Sunday, 26 June 2016


The Great British Public has delivered its verdict. 51.9% of those who voted on the EU referendum, voted for the UK to get out of the EU. This was described by Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), as a “victory for decent, ordinary people”. This suggests that Farage considers those like me, who voted to remain in Europe, as neither decent nor ordinary. I have to say that Farage is an entertaining character, a kind of buffoon who manages to say the most vile and dyspeptic things in a manner and style that makes you chuckle, even as the rant repels your sense of decency; intelligence, even. Try as one might it is difficult to take this buffoon seriously. The reality is, though, that in this instance the people (albeit with a tiny majority) agreed with the buffoon.  Now that Britain is definitely out of the EU one can hope Farage and his pestilential party will sink into well-earned obscurity.
David (“Call me Dave”) Cameron’s luck finally ran out. The referendum was held with the short-term expediency in mind: to stave off the threat of UKIP and also to end the Tory Party’s internecine decades-long war over Europe. It backfired, and “Dave” had to go. He did the decent thing; and within hours of the defeat of the Remain campaign for which, it has to be said, he had argued extensively, repeatedly and passionately, he announced his resignation. When you go to the people on quasi-constitutional matters and are unsuccessful in putting forth your case you don’t really have a choice. Cameron made a reckless decision and paid the price. I have no sympathy for him.

One of the many problems with such referenda is that complex questions, which, frankly speaking, are beyond comprehension of most people—ordinary or otherwise—get dumbed down to simple “Yes” or “No” type of answers. At the place where I work is a fifty-something, recently divorced woman (her face more powdered than an American donut) who, in line with the demographics of how people voted in the referendum, since published—majority of the middle-aged and geriatrics voted for exit (which surprises me; I would have thought that by the time one reaches middle age, one would have arrived at the considered position that all change of itself is unwelcome and ought not to be aspired for unless there are very clear and obvious advantages)—, wanted Britain out of the EU. In the coffee breaks she would bore everyone with sentences such as "there is a big issue that everyone is overlooking: 'we' are not leaving Europe; 'we' have not turned our back on the people of Europe; 'we' simply wanted to leave a poorly managed, corrupt institution, namely the European Union, which is in dire straits." She would then give examples such as how it was not a good business sense to link your flourishing business with fifteen other failing businesses, as the failing businesses were more likely to bring you down than you keep them afloat. This, I guessed, was the economic argument of the woman for getting out of Europe. You meet people like her (not excessively endowed in the brain department)—they have total conviction about their rightness; what they are right about is a secondary matter. The day after the referendum I tried my best to avoid her, but she ambushed me in the corridor and asked, with a broad grin—revealing a layer of slime on her buck teeth—whether I was planning to go out drinking in the evening. I told her that I might, or I might not. “Would that be to celebrate or drown your sorrows?” she asked,smirking. Another man—a rather pitiful character, who sports a more or less permanent shaving rash, which, I suspect, dents his confidence when he speaks to women—in his twenties, also voted for ‘exit’. He told me that he wasn’t really sure why he voted for ‘exit’. “I could have easily voted for ‘remain’,” he informed me. “Why didn’t you?” I asked him. He looked puzzled, intrigued, puzzled, intrigued and abashed. “Dunno,” he replied, finally, with the air of a man who had realised that the EU referendum was one of the myriad mysteries of the universe that was simply beyond his understanding and he was not even going to try. “I had to vote for something. Too many foreigners are coming here. Something needs to be done about it. I mean, we all feel sorry for what is going on in the Middle East, but it doesn’t mean they all have to queue up to come here. What about the local people?” I opened my mouth to tell him that civil wars in the Middle East, Libya, Afghanistan etc., to which Britain, by the way, has contributed in no small measures, had nothing to do with the referendum, but then closed my mouth. What’s the point? He had voted for ‘exit’ and we are ‘out’. As Lord Hill, the UK’s European commissioner, said before he resigned, what’s done is done; it can’t be undone. And, as the man candidly admitted, he could have easily voted to stay in the EU except that the two stray neurones in his brain (perhaps the only functioning ones) decided to fire at the precise time he was in the polling booth, and he decided to vote in favour of ‘exit’.

