October 24th, 2018

politics

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earthsea

The Sound of his Horn, by Sarban

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Apart from the slight pain in my hands I have rarely felt so well and tranquil and at ease in my body as I did that morning when I first began to speculate about where I was. It was not by any means my first day of consciousness. I knew that I had been in that bright and airy room, with its scent of flowers mingling with the fainter odour of drugs and disinfectant and floor-polish, for quite a number of days. The white painted door and window-frame, the pretty curtain and the white wood furniture were all familiar to me, and I knew the faces of my two nurses quite well; they had been looking after me for a long time. It was just that that day I completed a gradual transition from passive perception to active observation.
The only thing I knew of this novel before reading it was that it has a “Hitler Wins” scenario. I hadn't realised that the framing narrative is set shortly after WW2 in our timeline, but the protagonist recounts a story of breaking out of a PoW camp in Germany and getting somehow zapped forward to a different mid-21st century where the Allies were defeated. It's a very short book, and the key point is that the future Nazis have bred genetically modified young men to hunt women through the woods for sport. This is, needless to say, a really icky set-up, and I think the best point of the novel is that it doesn't especially dwell voyeuristically on the ickiness, but on the practicalities of getting the hero and his young female ally out of immediate danger. (Defeating the system isn't an option.) Even so, there are a number of loose ends, and I can't agree with those who rate it among the greats. However, I'm glad to have read it. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2013. Next on that list is Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, by Dennis O'Driscoll.
earthsea

Seychelles: The Saga of a Small Nation [...], by Sir James Mancham

Second paragraph (and first paragraph of embedded quote) of third chapter:
This is what the cover page of Seychelles Political Castaways stated when it was published in 1976, the year of our independence:
Seychelles: ninety-two islands and atolls lying 1000 miles east of the Kenya coast in the Indian Ocean, and often described as the world's most beautiful archipelago. Each of the coral banks or islands has a beauty of its own that is captured rarely by camera and almost never by pen. Straight palms, white sands, vari-coloured seas and clear lagoons with their patchwork of coral form a backcloth to a nation that was, until 28 June 1976, listed in the guide books and the ledgers of Whitehall as a British Crown Colony.
Four years ago I attended a conference in Florence, Italy, and fell into conversation with an elderly gentleman with a spring in his step and a glint in his eye. He whipped out a copy of his latest book, signed it with a flourish and handed it to me. I am sorry to say that it sat on the shelves for some time before I read it, and in the meantime Sir James Mancham has shuffled off this mortal coil. But I really appreciated the gesture.

The book is mainly about the geopolitics and economics of the Seychelles, but that is a subject deeply entangled with its author's life. He became President of the Seychelles when the islands became independent in 1976, and just a year later was overthrown by his own prime minister (while he himself was in London attending the Queen's Silver Jubilee celebrations). He was still pretty sore about that, but on the other hand had relished the opportunities opened up by his return from exile in 1992 to promote the interests of his homeland, particularly since the invitation to return came from his usurper.

The Seychelles is a really small place, with a population of less than 100,000, but that clearly leaves plenty of room for local politics and palace politics; Mancham hints at the effects of high net worth individuals coming in to buy individual islands, a phenomenon he himself was sanguine about. He's much less sanguine about what he still sees as his betrayal by the British and Americans in 1977, facilitated by the French and culminating in the islands becoming a Soviet satellite. (It would be interesting to read an account of those events from another source.) I was amused to realise that I know most of the EU officials he mentions in the relevant chapter.

I doubt that this is the best book ever written about the Seychelles, or even the best book written by Sir James Mancham, but I learned more than I had expected from it. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book by a non-white writer (Sir James was proud of his Chinese grandfather). Next on that list is And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hossaini.