Imperium, Then and Now

A few weeks ago, I started reading Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – it’s been collecting dust for years. The six-volume opus brought to mind the decline of a current empire. I’m not gloating. I love the USA. I spent many happy years there. It’s a chaotic yet vibrant democracy, born of lofty ideals but beset by schisms.

Thinking of the contemporary strife, I see no easy path forward. The Liberty Bell is breaking apart. The USA is going to endure more strife. I read Gibbon’s opus hoping to learn things from the Roman decline. I didn’t find many. Gibbon is a past master, but, if you’re looking for modern parallels, give him a miss.

Here’s a gross oversimplification of his opus: military power is power. Every volume highlights martial prowess. The Romans limited their domain to a relatively defensible area, roughly modern-day Western Europe minus Scandinavia, believing their military reach should not exceed their grasp. America is as much a cultural and commercial power as a military power, yet it has bases all over the world. If the British Empire is an example, America will soon relinquish many of them.

The American Empire is declining faster than the British, Roman, Aztec, Incan, or Persian Empires, not to mention many others. Reading Gibbon doesn’t provide much insight into why, other than to suggest that entropy always follows cohesion. The centre does not hold for long. Can’t argue with that.

Final thought. America’s not going anywhere. The end of an empire doesn’t mean the end of a nation.

Turning to the Light – Round II

As noted in ‘Turning to the Light,’ in dark times I turn away from crime/mystery fiction. I read “brighter” fiction. Here are a few more suggestions. Caveat: Although the titles below aren’t murder stories, as with most fiction, there is death.

Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish by Richard Flanagan, 2001. A sweeping fictionalized account of the convict William Gould’s life in 1820s Tasmania. The central theme is man’s inhumanity to man. One of the finest Australian novels.

Dirt Music by Tim Winton, 2002. To continue the Down Under theme, Dirt Music is another modern Australian classic. It sings the raw underbelly of Western Australia in the late 20th century: the money, the greed, and, above all, the power of the land.

Turning to the Light

I don’t know about you, but in dark times I turn away from crime/mystery fiction. I want brighter stories. ‘Bright, AMP? Aren’t you supposed to be a noir guy?’ Hey, bright doesn’t mean soppy. 😉 Here are a few novels that fit the bill for me, and maybe you.

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, 2006. At first glance, a simple story. However, it radiates deep emotion. One of my favourite works of literary fiction from the last 15 years.

The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway, 1952. A timeless tale, told with the direct prose of a fable. The story is mythic, yet it feels absolutely real.

The Colour by Rose Tremain, 2003. A British couple migrate to New Zealand (South Island) during an 1860s gold rush. As with many tales of migration/colonization, the migrants and natives clash (in this case, the British and the Maoris). There is pain and conflict, yet the tone is uplifting.

For more suggestions, check out Turning to the Light – Round II.

Off-the-beaten Track

Under The Holy Lake by Ken Haigh, 2008. University of Alberta Press.

Reviewed by A.M. Potter. ® 2019.

Those who know me, know I’m a big fan of travelogues featuring distant lands. Few countries are as remote as Bhutan.

Under The Holy Lake presents a captivating memoir of two years in Bhutan. The prose is polished and whip-sharp. The author, Ken Haigh, is thoughtful and learned without being pedantic. The memoir is entertaining, at times light and effusive, yet also profound and intensely satisfying. What does it say?

Go to Bhutan. (Or, if not Bhutan, any place off-the-beaten track.) Live there, work there. If you can go when you’re young, all the better. It will stay with you for the rest of your life. Approach the new land slowly. Accept it warts et al; in the case of Bhutan, torrential rain, foot-long poisonous centipedes, and confusing social mores, to name a few.

Haigh certainly accepted it. His time as a teacher in Khaling, Eastern Bhutan, is a study in cultural adaptation, always a long and arduous road, and not always successfully traversed. He came to cherish Khaling – the valley under the holy lake – and the Bhutanese people. I won’t elaborate on the book’s narrative trajectory. I rarely do. Instead, I’ll say: “Read for yourself.” Experience the real Bhutan, from a to z: ara (corn-mash whisky) to zhugcho (please, sit).

PS: Haigh tells of two years in the late 1980s. Of course, places never stay the same. Bhutan is still 12,000 km from central Canada, but it is no longer distant in time. No place is.

Click to view Under The Holy Lake.

My Favourite British Novel

My favourite British novel? That’s a tough one. Of course, I’ve made it easier on myself by saying “British,” thus bypassing the Irish and James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Many literary historians consider Joseph Andrews (1742) by Henry Fielding the first British novel. However, there is vociferous debate. Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) by Thomas Malory sometimes gets the nod. But that doesn’t matter to me. This isn’t a dissertation. It’s my personal choice.

My favourite British novel is …. London Fields by Martin Amis, published in 1989.

You’re kidding me?” I know, many people might not have London Fields on their radar, let alone as their favourite. They favour Nobel-prize winners like William Golding (Lord of the Flies) or Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day). They extoll novels by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, or Zadie Smith. That’s quite a list, but give me Martin Amis and London Fields. {I’m not claiming it’s the best. It’s simply my favourite.}

Give me the sheer exuberance of Amis’ prose. Will he go off on tangents about pubs, sex, or the sky over London? You bet he will. If it’s not your cup of British novel, you’ll know within pages. Me, I knew within a page that I’d keep reading. And that I’d laugh and chortle.

Some find London Fields an acquired taste. It’s not politically-correct. It’s misogynistic. Others compare London Fields to Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s inventive and discursive. Like Ulysses, it’s been called crass and pornographic. Regardless of labels, London Fields gets under your skin. It’s part noir, part berk realism, part literary fiction. Like a certain beer brewed in Nova Scotia (an IPA), those who like it like it a lot. I’m one of them.

Amis delivers an extended amusement park ride, a rollercoaster of pathos and poignancy. The capers are simultaneously low-brow and high-brow. Think Monty Python on the page. {Not a Python fan? Give London Fields a pass.}

When I want twists, over-the-top characters, and zaniness, I re-read London Fields. I don’t only read it for the singularly inventive prose (no one writes like Martin Amis), but also for the plot itself. It’s a black comic murder mystery, a Brit noir par excellence. Right up my alley.

From the opening of London Fields: “This is the story of a murder. It hasn’t happened yet. But it will. (It had better.) I know the murderer, I know the murderee. I know the time, I know the place. I know the motive (her motive) and I know the means. I know who will be the foil, the fool, the poor foal, also utterly destroyed. And I couldn’t stop them, I don’t think, even if I wanted to.”

NB: This passage was written in 1989: “America was going insane. In her own way. And why not? Countries go insane like people go insane …. All over the world countries reclined on couches or sat in darkened rooms chewing dihydrocodeine and Temazepam or lay in boiling baths or twisted in straightjackets or stood banging their heads against padded walls. Some had been insane all the lives, and some had gone insane and then got better again and then gone insane again …. America had had her neuroses before, like when she tried giving up drink, like when she started finding enemies within, like when she thought she could rule the world …. In a way she was never like everywhere else. Most places just are something, but America had to mean something too, hence her vulnerability – to make-believe, to false memory, false destiny.”

PS: Sound familiar in 2019?

The heroine, the murderee, on the death of love: [The earth] seemed to have eternal youth but now she’s ageing fast, like an addict …. We used to live and die without any sense of the planet getting older, of mother earth getting older, living and dying. We used to live outside history. But now we’re all coterminous. We’re inside history now, on its leading edge, with the wind ripping past our ears. Hard to love, when you’re bracing yourself for impact.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Fields_(novel)