Alexander Solzhenitsyn

By D. M. Thomas

Biography, according to English novelist D. M. Thomas, is an “impossible art.” I agree.

Of course, that has not stopped anyone from trying.

Literary biographies, overlong and unnecessary, have become the academic pulp of the book world. Given the polluted environment, Thomas deserves some praise for this latest tome. His arrangement of material is skilful, his observations are generally astute, and his decision to focus on Solzhenitsyn’s world rather than his work is a wise one. (How many people actually finished The Gulag Archipelago? Be honest.)

Unfortunately, all of the sins of the modern biography are here as well, beginning with the hefty weight. Anyone who ever met Solzhenitsyn gets an honorable mention. And the trivia! Is it really true that Solzhenitsyn’s aunt was a neighbour of Yuri Andropov’s mother? Now I know.

The novelist’s style, usually sharp, can’t always handle this critical mass. Ellipsis dots, especially at the end of a paragraph, are used far too often – hinting at a rush job or lack of proof-reading. And what are we to make of filler like this: “If Sanya’s sense of truth was like a laser beam, Natasha’s was like moonlight on a stormy night.” If Thomas had been this uninspired while writing The White Hotel he might have won the Booker Prize.

Finally, there is the matter of Solzhenitsyn himself. Despite all of the persecution he has endured, “Sanya” is not a very sympathetic figure. Thomas’s portrait, though admiring, also describes him as being arrogant, self-centered, and (reaching for Freud) “anal.” The most severe criticism, however, is saved for the great man’s appalling treatment of his first wife, Natalya Reshetovskaya. It is hard not to see her as the real hero of the book.

Like most unauthorized biographies, A Century In His Life is both compromised and controversial. The first blow came when Solzhenitsyn refused to be interviewed. Later, he attempted to have the book suppressed, apparently because Thomas had interviewed his first wife and planned to use pictures she had given him. This, in turn, led Thomas and his editors to charge the Voice of Freedom with censorship.

Whatever is behind all of this, the loss of Solzhenitsyn’s input is real. There are two sides to every story and, as Thomas admits, we do not have Sanya’s version of what happened. What we have is Natalya’s story, “and she was not above putting a favourable gloss on her own behaviour.”

Thomas believes that when history has done with the political debate over Solzhenitsyn, he will continue to be remembered for his art. If the ’90s are any indication, he still has a long way to go. Upon his return from exile, “Russia’s conscience” quickly became the Old Bore – his politics irrelevant and out of touch, and his television talk show cancelled when it was discovered that people were more interested in pop videos, soap operas, and porn than harangues from a cranky Old Believer.

But what draws Thomas to his subject is the fact that, for a time, Solzhenitsyn wrote within a culture that still saw writing as important. He was a private man with a truly public voice. “In terms of the effect he has had on history,” one observer remarks, “Solzhenitsyn is the dominant writer of this century.” His writing put the lie to Auden’s famous line: It made things happen.

Even though Solzhenitsyn is still alive, the tone of elegy that fills the final chapter is entirely correct. Writing is not that important today, and never will be again.

Review first published March 21, 1998. The White Hotel, by the way, is a good book.


Albert Camus

By Olivier Todd

“The people who create,” by which Albert Camus, writing in 1940, meant people like himself, “are almost always men of action.”

The comment goes a long way to describe the short but busy life of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers. Killed in a car accident in 1960, Camus had risen from desperately poor roots as a war orphan in French Algeria, through working as a journalist for Resistance newspapers during the Occupation, to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957.

It was a writer’s life to be sure, but also the life of a man of action. This new biography – fast-paced and crowded with famous names – is testimony to the richness of its subject.

If it is surprisingly uncritical (on both the personal and the literary level), that, too, seems to flow naturally from an examination of a man of “endearing human warmth and goodness” whose work successfully combined metaphysical depth with popular appeal.

Camus often protested that he was not a philosopher, but he was an heir of the Enlightenment, which made him both a humanist and a revolutionary. Central to most of his work is a spirit of revolt against repressive systems (the Church, the totalitarian state) that he saw as hateful and absurd. That revolutionary spirit is sadly lacking today, but for Camus being an outsider still meant something.

Which is perhaps one reason why he has never gone out of style. Indeed, books like L’Etranger and La Peste have only gained in relevance over the years. In a recent French survey Camus was considered the 20th century author who interested readers the most. Now, thanks to Olivier Todd, they have a chance to learn something more about the man.

