Wednesday, 15 June 2011

V.S. Naipaul, Diana Athill and a Lot of Tosh

V.S. Naipaul, my most favourite writer, seems to be in the news these days for all the wrong reasons.

Naipaul hasn’t published a novel since Magic Seeds (which wasn’t received well), came out seven years ago.

Last year was published Masque of Africa, Naipaul’s first travelogue in a decade, this time on Africa (which, like some of the other vast continents he has visited in the past, Naipaul found appalling), and that was panned by the critics (although many of them seemed to be more interested in venting their bile about what an awful man Naipaul was than reviewing the supposed deficiencies in the book).

So how does Naipaul manage to muscle his way into limelight, albeit intermittently?

It works like this. Naipaul gives an interview. In the interview he makes statements that are very obviously politically incorrect and controversial. These statements are quoted (usually out of context) in newspapers, which then becomes a license for the outraged offended party to call him gross, delusional, narcissistic, overrated etcetera etcetera.

Last week, the Guardian quoted (selectively and out of context, needless to say) from an interview Naipaul gave to the Royal Geographic Society.

In the interview Naipaul replied to the question whether he considered any women writer his literary match with the answer ‘I don’t think so.’

In the same interview Naipaul claimed that he couldn’t possibly share Jane Austen’s ‘sentimental ambition, her sentimental view of the world.’

Naipaul further claimed that women writer were ‘quite different’. ‘I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph I know whether it is written by a man or a woman,’ he said. ‘It is,’ he added (just in case he hadn’t made himself clear), ‘unequal to me.’

Finally, without actually taking her name, Naipaul dismissed the writing of Diana Athill, his former editor at Andre Deutsch, as ‘feminist tosh’, adding (the Naipaul touch) ‘I don’t mean this in any unkind way.’

Athill, 93, responded thus: ‘It seems very odd. He doesn’t realise what a monkey he is making of himself.’ 

Athill went on to give her view as to why Naipaul might have dismissed her writing as ‘feminine tosh’. ‘I was a “sensitive editor” because I liked his work, I was admiring it. When I stopped admiring him so much I started being “feminine tosh”. I can't say it made me feel very bad. It just made me laugh ... I think one should just ignore it, take no notice really.’

Finally, Naipaul’s former editor had the following to say: ‘Naipaul has always been a testy man and seems to have got testier in old age. I don't think it is worth being taken seriously ... It's sad really because he's a very good writer. Why be such an irritable man?


I tried to find the original Royal Geographic interview on the net, but couldn’t find it, so I will have to go by what was published in the Guardian.

It is difficult to see what Naipaul was trying to achieve here other than attracting wholly negative publicity and hostile criticism towards him.

Is it possible that Naipaul made an off the cuff remark during the interview that was latched upon by the newspapers seeking a juicy story? That does not seem typical of a man who is known to rarely forget and never forgive (unless, nearing eighty, Sir Vidia has gone a bit soft in the head).

What has (understandably) raised the hackles of some women writers is Naipaul’s description of women’s writing as ‘sentimental’ and ‘narrow’. I must say that this seems like sweeping (and inaccurate) generalization to me. If I take a look at the novels I have read in the last eighteen months, there were many novels written by women writers (Monica Ali, Barbara Kingsglover, Hilary Mantel to name just three) that were anything but sentimental. I am currently reading Jane Gardam’s The Man in the Wooden Hat, and it has, so far, not struck me as sentimental (although I haven’t found it particularly gripping either). 

It is possible—I haven’t done a PhD on this, so I wouldn’t bet my mortgage on it—that women writers as a group are more likely to be more aware of the emotional aspects than male writers, and Naipaul was probably making that point in a manner that was not helpful.

It’s all down to semantics and implied connotations. Naipaul chose the word ‘sentimental’ to describe women’s writing. If we suppose that the word was chosen carefully, then the implication is that Naipaul thinks that women’s writing is swayed more by emotions rather than reason. Mind you, Naipaul is not saying it in so many words; however, the context in which the word was used has a pejorative connotation.

I have read all but one of Naipaul’s novels, none of which has struck me as sentimental; his later novels, in particular, are devoid of sentiments altogether.  That makes me think that Naipaul does not view sentimentality (or excess of it) in a novel as a good thing. He believes women writers (as a group) overdo sentimentality in their work, which he doesn't; ergo, no woman writer is his equal.  Everyone is entitled to his views; but when you are a well-known figure of some standing in the literary world and express views that are so obviously non-PC (and likely to be viewed as incorrect by many), you have to expect flak; and that’s what has happened here. You also run the risk of being labeled cranky, eccentric (or a kook, as Jenifer Egan described him in her interview—I had to look up a dictionary to find out its meaning), sexist, irascible, and pompous.

