Guide to the classics: The War of the Worlds


Robert Hassan, University of Melbourne

Spoiler alert: this story details how The War of the Worlds ends.

The latest screen adaption of H. G. Wells’ 1898 modern masterwork The War of the Worlds will hit our screens this week. Continuously in print since its first publication, the book is a literary gift that keeps on giving for producers and screenwriters. They recognise the story’s unerring capacity to find its mark with each generation.

Wells – who also wrote The Time Machine (1895) and The Invisible Man (1897) – helped pioneer the science fiction genre when he conceived this astonishing book. With an eyewitness narration that reads grippingly still, it tells of a Martian invasion of Earth.

The new War of the Worlds stars Gabriel Byrne (ZeroZeroZero), Elizabeth McGovern (Downton Abbey) and Daisy Edgar-Jones (Normal People).

Shock and awe

Set in London, Wells depicts a complacent world; of men “serene in their assurance” of their dominion over the planet. But humans get the shock of another reality when suddenly visited upon by blood-feeding and squid-like creatures possessed of “intellects vast and cool” that are “unsympathetic” to Earthlings whose planet they had long “regarded with envious eyes”.


An advance party arrives inside metal cylinders shot from giant cannons stationed on Mars. From the cylinders come dozens of Martians, each operating a three-legged metal “fighting-machine” that attacks London’s helpless population by means of a “heat ray”. From these “whatever is combustible flashes into flame”, metal liquifies, glass melts and water “explodes into steam”.

Fleeing like rats from a burning ship, panic spreads like a contagion. The narrator describes a breakdown of law and order, and undergoes something of a breakdown himself.

Upper-class women arm themselves as they cross the country, because traditional deference has gone up in smoke. The “social body” of organisation – police, army, government – suffers “swift liquefaction”.

The Martians, however, had become too intelligent for their own good. They had made the Red Planet disease-free but forgotten about germ theory. And so while laying waste to London, they inhale a bug; a simple bacteria “against which their systems were unprepared” and so suffered a “death that must have seemed to them as incomprehensible as any death could be”.

London will rise again. The world has been spared. Humanity gets lucky — this time.

Read more:
Science fiction helps us deal with science fact: a lesson from Terminator’s killer robots

A wider war

In the new Anglo-French television series, La Guerre Des Mondes, the action takes place in both London and France. Martian devastation is given wider latitude.

Why does this now-familiar story have such a hold on successive generations? Iterations include the Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of “fake news” bulletins about Martian invasion, to the 1978 contemporary music version with Richard Burton narration, to Steven Spielberg’s film blockbuster starring Tom Cruise. Last year also saw a BBC production set in Edwardian London.

Tom Cruise and the red weed in the 2005 film.

One response is to consider our attraction to sci-fi. It sees the laws of science upended. Technology seems to make anything possible and to minds already accustomed to real technological transformation, sci-fi literature brings the now-thinkable future into the present.

But there’re less obvious elements to think about: themes that were important in 1898 and resonate still.

Invasion and imperialism

Wells’ book touched something existentially British during their Pax Britannica period of relative peace. Across the Channel, Europe seethed with diplomatic intrigue and tensions culminating in the first world war.

The new sci-fi genre connected to an older “invasion literature” genre; a long-standing British apprehension of the Continent, especially its renascent German threat. Wells hints at this when he writes that the arrival of the cylinders (before the Martians emerged from them) “did not [initially] make the sensation that an ultimatum to Germany would have done”.

Then there’s the imperialism angle. Was Wells tapping a source of late-Victorian shame at the true source of British wealth and power? Then, a quarter of the world map was coloured British Empire pink. London was the epicentre of modern imperialism — the coordination point for the suffering of millions and the plunder of their lands.

Moreover, Belgium, Germany, France, and also the USA, were engaged in the “scramble for colonies” in Africa and Asia. Under the veneer of sci-fi, Wells describes what it’s like to be a people facing a powerful invader.

A BBC version was set in Edwardian times.

Fear is the contagion

A very different perspective says something about our species and our idealised self-conception. In 1908 the Russian novelist and revolutionary Alexander Bogdanov, drew on WOTW for inspiration. In his novel Red Star protagonist Leonid travels to Mars to learn about communism from Martians who had made their own revolution and now lived in peace. Leonid despairs of the congenitally “unstable and fragile” nature of human relationships and looks to another planet for guidance.

The Earth-bound communist project of the 20th century ended badly, to say the least. But our human vulnerability to invasion, to tyranny, to economic catastrophe, and even to the bacteriological danger from microbes resistant to antibiotics, continues to haunt us.

The latest adaptation is set in our time with smartphones and the internet. Here again our 21st-century complacency is shattered, and our vulnerability laid bare.

Fear is a contagion in WOTW, and its Londoners show little heroism in the face of an alien invader.