Picky readers will have no trouble finding things to complain about. First of all, this is not only a translation (by Benjamin Ivry), but an abridgement. The translator’s note informs us that “some material not of sufficient interest to the American general reader has been omitted to improve the narrative flow.” Unfortunately, the narrative does not flow. In addition, scholarly types will be disappointed to find that the notes have been left out and the index fails to be comprehensive. For example, one thing I found interesting is that Camus despised Celine’s Mort a Credit, but neither Celine’s name nor the name of his book has a reference.

But while these are annoying points they do not detract greatly from the whole. Overall, I was impressed with the work Todd has done. He respects his subject, has obviously done a great deal of research, and mixes opinion well with objectivity. He also has a rare sense of fun. Describing Camus’s reputation as a ladies man, for example, Todd refers to how he treated women “the way a bombardier pilot treats a target site: he would strike and, mission accomplished, he would get away quickly.”

Camus’s lungs were in such poor condition there was never any question of his living to be an old man. The last 10 years of his life were particularly difficult as his health worsened, his marriage broke down, and he became the whipping boy for the French left wing over his stand on the Algerian crisis. It also seems clear that his finest work was behind him.

And yet his death at the age of 46 was far too young.

Review first published December 27, 1997.

The Adversary

By Emmanuel Carrère

On the morning of Monday, January 11, 1993, the upscale neighbourhood of Prévessin awoke to a tragedy. A fire had destroyed the home of the Romand family, killing Florence Romand and her two small children. The only member of the household to survive was Jean-Claude Romand, who was rescued from the blaze and quickly taken to hospital.

It would hardly be an exaggeration to call Jean-Claude a pillar of his community. In his day job he was a researcher for the World Health Organization in Geneva. As a family man with two young children he took an active interest in the operation of the local school board. He associated with some of the biggest names in the French medical establishment and had a reputation among both family and friends as an expert financial manager.

Soon after the fire, however, the story of Romand’s life began to unwind. It was discovered that Florence and the children had not died in the fire, but had been murdered, along with both of Jean-Claude’s parents. Jean-Claude Romand did not have a medical degree, was not a doctor, and had never worked for the World Health Organization. His upper-class lifestyle had been maintained by spending all of the money he had been given to invest. Everything about Romand’s life had been a lie – a fiction he managed to maintain for an incredible eighteen years.

Like any true crime case study, Emmanuel Carrère’s account of the Romand story is concerned with trying to answer the question of motivation, the “Why?” behind every crime. But the more difficult question The Adversary leaves us with is “How?” Con-men throughout history have pulled off some spectacular frauds, but how did Romand create an entire life that was a lie, and manage to live that life for nearly twenty years?

One of Romand’s closest friends, for example, was a doctor living in Prévessin who went to med school with him. What the friend did not know was that Romand had never passed his second year exams, but had instead simply re-applied every year while he continued to hang around attending lectures. His World Health Organization cover story was maintained by arranging it so his wife could never contact him at his “office.” When he claimed to be away attending international conferences he would go to nearby hotels and stay in his room watching TV.

But these measures still don’t explain how Romand managed to pass as normal in society, and for so long. The answer to that has to be more general, involving a consideration of the way modern life has become compartmentalized, allowing the kind of radical separation between professional and domestic duties that Romand was able to exploit, and the way the superficiality of our relationships with others, even family members, leads us to simply accept how people present themselves at face value.

For Emmanuel Carrère, a novelist and literary critic, getting to know Romand must have been like trying to understand the ultimate unreliable narrator. Readers will be hard pressed to find a single statement of Romand’s that can be believed. From what can be said for certain, Romand, who is currently in prison, seems only to be a self-centered, lazy, shallow creature whose controlling character trait is a pathological cowardice that makes it impossible for him to confront others, or himself, with the truth.

And if truth is impossible, it has to imitate fiction. Throughout The Adversary Carrère identifies himself as an author with Romand’s fraud. He even uses a novel he has written about a murderous father as a calling card to introduce himself. And it works.

But such analysis overstates Romand’s importance. He is not, as Carrère initially imagines, a figure out of a French Naturalist novel, “pushed to the limit by overwhelming forces.” Nor is he some kind of Wildean artist-killer-hero, or a man possessed by the devil (the Adversary). These are all fictions, more interesting and stranger in this case than the prosaic truth.

