Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Review of Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol

Nikolai Golgol’s historical novel tells the story of a late sixteenth century Zaporozhian Cossack commander and his two sons. It is set in what is now Eastern Ukraine, an area that was then on the fringes of the Polish Empire. Taras Bulba, with the help of his sons, instigates a revolt against the Poles. Part of the old man’s motivation is to ensure the survival of a warrior tradition in his people, and, more particularly, his sons. The narrative is drenched in the blood that flows from this decision. The prose has a simple, mythic quality that lifts it above the specific time and place of the narrative. This short, but epic, story gives us an insight into the mythology of Russia.

We see the consequences of Taras Bulba’s obsession with his warrior’s craft, when, on a rare visit to his home, his wife begs to be allowed some more time with her sons. Bulba disregards her wishes, and the three set out on their campaign, leaving her weeping in their wake. In this scene, Gogol brilliantly encapsulates the irreconcilable tensions between a settled family life and his protagonist’s desire for military glory. The Cossack Brotherhood is an all-male society, unmoderated by the influence of women. Later, Bulba and his sons spend time in an extraordinary warrior encampment, where itinerant Cossacks can meet and swap stories of their latest campaigns. The battle scenes in Taras Bulba do not stint from showing the terrible savagery of the fighting. The cost of the Cossacks’ pride is a staggeringly high death toll for the Brotherhood.

A major theme of the book is the need to choose between love for a woman and loyalty to one’s comrades. One of Bulba’s sons falls in love with a Polish noblewoman and changes sides. Bulba’s merciless sense of honour compels him to take revenge on his own son.

The book also gives an insight into the marginalised lives of Eastern European Jews. Despite their vital role in commerce, they are spurned and persecuted by the Cossacks. Yet it is Yenkel, a Jewish trader, who leads Bulba, at great risk, to visit his second son, who has been captured by the Polish enemy.

I would recommend this book to anyone. The grand themes of the narrative transcend its historical and cultural setting. For those interested in the origins of the Russian character, it holds great riches.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Review of Stalingrad by Antony Beevor

Antony Beevor’s masterly account of one of the key battles of WWII combines the readability of a novel with the deep research of a professional historian. He looks at the battle from the perspectives of the Soviet high command, the German high command, and ordinary soldiers on both sides of the conflict. This is essentially a military history, so its main purpose is not to examine the moral questions behind Operation Barbarossa. Yet Beevor still leaves the reader with a deep distaste for the wicked decisions made by the German leadership in their desire to pursue a war of extermination, and for the callous way that the Soviet command squandered the lives of millions of Red Army soldiers. The strategic blunders on both sides are dissected with great precision. The Wehrmacht paid dearly for Hitler’s belief in his military destiny and habit of overriding the better judgement of its senior commanders. On the Soviet side, Stalin also made some catastrophic decisions in the run up to the siege at Stalingrad, resulting in many divisions of the Red Army being wiped out or captured.

Beevor is eloquent in describing the Soviet recovery at Stalingrad and their skilful exploitation of deep reserves in territory and manpower. The cynical calculations of the Soviet high command are also examined. For example, the 62nd Army, under General Vasily Chuikov, was left to fight for weeks in the killing ground on the west bank of the Volga, wholly unaware that a massive counteroffensive was being planned to relieve it. The knowledge of this potential relief might have taken the edge off a desperate Soviet resistance, so it was kept secret even from the commanders of the 62nd.

The Eastern Front has been called the worst war in history. After reading Beevor’s gripping account of these terrible events, it is difficult to argue with this conclusion. If you only ever read one book about the history of the Eastern Front, let it be this one.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Another review for Sirocco Express

My first novel, Sirocco Express, received this five-star review on the Amazon UK site from reviewer, Xena. (Many thanks to Xena).

What are the causes of human migration? What drives people to leave their native countries? You may think it's the allure of a better life or political persecution. Think again. Think deeper. Open your mind. That's what this remarkable book prompts you to do. See the world on the other side of the `wall', but see it differently.

The book follows the story of a young Nigerian man, Adebayo, who has a comfortable life in his home country, who is not persecuted or wanted, yet he leaves his home one day and embarks on a perilous and arduous journey to Europe that may well claim his life. What has moved him to take such a drastic step? Would you risk your life unless you were really desperate?

Adebayo doesn't risk his life on a whim. He has very good reasons to do what he does. He is indeed desperate, but his despair is caused not by starvation or disease.

As with most of us, Adebayo can't stop thinking about his life and its place in the greater scheme of things. And what he comes to realise with horror is that the greater scheme has no place for him at all.

The average life has a monotonous pace. Very little of what we do has a meaning or long term effects. Almost nothing has any interest to anyone outside our households. When we speak, no one hears. Self-expression becomes almost pointless. `When will you understand that you are invisible,' Adebayo tells himself. `That ...no one has the slightest interest in what you think, or feel or do? You are as a grain of dust on the hide of an elephant.'

Adebayo suffers from his own insignificance. And he is determined to make an impression on the wider world, to break free from the monotony of the everyday life. This journey is his cry for help, his desperate bid for freedom.

This brilliant book offers an undeniably unconventional, yet very convincing, take on the causes of migration. People migrate not simply because they seek a prosperous life. They do so because they seek a fulfilled life. It's not only deprivation that compels people to go to the extremes of suffering in order to change their abode. People migrate for the same reasons they conquer Everest, for the same reasons they create and invent - to overcome their own insignificance, to leave a mark on this world. In that, this book has a truly universal appeal. No matter who you are or what you strive for, you are bound to connect with Adebayo and admire his quest...