Distracting myself from a quartet of books I’ve been struggling with for an age (thanks, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), I “accidentally” picked up Edward Said’s Orientalism again. It’s been a while since I blearily (and slowly) read an academic book over breakfast; I am well out of practice. I don’t remember how awkwardly his gendered language sat with me in the past as this time around, though he was almost exclusively writing about white European men, nonetheless, Orientalism remains a depressingly relevant and critical read.
This year I haven’t had much enthusiasm to write about what I’m reading. Maybe that’s because I haven’t had much enthusiasm to write long blog posts in general, or because I’ve been a little too negative lately and tend to emphasise the things I haven’t enjoyed in a work over what I have. Some of these books I’ve enjoyed hugely, but can’t muster enough of a cheer to write a whole post about. Perhaps it’s habit. After years of writing about everything I read, my impulse is to say, nah fuck it, that’s enough. Who am I writing this for anyway, besides myself?
So, a small pile of books I read between February and April, alphabetically.
Two from Alastair Reynolds, he of the madness of Revenger, which I also read again during these months. He also of Slow Bullets. He’s best when he writes women as main characters. Chasm City is one of his Revelation Space novels, and I got a kick out of those. Elysium Fire is a sequel to The Prefect. I like Reynolds, in specific instances. Neither of these two really got me. See what I mean about negative?
Barbara Newman’s Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine I’m still plodding through. (like I’m still plodding through Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Capitalism, 18 months later). Good stuff here, of that dense, Germanic mediæval stuff. Not easy reading, hence the plod.
Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate in the World: How Aborigines Made Australia, and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? I read immediately post-Naarm. They cover similar ground but are complimentary rather than duplicating. They should be compulsory reading for all Australians, and I felt fucking ashamed at my ignorance reading these. Fucking ashamed. Another reason why I haven’t been writing about reading is if I did on these two, it’d be a long piece of anger against white invasion and genocide and erasing history. And I feel like so much of my life and the lives of friends and acquaintances is full with anger and fear these last years, ’cos it’s far from being over.
Devdutt Pattanaik’s Shikhandi and Other Queer Tales They Don’t Tell You is a rather sweet short collection of reading Hindu mythology for queer and trans stories. I have absolutely no way to evaluate the scholarship of Pattanaik, but still, one of the barely begun tasks is re-finding the diversity of selfhoods in pre-colonised cultures; we’ve always been here.
Fred Grimm’s »Wir wollen eine andere Welt« Jugend in Deutschland 1900-2010: Eine private Geschichte aus Tagebüchern, Briefen, Dokumenten. Zusammengestellt. has been on my shelves for ages. Katrin gave it to me as a present, and I’ve read bits and pieces of it. I’ve a heap of books I’ve never blogged that I didn’t read in the conventional start-to-finish way like this.
JY Yang. I think I read about them on io9, or maybe on one of the Asia-Pacific blogs I read. It was definitely in the context of an article or two on Singapore sci-fi / fantasy / speculative fiction, and coming off reading The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia (which was awesome) so I was vaguely paying attention. I read these in the wrong order, ’cos I liked the cover of The Red Threads of Fortune more than The Black Tides of Heaven. I also liked the former more than the latter, but that’s partly my particular preferences. I seriously love JY Yang and will read anything they write.
I’ve got a whole ’nother stack of books I’ve read since then and not blogged. Maybe doing it like this is the way for me to go for now.
As Onyx said, “Oh panda repping the colours! 🖤💛❤️”. Currently reading The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia by Bill Gammage, picked up along with [-o-] t-shirt at Bunjilaka on that last day in Naarm, and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?, which was waiting for me when I got back.
Reading started ten years ago with just the covers of whatever I was reading — or about to read, blogged at the start. Then I added a paragraph or two about why I was reading whatever. Definitely not a review, I kept on repeating. More or less they’ve become reviews which I write either some way into the reading or at the end. Sometimes still at the beginning. Reviews, not reviews, whatever, reasons for reading. This last year at least, that’s turned into multi-thousand word essays on some books.