Read more:
Science fiction builds mental resiliency in young readers

A new battle

Bacteria did in Wells’ Martians and might do for us too – unless drugs to overcome resistance are developed. Through sci-fi, we can explore our fear of the invisible foe.

Global warming might be our other enemy – the red skies of Australia’s last bushfire season fresh in our memory and reminiscent of Well’s novel.

Jeff Wayne created the progressive musical version of The War of the Worlds, featuring Justin Hayward (The Moody Blues), Chris Thompson (Manfred Mann’s Earth Band), Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy), Julie Covington and David Essex.

The narrative provides a hugely enjoyable fantasy. But we need to think about what science fiction might be doing to our relationship with science fact, especially if we consume it as a tranquilliser to displace and sublimate our fears of invisible threats.

If we do, then the incomprehensibility felt by Wells’ Martians may add that little bit more to our discord regarding the sources and solutions to global warming. Humans got lucky in The War of the Worlds. They didn’t need to do anything to survive. We can’t count on luck to save us or our planet.

War of the Worlds double episode will premiere July 9 on SBS and continue weekly from July 16. Episodes will be available on SBS On Demand on the same day as broadcast.The Conversation

Robert Hassan, Professor, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Exposing Donald Trump: Bolton book the latest in decades of White House disclosures to test First Amendment

Kaeten Mistry, University of East Anglia

Former US national security adviser John Bolton is the latest ex-government official to rebuke the misconduct, ignorance and self-serving behaviour of the president, Donald Trump, in the form of a tell-all book. The Room Where It Happened details Trump’s idiosyncrasies, offers of favours to authoritarian leaders, lack of basic knowledge, and “obstruction of justice as a way of life”.

Promoting the book in a series of interviews, Bolton told one reporter that he hopes it will be a one-term presidency: “Two terms, I’m more troubled about,” he said.

Yet the battle around the publication is more than another Trumpian political scandal. It centres on the disclosure of US national security information, particularly the concept of “prior restraint” that allows the government to censor speech or expression before it has occurred.

The issues originate in whistleblowing in the 1970s when former officials spoke out against government wrongdoing. Bolton is certainly no whistleblower although the legacy of that era informs an ongoing struggle today around first amendment freedom of speech rights and state secrecy.

Beyond politics

In many respects, the case is emblematic of Trump’s White House. Bolton was in post from April 2018 to September 2019, the longest serving national security adviser under Trump, but now asserts the president “lacks the competence to carry out the job” and is not “fit for office.” When the first excerpts from the book emerged, Trump characteristically lashed out with a tweet full of insults and accusations.

The politics are certainly messy. Bolton, a hawkish Republican, is an opportunistic political operative. With publication of the book, he has angered Trump’s supporters. At the same time his revelations have not won him friends among the president’s numerous opponents.

Bolton’s refusal to testify during the impeachment hearings at the beginning of the year, preferring to save his material for his book, has led to accusations that he was putting personal interest before national interest as well as profiteering, and trying to save his legacy.

Prior restraint

The crux of the matter is not individual politics but whether Bolton was authorised to publish the memoir. On June 20, Judge Royce C Lamberth of the Federal District Court of the District of Columbia denied a last-ditch Justice Department motion to block its release. Noting that excerpts were already printed and the book widely in circulation, he stated that: the “the damage is done. There is no restoring the status quo.”

The author nonetheless remains in trouble. The judge concluded that: “Bolton has gambled with the national security of the United States” by potentially exposing secrets. The government could still sue Bolton for not following the prepublication review process that applies to everyone who signs a secrecy agreement.

The prepublication review system was created following a wave of whistleblowing that exposed government abuse in the 1970s. The most famous example was Daniel Ellsberg’s revelation of the Pentagon Papers, a top secret military report on US involvement in the Vietnam War. Other whistleblowers including Frank Snepp, Philip Agee, and Victor Marchetti wrote books detailing their experiences working for the Central Intelligence Agency. Not all of them revealed secrets but the fact they were speaking publicly raised concerns.

In response, the US government created a process requiring all current and former national security officials to submit material intended for a public audience before it could be published. This vetting process was intended to protect classified information.

The system has been riddled with problems from the beginning, including lengthy review processes and arbitrary decision-making around what can and cannot be published. The issues have afflicted both works that criticise and support US foreign relations. In 2019 the Knight First Amendment Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging the system as dysfunctional and placing too much power in the hands of reviewers.

Frank Snepp: forfeited royalties for his book.

Authors who refuse to submit work for prepublication review are liable to be prosecuted. After publishing a 1977 book without approval, Snepp was ordered by the Supreme Court to forfeit all royalties to his former employer, the CIA. The court ruled that the book had caused “irreparable harm” to national security.

