Saturday, February 23, 2008

Empires remain, but with a new name

This book undertakes a grand discussion on a grand scale: the history of empire, which is really the history of the world, since the passing away of the great Mongol ruler Timur-i lang.

Tamerlane (a name derived from "Timur the Lame," a commonly used expression among Europeans during the 16th century) was a ruthless 14th century conqueror whose empire stretched across the breadth of Central Asia.

John Darwin, a professor at Oxford, has written extensively on the end of the British empire, especially its demise in India, "the jewel in the crown" of the British Queen. Here, however, his scope is much larger, and he pays tribute to historian Halford Mackinder, whose concept of "the world island" guides Darwin's own study.

An ardent imperialist, Mackinder believed that geopolitical success rested on a country's ability to subjugate the entire landmass of Europe and Asia. Indeed, Darwin says, this has been the history of the empire for six centuries now. While Mackinder's ideas gained a certain currency in the interwar years, he has not been paid much heed since. Which is a pity, since his analysis proved to be surprisingly correct, as also, given recent history, remarkably prescient.

Darwin divides the six centuries since Tamerlane's death into three distinct periods: the first ending in the 1750s when the equilibrium of power between continental Europe and Asia ended; the second continuing until World War I, during which European powers consolidated imperialist gains in much of Asia and Africa; and finally, the period continuing today, marked by the unilateralism of the American "empire."

While the process of Asian subjugation had been set in motion at the beginning of the 17th century with the formation of the East India Co., it wasn't until the American Revolution of 1783 that European powers began to look toward Asia with a serious intent of recovering lost ground.

The 19th century was marked by a breathtaking pace of colonization, with technological advancements (James Watt had invented the steam engine in 1769) helping European countries to replace the extant Ottoman Empire.

Just two years short of the 20th century, however, the "new world" began to assert its dominance. The Spanish-American War of 1898 saw the United States snatch away the Philippines and Cuba from Spain, a decidedly old-world state.

While the United States' entry into the First World War was anything but planned, Pearl Harbor changed the rules of the game forever. The nation's entry into World War II as part of the Allies in December 1941 ensured Nazism's defeat and paved the way for American ascendancy.

The history of the past 60 years has also been one of supremacist tendencies, with the United States and Soviet Union locked in bitter rivalry over the years. Darwin tracks America's growth closely and points to the Soviet collapse in 1991 as the incident that reshaped global forces and launched what he calls the world empire - an unveiled criticism of America's 2003 invasion of Iraq.

While this argument is fairly robust, it fails to account for 9/11, an incident that was staggering enough by itself to shake geopolitical realities. Darwin also fails to fully account for the effects of globalization and instant communication on empire building. Even so, he is right in directing readers to the limits of hegemony - a theme that he says all empires have been plagued with.

After Tamerlane is undoubtedly a great work, a book that goes truly global in chronicling the history of one of our abiding concerns: the pull and limitations of absolute power. It forces the reader to rethink commonly held assumptions about our collective past. For that alone, it should be read.

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Update: Also read Military, industrial and complex

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Moral conundrums in times of war

Resistance by Owen Sheers bravely imagines a plausible scenario where Britain has fallen to German forces after the Führer's fashioned triumph at Normandy in 1944. But wait if you think this is entirely fictitious. Sheers informs us in the Afterword that indeed, an organization of "farmers, vicars, and other local people [had been] trained and prepared to run messages and spy on an occupying German force."

It was called the Auxiliary Units Special Duties Section, an eerie peculiarity given that its members were mandated to work for fourteen days, after which they would have likely faced death. One of the members was George Vater, a personal acquaintance of Sheers, who forms the template for George Bowen in the book. An intelligence spy, Bowen is trained by the eccentric Tommy Atkins in the finer art of subterfuge to take on the Germans.

It is the picturesque Black Mountains valley, "somewhere so still, so bluntly beautiful and yet possessed, within that same beauty, of such a simple, threatening bareness too", where Sheers sets his tale. In the first scene of the novel, the female folk of the Olchon wake to a sudden, disquieting disappearance. Cows wait to be milked, fields wait to be mangled, and wives wait to be given a glimpse of the secretive exercise to which their husbands have committed themselves.

As Sarah Lewis searches for her husband Tom, the absence of whose warm shape next to her cruelly invades her dreams, she learns to carry on her life like before, so that "everything was ready for him to carry on as usual when he came back." Little is she aware that her life is about to be churned thick and fast by circumstances beyond her control.