Fark! But wot about the cover art, Frances?
Reading is about the object, its materiality. The weight of the paper, the typography, the width of the margins, the smell of the ink and binding, the texture of the cover, the volume it occupies. The cover art.
A good cover thrills me. A bad one makes me cringe. Cover art is bound as much to genre constraints as it is to budget — and every class and decimal of Dewey is a genre. A good cover on a mass market paperback is not diminished by the crappiness of the print (cos the paper will yellow and grow brittle in the space of years), but no amount of expensive binding or price makes up for shiteful cover art and typography. So here are my favourite covers from 2017.
I love thematic consistency, editions or series by the same designer with a common style. I know it’s been done for decades, but it still seems new to me, maybe because I enjoy seeing the idea developed across multiple books. I especially love it when there’s a consonance between cover and story, like Steph Swainston’s Castle series, of which I read Fair Rebel this year (no idea who did the cover art, but it reprises the original trilogy). Totally fits the world. I see these covers and I immediately have images of the Fourlands, the Circle, of Jant fill my head.
Becky Chambers, whose The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit I read this year do attractive simplicity — lowercase typeface in shifting colour over astrophotography and silhouette of small figures on a hill in the lowest fifth. Again, I see these covers and know the world and characters. At the opposite end, full design, where typography and art are one, there’s Ben Aaronovitch’s Moon Over Soho and Rivers of London (cover art by Stephen Walter, and cheers again to Gala for introducing me to his brilliant series). Aesthetically, they’re not really my thing, but they suit the novels in a way (or you could go the whole Ayize Jama-Everett direction, or South London Grime, which might be more congruent, though scare off the nice readers).
I have Iain M. Banks covers. Not published any time recently but just as he’ll never not be my favourite author (“On what timescale, Frances?” “Oh, you know, heat death of the universe?”) the unified cover art of his various editions I love. The original editions are by Mark Salwowski (and I just discovered I can buy prints!), then the 2005 imprint was done by blacksheep, some of which I like more than the originals, but some, like Feersum Endjinn are iconic. No matter what edition or genre, these covers do solid typography and art. The post-2005 novels retain the 2005 style, but — for The Hydrogen Sonata at least — Lauren Panepinto is the artist. I could easily throw in any of these late-Banks covers here, but this is his last Culture novel and I have a deep fondness for it. The colour of the cover is that of the story.
Returning to Gesamtkunstwerk territory, China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution is a glorious piece of art. Andrea Guinn’s responsible for that slab of Russian Constructivism. If I was going to go all Cover of the Year, this would be one of them. Caroline Walker Bynum’s are around half the time understatedly gorgeous — academic publications act like they don’t have much to prove with their covers, but Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe is a pleasure to hold. I’d love to see her work redone entirely by someone like Andrea Guinn. Another Cover of the Year would be Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, by Christopher Norris, also gets best fucking title of the year, along with being my non-fiction Book of the Year. Which leaves Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger, which I have got more than a couple of friends to read, and is my fiction Book of the Year. The image here does it poor service, in the real world, the almost matt black is a light-deadening rectangle that looks larger than it is, it’s a suitably unfriendly cover to go with a disturbing story that I’ll be reading again and again.
11 covers then, in my first — and perhaps last — dance with cover art. Slightly less than a third of the books I read have covers (or complete design and binding, which is an even smaller subset) I think really gives the author and writing their due — and the reader, ’cos there’s nothing I love more than a beautiful book. So cheers to all you designers and artists and typographers, and cheers to the publishers who represent their authors with such art, you make the world a better place.
And my full list of what I read in the last year: Reading … A 10th Anniversary.
Another year of reading. Ten years I’ve been at this, blogging every book I read (almost every, a few slipped by over the years). Going from just blogging the book covers, to a few lines on why I was reading, to my recent frankly absurd multi-thousand word essays on some of Iain (M. or not) Banks novels. Trying to rein in that latter particular excess.