The tone of the debate was not balanced. Cameron was accused by the 'leave' campaigners of orchestrating ‘Project Fear’—depicting an Armageddon-type scenario if we were to leave EU. Economy would go into a meltdown; we would all be in the breadline, and would have to sell our children and push our wives into prostitution so that we could get a bowl of soup etc.. Cameron and his trusted friend, the Chancellor George Osborne, did not leave anyone in doubt as to what was likely to happen—reeling off names of a number of financial institutions, none of which, I guess, had predicted the 2008 global recession, to support their arguments—if Britain voted out. I think ‘Project Fear’ worked with a proportion of people—it certainly worked for me. (It may well become 'Project Reality' in the coming years.) The ‘leave' camp said that theirs was an optimistic project, by contrast. They all acted as if they were possessed by a rush of hope, with varying degrees of success, or, in cases of Gove and Iain Duncan Smith—both of whom have the air of bringers of bad news, and, to paraphrase a character from a Howard Jacobson novel, the further air of never having been bringers of anything else—no success): we were taking back control of our own affairs. The 'leave' camp had its own bogyman—the immigrants. The mendacious arguments put forth by the 'leave' camp were jaw-dropping. They would introduce a point system (already in place for non-EU citizens) which would stem the flow of immigrants from Europe (in particular former Soviet Bloc, Eastern European countries); more money would be available for public services, in particular NHS, as we would not be paying £ 350 million a week (or was it a day?) to the EU; and of course we would not have to worry about the seventy million Turks whom the Germans were all ready to welcome into the EU, and were lying in wait, explosives tied to their genitals, to blow themselves up on the London Underground.  Everything was a lie. Turks are not about to join the EU anytime soon (and even they did, so what?). There will be no appreciable reduction in the number of EU nationals coming to Britain; the free movement will continue for the foreseeable future; and, not only will there be no extra funding for the beleaguered NHS, more savage cuts in public services will follow. Farage announced cheerfully, within twenty-four hours of the exit that he fully expected Britain to go into a “mild recession”. (On the other hand, on the BBC's Andrew Marr show on 25 June, there was the pathetic spectacle of the Tory Business secretary Sajid Javed, who, incidentally, was with the Remain campaign, but has since discovered that his heart was actually with the Exit camp, and who just a few weeks back was issuing all sorts of doomsday warnings in case Britain left the EU, squirming and backtracking on those prophesies. He was followed by Iain Duncan Smith, who, without batting an eyelid, reneged on the Brexiters' pledge of reinvesting the £ 350 millions they will not be sending to sent to Brussels (a lie in itself) in the NHS, even when the poster of the 'leave' campaign was shown to him. (What does this show? It shows that in the admittedly high standard for shamelessness amongst the Tories, Duncan Smith has a thicker skin than Javed, who had at least the decency to squirm.)) I wonder how long it will be before the Great Unwashed realise that they have been swindled. The days are long, so little happens, and there, really, is nothing to do than park your bum on the sofa and numb your mind with day-time soaps (and chill out twice a month, when you get paid(!) the benefit money, in the company of your mates, with a joint or two of cannabis); but it is inevitable that there will be further cuts in the benefits, because we are going to be poorer, and how is one to cope? (And don't expect Boris Johnson to part with even a penny of the obnoxious sums of money he gets paid to shovel out his weekly tripe in the Telegraph).

We should expect no special treatment from the EU when we leave. As the much reviled Jean Claude Junker (whose presidency of European Commission was opposed by Cameron using every dirty trick in the book) cryptically commented, it is going to be a painful divorce, but it wasn't a tight love affair in the first place. If the leavers are hoping that Britain wold get a Norway-style deal, it's not going to happen. There are more chances of hair growing on Iain Duncan Smith's bald head than Britain being offered that kind of deal. Also, seeing as the 'leave' campaigners are pathologically averse to free movement of people across European nations, they would be wasting everyone's time if they attempted Norway-style deal when Britain leave the EU. It is also interesting that after telling tall stories and giving false promises to people, the 'leave' campaigners are suddenly in no rush to invoke article 50, which will start the process of Britain's exit from the EU. Why is that? If they really thought that the EU was really so demonic, get out of it quick. My guess is that there will be political pressure on the leavers to invoke article 50 by Christmas.

Lord Heseltine has suggested that the triumvirate of the Boris Johnson (an untrustworthy sleekit, a proven lier and a philanderer), Iain Duncan Smith (an uninteresting, thoroughly boring man; someone should slip prussic acid into his tea) and Michael Gove (a born mediocrity; also, he looks like he has taken a fatal overdose of rancour) must be put in charge of negotiating Britain's exit from the EU. For this reason alone I would like to see the fat clown Boris Johnson to be Britain's next prime-minister. These three have inflicted this gigantic con on the UK, telling the nation a truckload of lies, and they should be put in charge of the negotiations with the EU. They ought to be held fully accountable for all the consequences. (If they need help Farage could help). Boris Johnson will then find out that if you are trying to fuck a tiger, you'd better make sure that you duct-tape the back legs of the tiger (which he can't do; it is difficult to see what leverage Britain will have in these negotiations other than the vailed threat that a messy Brexit will adversely affect the EU countries); and you are a tiger (which Johnson isn't; he is a fat clown; he is worse than a bad egg; he is, like, bad chicken)).  

