Book Review: Captain of the Steppe


This review first appeared in The Literateur (21 June 2013)

From the gallows to the trenches, the most desperate environments can give rise to humour, and the ferociously bleak landscape of Oleg Pavlov’s Captain of the Steppe is no exception. But can humour act as a means of expressing rage at a despotic system, or does it in some way make light of an unavoidably dark situation?

Set during the dying days of the Soviet Empire, Captain Khabarov is stationed in the godforsaken steppe, an enormous plain stretching far across the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. It is an unfathomable place, so bitterly cold the light-bulbs pop like boils and the inner walls grow skins of ice. The soldiers stationed here to guard exiled prisoners (or “zeks”) are sent last year’s newspapers and rotten food, surrounded by lice and rats, their wages as frozen as their bones. It is a place of stagnation and decay, of sickness and overcrowding, where the men feel cheated, lost and overlooked. Pavlov describes the penal colony as a blood clot, a glob of phlegm, a kennel and a graveyard, stinking of fried food and soiled laundry. He paints a vivid, often nauseating, picture.

And yet, despite taking place within this grim enclosure and the confounding landscape that encroaches so relentlessly upon it, Captain of the Steppe is far from a demoralising read. This is due in large part to Pavlov’s macabre sense of humour, vibrant language, startling similes and vivid characterisation. Pavlov, who was just twenty-four when the book was published in Russia in 1994, spent his military service as a prison guard in Kazakhstan, infusing the narrative with a strong dose of authenticity. Though the plot is fictional, the petty officiousness, political corruption and obscene injustice depicted are so sad, funny and engrossing because there is a resounding ring of truth to them.

One particularly illuminating source of the book’s grotesque humour is obese Cossack Ilya Peregud, a non-conformist, resourceful escapist – and hopeless drunk – who lives in fear of having his ponytail cut off. Ilya does not want “to turn into a worker ant” and knows “a hundred different ways of making vodka… from rice, wheat, rotten apples, wood chips, old women’s headscarves or sour cabbage soup”; when he drinks, “Ilya would take wing!” It is a heavenly depiction of drunkenness, and who can blame him when he has been placed in such dire circumstances?

What of the eponymous Khabarov? The novel centres round its hero’s decision to plant potatoes in order to feed his half-starving men. It is a simple act, done out of goodness, yet has lasting repercussions. The fact that Khabarov has not been ordered, or sought permission, to plant the potatoes angers and frightens his military superiors:

“So the matter has nothing to do with potatoes, really, but with the fact that a man like that, with nothing to lose, like this Khabarov, has dared to go against the rules. Turns out this is a political problem. Such people are more dangerous than any infectious illness.”

The potatoes are a demonstration of rebellion to the officials but represent hope for Khabarov, and in their green shoots the reader can see a symbol of the captain’s conviction, tenacity and humanity.

Though such events take place in the faraway land of the Kazakh steppe, there are a surprising number of vernacular words and phrases included throughout the narrative (“go on a bender”, “taking the piss” and “bullshitting”, to name a few), giving the dialogue an earthy, authentic feel. Credit for this should go to translator Ian Appleby, whose light touch makes a topic foreign to most British readers feel accessible and intimate. Equally arresting are the surprising similes with which the book teems: “a link of smoked sausage, curled round like a mongrel’s tail and with the same sort of red, crimped arsehole”. There are also some magically surreal moments: potatoes are personified; a wolf talks; and a man fuses with the wood of his chair. Such familiar language and left-of-field imagery add colour and life to the bleached-out, dead nature of the steppe.

Men dominate this barren landscape and yet, peripheral as they are, a whole article could be devoted to its women. They seem to fall into one of two categories: lascivious, cruel and ugly; or frightened, mute and submissive. Pavlov expresses a strikingly ageist vision of female beauty: “The young women were fair-skinned and slim, while the old women had skin like cured ham and were fat.” True, he might have witnessed such women in this particular landscape, but with no other more varied depictions of women on offer it is hard to excuse such dismissive, binary descriptions, especially when the male characters are so diverse and nuanced. However, it is a story that can be firmly classified as a product of its time and environment, and Pavlov should perhaps be forgiven for lacking feminist ideals in Russia, 1994.

