Books: Paperbacks

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The Independent Culture
For the Sake of Argument: Essays and Minority Reports by Christopher Hitchens, Verso pounds 11.95. The essayist today has an image problem, and whether Hitchens is the saviour of the essay or the last of a breed is open to question. But he unquestionably has what an essayist must have - a boundless appetite for argument. This collection (whose themes are largely of contemporary America, viewed from the infotech coffee house atmosphere of Washington) shows the alarming profligacy of the man. He can be ferociously discursive; he's got wit in the very wax of his ears; his references are either fabulously learned or cunningly streetwise. And he is capable of proving (to my satisfaction anyway) that Henry Kissinger is a dangerous psychopath. A wonderful book.

Grand Days by Frank Moorhouse, Picador pounds 6.99. When Edith Campbell Berry, a young Australian, arrives in Geneva to work for the League of Nations, she is certain (with all the self-confidence of a well-educated 1920s woman) that good committee work can replace war and save the world for democracy. Her awakening - which is social and sexual as well as political - occurs during fraught negotiations over the accession of Weimar Germany to the League. Some episodes of the story have a documentary sobriety - like the minutes and telegrams Berry herself drafts. Others are farcical, erotic, violent; all are peculiarly convincing. Readers who love Olivia Manning and J G Farrell should fall easily for this too.

Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street by Naguib Mahfouz, Black Swan pounds 6.99 each. This is a major event: the paperbacking of the three-volume masterpiece of Egypt's 1988 Nobel novelist. Arabists have complained about the translation, alleging that Mahfouz's characteristic fusion of classical and demotic Arabic is unrecognisable in this stodgy English. But such defects can't spoil the grand universality of the conception and the characters. Set almost entirely at the addresses of the al-Jawad family (wealthy Cairo shopkeepers) and their friends, the story traces the fortunes and inner lives of successive generations between 1917 and 1945. At the heart of the story are those confusing questions which are at or near the heart of all good fiction: does a true believer love pleasure? can one be a wife and, simultaneously, a human being? and at what point does duty shade into cruelty? Wise and enjoyable.

Strange Days Indeed by Shaun Johnson, Bantam pounds 5.99. This collection of journalism by a young Johannesburg Star reporter does not amount to a coherent history of the South African revolution, but his short, day-by-day bulletins have a passionate commitment to multiracial change which marks him as a brave, as well as idealistic, commentator. He provides unforgetable snapshots of the horror-filled days of the township massacres, the assassination of Mandela's dauphin Chris Hani, the death of the 14-year-old activist Stompie Mokhetsi (and Winnie Mandela's involvement); he covers too the days of hope hedged with fear (Mandela's release, the constitutional negotiations, the election); and he never loses his faith in reconciliation and a new South Africa.

The Last Crusade by Colin Smith, Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 6.99. T E Lawrence has a walk-on part in this solidly researched novel, set in Palestine during World War I as the British army closes on the Turks in Jerusalem. It has him, rather improbably, being smarmily nice to a beautiful Jewess who runs a British spy network behind Turkish lines and to whom (Smith thinks) The Seven Pillars of Wisdom were secretly dedicated. On the whole, though, Smith manipulates a large cast, many of them historical figures on both sides of the war, with sensitivity. A good read that gathers pace like the cavalry charge with which the action ends.

A History of Hong Kong by Frank Welsh, HarperCollins pounds 9.99. Hong Kong is a quantum territory, an area of almost total colonial uncertainty. Who exactly runs it? Britain has been the colonial power for 150 years: yet, as Frank Welsh shows, furious Whitehall efforts to wipe out opium-smoking, brothel-keeping or mui-tsai (a system of qualified slavery peculiar to China) were futile in the face of Chinese intransigence. In fact 'British' Hong Kong has been extremely useful to China. Far from being a bone in her throat, it has provided a motor to propel her towards capitalism with a minimum of internal disturbance. After 1997, the roles will be reversed, with 'colonial' power exercised from Beijing. In the interim, this lucid and witty history is recommended.

The Final Martyrs by Shusaku Endo, Sceptre pounds 5.99. Endo's art begins with the contradiction of his own life: he is a Catholic Japanese. The title story of this collection, for example, deals with Christian villagers in 19th-century Japan who are offered the choice between torture and apostasy. That is an overt statement of the theme of nearly all his fiction. Faith, commitment, spiritual need, these stories say, are not ends in themselves. They are means of overcoming the torture of existence. The problem is, they bring with them their own pains, maybe greater than the ones they soothe. The choice between the pains of belief and of negation is Endo's great subject.

The Faber Book of Espionage ed Nigel West, Faber pounds 9.99. This rambling collection of extracts from the memoirs of spies amounts to a fairly comprehensive review of the subject, from a British point of view, between the First World War and the 1960s. The assorted ladies, gentlemen and hacks who found themselves attracted into spying did so sometimes from conviction, but more often to satisfy their intellectual curiosity and desire for glamour. Either way, they usually ended up as cynics. Instinct tells us that spies should be the most assiduous of conspiracy theorists. But they are just as likely to invoke the cock-up and the pratfall when explaining events in their lives.

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