Wednesday, July 30, 2014

China ("The Emperor Far Away" by David Eimer)

For all the politicking and fearmongering about China's status in the world--its massive military, volatile relationship with neighboring countries, gluttonous economy, and adept but secretive intelligence agencies--one constantly overlooked fact is that no nation, not even one as rapidly modernized as China, can survive as such without radical change. China is, for lack of a better metaphor, an army marching blindly towards the very same precipice that has claimed so many empires of centuries past. Its population continues to increase at an unprecedented rate, despite its infamous one-child policy, which puts further demand on an already strained agricultural system. It also dammed an entire river--a project so massive it actually altered the rotation of the Earth--to support an infrastructure that is still famished for resources, increased the censorship needed to keep more than a billion people uninformed and oppressed, and pushed its companies into exploring and exploiting the natural resources of neighboring nations, often at the risk of armed conflict. What's more, its one-child policy has created a society in which gender-based abortions and the forfeiture of young girls means there are far more men than women, leading to a massive child-abduction industry along the southern borders. Its need to suppress anything or anyone considered subversive or treacherous--public protests, religion, independent journalism, depictions of anti-government heroes--has led China to incarcerate more than 1.5 million of its own citizens. And lax government oversight, along with corruption and weak regulations, has resulted in unprecedented levels of pollution, endangering millions of people. In 2010, air pollution alone led to over one million premature deaths in China, which was "nearly 40 percent of the global total," according to the New York Times.

And while all of this happens, the country's government--three large but feckless branches that provide the ruling Communist Party with the facade of a democracy--refuse to unsettle themselves from positions that are imbued with power and money while remaining almost entirely devoid of any responsibility or accountability. They are the matadors preening to one another in their lush costumes, all unaware that the bull-calf they have so long ignored has grown into something almost uncontrollable. And "control" is what defines the relationship between China's government and its people--controlling every aspect of their lives, which is easy to accomplish when the population of your country is a few hundred million, less so when that population climbs over one billion without any hint of slowing. Even the fact that the country's ethnic majority, the Han, make up over 90% of the population of China and almost the entire Communist Party of China, is of little consequence:  after all, when food is scarce, pollution poisons those close to you, or the various public-service grids become unstable, ethnic allegiances become meaningless.

Nowhere is this more nakedly apparent than in China's treatment of its millions of ethnic minorities, who comprise just under 10% of the country's overall population. Forced to register with the Communist Party and gain government approval--a minority must have over 5,000 people to be eligible, and often the government lumps unlike minorities together--these groups are spread unevenly along the outer borders of China. Some are located there because that is where their ancestors settled, and only now, in the last fifty years or so, has China begun to challenge their centuries-long hold on the land, often to fulfill its goals of suppression and exploitation. Others inhabit these largely uninhabitable regions because of ever-uncertain borders between China and its neighbors; as a result, there are millions of Chinese citizens who identify more readily with their Indian, Laotian, Russian, Kazakhstani, Nepalese, Bhutanese, Pakistani, Kyrgyzstani, Thai, and Burmese neighbors, to the point where vast amounts of China could easily secede or be absorbed by other countries with little apparent change. Its this other-ness, along with constant political and religious resistance and vast tracts of untapped resources, that has drawn the government's attention, transforming much of China's vast landscape into a metaphoric tinder-box waiting to erupt.

It's very easy for those of us in the West, and particularly those of us in the United States, to look at China with a mixture of bemusement and condemnation:  protesting their human rights abuses while also looking down on aspects of their society we consider primitive. This attitude towards China allows us to ignore them rather than understand them, and by substituting facts with televised talking points we are admitting that China is not a primary concern while, paradoxically, those same talking points portray China as an unavoidable threat to our well-being. When we examine China more closely, however, we begin to notice another unavoidable fact about the world's newest superpower:  it resembles the United States in so many ways that it's downright uncomfortable. As David Eimer writes about the oppressed minorities and distant lands of China, he does so with an awareness that China of the early 21st century is eerily similar to the United States--and much of the industrialized world--from the early 20th century. We read of China's subjugation of its many minority groups--taking their land, removing their ability to worship their own religion openly, carving away revered landscapes in search of tradable products, imprisoning them unfairly and without due process--and shake our heads, even though it reads like a description of how the United States treated its own ethnic minorities, especially Native Americans and African Americans, and in some ways still continues to do. We read of China's unconscionable destruction of nature while ignoring the fact that our own country allows companies and industries to cut the tops off mountains, dump toxic sludge into rivers and oceans without so much as a criminal trial, and blast tons of pressurized liquid into the ground beneath our feet, resulting in flammable drinking water and hundreds of small earthquakes. We condemn their treatment of workers stuck in an imbalanced economy, even though we use the very products that those workers make without a second thought, and our own economy is demonstrating the widest wealth gap in the nation's history, where full-time jobs are no longer enough to keep a middle-class family out of poverty.

