Mixed media: book reviews
by China Miéville (Verso, ISBN 9781784782711)
Oceans of ink and hillsides of trees have been spent in telling the story and interpreting the outcome of the Russian Revolution of 1917. It could be argued that not even the centenary of that cataclysmic event provides sufficient justification for adding to the tottering mountain of books on the subject. That said, if I had a free pass to grant any author to add their tuppenceworth, it would, in all probability, be leftist contrarian China Miéville, whose radical science-fiction novels have brought style, substance and even a measure of respect to a much-maligned genre.
By and large, Miéville eschews the dazzling prose stylistics employed in his fiction, giving us an unadorned chronology of the Revolution, charting the nine months in which Russia was transformed from autocratic serfdom into the world’s first socialist state. The narrative bowls along, barely pausing for breath; and underlining, in its broad historical perspective, how the so-called main players – Lenin, Trotsky, Kerensky, Kornilov – were as often reactors to, as shapers of, rapidly evolving events.
Miéville’s account has much to offer the reader keen for insights into this hinge-moment of history and he is – unlike many commentators – refreshingly free of sectarian bile. In a thoughtful epilogue, he considers the century-long ramifications of 1917. He throws new light on the hoary question of whether the failures of the Revolution – purges, gulags, starvation, mass murder, Stalin – were incipient at its birth and he even manages to gesture tentatively, hesitantly, towards some glimmers of lessons learned for our present generation, living in the twilight of idealism.
Things We Lost in the Fire
by Mariana Enríquez, translated by Megan McDowell (Granta, ISBN 978 1 84627 634 7)
Though a bestselling author in Spain and her native Argentina, Mariana Enríquez’s exquisite short stories have been denied to an English-speaking audience until now. This collection is an unsettling and haunting introduction to Enríquez’s world, covering societal ills from drugs and corruption to poverty and domestic abuse in modern-day Buenos Aires and beyond. Her narrators are honest, engaging and compelling, and the author has the knack of knowing exactly when each story should be broken off, leaving the reader pondering but also greedy to start the next.
Behind every story lies the shadow of Argentina’s dictatorial past. ‘We all walk over bones in this city,’ notes the narrator in ‘No Flesh Over Our Bones’ – and sometimes they rise to the surface. So we read of buildings that yield up horrific secrets of torture and dark rivers that hide the disappeared. In ‘An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt’, the narrator makes his living by guiding tourists on murder tours in the capital. With grim irony he notes that ‘the city didn’t have any great murderers if you didn’t count the dictators’, and adds that for reasons of political correctness, they can’t be included in the tour.
The past is ever present and, like a palimpsest, these stories are layered with its imprint.
Another Economy is Possible
by Manuel Castells et al (Polity, ISBN 9781509 517213)
What connects the diverse chapters in this anthology is the idea that ‘the economy is not simply related to culture’ but that ‘economy is culture’, as Castells puts it. The financial crisis of 2008 and difficulties in the Eurozone provide the backdrop, with much attention on southern Europe. There are inspiring alternative economic practices and a focus on the social and political circumstances necessary for another economy.
The book devotes due diligence to the feasibility of more widespread non-capitalist economies, not merely to their desirability. For the more casual reader this diligence may be its weakness. Although it straddles the line between academic and popular appeal, the emphasis on methodology places it more firmly in the academic camp, as does terminology that prioritizes precision over lucidity.
But we do get to see something of the personal backgrounds of the protagonists of non-capitalist economic initiatives. And many of the chapters are very readable, not least one on the movement of the ‘Aganaktismenoi’ (Indignants) in Greece and the process of ‘commoning’ health services, food, artistic expression, transport and postal services.
In an insightful chapter on degrowth, Giorgos Kallis reminds us that ‘capitalism long coexisted within feudalism before finally evolving out of it’. Amid the inequalities and injustices of the capitalism of today, this volume provides a rigorous look at what might be the roots of a more democratic economy of tomorrow.
Good Cop, Bad War
My Undercover Life Inside Britain's Drug Gangs
by Neil Woods with JS Rafaeli (Ebury Press, ISBN 9781 7850 32707)
This is a riveting read at two levels. First it is a real-life story of how for 14 years the author, an undercover police officer, infiltrated drug gangs and had criminals put away for a combined total of 1,000 years. His courage and commitment are extraordinary and the risks he takes extreme. On one occasion an arm is wrapped around his neck: ‘I saw something flash in his right hand. Then I felt the knife. It was pointing straight into my crotch, just hard enough that I could feel the point on the base of my penis.’ He talks his way out of it.
The second level is the story of the author’s gradual disillusion with his work, as he realizes the futility of prohibiting the drugs trade, exemplified when he has a brutal criminal jailed for nine years and a major drugs cartel broken up. This simply created a vacuum in supply soon filled by others.
The last chapter of Good Cop, Bad Cop is pure gold: a magnificent summary of his findings and plea to end the war on drugs: ‘Legalize and regulate the supply of narcotics and at a stroke you deprive the most vicious gangsters in the world of the $450-billion annual income that enables all their operations.’ Happily, though Woods has left the police, he is not lost to the cause: he now works as chair of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition UK, campaigning for legalization and regulation of the illegal drugs market. His book makes an unanswerable case – as does a new book in New Internationalist’s NoNonsense series, Legalizing Drugs by Steve Rolles. The momentum for a sane policy on drugs is gathering pace.