Naipaul does not help the matter by refusing to elaborate further once he has fired his salvo. The Pulitzer winning American writer Jenifer Egan reacted strongly to Naipaul’s comment (although judging from the report of Egan’s reaction, it wasn’t clear to me whether she had actually read Naipaul’s interview; it seemed that she was, in a telephonic interview, told about the comments published in the Guardian, and she gave her response). 

When requested to give his reaction to Egan’s comment, Naipaul’s spokesperson said, ‘Sir Vidia said what he needed to say and is not interested in further dialogue on this matter.’

You see what is happening here? Naipaul made comments (probably) calculated to inflame emotions; and when the predictable happened, he haughtily declared that he was not interested in a debate, evincing that he considered it beneath him to engage in a dialogue or a debate on the matter with the other person.  Not a strategy that will win you many friends. But perhaps Naipaul does not care about these things.

I do share, however, Naipaul’s dislike (if that is the correct word) of Jane Austen. I don’t know what ambitions Jane Austen had when she wrote those dreadful novels. Naipaul thinks she had sentimental ambitions; I think she had ambitions to render the reader catatonic with ennui. Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s most famous novel, is not oozing in sentimentality in my humble opinion; it is still a crap novel—more dreary than Norfolk county council meetings and more irritating than an Alex Ferguson interview. Also, Naipaul is not the only one who does not hold Austen in high regard: Jeremy Clarkson, that great wit in British journalism, does not waste any opportunity to tell the world his low opinion of Austen (that makes at least three people in the British Isles who think Jane Austen is overrated: myself, Naipaul, and Clarkson).

Are women writers 'quite different' from men writers as Naipaul claims? It is a view; not a very fashionable view these days, but a view that has been expressed, from time to time, by other authors, including women authors. Some time back I read a novel entitled Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. This novel, written by the British novelist Winifred Watson had become very popular when it was first published in the 1930s (and was recently made into a Hollywood film). The novel was recently reissued by the Persephone Books, and included a biography of its author. Winifred Watson firmly believed that women read women's novels and men read men's novels. (This of course does not mean that men can't write novels that women will read and vice versa, but does suggest that Watson felt that men and women appreciate different things when they read novels.)

I also found Naipaul’s comments about Diana Athill, and Athill’s response interesting.

In his interview Naipaul describes Athill’s writing as a ‘feminist tosh’. I do not know which book of Athill Naipaul had in his mind when he said that—Athill has published one novel (which I haven’t read) and a few memoirs (of which I have read three: Stet, Somewhere Towards the End, and After A Funeral). 

Note that Naipaul is not making an attack on Athill’s character; he is passing his judgment on Athill’s writing, which, in his view, is ‘feminist nonsense’.

What is Athill’s response? She says (according to her comment attributed her in the Guardian) that she finds Naipaul’s ‘attack’ ‘laughable’. She declares that ‘no notice’ should be taken of it; it was not worth taking seriously. After saying all this Athill goes on to offer her insight into why Naipaul has made this remark about her writing. We are told that it all goes back to the 1970s when she was Naipaul’s editor at Andre Deutsch and expressed her reservations about Naipaul’s novel Guerrillas. Naipaul, if Athill is to be believed, did not take kindly to her criticism; he withdrew his novel from Andre Deutsch, and never worked with her again.

This happened, if it happened (i.e. Naipaul’s reason for severing ties with Andre Deutsch and jettisoning Diana Athill), more than 35 years ago.

In giving her response to Naipaul’s ‘laughable attack’, which was not worth taking ‘seriously’, Athill felt the need to disinter this dreg. ‘When I stopped admiring him so much,’ Athill remarked, ‘I started writing “feminist tosh” [according to Naipaul].’

What this suggests to me is that Athill is unable to get past the idea that the only reason Naipaul has described her work as ‘feminist tosh’ is his grudge against her for daring to criticize his novel several decades ago.

You can’t help feeling that despite her loud protestations to the contrary, Naipaul’s dismissive remark has hurt Athill.

Athill thinks it is sad that Naipaul is being such an irritable man (even in his old age, presumably). I think it is equally (if not more) sad that someone at the age of 93, when very few years are left on this earth, is still unable to look beyond petty personal dustups that happened years ago. A really mature response might have been to simply acknowledge what Naipaul said and even accept that he might have had literary reasons for not taking her writing seriously, instead of whining about some incident that happened in another century. True serenity of mind, it seems, is not an easy thing to achieve in a lifetime.

