The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Robin Gibb found out that one of his ancestors had been a soldier in India, who, after winning several good conduct commendations, had ended up demoted and cashiered for drunkenness and disorderliness.  The reason for the moral fall appears to have been boredom. Other than daily drills, there were few opportunities for British military types in India to expend their masculine energies. The ennui and monotony drove many of them to drink and gambling, and many more to prostitutes.

A similar trajectory can be found in one of Billy Connolly's ancestors. A gunner with the Royal Horse Artillery, based in south India during and after the revolt of 1857, Daniel Doyle had started with commendations and good conduct. In the 1860s however he was censured sixteen times and later hospitalised - for alcoholism, dysentery, diarrhoea, and syphilis.

Again, the descent into indiscipline stemmed from lack of constructive activity. In particular, the southern garrisons Doyle was based with didn't see any action at all during 1857, no doubt to the utter frustration of the men.

It turned out that the British Army in India understood that the soldiers would need some release, and while its morality didn't exactly encourage licentiousness, it was happy enough to provide prostitutes for its men. Invariably it would be local indigent women who would service the men, and a typical garrison of a thousand men would be served by about 20 women. Indeed, these women were for the exclusive use of the garrison.

Naturally sexually transmitted disease was rampant - there were some estimates that one in three British soldiers caught the infection. Daniel Doyle had primary syphilis, which presents itself with genital sores. Connolly read out an extract from a contemporary British Medical Journal (given to him by historian Mridula Raman) describing how the military surgeons had to inspect the men.
The health inspection is differently performed in different regiments, according to the custom in the corps, or the views or convenience of the surgeon. In some regiments the men are marched in a body to the hospital, and passed into or through a room, one by one, for individual examination. This is the surest and least offensive mode of performing it; but it necessarily occupies a great deal of time, is wearisome to all parties, and often inconvenient in keeping the men long from their other duties. The more usual plan is to inspect them in their several barrack rooms, the men being drawn up in line, and called to 'attention' as the medical officer enters the room. In some cases, they stand in their ordinary fatigue dress, each man unbuttoning the front of his trousers, and parading his genitals for the inspecting surgeon; this operation generally giving rise to suppressed manifestations of mirth, shame, or indignation, according to the character and temper of individuals; but at all times, to say the least of it, humiliating and disgusting to the surgeon. Sometimes the soldiers are partially or even entirely undressed, or with the shirt on only, the front tail of which is lifted up as the surgeon passes down the line. [1]
The situation for the women was worse, because inevitably they were considered to be the cause of the infection. The Army, keen to contain its spread, would put any of the women found to carry the disease in 'lock hospitals' for examination and quarantine. The women would be locked up for up to three months, and if they were then found to be clean, they'd be brought back to the military brothels to continue their trade.

Lock Hospitals in India were created following the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864 and 1868. There is little information on the actual treatment of venereal disease; at most, the hospitals aimed to provide hygiene and cleanliness. The soldiers were absolved of any responsibility in spreading the disease. Instead, the women continued to be blamed, and fined or imprisoned if they didn't present themselves for examination or, driven by starvation or poverty, if they plied their trade without registering with the authorities. [2]


[1] Inspector-General Dartnell, British Medical Journal, April 28, 1860.
[2] Medical History of British India, National Library of Scotland.
[3] William Acton, Prostitution Considered, Routledge, 2012.
[4] Who Do You Think You Are? Billy Connolly, BBC, Series 11, Episode 9.

Oct 14, 2014

On Friendship

The boy's had a love-hate relationship with his best friend. A year or so ago, the two of them would walk around the school playground, cheek-to-cheek, pretending to be Siamese twin babies. They were inseparable. Other boys in their class noticed this. 

"It's like you're married," they said.

Then the boy started wilting under his pal's overbearing attitude. The pal was jealous of his friendships with other kids.

"He's bossy, amma," said the boy.

Towards the end of the school year, he was trying various tricks to avoid his pal. 

"Don't call him my pal," he said. "We are not pals."

He took up games sessions he knew his friend wouldn't attend. When his friend heard about them, he signed up as well. The boy was nonplussed.

"He's sticking to me all the time, amma," said the boy. "He won't let me play with anyone else."