The ironical absence of any men provides fertile ground for a German occupation force as it descends on the valley. Headed by Captain Albrecht Wolfram, the patrol's presence is emblematic of the inherent contradiction in the running away of the locals, whose status remains unclear till the end. The invading force, a spool of naked male ambition, provides a useful counterpoint to the receding memory of the husbands:

"Sarah sat down. Here they were again. In her house, in the kitchen. The enemy, the invading army. But it was different this time. As if the snow had shed them of all their history. She felt safe. For the first time in over a month, she felt safe."

Indeed, there is the undercurrent of a growing sexual tension between Sarah and Albrecht, and also, something bordering love. There is a tender scene in which he brings her a gramophone on her birthday, an occasion she'd tried to forget, unsuccessfully. So tactile is the writing that the reader can almost commune with young Sarah's need for a lover being constrained by her morality in abiding her marital vows.

The book, therefore, raises disturbing, if unoriginal, questions. As George and Atkins inch towards the valley to quash the occupation (which makes for an interesting sub-plot by itself), the reader is forced to dispute the quality, and even legality, of such a freedom. What should a woman do? Honor the memory of a runaway, if patriotic, husband, or give in to the passionate love of an "enemy"?

This is the first novel of an accomplished poet, and it ties disparate elements and themes with an enviable virtuosity.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Bard as nosy neighbor

William Shakespeare, arguably the greatest English writer of all time, is notorious for having brilliantly concealed his true identity. Almost none of his spoken words are recorded, so it is thrilling, and also revealing, to brush through Charles Nicholl's expert reconstruction of the one time that the Bard's words were actually reported.

In 1909, Charles William Wallace, an associate English professor at the University of Nebraska, and his wife discovered the Bellot-Mountjoy papers. This was a set of 26 depositions made before the Court of Requests in Westminster at the beginning of the 17th century. One of those depositions was signed by "William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon."

Before the world came to appreciate his talent, the 40-something Shakespeare had lodged at the Mountjoy residence on the corner of Silver and Monkwell streets in London "in and around" 1604.

Not that he had to lodge with others, unlike impecunious members of his profession who were forced to (Nicholl cites Ben Johnson and Matthew Roydon in this club). Shakespeare, on the other hand, owned an apartment in town. Yet, he chose to stay at the Mountjoys' — on the first floor, as Nicholl speculates, with reason.

The Mountjoys, Christopher and Marie, were French Protestant immigrants who had arrived in London in 1582. Christopher was a skilled "maker of decorative headgear for ladies" but a lousy family man. He had numerous "amorous accomplices or victims."

But even by his rather loose moral standards, what he did at the time of his daughter Mary's wedding in 1604 to Stephen Bellott was unexpected. Stephen, a hardworking apprentice of Christopher's, had been given Mary's hand in the hope of a suitable dowry, which Christopher eventually refused to pay. Shakespeare had a role to play both in assuring a wary Stephen of the solidness of Christopher's promise, and in giving evidence when that promise turned out to be hollow.

Eight years after he was married to Mary, Stephen filed a lawsuit in the Court of Requests. Thus, in 1612, Shakespeare was called to give evidence.

By itself, the testimony does not amount to much, but Nicholl's excitement is justified. Apart from its being the only signed spoken statement by Shakespeare, the deposition makes us see him "not from the viewpoint of literary greatness" but from a "marvelously banal" perch.

From here, Nicholl takes us into Shakespeare's life on Silver Street, the squalid underworld of medieval London. Taverns that double as brothels, cantankerous pimps, ambitious prostitutes, famed quacks — it's all here. For a writer who built a career by delving into the dark recesses of the mind, such a milieu must have been very rewarding.

All's Well That Ends Well, one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, concerns "a Frenchman being pressed into marriage." Any surprise that it was, by all accounts, written during his time at Silver Street?

Another witness at the Bellot-Mountjoy trial was George Wilkins, playwright and pimp, who has been long suspected of being the original writer of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, credited to Shakespeare. At any rate, Shakespeare and Wilkins collaborated, and Nicholl brings Wilkins to life as a classic low-life character of the time, dissolute and intriguing.

So, what was Shakespeare's testimony? And how did it affect the judgment? For that, you'd have to dip into this atmospheric evocation of a slice in the life of "the gent upstairs."