By Bar­bara Demick


changes and end­less in­ter­fer­ence. In a re­mark­ably short pe­riod, Ngaba was trans­formed from a feu­dal so­ci­ety presided over by a royal fam­ily, to a com­mu­nist ex­per­i­ment of forced col­lec­tivi­sa­tion, and then out the other side to the present day land of ten­sion and fre­quent un­rest.

As with Noth­ing to Envy, Demick’s skill lies in her care­ful choice of char­ac­ters and the way she nar­rates their sto­ries across many years, re­veal­ing per­son­al­i­ties, flaws, hopes and dreams and in do­ing so mak­ing a po­lit­i­cal story deeply per­sonal.

Here are young monks who just want to study and play bas­ket­ball, girls bizarrely caught up in the wor­ship of Mao, and old women with pic­tures of the Dalai Llama hung loosely on their walls (Chi­nese at­ti­tudes to such young love in pris­tine Ice­landic fjords, watch­ing wildlife undis­turbed by largescale in­dus­try and mar­vel­ling at the first of NASA’s space flares launched in the Arc­tic Cir­cle.

Mag­na­son ar­gues that the fail­ure to com­pre­hend the cli­mate cri­sis can be at­trib­uted to our re­la­tion­ship with time. While the past is hon­oured for its sculpt­ing in­flu­ence over the present, the fu­ture is more ob­scure. ‘Peo­ple live in­side their own re­al­i­ties, locked in the pre­vail­ing lan­guage and power sys­tems of their con­tem­po­rary move­ment,’ he ar­gues. His re­flec­tions on his grand­par­ents’ glory days un­buckle us from the re­lent­less pace of the mod­ern day. At the same time, he shows us how quickly the seem­ingly dis­tant decades and cen­turies of cli­mate mod­els can un­fold. Many of Mag­na­son’s beloved pic­tures changes and they of­ten have to be re­moved at speed).

All are touched by the vi­o­lence and fear of Chi­nese oc­cu­pa­tion (Ngaba is known as a hotspot of dis­sent and is there­fore heav­ily guarded by sol­diers), though a very hu­man sense of re­silience per­sists. In fact what is most re­mark­able is that the peo­ple of Ngaba, and Ti­bet in gen­eral, keep per­sist­ing; even will­ing to die for the cause. Demick de­scribes the shock­ing wave of self im­mo­la­tions, which be­gan in 2009 when the first Bud­dhist monk from the re­gion doused him­self in gaso­line. At the time of writ­ing, 156 Ti­betans have self-im­mo­lated, a third from Ngaba and its en­vi­rons – a truly re­mark­able place, and a re­mark­able peo­ple.

Ice­landic glaciers, once her­alded as eter­nal forces in Nordic mythol­ogy, have al­ready lost glacial sta­tus due to ac­cel­er­ated melt­ing.

Mag­na­son ex­plores a dis­con­nect unique to our present gen­er­a­tion, when na­ture no longer ex­ists as an im­mutable force of its own gov­er­nance. His so­lu­tion is to adopt a more ro­man­tic rev­er­ence for na­ture’s beauty and power. De­ci­sions on en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion should not be based on eco­nomic im­per­a­tives, but in­stead on our el­e­men­tal affini­ties with the nat­u­ral world.

For all the lofti­ness of the sub­ject, the book is writ­ten with won­der, care and the in­tu­ition of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. With each mem­ory re­counted, Mag­na­son brings us into a world more aware of the unerring ebb and flow of time.

It is al­ways a treat to come across a fel­low Fran­cophile, par­tic­u­larly one as en­gag­ing, in­tel­li­gent and witty as Viv Groskop – a dis­tin­guished Bri­tish writer, jour­nal­ist and come­di­enne. Her lat­est book is a heart-felt and beau­ti­fully writ­ten love let­ter to France and to French lit­er­a­ture in which Groskop in­tro­duces the reader to her favourite twelve French writ­ers – from Fran­coise Sa­gan to Al­bert Ca­mus, via Hugo, Flaubert, Mau­pas­sant and oth­ers. The ori­gins of Groskop’s ‘Fran­co­ma­nia’ go back to ado­les­cence when she vis­ited France as an ex­change stu­dent. It was then that she first ar­rived at a life-chang­ing con­clu­sion: ‘If you want to be happy, it’s best to be French.’ A flu­ent French speaker (and a vo­ra­cious reader of French lit­er­a­ture) she was quick to con­tract that lu­cra­tively in­fec­tious French malaise called Joi de vivre and has so far been bril­liant at spread­ing it among her read­ers.

In­spired to start learning French by Jac­ques Demis’ iconic mu­si­cal ‘The Um­brel­las of Cher­bourg’ as a teenager in the 1960s USSR, I am in full agree­ment with Groskop when she as­serts that ‘there is a swag­ger to French think­ing that is not shared by other cul­tures’.

Along­side the count­less witty one-lin­ers – al­ways pre­cise, punchy and wor­thy of a stand-up com­edy gig – are per­sonal, yet al­ways spot-on, analy­ses of Groskop’s favourite French clas­sics. I love the way she jok­ingly sums up Bel Ami, the best-known novel of Guy de Mau­pas­sant, as: ‘the big­ger the mous­tache, the greater the fall’, and Fran­coise Sa­gan’s Bon­jour Tristesse as: ‘In­ter­fer­ing in your father’s love life can have dire con­se­quences’.

Groskop’s ir­re­press­ible wit aside, her per­cep­tion of France is also pro­foundly ro­man­tic, rem­i­nis­cent of that of the Rus­sian-born writer An­drei Makine. In his Prix de Gon­court-win­ning novel Le Tes­ta­ment Fran­cais, he refers to France – both ge­o­graph­i­cally and emo­tion­ally – as the mys­te­ri­ous and re­mote ‘Atlantis’, where ‘pres­i­dents die in the arms of their mis­tresses’, the land whose melo­di­ous lan­guage ‘throbbed within us, like a mag­i­cal graft im­planted in our hearts’.

All writ­ers know that books work best when writ­ten about some­thing the au­thor loves. Viv Groskop’s lat­est work is a good ex­am­ple of that.

To sum it all up in French: Au revoir, tristesse! Vive la lit­er­a­ture!

VI­TALI VITALIEV by Ami­tav Ghosh (2016)

A provoca­tive book about cli­mate change, ex­plor­ing why we are so in­ca­pable of pro­cess­ing what is hap­pen­ing be­fore our eyes.

Wor­ship­pers spin prayer wheels at La­bang Monastery, Ti­bet

The Story of Mod­ern Ti­bet Through the Peo­ple of One Town • Granta Books

Cafe de Flore in Paris, the hang­out of many a fa­mous au­thor

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