Usually at this point, I look at what I wrote a year ago, so I can aim for some sort of consistency.
A lot of fiction this year, almost twice as much as non-fiction, for a total of 34 books read — or attempted, I gave up on a few, and there’s a couple that I’ve already started but won’t make this list, ’cos I haven’t blogged them yet. Blogging is reading, just like rubbing is racing.
The year got off to a brilliant start with three biographies by trans women: Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, and more a collection of essays over decades that becomes biographical, Julia Serano’s Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism. And Tranny is my Book of the Year. There’s a couple of others equally or maybe more deserving — thinking of recent reads Peter Fryer’s Black People in the British Empire: An Introduction and China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution — but Miéville’s had a couple of Books of the Year already, so that’s him out. Tranny just spoke to me on a very personal level (as did Redefining Realness, different but no less personal), and Laura Jane Grace has been making miles in my head all year, I’m listening to her now. I’d marry her, it’s that kind of thing.
Following that trio, I went straight into Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Still in it. Not an easy read, needs the kind of mental preparation and focus I’ve been lacking the last some years, though strangely not for Caroline Walker Bynum, who I’ve been reading for three years now, one of my absolute loves, and Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe is also deserving of being a Book of the Year.
A couple of others on the non-fiction side: May Opitz, Katharina Oguntoye, Dagmar Schultz (eds.) Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, I read after seeing it at Deutsches Historisches Museum’s Deutscher Kolonialismus: Fragmente Seiner Geschichte Und Gegenwart exhibition. I’m didactic and prescriptive, and just like Peter Fryer, this (or whatever more recent work) should be compulsory reading in Germany, along with Ruth Mandel’s Cosmopolitan Anxieties and Katherine Pratt Ewing’s Stolen Honor — and a bunch of other stuff. But the last year’s European, American, and Australian politics makes me think we haven’t got a chance, walking with their eyes open while we shout and plead with them against where they’re going, where they’re dragging us.
I haven’t been reading much on China lately (or Afghanistan for that matter, but remedying that at the mo), but did read Frank Dikötter’s The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976, the final work in his China under Mao Zedong trilogy (preceded by The Tragedy of Liberation and Mao’s Great Famine). He’s one of the few historians writing on China I’ll always read, who’s also in the fortunate position to be able to publish semi-regularly (and for academic publications, not horrifically over-priced).
There were a few other non-fiction works, but let’s get onto the fiction, or science-fiction and fantasy, ’cos I still don’t read anything else. I went on a lengthy Iain M. (plus a couple of non-M.) Banks binge earlier this year. I needed to just read, eyes rush over the pages, know before I started I’d love the story, sink back into familiar worlds and lives. Obviously that mean starting with my favourite book ever, Feersum Endjinn, and this being my first Banks re-read in some years, I came to him with a tonne of new reading behind me, and wow did I ever write about all my new thoughts. I followed that up with Whit, which has never been one of my favourites, nor did I think of it as one of his best. Wrong again, Frances. Back to The Business after that, definitely one I adore, and have read at least 6 times, then back into his skiffy with the late / last trio: Surface Detail, The Hydrogen Sonata, and Matter. I feel a little unsure putting these in my year’s reading here, as though there’s nothing remarkable about reading him multiple times, or that this is supposed to be about new books I’ve read. On the other hand, fuck it, it’s my blog and my reading and I can fuck off if that’s the attitude I’m going to bring.
There was a sizeable dip early- to mid-year, disappointment in fiction, feeling apathetic about the heaviness of non-fiction (thanks, Twitter), and also perhaps just steamrolling through scores of books year after year is an unrealistic monotone that I’m not. I did have a thrill with one more of Steph Swainston’s Castle novels, Fair Rebel, followed almost immediately by Above the Snowline, and love that she decided to return to writing, ’cos she’s one of the best. Not easy, these are large, demanding works that don’t mainline narrative reward, but she’s got one of the most captivating and extensive fantasy worlds I’ve read.
