Sunday 16 June 1996
Caesar by Christian Meier, trs David McLintock, Fontana Press pounds 9.99. The fascination of Caesar lies in his having one foot planted in prehistory - a man so charismatic that people believed him to be a god - while the other occupies political territory modern enough for you to know that he'd have totalled Bob Dole in the 1996 primaries. Meier is Germany's leading Roman historian and this belated translation of his classic study from 1982 convincingly argues that Caesar never meant to found a ruling dynasty. Yet he valued his dignity so vastly, and was so talented and charming, that he inevitably became the rumbling epicentre of historical change. Meier asserts that Caesar crossed the Rubicon saying not "the die is cast" but "the die must be cast" - not bowing to destiny but a gambler eager to begin the game.
Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic by Alexander Stille, Vintage pounds 8.99. "Sicily is a place where almost nothing is what it seems," writes Stille, whose heroes are two magistrates, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, killed by the Mafia three years ago because of their ability to penetrate the surface of Mafialand. Stille draws much on the records of their interrogations of arrested mafiosi, but his book bursts out of its publisher's glib categorisation. This is not True Crime but modern history, lucidly detailing the Italian civil war between the official government and the Mafia between 1978 and 1994. It culminates with the moment when, in a flux of revulsion, the Italian people rejected their political system when they realised that hundreds of politicians and magistrates had been fighting on both sides at once.
King David by Allan Massie, Sceptre pounds 6.99. In Massie's novelisation of the Book of Samuel, Israelite politics in King David's time are more about personalities than principles, the infighting of the tribe as it struggles to become a nation. But it is real politics for all that and David, handed the chance to rise on the whim of old Samuel himself, seizes it as avidly as any Lloyd George or Harold Wilson. Not merely a shrewd politician, he's also bold in war and a tireless collector of Philistine foreskins. Massie's source is itself one of the Old Testament's racier passages, throbbing with action of a kind to quicken the pulse of any old-time studio boss. But this is no wide-screen treatment: it is solid historical fiction in a direct line from Robert Graves and Mary Renault, pleasingly written, deeply meditated and authoritatively researched, though not averse to tailoring time scales and the order of events to the rhythm of the tale. Little Is the Light: Nostalgic Travels in the Mini States of Europe by Vitali Vitaliev, Touchstone pounds 6.99. Raised in a country of more than 22 million sq km - the only assertion about the USSR to be taken on trust - Vitaliev had always been drawn to statelets too tiny to allow much secrecy. So he travels to Liechtenstein (whose 13 prisoners were fed 3 times a day by Room Service from the nearby Liechtenstein Hotel), Mount Athos (whose all-male population observes the Julian calendar, 13 days behind ours), the Isle of Man, San Marino and other nifty nations, cracking jokes and digressing outrageously, hugely genial all the way. He ends with a useful glossary for those going after him, eg: "I am sorry, your seal is too large for my passport. Would you stamp my phrasebook instead?"
The Temporary by Rachel Cusk, Picador pounds 5.99. Boy, Ralph, meets girl, Francine, in modern London. They circle awkwardly around each other for a while, neither really knowing what they want. An office temp, she's pretty but thick as a plank; he seems to have had his personality removed with his adenoids as a child. They develop one of those desultory affairs that would expire with hardly a protest if something better should happen along. Then she finds herself missing a period ... I was hoping for something a little more gothic than this particular plot-point, so beloved of early- Sixties novelists to force their young characters into growing up. These things must still happen, I suppose, but the most intriguing aspect of the novel is the contrast between all this ordinariness and Cusk's polysyllabic prose.
Reflections of Eden: My Life With the Orangutans of Borneo by Birute M F Galdikas, Indigo pounds 7.99. What Jane Goodall is to the chimp and Dian Fossey to the mountain gorilla, Galdikas is to orangutans, the last surviving great apes of Asia. She has devoted 23 years to returning captive orangs to the wild (claiming 100 successes) and to studying the world's largest tree-living primate in its rainforest home. Once thought to be almost mentally retarded because of their semi-solitary life, these mysterious and secretive creatures display sophisticated social hierarchies, territorial controls, friendships and obligations which frame their everyday life, she reveals. The value of her account is enormously augmented by her ability to know her subjects as individuals and, as she would see it, friends.
Art critic Julian Stallabrass turns a cool eye on visual mass culture and the 'meaningless postmodern smorgasbord' in Gargantua (Verso pounds 12.95). Even a radical activity like graffiti (above, a Camden example) begins to resemble advertising, he argues, so concerned is it with brand names and prominent sites. His analysis also sweeps over shopping, cyberspace, cars and TV
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