First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up December 18, 2008Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
Tags: alt-history, books, fangirl, jo walton, philip pullman, review, roma sub rosa, sally lockhart, spoilers, steven saylor
Wow. Just, wow. It’s been a while since I finished a book and then sat in stunned silence, but that’s what happened today after I read Jo Walton’s book Farthing, which is the first in a trilogy. I’ve loved Walton since her alternate-universe Arthurian series, The Tir Tanagiri Saga, which I regard as the best Arthurian retelling I’ve ever read. While a lot of other Arthurian stories manage to take the familiar plot and make it say something about their own times, very few manage to get right to the heart of what the Matter of Britain really means. In Farthing, Walton takes another set of well-known genres (in this case, the country-house murder mystery, and the ‘what if the Nazis had won’ alternate-history) and gets straight to the heart of them. However, she is clearly using them to say something about our own times, too.
This makes her the most recent in a chain of authors who use (and subvert) the conventions of historical crime novels to make important points about the times in which we live. If you pick your crimes carefully, you can make them stand as metonyms for the crimes and iniquities of a whole society.
Steven Saylor has been doing this for years with his Roma Sub Rosa series. These are pretty much my favourite crime novels. They’re set over about 30 years (and counting), from the last days of Sulla’s dictatorship to the end of the Republic and Caesar’s rise to power. I expect (or at least hope) that they’ll continue on after Caesar’s assassination, since the last few books seem to have been building up to that point. Each book follows the narrator, an Everyman called Gordianus the Finder, who acts as a detective (if such a thing had existed in ancient Rome) to Rome’s rich and powerful. Each book takes place at a turning point on the road from Republic to Empire (the brief rise to power of the demagogue Catalina, the murder of Clodius, Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, to name a few examples), with Gordianus become more and more cynical, more and more privately outraged at the slow erosion of everything that made him proud to be a Roman. Saylor’s point is hard to miss: in sacrificing democracy (or at least the semi-democracy that existed in Rome) for security, we end up with a society neither democratic nor secure, and a society not worth saving. By the time we get to the latest book, The Triumph of Caesar, published in late 2007, Saylor’s outrage spills over into his Author’s Note:
Erich Gruen has speculated that the statue of Cleopatra in the Temple of Venus Genetrix was placed there not by Julius Caesar (as Appian explicitly states), but later, by Augustus, as a trophy after the queen’s defeat and death. This is an eminently sensible idea; nevertheless, I prefer to take Appian at his word. Caesar’s installation of the statue presents us with a puzzle, to be sure, but so do many actions taken by our own leaders. Because an act by, say, a president of the United States did not make sense to a reasonable person does not mean that the act did not take place. I would suggest that the type of man who thinks he can rule the world is not, by definition, a reasonable man, and the actions of such men inevitably leave us with vexed questions that defy explanation by sensible historians.
-Steven Saylor, Author’s Note to The Triumph of Caesar, pp. 270-1.
So, yes, Caesar is Bush, Rome is the United States and Egypt can be made to stand in for the modern Middle. East. And all the time we have poor, decent, outraged Gordianus, an old-fashioned Roman who just wants to live in his lovely new Palatine house and endure his beautiful wife’s appalling cooking and watch his grandchildren grow up, constantly dragged out into an increasingly cruel, heartless world of political manouvring that the word ‘intrigues’ is too tame to describe.
Jo Walton appears to be doing a similar thing with Farthing. The book is set in a subtly different Britain, one which did a peace-deal with Hitler that kept the carnage (and the genocide of the Jews) out of sight across the Channel. In 200 beautifully written pages, she attempts to answer the question that has been plaguing us for over sixty years: how did decent people allow this to happen?
The answer, as usual, is a combination of indifference and self-interest. Remember that little parable (if that’s the right word) that you’d often see stuck up in school counsellors’ offices as a warning against being a bystander to bullying? ‘First they came for the Jews, but I did not speak up, because I was not a Jew…etc.’ That is half of the answer. The other half of the answer is provided by Carmichael, the police detective charged with investigating the country-house murder of a rising political star (the negotiator of the ‘Peace with Honour’ with Hitler). I can’t say much more here without revealing major spoilers, but anyone who reads the final chapter without their heart breaking for the man clearly didn’t have a heart to begin with.
Philip Pullman did a similar thing in the final of his Sally Lockhart Mysteries, The Tiger in the Well. This is certainly the best of the series, and it, like Walton’s book, uses persecution of the Jews (in this case in late 19th-century Europe) as an analogy for the contemporary indifference that allows for cruelty to the contemporary avatars of the persecuted Jews.
I’m thinking here of one particular moment. Poison-tongued agitators have whipped up the poor of the East End into an anti-Semitic fury, and Daniel Goldberg, a Jewish socialist and journalist, confronts the mob. He’s been awake all night, he’s been running around London trying to find his ally Sally’s kidnapped daughter, he’s been shot, and yet he calmly walks up to the mob and gives one of the greatest political speeches ever found in a work of fiction. I don’t have my book with me, so I can’t quote it word for word, but in it he manages to address the reasonable fears of the mob, show them how those fears have been manipulated by those who caused them, into hatred of the Jews, who did not, and redirect their anger back at the casual, indifferent cruelty of the rich. In a few glorious lines, he turns the blood libel, the ancient anti-Jewish slur, into an attack on the rapacious cruelty of 19th-century capitalism. “Of course we should hate people who sacrifice children,” he says, “but ask yourselves, who sacrificed your children?” (or words to that effect). I still cry every time I read it.
It’s indifference, then, and fear. We care too much about ourselves, and not enough about others. And for every Carmichael, every Dan Goldberg and Sally Lockhart, and every Gordianus the Finder, outraged every time that man’s inhumanity to man confirms his suspicions about human nature, there are millions of us, indifferent and terrified, to push our society that much closer to repression.