Jun 19, 2022
In this ‘greatest hits’ collection, the author of the acclaimed Empire of Pain stops at nothing in pursuit of the truth
Patrick Radden Keefe is among the hallowed practitioners of American long-form journalism. Every year or so at the New Yorker, he comes up with the eminently bingeable, religiously fact-checked and seductively globetrotting piece of narrative reportage that has become practically its own genre in the past two decades. In the preface to Rogues, a collection of his greatest hits since 2007, Keefe writes that despite the internet’s overall bleak effect on the circulation of print media, it also enabled his career on a century-old magazine: “A big magazine feature used to be as evanescent as the cherry blossoms: here today, gone next week. Now it’s just a click away, forever.”
Charles Dickens may have been the most-read novelist of his time, but the monthly instalments of A Tale of Two Cities weren’t available to as many people mere seconds after publication, as, say, the latest viral article by Ronan Farrow. What explains the compulsive popularity of these 10,000-word “true stories”? I suspect that their appeal has something to do again with the preponderance of screens, which seem empirically suited to a more contemporaneous immersion. If the majority of your daily reading is on a device, chances are you don’t read much poetry or historical fiction. Continue reading...
May 01, 2022
Margo Jefferson’s follow-up to her acclaimed Negroland is another intimate and intelligent memoir that asks searching questions about her heritage and a privileged US society
Margo Jefferson is the rare memoirist who is always daring the reader to keep up. She’d rather recall her fleeting impressions instead of recounting a scene and the sheer volume of her allusions to 20th-century Americana – she worked for years on the culture desk of the New York Times – casts an instant spell. In her 2015 book, Negroland, she found a form that held together a portrait of her childhood in a rarefied black enclave in 1950s Chicago, and her early encounters with feminism as a young woman in New York, interspersed with musings on Little Women, James Baldwin and The Ed Sullivan Show. The book was alternately categorised as social history and memoir. The typical Jefferson paragraph, zigzagging through different perspectives, freely borrowing and repurposing other writers’ sentences and song lyrics, invariably reminds me of something one character tells another in Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel Invisible Cities: “It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.”
Constructing a Nervous System begins with Jefferson reporting a bad dream: she is alone on a stage and “I extended my arm – no, flung, hurled it out – pointed an accusatory finger” at herself. You sense straight away that Jefferson’s intention is not to tell a story, but to relay an inner tempest on the page. In the next few pages, she quotes from a letter she wrote in 2018 to her dead mother, rewrites lines from an Ethel Waters song and confesses to secretly idolising mid-century black male singers because of their “immersive lure of danger and dominance”. She bristles at classifying these mental leaps as either criticism (“too graciously incantatory”) or memoir (“commemoratively grand”): “Call it temperamental autobiography.” Continue reading...
Mar 04, 2022
An undercover journalist follows the grim trail from Kabul to Athens in this study of people at the mercy of state power
How should a refugee’s story be told? Matthieu Aikins, a Canadian journalist, seems to think the best way is gonzo reporting. In The Naked Don’t Fear the Water, he accompanies a thirtysomething Afghan interpreter, Omar, through Central Asia and Europe, passing himself off to others as an asylum seeker. Aikins takes up a new name, pretends not to understand English and at one point sets fire to one of his passports rather than have it discovered by police at the Turkish border.
Aikins is attuned to a truth seldom acknowledged by travel writers and foreign correspondents: when confronted by the plight of stateless subjects, or of those forced to escape their home countries, the reporter is always aware of their own luck, their own unearned prerogative of belonging to one nation and not another. What wouldn’t Omar have done to qualify for a western passport? His chances of landing an American visa are negligible, despite having spent much of his adult life translating for foreign troops and driving story-hungry journalists around in the middle of a war. When fighting between US troops and the Taliban intensified six years ago, he joined the exodus out of the country through Iran and Turkey, leaving behind his girlfriend, Laila, in Kabul. Together with Aikins, he made the dreaded journey across the Mediterranean in an inflatable boat, and ended up in a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece, effectively imprisoned. Continue reading...
