Round-up: Dave Egger’s blatant allegory is a novel that cannot fail
Plus new offerings from Fred Pearce, Eleonory Gilburd, Michael Jansen
Author Dave Eggers: the reader who makes an investment in his everyman characters will be rewarded at the culmination of their strange work. Photograph: Aaron Davidson/Getty Images
In an unnamed country reeling from the chaos of civil war, two men known only as Four and Nine are tasked with paving a road from a rural south to an urban north, in time for a national parade that will mark a new beginning and a sense of unity.
These men stand at the core of Dave Eggers’s latest project, The Parade (Penguin, £14.99), deliberately cut adrift from their pasts, their nationalities and ultimately themselves. The tension that mounts as the road progresses is personified in the interactions between Four and Nine. Their differences and the ways in which they hinder each other become part of a larger discussion about war, sovereignty and the danger of political complacency.
As a blatant allegory, the novel cannot fail to work. The sparse language and economic dialogue encourage the reader to believe that they are reading a kind of fable. Its universality is ironically, at times, alienating. But Eggers writes this particular story this particular way for a reason, and the reader who makes an investment in his everyman characters will be rewarded at the culmination of their strange work.
A clarion call for humanity
Originally published in the US in 2007, this edition of When the Rivers Run Dry – The Global Water Crisis and How to Solve it (Fred Pearce, Granta, £9.99) has been revised, updated and expanded, which gives you some idea what direction our relationship with one of the Earth’s fundamental resources has travelled.
This cri de coeur on how our planet is drying up will get you down. But we cannot afford to ignore it either. It’s time to face facts, and Pearce fills his account with them (and a comprehensive list of sources) as he travels the globe, providing the right mix of reportage and research to sound a clarion call for humanity on the looming threat of our disappearing water resources.
When the Rivers Run Dry is an overwhelming read sometimes due to its portentous prognosis, and some of the grand-scale statistics can be hard to visualise in the mind (million-acre feets of water). But Pearce captures our present reality with just the right tone of urgency and with enough optimism and ideas to think that the human race can re-evaluate our abusive relationship with water, one of the essentials for our very existence.
A superlative social history
In the 1950s life in the Soviet Union slowly began to open up through cultural exchanges. “Socialist realism”, which demanded that all works of art needed to vindicate the glorious struggle of the proletariat, had been the official style in literature and art in the Soviet Union since the 1920s.
Eleonory Gilburd, a professor of history at the University of Chicago, has meticulously painted a portrait of a society where bureaucrats at the cultural affairs ministry were debating the pros and cons of allowing young Soviet citizens to be exposed to the behaviour of JD Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in To See Paris and Die – The Soviet Lives of Western Culture (Harvard University Press, £25.99).
We learn the official reaction to public enthusiasm for Picasso, Hemingway, French and Italian cinema, among other imports from the west. In a thought-provoking epilogue, the author links the earlier cultural poverty of the Soviet peoples and their envy of places like Paris to the reality of émigrés’ lives and then to the “economic shock therapy” of the 1990s which devastated the lives of millions, making them homeless and wiping out the safety net of their old age. A superlative social history of the period.
Impressions and recollections
Michael Jansen, this paper’s Middle East correspondent, has reported from the area for 50 years. A chance encounter with Iraqi students at the University of Michigan at age 17 led to her spending the rest of her life in, and writing about, the Middle East. Although she says Windows on Interesting Times (Rimal Books, €20) is not a history or a memoir, there is much in it on the history of Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Cyprus – and there are many autobiographical details.
Her approach is not chronological but a stream of thought that “finds its own course among impressions and recollections; it zig-zags, goes backwards and forwards, up and down, gathering force until the mind forms pictures of people, events and happenings”.
The Palestinians’ “tragic and terrible” history is well covered, as are the dirty politics of brutal, callous rulers and the awful sufferings of masses of people amid the hope and despair, peace and – mainly – war. The goodness of ordinary people, mixed with descriptions of nature, food, hospitality and everyday life, somehow mitigate the darkness in this deeply moving book.