(Chatto & Windus, £18.99)

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Gravelle on trial for Danny Latimer's murder as Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Review: Broadchurch episode 7

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Barry Norman has predicted a Best Actor win for Michael Keaton at this Sunday's awards

oscars
Arts and Entertainment
The right stuff: 'Ukip: the First 100 Days'

Review: UKIP: The First 100 Days TV
Arts and Entertainment
Anastasia Steele with Christian Grey in his offices in Fifty Shades of Grey

film
Arts and Entertainment
Class act: Julia McKenzie and Keeley Hawes in 'The Casual Vacancy'

JK Rowling's story is a far better drama than it is a book

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The BBC's version of 'The Crimson Petal and the White'

Books

Arts and Entertainment
We will remember them: 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' at the Tower of London

Art Police investigate abuse sent to Paul Cummins over Tower of London installation

Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman was named worst actress for her performance as Grace Kelly in Grace of Monaco
film
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game; the film’s producer, Harvey Weinstein, said the UK government ought to honour its subject
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower