BOOK REVIEW / The death of politics: 'Civil War' - Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Granta Books, 6.99

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The Independent Culture
THE ONE frustration of reading Hans Magnus Enzensberger's work is that it arrives, for English-language readers, in such snack-sized portions. One of his previous collections of essays was published as Political Crumbs, an implicit recognition of the fact that Enzensberger's fans have not dined out in style on his prose since Europe, Europe came out in 1989. Granta's new offering is also a regrettably slim volume but, I suppose, we must feel the quality instead.

Civil War consists of just three essays, originally published in German between 1990 and 1993, but as always fresh and contemporary. To say that Enzensberger has reinvented the essay would hardly be an exaggeration; he has customised the form with a gusto verging on virtuosity. Traditionally, a problem is identified, observations made, an argument developed and a solution proposed. In Enzensberger's hands, the subject of the essay becomes like a found object. He will take it up, turn it round, pick it at, look at it from unusual angles, and then probably put it back where he found it. You don't read an Enzensberger essay for the punchline at the end; you read it to enjoy the punchline in every paragraph.

'Civil War', the title piece, is an extended meditation on the virus of inter-communal conflict. Civil war is a convenient label for instances of internecine strife whose causes we only dimly understand but about which we feel we should

be concerned, and in which perhaps we should

intervene. According to Enzensberger this label is a moral blindfold: it blocks our recognition that what we call 'civil war' exists in a continuum of social violence. No society is immune from this virus, and outbreaks occur everywhere. Power comes out of the barrel of a gun whether it is held by a chetnik on Mount Igman or by a gang member in south-central Los Angeles; for that matter, power comes out of the business end of a boot in Rostock, Brick Lane and a street near you.

Enzensberger's point here is largely to disrupt our complacency, the unacknowledged sense of moral superiority to which we in the West European democracies are habituated. This, in fact, is the preoccupation of 'Europe in Ruins', the short middle essay, which reflects mordantly on the fact that large swathes of what is now a pretty much uninterrupted vista of prosperous suburbia, supermarkets and leisure centres were piles of smouldering rubble just 50 years ago.

In 'Civil War', Enzensberger comes very close to telling us that social strife is unintelligible and uncontrollable (just as xenophobia in 'The Great Migration', the last essay, is fundamentally irrational, arational even, like a force of nature), and that politics is thus pointless and delusory. He is a deep sceptic, and his worldview sometimes looks like the result of a collaboration between Beckett, Hobbes and Nietzsche, but I prefer to think that this is simply a strategy, a provocation with a purpose. In order to be a truly moral writer, a properly political writer, he feels he must forswear both morality and politics - at least the cliches of conventional wisdom which often pass for moral and political pronouncements.

Enzensberger's own taste in writing conforms to this. In 'Europe in Ruins' he quotes with approval several contemporary journalistic accounts of the Continent ravaged by the Second World War: 'It is the stranger's gaze which is able to make us comprehend what was happening in Europe then; for it does not rely on restrictive ideological analysis but on the telling physical detail. While the leading articles and polemics of the period have a strange mustiness about them, these eyewitness reports remain fresh.'

Civil War will never grow mildewed or musty, but it is a shame that Enzensberger's readers must be satisfied with such a modest helping of that 'telling physical detail' at which he himself excels. Since he is still only 65, and evidently at the height of his prodigious powers, I live in hope that Enzensberger will produce something more substantial in prose, perhaps a great work of itinerant reportage to vie with Europe, Europe as his best.