"Why don't you tell him you will play with him and with the others as well?" said his amma.

"He pulls me away when I'm playing with the other boys," said the boy.

"So what are you going to do?" said his amma.

"I'm going to break his heart. But not just yet," said the boy.

This new school year has found him in sarcastic mood. He snaps at the pal more often than he ever did before. He is impatient with the other fellow. The pal is beginning to realise that his hold over the boy has lessened drastically.

Yesterday the boy was playing with another boy.

"Why aren't you playing with your best friend?" said the other boy.

"He's not my friend," said the boy.

"Hey, Freddie," said the other boy. "He says he's not your friend!"

The pal was indignant.

"Of course he's my friend," he said. "Look, I've written it down on my hand."

Oct 8, 2014

Gandhian Food

A few months before the outbreak of the first world war, the campaigner [Mahatma Gandhi] and his family sailed back to India to pursue his destiny. He had meetings with Gujarati merchants, indentured Indian labourers and white officials. Addresses were presented to him by Muslims and Parsis, by the Cantonese Club and the Tamil Benefit Society. He attended a dinner hosted by the Hon HA Wyndham, at which aubergine cutlets, asparagus à la vinaigrette and plum tart were served (but no wine). 
Patrick French, 'Gandhi Before India by Ramachandra Guha - review', The Guardian.

Oct 3, 2014

Pem Nem

This is a painting of the Bijapuri sultan Adil Shah dated to between 1590-1605, complete with inscription by Jahangir, the Mughal emperor, that attests to the likeness: shabihi surat Adilkhan. The painter himself is nameless, but he is considered among the finest artists from the Deccan, and it has been established that he was responsible for nearly half the illustrations in the Pem Nem manuscript, one of the loveliest (and surely the only complete) books of Sufi couplets extant from the medieval period.

Adil Shah had been forced to marry off his daughter to a son of Akbar, following the Mughal conquest of the neighbouring sultanate of Ahmadnagar, and along with the marriage train went hundreds of manuscripts, the Pem Nem among them. Expectedly, you won't find the Pem Nem in India - rather, it's in the British Library.

There are thirty-four illustrations in the Pem Nem, mostly of ink and watercolour and gold and silver, made by three different artists. These paintings had been done on pieces of paper that were then pasted onto the sheets of the manuscript. It's not entirely clear if these artworks were made at the same time as the manuscript was written.

The author of the book was Hasan Manju Khalji. Interestingly, no other books by him are known. The calligraphy is lovely and clear, but as he wrote masnavi couplets in a Deccani Urdu that contains admixtures from Marathi and local dialect, it is difficult to understand today. The text is a narrative poem in rhyme, describing the Sufi's love of and quest for God.

There is frequent wordplay - shah jal bal bal pal tal mal - monosyllabic words that don't make sense. While these interjections remain obscure, the story is well-understood. A prince named Shah Ji seeks a beloved named Mah Ji; the two had fallen in love with each other when a tortoise shows each of them the other's portrait. It then appears that Mah Ji takes on a yogini's guise to seek her lover, while Shah Ji travels around looking for her. He ends up across the oceans on an island called Sangaldip, which, coincidentally, is ruled by his uncle. He finds Mah Ji as well, but rejects her because for him the real Mah Ji is the image in the portrait, while she is only a reflection. He then takes off to seek the truth. So Mah Ji goes through a period of enduring the agony of love (here the masnavi is combined with the Indian baramasa, songs describing a year of love and pain).

Neither the mysterious tortoise nor the trip across the ocean is illustrated, but Shah Ji's arrival and Mah Ji's baramasa are. There are symbols too - Mah Ji's image appears on Shah Ji's chest, and Mah Ji herself is shown burning up in her love despite an attendant dousing the fires of her passion with water. According to [1], such visual metaphors of longing are exceptional and do not often occur in Indian art.

Eventually Shah Ji returns, the couple get married, and the most lavish illustrations in the book depict the nuptial celebrations.

The overwhelming number of female figures in the illustrations seem to imply that the audience for the book was mainly female as well. The use of the dialect and Deccani Urdu may reinforce this viewpoint as that may have been the vernacular in the Sultan's harem. On the other hand, there was a general emphasis of the feminine in Deccani culture at the time. It is therefore not entirely clear for whom the book was meant.


1. Deborah Hutton, "The Pem Nem: A Sixteenth Century Illustrated Romance from Bijapur" in Sultans of the South: Arts of India's Deccan Courts, 1323-1687, (ed.) Navina Najat Haidar, Marika Sardar.

Sep 27, 2014

A Bit of Hindi

When I was in school, Hindi was my Achilles heel - I could barely make head or tail of it, and the insistence on the Sanskritised variety confused me even further. We covered quite a bit of poetry those days, poetry that was occasionally melodic, occasionally ancient, and occasionally a bit moral. Here's one that suddenly came back to me recently, and the only reason it came back to me (because, to be sure, I've put all matters of Hindi education to a dark and undusted corner of my mind) is that Dusted Off mentioned it during her coverage of little-known ruins in Delhi.

बुरा जो देखन मैं चला
बुरा ना मिलिया कोय
जो दिल खोजा आपना
मुझसा बुरा ना कोय

By Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan (1556-1626), general and poet, a Navratan of Akbar.

"When I set out to look for evil, I found no-one wicked. When I searched my own heart, I found there was none as evil as I."

Sep 23, 2014

The Kingdom

Just the other day, two million residents of Scotland decided to stick with the union. For a bit there it appeared that secession was on the cards. It was a briefly thrilling moment - how many people can say they've lived through that? Independence is a stirring word. But the dissolution of centuries of union felt like a manifest tragedy. As a more-or-less unbiased bystander, I had mixed feelings about the referendum.

The idealogical contradictions on both sides were apparent to me, as I'm sure they were to many others. On the conservative side, for the people who believe in nationalism and pride in one's country, in self-rule and distance from that other union, the EU, the idea of Scotland removing itself from the UK was horrifying. How dare they, went the cry. For the leftists who clamoured for Scottish independence it was no less a contradiction: for them nationalism is anathema and the universal brotherhood of peoples is a more unifying force than political division, and yet they wanted liberal Scotland to overthrow the 'establishment' politics of Westminster. In the end, neither of them have received quite what they wanted - no independence but a further federalism of the UK, and who knows how many more fissiparous tendencies engendered.

There's talk now of London and the other big cities getting more control of revenues and spending. The Cornish would no doubt love a bit of a parliament of their own. The Welsh, for so long a forgotten appendage to the English, perhaps would want to govern themselves. As for the English - do they want yet another burdensome government and bureaucracy on which to spend their taxes?

The journalist Mark Grigorian used the Scottish referendum as a touchpoint of civility and political sophistication. He pointed out that the ruling government did not try to use the media to stamp out secessionary talk, or send the police to suppress the dissidents, or snatch the ballot, or indeed indulge in any of the actions that scared governments across the rest of the world indulge in when faced with a popular uprising. He pondered how the secessionary movement in Nagorno-Karabakh might have played out had the Azerbaijani and Armenian nations stuck to a civilised modus operandi. But while for the rest of the world the Scottish referendum may appear as a high mark in politics, for those who went through it, the psychological wounds would perhaps take longer to heal.

Sep 20, 2014


The boy has been building up his vocabulary. The other day he came up with the following ditty, which he kept repeating throughout dinner.

It's good to feed your metabolism
And pray you don't get an embolism

Sep 17, 2014

Dreck and Not-Dreck

One needs a break from obsession once in a while, and I thought I might read a bit of sci-fi to clear my mind of the seriousness of Arabic and other translated fiction. My attention was grabbed by the pulpy cover of Sarah A. Hoyt's Darkship Thieves, and I picked it up, expecting some golden-age-of-science-fiction sort of space opera. It started fairly promisingly - a young woman finds herself attacked by her father's guards. She escapes in a pod and from then on, it's all downhill - she encounters a total he-man, the kind who is surly and has a miserable past and is incredibly fascinating and whom she intensely dislikes at first, and - well, you get the drift. The book rapidly becomes a pulpy Mills-and-Boon-set-in-space. Athena Hera Sinistra could have been a proper female superhero - she is blazingly fast, a superb mechanic, she will not be patronised, she has a sense of justice. But she believes all men are genetically predisposed to pontificate (the expression 'mansplain' was unavailable in 2006?) and, anyway, were there a Bechdel test for books, this one would spectacularly fail it - she more or less only talks to men, and the few times she has a chat with a woman, it's about her he-man. As soon as I decently could, I put this dreck aside and picked up another book.