Review first published March 31, 2001.

100 Best Films of the Century

By Barry Norman

As the millennium approaches, it is becoming apparent that now is the time to be making lists. What have been the most important scientific discoveries of the century? Who were the greatest hockey players? What were the best movies?

The special difficulty in making lists of the best in the arts is how to weigh the old against the new. When we say “best” we usually mean some combination of popular durability, influence, and historical relevance – all of which require the passage of time.

In introducing his list of the best movies, Barry Norman confesses as much, saying that a movie must first be allowed to “mature.” This may explain why 50 of his choices come from the ’40s and ’50s, while only eight come from the century’s final two decades.

As far as the list itself is concerned, there is surprisingly little to get upset about. There are obvious personal biases (Ealing comedies and the work of Martin Scorsese), and a few quirky choices (Gregory’s Girl?), but otherwise the classics are all in. Citizen Kane, The Third Man, The Maltese Falcon, Apocalypse Now – these would all be on my list too.

In fact, the main problem I have with Norman’s list is its predictability. In his introductory history of film he reveals an attitude entirely in line with the critical establishment. With regard to the contemporary scene he champions independent filmmakers who dare to make art while Hollywood pumps out hi-tech industrial products based on comic strips. He presents himself as the connoisseur who searches for “the odd gleam of gold” among “all the crap.”

It sounds very noble, but I can’t help but feel it misses the point. The problem with movies today is not with the big-budget, special-effects spectaculars and formula-driven dramas. Popular films are better today than they have ever been. The real problem is with the supposedly good movies, the “independent” art-house critical darlings.

Movies like Godzilla, Independence Day, and yes, even The Waterboy will always be with us, and for the most part they deliver on their promises. That is to say, they aren’t very good, but they do provide some entertainment without making any great claims for art.

It is our serious cinema that more often insults our intelligence with pretentious and self-indulgent bores. And it is this situation that critics like Norman perpetuate.

A good example of the kind of thing I am talking about can be seen in Norman’s reaction to two recent movies. Is Titanic on the list? “Certainly not, though it would demand a place in any list of the most over-praised films of the century.” In contrast, Norman hails L. A. Confidential as “a brilliant thriller” that “came very close to forcing its way on the list.”

Now this is sheer nonsense. In the first place, Titanic was not over-praised. It did very well at the box office, but was generally dumped on by critics. Indeed, Norman alludes to the most famous dig about it by calling it “the McDonald’s of movies.”

On the other hand, one of the most egregious examples of critical herd behaviour in recent years was the response to L. A. Confidential. Winner of both the New York and Los Angeles Film Critics Best Picture awards in 1997, it received the accolades of an instant classic. In particular, the screenplay was singled out as one of the best examples of the art since Chinatown.

And yet what was so good about L. A. Confidential? It featured a conventional story involving two of the most worn-out stereotypes in film today: the square young rookie cop buddied with the tough, rule-breaking veteran. The plot was hamstrung by a bunch of completely irrelevant supporting roles for stars and an incoherent and uninteresting crime. Finally, the whole thing concludes in an absurd bloodbath that has one of the heroes being blown away at close range only to be resurrected so he can ride into the sunset with Kim Basinger (the hooker with the heart of gold).

A Chinatown for the ’90s, to be sure.

And this is the problem. It has traditionally been from the low-budget “indie” that the film industry has drawn its creative strength. But lately the direction of influence has been reversed. And if the most critically acclaimed films of this generation are only rip-offs of mass market formulas, then the movies may really be at the end of their creative rope.

Calling this book the Best Films of the Century is, of course, a bit silly since this is the only century that has had films of any substance. In time, “the art form of the modern age” will also pass, and the next century will require its own lists of arts still unimagined.

Review first published January 16, 1999.

The Millennium Books


As the millennium approaches it is worth remembering that dates are only cultural by-products. The year 2000 is 1420 by the Islamic calendar, 5760 by the Jewish reckoning, and 2544 for Buddhists. Purists point out, correctly, that the millennium won’t begin until 2001, while the best history of the 20th-century written thus far, Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes, has the “short twentieth century” already over in 1989. Y2K is an arbitrary milepost.

Nevertheless, seeing as end-of-the-year recaps and “best of” collections have always been a staple of the publishing world, readers intent on finding out what they missed are already being offered a wide selection of century guides and surveys to choose from.

