Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Book Review - The Love of One's Country

Book Review: The Love of One’s Country

A novel by Brian Brennan

Full disclosure: I have known Brian Brennan for years, and we get together as part of a writer’s group six or eight times a year. What’s more, I am married to an Irish immigrant. As a result, I have often gone to Ireland to visit, and I long ago learned to love the Emerald Isle.
The members of our writers’ group – formally known to its participants as “Beers with Peers” – have all published books, written for newspapers or journals and in other ways established journalistic backgrounds. Even so, in terms of publishing volume, Brennan is a step above most published writers. His writing career began with a 25-year career as staff writer and columnist with The Calgary Herald. After leaving that paper, he began his book-writing career.
From the beginning, his books have been about people. He’s a gifted story-teller, and until recently his books have been about characters in western Canada. As I look around my shelves, I find The Good Steward: the Ernest C. Manning Story – the first and only biography of the former Alberta premier.  Another is Rogues and Rebels: Unforgettable characters from Canada’s West. Then there are Scoundrels and Scallywags: Characters from Alberta’s Past; Building a Province: 60 Alberta Lives; and Alberta Originals: Stories of Albertans who made a difference.
In the last few years, however, Brian has become more interested in his roots. Máire Bhuí Ní Laoire: A Poet of Her People. She bore that name in real life in the 1840s when the potato blight, which led to famine, motivated seemingly endless streams of migrants to flow from Ireland to the UK and North America. For this work he translates from Gaelic into English the work of this woman, who was in fact his maternal grandmother's grandmother. Then came the autobiographical Leaving Dublin: Writing My Way from Ireland to Canada.
Having written biography, volumes of short stories, and translated a volume of poetry into English, Love of One’s Country is his first novel. Like his other books, it’s deeply rooted in people and their impacts on the world. Reflecting his recent work, it’s a novel which is historically accurate. Máire Bhuí Ní Laoire is a key character in the story, and her descendant Jerry is keenly interested in her story. In the novel, she is Jerry’s paternal grandfather’s grandmother. It’s a piddling difference: anyone who knows Brian understands that Jerry and he are the same.

How many stars? My major interest is history, and I don’t often read novels. However, I’ve always enjoyed Brian’s work, and I have family ties with Ireland. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The author moves seamlessly between periods, beginning each new section with a headline noting place, year and month. Once he has set the stage, his writing uses the present tense only: “She is,” “he sees,” “they do.” In the dialogue, of course, people speak normally, using the proper tenses and nuances of English speech. His Irish characters often use the pronoun “ye” for “you” – a common practice in Ireland today, and one which adds charm to Brian’s writing.
The shadow of Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland (1649–53) is often present in the 1840s portion of this book. Irish rebellion against British domination is clear throughout the 19th century portions of the book. It reflects both religion and outrage at the large Protestant estates occupied by descendants of Cromwell’s men. In Love of One’s Country, this reaches fever pitch when Diarmuid de Búrca plans and leads the murder of an Anglo-Irish aristocrat, and the destruction of his property.
In the end, Diarmuid boards a ship for Canada to escape the catastrophe of the potato famine, after having received a blessing from his mother, the poet. (“Diarmuid” is Gaelic for Jeremiah, and thus the origin of Jerry, the present-day hero of the book.) Diarmuid and Nell, his bride, are able to get privileged cabins on a ship, Sir Henry Pottinger, for the trip to Grosse Île, Québec. However, their presence on the ship enables the author to tell the tragic story of the bulk of the immigrants – poor peasants who travelled in steerage, below deck, and the tragic conditions they faced.  Conditions do not much improve when they disembark, and many would-be immigrants died before setting foot on Canadian soil. Grosse Île was the end of many dreams of a new life in Canada. Today it’s the home of an Irish Memorial National Historic Site.
How many stars? I’m a tight-wad when I rate books, so let me put it like this: I enjoyed this novel immensely.  Read The Love of One’s Country and decide for yourself how many stars it deserves.  

Monday, August 26, 2019

Book Review: Václav Havel, To the Castle and Back

(2007; translated into English by Paul Wilson in 2008.)