The whole ‘remain’ versus ‘exit’ debate was a vicious internal fight within the Tory Party. The main opposition party, the Labour, officially backing the 'remain' campaign, was virtually absent. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has the charisma of a dishwasher, ran a thoroughly spineless and dispirited campaign. It gives me no pleasure to say this, but the man is not capable. He does not inspire confidence. Only the deluded or gullible (and there aren’t many of those outside of the Labour Parry members) would trust him with running the country. You might as well put that chap Boycie from Only Fools and Horses in charge of the country. As long as this nincompoop is at the helm of the Labour Party, the Tories have nothing to fear. Jeremy is a loser with a capital L.
Coming back to the EU referendum, Britain has probably conformed to its world-stereotype, I am afraid: we are unique in our sense of (misplaced) self-importance and poisonous exclusiveness.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Book of the Month: The Eternal Philistine (Odon Von Horvath)

The Eternal Philistine, the 1930 debut novel of the long since forgotten Hungarian author Odon Von Horvath, is in three sections. The first section is about a car salesman on the make called Kobler; the second section is about an unemployed seamstress called Anna (who makes brief appearance in the first section), who, in the depressing years of the Weimer Republic Germany, turns to prostitution; and the third and final section is about one Herr Reithofer, an impoverished Austrian living in Germany who passes on a good job lead to Anna.

In the first section is the longest (and also the funniest) we meet Alfons Kobler. A failed car salesman, Kobler wants to be rich, and his mind is singularly devoted to relieving people of their money by various machinations. As the novel opens Kobler had sold off his dud of a car to the fat, enthusiastic (and very gullible) Portschinger, for six hundred marks. Kobler has never earned so much money at once. Egged on by his bitter and xenophobic landlady, Kobler embarks on a picaresque journey from Munich, his home town, to Barcelona, where a world fair is going to be hosted. Kobler is hoping to meet a rich Egyptian ‘lady’, who, he is further hopeful, will keep him in luxury after he has debauched During his train journey from Munich to Barcelona that requires frequent changing of trains and going through different countries, including Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, Kobler meets a series of characters, who, amongst them share the unappealing characteristics of dyspepsia, xenophobia, unscrupulousness, and holding sweeping, inaccurate and one-sided opinions. These men—they are all men—like Kobler, are philistines. And they are madder than a stadium full of boxes of frogs. Like the man who immediately identified Kobler (correctly) as a German (Horvath’s humour is at its satirical best, here) by the thickness of his skull. ‘You see,’ the man informs Kobler, ‘Germans all have thick skulls, but only in the true sense of the word.’ The train conductor of the carriage speaks to Kobler about a very nice accommodating German family he has met, adding that the family was of course not ‘pure German’ but ‘Russian German’. Another companion, a pompous alcoholic named Schmitz who has a special talent for eloquently quoting Goethe and who obviously fancies himself as a ‘Renaissance Man’ with a keen eye for architecture, advises Kobler to watch the splendidly traditional Spanish bull-fight. The omnipresent narrator’s description of the bull-fight depicts it as a grotesque murder-lust.

In the brief second section we meet Anna Pollinger. Anna is a young woman who has no parents (she is not shading any tears for them, as her father left the family when she was very young and she never got along with her mother who ‘had become very embittered about the lousy world’). Anna lives with her aunt, and, in the post-First World War Germany, having lost lost several jobs through no fault of her own, she loses yet another job. While Anna is not unduly perturbed by this, her aunt reacts to the news as though the Armageddon has arrived and seizes the opportunity to rant about the post-war period in Germany. Then a paying guest by the name of Herr Kastenr, who boasts of having connections in the film industry on the basis that he once played an extra in a film that was never released (and from the cast of which he was thrown out after he was caught taking naked photographs of an underage extra) offers Anna the role of a model with an artist friend of his named Achner. Achner, who is an etcher, of course, etches nude models, and is enthused to learn from Kastenr (who has rushed to him as soon as he heard that Anna had lost her job) that Kastenr could provide him with a dirty blonde model of medium built’ who could also take a joke.’ As Anna is undressing behind the screen, an acquaintance of Achner, called Harry Priegler, turns up in Achner’s atelier. Harry, a rich pig’s farmer, has no appreciation of arts, but abundant appreciation of young blondes. The etching is interrupted, and the next day Anna is in Harry Priegler’s car. When Harry pulls the car into a bypass in a park Anna knows what is coming, and she is ready for it. When Harry makes his intentions of making free with her loins makes clear, Anna informs him coolly that it does not work like that. Negotiations ensue and Anna receives her payment. In the post-war Germany, where unemployment has reached record high Anna Pollinger has turned practical, and has embarked on a new career .

