It felt like Gough Whitlam inside.
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:
An introduction. Published in 1988 and here we are, 30 years later, still having to prove the same truths, provide the same evidence, grieve the same death and damage. This is one of those fucking read this books. Fucking read this. You want to know how we got to this place again? We never left it. Fucking read this.
I’ve been trying out this lately, since my last year or so of reading on German Empire Colonialism (Deutsches Historisches Museum Deutscher Kolonialismus exhibition, and Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out in particular): It’s easier to count the number of countries and places that weren’t colonised. If a country was colonised, there was genocide. Countries that weren’t colonised also suffered heavily the effects of colonialism. I do this to shift the burden of evidence or proof: it should not be the task of each country or place in isolation to prove again and again colonialism and genocide happened and continues to happen. I read Peter Fryer’s Black People in the British Empire: An Introduction and it’s unarguable.
What else that’s unarguable: the same philosophical positions informed — and continue to inform — political, social, medical, legal, religious positions which have regional and temporal variations, but are nonetheless identical. These positions were enacted not just on racialised bodies, but on hierarchies of class, sex, gender, ability, and so on: any aspect of a person could be classified and taxonomied, and once classified, denied humanity. This is what we currently call intersectionality, what Peter Fryer and others have written about for decades.
This is a hard book. It will give you nightmares. It is a horror story all the worse because there’s no end, it’s all true, and it’s only an introduction. 30 years old and half that time the colonial nations have been busy at an endless war of colonialism. Nothing’s changed. Remember that. There’s no post-colonialism or neo-colonialism. It never ended. Just like those horror movies where you wake up to find you’re still trapped asleep. All the progress and improvements of the last 30 years rest as a thin film floating atop systematic horror.
I am a child of this. Every country I’ve lived in or had citizenship in exists as it does because of colonialism and genocide: Canada, Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, China, Germany. My parents travelled in the international wash of it, were born where they were because of empire, British, Ottoman, Dutch. This is what it means to be that thing called Citizen of the World.
And there’s something else colonialism does: it atomises culture and destroys history. Every generation, every year, continuity is lost and it’s like starting again. This is an introduction, it reminds us where we came from and what we live in. It’s not complete or comprehensive, it’s 30 years old, but fucking read this.
(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.
I was not expecting a new China Miéville book, nor was I expecting — if one existed — it would be non-fiction. That the subject is the Russian Revolution, however, doesn’t surprise me at all.
This is one of those books that went from “I do not know this book,” to “This book is ready to be picked up from your favourite bookstore,” in about a week. Doesn’t matter that Russian history is not really my thing (exceptions for Russia and the Soviet Union in Central Asia and the Caucasus, or interacting with communist China), nor that communism in general leaves a bad taste in my mouth, it’s China Miéville, and I will always read him — yes, even his Between Equal Rights – A Marxist Theory of International Law, which gave me none of the pleasure his fiction does, even if I do read the latter for the politics.
October: The Story of the Russian Revolution has a super fine cover, very Russian Constructivism (shoutout to brilliant artist Andrea Guinn for this). I said to Paul in St George’s, “Nice cover!” ’cos it’s true, and I do rate books by their covers. And it’s hardback, so it’s an all-round fine reading experience on the corporeal level. I should probably start a Cover of the Year thing too, to go with my fiction and non-fiction books of the year. I think I shall. Come October (heh) when I do my yearly round-up, I’m gonna enthuse wildly over cover art. There’s been some bangers this year, but October might be the one.
Not all about cover art though, Frances, what’d you read? A book marking 100 years since the Russian Revolution covering the year of 1917 from January to October, one chapter per month, the initial chapter a succinct history of Russia and St. Petersberg leading into that first month, and finishing on a short, critical epilogue. Additionally, a Glossary of Personal Names (so many names; so many acronyms), and a Further Reading section, plus an Index, some maps of St. Petersburg — at the time called Petrograd, and a central sheaf of photos. It is a story. Miéville says so himself in his introduction, he is telling the story of historical events as a story-teller, and not so much as a historian or academic. Nonetheless, because he is a formidable story-teller, erudite, and indeed a specialist on Marxism and history, he writes a captivating and lucid narration of those months.
He says also, in the introduction, “… I am partisan. In the story that follows, I have my villains and my heroes. But, while I do not pretend to be neutral, I have striven to be fair, and I hope readers of various political hues will find value in this telling.” Being partisan then, I have little interest in Marxism as a political philosophy, nor Marx the man, nor do I have much beyond scorn for Lenin and the Revolution, all of which are the habitat of loud, white, European men telling the rest of us how we need to listen to them, and that none of their failures fall on Marxism because hand-waving reasons. Miéville skates along the edge of this in his epilogue, giving some legitimate reasons for why things went the way they did in concise and graspable sentences, yet I still feel Marxists protest too much. “If only ‘x’ hadn’t happened, or ‘y’ had done ‘z’, we’d all be living in communist paradise,” is what my acutely cynical and partisan sensibility takes away from this. Which is to say, that I read October at all is because I think Miéville is a fine writer, a favourite for over a decade, with a sharp political mind, even if he is some kind of Marxist.
There are a lot of men in this history. Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Bolsheviks, Monarchists, the Whites, others, it’s the easiest thing to write entire histories of the Revolution and never venture outside men. I appreciate that Miéville makes explicit effort to include the women and women’s organisations who were critical, women like Angelica Balabanoff, Maria Bochkareva, Catherine Breshko-Breshkovskaya, Alexandra Kollontai, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Maria Spiridonova , Ludmila Stahl, Vera Zasulich, all of whom get a mention in the Glossary. He also devotes pages to the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress (which I quoted here, and is probably worth buying the book for this alone), the Jadadist movement, the Muslim National Committee, the Union of Soviet Muslims.
A quick aside here about the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress, which I ended up tweeting about. The primary source for this, which Miéville includes in the Further Reading section (and I didn’t see at the time, so went off on my own fun research wandering, leading me to the same place), is Marianne Kamp’s paper Debating Sharia: the 1917 Muslim Women’s Congress in Russia, published in Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter 2015, available to read online.
Over the ten months and chapters of October, the story moves from the lightless and frozen days of deep winter to the heat and endless sun of summer back into grey and dim rain and snow. Time condenses. The first chapter covers centuries then decades, then years and months, then January; October reduces that to hours and parts of nights on single days. History rushes, then rushes again, finishing at 5am on the 26th, as dawn touches the night. We are left with an epilogue that stretches time back out, years and decades, as the Revolution grinds itself and the continent into autocracy.
I was wondering how to finish this. I wanted to say something like, “If you love China Miéville’s fiction, you’ll love this,” ’cos in many ways his novels are explorations of revolution, but that feels kinda glib. It’s more like this: If you love his novels like Embassytown, Kraken, or his Bas-Lag stories, Between Equal Rights will make you cry — unless you’re already partial to reading International Law, and you may or may not get a kick out of October, ’cos it’s non-fiction and non-fiction Miéville is a different writer from fiction Miéville however much he is telling a story here. But if Iron Council or Railsea are up in your Miéville faves, October will fit right in: It’s all about trains.
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.