Bolton’s legal team claims he did not violate the secrecy agreement because he had satisfied all issues raised by the National Security Council’s senior director for prepublication review.

But the nature of the secrecy system and the review process is nebulous and allows the executive branch significant room for manoeuvre. While Trump’s assertion that “every conversation with me… [is] highly classified” is a stretch, the suggestion that “Bolton broke the law” and “must pay a very big price for this, as others have before him” is consistent with the broad authority afforded to presidents on national security matters.

The White House recently opened a second prepublication review process of Bolton’s book. The outcome of this latest review, which will be overseen by Judge Lambert, will determine his fate. If the courts follow historical precedent and rule in favour of the government, like Snepp before him, Bolton stands to forfeit his reported $2 million advance, and could face criminal liability that includes the possibility of a jail sentence.

Speech rights

While the author remains in legal peril, Bolton’s revelations continue to receive widespread attention. That the press can report national security secrets is rooted in another seminal whistleblowing case, Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and other outlets. The Supreme Court ruled that prior restraint of the press was unconstitutional.

The First Amendment of the US constitution protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press from government interference. But when it comes to discussing national security information, the press enjoys greater protection than government employees.

In hyper-partisan times, it can be hard to look beyond the immediate political stakes. Yet the issues raised by this episode predate Bolton and Trump and are likely to persist long after them.The Conversation

Kaeten Mistry, Senior Lecturer in American History, University of East Anglia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Trials of Portnoy: when Penguin fought for literature and liberty


Patrick Mullins, University of Canberra

One grey morning in October 1970, in a crowded, tizzy-pink courtroom on the corner of Melbourne’s Russell and La Trobe Streets, crown prosecutor Leonard Flanagan began denouncing a novel in terms that were strident and ringing.

“When taken as a whole, it is lewd,” he declared. “As to a large part of it, it is absolutely disgusting both in the sexual and other sense; and the content of the book as a whole offends against the ordinary standards of the average person in the community today – the ordinary, average person’s standard of decency.”


The object of Flanagan’s ire that day was the Penguin Books Australia edition of Portnoy’s Complaint. Frank, funny, and profane, Philip Roth’s novel — about a young man torn between the duties of his Jewish heritage and the autonomy of his sexual desires — had been a sensation the world over when it was published in February 1969.

Greeted with sweeping critical acclaim, it was advertised as “the funniest novel ever written about sex” and called “the autobiography of America” in the Village Voice. In the United States, it sold more than 400,000 copies in hardcover in a single year — more, even, than Mario Puzo’s The Godfather — and in the United Kingdom it was published to equal fervour and acclaim.

But in Australia, Portnoy’s Complaint had been banned.

Read more:
Philip Roth was the best post-war American writer, no ifs or buts

Banned books

Politicians, bureaucrats, police, and judges had for years worked to keep Australia free of the moral contamination of impure literature. Under a system of censorship that pre-dated federation, works that might damage the morals of the Australian public were banned, seized, and burned. Bookstores were raided. Publishers were policed and fined. Writers had been charged, fined and even jailed.

Seminal novels and political tracts from overseas had been kept out of the country. Where objectionable works emerged from Australian writers, they were rooted out like weeds. Under the censorship system, Boccacio’s Decameron had been banned. Nabokov’s Lolita had been banned. Joyce’s Ulysses had been banned. Even James Bond had been banned.

There had been opposition to this censorship for years, though it had become especially notable in the past decade. Criticism of the bans on J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Norman Lindsay’s Redheap had prompted an almost complete revision of the banned list in 1958.

The repeated prosecutions of the Oz magazine team in 1963 and 1964 had attracted enormous attention and controversy.

Outcry over the bans on Mary McCarthy’s The Group and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been loud and pronounced, and three intrepid Sydney activists had exposed the federal government to ridicule when they published a domestic edition of The Trial of Lady Chatterley, an edited transcript of the failed court proceedings against Penguin Books UK for the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Britain in 1960.

Read more:
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Penguin goes to battle

Penguin Books Australia had been prompted to join the fight against censorship by the three idealistic and ambitious men at its helm: managing director John Michie, finance director Peter Froelich, and editor John Hooker.

In five years, the three men had overhauled the publisher, improving its distribution machinery and logistics and reinvigorating its publishing list. They believed Penguin could shape Australian life and culture by publishing interesting and vibrant books by Australian authors.

They wanted Penguin’s books to engage with the political and cultural shifts that the country was undergoing, to expose old canards, question the orthodox, and pose alternatives.

Censorship was no small topic in all this. Those at Penguin saw censorship as an inhibition on these ambitions. “We’d had issues with it before, in minor ways,” Peter Froelich recalled, “and we’d have drinks we’d say, ‘It’s wrong! How can we fix it? What can we do? How do we bring it to people’s attention, so that it can be changed?’”

