Book review: 'Snake Dance', By Patrick Marnham

A cogent study that follows the trail of lethal cargos that created our nuclear age

“The subject of this book became an obsession,” states Patrick Marnham about Snake Dance, his cogent investigation into the murky dawn of the nuclear age. “Not thinking about the atomic bomb is most people’s default position, naturally enough.” However, for the post-war generation, life played out under a mushroom cloud. As the current negotiations regarding Iran’s programme indicate, its shadow lingers.

The Belgian director Manu Riche accompanied the author on his inquiries for a documentary. As a result, Snake Dance is a hybrid of film tie-in, travelogue, biography and history. It’s a blend that gels through Marnham’s unwavering verve as he follows the trail of a lethal cargo. “The uranium used in the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945,” he explains, “came from a mine in the Belgian Congo.” The route from Africa to ground zero is, he proposes, a tale of “science, death, deceit and cruelty”.

Marnham uses Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as his starting point. It’s an ominous beginning. “The heart of the title is not African at all,” he tells us. “It is the colonial heart. And the darkness – which is ‘impenetrable’ – is the colonial future or consequence, the world we live in today.” 

When Conrad went to Stanley Falls, now Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he described a “scene of inhabited devastation”. Marnham finds that little has changed. From the palm-greasing at immigration to accusations of uranium theft at the city’s nuclear reactor, this is a metropolis in free-fall. Marnham’s keen eye for the absurd (the reactor’s director loses a complete set of keys to the building) and sinister detail (the hippo-hide whips used on the forced labour in the mines) fits the milieu. And the intrigue involved in the wartime shipment’s journey out of Africa, dodging German spies on the coast, is the stuff of a Wilbur Smith adventure.

The book’s middle section is less potent. We're introduced to Aby Warburg, a German classicist, art historian and manic-depressive, who “lived for the past”. At the turn of the 20th century he studied the snake dance of New Mexico’s Hopi Indians. The ceremony involves hurling rattlesnakes to the ground in order to induce rain. Marnham draws a parallel between these precarious collisions and those involving neutrons ventured by Robert Oppenheimer four decades later in the same desert. While the inclusion of Warburg’s troubled life, and the totemic use of the snake dance, is fascinating, this detour remains a siding to the main story.

The chronicle of Oppenheimer’s “luminaries” and the fateful experiments out in their mesa encampment at Los Alamos is more affecting. Its name, the Manhattan Project, is indicative of the abstract relationship that grew between what was developed and its likely end result. This was a an experiment. Marnham hones in on the inhumanity of that and is unequivocal in his condemnation of the bombings. These, he posits, were war crimes on an astronomical level, in particular the bombing of Nagasaki. Many, including General Eisenhower, took a similar view at the time.

Marnham is a curious writer, both in terms of his inquisitive approach to subjects and his unclassifiable backlist. One constant is his diligent pursuit of difficult, headstrong characters. His literary biographies include lives of Georges Simenon and Mary Wesley, both stylists of the take-me-as-I-am school. He pinned down both with the precision of a lepidopterist. Here he nets the egos that built the A-Bomb. In the process he emerges as an affable presence (a sequence in which he attempts to meet Oppenheimer’s son is a gem of frustrated reportage).

Marnham agrees with Warburg’s assertion that “the machine age destroys the space for contemplation”. The central theme of this rambling yet purposeful, narrative is that in our ineffable drive for progress, for the new, we conspire to ignore the lessons of old. Equally sobering is the observation that the possibilities, responsibilities and calamities of the nuclear era will always be delivered in subjective terms. Nothing illustrates this better than Marnham’s cold juxtaposition of the atomic museums in Albuquerque and Nagasaki. The Japanese institution focuses on the need for disarmament while, in the gift shop in New Mexico, you can purchase bomb-shaped silver earrings.

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