Is it possible to reduce a thousand or even a hundred years to a few hundred pages of text and pictures? Of course not. All the same, the following books – a grab-bag of the erudite and the ephemeral – do manage to store some fragments against the general ruin of all things past.

The only book received for review that tried to deal with the past thousand years as a unit was The Life Millennium. The form it takes is that year-end favourite, the book of lists.

The main event is a countdown of the 100 most important events of the millennium, beginning with the fixing of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 and ending with Gutenberg’s printing of the Bible in 1455. A second list then presents the 100 most important people of the millennium, those special individuals who “diverted the great stream of human history, and altered our perceptions perceptibly.” Using these criteria, the editors pick Thomas Edison as the most important millennial man, while the top woman, Mary Wollstonecraft, comes in at 26. For the record, and to confess my shame, there were 17 names I had never heard of.

Like most of the recent century lists, Life‘s millennial lists need to be taken with a grain of salt. Coming to any authoritative ranking is impossible because of the wild blending of categories, the comparison of historical apples and oranges. Was Hamlet (number 35) really more important than the theory of relativity (number 36)? Was James Madison (number 24) more important than Dante (number 50)? And how fair is it to compare people living at the end of the millennium with those whose historical importance has already been revealed?

The rest of the retrospectives wisely limit themselves to the 20th century. Even so, they have their work cut out.

Now that it is all but over, what can we say for sure about the 20th century? For one thing, the human population of the globe tripled, mainly as the result of the green revolution and the control of contagious diseases. This population was increasingly located in cities and, especially among affluent societies at the end of the century, the suburbs. In a 100-year span nature went from something to be conquered to something in need of protection.

Technology was the new environment, and it evolved at a speed that even in hindsight is hard to believe. In 1903, the Wright brothers managed to keep a wood-wire-and-cloth apparatus aloft for almost a minute. Only 66 years later a man was walking on the moon. Devices that I grew up with – typewriters, vinyl records, rotary phones – virtually disappeared within a decade.

Of all the new retrospectives the best general guide to the century is the Oxford History of the Twentieth Century. The essays, written by academics but still accessible, provide excellent commentaries on the major demographic, political, scientific, and artistic movements of the past 100 years. Particularly commendable is the decision to include separate sections dealing with Africa and South America, continents that usually receive about as much attention as Antarctica.

Not that they are ignored without reason. In terms of geopolitics and global culture it was a Western century. As one of the Oxford authors puts it, “the central fact of the twentieth century is that the modern Western world has swept the rest of the world into its economic, technological, and cultural orbit.” The West, and in particular the United States, provided the model for most of the world’s developing nations, or at least their ruling elites.

At the end of the century, for example, a large majority of the Russian people wanted to see Communist Party rule give way to some form of socialism or social democracy. What they got instead was a particularly virulent brand of gangster capitalism.

In contrast to the Oxford History‘s analytic overview, Martin Gilbert’s two-volume (thus far) History of the Twentieth Century is pure chronicle, making its way through the century year by year without trying to force any kind of pattern or theory on the events it describes. Its focus is both Eurocentric and political, with the most attention given to the two World Wars. Indeed, the second volume of what is projected to be a trilogy only takes us through 1950. Was the second half of the 20th century really so uneventful? Judged on a scale of big events, perhaps it was.

Gilbert’s failings include the over-use of verbal formulas and the excessive pursuit of what are clearly personal obsessions (like tallying the annual deaths from automobile accidents). The value of his work lies in its accumulation of odd scraps and details. A letter from a disgruntled American serviceman in Korea complaining about fighting communism in a “barren oriental wasteland” rather than the “cradle of western culture and civilization” may tell us as much about post-war American attitudes than any number of pages of broad observations.

Complementing Gilbert’s massive undertaking, National Geographic: Eyewitness to the 20th Century presents a year-by-year chronicle in pictures. In other words, it is a coffee-table book – only one in which the pictures, for some reason, are all quite small. Along with the crowded text, split into numerous sidebars and timelines, one gets the sense of a collection of trivia.

But while it would be trite to say that nobody reads National Geographic (or coffee-table books, for that matter), the text in Eyewitness still rewards a passing glance. Even trivia can add to our understanding of the whole. In the first volume of Gilbert’s history, for example, we are told that the United States won an exceptionally large number of gold medals in the 1904 St. Louis Olympics. What Gilbert does not mention, but National Geographic does, is that 80 per cent of the athletes that year were from the United States. Many countries did not send teams because they thought St. Louis was still part of the Wild West.

