Zed £17.99 (326pp) £16.19 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897

The End of Certainty, By Stephen Chan

Stephen Chan, a professor of international relations, asks rather enticingly in the introduction to The End of Certainty, "What would a magical realist novel look like as an intellectual essay?" I suppose such a hybrid would simultaneously approach an argument from opposite directions, assume multiple perspectives (some human, some divine), make wonderful but implausible leaps of logic and head off on long, winding journeys of thought that never quite make it back to the main narrative.

There's a touch of all of this to Chan's book, but in the end it's not a novel, there is no story, and there are no characters but for the writer and the reader. Consequently, I found his book something closer to a long and rather splendid dinner with Stephen Chan: a ten-course tasting menu from a three-star Michelin restaurant specialising in global cultural history. My host was erudite, well-travelled and at his most charming when most personal, but there was barely time to dwell on his stories, as we raced through Michel Foucault's sex life, the peculiarities of Finnish nationalism and the modern Ghanaian novel.

One course consisted of a long discussion on the motives of Osama bin Laden. The account of Wahhabism that followed complemented it nicely and served by way of an excellent introduction to the austere Islam of the desert, but for me the argument was lost in the sauce heaped upon it: the drama of the Arthurian hero Gawain and the fight between Hector and Achilles in the Iliad. We moved onto the practice of mercy in international politics and the ethical dilemmas of aid agencies, intervention and non-interventions of all kinds, but ended up chewing over Hindu mythologies and the dangers of utopianism.

I was hoping for something a little less rich, but the Tao of international relations, proved just as demanding: Nietzsche on Buddhism, an introduction to Zoroastrianism, the multiculturalism of Alexander the Great, the place of cultural diversity in Iranian history. By now my head, or my stomach, was swimming and there was more to come. Had I had drunk too much? Was this kind of rich eclectic diet too much for my unseasoned stomach?

Perhaps, but I wanted to stop Stephen as he offered me another delicious and perfectly executed morsel of Jewish theology, and say, "Enough, already! You are a great cook, but the dishes are too complex and I'm still hungry. Give me some comfort food to work on."

Like the best-mannered hosts, Stephen did oblige his guest. There are a set of genuinely interesting, well-posed issues in this book, if you can get through the early part of the menu. Chan is arguing that the discipline of international relations, which is central to the way in which the West perceives the rest of the world and acts towards it, does not have much sense of the international. What other culture could take seriously Fukyama's End of History and Huntington's Clash of Civilisations, models of international relations that either write the rest of the world out of the story or permanently locate them on the dangerous peripheries? It is no surprise that we have, despite all the claims of universalism, failed to think and act universally.

The West is profoundly ignorant of the cultures of the rest of humanity, though they know us remarkably well. One of the many conditions for forging a genuinely international internationalism is for us to learn more, to try and understand the rest of the world on its own terms, and to engage with the people and the ideas of which we don't approve.

I left the restaurant with a sound appreciation of the limits of my own knowledge, and a sense of how superficial are my pretensions to cosmopolitanism. So I'll be coming back for more. I hope Stephen Chan keeps cooking, but I must confess I will be hoping for rather sparser fare next time.

David Goldblatt's global history of football, 'The Ball is Round', is published by Penguin

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests