Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

One of Them

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 9th August, 2020

One of ThemOne of the driving forces for people writing autobiography is the need to slay demons. That was certainly the case with my childhood memoir, Eccles Cakes, whose production was painful but therapeutic. And I suspect that has been equally true for the actor and politician Michael Cashman with his much more substantial book, One of Them (Bloomsbury, £18.99). His story falls into three distinct parts, not quite the Three Ages of Man, but separate compartments of his life in which his developing personality and sensibilities have been the unifying thread. The first of these parts — which will probably appeal most to the “general reader” who knows of him as an actor — deals with growing up as one of four boys in a working class family near the docks in Limehouse, East London, in the 1950s and early 1960s. His father did manual work unloading ships before finding a more congenial post as a park keeper, while his mother cleaned offices and juggled bills in an effort to stave off financial calamity. Young Michael was different from the other boys, however, because he realised very early on that he was gay and he loved to perform. This would land him a part in the West End musical, Oliver!, for a while taking over the title role. That set him on a professional path that would lead to joining the cast of the BBC’s soap opera, Eastenders.

StonewallAs a teenager he was introduced to the (then illegal) excitement and pitfalls of same-sex encounters, about which he is brutally candid. His sexuality led to him becoming politically engaged, outraged by the injustices faced by LGBT people, not least when Margaret Thatcher was in power and Section 28 was introduced, banning the “promotion” of homosexuality. Along with some friends, notably the actor and fellow resident of Tower Hamlets, Ian McKellen, he set up Stonewall, probably the most effective political lobbying group of its kind. By now Michael had also got involved in Labour Party politics, resulting in him getting elected for three terms as an MEP for the West Midlands. I would have liked to hear much more of his experiences in the European Parliament, and his work on the Cotonou Convention between the EU and the “ACP” countries of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, but life in Brussels and Strasbourg and various work-related trips to far-flung parts of the world get short shrift.

Michael Cashman and Paul CottinghamThe third and final part of the book is the most personal and confessional, covering the most important relationship in his life, with the entertainer, organiser and later Labour Party activist Paul Cottingham, a dozen years his junior. They met in Scarborough, when Paul was a 19-year-old Redcoat at Butlins and Michael was working with Alan Ayckbourn. It was a coup de foudre, though theirs would develop into a open relationship of a kind rarely successfully managed. As Paul developed an interest in becoming a counsellor, Michael became his resident guinea pig and parts of the final section of the book are like eavesdropping on talking therapy. Large chunks of conversation are recreated, as if from retrieved memory. Emotions were intensified when Paul developed a rare form of cancer which overturned assumptions about who would outlive the other. In fact, Paul would pass away just days before Michael was inducted into the House of Lords as a Labour Peer. Certain passages of this section are immensely moving. But throughout the book one has the sense of a roller-coaster life, rapidly moving from highs to lows, but richly savoured.

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The Land Drenched in Tears

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 5th August, 2020

The Land Drenched in TearsHuman rights abuses against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang have been highlighted in UK media in recent weeks, but the phenomenon is hardly new. In fact, ever since the Chinese Communist Party gained power in 1949 the government in Beijing has sought to colonise this “New Frontier” with Han Chinese and to suppress Turkic culture and Islamic beliefs. The parallels with Tibet are obvious, but whereas Tibet has received a huge amount of international attention — notably since the Dalai Lama and many of his followers fled abroad in 1959 — Xinjiang remained largely ignored. I travelled there in 1994 and again in 2013, startled and dismayed by the intensification of the sinicisation process that had occurred over the intervening two decades. But until I read Söyüngül Chanisheff’s The Land Drenched in Tears (Hertfordshire Press, £24.50), I had not realised the true horror of much of the suffering of local peoples for more than half a century. Chanisheff is Tatar, and trained in medical school where she became involved in a youthful cell campaigning for an independent “East Turkestan”. This led to her imprisonment and subsequently long years of slave labour in the countryside under a surveillance regime that deprived her of her civil rights and made her an easy target for the bullies and sadists that arise in such totalitarian situations like flies around a dung heap. Her privations were soul-destroying, especially in the extreme heat of summer and extreme cold of winter, malnourished, often beaten and even more frequently paraded before baying mobs as a “class enemy”.