The story of the century is brought closer to home in a pair of coffee-table books dealing with what Wilfrid Laurier, speaking in 1904, dubbed “Canada’s Century.” In the introduction to Maclean’s Canada’s Century, Peter C. Newman echoes Laurier’s boosterism while adding his own end-of-the-century glow to the dubious slogan:

Between 1900, when a fresh epoch dawned over an unsuspecting Dominion, then barely a country, and the summer of 1999, when that nation finds itself on the cusp of a new millennium, Canadians could believe with some justification that the twentieth century had belonged to them.

Thankfully, there isn’t a lot more of that. The text of Canada’s Century consists mainly of columns culled from the magazine’s nearly 100-year history, including the bylines of Morley Callaghan, Pierre Berton, and June Callwood.

The best excerpts help us understand the past not by telling us exactly what happened but by showing us how people felt about it at the time. The results can be both instructive and amusing. A 1920 column, for example, begins by warning of “another peril, almost as menacing as Bolshevism, which is spreading westward from Russia.” The lesser scourge, you will be relieved to know, was only typhus.

Unfortunately, the pictures and layout of Canada’s Century are a disappointment. Readers who have watched Maclean’s recently make itself over into one of the least-attractive mass market magazines in Canada will not be surprised. For some reason (one suspects cost, but this is already an expensive book) the photographs are all reproduced in a tinted two-colour format. Meanwhile, errors in the captioning include the mislabelling of a picture of R. B. Bennett and Mackenzie King – the man Maclean’s ranks as our greatest Prime Minister! Is there no indignity Canadian history will be spared?

A better selection of photos, albeit accompanied by less remarkable text, is found in Canada: Our Century. Taking the form of a scrapbook, it presents 500 pictures (what the editors call “visions”) drawn from Canada’s past.

The best thing about the photos in Our Century is their anonymous, demotic quality. This is not a collection of the nation’s greatest hits or most memorable moments, but a nostalgic wander through common fields of meaning. Or at least that’s the way it starts out. In the ’80s and ’90s the book loses a lot of its charm as celebrity starts to take over, unconsciously demonstrating another 20th-century trend.

Spotting these trends is the job of the reader. An understanding of what happened in the last 100 years should help give us some idea, however inexact, of the shape of things to come. So what does the future have in store?

The next century will see the global population continue to age and expand, probably peaking at around 10 billion in 2050. Undoubtedly this will put some strain on both the environment and the economy.

At the same time, technology is likely to continue its advance, driven by further developments in the still relatively new computer sciences. The Life editors warn us that the era of human beings as the most intelligent entities on Earth is coming to an end.

Clearly, humankind is something to be surpassed. The controversial advances in genetic science, including the knowledge being acquired in the human genome project and the development and commercialization of reproductive technologies, promise a brave new world of designer humans that will make current arguments over genetically engineered foods seem quaint in comparison. The prediction of science-fiction writers that our grandchildren may not be recognizable to us as human beings is no longer as far-fetched as it seemed just 10 years ago.

Indeed, our grandchildren may not care to recognize us. A bad attitude could be as dangerous for civilization in the long run as a corrupt environment or the proliferation of highly portable weapons of mass destruction.

One of the most disturbing trends of the century, encouraged by the over-specialization of modern life, has been the widespread adoption (at least in the West) of unenlightened self-interest as a moral system. The real threat to our most valuable institutions – a free press, public education, responsible government – may be the withdrawal of “First World” nations into the kind of public apathy typical in totalitarian regimes. Whether a world worth living in can survive a culture where short-sighted selfishness and social indifference have been widely accepted as moral norms is a pressing question.

In any event, we can be sure that we will be living the next century on the edge. The scale of civilization in the 21st century – its size, speed, and capacity for destruction – will also increase its vulnerability and magnify the consequences of its mistakes. Only with luck will human adaptability be able to keep pace with the world we cannot imagine yet.

Review first published November 27, 1999.

Dogs and Demons, Underground, and Sputnik Sweetheart

By Alex Kerr
By Haruki Murakami
By Haruki Murakami

Should we be feeling sorry for Japan? In the 1980s the Japanese were on a roll. The capitalization of the Tokyo Stock Exchange had surpassed that of New York and American managers were desperately trying to learn the “Way of the Tiger.” The sun was rising in the East, and pundits like Gore Vidal felt confident predicting a future dominated by an industrious “Asiatic colossus.”

