Book Chat, Episode 3

Books we talk about in this episode of Book Chat are:

  • The Conquerors, Roger Crowley (2015)
  • The Edge of the World, Michael Pye (2015)
  • A Cure for Suicide, Jesse Ball (2015)

You can read reviews by Grant and Matthew of each of these books in earlier blogposts on this website, below.

Advertisements
Book Chat, Episode 3

Book review: Conquerors, Roger Crowley (2015)

conquerors-how-portugal-siezed-the-indian-ocean-and-forged-the-first-global-empire-roger-crowley-kindle-iconThis review by Matthew is included here because the book will be talked about in the next Book Chat. First published on his blog.

Subtitled How Portugal Seized the Indian Ocean and Forged the First Global Empire, this brilliant account of colonial adventure is a gripping read, for although the Portuguese adventurers were not always blameless in their methods, you find yourself despite all the crimes against humanity they committed rooting hard for them. It’s strange. Although for me – whose grandfather grew up in Africa and who came from a family involved in colonial administration – possibly not entirely strange.

The grand adventure was driven from the top. Beginning with Henry the Navigator and continuing through John II and his son Manuel, royal support for the adventurers was essential because ships quickly wore out with worm, disease and battle thinned the ranks of the available adventurers, and organising new fleets took time. In fact you could say that building, equipping and directing ships was the main activity of the royal house of Portugal for over 100 years.

Getting access to markets in India was difficult, hence the violence. As Afonso de Albuquerque – Manuel’s foremost Governor of India – found, without force there was no doing business on the continent. Trade up to that point had been controlled by Hindu potentates and Muslim merchants, and they guarded their prerogatives jealously. In order to gain access to supply of spices – mainly spices but in other goods as well – it was usually necessary to bring force to coerce submission among the existing powers. Dislodging the Muslim merchants meant putting pressure on the Hindu rulers, and fighting battles against them.

Albuquerque was an interesting man who attempted to bring new ways of doing things to the colonial project. Instead of the traditional Portuguese method of fighting man-on-man with a two-handed sword, for example, he worked to train troops in the new methods pioneered by the Swiss, who used pikes and muskets in tight formations. He also encouraged miscegenation, probably initially as a way to domesticate and control his troops, and he did it against the advice of the Church. He furthermore tried to bring a more sophisticated notion of office to the colonial project, and to stamp out corruption. But because of his innovations he was not always popular. He was also mortal, as were the kings.

There are other men to focus on in Crowley’s book but Albuquerque is without doubt the most extraordinary among those the kings sent out to build an empire in a foreign ocean. His decision to take and keep Goa, for example, helped the Portuguese to maintain a trading station in India for 400 years, although others tried to bring scant forces to bear on different parts of the Indian coastline. Albuquerque also tried to fulfill Manuel’s messianic vision of eradicating Muslims from the Middle East and retaking Jerusalem, although he notably failed to do so. After Manuel’s death there was no king able to continue the colonial project with the same zeal and things began to fall apart. Eventually the Dutch and the English would take over where the Portuguese left off.

In many ways this is not a pleasant story. Third-world revisionists nowadays will have quite different takes to promote, but Crowley does not obscure what is not useful to the main thrust of his story, and is quite candid in his judgements of these often cruel men. What the story shows is that incredible things are possible even for small groups of men who are organised with single-minded focus on an overarching goal. Given the right people and enough resources they can achieve amazing things, as these adventurers most certainly did.

Book review: Conquerors, Roger Crowley (2015)

Book review: The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are, Michael Pye (2015)

This is a review by Grant and it is included here because it relates to the episode of Book Chat that follows it. This was first published in Good Reading magazine.

In The Edge of the World Michael Pye gives us a brilliant rethinking of the way in which medieval Europe became modern Europe. This is the story of seafaring and trading people – the Frisians, the Norse, the Hanseatic league and all the peoples who engaged in the economy of the North sea.