(As an aside, in her memoir, Stet,—which, I should point out, I thoroughly enjoyed, not least because it had a gossipy feel to it—published almost a decade ago, Athill devotes a chapter to Naipaul. The picture Athill paints of the Nobel Laureate—although he wasn’t that when the memoir was first published— is not endearing. She describes Naipaul as haughty, prickly, difficult, and having enough demons to fill up Buckingham Palace. She indicates that she found his company oppressive; she hints that he treated his wife (his first wife, Patricia) with contempt; and finally, she tells the story of Naipaul’s departure from Andre Deutch and records her reaction: ‘It was as though the sun came out [after Naipaul left]. I didn’t have to like Vidia any more.’ This, one might say, is very personal criticism; and Naipaul, as far as I am aware, never responded to it. At least not with personal mudslinging. That is not his style. He has, instead, more than ten years after Stet was first published, made a ‘passing remark’ about Athill’s writing that has hit the target.

As a further aside, in all three memoirs of Athill that I have read (two of which—Stet and Somewhere Towards the End—I have liked), I have noted (with a degree of admiration) Athill’s unassuming style of writing in which she somehow manages to be a quiet, almost self-deprecating, heroine of her stories—the ultimate conceit of a writer, you might say. This is particularly evident in the third book of Athill which I read recently.  In this memoir, After A Funeral, Athill recounts the story of her doomed relationship with the Egyptian writer Waugih Ghali, which ended with Ghali committing suicide in Athill’s flat. Athill tries hard—too hard, you suspect—to project herself as an open minded, generous and tolerant woman. Ghali—who was dead for eighteen years when the book first came out— based on Athill’s account, comes across as a cross between Caligula and Margaret Thatcher. As I read the book I found myself becoming increasingly irritated, as yet another incident of the caddish, ungrateful behavior of the unreliable Ghali (who is referred to throughout the book by his nickname ‘Didi’) was recounted, to which Saint Diana responded with supreme forbearance. And it was done very cunningly. Scratch the patina of pseudo-honesty and faux-introspective insight, and you find that awful things were written about a man who could not defend himself because he was dead.

When Naipaul described Athill’s writing as ‘tosh’ he might have been very harsh, unfair, even, but, having read three of Athill’s books, I can’t say he didn’t have a point.)

As I have said this on this blog before, the trouble with Naipaul is that he says as he sees things and does not care for niceties or political correctness. This is not to say that I find myself in agreement with everything he says, great fan though I am of his writing. But he is nothing less than totally honest (at least that is how he comes across to me—both in his fiction and non-fiction writing).

And that is a quality I admire a lot in a writer.  

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Ratko Mladic and the Psychopath Test

Ratko Mladic is off. He has eaten his strawberries; watched popular programmes on Serbian television; visited his daughter’s grave in Belgrade; and now it is time to join his mate Radovan Karadzic in Hague to answer a few questions. I wouldn’t have thought General Mladic would have managed to finish the Tolstoy novel (what could it have been? War and Peace?) he requested following his arrest in Serbia. Never mind; he will have plenty of time to read it (or any other classics he might fancy) in Hague; because time is one thing, health permitting, General Mladic will have aplenty.

The ‘psychopath’ has joined the ‘psychiatrist’. The psychiatrist, in Hague for the last 3 years after he was ferreted out of Belgrade in 2008, faces 11 charges including genocide. Mladic is certain to face similar charges for the deaths of more than 7000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995; and without doubt, the 44-month siege of Sarajevo by Mladic’s forces which reportedly resulted in deaths of 10,000 civilians will feature prominently in the charge-sheet against him.

Mladic was on the run for sixteen years since he was first indicted by the War Crimes Tribunal in 1995. During the presidency of Slobodan Milosevic, he appeared openly in public in Belgrade and seemed to almost relish his avatar as the-fugitive-about-the-town. When Milosevic was deposed following the disputed presidential elections in 2000 (and subsequently packed off to Hague to face charges of war crimes), Mladic disappeared from the public view.  Europe’s ‘most wanted war criminal’ was eventually captured in the small Serbian village of Lazarvo (conveniently enough) just as the chief prosecutor of the Yugoslav war crime tribunal,  Serge Brammertz, was about to deliver a withering verdict on Serbia as the country went about determinedly and diligently not finding Mladic.