The answer emerged when they heard of the ban placed on Portnoy’s Complaint. Justifiably famous, a bestseller the world over, of well-discussed literary merit, it stood out immediately as a work with which to challenge the censorship system, just as its British parent company had a decade earlier.

Why not obtain the rights to an Australian edition, print it in secret, and publish it in one fell swoop? As Hooker — who had the idea — put it to Michie, “Jack, we ought to really publish Portnoy’s Complaint and give them one in the eye”.

The risks were considerable. There was sure to be a backlash from police and politicians. Criminal charges against Penguin and its three leaders were almost certain. Financial losses thanks to seized stock and fines would be considerable. The legal fees incurred in fighting charges would be enormous. Booksellers who stocked the book would also be put on trial. But Penguin was determined.

John Michie was resolute. “John offered to smash the whole thing down,” Hooker said, later. When he was told what was about to happen, federal minister for customs Don Chipp swore that Michie would pay: “I’ll see you in jail for this.” But Michie was not to be dissuaded.

‘People who took exception to it at the time are mostly dead,’ Roth said, some 40 years and 30 books after Portnoy’s Complaint was published.

A stampede

In July 1970, Penguin arranged to have three copies of Portnoy smuggled into Australia. In considerable secrecy, they used them to print 75,000 copies in Sydney and shipped them to wholesalers and bookstores around the country. It was an operation carried out with a precision that Hooker later likened to the German invasion of Poland.


The book was unveiled on August 31 1970. Michie held a press conference in his Mont Albert home, saying Portnoy’s Complaint was a masterpiece and should be available to read in Australia. Neither he nor Penguin were afraid of the prosecutions: “We are prepared to take the matter to the High Court.”

The next morning, as the trucks bearing copies began to arrive, bookstores everywhere were rushed. At one Melbourne bookstore, the assistant manager was knocked down and trampled by a crowd eager to buy the book and support Penguin. “It was a stampede,” he said later. A bookstore manager in Sydney was amazed when the 500 copies his store took sold out in two-and-a-half hours.

All too soon, it was sold out. And with politicians making loud promises of retribution, the police descended.

Bookstores were raided. Unsold copies were seized. Court summons were delivered to Penguin, to Michie, and to booksellers the whole country over. A long list of court trials over the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint and its sale were in the offing.

A stellar line-up

So the trial that opened on the grey morning of October 19 1970, in the Melbourne Magistrates Court, was only the first in what promised to be a long battle.

Neither Michie nor his colleagues were daunted. They had prepared a defence based around literary merit and the good that might come from reading the book. They had retained expert lawyers and marshalled the cream of Australia’s literary and academic elite to come to their aid.

Patrick White would appear as a witness for the defence. So too would academic John McLaren, The Age newspaper editor Graham Perkin, the critic A.A. Phillips, the historian Manning Clark, the poet Vincent Buckley, and many more. They were unconcerned by Flanagan’s furious denunciations, by his shudders of disgust, and by his caustic indictments of Penguin and its leaders.

They were confident in their cause. As one telegram to Michie said:


This is an edited extract from Trials of Portnoy by Patrick Mullins, published by Scribe.The Conversation

Patrick Mullins, Adjunct assistant professor, Centre for Creative and Cultural Research, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guide to the Classics: The Leopard

The Leopard/IMDB

Giorgia Alù, University of Sydney

Aridly undulating to the horizon in hillock after hillock, comfortless and irrational, with no lines that the mind could grasp, conceived apparently in a delirious moment of creation.

This is the description of a scorched, unruly Sicilian landscape – both protagonist and spectator of the story of its people – in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard.


The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) is one of the greatest Italian literary works of the 20th century. Since its publication in 1958, it has been regarded as a classic of European literature. Written by a Sicilian nobleman and set in the 19th-century during the Risorgimento – the movement for Italian Unification – it recounts the decline and fall of Sicily’s aristocracy.

Rosary, macaroni, faded grandeur

The action begins in 1860 when Italian general and patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi and his thousand volunteers land in Sicily to take the island from the Bourbons. They aim to unify the Kingdom of Naples – also known as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies – with the Italian peninsula under the monarchy of Victor Emmanuel II. Events in the novel mark the passing of feudalism and the advent of modernity.

Yet everyday activities foreground the novel: daily recital of the Rosary, evening readings around the fire, faded grandeur of meals where “monumental dishes of macaroni” are served among massive silver and splendid glass, a walk and hunting expedition in the sunburnt Sicilian countryside, a magnificent ball.

The central character of the story is the irascible and reclusive Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, an aristocratic landowner and lover of astronomy, faithfully accompanied by his Great Dane Bendicò.