At the same time as Swainston, I got my grubby mitts on Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger. Something of marketed as Young Adult (is not), and not especially long (longer though than his novella Slow Bullets), and it feels like a Girl’s Own bit of romp, then he massacres an entire ship’s crew and continues in his very, very dark and existentially terrifying way right up till the end. Book of the Year for me, right there. Then there was the aforementioned Banks tour, and not until I was in Brussels did I get mad thrilled about fiction again. Cheers, once again, Gala. Ben Aaronovitch’s PC Grant series, A young Idris Elba / Stormzy cop with Harry Potter powers. A more cheerful Liminal People series. I started with number 2, Moon Over Soho, which meant reading the first in the series, Rivers of London had both plenty of, “I know who these people are,” and “Oh shit, her face is gonna fall off, isn’t it?” I’ve got the other 5 in the series on order.
I get to this point of writing, and I’ve added the covers of all these books, so I’ve got a nice visual treat in front of my mug, and I scroll through them … smiles all the way. And a little shiver of goosebumps. I’m lucky as all shit to be able to buy new books almost every week even when I’m on the verge of poverty (cheers, Germany and your incomprehensible to Australia attitude to cheap books), and lucky as all shit to have the time and education and all the rest to be able to read them. It’s a human right and every day I give thanks to the people (shout out to Eleanor Roosevelt here!) who fought and continue to fight for our inalienable rights.
Buy books! Buy books for your friends! Encourage people to read. If you know someone who Can’t Read Good (And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too), help them, reading is only difficult if you’ve been told it is. Support your local libraries!
So here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
And speaking of designers and artists, I decided to do a Book Covers of the Year thing, dunno why I haven’t before now. Mainly because both Revenger and October have covers that smash it. Also the original Feersum Endjinn, class late-20th century sci-fi cover art there.
Thrilled and awed by all this reading? Here’s the last years’ anniversary lists:
- Reading … A 9th Anniversary
- Reading … A 8th Anniversary
- Reading … A 7th Anniversary
- Reading … A 6th Anniversary
- Reading … A 5th Anniversary
- Reading … A 4th Anniversary
- Reading … A 3rd Anniversary
- Reading … A 2nd Anniversary
- Reading … An Anniversary
(Full Disclosure: Kerber Verlag wanted me so much to review this, they chased me down and sent one boxed up via registered post. I also pestered them via email, which is the real truth.)
Wedding. Repping the best Ortsteil and Kiez in Berlin. My home for most of the time I’ve lived here, where I first landed, where I got my mobile phone number, where I made art (when I was disposed to do that), where I still call home, even as I live in the beating heart of gentrification, between Graefe Kiez and Südstern. I will fight anyone who says Wedding isn’t echt Berlin, who says, “Oh, but you must go to Charlottenburg for the real Berlin”, like Wedding isn’t — we all know what you really mean. Marzahn-Hellersdorf might be on the up, but Wedding bleibt. If only it could ditch its uncool neighbour Mitte.
I see a book on Twitter (via Weddingweiser) called Berlin-Wedding: Das Fotobuch — The Photobook and I know it will be mine, and I know I can’t be throwing down mad Euros on every book I see when my reading list is … even Paul in my favourite bookshop won’t touch its full extent without bribes. It’s got Helvetica Neue for the title and Communist Red endsheets, ’cos Volksrepublik Roter Wedding also bleibt — or at least that’s what the best pub in Germany tells me. I haven’t read it; I’m reading it. I read it. One of those usual non-review reviews.
A story of Wedding: When I first was living in Berlin, and I’d answer the question, “Where are you living?” the regular reply to that, by locals who’d been in the city for years, would be, “Oh Wedding. Be careful. It’s rough.” or other variations on the Wrong Side of the Tracks line — it’s outside the Ring, so yeah, wrong side. So I believed them, and exited U-Pankestraße with some apprehension, ’cos it was like being up Sydney Rd in Melbourne on a Friday night before that got gentrified. But then I noticed no one stared or got in my face or even gave a shit I was walking up Badstraße, and that ‘rough’ and ‘be careful’ and ‘not really Berlin’ meant Turkish and immigrant and working class, and about as much home in a city as I’ll ever find.
