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Mixed Media: Books

Human Acts

Human Acts jacket

by Han Kang translated by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books, ISBN 978 1 84627 596

The horror of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in China – complete with iconic image of the stand-off between a protester and a line of tanks – is familiar to us all. The same cannot be said of the May 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea. Yet the political and social repercussions of that student-led protest continue to be felt today and, as Han Kang’s novel reveals, the wounds are still raw.

Human Acts opens with the story of Dong-ho, a 15-year-old boy caught up in the uprising while searching for his missing friend, and shot dead by soldiers. Subsequent chapters are narrated by Dong-ho’s family, friends and acquaintances over subsequent years and decades. Together, these voices create a chorus of pain. They describe, in stark and emotionless language, torture so simple and horrific that it is hard to keep on reading. Yet it is also a book that is impossible to put down.

At once raw and beautiful, Han Kang’s prose is as contradictory as the human acts – of love and hatred, peace and violence, fear and bravery – that she describes. How can humans be so fundamentally cruel while also being so noble? How can a nation ever be healed of such searing memories and guilt? There are no answers here, only questioning and soul-searching – the most important human acts of all.

Star rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Reviewer: Jo Lateu

Martin John

by Anakana Schofield (And Other Stories, ISBN 9781682190227)

I should make clear at the outset that this is a very unsettling novel. It could hardly be otherwise, taking as its subject matter the daily life of an obsessive-compulsive sex offender. We are inside the mind of Martin John Gaffney, as he ekes out a twilight existence in London and fights a daily battle with his demons. Having fled from Ireland in fear of violent retribution for his actions, Martin John constructs an elaborate set of circumlocutions to avoid facing directly his desires and to minimize the possibility of submitting to them. He admits ‘harm was done’ but desperately clings to the belief that rigid adherence to his mantras and walking endless ‘circuits’ will prevent a recurrence of his ‘mistakes’.

Martin John front cover

Anakana Schofield structures her novel as an open-ended loop, with myriad recursive loops within the narrative; mirroring the paranoid refrains of her protagonist. It is greatly to her credit that, as she takes us deep within the labyrinth of Martin John’s tortured belief-system, her incantatory prose does not miss a step, becoming poetical in its hypnotic repetition. This is a brave, discomforting book that, in its portrait of one disintegrating psyche, poses just the sort of hard questions that should be asked about society’s treatment of mental-health issues.

Star rating: ★ ★ ★
Reviewer: Peter Whittaker

What's Yours Is Mine: against the sharing economy


by Tom Slee (OR Books, ISBN 9781682190227)

Tom Slee’s book is an examination of the plethora of internet-based services that have sprung up in recent years. Poster children for an aggressive, technology-dependent capitalist model, the names of these companies – Uber, Taskrabbit, Airbnb, Lyft – are an indication of their supposed dynamism and their potential to ‘disrupt’ the old order of traditional labour relations, workplace safety and provider-consumer contracts. Supporters of these companies point to the way they redefine the nature of the transaction between service-provider and service-user, coining the phrase ‘sharing economy’ for this new relationship. Surely destined to take its place alongside ‘compassionate conservatism’ and ‘corporate ethics’ as a classic oxymoron, the sharing economy claims to synthesize the profit motive with the human impulse towards generosity.

Thus, Airbnb facilitates contact between those with spare accommodation and those seeking a bed, Uber likewise with transport capacity and requirements, Taskrabbit with household chores, and so on. What’s not to like about such direct harnessing of technology to match services with needs? Well, this thoroughly researched book shows us how, in monetizing what has hitherto been a ‘gift relationship’, these companies debase and undermine the societies in which they operate. In case studies of the above-named companies, he outlines how, by imposing extreme free-market practices on every aspect of our lives, they make megabucks for their founders while eroding employment and environmental rights that were hard-won through decades of struggle. This is a timely wake-up call to look beneath the shiny, tech-friendly surface to see the darker reality of neoliberal rapacity.

Star rating: ★ ★ ★
Reviewer: Peter Whittaker

Saudi Arabia: A Kingdom in Peril

by Paul Aarts and Carolien Roelants (Hurst, ISBN 978 1 84904 465 3)

Muted Modernists

by Madawi Al-Rasheed (Hurst ISBN 978 1 84904 586 5)

Few regimes seem as unassailable as that of Saudi Arabia – an absolute monarchy and serial human rights abuser. While dictators and autocrats were toppling like dominoes during the ‘Arab Spring’ the House of Saud remained unscathed – a testament to a repressive state machinery, coupled with a Wahhabist religious establishment that lends it legitimacy.

So, the subtitle of Aarts’ and Roelants’ wonderfully clear, vivid and fact-filled book may come as a bit of a surprise. The authors don’t predict the regime’s imminent demise, but they do highlight the many kinds of unrest – economic, environmental, demographic, political – that deeply threaten it. A worry for the royal dictatorship is the country’s growing population of digital-savvy youth, becoming daily more connected – and expressive.

In Muted Modernists, Saudi-born British academic Madawi Al-Rasheed explores an aspect of dissent that is rarely discussed – that of ‘Islamist modernists’. These are words you don’t often see together in the Western media, and certainly not in a Saudi context. But Al-Rasheed conveys with great skill and subtlety the kingdom’s ‘divine politics’ and presents a picture that is both nuanced and intriguing. Take the case of rebel cleric Salman al-Awdah, an erstwhile violent Jihadist, who, after a spell in prison, rejected extremism and developed a massive online and YouTube following, advocating peaceful revolutionary change. He is not alone. Al-Rasheed’s book is peopled with thoughtful Saudi clerics and scholars, struggling for a more just and humane society, based on Islamic principles. Unfortunately, most are in prison or exiled.

Star rating (for both books): ★ ★ ★ ★
Reviewer: Vanessa Baird

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