This one, Anna Kavan's Ice, has restored my faith in fiction. In a broken future, the world is slowly being consumed by ice, and the narrator searches obsessively for a broken woman he once loved and hoped to marry. The viewpoint constantly shifts in time; there are hallucinative episodes that superimpose on reality; the characters have no names, only descriptions; the weight of the cold engulfing the world produces an uneasy discontent in the mind of the reader; it is a harsh, tough book. Kavan herself was a troubled soul, a depressive and a drug addict, and one may speculate that the ice of the novel stands either for the tensions of the cold war (the book came out in 1967) or heroin. In this novel, however, she managed to momentarily bind her demons and squeeze out their essence into a bleak beauty.

Sep 14, 2014

Exam Notes

The boy cleared his first grade flute exam. The examiner wrote down some notes which we received the other day. 
This was a sprightly account with good articulation, fine rhythm and a nice tonal projection. More tonal refinement in the upper range would have heightened the mood further... This was a lively, spirited rendition. What was lacking in rhythmical clarity and tonal warmth you compensated for by an obvious sense of musical involvement... There was a nice rocking momentum here. A smoother approach with more centred intonation at ends of phrases was required, but the overall mood was conveyed nonetheless.
Sounds awfully technical. I had no idea how complex the testing procedure was...

Sep 9, 2014

Cloudy in Cornwall

Recently the wife and I spent a long weekend in Cornwall to celebrate our fourteenth wedding anniversary. Imagine our surprise when one of the staff in the hotel's restaurant turned out to be a Malayali girl. Born in Vienna to parents from Kottayam, she was spending the summer waitressing on an internship for her high school diploma in tourism. I didn't know there were any Malayalis in Vienna, said the wife. No, no, said the girl. There are lots.

She told us she spoke Malayalam reasonably well, albeit mixed up with German, in which language she was most fluent. She did not say 'albeit.' She pronounced the word Malayalam with a rather exaggerated roll of the Ls. Her English was decent, even if with a noticeable accent. In her school, she said, English was obligatory, while French and Spanish were the other two languages she learned. Wowza, we said, five languages! She smiled modestly. Her Spanish was not good, she confessed.

We asked her how she spent her time off work. There was little in that Cornish village to excite a teenager. She said she would go for hikes. We said we went on hikes. She said she took boat trips to the local big town. We also took boats, we said, but had to admit we hadn't been to that particular town. She said she was looking forward to finishing her stint so she could visit London. We live in London, we said.


Remarkably, we had decent weather for three out of the four days we stayed. Long walks along the river brought us to medieval churches, each prettier than a picture. There were stately homes belonging to sundry ancient families. There were beaches. We were told we might see dolphins or basking sharks in the tidal estuary. We didn't. We trudged up headlands of peninsulas and down emblazoned paths. We also had some fine ice cream.

The food was mighty fine, I'm glad to report. Even the vegetarian couldn't complain. I had every variety of fish. Brill. Sole. Bass. Cod. Herring. I might even have had a pilchard or two. A crab gave up its existence to feed me. I salute you, crab, even if I'm no fan of crustaceans.


At one steep descent to a beach there was a sign saying that winter storms had eroded the path, which was no longer safe to use. A boy and a girl jumped over a gate and sped down to the beach. Their father was curiously unbothered. When I pointed out the sign, he said in posh tones, Ah, that notice is just a suggestion. 


A little fellow, not more than three years old, came scarpering out and said to me, do you want to see something? He set off at high speed down a path and disappeared into the distance. I went after him and saw him climbing up onto a bench at a look-out. There was a gap between the bench and the roof of the look-out. He put one leg into it. Had he gone through it, he would have fallen a few hundred feet onto the rocks below. I would not have reached him in time. He changed his mind and came back down.

I'm still shaken, a week later.