The end to the manhunt for General Mladic couldn’t have been more different from that of the other infamous fugitive, Bin Laden, in Abbotabad, Pakistan (probably because the Americans were not overtly keen on capturing Bin Laden alive). ‘Good work,’ Mladic is supposed to have remarked when the Serbian Special forces arrived at the doorsteps of his cousin Branko’s house in Lazarvo, in the early hours of the morning of 26 May. ‘You have found the one you wanted.’ The ‘Butcher of Srebrenica’ was polite to his capturers and allegedly asked his cousin to serve the men ham, cheese and plum brandy.

One wonders whether General Mladic was being ironical (do psychopaths—Serbian psychopaths to be precise—get irony?) when he complimented the arresting force upon their ‘good work’.  One wonders because, according to some newspaper reports, the arrest of General Mladic—who still (allegedly)enjoyed considerable support amongst the Serbian army and intelligence service—was the result of a year long negotiations and brokering. What eventually convinced the general to turn himself in was the assurance from the Serbian government that his wife and son would not face an uncertain future and he would get a decent burial.

That’s what it came down to in the end: an old man, his physical health wrecked, wishing for a decent burial and a future for his only surviving child.

In the 1990s Yugoslavia descended into a bloody disintegration as each republic of its motley assemblage, kept tenuously together for thirty odd years by the Communist dictator, Marshall Tito, chose to be free from what they saw as the Serbian dominance and embrace free market; that was the plan. As each republic escaped control of Serbia, the region plunged into increasingly gruesome ethnic conflict, the worst and bloodiest of which was reserved for Bosnia and Hercegovina where Bosinaks (Bosnian Muslims), Croats, and Serbs, for centuries the three ethnic groups of the region that is landlocked on all sides except a narrow strip along the Adriatic coastline, sought to stake their territorial claims. As in Croatia, the Serbs wanted to remain with Serbia while the Bosinaks and Croats (who formed an alliance based on the century-old dictum of ‘enemy’s enemy is my friend) wanted independence.

The three (amongst many) men who played—to put it neutrally—a significant role in these conflicts which saw deaths of tens of thousands (if not more) were: Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia between 1989 and 1997, and, bizarrely—after Serbia lost control of Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Hercegovina—the president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1997 until his deposal in 2000; Radovan Karadzic, the psychiatrist turned politician and the political leader or the Bosnian Serbs during the multi-ethnic conflict that gripped the region in the 1990s (also the first president of the Republika Srpska, the Serb-controlled region within Bosnia); and Ratko Mladic, the high ranking officer of the Yugoslav People’s Army who became the Chief of Staff of the army of Republika Srpska (Bosnian Serb Army).

                     (Partners in Crime: Mladic and Karadzic)

Milosevic was sent to Hague in 2001 where five years later he died, allegedly of a heart attack, a few months before the judgement would have been passed on him; in other words, before he was convicted.

Karadzic was arrested on a bus in Belgrade 2008 and is currently in Hague trying, as he says, to blow away the myths of Bosnia.

Now General Mladic, the last of the key-player in the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, is nabbed.

With the arrest of General Mladic, the last of the triumvirate, Serbia, at any rate the Serbian government, will be hoping to finally move on. Upon learning that his erstwhile Chief of Staff (with whom he had had an uneasy relationship through the Bosnian war) was arrested in Belgrade, Karadzic issued a statement from his cell in Belgrade: he was sorry to hear that General Mladic was caught but now that he was arrested, he (Karadzic) was hoping that the two of them would bring out the truth of what really happened in Bosnia.

The European media (including the UK) has taken a great deal of interest in General Mladic’s arrest. BBC described him, in one of its news bulletins, as a ‘man without a conscience’—the archetypical psychopath. Such epithets, besides being (probably) inaccurate serve no purpose other than demonising the man. Whether Mladic is a demon (figuratively speaking) is a matter of opinion. This post is not about either defending or dissing Mladic, about whom, at any rate, I knew not a great deal till recently. Neither had I taken a great deal of interest in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s (till NATO started bombing Belgrade), which, as a friend put it—no doubt paraphrasing a certain American right-wing comic writer—, was all about people whose names you couldn’t pronounce fighting with people whose names you couldn’t spell. 

I was however curious about the use of the phrase ‘having no conscience’. 

I also wondered (no doubt an after-effect of having read a book about the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Sarajevo in 1914, by a group of Bosnian Serbs (but not only them), which triggered the catastrophic (and largely pointless) First World War) whether the actions of Mladic, Karadzic, and the late (and unlamented) Milosevic, couldn’t be better understood as an extreme (and unpalatable) form of Nationalism rather than putative sinister bends in their character make-ups.