XinjiangWhen the Cultural Revolution began in 1966 things went from bad to worse. She witnessed so much cruelty and torture and many killings, as well as listening to heart-breaking testimony from others. This is all set down in the nearly 400 pages of her book (translated from Uyghur by Rahima Mahmut), the catalogue of misery and inhumanity so searing that I found I could only read a few passages at a time. The forced evacuation of Muslim residents from cities in the region so Han Chinese could move in; the desecration of mosques and burning of Korans; infanticide in maternity hospitals where nurses were instructed to kill at least one baby a day or face the consequences. This is grim but essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what has happened in that remote region of the world. Fortunately the book does have a personally happier ending for the author, as despite her “criminal record” she found a suitable man to marry and started a family, later seizing the opportunity to emigrate to Australia. The title of Söyüngül Chanisheff’s memoir may sound melodramatic, but actually it is an understatement.

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The Lantern

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 22nd July, 2020

The LanternGeorge W Bush famously hoped to export Western-style democracy to Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, though many of us who had been covering the region as journalists or academics for years believed that notion to be unrealistic, even misguided. That was true after the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and just as much so when the so-called Arab Spring swept across North Africa and the Middle East in 2011. Egypt never was going to be another Sweden or Great Britain. And why should it? Surely each country — and perhaps region — devises its own political system people see as best suited to its needs, though of course that has often led to various forms of despotism in the hands of hereditary rulers or dictators who have seized power by force. But can one nonetheless apply concepts and principles from Western political science to countries in the MENA region? That is the intriguing premise of Ayman Aborabh’s book The Lantern: Political Philosophy and the Arab Spring (Matador, £13.99), which shines a light on the political experiences of various countries in the MENA region, not least in Egypt, through the prism of Western political concepts.

At the beginning of most chapters there is a sort of neo-Socratic dialogue between an Arab Everyman, Aam Araby, and a political activist, Harara (named after a brave dentist who went out into the streets in Cairo during the 2011 demonstrations and was blinded by action by the security forces), where some pertinent questions are debated, but I found the main body of the text much more substantial, interestingly pitting the ideas of Hobbes, Mill, Kant and many more into the MENA cauldron. It is a valuable and frankly unique exercise, demonstrating a good understanding of aspects of Western political theory but expressed in a way that is entirely accessible to the non-specialist. Ayman Aborabh is a vlogger and active on social media, in Arabic and English, so certainly worth following for anyone with an interest in the region.

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Tales from the Colony Room

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 9th June, 2020

Tales from the Colony RoomFor six decades from 1948, the Colony Room Club in Dean, Street, Soho, was a moth-trap for London’s Bohemians. Its life span — not bad for a club — fell into three distinct periods, like the Ages of Man, each presided over by a boss whose personality impacted on both the membership and the atmosphere. The Colony Room’s heyday was in the 1950s and 1960s, when a sharp-tongued Jewish lesbian, Muriel Belcher, was in charge; she features in the little book I wrote for the National Portrait Gallery 20-odd years ago, Soho in the Fifties and Sixties, illustrated with paintings and photographs from the NPG’s collections. Muriel took the young artist Francis Bacon — whom she called “daughter” — under her wing. Other artists, including Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach, became habitués. Witty when in a good mood, she could be cutting about people who failed to impress her. Perched on a bar stool near the door, she watched the comings and goings like a hawk, from time to time rummaging in her capacious leather handbag. Her barman, erstwhile hustler Ian Board, took over after she died, his rudeness exceeding even that of the landlord of the Coach and Horses pub, Norman Balon. Once handsome, Board’s face was ruined by drink, his nose finally resembling a giant ripe strawberry. He too passed on and was succeeded by his barman, Michael Wojas, an altogether sweeter man, until drugs warped his mind and sucked up much of the Club’s takings. By then, most of the old regulars were dead, though Young British Artists like Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas had adopted the place. Not long before he died, Wojas called last orders on the place, to the dismay of many of its diehard supporters.