Another Wedding story: There’s a street off Badstr. called Buttmannstraße. Yes, really, Buttmann. I laughed. We all laugh, we of the former Empire’s colonies, ’cos we all have toilets for brains. I have a dear friend who lives for many years in Buttmannstr. The best pub in the world used to be on Buttmannstr. There should be a superhero called Superbuttmann. Obviously it’d be a porno, like Flesh Gordon, or Sex Trek, or Buttman vs. Superbuttmann. Buttmannstr. is the street that ‘brings down the neighbourhood’, where you see the hard fist of gentrification, forced evictions, police doing high-rotation patrols, rents doubling, locals with nowhere to go, who’ve called Wedding their home from the time it was the arse-end of Berlin, getting the boot.
Buttmannstr. officially isn’t in Wedding. The 2001 Bezirksgebietsreform hewed off the eastern half and renamed it Gesundbrunnen. Everyone still calls it Wedding; it’s going to take more than an administrative ‘reform’ to change that. Berlin-Wedding: Das Fotobuch properly takes Wedding in its former fullness, from Bornholmer Brücke (otherwise known as Böse Brücke) — where East and West Berlin first opened on November 9th, 1989 — all the way west to the edge of Flughafen Tegel. Wedding, where Marlene Dietrich performed when Buttmannstr. was the Queen of north Berlin.
I turn through the pages and sections, portraits of retired workers propping up their local bar, of parents and their children, portraits of Wedding-ers at home, and there’s Anna and Wolfgang Dumkow, in their beautiful Wiesenburg apartment, surrounded by art, looking unfathomably stylish. Each of the eighteen chapters or parts is by a different photographer from Ostkreuz-Agentur (skewed about 2:1 men:women ratio, yes, youse all know me, I count), so each chapter is a story, separate from the others, telling a particular theme without being beholden to an overarching narrative or curatorial aesthetic. Yes, it’s about Wedding, but it is not attempting a comprehensive or definitive appraisal; it is a moment shaped by the suburb’s past and its impending future.
And Wedding is a strange, unremarkable suburb, there’s scant imposing or singular architecture, the streets are a mix of congested thoroughfares banked by post-war Neubau — like all of Berlin, it’s missing teeth, more so than other districts, having been one of the main industry districts, and on the receiving end of heavy bombardment — of Kiez and Viertel with names like Afrikanisches Viertel (memorialising Germany’s colonial history), Brüsseler Kiez, tree-lined residential side-streets broken by old factories, and on two sides bounded by massive railway lines and the Westhafen canal port. There’s history here that’s uniquely Berlin and Wedding, but little of this remains immediately evident. In its absence, it’s one of the quieter parts of Berlin, where people carry on ordinary lives — even if they are artists.
So I’m reading this book and part of me is delighted to see my home represented like this, and part of me wonders why this book exists at all. Perhaps because Julia Boek and Axel Völcker also delight in this rather mundane cul-de-sac. But who’s it for, then? Wedding doesn’t have the punk and techno history of Kreuzberg, certainly not the cataclysmic history of Potsdamer Platz, Bowie and Iggy Pop didn’t live in Wedding, if there’s a suburb of Berlin which history seemed to have passed by, it’s Wedding.
It’s a suburb worth considering though. Barely 50% are of German origin — I have no idea what that means, I suppose germano-German, white German, though these kind of demographic descriptors slide into insalubrious fantasies of nationhood and ethnicity — almost 1 in 5 are Turkish German, and more than 1 in 20 Afro-German. It’s been a suburb of migration for its entire history, and only in the last few years has it been the site of the gentrification-type migration. One of the photo essays is called Black Wedding, a group of Cameroon-Germans who export cars, church on Sunday, family portraits at home and in the park. Another is of empty mosques. The introduction tells us Wedding has the greatest number of Mosques of any district in Berlin.