The boy, staying back in London with his grandparents, said he missed us dreadfully, and called us twice a day. He asked if he could join us on our next trip to Cornwall, and insisted that we stay in the same hotel, so he could also enjoy the ice cream, the chatter with the Malayali girl, the hikes, and the dolphins. He was not pleased to be left behind, he said, when his parents were having fun by themselves. We are a family, he said, and should enjoy ourselves together.


On our way back to London our train developed a fault with its brakes. So in addition to the inexpressible tedium of any return journey was added a wholly frustrating half an hour delay. To boot, I ran out of books to read. So I spent some time typing out this post on our decrepit iPad. It is no fun typing on an iPad, I can tell you that much.

Sep 3, 2014

Strangest Man's Food

It was only when he was in his 80s that Paul Dirac's digestive ailment was finally diagnosed. Eating, for him, was a chore and a burden. 
Dirac always felt out of place at fancy college dinners. Rich food, vintage wine, antiquated formalities, florid speeches, the fetid smoke of after-dinner cigars - all were anathema to him. So he was probably not looking forward to the evening of Wednesday, 9 November 1927, when he was to be one of the toasts of a dinner to celebrate the election of three new fellows to St John's College. He was now certifiably a 'first-rate man', with a permanent seat at the college's high table. [...] Dirac celebrated his election to the fellowship in the traditional way, by consuming an eight course meal that included oysters, a consommé, cream of chicken soup, sole, veal escalope and spinach, pheasant with five vegetables and side salad, and three desserts. For him, the meal was not so much a celebration as a penance.

Aug 25, 2014

Reading Arabic

Owing to Shoe Lane library, I've suddenly increased my knowledge of Arabic fiction by leaps and bounds. I'd go so far as to say a quantum jump, except of course a quantum is a fairly small packet of energy, and I have expended a few centillion quanta at least. And still the well doth not dry! There are more books in the pipeline, and will help me in effort to read outside of the Eurocentric translation world that kept me occupied for the most of last year.

The plethora is all down to Arabia Books, an imprint which has been instrumental in translating Arabic fiction for six years. It has been incredibly generous as well - on its fifth anniversary last year, it gave away a complete set of its books to every library that signed up to the offer - for free! No wonder Shoe Lane library is a treasure-trove!

The coverage of the books is varied - not just in the countries but also in styles and genres. I've gone through books from Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt (of course), Lebanon, Syria, Iraq. I've seen nothing as yet from Yemen or Saudi or Oman or Kuwait or the UAE, but while I can expect some intellectual development in Yemen and Oman, not so from the others mentioned, stultifyingly rich and stupendously prodigal.

The variety in styles and approaches is eye-opening, too. All the countries above have suffered or continue to suffer under repression - political, social, sexual. You'd expect to find, therefore, novels of protest, and you do, but you also find remarkable works of commentary and character and inventiveness. There are memoirs, epic histories, small and taut tales of suffocation and sexual liberation. There are feisty women and brave girls as often as there are subtle men and layabout boys.

I guess one of the questions of anyone approaching Arabic fiction is - is there really an Arabic fiction? After all, there is so much variation in the language across the Arab world that for all intents and purposes Maghrebi Arabic is quite distinct from, say, Lebanese. I learn that much of the writing is in classical Arabic, which owing to the Qu'ran, is understood all across the region. No surprise then that authors choose to write in the high style, rather than in the vernacular, as that opens up their readership. However, Egyptian and Lebanese Arabic is fairly well-understood, I think, because of the soft power wielded by these countries - their pop and film industry is extremely popular. But it's not entirely clear to me which of the books I've read were originally written in the local Arabic.

Over a few posts, I'll try to summarise some of the highlights of my months of reading Arabic literature. For the impatient among you, I'd recommend a visit to the blog Arabic Literature (in English), which contains way way more coverage and suggestions for reading and interviews than I could ever manage.

Aug 21, 2014

Hrabal Pub Crawl

The Circle Line Pub Crawl is one of the most famous antics in the binge-drinking business. You have a pint of beer, choose a station on London Underground's Circle Line, choose a direction in which to take the train, get off at the next station, find a pub, have a pint, get back on the Circle Line, repeat - till all 27 stations are complete and 28 pints have been downed. 