Feb 14, 2022
An admirable attempt to tackle class, bourgeois greed and nationalism is undone by cartoon characters and a fictional landscape that lacks credibility
Midway through Pankaj Mishra’s first novel in 20 years, Run and Hide, the narrator, Arun, predicts something drastic. “The new India will never make it,” he thinks, on a long cab ride from New Delhi to the Himalayas. Arun has just abandoned his girlfriend, Alia, in London and returned to India for the first time since his mother’s funeral. A close friend of Arun’s died by suicide in an American prison not too long ago; another friend is about to make a creepy move on Alia. And yet Arun is beleaguered more by his country’s prospects than his breakup or loss. You don’t have to agree with his opinion of “new India” to realise that his prognosis is superfluous to the story.
Ever since his debut novel, The Romantics, was published in 1999, Mishra has established himself as a prognosticating pundit of sorts. His essays have scrupulously documented the dark underside of India’s economic growth: the widening rift between the country’s nouveau riche and the millions who struggle to make ends meet; the decades of military occupation of Kashmir; the reverberatory ascent of Hindu nationalism. In 2017 he published Age of Anger, an ambitious polemic that traced the rise of Modi, Erdogan and Trump to older ideas of discontent with western modernity. Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, Mishra wrote, “the sense of being humiliated by arrogant and deceptive elites was widespread, cutting across national, religious and racial lines”. Continue reading...
Jan 26, 2022
A subversive history of the mortals worshipped as divine beings, from Prince Philip to Captain Cook
Just one glance was enough. In 1974, Prince Philip was returning from a holiday in the south Pacific when he became a god. Midway through the journey, the royal yacht Britannia was anchored off the island of Aneityum. Villagers from Tanna, a neighbouring island, paddled out in their canoes to catch a glimpse of him. “I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform,” Jack Naiva, the chief of the Yaohnanen people until 2009, said in a later interview. “I knew then that he was the true messiah.”
Haile Selassie I, the Ethiopian king, didn’t even need to be seen to be perceived as divine. In 1931, National Geographic ran a 68-page report on his coronation in Addis Ababa. Preachers and pamphleteers read the article in faraway colonial Jamaica and proclaimed him their ordained saviour, a manifestation of the “black divine”. A baroque magazine piece – written by, of all people, the then US consul-general to Ethiopia – became a gospel for generations of believers who called themselves “Rastafarians” after Selassie’s birth name: Tafari Makonnen (“Ras”, a title, was bestowed later). By the 1950s, the anthropologist George Eaton Simpson reported that men were proselytising on the streets of Kingston with the Bible in one hand and a “weathered copy” of the magazine in another. Never mind that Selassie didn’t consider himself “black”, or the fact that National Geographic routinely ran pieces that referred to indigenous people as “savages”, and African Americans were forbidden from becoming members or using its library in Washington DC. As Anna Della Subin notes in Accidental Gods, the cult of the utopian Rastas was born in a crib of contradictions, “among those in the new world living in the obscenity of injustice”. Continue reading...
Jan 02, 2022
From Nabokov to Talking Heads, these insightful and revealing pieces stubbornly reject groupthink
In one of Mary Gaitskill’s best short stories, The Agonized Face, a female journalist watches a “feminist author” read at a literary festival. The author begins by complaining about her biographical note in the festival brochure, which, she feels, has played up her past experiences with prostitution and psychiatric wards to make her seem like “a kooky person off somewhere doing unimaginable stuff”. But just after she has persuaded the audience of the unfairness of such a portrayal, the author reads a funny story aloud from her book, which leaves the journalist unimpressed. The story – about an encounter between a man and an older woman – is flimsy and provocative, where the complaint had been tender and serious. “She sprouted three heads,” the journalist writes, “and asked that we accept them all!” The feminist had evaded something important, according to the journalist, by changing gears so abruptly: “the story she read made what had seemed like dignity look silly and obscene.”
Gaitskill’s characters are often unjustly perceived as kooky people doing unimaginable stuff, but her stories are neither silly nor obscene. In Secretary – later made into a treacly film starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader – you can never quite tell how Debby feels about being abused and spanked by her male boss. Unlike in the movie, there is no blossoming relationship between boss and secretary, but might Debby be looking for dignity in the routine humiliation? In Oppositions, a new collection of Gaitskill’s essays, she asserts that the tragedy of the story is not so much that Debby is a victim, but that a “hunger for contact underlies her perversity and to some extent drives it”. It is a wordless yearning that contemporary feminist discourse now and again skips over in its quest to invert the male gaze and normalise female desire. And yet, as the journalist in The Agonized Face suggests, “sometimes you wish it could be that easy”. Continue reading...
