Scholar-writer Muhammad Tahir shares with our readers the best books he read in 2018 and his impressions on each one of them.
I have this nice app on my phone—Goodreads—which allows users to keep track of their reading, review books, and interact with other book lovers. So, like in 2017, using the app’s “Reading Challenge” feature earlier this year, I had set a target of reading 20 books by the end of 2018. It was a reasonable decision; given that I am one of those peculiar bibliophiles who can take weeks to finish a mere 200-page novel. Besides, I was also up to my ears in my own research work. Although I missed the target by a thin margin, there were some greats volumes which I could enjoy this year.
Overall, it was a charming medley of genres, from nonfiction to long-form reportage to classic sci-fi to epistle to literary fiction to young adult and children’s literature. At the top of these remarkable titles should be East West Street by Philippe Sands.
I had first come across this book in October 2017 while wandering through an extravagant bookstore in Terminal 3 of the IGI Airport in New Delhi. Because, lately, I had started to take book blurbs with a pinch of salt, I resisted the enticing words of historian Antony Beevor which were carefully inscribed on its front cover: “No novel could possibly match such an important work of truth”. In early December, however, while scanning the stacks of new titles on display in my favourite Dublin bookstore Chapters I finally succumbed to Beevor’s enticement. I picked up the book for reading in late December and finished it early April. It took me good four months for 360-page non-fiction, but it was worth spending all this time on an edifying adventure the book offered.
Published in 2016 East West Street is primarily a history of the origins of the legal concepts of ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’. Who conceived and delineated these concepts, in which conditions, and how were these incorporated into the international legal statutes is an incredibly interesting story, which Sands narrates by skillfully weaving mini-biographies of Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, the two legal scholars of Jewish heritage who had personally suffered during the Nazi onslaught. Lemkin and Lauterpacht came from the same Polish background, had studied at the same law faculty in Lviv University (present-day Ukraine) but they vastly differed in their temperament, and particularly on the question of how to legally frame the horrendous crimes committed by the Nazis. While pragmatist Cambridge professor Lauterpacht stressed on safeguarding the rights of the individuals and advocated the idea of the “crimes against humanity”, Lemkin, a lawyer by profession and a deeply hurt man who had lost 49 relatives, was adamant that the Nazi crimes be considered as crimes “directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of national groups”. Lemkin coined a term for this type of crime and called it ‘genocide’—Greek genos (race) and -cide (killing). Interestingly, the concept initially faced opposition from the Allied countries like Britain but was later mentioned at the Nuremberg trials.
Sands has reconstructed the characters and events based on meticulous research, which manifests in how each detail of the story is told with rigour and precision and presented in remarkably engaging prose. We walk with him to dusty archive rooms, we meet his resourceful interlocutors, we see what he sees on the streets, in the photos, and in the faces of his informants. How he approaches his archival material is laid out transparently.
Because there is a personal element in the story it makes the narrative all the more fascinating. Sands’ maternal grandfather Leon Buchholz’s past, about which the latter had all his life been extremely reticent is surprisingly and inadvertently unfolded when Sands starts researching the city of Lviv, where from the two most important legal concepts of the 20th century had emerged. On this research trial, an intriguing family secret also tumbles down from the closet of history as he joins the dots about the mysterious episode relating to his maternal grandmother’s stay in Paris during the dangerous period of the Second World War. I can go on and on about this book but this is not a review, so let me end here: when you will finish the book, you will understand why Beevor wrote: “No novel could possibly match such an important work of truth”.
Shah of Shahs (1985) by great war correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski was another fascinating book I read this year. Primarily built on messed up notes, daguerreotypes, photographs which he had to sort in a locked up hotel room in Tehran, Shah of Shahs is a wonderful masterpiece. As author Christopher de Bellaigue, who has written an introduction for the 2006 Penguin edition, rightly says: Kapuscinski is “a journalist’s writer, an example of what so many of us would love to be—if only we had the nerve”.