Yet, while Russia remains plagued with corruption and totalitarianism, while media compliance and electoral irregularities add to the sense of a deeply flawed democracy, Pavlov’s work will continue to strike a chord. It is filled with black humour, but within this lies the heart of the men’s despair; you either laugh in such terrible situations or you cry (or worse). By showing the men’s humanity, their lack of otherness, Pavlov highlights the injustice that has been done to them and makes us feel their torment. In this way, Captain of the Steppe becomes a brilliant and lasting expression of a bitter, righteous rage.

You Talkin’ To Me?: Book Review


I wrote this for The Scotsman last year but it never saw the light of day…until now!

Rhetoric: it’s a bit of a dry topic, isn’t it?  Full of old men in togas droning on, Latin words you can barely wrap your tongue around and all manner of complicated rules?  Not so in Sam Leith’s wonderfully witty and informative new book You Talkin’ To Me?  Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama.

In this book, Leith, a regular contributor to the Guardian, Evening Standard, Wall Street Journal and Spectator, sets out to prove that “this is not a subject that needs to be intimidating.” Ever wondered why you can never remember what page number you read something on but you can remember its location on the page?  Leith’s musings on rhetoric and memory will enlighten you.  Ever considered the phrase “pure rhetoric” to be an insult?  Leith will change your mind on that matter.  After reading this book, you will never again be able to listen to a politician’s speech without a knowing smile creeping over your face and thoughts like “what an obvious attempt at exordium” entering your head.

Rhetoric is, as Leith puts it, “the art of persuasion: the attempt by one human being to influence another in words.  It is no more complicated than that.”  It can be formal, used by the likes of priests and politicians to influence their audience, but it can also be as ordinary as a man chatting up a woman in a nightclub or someone trying to wriggle out of getting a parking-ticket.  That’s what’s so refreshing about Leith’s book; he takes a topic often thought of as archaic, dusts it down, and brings it slap bang into the twenty-first century.

True, all the old familiars are here: Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, but so are a wide and often surprising range of other famous figures, from Satan and Sarah Palin to JFK and Jennifer Lopez.  The fact that George Galloway, Gandhi and Art Garfunkel (unusual bedfellows by anyone’s standards) lie together in the book’s index is an indication of how far-reaching and entertaining Leith’s examples of rhetoric are.  When ancient figures are discussed – and they’re discussed throughout the book – the information imparted is genuinely enlightening.

The book has a sometimes scholarly feel – Leith certainly knows his onions – but whenever it risks becoming too “high-brow” Leith pulls it back down to earth by quoting a song from South Park or relating an amusing anecdote involving Piers Morgan’s doomed appearance on Have I Got News For You?, a programme which, interestingly, uses a rhetorical question for its title (you start to notice these things after reading the book).  In this way, the drier, more complicated information is rendered accessible and sits more readily in the reader’s memory.

An example of this is when Leith tells us about “Judicial Rhetoric” – rhetoric that looks to the past in order to convict or exonerate – and uses a scene from the 1992 courtroom drama A Few Good Men to illustrate his point.  By describing an exchange between Tom Cruise’s character Daniel Kaffee and Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessep, Leith is able to use heady terms such as “conjectural stasis”, “qualitative and/or translative stasis”, “ethos appeal” and “pronominal movement” and actually make sense of them.

The tone is winningly direct but full of amusing flourishes, such as when Leith refers to the time when rhetoric becomes lofty as “when rhetoric puts on a dinner jacket and polishes its dancing shoes”, or describes a drunk girl as having had “a baker’s dozen of Bacardi Breezers”.

The book is happily organised into bite-size chunks, making the often weighty topics more digestible.  Some of the content is unavoidably dense – I’m still trying to wrap my tongue (and head) around words such as “anadiplosis” and “occultation” – but there’s a handy glossary at the back of the book for when things get a bit tricky.

From the origins of rhetoric in the far-off climes of Ancient Greece to the rhetorical tricks used by the likes of David Cameron today, Leith’s book covers vast ground and gives an excellent overview of a topic that is, as it turns out, extremely interesting and, as Leith puts it, “gathers in the folds of its robes everything that makes us human”.  Who knew?