I’m going to jump into criticism here, all staccato like. My first criticism comes back to the imbalanced ratio of men to women photographers. I think here of Susan Sontag’s On Photography, where she says, “Taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events.” She also talks about — and I can’t find the quote here — the artlessness and naïvety of the amateur as more natural, more real, and therefore an essentialist resistance to the artificiality of the professional photographer. I was thinking of this looking at some of the essays, street photography shot without looking through the lens, as though this method in itself conferred a higher value to the work. I just thought they looked kinda crap, and had images in my head of tourist bros one-hand running and gunning their multi-thousand euro DSLRs, taking without asking. I contrast this with the family portraits, where the photographer set up an impromptu studio in a paediatric clinic, and asked her subjects, “What is your greatest wish?” And the answer so often was, “A better life for my children.” Asking and receiving. This is the Wedding I recognise, and when Mutti Merkel and other lost white Germans clamour multiculturalism and integration have failed, I say, this is Germany, and these are Germans.
There’s a photo in one of the empty mosques series where you can see a sliver of curtain. These spaces are absent of people, but were they not, then the absence would be women. Behind that curtain, that’s where the women go. An absence doubled. There are portraits of the Imam at the end, all male, by the photographer, also male. How a man can move through these spaces and streets — if they can at all — is very different from a woman. It’s like the reportage on Afghanistan I’ve been reading for years, only half told because of this absence. I feel tired and embarrassed to endlessly, year after year, book after book, movie, TV show, exhibition, cycling, motorsport, always, always hammering and banging on about representation. Fucking women. Where the fuck are we? Is one woman for every two men equality? Does 30% somehow read as half? And what does it mean that in a suburb where half the locals aren’t “of German origin” that almost all the photographers have hella German names? If I ask myself, “Do I spend too much time thinking about and asking these questions,” is it because they don’t?
Is this book harmless?
Sandwiched in-between Black Wedding, Artists, and In the Mecca of Berlin, is Gentrification of Wedding. Rent has more than doubled since I first arrived, pushing tripled. People let out rooms for a week what I would pay for a whole apartment for a month. And it’s on their coffee tables this book is more properly at home, irrespective of how the artists involved might want to hold a middle finger at them. As artists, we serve as the shock troops of gentrification, softening up the area before the front arrives. And when it does — which for Wedding is now — we’re pushed out and on to the next place. When I lived in Uferhallen, I photographed it constantly. I loved that I could be there, a former tram and bus depot in the middle of the city, now half turning to fields every summer, foxes and wildlife moving in. So I understand how Julia Bock and Axel Völcker could also feel the same about their Wedding, and want to share this. Yet once shared, it becomes commodity, serves interests other than, and in the present climate opposed to, the Wedding they call home.
Moving abruptly onto my other criticism, then. The English translations are a little shaky, a little word-for-word literal from German.
Like an anthology of short stories, some photographers I like, others I don’t, others leave me indifferent. This is both an affinity with a visual aesthetic as well as with what this makes explicit about how they see the world. If I flick through the pages, does it give me a feeling for Wedding? There are a number of photographers who remove entirely people from the milieu. Is this an intentional theme, or a habit of the photographers of the agency? A lot of them work for press, and there’s a strong thread of reportage in their work. I recognise people and places, and recognise Wedding, yet simultaneously, I see very little of Wedding here. I see photographers who use Wedding as an abrasive to rub up against, but it could be anywhere, Kreuzberg, Hamburg, Düsseldorf — the architecture often gives it away as German, but it could easily be Footscray or any of the other poor suburbs I’ve seen go through what Wedding presently is. They photograph Wedding but do not see it, they level it out, and some of the work is frankly lazy and pedestrian. Others, like Dorothee Deiss — I keep coming back to her photographs in the paediatric clinic — could go anywhere, her studio portraits against a plain background would always look like the place they came from. I would be far less critical were all the photographers to have her sensitivity and skill.
