Oh my, we are entering dark times. This does not look good. And I have to wonder, which books has Putin read? I think you can tell a lot about a person from their books, or whether in fact, they read at all. At the 2018 Edinburgh book festival we attended an event where Jeremy Corbyn was being interviewed by Yanis Varoufakis. All well and good, until question time, when my daughter asked him which books he would suggest young people read if they wanted to know more about politics. To the dismay of the audience, he couldn’t answer. (Afterwards, Yanis gave her a list!) Later in the same festival, we watched Nicola Sturgeon knowledgeably and eloquently interview Elif Shafak. Now that might not be enough to convert one to Scottish Nationalism over Socialism, but Nicola is still commanding respect in Scotland and beyond, as someone who knows what they’re doing (even if you don’t agree with it).
Yanis chatting to my daughter about the books she should read.
Here is a list of books I think politicians should read. These books show what war can do. In choosing my list, I realise that I actually do shy away from reading war books generally, so there are quite a few I haven’t read. Warhorse by Michael Morpurgo, for instance, though I’ve seen the film. I was forced to watch this by my daughter and remember sobbing at her, ‘please, please tell me the horse will be ok!’ I’ve seen Catch 22, which is the best war film ever, I believe, but haven’t read the book. Also seen but not read Empire of the Sun. I’ve read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, on which Apocalypse Now is based, but this is not actually a war book; it’s all about imperialism and the narrator’s obsession with Kurtz, who is an ivory trader in the book. And several times I have tried to read War and Peace, got about one hundred pages in before getting lost with all the characters.
Here we go. English language war fiction does tend to be dominated by the first and second world wars, but I’ve tried to select books from different conflicts.
1. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks Many books have been written about the First World War, but none moved me as much as this one. I read it just before accompanying my son’s school trip to the Somme which made the trip so much more harrowing,
2. Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom. This is set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. As the Second World War develops, Britain is worried that Franco might join forces with Hitler, and so our protagonist is sent as a spy to Madrid. (Spain did remain neutral in the second world war, but this book highlights the aftermath of a civil war close to home). The twists and turns in the fast moving plot are brilliant.
3. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. This is marketed as YA and is indeed much loved by that audience, but it’s a superb book for all readers, focusing on the friendship between two girls, one who works as a pilot during the war, and the other who is captured while working as a spy in Nazi-occupied France. It’s an utterly brilliant read, and I challenge you to read it without crying.
4. Two Brothers by Ben Elton. My favourite Ben Elton book; twin brothers are born in 1920s Berlin to Jewish parents, but one dies, and the doctor persuades the parents to adopt another boy – Aryan – born at the same time, whose mother has perished. This book is such a moving portrayal of anti-semitism gradually creeping into German society and slowly trapping the family.
5. Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. As a small child I was constantly being told to eat up unpalatable dinners because of the ‘starving children in Biafra’. I bitterly resented this emotional blackmail, and although this is no real excuse, it is perhaps the reason I never cared to find out where Biafra was or why people had starved there. This book not only enlightened me, bringing to life a period and place in history, but I also found it a wonderful, rich and gripping read.
6. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. This biographical account of Orwell’s role in Spain’s Civil War is not only moving, it is also a testament to the futility of war, and it influenced all his subsequent writing. He went to Barcelona as a journalist and ended up fighting and being shot in the throat on the front line. I couldn’t put this book down, and from this book came Animal Farm and 1984.. “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.”
7. Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian is an emotionally harrowing children’s book about a lad called William who is evacuated from London during the Blitz, and in living with Mr Tom, is rescued from harrowing child abuse back home. I’m not sure what the child reader will make of this; reading it as an adult was traumatic!
8.When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr. Emotionally poignant because this was based on Kerr’s true experience of her family’s escape from Berlin and Hitler. The child-like voice somehow contrasts so poignantly with the horrific events going on around her.
9. A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute. A complex, emotional and beautifully crafted novel; although this is at heart a romance set partly in the Australian Outback, this would never have happened without the atrocities in the early part of the novel, set in Malaya during the Second World War.
10. Hiroshima by John Hersey. I don’t think I’ve cried so long and so hard about any book than this piece of journalism, written in 1946 about the aftermath of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It is probably the first example of narrative non-fiction, has sold over three million copies and has never been out of print. Do you think we could get Putin to read it?
There were so many other books I would like to have included; Anne Frank’s Diary.for instance, or Ian McEwan’s Atonement. My first experience of young adult (coming of age) fiction was Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, which is set during the American civil war. I was obsessed with that book, mainly because of the feisty female protagonist, but now see that its depiction of slavery is pretty abhorrent. But not one of these books suggest that war is ever a good idea. Let’s hope that literature can speak to the leaders of our world right now.