The Circle Line, of course, is a misnomer these days. A little while ago, instead of the circular loop it had been running on for decades, it became a yo-yo. Still, the pub crawl remains an important rite of passage for Antipodeans with more bravado than sense. I'm looking at you, Andy.

Now, were you to find yourself in Prague - another great city for beer - you can try to repeat  Haňťa's drinking escapade. Bohumil Hrabal's hero from Too Loud A Solitude starts the Grand Slalom, a course he and his friend had attempted many times before but successfully only once.
It was so long ago I had forgotten most of the course, so my friend, whose name I had also forgotten, launched into an impassioned description of it to win me over: we'd start off at the Vlachovska and move on to the Little Horn, then down to Paradise Lost and then to Myler's and the Coat of Arms, and at each place we'd order only a large beer, because we had to have time to make it to Jarolímek and Ládá's and round the bend to the Charles IV and, after a detour down to the World Cafeteria, we'd go over to Hausmann's and the Brewery, and then across the tracks to the Good King Wenceslas and on to Pudil's or Krofta's, and finally Douda's or the Mercury before coming into the home stretch at the Palmovka or Scholler's Cafeteria, and if it wasn't too late, we'd cross the finish line at either Horký's or the Town of Rokycany. Running through the course, he clung to me drunkenly, but I finally shook him off and left Čížek's, crossing the luxuriant periwinkle patches of Charles Square, where the sun worshipers had moved from benches that were now in the shade to benches that were now in the setting sun. On my way back to the Black Brewery I had a glass of rum and then a beer and then another rum. Not until we are totally crushed do we show what we are made of.
Vlachovka restaurant, pub, winery

So after weeks of abstention, I dropped by Dark Sugars, a mighty fine chocolatier on Brick Lane. The genial man behind the counter made me a quick hot chocolate and topped it off with a palmful of slivers of dark and brown chocolate. While I stood there salivating, a woman walked in and said she wanted to get a selection of salty caramel chocs.

'Which box shall I put them in?' she said.

'Whichever you like, dear,' said the genial man.'You spend your life trying to convince men they needn't tell you what to do. So don't let me tell you what to do.'

Giggles all around.


I grabbed a salmon beigel and a salami beigel from the Beigel shop. £2.40 for a fine meal.


The reason I went to Brick Lane was not to go to Brick Lane - because, really, Brick Lane is a bit of a sham show, especially its southern end - but rather because I was at the Calvert 22, a gallery of Russian and Eastern European works. This is in Shoreditch, and on my way back to the office, I sauntered down Brick Lane. Calvert 22 were hosting an exhibition of photographs (titled Close and Far) by Prokudin-Gorsky along with works by a bunch of modern photographers. I took a cursory look at the modern works, but spent more time admiring Prokudin-Gorsky.

What a chap. He spent years on the Czar's commission, travelling back and forth and up and down the mighty empire, snapping away at people and buildings and landscapes. Many of these areas haven't been photographed since, and many of the monuments were destroyed in subsequent wars and Communist depredations. He used a colour methodology of his own making, and produced vibrant polychrome pictures that look like they might have been taken yesterday.

The exhibition ends today, August 17, so I dare say most of you will miss it.

Aug 13, 2014


Despite my stated intentions, I never did progress on my profiles of top-class women mathematicians ahead of the latest Fields Medals. The announcement has come and Maryam Mirzakhani has become the first woman to win this accolade.

As an 8-year-old, Maryam Mirzakhani used to tell herself stories about the exploits of a remarkable girl. Every night at bedtime, her heroine would become mayor, travel the world or fulfill some other grand destiny. 1

Mirzakhani as a child (via Quanta magazine)

In 2010, I'd written that desis and women had another four years to go for their next pop at the award. It turns out Manjul Bhargava has also won, and although he's Canadian/American, I'm sure desis will be quite pleased to claim him as one of our own.


1. A tenacious explorer of abstract surfaces, by Erica Klarreich, Quanta Magazine, August 12, 2014.

Aug 9, 2014

nazi crime fiction

Crime fiction, paradoxically, flourished under the nazis. A recent anthology (in French) by Vincent Platini allows us to rediscover these novels today. Le Figaro interviewed him recently, and this is a rather loose translation.