This was during a run of prosperity and speculation that is today simply referred to as “the Bubble.” Since the bursting of the Bubble Japan has been in a decade-long slump, and what was once touted as the world’s most advanced and efficient economy has now become a by-word for corruption, fraud and incompetence.

Alex Kerr’s Dogs and Demons is a harsh, wide-ranging indictment of today’s Japan and the mess it has got itself into. It is also an angry response to Western cheerleaders who still see Japan leading the way into the twenty-first century. In Kerr’s opinion, Japan isn’t leading the way anywhere:

Nothing could run more contrary to the trend of Western commentary on Japan for the past fifty years than the argument that Japan has failed in the pursuit of modernity. However, that is the truth. Instead of an advanced new civilization, Japan has tenement cities and a culture of cheap industrial junk. . . . This failure to achieve quality in the new is perhaps Japan’s greatest tragedy – and it lies at the very core of its cultural meltdown today.

In the twentieth century, the Soviet Union successfully transformed itself into the world’s greatest nineteenth-century economy – and paid the price. Entering the twenty-first century, Japan seems determined to fashion itself into one of the great industrial economies of the twentieth.

The results have been disastrous. An influential construction industry has transformed Japan into “arguably the world’s ugliest country” – its seashores lined with cement, its hills leveled to provide gravel fill for bays and harbours, its towns and villages poisoned by a sea of inadequately disposed industrial waste, and its cities “an apocalyptic expanse of aluminum, Hitachi signs, roof boxes, billboards, telephone wires, vending machines, granite pavement, flashing lights, plastic, and pachinko.”

Kerr is a passionate observer, at his best on environmental, political and economic issues. On cultural questions the results are mixed. I say this not from any personal acquaintance with the state of Japanese culture, but because many of Kerr’s complaints could be just as easily made about the North American scene.

Modern pop culture is a global phenomenon, and its failures are global. Japanese pop culture may be juvenile – dominated by trash like the Hello Kitty franchise, poorly drawn comic books, and wretched animation – but the same is the case in North America. Kerr seems to think it significant that of the 250 films put out annually by the Japanese film industry only 10 to 12 are any good, and that these are largely ignored. But of the 450 or so movies Hollywood produces every year no more than 20 are worth seeing, and these are usually ignored as well.

One of the biggest villains in Kerr’s account of Japan’s decline is the Japanese educational system, which encourages group conformity and submission to bureaucratic authority. In Underground, one of Japan’s best-known novelists, Haruki Murakami, takes a look at how that same submissiveness played out in the 1995 Tokyo subway gas attack. In a collection of interviews with victims of the attack and members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult he paints a troubling picture of the “Japanese psyche.”

Murakami sees the cult members as having lost their sense of an autonomous self in pursuit of a higher spiritual reality. Surrendering their egos to a bogus guru, they allowed their lives to be dominated by a phony master narrative not their own.

That part of the story, which takes up the second half of the book, is soon told and easily understood. But Murakami goes further in suggesting that such a surrender of personality “to some greater System or Order” is common to the modern condition.

It is a surrender born of alienation and the need to belong to some kind of human community. The Tokyo subway is home to a lonely crowd, its passengers jammed together in isolation. Even after the gas is released there is little of the sort of group response we might expect in a crisis. Many of the victims have bitter words for the crowds of commuters who walked past the tragedy without stopping to ask if they could help.

Underground is a fascinating bit of first-person journalism that makes us feel all of the confusion, panic and anger of the people involved. The multiplicity of perspectives even leads to contradictory accounts of the same events, with the first three interviews providing three different versions of a simple encounter that the participants should have had no trouble remembering. It’s enough to make one wonder how history is ever written out of such chaotic first drafts.

But it’s easy to see what interested Murakami in the story of the gas attack. Loneliness and spiritual yearning are two of his favourite themes. In his new novel, Sputnik Sweetheart, he is back at both of them with his unique blend of Carveresque understatement and Twilight Zone supernaturalism.

The hero is a schoolteacher in love with an emotionally unavailable woman named Sumire. They remain friends, but soon Sumire herself falls in love with a sophisticated businesswoman who is – the tables turned – unable to return her affections. Frustrated desire leads to things taking a turn for the weird as Sumire goes missing on a Greek island. When the hero comes to the island to search for her, something very strange and mystical happens.