Jul 26, 2021
Parini’s ‘novelised memoir’ draws on memories of a real-life meeting with Jorge Luis Borges, but can’t quite live up to the inspiration of the Argentine titan
“That all those who knew him should write about him,” Borges wrote of the protagonist Ireneo Funes in his story Funes the Memorious, “seems to me a felicitous idea.” Certainly those who knew Borges, even in passing, thought it was a felicitous idea to write about him. Fifty years ago, it seemed that a trip to Buenos Aires wasn’t complete without a stopover at his sixth-floor Calle Maipú apartment, which he shared with his mother. Both Alberto Manguel and Paul Theroux have written about reading to the blind genius in his living room. VS Naipaul, in The Return of Eva Peron, found Borges to be “curiously colonial”, insulated from the violence and disorder in his country. When Mario Vargas Llosa visited in 1981, he noticed that Borges had kept his mother’s bedroom intact, with a lilac dress ready on the bed, even though she had died six years before.
Jay Parini’s “encounter” happened far from Argentina. He claims to have met Borges in Scotland, while doing his PhD at St Andrews. Parini was close to the poet Alastair Reid, who lived nearby and wrote regularly for the New Yorker: Reid was also one of Borges’s English translators. During Borges’s visit in 1970, Reid was called away for a few days to London. Parini was asked to look after the guest, and the two of them apparently set out on an impromptu journey across the Highlands. Borges offered to bear all costs, while Parini was tasked with both driving and describing aloud everything he saw en route. “Description is revelation,” Borges told him. Continue reading...
Jul 02, 2021
From Bengal to Cambridge and beyond … precious insights into the early life and times of the economist and philosopher
Amartya Sen was 18 when he diagnosed his own cancer. Not long after he had moved to Calcutta for college, he noticed a lump growing inside his mouth. He consulted two doctors but they laughed away his suspicions, so Sen, then a student of economics and mathematics, looked up a couple of books on cancer from a medical library. He identified the tumour – a “squamous cell carcinoma” – and later when a biopsy confirmed his verdict he wondered if there were in effect two people with his name: a patient who had just been told he had cancer, but also the “agent” responsible for the diagnosis. “I must not let the agent in me go away,” Sen decided, “and could not – absolutely could not – let the patient take over completely.”
This self-division is characteristic of Home in the World – “world” being here no more than the university campuses Sen has lived in all his life – and places it in the tradition of CLR James’s Beyond a Boundary and Nirad C Chaudhuri’s The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian: books that, in their primacy of thought over feeling, reflect the psychic extent of the colonial encounter. The empire loomed early in Sen’s life, though he was born and schooled in Santiniketan, the idyllic campus set up by the poet Rabindranath Tagore in rural Bengal. There were the uncles locked up under “preventive detention” (a law still used in India to imprison dissenters without trial). There was the Bengal famine of 1943, which Sen witnessed when he was 10 years old; and the partition that forced his parents to leave their ancestral house in Dhaka. Sen’s account of his childhood is more attuned to the ideas he imbibed and the times he lived through. The inner life is eschewed for the world outside. A remark on female classmates will trigger Sen to reflect on gender inequality in India, instead of, say, memories of playground pranks and crushes. The portraits of his parents and grandparents are persuasive about their accomplishments and political opinions, not so much about their private hopes and regrets. Continue reading...
May 28, 2021
From childhood memories to riffs on Philip Roth … there’s some superlative nonfiction in this eclectic collection of essays, written over the last two decades
The inspiration for Midnight’s Children came to Salman Rushdie on a backpacking trip around India. It was 1974, and he had just received an advance of £700 for his debut novel, Grimus. But he still saw himself as an apprentice novelist who worked part-time for an ad agency in London. He stretched out his advance over four months of travel, roughing it in 15-hour bus rides and humble hostelries, reacquainting himself with the country he had known as a child. The homecoming made him reconsider a minor character in an old story: a snot-nosed Bombay boy, Saleem Sinai, born at the exact moment of India’s independence, whose destiny aggressively mirrored the timeline of major events in the subcontinent. The new novel would tell the story not of a life, but a nation.
Rushdie has previously written here and there about his rookie years, and he writes about them again in his new collection of essays, Languages of Truth. He prefaces the story this time with a memory of having lunch with the American writer Eudora Welty in London, one year after Midnight’s Children won the Booker prize. During the meal, Rushdie ended up asking Welty about William Faulkner. How did she perceive the Nobel laureate, who had lived out his life in Mississippi like Welty? Did she think of him as one of the writers closest to her? Welty’s response was caustic: “I’m from Jackson,” she said. “He is from Oxford. It’s miles away.” Continue reading...