In the third and the briefest section of the novel we meet Anna again; she has been kicked out by her aunt once the aunt came to know Anna’s new occupation. Anna meets an unemployed Austrian named Herr Reithofer. The impoverished Reithofer is also very naïve and mistakes Anna for the romantic love of his life. Anna, by now hardened in her attitude, makes him spend money he can’t afford taking her to a movie, and, when she realises that Reithofer really does not have any money sends him marching off. Later, Reithfoer meets an elderly man in a café who tells him about a possible job in Ulm on the Danube in the tailor shop of a rich pre-war Councillor of Commerce, except that the job is for a young woman. Reithfoer traces Anna and passes on the information about this employment opportunity which would be a ‘life-aver for her.’ As this short novel ends Anna is learning that the world is not full of evil and there are instances, admittedly small, which indicate ‘the possibility of human culture and civilisation.’

The Eternal Philistine is a satirical look at the middle classes in the Germany between the two World Wars. In its spirit the novel is not dissimilar to some of the novels of Hans Fallada (A Small Circus, Fallada’s satirical take on the politics in a provincial German town in the 1920s, has been reviewed on this blog earlier) and Stefan Zweig. Kobler, the protagonist of the first section of the novel is, as the title suggests, is a philistine. He has no time for architecture or literature, and he admits with bracing directness that he does not have much time for revolutions because the revolutionary leaders are by and large not good businessmen. When Kobler arrives in Italy on his way to Barcelona, he discovers that Fascism has arrived in Italy before him. Kobler has no trouble identifying with Fascism and, cheerfully and unhesitatingly introduces himself as a German Fascist. Many of his companions, despite their pretensions and airs are also philistines and bigots. While the reader may laugh at the philistinism of Kobler and his fellow-travellers, the reader feels little sympathy for them. By contrast, for Anna Pollinger who makes a practical and unsentimental decision to turn to prostitution (and once she makes the transition, goes about her business in a matter-of-fact, almost ruthless, manner), the reader feels a smidgen of sympathy. Anna has become a philistine by circumstances whereas Kobler is a philistine by choice, by nature if you will. The novel ends on a somewhat optimistic, if tentative, note, with a slimmer of hope being offered to Anna by her unexpected benefactor.

The Eternal Philistine is a sublimely comic novel, jam-packed with quiet energy. Horvath is at his best when he is a droll and wry observer of the human pretensions and inconsistencies, for example, the ‘cultivated gentleman’ Kobler meets on the train, after waxing eloquent about his preferences for eating  (salmon canapes) and holidaying (Southern Italy) shouts an order for ‘steak with tartar’. Horvath brilliantly lampoons Mussolini’s penchant for Italianization of all German names (one of the many unfortunate consequences of the First World War), and that too in a literal sense. However, ‘should a name lack a literally translatable sense, Mussolini would merely stick an ‘o’ at the end of it.’

I loved Eternal Philistine despite its drawbacks (in the main the three sections of the novel don’t gel together as a story, although they are thematically connected; also the unexpected upbeat ending of the novel which, until then is full of dark humour and pessimistic observations, is a tad unconvincing). It is quirky, Rabelaisian, suggestive, and very funny.

Odon (the author preferred the Hungarian version of his first name, Edmund), a son of a Hungarian diplomat, moved to Berlin in the 1920s where he lived for the next decade. He left Germany for Austria with Hitler’s ascent to power. Horvath left Austria for France in 1938 after the Anschluss. Within months of moving to Paris Horvath was dead, following a freak accident. Caught in a thunderstorm on the Champs-Elysees, while returning from a play, Horvath took shelter under a tree, and was killed when the branch broke and fell on him. He was thirty-six.

An equal credit of the enjoyment of The Eternal Philistine must go to the brilliant translation by Benjamin Dorvel. Melville House Publishing deserves kudos for bringing out this entertaining novel for the English language readers.