A week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Saturday 13 June 1998
Rome's implacable loathing of Carthaginians set a pattern for neighbour hating (and baiting) which still surfaces in nuclear tests and football games alike. No doubt carvers of tabloid tablets glowered across the straits of Sicily as they inscribed the Latin equivalent of `Achtung! Surrender' or `Hop off you Frogs'. Since that sort of passion may not be quite invisible in the coming weeks, it's good to find a lively and eclectic guide to `the dividing lines of race and culture' on hand for those outbursts of hysteria.
Edited by Susan Greenberg, Hate Thy Neighbour (pounds 9.95) is the first in the promising `MindField' series of topical anthologies from Camden Press. Packaged as a blend of book and magazine, and strongly reminiscent of the much-missed New Society in its brightest days, this inaugural issue mingles polemical essays, factual digests, interviews, poems, photos and (not least) Robert Thompson's tart cartoons. If the quality (inevitably) varies, the width impresses mightily: Ann Leslie investigates embattled Englishness, Judah Passow surveys Israel's `black Jews' from Ethiopia, Sousa Jamba defends African tribal pride, Roland Littlewood meets the BNP, Seamus Deane recalls his Irish childhood - and so on. Endlessly flexible in pace, tone and angle, the whole project brings to mind a kind of streetwise Granta. It deserves to flourish.
In the course of an interview that flays the lazy pieties of multiculturalism, the veteran radical A Sivanandan underlines that `the more hybrid things are, the more alive they are'. Fighting prejudice, he says, must not mean a search for `cultural enclaves'. Enclaves become crucibles, and crucibles may ignite into cockpits.
For the sorry proof of that, explore Radha Kumar's brilliantly compact expose of the 20th-century diplomat's favourite folly: Divide and Fall? Bosnia in the annals of partition (Verso, pounds 14). In this small gem of a book, Kumar places the West's `multicultural' solution to the Bosnian war in a long, inglorious line of botched partitions. This runs from Bengal (split by the Raj in 1905) through Ireland after 1920, then Israel-Palestine, India-Pakistan, and finally to Cyprus. (Korea and Vietnam would take another, even sadder book.)
Partition, she concludes, is `more likely to inflame and prolong ethnic conflicts than solve them'. In each case, the professed respect for cultural differences that drove the diplomats did little more than mask a grubby quest for a quick fix and an exit route to help the major powers involved. In each case, the deal stored up endless trouble for the future. And what trouble! The salt of Rome stung Carthage into barrenness. Now, the farmers of Rajasthan and Baluchistan have to till a tainted earth whose lasting curse may prove to be much more terrible than that.
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