consulates all over Europe during the Thirties, passport clerks challenged them to show talents …

Under Siege

A hundred years ago, on February 28, 1900, the South African town of Ladysmith was relieved from being under siege. The half-starved British garrison, which had held out against the Boers and their Prussian-made artillery for 118 days, watched in disbelief as the enemy’s ox wagons set out on their …

Put Out More Flags

Anglomania, the passion for “une certaine idée de l’Angleterre,” possessed European intellectuals for some two hundred years. Today, it is something of an endangered hobby. Europe has changed and so has England, whose very identity is now a matter of feverish speculation in the increasingly disunited United Kingdom. I was …

On the Edge of Catastrophe

Nuruddin Farah, the most important African novelist to emerge in the last twenty-five years, is also one of the most sophisticated voices in modern fiction. He is not the first African writer to have escaped from Eurocentric canons about social change, but he is the most accomplished. Those canons were …