THE ASHES OF BURNING BOOKS COVERED THE CITY
to think once we know their ethnicity we’ll know exactly who they are, what they think, how the dice rolled for them in the war.
The refusal of the terms implied in this question has been an essential response by many of the region’s intelligentsia. Hemon and his sister both loathe it. ‘‘ And why do you wall in a dark Niagara’’ is particularly sharp and haunting.
As well as revisiting the obvious events, Ellis reminds us of stories that in another year would have hogged more headlines. Brazil experienced its first school massacre when a man posing as a lecturer shot dead 12 children in Rio de Janeiro. Texas suffered its worst wildfires, with more than 1500 properties razed. Science also had a red-letter year, capped by significant moves towards confirming the Higgs boson particle, as well as the detection of a planet 36 light years away in the Vela constellation ‘‘ as likely as ours to have life on it’’. ask?’’ says Kristina, who has become a tough, bright political analyst. ‘‘ I am a Bosnian.’’
Months into the siege, Sarajevo’s national library was shelled. It took three days to burn down. People who tried to save books were targeted by snipers. The ashes of burning books and manuscripts covered the city. When winter came that year — and then another, and another — Sarajevans were left without electricity in half-destroyed buildings, burning all they could to stay alive.
The turn of books had to come. People burned their libraries. Writers burned their unpublished manuscripts. Once you go through an experience like this, books no longer have the same ontological status. You
Woven through this book is the touching story of Gabby Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman shot in January, who doctors thought would not survive the week, let alone the year. To the remarkable Giffords, Ellis dedicates the book.
Occasionally, this sweeping narrative contains revealing details. At the time, I missed the story that Leon Panetta, the then director of the CIA, celebrated the successful mission against bin Laden with a bottle of 1870 Chateau Lafite Rothschild owned by a rich schoolfriend and set aside for that precise purpose. It was served in commemorative shot glasses embossed with end up loving them even more, perhaps, but in a different way, as defenceless children, all too perishable, not oracles.
‘‘ Gently stroke your books, dear strangers, and remember, they are dust,’’ wrote Miljenko Jergovic in Sarajevo Marlboro, not the only great book to emerge from the siege.
Hemon knows this. In the US he went from having essentially zero English to winning comparisons with Nabokov in a few years. I suspect he cares little. He isn’t disenchanted; rather, undeluded. Which is why he does not squeeze rousing poetry out of war. An operatic kind of telling is morally and intellectually suspect: often it turns war into what writer Dubravka Ugresic called a kind of kitsch.
It is not a question of words failing. Words don’t fail Hemon when he is confronted with catastrophe, nor do they run out. The last and most shattering essay in the book, the one you will not forget, tells of his baby daughter’s death from a brain tumour. At Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital, he and his wife, Teri, learned it was more than possible to describe their experience. ‘‘ There were too many words: they were far too heavy and too specific to be inflicted on others.’’
In his early days in Chicago, Hemon sought out strangers to play soccer and chess with. Soccer and chess brought moments of transcendence into his life. The evocation of such moments is one of the book’s delights. At Atomic Cafe he spends weekends playing chess against Peter, a Belgrade-born Assyrian whose only son was killed in Iran’s Islamic revolution. It is Peter who, on learning where his opponent is from, says perhaps the only thing worth saying: ‘‘ I am sorry.’’
One day the rain’s pelting down and the group of men Hemon plays soccer with — all of them from somewhere else, all recipients of hard, anguished lives — continue playing. For a moment there, a perfect moment, the field is so flooded he cannot see their feet. Hemon is watching and the men are levitating. the CIA insignia. The story, however, was reported widely at the time, which points to the book’s chief deficiency.
I could not identify a single instance in which Ellis has added to the historical record or delivered a fresh insight to enrich our understanding.
After wading through this compendium, I am still at a loss as to why he wrote it, still less why Penguin published it. Had it been a hotoff-the-press ‘‘ quickie’’ that hit bookstores at the start of 2012, it would have made more sense. Bringing it out 18 months later serves little purpose.
The publishers, confronted with the challenge of composing a blurb for the back cover, note that it will ‘‘ refresh and repopulate our memories’’. But a new book surely has to do more. It creates a sense that anybody with access to a handful of news websites could have written this kind of book, and also that nobody should have.
Absent is any great overarching thesis, or much of an attempt to explain the forces driving, say, the Arab Spring. Rather than being structured in a thematic manner, which would have lent itself to more theorising and intellectual coherence, it is merely a blow-byblow chronology. Even then, the structuring is hard to fathom. Monthly chapters are subdivided into numbered sections, which one assumes at the beginning equate with days of the month. It soon becomes apparent, how- ever, that these numerical sections are completely random.
As far as I could tell, Ellis has not borne witness to any of these events other to watch them on television or read about them in the newspapers. Large chunks are from previously published articles, which are introduced with the grating line: ‘‘ Of this Ellis wrote’’. Even more strangely, he quotes at indented length from the work of his collaborators, Damian Spruce and Stephen Ramsey. ‘‘ Of this, Damian Spruce wrote’’, and so on. Like Ellis, they are good writers, but their contributions add to the sense of disjointedness.
Of Ellis it should also be observed that some of his passages feel as if they were delivered to the publisher chiselled on granite, or perhaps dictated by the author clad in a toga. ‘‘ Osama bin Laden’s tall silhouette,’’ he announces, ‘‘ bewitched America’s bad dreams in Christendom’s third millennium like no other.’’
Perhaps there are those who will enjoy reading about news events two years after the fact. Here, though it probably was never his intention, Ellis has produced the perfect antidote to the hurtling pace of Twitter: slow news.
Even the title, The Year It All Fell Down, is never explained adequately. Ellis has produced a peculiar and frustrating book.
Aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in northern Japan