China has made no secret of the fact that it wants what the United States has:  a status in the world as a military, economic, and political superpower. Their students attend American universities, become involved in American businesses, and study our country's economy with more scrutiny than most Americans themselves. What the United States accomplished in one hundred years has been done in almost half that time by the people and government of China. And yet, in following the examples of the United States--which China so clearly and unabashedly has--its government has chosen to ignore perhaps the most significant moments:  those concerned with social change. Because America's economy, military, and politics are so inextricably tied to the well-being of its people, a shift in one (or more) of the former means an inevitable shift in the latter, and vice versa. The 1950s--burgeoning economy, expanded transportation, the growth of the middle class--also saw the Civil Rights movement become stronger than it had ever been, and by the next decade the Civil Rights Act had been signed into law. Even earlier, in the 1900s and 1910s, the industrialization of the previous decades--as well as the sudden and expansive gap between rich and poor--saw the rise of Progressive politics, muckraker journalism, and Teddy Roosevelt, who also ushered in the American government's embrace of conservation; within only a few years, women had been granted the right to vote, and America's entry into World War I marked it as a world power to be reckoned with.

The government of China can blindly ignore the lessons of the United States in favor of seeing only the history it wants for itself, but in doing so, it risks following the history any nation--and its people--wants for itself:  one in which justice and equality become a goal that gets ever closer, the disparity between rich and poor--the us and the other--is forever being bridged, and the people take more and more power for themselves from a functionless and corrupt government. The United States is far from perfect, and we still have quite the distance to travel before we can truly act superior towards other nations, but our history tells us all we need to know about where we've come from and where we're going. China's government, unfortunately for them, does not understand that history is not a buffet, and the events on its timeline cannot be picked over others. Instead, change is inevitable, whether you want it to or not, and it is unforgiving to those who think otherwise.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Legacy ("Fierce Patriot" by Robert L. O'Connell)

In the afterword to Fierce Patriot, his book on William Tecumseh Sherman, Robert O’Connell acknowledges a necessity at the heart of writing nonfiction: to research a subject is to devote years to them, rearrange your life around them, and become obsessed with their every decision. Sometimes this requirement comes to define a writer’s entire career. Shelby Foote spent more than twenty years researching and writing about the Civil War, and the resulting trilogy spanned nearly 3000 tightly-knit pages. Robert Caro has spent almost twice as much time completing a five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, which has won him two Pulitzer Prizes but also meant he’s been able to publish little else; in other words, his legacy will forever be intertwined with that of his subject. In both instances, Foote and Caro’s devotion resulted in critically acclaimed, interesting, and lasting histories. Sometimes, however, the devotion isn’t reflected in the final product, and strangely enough, the proof of this is O’Connell’s own book.

Fierce Patriot is really three books in one. The first, which spans the first 200 pages, is a biography of Sherman himself, complete with a rundown of his involvement in the Civil War and special emphasis on how our modern characterizations of him do not match the reality. The second, which is a comparatively short fifty-some pages, concerns the men who made up Sherman's famous--and infamous--army during the Civil War, which was responsible for the burning of Atlanta along its 600-mile march through the South, which has itself become distorted in the decades since. And the final seventy pages concern Sherman's private life, especially his dalliances with other women, and the miserable existence of his wife. By definition, a biography of any historical military figure would touch on a multitude of topics; the difference between the definition and Fierce Patriot is that O'Connell seems eager to "untangle" all three facets of Sherman's life for closer study, which makes the entire endeavor seem hurried and incomplete, as though it were rushed to print before O'Connell could reintegrate the latter two portions into the overall narrative.