Kapuscinski, who has famously witnessed 27 revolutions, offers in sparse but strikingly poetic prose his incisive observations of Shah Reza Pahlavi's capture of power and his ultimate doom precipitated by his megalomaniac actions, corruption, and the oppression unleashed on the dissidents and common people by his notorious secret police SAVAK.
Kapuscinski may have left out some important details while chronicling the 1979 Iranian Revolution and at times he may resort to generalizations, but he brings his immensely rich journalistic experience and skills to the subject to give us a thrilling account which is underpinned by his perceptive sociological analysis. There is absolute pleasure in his magical writing, which makes this 150-page book a powerhouse journalistic narrative, a political thriller.
The other noteworthy book that I read this year was a gothic, and perhaps the first sci-fi, fiction Frankenstein. Authored by 18-year-old Mary Shelley in 1816, Frankenstein is written in classic dramatic prose and deals with the questions of ethics and morality and the limits of human ambition. For the Himalayan or people of the hills like Kashmiris, the beautiful description of mountainous terrains, streams, valleys, and ravines is a sheer delight.
A slim volume Letters to a Young Poet (1929) by Rainer Maria Rilke was incredibly blissful read, both for its evocative cadences and profoundly mystical ruminations. This book is for all those who seek meaning and purpose in life. Rilke offers wisdom and sensibility to see the world in its beautiful multiplicity. If Rilke was a Kashmiri, he would have undoubtedly acquired the epithet malang/darvesh for his Sufi like writings.
Albert Camus’ Exile and the Kingdom (1957) was also a good read. Although I didn’t like all the six stories in the collection, I thoroughly enjoyed these two: “The Mute” and “The Growing Stone”. The Mute (or Les Muets) is the story of a tussle between the workers and a benevolent factory owner. When the owner refuses to increase their wages due to low-profit margins, the workers strategically adopt a collective silence—they stop talking to the owner—to pressurize him and convey their dissatisfaction. However, in the end, this silence assumes a different meaning when a tragic incident happens. You will enjoy this story for its sheer brilliance, especially its opening scene.
Like Mary Shelly, French author Francoise Sagan was only a teenager when she published her novel Bonjour Tristesse in 1954. I really liked its tightly woven and subtle narration about a care-free bourgeois character Cecile, who feels a sudden unease when fastidious Anne enters into her easy-going life. Although teenager Cecile highly admires Anne, whom she considers a perfect embodiment of nobility, she is averse to Anne’s likely marriage to Cecile’s nonchalant, frivolous father Raymond, from whose warmth, care and love Cecile never wants to be separated. So, she hatches a plan, whose consequences she didn’t anticipate but which ultimately creates a moral panic in her.
Finally, Clair Huchet Bishop’s Twenty and Ten (1954) was a little charming book. Based on a true story, it tells the tale of the twenty Jewish refugee children who are hidden in a mountain-side school in a French village during the Nazi occupation of France. What I really liked about this book was its message of human bonding, courage and commitment, its dark humour, and the perfect sync between its plot, twists, and the climax. It is a beautiful book for children.
There were of course some other notable reads also, such as Elie Wiesel’s haunting memoir Night (1960) about his harrowing and soul-crushing experiences in the Nazi concentration camps, and Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic (2011), a poignant and lyrical tale of immigrant Japanese picture brides, who sail to America during the early twentieth century to end up in an unaccustomed land. Narrated from the unusual perspective of third person plural ‘we’, it is a passionate and poetic story about forgotten Japanese women who neither spoke English nor had the means to escape their hard conditions in America, about their struggles and scars, and their courage to bear indignity and discrimination for survival.
For the new year, hopefully, I hope to set another reading challenge on my Good Reads app. But again I want to be reasonable, and I think two books a month (and roughly 24 a year) is an achievable target. I want to explore new authors and new titles, so I have borrowed from my university libraries and stacked an amazing collection of fiction for the new year: Bellow, Barnes, Malouf, Morrison, McEwan, Sebald, Trevor, and Turgenev. ♦