The Party Forever
By Rowan Callick (Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 978 1137278852)
Australian veteran correspondent and China hand Rowan Callick has produced an excellent study of the party élite that currently presides over China’s economic miracle. While there are no startling exposés, this is a solid piece of work that shows how the legacy of Bolshevism has been woven into Chinese Confucian culture to form a glittering capitalist success story, but of a distinctly autocratic caste.
Anyone who ever believed the market economy could liberalize political life will find The Party Forever pretty sobering reading. While Callick shows the cracks, he remains impressed with the systemic determination of the communist élite to keep the lid on, and he avoids easy judgements about a country so large and complicated. But the book is distinctly pessimistic about significant political change.
Callick combines anecdote based on personal acquaintance of a wide range of ordinary and not-so-ordinary folk with a good knowledge of Chinese history and culture. This gives the reader a sense of the odd combination of innovation and hubris that marks contemporary China. The pages dealing with courageous non-conformists – including artist Ai Weiwei and the dissident professor Liu Xiaobo – are amongst the most interesting. What is missing is much about the reportedly widespread resistance to brutal exploitation and corruption – road blockades, land seizures, work stoppages – by Chinese workers and farmers in various parts of the country.
Rating: Three stars
The Sky Wept Fire
By Mikail Eldin translated from the Russian by Anna Gunin (Portobello, ISBN 978 1846273186).
When Russian troops invaded Chechnya in 1994, Mikail Eldin was an idealistic young journalist, working in the culture section of a Chechen literary periodical. By the end of the second Chechen War in 2009, having endured years of privation and hardship, including capture and torture by the Russians, he was a refugee, living in exile in Norway. The Sky Wept Fire is the heartfelt, passionate story of his years fighting for his country against the might of the Russian war machine.
The book is divided into three parts, with Eldin’s highly impressionistic accounts of the First and Second Chechen wars book-ending a long and deeply harrowing central section which details his imprisonment and torture and his resulting descent into depression and mental disintegration.
Those seeking a comprehensive history of the Chechen wars should look elsewhere; this is very much a personal, partial, necessarily fragmented memoir. The author sets out to ‘recount to the best of my ability what I was fated to witness and what my memory deemed important’. He admits that his story is ‘chronologically messy [and] stylistically imperfect’. However, this searingly honest attempt to ‘recount the war without recounting the fighting’ succeeds in putting the reader, uncomfortably, dismayingly, at the heart of the madness and living hell that is total war.
Peter Whittaker. Rating: Three stars
Bolivia: Processes of Change
By John Crabtree and Ann Chaplin (Zed, ISBN 9781780323763)
Few countries have seen such ambitious – and inspiring – attempts at peaceful change as Bolivia under the presidency of former peasant leader Evo Morales. But since the heady days of his election in 2005, maintaining the pace – and making the transformation deep and real – has been quite a challenge.
There are important successes – oil and gas wealth has been used to reduce poverty via new social security benefits for children and elderly people, for example. A new ‘plurinational’ Constitution has removed many social, cultural and gender barriers and enabled a new, more participatory form of democracy. But new conflicts have also emerged – for example, between peasants and indigenous Amazonians with opposing views about the benefits of a controversial road-building programme.
Crabtree and Chaplin are Bolivia experts with a fine grasp of its economic, political and historical complexities and idiosyncrasies. For six months they travelled the country, interviewing 160 people – all listed at the end. Most are not big names but ordinary folk active at the grassroots level. The resulting book is authentic and balanced in its identification of the obstacles, failures and threats as well as the successes. (The twist and turn of events in white-dominated, rightwing Santa Cruz is intriguing.)
Vivid and authoritative, Bolivia: Processes of Change has an appeal that stretches, beyond the bubble of Lat Am fans, to anyone with an interest in participatory democracy. Given that, it’s a pity so many Spanish words and terms (without translation at times) got past the editor.
Vanessa Baird. Rating: Four stars
Madam Attatürk - The First Lady of Modern Turkey
By İpek Çalişlar translated by Feyza Howell (Saqi Books, ISBN 978 0 86356 842 8)
You’d be forgiven for never having heard of Latife Hanım. Despite having been married for two and a half years to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – the man who led Turkey to independence and secularism in the 1920s and who remains a hero to much of his country today – Latife barely gets a mention in Turkish history books. The reason? Kemal decided to divorce her, and, because he was the great leader and therefore ‘beyond reproach’, blame for the failure of the marriage had to be attached to his wife.
Journalist İpek Çalişlar redresses the balance in this eye-opening biography, which is meticulously researched and offers compelling reasons to believe that Kemal, who prided himself on being a fervent advocate for women’s rights, wasn’t quite so open-minded when it came to his own wife. While the couple had a Western-style wedding and soon became a celebrity pair hounded by the international press, Kemal divorced Latife according to Muslim custom, by simple decree. Çalişlar’s portrayal of Kemal is generally sympathetic, but the hint of criticism in the book was too much for Turkish authorities, which took the author to court for ‘insulting the memory of Kemal Atatürk’. (She was later acquitted.)
Played out against a backdrop of a country in turmoil, grappling with new-found freedoms and entry into the modern world, Madam Atatürk offers a fascinating insight into the power dynamics between a forthright, Western-educated woman and a charismatic, stubborn man. While Kemal prevailed, Latife played a pivotal role in shaping the new Turkey – and acknowledgement of her contribution is long overdue.
Jo Lateu. Rating: Four stars