Because it is that overall narrative--that first part of the book--that is by far its best, as O'Connell works to demystify not only Sherman but his legendary march through the South. The great irony is that this one event, for which Sherman is most known and most infamous, was one of the most peaceful events of his entire career. His men were stripped extraneous possessions, including most of their firearms, and were strictly warned away from the marauding ways associated with military invaders. Instead, they harassed those who supported the South's secession, burned down buildings that were representative of the Confederacy and its fighting power--railroad tracks, gun manufacturing plants, stashes of ammunition--but never killed unless in self-defense. They established order in the small towns and large cities they occupied, and they even amassed a large and loyal following of freed slaves--a sizable group that also helped Sherman navigate the wild and otherworldly landscape of the South with veritable ease. (As O'Connell lays out, freedmen were also vital to the North's military progress, providing valuable information about troop location and backcountry pathways without being recognized as potential spies by their owners--a resource that went unappreciated then and have been largely forgotten since.) One of the most nonviolent decision Sherman made in his life, to lead tens of thousands of men across 600 miles of his enemy's backyard, has since become a symbol of the Civil War's brutality and aggression--a version of history that, while inconsistent with what actually occurred, is pretty consistent with Sherman's personality.

Within every volume of American history there is at least one chapter written in blood:  the blood of those who were subjugated, slaughtered, sacrificed, or outright killed. But rarely can we find a chapter written almost entirely by a single person. This is the truth of Sherman beyond his exploits during the Civil War. After the peace agreements were signed and politicos began debating Reconstruction--a tumultuous and long-lasting problem on its own, especially after Lincoln's assassination--Sherman accepted a largely symbolic post with the federal government, then departed for the West to oversee the construction of a transcontinental railroad, which would connect the Atlantic and Pacific coasts for the first time in the nation's history. It was a monumental task for any one person to undertake, and Sherman embraced the task with gusto--a decision that would paradoxically advance the nation's expansion while also devastating its indigenous people, landscape, and wildlife. This, not his march through the South, is Sherman's true legacy:  a multi-year, multi-state project that leveled valuable landscapes, led the exploitation of natural resources, displaced thousands of Native American and their tribes, instigated wars, and almost caused the American buffalo to go extinct. (Even today, more than a century later, the buffalo has yet to recover.) And throughout it all, Sherman remained keenly aware of the devastation he was causing, even encouraging much of the conflict with displaced tribes and the elimination of wildlife, because he lived his life devoted to The Cause, whatever that happened to be at the moment, and he ran down anything--or anyone--that stood in his way.

O'Connell closes his afterword with a strange commentary on his subject's "tangled" lives and how we as readers perceive them:  "I think my time with [Sherman] was well spent. I liked him, he was never dull, and he grew into a make-believe friend, sitting in a recliner in his rumpled uniform, watching me compose, accompanying me on long walks--but never saying a word. That's the past for you: a pale echo of what actually happened, a bunch of factual remains of what were once human lives, and for that reason always subject to reinterpretation. So if you don't like this Sherman, wait a while, there's bound to be another. He's too important to forget." This personification of Sherman as the author's quiet companion is admittedly cute, and probably not that far from reality when taken at its most basic figurative sense, but it's demonstrative of the problem with O'Connell's book, not to mention his attitude towards history itself. It's perfectly fine to believe a subject's life requires more than one volume, or "interpretation," because history is complicated and always revealing more of itself; but to essentially admit that your own history is incomplete is to betray the contract with your readers, who come into a book looking for answers...and answers can only come when an author knows their subject, seeks out the truth, and presents it to us without opinion. By splitting Sherman's life into parts, you're saying you don't understand how it all fits together, regardless of how much clearer it becomes when partitioned out. It means that, in trying to "untangle" the life and experiences of one man, you find yourself unable to see how all the pieces connected in the first place, and all you have to present to your readers are pieces to a puzzle you're unable--or unwilling--to put back together.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Endurance ("The Most Dangerous Book" by Kevin Birgmingham & "The Zhivago Affair" by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee)

To be a great writer is to suffer, it seems, under the weight of your own extraordinary talents. Those few whose careers lacked any serious trials or tribulations--Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Henry James--are paled by the hundreds of canonized writers whose biographies read like tragic novels all their own. Emily Dickinson, for instance, spent most of her life as a recluse in her parents' home, where she wrote in her private bedroom and conducted much of her relationships through letters. Herman Melville's failed attempts at writing serious, long-lasting works of fiction brought about the dissolution of his family and the collapse of his already unsteady mental state, and he remained in obscurity for more than three decades after his death, a punchline wrapped up in a footnote.