His family’s ancestral coat-of-arms shows an African serval or ocelot (mistakenly translated as leopard). The prince’s favourite nephew, the impoverished ambitious and frivolous Tancredi Falconeri, opportunistically supports the unification efforts of Garibaldi.

‘Conceived apparently in a delirious moment of creation’, the unruly Sicilian landscape.
Krisjanis Mezulis/Unsplash, CC BY

Tancredi falls in love with the beautiful Angelica, leaving a cousin who loves him devastated and his aunt distraught. Angelica is the daughter of Don Calogero Sedàra, a member of the merchant class ascending to power.

The novel’s main tension lies in class struggle: between the falling elites represented by the house of Corbera and the climbing middle class represented by the unscrupulous Sedàra. The national unification led by Piedmont in Northern Italy – and by statesman Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour – will mark the end of the aristocracy’s as well as of the church’s privileges in Italy.

Don Fabrizio reluctantly realises the only way to ensure the career of his nephew, who aims to become a diplomat, is to give his blessing to Tancredi’s marriage with Angelica. The union will provide Tancredi with the money he will need to succeed in the new regime. It will also bestow a title of nobility on Angelica and her parents. By the book’s end, set in 1910, the prince has died and his line has ended.

Read more:
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Rejected at first

The manuscript was initially rejected in 1956 and 1957. Important Italian publishers such as Mondadori and Einaudi thought it ideologically deficient, reactionary for its representation of an immobile history, and structurally weak. It also failed to align with the mainstream Italian literature of the time.

The manuscript was subsequently reviewed by writer Giorgio Bassani and published for Feltrinelli in 1958, a year after its author’s death.

Generally classified as a historical novel, The Leopard became a bestseller both in Italy and abroad, with 52 editions printed in the first four months. It won the prestigious Strega literary prize in 1959.

But critical debate erupted. The book appeared during an economic boom and when Italian intellectual culture was strongly politicised. Leftist intellectuals saw it as a backward, conservative portrayal of Sicilian elites written by a little-known man with no sense of progress.

After a few years, initial objections waned and the novel came to be appreciated for its writing and modern narrative structure.

With supple and ornate language, the book has an introspective storyline and alludes to the works of Shakespeare, Sterne, Tolstoy, Baudelaire, Keats, Proust and Stendhal. The narration is characterised by stylistic shifts that reflect both Prince Salina’s varying points of view and the unnamed but all-knowing narrator’s perceptions of history.

In 1963 director Luchino Visconti recreated The Leopard’s opulence in an unforgettable screen adaptation starring Burt Lancaster.

‘Nostalgia very similar to Gone With The Wind … says The New York Times!’

Meditations on history and humanity

Although The Leopard is a representation of 19th century Sicilian aristocracy, it is also a contemplative and ironic distancing from this same world. It is, above all, a novel that provides a profound meditation on transition and historical causality.

Besides, The Leopard is an ambitious political book. Critical interpretations of the novel have divided on whether the author was bemoaning the decline of the traditional ruling class, mercilessly critiquing it, or reflecting on the limits of political reforms.

In the plot, we can find similarities between the Bourbons’ supremacy and fascism, between Garibaldi’s conquest and the allied occupation at the end of the second world war. The book foreshadows political life in the newly unified kingdom and economic transformations that paved the way for corruption and criminal organisations in post-1945 Italy.

Read more:
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As journalist and author, Luigi Barzini, once said, the book “made all us Italians understand our life and history to the depths.”

The most memorable – and misread – line in the book is

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.

Spoken by Tancredi, it references Sicilian society’s resistance to change. It is also the narrator’s rumination on modern Italy with its various paradoxes and divisions.

The Leopard is a family saga, a psychological novel, a meditation on death and on the loss of collective memory. It has been read as a lyrical and prophetic contemplation on the experience of modernity and on the risks that it involves, such as ambition, and loss of beauty and traditions.

A solitary, melancholic man, author Tomasi di Lampedusa was deeply aware of his own mortality. The Leopard was his only novel that, together with a collection of short stories and literary studies, was published posthumously. His book would sell more than 3.2 million copies, be translated into more than 37 languages, and rightly honoured as an “immortal” masterpiece.The Conversation

Giorgia Alù, Associate Professor, Department of Italian Studies, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Book review: Desire Lines is a small love story inside an epic tale

Simon Maisch/Unsplash

Jennifer Gribble, University of Sydney

Chronicling four generations of two families, Felicity Volk’s Desire Lines is set against landmarks of 20th century Australian history, encompassing a geographical span that begins in the Arctic Circle and ends in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales.

Desire Lines is a richly textured celebration of Australia – its landscape, sights, sounds, seasons – while holding in close focus the inner lives of its characters. It is epic in scale, but also an unfolding love story that keeps the reader guessing until the very end.

