THE ASHES OF BURN­ING BOOKS COV­ERED THE CITY

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Maria Tu­markin Nick Bryant

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

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