Murakami’s mysticism is born of longing. We are all incomplete, hollow beings in our daily lives. Somehow we have been separated from our real, inner selves and so have no way to connect to each other. Taking this idea one step further, Sputnik Sweetheart imagines a mysterious alternate reality that at one point beckons each of the main characters with the fulfillment of their desires. Is it a danger to give in? Or cowardice to hold back? And what happens when you cross over to the other side?

We don’t know the answer to that because the novel is finally a mystery without a solution, much like the Italian film L’Avventura (which Murakami must have had in mind). But that doesn’t diminish the experience in the slightest.

Murakami’s ability to conjure an image is unmatched by any living writer that I know of. Stylistically he always seems to hit the perfect note, especially when dealing with the intense and yet mostly submerged feelings of ordinary people. Restraint is all. In a scene near the end of Sputnik Sweetheart the hero is breaking up with his mistress while sitting in her car. In terms of the novel’s plot it is an almost superfluous moment, but Murakami handles such a weight of emotion so quietly and with such a fine sense of observation that it seems like magic.

We can’t ask an author for anything more.

Review first published August 11, 2001.

The Angel of Darkness and When She Was Bad

By Caleb Carr
By Patricia Pearson

The old adage that truth is stranger than fiction has been demonstrated once again in two new books dealing with the evil that women do.

The Angel of Darkness, like its prequel bestseller The Alienist, is a detective story set in turn-of-the-century New York. The detective team from the earlier novel, headed by eminent “alienist” (psychologist) Dr. Kreizler, is here reassembled to investigate the abduction of a Spanish diplomat’s infant daughter.

The narrator is 13-year-old Stevie Taggart, a (somewhat) reformed street urchin who lives with the doctor. The crime-solving team also includes a pistol-packing proto-feminist, a pair of Jewish police detectives, a fallen aristocrat reporter, and a piano-playing, brass-knuckled manservant. It is a Dickensian oddball club, and their adventures take place in a recognizably Dickensian world of dirty urban streets filled with gangs of street children.

The detail is impressive, as one might expect from an author who is both a historian and a lifelong resident of the New York area. Much of the writing seems done with one eye fixed on selling the film rights, but this simply has to be expected in a bestseller today.

The villain of the piece, the titular Angel of Darkness, is a serial baby-killer (and no, I’m not giving anything away). The very novelty of her crime in a society that idolizes women as maternal and nurturing protects her from suspicion and places her virtually above the law. Frustrated, Dr. Kreizler is driven to exclaim: “The last time we worked together, we studied known laws of psychology. This time, the biases of our society will force us to write new ones.”

The real life Angel of Darkness, whose story Carr admits drawing on, was Marybeth Tinning, a psychopath from New York State who killed eight of her own children. Tinning’s story, along with many others, can be found in Patricia Pearson’s fascinating study of violent women: When She Was Bad.

Reading Pearson, one gets the sense that little has changed in either the laws of psychology or the biases of society since the days of Dr. Kreizler. Drawing on a wealth of research, Pearson shows how violent women today are still seen as special cases, whose brutal crimes are all too often excused by dubious psychology and social denial (the myth of innocence).

Since there is no single kind of violent woman, Pearson breaks the subject down by victim, including women who kill babies, women who abuse and/or kill their spouses, and predator women who kill strangers. It is disturbing reading, and even “true crime” veterans may be in for a shock.

On the dustjacket the books is described as “certain to be controversial, guaranteed to infuriate.” That may be an understatement. Pearson asks feminists to stop trying to incorporate female violence into a “victim-feminist heroic” and start talking about personal responsibility. She is not afraid to question such excuses for women’s violence as hormonal imbalance, postpartum depression, battered woman’s syndrome, and (that catch-all evil) the “patriarchal society.”

In addition, she is severely critical of a justice system that exonerates figures such as Karla Homolka, and a media that makes serial killers like Aileen Wuornos into heroes.

The point When She Was Bad ends up making is the same one made by most common-sense discussions of the subject. Despite social inequality and a culture that continues to exploit differences between the sexes (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, etc.), the fact is that men and women are in most important ways the same. Violence, like love or hate, ambition or greed, is “a human rather than gendered phenomenon.”

That is a conclusion that many of the characters in The Angel of Darkness are afraid to make. As Pearson demonstrates, it is one we have yet to fully deal with.

Review first published October 25, 1997.