Tales from the Colony Room 1Many books have been written about Soho in general, and the Colony Room in particular, but Darren Coffield’s crowdfunded Tales from the Colony Room: Soho’s Lost Bohemia (Unbound, £25) is quite different from all the others I have read in letting the characters who congregated in the Colony Room talk about themselves and each other, as well as the Club itself. Much of the book is made up of short snippets culled from many hours of taped interviews made over the years, seamlessly interwoven with extracts from articles and books that are presented in the same, informal interview style. For nearly 400 pages, Darren Coffield lets people speak, have conversations, bitch about each other, the voices of Francis Bacon and others resonating from beyond the grave. Much of the banter is scabrous, a lot of it hilarious, other parts downright cruel. But such was the mix that at various times characterised the Colony Room, where the only real sin was to be boring. As Coffield notes, it would be impossible these days for such a place to exist and thrive, not just because Soho has ceased to be a cheap area in which to live or play, or because many of the young creative talents migrated to East London. People these days don’t want to while away their afternoons drinking champagne or spirits and chain-smoking in a tiny, sickly green venue up a tatty staircase. Social media, mobile phones and other forms of networking have taken over. Literally next door to where the Colony Room was is the Groucho Club, some of whose members might claim to be the new Bohemians, but trust me, they are not.

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The Milk of Lions

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 2nd June, 2020

The Milk of LionsOne of my favourite wines is Chateau Musar, a rich, earthy red that has been produced in Lebanon for the past 90 years from grapes grown in the Bekaa Valley. Wine production in that region is far, far older, however. In fact, drinking alcoholic beverages such as wine, beer and aniseed-flavoured araq in the Middle East dates back thousands of years. Joseph El-Asmar’s The Milk of Lions (Gilgamesh, £19.95) provides an informative and entertaining overview of the traditions of alcohol in the region, focussing not only on the types of drink and their manufacture but also the social context and literary celebrations of drinking. Although an architect by profession, Mr El-Asmar has dedicated his mellow years to perfecting the production of araq from grapes from his vineyard in the south of Lebanon. Both the production and consumption of alcoholic drinks are dominated by Christians in the region, especially since the spread of a more conservative, Saudi-backed interpretation of Islam has strengthened the prohibition among Muslims. Actually, as Joseph El-Asmar points out, the Koranic prohibition is specifically against praying when intoxicated, though abstinence is the best way of avoiding that situation.

Omar KhayyamIn both Judaism and Christianity, in contrast, wine has a central function in certain religious ceremonies, as was the case in various pre-Islamic pagan faiths. Far from dulling the brain alcohol can actually heighten spiritual awareness, or so some people believe. Nonetheless, most of this book is about the pleasure of drinking as a social activity (typically accompanied by mezze in Lebanon) and as a means of escapism from the cares of everyday life. In Arabic and Persian literature, drinking is often accompanied by more sensual pleasures, the beauty of the servers as delightful as the beverage. As one might expect, Omar Khayyam and the Sufi poet Ibn al-Farid feature among the writers extolling the virtues of drink’s effect on one’s mood. Less expected, perhaps, is Gibran Khalil Gibran, author of The Prophet. Or the overt hedonism of Iraqi Walibah ibn al-Hubab, who declared bluntly: “What is the use of drinking without debauchery… followed by adultery and sodomy!” There are a number of lines of poetry that one would like to refer to periodically, though the lack of an index makes relocating them less easy. The book also contains a heterodox series of colour illustrations, from the sacred to profane, making it an attractive present to proffer a friend who also shares an affection for the demon drink.

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The Japan Affair

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 18th May, 2020

The Japan AffairIt has often been said that there are certain similarities between Britain and Japan, as island nations off the coast of a major continent, despite the self-evident differences. Relations certainly reached a nadir during the Second World War, but at other times the two countries have felt a degree of affinity, if only in being unlike the brash United States, which was still visibly an occupying force (notably in Okinawa) when I first went to Japan as a teenager in 1969, en route to Vietnam. Japanese prints and other aspects of the country’s aesthetics had a big impact on late 19th century English fashion and classics of English literature, from William Shakespeare to Charlotte Bronte, resonate surprisingly well with the concerns of a Japanese audience. With notable exceptions such as the Orientalist Arthur Waley and the novelist Francis King, surprisingly few British authors have really immersed themselves in Japanese literature or life, however. So a volume of short essays by a British politician that have appeared over the past 30-odd years as a fortnightly guest column in Japan’s English-language paper, the Japan Times, is a welcome novelty.