Next to Love: Book Review


This review first appeared in The Scotsman October 2011

Can a novel focussing on the lives of three women span three complex, earth-shattering decades without being reductive?  This is what U.S. author Ellen Feldman (shortlisted for the Orange prize for her 2009 novel Scottsboro) seeks to do in her new novel Next to Love.

The story follows three friends living in a small town in Massachusetts between 1941 and 1964. Babe, Grace and Millie are each left behind as their men go off to fight in WWII.  Those who return are maimed terribly, and not just in the physical sense.  Babe’s shell-shocked husband Claude has seen so much that his missing fingers are genuinely insignificant to him.

Babe is dropped from her job in a telegraph office as soon as the soldiers return, and spends the novel railing against discrimination, not just against women but black people too.  Grace and Millie seem unaware of any discrimination, or if they’re aware of it they don’t let it bother them.  Grace has no problem being a housewife, except that she’s missing a husband and can’t seem to function without him.  The quickly re-married Millie appears to have dealt with the grief of losing her husband astonishingly well, but appearances can be deceptive.

Throughout the narrative, we learn many things: that Jewish soldiers were told by the U.S. Army to ‘Eat ham for Uncle Sam’, their necks looped with dog-tags stamped ‘H’ for Hebrew; that black soldiers lived by the myth that their time on the battlefield would earn them equality back home; that countless working women were sent home (just like Grace is) to be cinched-in by full skirts and tight bodices, condemned to the kitchen to cook elaborate meals for men with the trembles.  Despite the new material wealth (when industries, swollen by producing military equipment, poured their resources into peacetime needs) the women’s hearts and men’s minds were still breaking.

Broken hearts and shell-shocked minds are bad enough, but it’s how their trauma is dealt with that causes the greatest damage to these characters.  The three women’s husbands may have been ‘startlingly articulate’ in their letters home, but sharing is seen as unmanly and the unspeakable remains unspoken.  Women like Millie seem to deal with their grief by painting lipstick smiles on their faces and taping things up in boxes.  That’s what the men had been fighting for, after all: the image of the ‘good Christian wife’.  When the men return, having seen ‘dead bodies with twisted limbs, staring eyes, and oozing intestines’, how can they find such beauty and such innocence so unsettling?

It takes decades for terms like ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ to make sense of their condition, to give the terrifying thing a name.  Until that time, broken men like Claude harm themselves, harm their wives, thrash around in bed at night, sweating and screaming and unravelling in the dark.  Some end up like Joe Dumbrowsky, ‘who fought his way through France and Germany only to go into the garage in his own backyard, close the door, and turn on the car engine.’

It isn’t just the men.  The three women in the novel turn to drink, develop obsessions and crumble like their meticulously-crafted pastries.  Overwhelming, suppressed grief is to blame, but so is the chilling ‘Housewife’s Syndrome’, cured, according to Babe’s doctor, by gardening, needlepoint and painting by numbers.  The doctor is keen to try the last himself but doesn’t have the time.

Things haven’t changed enough for black people either.  Many black veterans are unofficially diverted from college towards Trade School, despite the G.I. Bill promising to take care of their education.  They’re still employed as servants, banned from the local pool, accused of spreading Polio.  Their boys are still beaten to death for whistling at white ladies.  It’s the same for Jews; Millie is still excluded from ladies’ groups for marrying one, her son is still beaten in the schoolyard for being a ‘Jewboy’.  As one good Christian man jokes: ‘I pray to heaven the English will stop Hitler… but not too soon.’

Feldman manages to cover all these wide and weighty problems whilst remaining deeply personal and engaging, her prose never forced or preaching.  In fiction it’s often better to go narrow and deep rather than wide and shallow, but Feldman manages to go both wide and deep.  By selecting each excellently drawn character, she is able to demonstrate a particular concern through their thoughts, actions and the things that happen to them, whether it’s Babe and her opinions on equality, Grace and her obsession with a ghost, or Millie and the anti-Semitism her family endures.

So can a novel focussing on the lives of three women span as many decades without being reductive?  The answer to that is yes, so long as you’re in the hands of a writer as skilled as Feldman.