Let’s look at the first issue. Mladic (as were Karadzic and Milosevic) was married, for all outward purposes, happily, for a long time; and his wife (and his son)  are standing by him when, one imagines, the pressure on them to denounce him must have been considerable, seeing as Mladic has become persona non grata with the current political establishment in Serbia. Indeed, according to newspaper reports, it was the future of his family that was foremost on Mladic’s mind when his surrender was negotiated (allegedly).

Mladic also had a daughter, named Anna, who was a medical student in Belgrade. This daughter, the apple of Mladic’s eye, killed herself in Belgrade at the age of 23, at the height of the Bosnian war. Mladic was reported to be distraught at her death. It is not clear why the daughter killed herself, but according to some reports she became increasingly distressed by the rumours floating about in Belgrade that her father was going to be indicted as a war criminal. This was a year before the Srebrenica massacre, but the infamous siege of Sarajevo, by that time, had entered its third year.

All of this suggests that Mladic is a family man who cares deeply for his family. Can psychopaths have genuine tender emotions?

But then Mladic has attracted epithets such as ‘monster’ (although in his first court appearance in Hague he described the charges against him as ‘monstrous’) and ‘psychopath’ not because of domestic violence but because of violence the forces he commanded are alleged to have unleashed on the civilians in the Bosnian war.

A non-violent war is a contradiction in terms, but the rules of engagement dictate that ‘laws and customs’ of the war should be respected. This means that acts such as destruction of undefended cities, towns, properties and violent acts against civilians (I think this probably qualifies for crimes against humanity) etc. are ill countenanced.   (This is a rough guess; I haven’t read the Geneva Convention due to demands on my time, so have referred to a BBC article instead.)

What General Mladic is certain to be charged with (amongst other things) is genocide—the most severe of the war crimes: ‘act(s) committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.’

The concepts of ‘war crimes’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ are relatively recent, post Second World War, when the horrors of the Holocaust and the Japanese prison camps came to light. This was originally a European concept, developed by the victorious allies of the Second World War (although I should guess that Uncle Jo Stalin wouldn't have had anything to do with it).

As I understand it, at the heart of these concepts is the rejection of the idea that  individuals can't be held responsible for the action of the nation’s soldiers during the war.

So the War Crimes tribunal came into existence in the middle of the twentieth century, when a bunch of European countries fought a cruel war and decided that such cruelties should not be carried out in future wars, anywhere in the world. (We have done it; we know how bad it is; and we do not want any nation in the world to do it.) A concept perhaps not appreciated in those parts of the world where the traditional meaning of the word ‘war’ is embraced: it is in the nature of wars to have horrors.

There was an article published in the Guardian in which the author—who also let it be known, by the bye, that he was in the process of writing a book based on the experiences of the survivors of the Bosnian war (presumably Bosinaks)—was a hollow victory because Serbian society does not feel apologetic about what happened in Bosnia (even though Serbian parliament passed a resolution apologizing for the Srebrenica massacre), the implication being Serbia is in some sort of collective denial about the heinous crimes of its army. Indeed, after reading the article you’d be excused for thinking that the whole of Serbia was afflicted by ‘psychopathy’.

Which, of course, is nonsense; however, there is no point denying that in certain sections of the Serbian society, Mladic is a hero, as was apparent by the demonstrations organized by the Serbian Radical Party when the Serbian government went ahead with his extradition to Hague, which was attended by thousands.

Maybe in the eyes of some in Serbia, Mladic is a hero, not a war criminal. Why might this be? There could be several reasons. Let’s list them. (1) They do not know of Mladic’s alleged war-crimes. (Very unlikely, this. It is inconceivable that there is even a single Serbian who has not heard of ‘Europe’s most wanted war-criminal’ and why he was on the run.) (2) They have heard of Mladic’s alleged war crimes, but choose not to believe them. ‘The kind-hearted Ratko Mladic? Nah,’ they might say (shaking their heads), ‘he wouldn’t hurt a fly.’ (3) They feel mightily miffed that the Serbian has been deliberately targeted for (alleged) war crimes. This argument may go something like this: all sides involved in the conflict committed atrocities, not just the Serbs (shorthand for Serbian forces). Why are we being singled out?  As they say, you are not really paranoid when they are really after you. (4) They believe that Mladic was protecting / defending / safeguarding—whatever words you prefer—the Serbian interests in the region. It was a civil war situation, and it is hardly surprising that Mladic and his forces showed no mercy to the enemy; because the enemy, had he got half a chance, wouldn’t have shown mercy to them. The civilians on the side of the identified enemy (the argument might go) were fair game, because they had after all voted for independence thereby directly harming Serbia’s interests. (5) They are all (like Mladic) psychopaths who suffer from congenital conscience deficit and take pleasure in killing people.