Paddy O’Connor’s trajectory is set by the flip of his gambler father’s “lucky coin” abandoning him (rather than his infant brother) to the systematic cruelties of a London orphanage, and then the hard labour of a farm school far west of Sydney.

This spinning coin makes a recurrent trope for decision-making. The inability to decide; the urgencies and waylaying of desire.

Desire lines are the paths formed not by designers, but by human feet: the paths of dirt traced into grass as people walk the route they desire, not the route of the path laid out for them.

As Paddy, now a successful architect, reflects:

… when deciding where to put footpaths around an edifice, a pragmatic architect would plant grass and watch for where the trampled tracks appeared. A pragmatic architect would pave those.

Evie’s first meeting with Paddy at her grandparents’ market stall initiates love scenes of unusual tenderness and physical immediacy, overseen by a writer whose nuanced style moves with ease between the lyrically descriptive and the gently ironic.

Building and planting and travelling bring the parallel storylines of Paddy and Evie into convergence, setting up their rhythm of meeting and parting and meeting again.

Through the eyes of babes

Paddy and Evie’s inner lives are finely delineated from earliest childhood, to sexual awakening, to “the sweetness of rapprochement” in old age.

Volk acutely observes seven-year-old Paddy’s suffering in the face of his father’s violent abuse of his mother. In the agony of separation and loss he continues to write to Mammy, who “comes to him in dream, her face sharp and familiar”. He is always imagining their reunion. But before long, her sparse replies cease.

The bond Paddy forged with his friends from the orphanage, Rusty and Fionnoula, is shockingly broken when he discovers their dead bodies in a farm shed, covered by brown hessian:

… guttural noises spilled from his mouth. He was a stranger to his ears.

Seeing without fully understanding their grooming and sadistic punishments, he blames himself for not preventing their suicide pact:

It would walk beside him and be buried with him, preparing the way before him, so that he would fall into its abyss over and over again with every step that he took.

The reader understands Paddy’s failures of courage. Evie will find impossible to forgive him.

As a child, in the Edenic space of a lavender maze, Evie becomes aware of a man watching and grunting in an activity that threatens her:

with a dread she didn’t know but seemed to have known forever […] a truth so ugly it may as well have been a lie; best not to give words to it.

Rescued by a kindly Aboriginal gardener and presented with one of his yam daisies, she is is confirmed in her life’s work as a conservator of botanical species.

The high-point of Evie’s work as a conservationist comes in her depositing Australian seeds in the Global Seed Vault in Norway. Invested in her seeds is hope for the survival of the planet and its ecology; hopes for people and what they hold dear.

Living hope

Volk’s novel asks: to what extent are our lives laid out for us by the determinations of heredity and environment? What degrees of freedom can we claim? And how can the integrity of the self be reconciled with the needs and rights of others?

“Are you still a liar?” Evie fires off in a text message to her estranged lover as the novel’s first sentence. She has learnt lying is endemic in the adult world, and the nation’s history.

Being true to her love for Paddy, she is forced to lose custody of her children. He maintains the lie of a happy and faithful marriage to Ann; his children enjoy the stability and security he was denied.

Eventually, Evie realises she has reached the end of her patience. “Are you still a liar?” she keeps sending on their anniversaries across years and miles: a question that keeps hope alive by its very constancy. Hope that by coincidence, determination and vulnerability, desire will draw them together at last.

Desire Lines is out now through HachetteThe Conversation

Jennifer Gribble, Honorary Associate Professor, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Not My Review: Diary of a Yuppie by Louis Auchincloss

The link below is to a book review of ‘ Diary of a Yuppie’ by Louis Auchincloss.

For more visit:

Not My Review: The Hunger Games (Book 0) – The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

Book review: lessons from a township that resisted apartheid

Oukasie residents protest over poor service delivery in 2010.
Jaco Marais/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Steven Friedman, University of Johannesburg

Can people on the wrong end of power change the world by working together? Or are the moments when the powerless take control of their own lives doomed to be snuffed out?

The question is raised by Kally Forrest’s book Bonds of Justice: The Struggle for Oukasie. It is another in the Hidden Voices series which aims to recover and preserve writings on society which would otherwise fall through publishers’ nets. The book is short and highly readable, and so is accessible to a non-academic audience. It has been some years in the making – it uses information gathered in 2011 and 2012. But the story it tells raises topical issues.

Forrest details the fight, in the last years of apartheid, of the people of Oukasie, a township near Brits in North West Province, against an attempt to force them to move to Lethlabile, 25 km from Brits, primarily because their presence offended white residents. While it was common under apartheid for black people to be removed to areas where they would be out of sight to whites, it was uncommon for those who faced this threat to resist it successfully. Oukasie did manage to defeat the attempted removal.