Others were victimized by the governments under which they wrote, their work breaking through the propaganda and revisionism that justified appalling abuses of power. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for instance, was raised by his widowed mother in the impoverished and totalitarian Soviet Union, served as a battery commander in World War II, and was shuffled between Soviet work- and prison-camps for eight years while also suffering from an undiagnosed cancer that would almost kill him; after he was released, he kept his writing in jars that he buried in his garden so they would not be discovered and taken, won the Nobel Prize, survived an assassination attempt, and was deported. When Solzhenitsyn died in 2008 at age 89, it was almost like a Russian epic was itself ending, daring you to challenge its veracity.

And, of course, there are those whose entire lives were a constant, unending balance between hedonistic adventures and the work that hedonism inspired--a paradox in which the very experiences that served to nurture interesting fiction also shortened the lives of those who wrote about them. The most recognized of all these is Ernest Hemingway, the barrel-chested big-gamesman who survived not only World War I but the Spanish Civil War and World War II--he drove ambulance in the first and covered the latter two as a journalist, all voluntarily--along with two successive plane crashes while on safari in Africa, lived in Paris, married four times, and suffered from physical and psychiatric disorders so varied and severe that it is surprising he survived as long as he did. We see his life reflected in the experiences of his characters, who are wounded in war, struggle with depression and a then-undiagnosed condition called PTSD, fall for and lose beautiful women, and duel with the natural world around them, often fruitlessly.

Last month saw the release of two nonfiction books each concerning an author, their most famous work, and the ways in which their lives fell apart because of it. The first, Kevin Birmingham's The Most Dangerous Book, concerns Irish writer James Joyce and the controversy surrounding his 1922 novel Ulysses, which became the focus of widespread censorship efforts in much of the English-speaking world and corresponded with Joyce's decline in health. The second, Peter Finn and Petra Couvee's The Zhivago Affair, tells the story of Boris Pasternak's epic novel about Russian life after the October Revolution--an event that transformed Russia into a communist state thereafter called the Soviet Union, which eventually fell under the control of dictator Joseph Stalin. Finn and Couvee's history traces Pasternak's career, the government's reaction to his work, and ways in which the CIA used his book as propaganda in the midst of the Cold War. In both books we see how literature can change the world and convey new ideas to people who suffer under censorship and totalitarianism; how one person can bring those ideas to millions using only ink and paper; and how everyday people will put their own livelihoods--and, often, life itself--at risk to see these ideas distributed worldwide, all to further literature's true role in society.

Still, there are differences between the two men that are worth noting. Joyce wrote as a free man throughout Europe, and the poverty he experienced through much of his life was almost entirely of his own design. He refused to compromise his artistry, and his arrogance towards others was immeasurable. (He once told poet W.B. Yeats, then 37 years old and already considered one of the greatest poets of his generation, that he--Joyce--could have helped make his poetry better if Yeats hadn't been so old and already set in his ways. Joyce was himself 20 years old at the time.) And when Joyce was seeking out a publisher for his most famous and infamous work, an experimental novel based on The Odyssey and running over 700 pages long, he did so before the book was even finished--not an unusual practice at the time, but one that forced his potential publishers into an awkward position of having to approve a book they had not seen in full, and one that would get even more sexually detailed as it progressed towards its final chapter. For years Joyce and his allies labored to see the work realized in print and available to as many people as possible, and for years he was stopped by government censors on both side of the Atlantic. In the case of the United States, Joyce's work was halted by the Post Office, who confiscated every serialized copy of the novel, burned them, and threatened jail-time for their publishers--who, in the case of Ulysses, were almost always women.

The great unspoken irony of Ulysses is that, after every major American publisher rejected the novel outright--and every great American publisher at that time was owned and operated by men--Joyce's work fell into the possession of a half-dozen passionate and determined women, many of whom were also politically active--at least one was a former anarchist--who saw the struggle between free speech and self-preservation and chose the former without hesitation. They knew this small-press crusade for freedom of ideas and expression might lead to their own incarceration--their own loss of freedom--especially under federal law, and they published excerpts of Joyce's novel anyway. In Europe, it fell to an American-born bookshop owner named Sylvia Beach to publish Ulysses in full for the first time. Working with a single French typesetter, she put out a respectable first edition, which sold at the rate of a modern bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic and finally introduced readers to the world of Joyce's protagonist Leopold Bloom, as well as his wife Molly, whose closing monologue not only ended the novel but introduced the world to a female character whose thoughts were complex, detailed, complicated, occasionally obscene, and totally uninterrupted by the hands of men. Not only was this a revolutionary way to end an already revolutionary novel, it was a note on the strength and independence of modern women that also served as an unintended monument to the women who'd brought Joyce's words to the public when no one else would.