After reading one of the Guardian articles you may end up with the making the following equations: Serbs = biggest baddies, the Nazis of the Balkans; everyone else = victims; Bosnian Muslims = biggest victims. (I am not necessarily saying that such equations are always misleading but they are more likely to be misleading for no other reasons than that centuries-old conflicts, which erupt (like one of those volcanoes in Iceland) can never be captured in broad brush-strokes.)

The truth is likely to be contained somewhere between reasons listed under 2, 3 and 4. (and let’s not forget that despite the official arms embargo by the West on all the warring factions, it has been alleged that the American intelligence first secretly aided Croatia it its ‘war of independence’ against Serbia and, later, supplied arms to the Bosinak army by making a pact with –hold your breath!—Iran. With the weapons came the radical jihadist philosophy and the Western Intelligence began sweating about the radicalisation of the Bosnian army in Sarajevo.)
The message that surely comes through from the Balkan conflict, as from the Iraq invasion (and from Belgrade bombing, and from the Second World War, and from the First World War) is that there is no such thing as a kind war (despite the repeated assurances of Toni Blair prior to illegal Iraq invasion). When countries go to war, bad things happen to the civilians who get caught in the conflict.

I have never read or heard about a war that I thought was a civilised war.

This is not to defend or justify (or deny) what Mladic’s forces are accused of having done, but stating the obvious. In Europe we like to think that we are somehow superior and more civilized than, say, the Africans, where various tribes wreak unspeakable havoc on other tribes during the civil war situations. We feel uneasy when we read about similar atrocities taking place in our midst. There is then an unquenchable thirst—almost as unquenchable as the thirst of the perpetrators of crimes—to show to the rest of the world that despite what happened in the wars, we are a civilised continent, and we shall prove it by relentlessly hunting down the Karadzics and Mladics of this world and won’t stop our hand-wringing until justice is seen to be prevailed. Only then can the righteous can sleep easily.

Only the naives would think that such procedures, however noble their aims, would prevent another ‘atrocity’ happening. That is because the definition of ‘war atrocity’ is different in different parts of the world, and not everyone subscribes to the European definition. The tribunal is ‘international’ only in the loose sense of the word.  Its authority is not recognized by many countries: for example, the USA, which has refused to sign the treaty, claiming that the tribunal can be used for politically motivated prosecution. (Interestingly, in his five year trial, which ended without a verdict—because he died—Slobodan Milosevic had repeatedly made the same argument: his trial was politically motivated. What Milosevic was implying was the only reason he was facing the charges was his country lost the Balkan war and his (political) enemies won.) India, the biggest democracy in the world, has refused to sign the treaty; as has China, the emerging superpower of the twenty-first century; as has Russia. 

There is also the case that in certain parts of the world, for reasons that are too many and complex to go into here, the International War Crime Tribunals in Hague has little to no credibility. If ‘wanton destruction of cities, towns and villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity’ or ‘attacks or bombardment of undefended towns, villages, dwellings and buildings’ or ‘destruction or wilful damage done to institutions, historic monuments, works of art and science’ are considered as war crimes, then I can’t see how what happened to Belgrade in 1999, Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011 cannot be considered as war crimes? Why is deliberate bombing of ‘enemy’s’ television stations or bombing in areas where you know civilians are known to be living not considered a war crime? Almost all aspects of a state’s infrastructure are considered as legitimate military targets, and their ‘wanton destruction’ is not considered a war crime. Why? How does one differentiate between ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘collateral damage’? Slobodan Milosevic went in front of Hague, even though he personally probably did not kill a single Bosnian, because as the President of Serbia he was held accountable for the actions of the Serbian army and forces in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Fair enough. Will Toni Blair and George W Bush ever be made to face their crimes in Hague? Will rats venture out of sewers?  

It is also interesting to see the tone of the media. In their eyes Mladic is guilty, as is Karadzic, as was Milosevic, although, technically, he must be assumed innocent until proven guilty; that is, you might say, the difference between the civilized nations and the uncivilized ones. (Dehumanising of Mladic has already begun. He was reported as belligerent, defiant, unrepentant, and even smirking towards the Srebrenica women—present in the gallery—during his first court appearance. When asked to confirm his name he apparently puffed up his chest and said he was Ratko Mladic. What else was he supposed to do? Cower under the table and whisper that he was war criminal Mladic? The buffoonish BBC correspondent, John Simpson—who is about as subtle as a belch and who has insatiable craving for giving himself a role in any drama he is covering—reported that Mladic gave him an ‘unpleasant salute’ (as if Mladic remembered who the fat-arse was). All of this serves, I think, the important purpose of insulating us from the horrors some of us can’t quite believe humans are capable of.) Many believe that Mladic is guilty. And there is no doubt that thousands died in Srebrenica and in the three year siege of Sarajevo. Denying these things is on par with denying Holocaust.

