Friday, February 10, 2012

Five top innovative histories

Geoff Dyer is a British writer whose many books include Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It, But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, and Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.

One of the five unusual histories he discussed with Alec Ash at The Browser:
A History of Bombing
by Sven Lindqvist

We’ll return to that discussion with Kapuściński, but let’s go by way of Sven Linqvist’s A History of Bombing. Tell us about this book.

This was published in 2002. The first book of Linqvist’s that I read was Exterminate All the Brutes, his great study of the genocidal impulse that he feels underlies the colonial project.

And that title comes from Heart of Darkness, the last lines which Colonel Kurtz scribbles in his pamphlet.

Indeed. So that was an incredibly original piece of literary criticism – let’s call it that. He takes all these accounts that are contemporaneous with Conrad on his computer, on a journey he’s making through the Sahara.

Then there was this book, A History of Bombing. It’s formally one of the most unusual, highly experimental books that I have ever read. Normally we read a book by flipping through it – page one, page two – and it takes us from beginning to end. Linqvist urges us not to do that. At the end of each little section – there are a total of 399 sections – you’re referred not to the next section but to some other section. So for example at the end of section 33, which is about the year 1783, you’re referred to section 62, which is concerned with the year 1903.

What it does is the book becomes this kind of whirlpool or vortex. You lose your bearings. It’s a completely new way of reading a book. I remember, when it came out, thinking this is way more original than any of the novels on this year’s Booker Prize list. This really is a formally incredibly innovative book. In a novel, if someone was doing that, you might think this is a bit of a game, a gimmick – it’s fun but what’s the point? Whereas, as he says, this draws us into this labyrinth or vortex from which it’s very difficult to extricate ourselves.

Also, one of the things he is very adamant about is that all of the strategies of bombing were first tried out with practically no scruples at all, as part of a colonial endeavour to suppress the natives, the savages. Then any kind of treaties or scruples that were drawn up about the morality of aerial bombing only really applied to battles between Western powers. It was considered completely OK to bomb Third World, essentially non-white peoples.

All of your five books are set in a context of violence and war. Is war something that interests you?

I hadn’t realised that about my selection but you’re absolutely right. I’m 53, and I’m certainly aware that more and more of my time is spent reading military history. But then I’ve always read quite a lot of military history. At the moment I’m going through this phase of being really quite fascinated by the military, and the more stuff I read about Iraq and Afghanistan, the more I find there’s something so impressive and admirable about the soldiers who are there doing things, irrespective of whether you think the war itself is a good or bad thing.

I guess, being born in 1958, I was absolutely formed by not actual memories of the Second World War, but it was such a dominant thing in my childhood. And then going further back, the First World War was a big part of the collective memory.
Read about another book Dyer tagged at The Browser.

--Marshal Zeringue