Women would serve a primary role in the life of Boris Pasternak, too, but in a much more tragic way. Married for much of his life, Pasternak took mistresses, and the Soviet government used one of these relationships to try and bully Pasternak into renouncing his novel and submitting to the wishes of a government that had little interest in his work, especially after a draft of his novel Doctor Zhivago was spirited out of the country, published by foreign presses, and garnered him international fame, a sizable income, and the Nobel Prize. A poet for most of his life, Pasternak's foray into narrative fiction came from a desire to show how the promises of the October Revolution had been corrupted and suffocated by the Communist government that had sprung from the revolution's bloody soil. Though they had been promised equality of life and peace of mind there was now violence and fear from the all-powerful Joseph Stalin, his strongmen, and his successors. Millions of Pasternak's countrymen were beaten, shipped off to gulags and work-camps, tortured, coerced, and killed, often on little to no evidence other than the spite and paranoia of those in charge. Others were followed by agents of the government, communications both inside and outside of the country were intercepted or forged, and any work that went against the wishes of the government was suppressed and even destroyed. By writing a novel that depicted the Soviet government as undermining the goals of the revolution, Pasternak was putting himself in serious danger, but the government was never violent towards Pasternak himself; instead, they brought immense pain and suffering down on Pasternak's mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, who was sent to a gulag for five years and, as a result, miscarried her and Pasternak's child. Later, Pasternak would write of Ivinskaya, "She was put in jail on my account, as the person considered by the secret police to be closest to me, and they hoped that by means of a grueling interrogation and threats they could extract enough evidence from her to put me on trial. I owe my life, and the fact that they did not touch me in those years, to her heroism and endurance."

Like Joyce, Pasternak's novel found publication through a series of covert channels. Where Ulysses was deemed too overtly sexual by potential publishers, who saw his writing as pornographic, Doctor Zhivago was considered too condemnatory towards the Soviet government, and it took the negotiating skills of an Italian publisher (who also happened to be a communist) to convince Pasternak that his novel could be released by a foreign press, which it eventually was. Unfortunately for Pasternak, this was in direct violation of the Soviet government's own laws, which forbade writers to publish their work in other countries without first getting approval to publish in the Soviet Union, which they had not and would not grant to Pasternak. When the CIA caught wind of the controversy over his book, they printed thousands of copies in its original Russian, which they filtered into the Soviet Union as a way to undermine the government's authority. (In one instance, Soviet citizens who were given a copy of the book outside of their home country ripped off the book's cover, divided up its pages, and stuffed the entire novel in their clothes in order to sneak it back with them.) None of this, however, helped Pasternak avoid the propaganda- and fear-fueled backlash he experienced from his fellow writers and countrymen, who denounced him openly and called for his deportation, his novel equivalent to treason, even though almost no one had read anything other than excerpts selected and published by the government itself--a strategy utilized decades earlier by American censors who hoped to undermine any claims of Ulysses' literary merit by isolating portions of the novel in which Joyce uses sexual and anatomical terms with abandon, again to represent a book that almost no one had read.

In the end, both novels came to be the lauded as the best work by their respective authors, with Ulysses being deemed the "finest English-language novel published this century" by the Modern Library in 1998, a decision that surprised many and confounded most. Unfortunately, neither Joyce nor Pasternak would live long enough to see themselves fully vindicated and their work installed as classics among the cannon of world literature, though Joyce's arrogance and Pasternak's Nobel Prize all but guaranteed it. Decades later, their stories offer us insight not only into the pressures both men felt--Joyce's self-imposed because of a debilitating illness, Pasternak's from the country he called his home--but the ways in which those who attempt to suppress important and revolutionary literature, who try to stifle the spread of ideas, will always lose, as human progress invariably moves towards a future that offers us a freer and more open mind, regardless of where we live and what we live for. It is this aspect of literature that makes Joyce and Pasternak worthy of study, their novels worthy of being read, and their stories worth being told, if for no other reason than to let us see just what fear can cost us.