I show it to my Wedding friends though, “Hey, look at what I got, it’s our Kiez!” strange book for an odd ’burb.
The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976 is Frank Dikötter’s final book in the trilogy covering China and Chairman Mao from 1945 until his death in 1976. An earlier, much shorter work covering the Republican era makes it something of a quartet. I haven’t read his work prior to these four — he’s been publishing on China for 25 years, and has been Chair Professor of Humanities at University of Hong Kong since 2006. He’s one of a handful of China historians who I will always read and look forward to whatever they write next.
I started with him in 2010 with The Age of Openness: China Before Mao, followed that up a few months later with the first proper of the trilogy, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62, then The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 in 2013, and finally this. Unlike Mao’s Great Famine, or The Tragedy of Liberation, the Cultural Revolution has been covered by far more historians, and sits fresh in the memories of people in their forties. Writers like Liao Yiwu (The Corpse Walker, God Is Red, For a Song and a Hundred Songs) and others of the large crop of early-’00s writers covering Tiananmen Square and post-Tiananmen politics if not explicitly writing about this period nonetheless reference it. And if anything this is its weakness.
It’s difficult to say this work has a weakness, when I think the previous two are some of the finest and most meticulously researched in any of the subjects I read (I’m holding the likes or Caroline Walker Bynum and Susan Mann as my exemplars), it might simply be my familiarity with the subject, both from reading and from friends in China. For most readers, especially if they slam the trilogy one after the other it’s a horrifying, relentless work of history, and that has no peer I can think of for 20th century Maoist China.
One thing I am unsure about though, and I’ve found this in other writers on Mao (like Jung Chang) and on the other singular figures of 20th century despotism (like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot) is the ease with which so much power and capability is assigned to them. What I remain unsure on in all my reading on China under Mao is the complicity of others. It’s that question, if he was indeed an individual in all this why didn’t they stop him? If not, why, during those three decades of his rule, did they not see the repeating patterns of behaviour and rule, and not make the same bad decisions over and over. Were they fucking stupid? It’s not that there’s an absence of resistance in this book, in fact there’s plenty of it once we get down to the regional and village levels, but perhaps what I’d like to read is a history of Mao’s China without him in it.
What The Cultural Revolution illustrates, in a way I think no other work on the subject has done so clearly, is that this period was essentially a continuation, or a reinvigoration of the Great Leap Forward. Certainly it was a total war against culture and history, and it demonstrates just how rapidly a culture can be erased (a couple of weeks if you’re curious as to how fast your world can vanish), but the preparations for nuclear war, the inland industrialisation, the return of collectivisation and all that went with this, were all methods of that genocidal period a decade earlier.
Maybe I throw around the term genocide too freely. It seems to me it’s not used enough. I think with Mao and his mob it rests on whether the deaths of tens of millions and the destruction of culture were intentional. Is ‘I don’t care how many die as long as I achieve my goals’ intentional, or merely indifference? What about engineering chaos for the same ends which as a side-effect result in what we currently call collateral damage? What about if you say, “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” If that half die because you ‘let’ them, is that genocide, or something else? If we have to ascribe intentionality to genocide, then the most recognition of culpability we can expect from a perpetrator is “Oops, my bad.” Which is approximately as much as the current ruling party of China says — the same party of all these three books, ruling in unbroken succession. Or maybe, “30% my bad.” Because the final ruling by the party on itself for all these atrocities was “70% good, 30% bad.”
I would like to think that in the next decade or so Dikötter’s works become less remarkable as more historians write ever more fine and detailed works on 20th century China. I do think some of the criticisms of his work are valid, in particular that it’s “more like a catalogue of anecdotes about atrocities than a sustained analytic argument”. But against that is the fact there are sod all historians writing on 20th century China compared to say 20th century Germany or Russia. Guangdong history alone could and should occupy entire departments, yet here we are, still treating China as a monolith. Worth reading all three at once, not just for history, but as a lesson in how easily a dictatorship can grow and devour continents.