David HowellDavid Howell’s The Japan Affair (Gilgamesh, £19.95) offers a varied selection of these pieces, from 1985 to 2019. Though several of the early ones are broad-brush op-eds on geopolitics and economics, with intimations of Margaret Thatcher fandom, the style and to a certain degree the content become more personal and, let’s be honest, more interesting as the years go by. The truism that one learns how to write by writing seems borne out here. As David Howell — on several occasions a Conservative UK Government Minister, first in the Commons then later in the Lords — was Chair of the UK Japan 2000 Group between 1987 and 1997, inevitably issues studied by that bilateral forum form part of his text. But he comes to life when addressing more human stories, whether it is in reaction to the terrible Kobe earthquake of 1995 or the Japanese passion for Peter Rabbit and his creator Beatrix Potter’s cottage. There are interesting reflections on the transformation of soccer into a multi-billion dollar global enterprise, as well as musings on the core sociological issue of identity. Lord Howell continues to write his column, which only had a break during his time as a Minister in the 2010-2015 Coalition government. But he is able to use a postscript to this collection of pieces to make an over-arching point that perhaps Japan and the UK should put greater effort into nurturing their relationship, in an unsure world of Trump, Putin and Xi. “In areas of technology, defence, security, culture, research, innovation, the two island states are becoming steadily bound together,” he writes. “A little bit of recognition, a little bit (but not too much) of strategic push at government and ministerial levels, could make this a wonderfully strong platform for both nations in a very dangerous and uncertain world.”

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Conspiracy Theories

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 24th April, 2020

Conspiracy theories bookAs someone who writes and broadcasts predominantly about the Middle East I am confronted by conspiracy theories on a daily basis. Some go global, like the theory that the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York was an inside job by the CIA, possibly with Mossad support. Or that Princess Diana was the victim of an assassination plot by the Duke of Edinburgh in order to stop her marrying a Muslim. Perhaps one shouldn’t grace such fantastic notions with the respectable academic word “theory”; that certainly is the view of Quassim Cassam, Professor of Philosophy at Warwick University, whose short but thought-provoking book Conspiracy Theories (Polity, £9.99) draws a distinction between rational conspiracy theories (like the 1605 Gunpowder Plot) and Conspiracy Theories (with a capital C & T) that are utter bollocks. Well, he doesn’t actually employ that term, but his language and style are easily accessible and at times folksy. Professor Cassam’s central argument is that conspiracy theories are a form of political propaganda and that therefore the response to them also has to be political. With President Donald Trump churning out fake news in Washington on a daily basis in counterpoint to the disinformation being pumped out of Russia and China, politicians globally do need to be on conspiracy alert.

conspiracy theory word cloudConspiracy theories date back far into history, one particularly long-lasting and pernicious one being that Jews are plotting to take over the world. But whereas in the past it took time for such tropes to circulate, these days, thanks to the Internet, conspiracy theories can reverberate almost instantaneously. Countering the falsehoods is not necessarily a straightforward business, as those of us who were trying to avert Brexit discovered. Moreover, Quassim Cassam helpfully points out that when trying to deal with conspiracy theorists one needs to understand that the conspiracy mindset is an ideology rather than a personality trait. Besides, when engaging with conspiracy theorists one runs the danger of drawing attention to their wacky ideas. Not that this should dissuade those of us who value truth from standing up to them. That is particularly true for people working in the media — for whom this little book can serve as a useful primer — but also for the population at large. Indeed, because the Internet is now all-pervasive, especially in developed countries, it is important that part of education — even at primary school level — should equip people at an early age with critical thinking skills and what the author refers to as “intellectual virtues” to help them distinguish between truth and lies, information and disinformation.