When Václav Havel first entered Prague Castle after becoming president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, he and his team (“a group of friends from various branches of the arts”) found wires and concealed microphones everywhere, and a map revealing secret rooms. It was “an enchanted Kafkaesque castle” and, as he reveals in this candid memoir, his time there frequently struck him as absurd. What he most remembers from those heady, almost hysterical early days is that “we laughed a lot, though I can hardly remember what we laughed at or why.” The laughter soon died away, and this memoire is mostly about his growing disillusionment.
When Havel went from being a dissident to a president, “the arc of my story was completed in a way that was almost like a fairytale.” This played especially well in the west, where he assumed an almost legendary status. Back home, however, Havel had a country to run and he fell back to earth with a bump. In this book he attempts to answer his critics and to address his “murky legacy”. It's an astonishingly candid memoir from the acclaimed, dissident playwright, who was elected President after Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution.  
As writer and statesman, Václav Havel played an essential part in the profound changes that occurred in Central Europe in the last decades of the twentieth century. In this memoir, he writes about his transition from outspoken dissident and political prisoner to a player on the international stage in 1989 as newly-elected president of Czechoslovakia after the ousting of the Soviet Union. Four years later, in l993, he became president of the newly formed Czech Republic.
Havel gives full rein to his impassioned stance against the devastation wrought by communism, but the scope of his concern in this engrossing memoir extends far beyond the circumstances he faced in his own country. The book is full of anecdotes of his interactions with world figures: offering a peace pipe to Mikhail Gorbachev, meditating with the Dali Lama, confessing to Pope John Paul II and partying with Bill and Hilary Clinton.
He shares his thoughts on the future of the European Union and the role of national identity in today’s world. He explains why he has come to change his mind about the war in Iraq, and he discusses the political and personal reverberations he faces because of his initial support of the invasion. He writes with equal intelligence and candour about subjects as diverse as the arrogance of western power politics, the death of his first wife and his own battle with lung cancer.
Woven through are internal memos he wrote during his presidency that take us behind the scenes of the Prague Castle – the government’s seat of power – showing the internal workings of the office and revealing Havel’s mission to act as his country’s conscience, and even, at times, its chief social organizer.
Written with characteristic eloquence, wit and well-honed irony combined with an unfailing sense of wonder at the course his life has taken, To the Castle and Back is a revelation of one of the most important political figures of our time. Why didn’t he root out communists from the government and make a clean break with the old regime? Why did it take a month to disband the secret police, giving them time to destroy files? Why did he release all prisoners, resulting in a rise in crime? Why did he let the nationalists triumph in Slovakia, leading to the break-up of Czechoslovakia? The criticisms piled up, and at one point he even had business cards printed that read “Václav Havel, Author of Many Mistakes and Errors”.
As a playwright, he understood the theatrical nature of politics. All politicians must have “an elementary dramatic instinct”, he writes. But a major theme in this book is how often this desire for structure and order is thwarted by events. Whereas drama gives meaning and structure to existence, “Politics is more of a strange, never-ending process with no clear turning points and no unambiguous and immediately recognizable outcomes.”
To the Castle and Back moves backward and forward in time. It mixes diary entries with Havel’s answers to an interview and some “ancient memos” he wrote to his staff from 1993 to 2003. One repeated complaint was that there was a bat in the closet where the vacuum cleaner was kept, a bat was living. How could he get rid of it?

“…[When] I do something I try to do it properly, so that when I accepted the candidacy, I also accepted the various obligations that flowed from it. It would have been absurd, at that point, to have kept reconsidering, hesitating, expressing embarrassment, or being coy. Perhaps that’s where the impression that I was fighting for the office comes from. It’s nonsense. I wasn’t fighting for anything.

“But I was, I hope, the last of my kind. Politicians who hold office out of necessity and by default, as it were, if not merely out of politeness or because they can’t bring themselves to disappoint people by turning them down, ought not to be part of normal politics.” [p. 85.]

After becoming president, Havel churned out a speech a week for almost 15 years. “Perhaps it’s because of all this hard labour that I now find writing so difficult,” he said. “I’m not the same person I was when I wrote my plays….How wonderful it is, by comparison, to be a writer.” By contrast, if you write something creative in a couple of weeks, “it’s here for the ages.”
In summary, I greatly enjoyed this book. Not only did it tell his personal story. It was a fascinating commentary on the decline of the Soviet Union and its allies. Also, I note that it has now been 20 years or so since the Soviet Union collapsed. In the post-war period, to a large degree it was conflict between the West and the Soviets and their allies that kept the West together. I wonder to what degree the collapse of that post-war alliance is behind disarray across the globe, seems to be growing day by day.