It organised to do this despite a sustained campaign by the apartheid authorities. This included the murder of anti-removal leaders and members of their family, but its chief strategy was to divide residents. So, resistance could only succeed if the resisters were organised and united. While thousands were induced to move, enough stayed to force the authorities to abandon the removal and agree that Oukasie be developed.

Unusual circumstances made Oukasie an ideal site for strong grassroots organisation in which people remain united because they share in decisions.

Hidden Voices/Fanele

The resistance

Brits was the site of strong worker organisation, largely the work of Young Christian Workers (YCW), founded by Roman Catholic priests as a vehicle for European workers to change exploitative conditions through organised efforts. YCW, which in Brits was open to non-Christians, stressed democratic grassroots organisation based on careful strategy summed up in its motto – “See, judge, act” – which encouraged members to reflect on what they saw before deciding what to do about it.

Young Christian Workers was political, since it challenged the effect of economic power on its members. But it was wary of the political movements which, it believed, wanted workers to act in ways which advanced the movements’ interests but not their own. It was able to maintain this stance because, in contrast to much of the rest of the country, the political organisations were not active in Oukasie.

Its attitude was identical to that of a section of the trade union movement which happened to be strongly represented in Brits. Its vehicle was the union which became the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa). Young Christian Workers’s members gravitated to it and it developed a strong presence in Oukasie. The resistance to removal relied on the same stress on grassroots participation and careful strategy which Young Christian Workers and Numsa adopted in the workplace.

The Oukasie resistance became, therefore, a test for an approach which relied on the efforts of grassroots people rather than high profile political leaders to change the world.

In one sense, this route to change worked. Oukasie was reprieved, and this was followed by a period of development. The Brits transitional local government which was elected in the mid-1990s was led by Levy Mamobolo, a unionist and anti-removal leader who, until his untimely death, led the area effectively and honestly. The first few years seemed to show that democratic local organisation could also produce political leadership which serves the people rather than itself.

But, as Forrest shows, the Oukasie story does not end happily. Leaders committed to public service were forced out of the local government; public services declined and corruption increased.

Forrest therefore frames her book not as a story of the triumph of a particular way of fighting for change but as evidence of what is possible if people organise themselves in the way Oukasie did. The author of an important book on Numsa, she is an advocate of the approach followed by Young Christian Workers, Numsa and the Oukasie resisters. She contrasts this with the selfish elitism which gained control of Brits.

But she leaves unanswered the key question: is the grassroots organisation which saved Oukasie a realistic route to change, or is it doomed to give way to the top-down leadership to which Brits succumbed?

In 2010 Oukasie rose again, in furious protests over poor service delivery. More than 100 were arrested.
Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images

What does the ultimate defeat mean?

Given the importance of this question, it is a pity that Forrest does not analyse the defeat of grassroots democracy in Oukasie. We are left wondering how and why control passed from the “good guys” to the “bad guys”.

One reason may well have been that the governing African National Congress’s (ANC’s) politics turned out to be more powerful than those who supported the Oukasie resistance hoped. Forrest records that key figures in the resistance to removal joined the ANC and served in its committees once it was unbanned. This suggests that Oukasie’s ability to maintain an independent path was purely a result of happenstance (the lack of a political presence in the area).

Despite these limitations, the book makes an important contribution. Forrest’s sympathy for the Oukasie campaign does not prevent her from highlighting weaknesses. She acknowledges that the campaign failed to prevent thousands leaving Oukasie, and she documents the defeat of the politics she champions as Oukasie moved from resistance to local governance. This makes the book a highly credible account of the events it describes.

The book should, therefore, be read by anyone concerned with democracy’s future in South Africa, but in other contexts too. It should also trigger a debate on whether the political approach it describes is feasible.

Bonds of Justice: The Struggle for Oukasie is available online.The Conversation

Steven Friedman, Professor of Political Studies, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

After the plague: Lauren Beukes’ new book is about a world without men

Tabitha Guy

Nedine Moonsamy, University of Pretoria

Based in 2023, South African writer Lauren Beukes’ novel Afterland captures the devastating effects of a global pandemic.

A highly contagious virus, called HCV, has killed around four billion men. Society is in disrepair and, with no cure in sight, women are barred from procreation. The few males who have proven immune have become hot commodities for various agendas. And the odds are stacked against the protagonist Cole in her bid to return home to Johannesburg from America with her young son Miles – who possesses the HCV-resistant gene.

Cole has lost her husband and been forced into a quarantine facility so that the government can conduct experiments on Miles. She is relieved when her sister, Billie, shows up to help them break out. Yet, ever duplicitous, Billie has been enticed by the price of black market sperm.

Nedine Moonsamy interviewed Beukes about the book.

Nedine Moonsamy: How does it feel to have written this novel now that COVID-19 is here?

