Archive for August, 2009

Aug 24 2009

Every Man Dies Alone

Published by under Books

by Hans Fallada

This novel was written in Germany soon after the end of WW II by an author who had stayed in Germany through the entire Nazi period. He suffered under the Nazis and to an extent cooperated with them as he “had to” to in order to survive. He died soon after the book was written and didn’t live to see it published, but he did know whereof he wrote and it shows.
To the story: Superficially, the story is depressing as life for ordinary people in Germany must have been. Shortages, constant surveillance of all by many, imprisonment or death if accused. Violence everywhere. The system corrupted almost everyone and those that dared to object or criticize were silenced. The tale revolves around two working class Germans who slide into resistance when there son is killed in the invasion of France. A personal rather than a ‘noble’ reason. Their resistance is simple and ineffectual; they leave postcards with seditious messages around Berlin. About half the book involves other characters and plots at the same time in the same city resulting in a more complete picture of life in that city. Almost all the tales end in death or incarceration for someone.
The Nazi period is now 50 to 70 years ago so the methods seem crude and brutal, but it is not hard to make the connection between life in Germany under Hitler and life under any other totalitarian regime. From reading this, it seems the annihilation of trust affects everyone everywhere. Everyone is suspicious of everyone else and hunkering down is the common (only?) survival strategy. With digital communications and databases, a more modern surveillance society would be more efficient and hence worse.
The book also contains an interesting summary of the life of Fallada and an introduction to the real couple whose story underlies this novel. This is an excellent book well worth reading. Somehow, it ends up being not really depressing. Realistic and much to be depressed about, but it is not a downer.

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Aug 01 2009

The Man Who Would be King

Published by under Books

“The First American in Afghanistan”
by Ben Macintyre

This is the story of an American from a Quaker family in Pennsylvania who went to sea to seek his fortune before marrying, was jilted by his fiancé while in India, and then set off into India to forget his love and follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. A very hardy, adventurous, and lucky Quaker. He first served with the British as a doctor but then headed off into the border fiefdoms in North India and ultimately to Afghanistan where he, technically, became a king and opposed the British Raj. Josiah Harlan was a real person and his adventures were real as best the author can discern. He likely was the inspiration for Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”.
The travels, scenes, and cultures he encounters seem very medieval. His travels and relationships were aided by the shock value a foreigner in Afghanistan had back in that era and the impact of, mostly military, European technology on the indigenous people of India and Afghanistan. He had entrée to ruler’s because of where he came from, but he made great advantage of the opportunities.
In many ways it is amazing how little the area seems to have changed since 1840 or so when he was traveling. Clan or tribe based loyalties still dominate society and relationships. Distrust of foreigners, many vendettas based on old insults and rivalries, and violence are still the rife. Brothers plot against brothers, usually half brothers due to polygamy. All males have and know how to use guns. Ambush and raid are a way of life.
As I was finishing this book, I happened to listen to an unusually frank sounding “Economist” interview with a Pakistani General in charge of their Frontier Force which is in charge of security in the Frontier, AKA Tribal, area of Pakistan. The Frontier Force is organized into Platoons which are all from the same tribe or geographical area. Recruits are easy to train since “everybody has and knows how to use a gun” (and some know grenade launchers and machine guns). Nothing has changed except the tools.
All in all a cautionary tale about Afghanistan: Fraught with incredibly complex ‘politics’ between and within tribes. They unite and stop fighting each other only when an outside power tries to control the place. As an epilogue on the death of the last King from Harlan’s period and killing of the President installed by the Russians in the 90’s makes clear, it is still a violent and brutal place. Like old days.
A very interesting and well told biography.

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