Mar 12, 2021
The stories of five residents illuminate different aspects of the Pakistani city where terrorism and ethnic conflict have been rife
When the British journalist Samira Shackle moved to Karachi, she was advised not to ask questions. The city was in flux: riots and gang battles sometimes shut down entire streets. Bombs went off on buses and in crowded spaces. Newspapers carried daily updates of the number of casualties. Wealthier homes and cafes were protected by security guards with metal detectors and AK-47s. Shackle stayed with her aunt in a safer – more affluent – neighbourhood. She grew used, as she writes, “to experiencing Karachi from the windows of a car”.
Things were once different. In the 1960s and 70s, the city was a stopover on the hippie trail to India and Nepal. Tourists sunned themselves on its spotless beaches and partied in its casinos and nightclubs. A swelling population of partition-era refugees and Pashtun migrants ensured cheap labour that fuelled a period of economic growth. “Hashish was easily available,” the Pakistani journalist Nadeem F Paracha once wrote about those years, “but people still didn’t know what heroin or a Kalashnikov was”. Continue reading...
Dec 16, 2020
Versus Niall Ferguson and Jordan Peterson ... a set of essays from a writer who excels at calling out intellectual vapidities but now needs to ask new questions
In 1988, Pankaj Mishra was a would-be writer in Varanasi, north India, whiling away his days reading the American critic Edmund Wilson. In books such as Axel’s Castle and To the Finland Station, Mishra detected a temperament he could aspire to: erudite, self-assured, swiftly able to read between the lines of a book into the author’s worldview and the wider social and historical milieu, “a man wholly devoted to reading and thinking and writing”. But years later, trying to write on Wilson, Mishra realised that he had nothing new to say about his hero. “It hadn’t occurred to me,” he wrote, “that a separate narrative probably existed in my private discovery of Wilson’s writings in a dusty old library in the ancient town of Benares [Varanasi].”
The story of his “private discovery” of Wilson was published in the New York Review of Books 20 years ago and marked a breakthrough moment for Mishra. It was boom time for South Asian writing in English at the turn of the millennium. Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things had just come out; Vikram Seth’s million-dollar advance for A Suitable Boy was much talked about; the New Yorker devoted an entire issue to Indians writing in English. Mishra transformed the NYRB article into a novel called The Romantics, but he blossomed more as a critic and essayist. His dispatches from all over Asia – Kashmir, Tibet, China, Indonesia, Nepal, Japan, Afghanistan – made perceptive connections between local events and precedents in other parts of the world. His best-known books are subversive histories, reviewing the contexts in which individuals in different places and eras have arrived at remarkably similar ideas; he has traced outlines of continuity between the Buddha and Oscar Wilde, Rousseau and Trump. Continue reading...
Sep 17, 2020
An esteemed journalist gets access to Ngaba, ‘the world capital of self-immolations’, and brilliantly tells the story of Tibetan resistance to China
Ngaba, a frontier town on the eastern Tibetan plateau, has become the “undisputed world capital of self-immolations”. Every few months, a monk, a nun, a farmworker, or a high school student will walk usually to the Kirti monastery downtown, shout slogans for freedom from Chinese rule, and proceed to burn themselves alive. The suicides are startling, recalling the shocking 1963 photograph of a monk setting himself ablaze in Saigon, or years later, the Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation in 2010 sparked off the Arab spring. But the deaths in Ngaba have neither toppled a regime nor triggered much international outrage. China calls the self-immolators “terrorists” and makes a point of arresting even the witnesses who try to snuff out the flames.
In Eat the Buddha, esteemed journalist Barbara Demick tries to ascertain why more than 40 people have set themselves on fire in Ngaba since 2009. She lays out the town’s history of rebellions: the local Tibetan soldiers who first resisted the communists during the Long March in 1935, the countless men and women who have died in protests and uprisings over the years. Many of today’s self-immolators are descendants of the same soldiers and dissenters. Having steeped themselves in the Dalai Lama’s message of peace, the protesters turn the violence inward. Continue reading...
Jun 23, 2020
Works by Yu Miri, Carlos Manuel Álvarez, Adania Shibli and Nathacha Appanah examine inequality and political upheaval.