His method reminds me very much of Inga Clendinnen’s close reading of the primary sources as evinced in Dancing with Strangers, or Philip Jones’ analysis of post contact Aboriginal artefacts in Ochre and Rust. Pye focuses on very specific historical detail – be that a known historical event, a clause in a contract, or a physical artefact – and  by interrogating them for meaning is able to draw plausible wider inferences.

Thus he focuses on the meaning of cash hoards as opposed to hack silver; silk trimming on shoes found in the ruins of an 11th century Norwegian town; the specifics of the construction of Norse buildings at Anse aux Meadows in New Foundland; the details of marriage contracts. Combined with the surviving literary sources this close reading of the sources yields rich insights.

Pye is particularly interested in the way in which the use of money as an abstract measure of value is related to the development of mathematics and science. In the world of the North Sea this dynamic had its most immediate application to trade, navigation and ship building and windmills. There were implications for politics, capital formation and the status of women.

Along the way he manages to recover innumerable fragments of past lives and by relating them to the larger patterns he infers give them a meaning beyond what the physical artefact or contractual clause alone could achieve.  An unusual work and highly recommended.

Book review: The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are, Michael Pye (2015)

Book review: A Cure for Suicide, Jesse Ball (2015)

a-cure-for-suicide-jesse-ball-kindle-iconThis review was first published on Matthew’s blog and is published here because this book will be included in the next Book Chat vlog.

This is a strange and beautiful novel by a young American author that depicts a kind of post-Apocalyptic future and a kind of dystopia at the time of what is known only as the republic. There has been a terrible war. There are cities and towns still but Progress has had a chance to operate on society and in one regard – the handling of the cases of people who have lost all desire to live – there has been some actual progress made.

The Process of Villages is handled by the Department of Failure in order to implement the ideas of a famed thinker named Emmanuel Groebden, and it is to this place that Clement Mayer makes his way on the day his beloved’s funeral is being held. They had never married, nor even been engaged, but the girl’s family had not invited Clement to the occasion despite the fact that they had known she was to die. There was an illness that was common in the family for generations. They had picked up her body from the hunting lodge she had taken Clement to in order that they might have some time alone, and left him on the outskirts of the city to make his way home by himself. The family was rich and famous and Clement was poor and obscure but that wasn’t the whole story, it was just that they couldn’t tolerate outsiders.

When Clement arrives at the office of the Department he tells his story to the Interlocutor. At the end of the recount, this man decides that there is a case for the Process of Villages and gives Clement an injection, which knocks him out. He will awake, but not for a while, and when he does he will need to relearn everything, from how to walk downstairs to how to talk to strangers.

The novel is curious because things appear out of order. In the novel, Clement’s story comes second, after the story of the recovery of the patient who has been delivered to the Kindest Village. This process itself is quite convoluted and long, and involves several “rebirths” (although they are not called this) and several renamings. But this place is a good place to start because, like the man in the story, we start from a position of unknowing and move to a position of wisdom. So in a real way we follow along his convalescence and reemergence into his full capacities. In one of these phases he meets a young woman, and falls in love. But it is love as experienced by someone who is not quite sure who he is and would never be able to say the word “love”. This first section of the book is full of such strangenesses. It is the part of the book where things are explained – by the examiners – as though you are showing a person who has lost a leg how – the claimants – to walk again using a prosthetic device attached to a healed stump. It takes time.

But time is merciful in this novel, which is full of ghostly lovelinesses that rise up from the page and wrap themselves around your imagination in a deep embrace. Like Rana Nousen, the strange girl in the second section who falls in love with Clement; a strong-willed young woman who knows her own desires and acts on them. It is good to spend time with such people, even in a world where the treatment of suicide has been thoroughly bureaucratised. Even in such a place there is care taken, there are offices scrupulously fulfilled, and there are promises kept. This is an exceptional piece of speculative fiction that deserves to be read and thought about, and I would recommend it to anyone, even those who are not looking for books written in that genre. There is something here for anyone.

Book review: A Cure for Suicide, Jesse Ball (2015)