Vincent Platini is a researcher and lecturer at the Freie Universität de Berlin,. He analyzes the reasons that led the detective genre to flourish in the Third Reich. To be sure, the regime was not an undifferentiated bloc: while it maintained a totalitarian grip on cultural life evoking George Orwell's 1984, it also supported a mass culture based on frivolous and stupefying entertainment, reminiscent of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Platini says that only a few works would have been overt propaganda. Though the nazis were hostile to kitsch culture, the likes of Goebbels realised that forcing political issues onto the public would quickly jade them. They would proceed gradually. However, this supposedly apolitical culture colluded in maintaining nazi power as it held out the promise of a better life. When the war began, mass culture was used for its soothing effect: a novel such as Annex 27, published in 1944, described a prosperous Germany distant from the impending catastrophe. It reflected nazi ideology by denying the death throes of the regime.

Platini uncovers the development of consumerism and Americanism in nazi Germany, and recalls the notable advertisements for Coca-Cola and the craze for jazz. How could the censor tolerate gangster novels and films such as were set in Chicago? Platini points out that the Reich was not viscerally anti-American; indeed, the regime had a fascination for America and the public had a taste for foreign products. Hollywood set the example for German cinema, and crime fiction took on the English style. Admittedly, this leniency only lasted for a period. As censorship became more severe, the regime tried to promote 'good' German crime fiction. This was not an overt success. England and the US remained the trendsetters and German crime writers placed their novels in American settings but with a German footprint. This displacement became liberating: it was easy to pretend that major crimes no longer existed within the Third Reich; it also permitted a veiled criticism of the regime. Here, crime fiction became escapism in the true sense.

There is a curious absence of racial obsession and anti-semitic fury in the anthology. Platini explains that this is only a relative absence. Publications connected with the nazi party had their own share of caricatures and stereotypes. For instance, in the film Münchhausen, these were implicitly Jews. However, despite the importance of racist discourse of the time, there were very few Jews in crime fiction. Anti-semitism was not a theme particularly appreciated by the public, which - amidst the persecution - preferred to turn a blind eye to it. This split consciousness was reflected in the mass culture. On the other hand, and this was more chilling, a population was annihilated through its pretend exclusion. It would have been difficult to constantly stage scenes of Jewish denigration. Hiding the repression from the public eye allowed it to be exercised without restraint. On the other hand, some Jewish authors managed to re-emerge in the imagination: Zwick, for example, wrote a novel whose narrator, exiled in the US, returns to Germany to kill the one who caused the loss of his family. What a beautiful literary revenge!

Platini mentions 'treasures buried beneath the corpse'. Was there any artistic merit to contraband literature produced in nazi Germany? Indeed, he avers, there was more merit to this than the 'legitimate' culture, if art, among other things, is a challenge to the established discourse. This scorned literature acquired value precisely it was overlooked by the censors. The art that was recognised by the nazis did not perform its critical function. But an author such as Kuckhoff - of the highest intellectual training - deliberately turned towards the detective genre because it gave him a subversive opportunity that was subtle enough to be printed in the largest magazine of the time. Even a work of resistance such as The Open Letter reveals itself a gem of rhetoric, overturning the vocabulary of propaganda. But it remains the reader's responsibility to have a critical sensibility.

Krimi, une anthologie du récit policier sous le Troisième reich», selected, edited and translated by Vincent Platini, Anacharsis, 444 p., 23 €

Aug 3, 2014


Although she did not drink martinis, she graciously prepared a double for me every evening before dinner. I introduced her to Tanqueray gin and Noilly Pratt vermouth, the ingredients for a perfect martini. Sensitive husband that I was, I courteously congratulated her every day on a fine martini, cautiously suggesting that it might be a touch drier. Day after day, I congratulated her, suggesting that it might be a touch drier still. One day I sipped the martini and bathed her in kisses: “Betsey, you’re wonderful, it’s perfect.” She did not take well to my gushing. Betsey almost never raised her voice, but raise it she did: “I knew it! I knew it! Of course I’m wonderful! Of course it’s perfect! You’re drinking straight gin.”