Lauren Beukes: The book isn’t about the pandemic, but the aftermath, and how Cole and Miles navigate this radically changed world in which boys are suddenly precious commodities. But it’s not a dystopia, it’s not a total apocalypse. I did want to model a society that still functions.

In the world of Afterland, most of the male population has died, leaving only 35-50 million men and boys on the whole planet. It was challenging and hella fun to explore what sectors would be hardest hit, especially in what the novel calls PMdI (Previously Male-dominated Industries), such as satellite technicians, undersea cable maintenance divers, truckers and pilots and engineers and mine workers and mechanics; and what measures the women in charge would have taken to manage that.

It mainly comes down to a whole lot of upskilling, but there are also some political shenanigans in the book: the US, for example, offers lucrative immigration deals to citizens from Egypt and Qatar and India where they have more women software engineers. The president of Colombia shuts down coffee exports until America legalises drugs because women don’t want to lose another single person to the violent narco trade.

Lauren Beukes.
Tabitha Guy

There are religious groups that believe this is God’s punishment, and terrorist groups setting oil fields alight to bring about the true end times. But that’s all mostly background.

Cole and Miles do run into an anarchist community in Salt Lake City who are mobilising – hacking hotel cards to give people access to housing, for example. It’s been fascinating, and inspiring, to see South Africa’s own Community Action Networks reaching out across our huge divides to partner with under-resourced neighbourhoods.

Nedine Moonsamy: How did you approach the research for the book?

Lauren Beukes: I interviewed a lot of experts: I spoke to my friend Scott Hanselman about female coders, economist Hannes Grassegger about what this new imagined economy might look like, and scientist friends like Janine Scholefield explained viruses and keyholes and x-linked genetic variances to me. I asked Cape Town metro police officers on the ride-alongs I did, what would happen to the drugs and gangs if all the men disappeared: would they grind to a halt? “Are you kidding?” they said. They maintain it would continue in much the same way, maybe worse: “The most ruthless leader of the Americans was Mama American because she had more to prove.”

As Billie says in the novel, “Power is a fickle slut” – and yeah, absolutely, many of the old power structures are going to hold. Even in a world where 99% of the male population is dead, patriarchy is still a very comfortable pair of shoes and very easy to slip into.

It’s inspiring to see people talking about how we’re all going to reinvent the world post-COVID, go full socialism, bring in universal basic income, healthcare for all, proper minimum wage, income protection, continued bonds of support and care between wealthy neighbourhoods and disadvantaged ones. But capitalism is an old god, and it’s going to be very difficult to overthrow completely.

And of course there will be backlashes; epidemics are often terrible for women’s rights. Look at where women are the primary caregivers at cost to their careers, and vulnerable to violent partners. Plus they don’t go back to work and girls don’t go back to school in nearly the same numbers as men and boys.

I hope this has already been such a system shock that we will have no choice but to make significant changes to the way the world works now. But I’m afraid of what the cost to us is going to be.

Nedine Moonsamy: I can see that you steered away from a radical feminist novel in order to tell a story about the best version of familial love. From this angle, the novel seems to converse with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road where father and son travel through post-apocalyptic America to get to the coast. In Afterland the journey has a more optimistic spin. Were you attempting to rework this “great American novel” in some way?

Lauren Beukes: It depends on what you mean by radical. I didn’t want to tell a story that was all about the world, or the characters changing it, à la Harry Potter or Children of Men, but rather about the ordinary people caught up in that world. The Road was definitely a reference point, and again, something I was writing in conversation with (like The Handmaid’s Tale). I hated the ending of The Road. (Spoilers!) As a parent, I would never, ever let my kid go out into a world full of cannibals and rapists on their own. What kind of hope is that? It was blind luck that the next people he stumbled across were good.

Penguin Random House

From the feminist perspective, there were two ideas I wanted to play with: flipping the narrative, where suddenly Miles’s bodily autonomy and agency are under threat because people are treating him as a commodity, a reproductive resource, a sex object, a matter of “future security”. And exploring the idea of how a world of women is not necessarily going to be a kinder, gentler, friendship-bracelet-and-communal-gardens kinda place, where we can all go walking at night on our own and the country’s national women’s football team Banyana Banyana gets to play the huge stadiums.

I’m not big on the binary idea of masculine versus feminine, and I wanted to interrogate that. A world of women is a world of people, still, with full human capacity for good or evil. Because women are just as capable of being power-hungry, violent, self-interested, abusive and evil as men can be, especially when we’re still living through the same society, but maybe in different ways.

Likewise, men are just as capable of being compassionate, nurturing, primary caregivers – and making friendship bracelets.

To buy a copy of Afterland visit Penguin Random House over here.The Conversation

Nedine Moonsamy, Senior Lecturer, University of Pretoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.