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Mixed Media: Books

Culture

The Transmigration of Bodies

Cover of The Transmigration of Bodies

by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (& Other Stories, ISBN 9781908276728)
andotherstories.org

Reviewing Mexican author Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World last year, I marvelled at how he created a whole world teeming with living, breathing characters in a few short chapters. In his latest novella, a pulp thriller of sorts, he has surpassed that achievement, with the additional complication that two of the central characters are, in fact, dead.

The Transmigration of Bodies is set in an unnamed city struck by plague. People are afraid to venture out of their houses and society is on the brink of collapse. In this febrile atmosphere, two rival crime families have a crisis which demands careful handling. Each family has a body belonging to the other and, although the deaths were caused by plague and not gang violence, trust is rock-bottom and an exchange needs to be brokered.

Enter our unlikely hero, The Redeemer, a fixer reminiscent of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe – a man, not himself mean, who must walk the mean streets of the crime – and disease-stricken barrios. Dodging infection, corrupt cops and random violence, he must finesse the exchange as best he can – and find time for his affair with his neighbour, Three Times Blonde.

The Transmigration of Bodies is a wondrous mash-up of styles which works solely and splendidly due to Herrera’s sureness of touch. The publishers have intimated that this is the second book in a loosely themed trilogy, the third of which will be published next year. Roll on 2017!

Rating: ★★★★★
Reviewer: Peter Whittaker

Second-Hand Time

Second-Hand Time book cover

by Svetlana Alexievich, translated from the Russian by Bela Shayevich . (Fitzcarraldo Editions, ISBN 9781910695111)
fitzcarraldoeditions.com

Svetlana Alexievich was the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature and her latest work, Second-Hand Time is a towering achievement, amply confirming the judgement of those bestowing the accolade. Weighing in at 700 pages and subtitled ‘The Last of the Soviets’, this is a sweeping and monumental oral history of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The author has assembled dozens of eyewitness accounts, bringing together unapologetic Stalinists and rampant free-marketeers; those who mourn the passing of the USSR and those who celebrate it. She has recorded the testimony of veterans and victims, apparatchiks and dissidents, and has woven their stories into a poignant requiem for a destroyed dream and a ruined civilization.

Alexievich divides her book into two sections – ‘Ten Stories in a Red Interior’, broadly covering the lead up to Soviet Union’s demise and ‘Ten Stories in the Absence of an Interior’, in which people speak of the aftermath; the Yeltsin years, shock-capitalism, the Chechen wars and the tin-pot dictatorships that arose in the post-Soviet republics.

The individuals recorded here are allowed the space and time to express, in their own ways, the hopes and fears, desires and dread of ordinary people struggling to construct meaningful lives in extraordinary circumstances. As the final voice here – an unnamed ‘everywoman’– says: ‘Whether it’s socialism or capitalism. Who’s Red, who’s White – it makes no difference. The important thing is to make it to spring. Plant potatoes…’

Rating: ★★★★
Reviewer: Peter Whittaker

Dark Money

Dark Money book cover

by Jane Mayer (Scribe, ISBN 978 192 52288 847)
scribepublications.co.uk

Back in the 1970s, some of the wealthiest business people in the US began a campaign to try to limit the powers of liberal democracy. With a penchant for absolute power through wealth, this ideology is often referred to as ‘libertarianism’. In fact, it’s closer to totalitarianism.

Initially, the wealthy elite tried to grab power through the political system. But US voters rejected libertarian parties at the polls. So, they played the long game. Today, Charles and David Koch – who run Koch Industries, one of the US’s most profitable corporations – are key drivers of this private-wealth-driven political machine that often masquerades as philanthropy.

Dark Money shows how this family of billionaires has secretly influenced the political culture of the US since the Reagan era. The Koch agenda, Mayer explains – using solid insider sources – is simple but ruthless: tax breaks for the rich, more inequality, less education for the poor, and environmental policies that deny climate change and favour heavy industry. Their lobbying of politicians has made progressive legislation almost impossible to pass through Congress and helped shape how millions of Americans think. This book is a must-read for those seeking to understand how Washington became a corporatocracy.

Rating: ★★★★
Reviewer: JP O'Malley