In the lead-up to Christmas, we offer Lowy research staff selections for the best book they've read this year. Part 1 is here; part 2 is here.
Shyam Selvadurai's fourth novel is the story of a young boy of mixed Tamil-Sinhalese parentage struggling with his identity and sexuality in the early years of Sri Lanka's brutal civil war. The story moves between the narrator's childhood in Sri Lanka and adult life in Toronto and Vancouver, as he prepares to return to Colombo to his dying grandmother. Steeped in Sri Lankan Buddhist mythology, The Hungry Ghosts paints a rich picture of Sri Lankan society in the 1980s and 1990s.
The initial chapters of the novel are set in Colombo in the early 1980s, and provide a chilling account of the 1983 'Black July' riots, which prompted the large-scale emigration of Sri Lanka's Tamil communities. But the novel is also broadly about identity, sexuality (homosexuality is yet to be decriminalised in Sri Lanka), the South Asian diaspora, and the complex relationship these communities have with their heritage. Unfortunately, last I checked The Hungry Ghosts did not yet have an Australian distributor (I had my copy sent by a Canadian friend), but if you can get hold of one, it's well worth your time.
Bismarck: A Life, by Jonathan Steinberg. Selected by Hugh White, former Lowy Institute Fellow.
I normally read big fat biographies like this slowly, a few pages at a time at odd moments. I started reading this slightly whacky and occasionally quite hostile treatment of Bismarck the same way, but by the end of Chapter One I couldn't put it down and finished it at a rush. Three reasons.
First, it does a great job of delineating Bismarck himself, one of the most interesting figures in history, attractive, repellent and impressive all at once. I've only read AJP Taylor's short bio of him before — also a great read, but this is much richer.
Second, it gave me a clearer feel for the evolution of Germany in the 19th century than I'd ever had before (not hard, mind you). In particular, it gives good accounts of dozens of other figures in Germany at the time, and in telling Bismarck's story it also tells the story of German unification itself.
And third, while strategic questions are not its main focus, the accounts of Bismarck's strategic diplomacy, his wars and crises, are great. I even think I now understand the Schleswig-Holstein Crisis. More broadly, it struck me as I read Margaret Macmillan's rather pallid The War that Ended Peace that Bismarck is a much richer place to start trying to understand what happened a century ago.
And for light relief on the same fin de siècle theme, do read Robert Harris' fictionalised account of the Dreyfus Affair: An Officer and a Spy.
Mitterand: A Study in Ambiguity, by Philip Short. Selected by Milton Osborne, Nonresident Fellow
Philip Short, the acclaimed biographer of Mao and Pol Pot, has shifted his focus to that most enigmatic of French politicians, François Mitterand.
In two deliciously ambiguous sentences echoing the book's title, he begins by noting that, 'Other nations have scandals. The French have affairs.' The affair in question touches on the lowest point in Mitterand's career, the 'Observatory Affair,' in which the politician orchestrated a faked assassination attempt against him during the turmoil of the Algerian War. But the other 'affair' or 'affairs' of Mitterand's life are foreshadowed here: the ménage à trois he lived with his wife, Danielle, and her lover, and his long-term relationship with Anne Pingeot.
Short convincingly shows that Mitterand's personal and political life were all of a piece: the end justified the means; the attitudes of the bourgeoisie from which he had sprung could be dismissed; power was the ultimate aim. In this finely written and researched biography Mitterand is never less than fascinating as Short plumbs the personality behind the mystery of 'The Sphinx'.