Ratko Mladic has a case to answer, and, unless he shuffles off this mortal coil (like Milosevic), he will be found guilty and spend the remainder of his life in prison. But is he a psychopath? Is he a monster? I don’t know. (Radovan Karadzic might be able to throw some light on the matter by giving Mladic the ‘Psychopath Test’. Before he rose to prominence as the political leader of Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic was a psychiatrist, having obtained his medical degree from the University of Sarajevo and having had experience in Columbia University. His special interest was apparently neurotic disorder and depression. But then can one depend on the report of a man, who, when he was working in the Sarajevo hospital, was known to issue false certificates to the hospital employees who wanted to take early retirement on grounds of poor mental health? Also, it might be argued that there is a conflict of interest here seeing as Karadzic is a psychopath himself.)

Mladic was the chief of the Bosnian Serb army during the multi-ethnic conflict in Bosnia and Hercegovina. They were extraordinary times in the Balkans and his country; his people were in the thick of it; he was, as he saw it, protecting his country’s interest; he was defending his own country; he wasn’t bombing or invading a country that had done nothing to harm his country in order to get his grubby hands on the oil reserves, mouthing wholly mendacious platitudes about democracy and civil liberties. He was prepared to go to any length to further the interests of his country. In the process the forces under his command did terrible things (that’s the accusation), considered as ‘war crimes’ by the Geneva Convention. But that is not the reason why he is in Hague. The reason Mladic is in the dock is that Serbia lost the war.

Mladic is a sufferer and incurable case of malignant Balkan nationalism; but that is for another post.


Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Book of the Month: King's English (Kingsley Amis)

Kingsley Amis is one of my most favourite writers. One Fat Englishman was the first Kingsley Amis novel I read. I still remember the hearty chuckles I was unable to keep under control as I savoured the novel. I enjoyed the novel tremendously (unlike David Lodge). 

That was more than twenty years ago. Over the years I have read a lot of Sir Kingsley’s novels and, with few exceptions (such as The Alteration, one of the few instances when the great man strayed away from comedy), have enjoyed them all.

Kingsley Amis is quite simply the funniest writer in English (beating Tom Sharpe, another favourite comic writer I like, to the second position) I have read. In my list of all-time favourite writers Kingsley Amis is second only to V.S. Naipaul.

One of the—indeed the only—non-fiction book of Kingsley Amis I read years ago was The King’s English: A Guide to Modern English Usage. It was published in 1997, two years after he died.

A great pleasure for me of reading Kingsley Amis novels is the language. Amis had a way with words like no one else; his way of using phrases was unique; the style was droll and, even as I laughed my head out at the biting observations of Amis’s protagonists, I found myself marvelling at the consummate skill with which the author used language. It is a gift only a few are blessed with.

I was therefore keen to know the great man’s views about the language that was obviously so dear to him and over which he had such complete mastery.

I read The Kings English and enjoyed reading it thoroughly. I put it on my shelf, promising myself I would return to it again one day; but I never did. Till last Saturday. (As will be clear later, I have deliberately used the word ‘till’ instead of ‘until’.)

In last Saturday’s Guardian was published an article by Martin Amis, Kingsley’s son and a formidable writer of great repute himself, on King’s English, celebrating, in the process, his father’s lifelong interest in English language.

That made me, over the weekend, go back to my own paperback edition (incidentally the same one—1998—that Martin Amis reveals he has in his collection, adorned with encomium from several reviewers including David Lodge, Sebastian Faulks, and Joseph Connolly.) (I initially wrote ‘fulsome praise’ but hastily changed it to ‘encomium’ when, on page 82 of The King’s English, I came across the following comment on ‘fulsome’: This once useful word meant ‘disgustingly excessive, cloying’ as applied to compliments, apologies etc. . . . Undereducated persons, perhaps foggily supposing fulsome to be a posh form of full (from which it does partly descend) have in recent years taken to using it to mean ‘ample’ or possibly ‘cordial’. Not to be used henceforth by careful writers.)