(Eugene D. Genovese, about his wife Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, in Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage)

Jul 30, 2014

Boyish Jingoism

After England's recent and abject collapse at Lord's, I haven't felt like telling the boy that his wish has come true. For some reason, he is vehemently anti-English these days. I suspect it's because of his half-Scot pal, with whom he had a conversation as follows:

Pal: I wish Scotland would vote for independence in autumn. I don't like England.

Boy: Did you know that England ruled over India for centuries?

Pal: I can't believe they managed to rule anyone at all.

Boy: England's out of the World Cup.

Pal: Yes-s-s-s!

Boy: India's playing England at cricket.

Pal: I hope England loses.

Boy: So do I.

Wife: But, Johnny, your dad's English.

Pal: Oh yeah...

Jul 25, 2014

Apák könyve

The Guardian thought it was full of silly ideas, a veritable gamut of Bible-like begats. The New York Times thought it was graceful and alluring. The Guardian thought its women characters were only there as incubators and to bring disaster upon the men. The New York Times thought it was a virtuoso portrayal of idiosyncratic characters. When I read Miklós Vámos' The Book Of Fathers, I thought it was alternately moving and humorous, steadily descending into the morass of Hungarian history of the past three hundred years.

Each chapter had a pastoral overture, which baffled me. How did it pertain to the story that ensued? Vámos revealed in an afterword that he intended the overture to illustrate the zodiac under which the chapter's main character was born. Indeed (and I didn't notice this), each of the twelve characters in the book was born under a different star sign. 

These twelve characters are linear descendants, father-to-son, and they, Forrest Gump-like, pop up inadvertently or advertently, at major events in Magyar history. So far, so ordinary. Vámos then pointed out that the Hungarian language was an overwhelmingly rural, unsophisticated tongue until a big cultural explosion in the late 18th century led to huge innovations in its vocabulary and its establishment as a literary vehicle to rival German and French in the Austro-Hungarian empire. 

Vámos therefore wrote the earlier chapters, which dealt with his characters in 17th and 18th centuries, in an archaic form, using only the extant vocabulary of the time, and gradually modernised his text as it moved to the 1990s. He admitted that it would be difficult to render this evolution in an Indo-European language, but that he hoped the reader would notice the language steadily change.

Well, this reader didn't notice it. Damn, I wish I could read Magyar, if only for this one linguistic treat.

Detlef Bernd Blettenberg (October 13, 1949, Wirges - ) is a German writer and reporter.

Blettenberg was born an only child in a working class family, growing up in Elgendorf, a small village community. In 1966, he moved to Leverkusen where he undertook an apprenticeship as a draughtsman in mechanical engineering. He then did his military service, and after attending the Naval Signal School at Flensburg- Mürwig he went to sea as a radio operator.

In 1972, he joined an international development agency where he would spend the next two decades. He was a development worker in Ecuador between 1972-76 where he helped coordinate vocational training at the Ministry of Education in Quito. Ecuador was the setting of his novels Weint nicht um mich in Quito and Agaven sterben einsam.

Between 1982-86, Blettenberg was a commissioner in the German Development Service in Thailand; 1992-94 in Nicaragua; 2003-2004 in Ghana. His novels Siamesische Hunde and Farang were set in Thailand, while Blauer Rum and Null Uhr Managua were set in Nicaragua, and Murnaus Vermächtnis in Ghana.

Between these missions abroad, he worked as a consultant for vocational training and trade promotion in Bonn and later in Berlin. These roles led him regularly to Africa, Latin America, Asia and Arabia. In addition, he has published technical papers for professional training, for business promotion and technology transfer. Berlin is the stage for several of his novels, especially in Barbachs Bilder and Berlin Fidschitown. Impressions from his numerous foreign trips are reflected in the novels Harte Schnitte and Land der guten Hoffnung.

Blettenberg is married to the actress Andrea Heuer.


Blettenberg is a four-time winner of the Deutscher Krimi Preis: Farang (1989), Blauer Rum (1995), Berlin Fidschitown (2004), and Murnaus Vermächtnis (2011).


Check out this appraisal of Blettenberg's books: "Being involved heightens the feelings" : Political detective novels on the edge by DB Blettenberg by Elfriede Müller (translated by Sue Neale).


Again, no English translation appears to have come out. I did find a Romanian title.