Books of the Year

December 2007 / New Statesman

Set in America in the aftermath of an unexplained global catastrophe, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is the first great English language novel of our new century. A father and his young son make their slow way through a burned and deathly landscape, seeking to find a way to the coast, where they hope to find ... well, they do not know what they will find there. There is infinite hope, wrote Kafka, but not for us. In McCarthy’s novel there is no hope: the human world is at an end, and most of those still living have regressed into barbarism. And yet the father and son go on, seeking to find meaning and purpose even as Planet Earth smoulders and sickens. McCarthy’s language is restrained and much sparer than usual, though some of his sentences have a Shakespearean grandeur. The Road is a warning, a lament, and a beautiful love story. I’ve read nothing finer for many years.

So much has been written about the origins and present danger of al-Qaeda by those who know little or nothing about them that one turns with exhilaration to Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda’s road to 9/11 (Allen Lane). A staff writer on the New Yorker, Wright travelled extensively in the Gulf states and the Middle East while researching this book, the most complete account we have of the ideological journey taken by the jihadists, as well as of those in the CIA and FBI whose mission it was to prevent them from carrying out the spectacular attack on America that some in US intelligence knew was coming but could not prevent. During his research, Wright spoke to former associates and confidants of Osama Bin Laden and of his so-called number two, the Egyptian medic Ayman al-Zawahiri. He moves back and forwads in time, covering the arrival of the Egyptian radical Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) in America in the 1940s, the brutalisation in Egyptian prisons of al-Zawahiri and his followers, and the US-funded Islamic resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Looming Tower has the pace and tension of a great suspense novel and the rigour and discipline of the finest scholarship.

No book has enthralled and fascinated me more this year than Michael Finkel’s True Story: murder, memoir, mea culpa (Chatto & Windus). It is a book about many things. It is about the impossibility of ever fully telling the truth, to ourselves or each other. It is about the relationship between fact and fiction in journalism, and how we journalists too often distort and embellish as we seek to smooth the world into instant understanding. And it is about how one man, in small-town America, murdered his entire family because so addicted was he to telling lies that he no longer believed in the independent reality of his own wife and children. They were mere phantoms to him, figures lost in the blurred landscape of his imagination.

Stephen Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World (Jonathan Cape), is a work of wonderful erudition that can be read as an accessible introduction to the social and political milieu from which Shakespeare emerged and as an elegant guide to the astonishing poems and plays themselves. There is, inevitably, too much unsourced speculation about Shakespeare himself - about what he “might have” said and done and whom he met and when, and how these experiences may have directly influenced the work. The subjunctive mode. But you close the book determined immediately to open another: the Complete Works itself.

Gil Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (Canongate) is set in Rwanda before, during and just after the genocide of 1994. Mixing fact and fiction, and including character studies of those Courtemanche actually met and came to know well while he was making a film about Aids in Rwanda, it is at once the story of a a doomed love affair between a white man and an African woman, a work of journalistic witness, a fierce indictment, and an elegy for lost friends. Perhaps not since Baudelaire has a writer so viscerally made the link between sex and death. It is unforgettable. Damon Galgut’s The Good Doctor (Atlantic Books), written with economy and grace and deservedly shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is an intriguing parable of the feelings of redundancy felt by many liberal whites in the new South Africa, a country destined, it seems, to be borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I admired Ignorance by Milan Kundera (Faber), a story about two emigres returning to Prague after a long absence, in which the author combines all of his old gifts for irony, essayistic digression and playful eroticism with a new and sombre awareness of transience and mortality. Published in France before the events of 11 September 2001, Platform (Heinemann; translated by Frank Wynne) is a work of thrilling confrontation, in which Michel Houellebecq once more proves the ideal chronicler of our disturbed modernity.

The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrere is the account of a celebrated murder case in France. For 18 years, Jean-Claude Romand lived a life of elaborate deceit, working, or so his family thought, as a researcher at the World Health Organisation in Geneva. In fact, he had never qualified as a doctor, and had spent much of his student life as an impostor, a ghostly presence who attended lectures without ever having registered officially at the university. His deceit continued into adulthood. He swindled money from trusting relatives, claimed to be suffering from cancer, and left for work each morning, crossing the border into Switzerland, where he idled away the long, dead days in hotel rooms, at service stations or in aimless wanderings. On the point of being found out, he murdered his wife, her parents, and his own children. He then attempted but failed to kill himself. Carrere writes with imaginative empathy about the “vast beach of dead and empty time” where Romand spent most of his life, and about how we all create fictive identities, alternative selves to compensate for the people we never became.

My book of the year is Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen (Duck Editions). A cultural conservative, monarchist and extreme pessimist, Reck-Malleczewen was a man out of time, at once listlessly estranged from mid-century German modernity and mournfully engaged with it. A Prussian aristocrat, he spent much of his life in rural isolation on his Bavarian estate. His diary - published for the first time in Britain this year, but widely known in Germany - covers the period from 1936 to February 1945, when, having refused a call-up, his elegant disdain for Nazism led to his being murdered at Dachau. Reck looked on helplessly as his nation was gripped by a mortal sickness. No one who reads this books will forget his hauteur, pessimism and contempt for Hitler.

With exemplary diligence to primary sources, Brigitte Hamann, in Hitler’s Vienna (OUP), destroyed many of the false assumptions about Hitler’s early life. The young Hitler emerges from her pages as he must have done in life: fervent, raging, electrified and determined on self-reinvention. Many of Hamann’s discoveries were incorporated by Ian Kershaw into his own widely read biography of the Fuhrer. James Wood occupies a lonely position as an old-fashioned public critic writing for an audience that has all but disappeared. Brought up among evangelical Christians, he lost his faith in his early twenties, transferring much of his religious fervour on to literature. His sentences can become, at times, tied up in metaphorical knots, but mostly in The Broken Estate (Cape) he writes well and with impressive acuity about literature.