In the Apologia Pro Vita Sua Academia Amis clarifies his position with characteristic candour:

‘My interest in words as parts of language preceded their appeal to me as units of literature of any sorts, and I was learning how to spell some individual words before I knew what they meant. Ever since, I have retained what I like to think of as a special feeling for language in spoken as well as written form. This has gone hand in hand with one of the less immediately appealing sides of my character, the didactic or put-‘em-right side. I would guess that for every acquaintance of mine who looks on me as some sort of authority on correct usage or pronunciation there is at least one who sees me as an officious neurotic who sets right venial blunders uninvited. Any vocal stickler for accuracy perpetually runs that sort of risk.’

The splendid raconteur then goes on to regale us, over the next 250 odd pages, on subjects as varied as Americanisms, hyper-urbanism, political words, disappearance of Latin, and difference between a delusion and an illusion.

The book is liberally strewn with delicious linguistic nuggets, frequently clothed in Amis’s combative humour. 

Here is what Amis has to say about the word ‘dilemma’:

This is a very precise word and was once a very useful word meaning ‘a position that leaves only a choice between two equally unwelcome possibilities’. , . the word was narrow and clear. Unfortunately it has ceased to be either and for many years has been resorted to by journalists and others on the look-out for for a posh-appearing synonym for ‘difficulty, quandary’. This perversion has made dilemma unsuitable for careful writers.

The book is replete with Sir Kingsley’s dictates to ‘careful writers’. Helpfully, he provides a definition of a ‘careful writer’.

This expression [careful writers], Amis writes, grew current in the permissive years when nobody dared say in so many words that such-and-such expression was illiterate or wrong, but at the same time people went on feeling that some usages were better than others. Rank barbarism could not, while the fashion lasted, be denounced as such, only mildly tut-tutted over as ‘avoided by careful writers’.

Lest you rush to the conclusion that Sir Kingsley was prissy, fussy, and priggish—in other words, a ‘wanker’ (as opposed to a ‘berk’—he provides the a page long elucidation on the difference between the berks and the wankers), let me assure you that he was anything but, as demonstrated in the following comment he makes on the word ‘fortuitous’:

Although Fowler was denouncing it in 1926. The misuse of fortuitous has only become noticeable in the last decade or so. The word originally meant nothing more than ‘owing to [pure] chance’, as in, say, ‘their meetingin the fish-shop was altogether fortuitous.’ Recently the word has come to mean something more like ‘fortunate, by a lucky chance’ . . . In fact fortuitous now supplies the evident need for a single word with that meeting. Such a need may not be very compelling, but the more recent usage is serviceable and needful enough to suggest that such newcomers should not be shot out of hands. For after all, there are plenty of near-enough synonyms for fortuitous in the old sense . . .

Here is another entry, this time about the word ‘till’:

. .  . The only point of this entry is to reassure anyone who needs it that till is a genuine English preposition and conjunction with its roots in Old English and Old Norse and is not a daringly informal shortening of stuffy old upper-class until and spelled ‘til.

In his Guardian article, Martin Amis writes:

All my adult life I have been searching for the right adjective to describe my father's peculiarly aggressive comic style. I recently settled on defamatory.

In the last twenty years of my love-affair with Kingsley Amis’s novels, I, too, have been searching for an adjective to describe Kingsley Amis’s style of humour. I had arrived at the adjective ‘curmudgeonly’. Martin Amis’s article informs that that was how his father had come to be ‘monotonously’ described towards the end of his life. I, of course, did not have any pejorative connotation when I thought of Kingsley Amis’s humour as ‘curmudgeonly’. However, after reading Amis Junior’s article, I looked up the meaning of the word curmudgeon, and this is what I discovered: an ill-tempered person full of resentment and stubborn notion. Then I looked up ‘grumpy’, and learned that it means surly or cranky. Next, I thought of looking up ‘grouchy’, but gave up, having realised that this would be unending. While I have no doubt that many of the protagonists of Kingsley Amis’s novels are curmudgeons and perennial grumps, his humour is more than just curmudgeonly ranting (as in many of the books of Jeremy Clarkson). I don’t however feel comfortable with Martin Amis’s choice either (defamatory). It is almost impossible to describe Kingsley Amis’s humour in one word.

The King’s English is a delight to read, from the beginning to end. It is self-assured, succinct, acerbic, belligerent, contentious and always thought-provoking. As Joseph Connolly wrote: ‘it is  . . . selective and representative and witty and (given the author how else could it be otherwise?) as witty and entertaining as hell . . . It is rather wonderful to be guided through real modern usage by its foremost practitioner.’

If you care for English language, read this book; it’s a treat.