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Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 8th April, 2020

Should Auld Acquaintance Be ForgotReferendums are famously divisive, as Britain discovered in 2016 when the UK’s continued membership of the EU was put to a public vote. The Scots could be forgiven for being cynical about all the angst south of the border, not just because they had voted decisively to Remain but also because they had had their own referendum two years earlier regarding Scottish Independence. On that occasion people living in Scotland declined to break away from a Union that had lasted three centuries by a margin of 55:45. But it is not just the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) — which has the lion’s share of Scottish MPs at Westminster, thanks to the UK Parliament’s distorting first-past-the-post electoral system — which is now asking whether a new independence referendum would deliver a different result. Not that one is likely any time soon. This is the context for journalist and author John Lloyd’s new book Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot (Polity, £20), which argues that Scots are better off within the UK. Mr Lloyd was a self-confessed reluctant Remainer in the EU Referendum, but his heart is much more engaged in our islands’ Union. And he believes Britain could learn a lot from the experience in Canada with regard to Quebec separatism. His arguments are various, and not least economic (as one might expect from the Contributing Editor for the Financial Times). The Nationalists long maintained that North Sea oil should be Scotland’s saviour, but that oil is no longer as plentiful as it was, and the price of crude is a fraction of what it was at the height of the boom. Moreover, while Scotland does rather well out of the financial settlement known as the Barnett Formula, that subsidy from central government would doubtless evaporate on independence.

John LloydLike many Englishmen with no roots in Scotland, but a deep affection for the country, I have always thought that the Union is preferable than a break-up of the United Kingdom, but that really it is for the people of Scotland to decide. Mr Lloyd argues that the rest of the UK should have a vote in any future referendum, though I suspect that might actually swing the result towards independence on the “If they want to leave, let ’em” principle. The SNP does not have an entirely unblemished reputation for governing the devolved nation — Lloyd rightly castigates them over a decline in school education, for example — but it has to be admitted that the party has been fortunate in having had two charismatic leaders in Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon (the former’s reputation somewhat restored since his recent acquittal on all sexual misdemeanour charges). A few months ago in the Scottish Parliament I witnessed Ms Sturgeon handling First Minister’s question with considerable aplomb. Not that politics is the only factor in Scottish nationalism. A growing sense of national and cultural identity and pride has been noticeable for several decades. Paradoxically, for me the most enjoyable parts of John Lloyd’s book are where he discusses the non-political aspects, from memories of his childhood in East Fife to a very lengthy and fascinating (if tangential) section on Scottish literature, in both Scots and English, from the anglophobe poet Hugh MacDiarmid to novelists as varied as John Buchan, Alexander McCall Smith and Val McDermid. Yes, there are vibrant Scots voices — a myriad of them — that are completely different from English ones. The only question is whether they will flourish better within the Union or on their own.

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Information Warriors

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 1st April, 2020

Vyvyan KinrossPeople in power have long used self-promotion as a means of increasing their public prestige. Vainglorious Roman emperors had statues of themselves in triumphant pose erected in prominent places while for centuries in Africa praise singers lauded the wisdom of their chiefs and the exploits of their tribe. The modern equivalent is that brand of the communications industry known as PR, which embraces a wide range of techniques, virtues and sins. Vyvyan Kinross is a PR and communications specialist who has advised several governments about their information and communications strategy, notably in the Gulf and Palestine. So he is well-placed to analyse how the good, the bad and the ugly have used information in the battle for hearts and minds across the Middle East, in his book Information Warriors (Gilgamesh, £19.95). A substantial part of his highly readable text examines the successes and failures in the information war of both Western — especially American — powers in their fight against dictators like Saddam Hussein as well as the jihadi Islamists, the most significant being Islamic State (IS). What I found particularly striking about Kinross’s discussion of IS is how much the young fighters and their PR teams learnt from the very Western culture they affected to despise, from Hollywood through video games to the slickest of TV advertisements. Condemned (rightly) by the West as inhumanly brutal, IS operatives turned their very inhumanity into a form of domination porn, highlighting the torture and slaughter of their enemies or the infidels, pandering to the bloodlust of angry young Islamist fanatics, a significant number of whom live in the United Kingdom.

Information WarriorsOf course, atrocities are usually publicised to damn their alleged perpetrators, not to laud them. And over the past century or so there have been many instances of such propaganda, from stories of German soldiers raping and pillaging in occupied Belgium to the (completely fictitious) account of Iraqi forces ripping premature Kuwaiti babies out of incubators and throwing them on the floor to die. All is fair in love and war, it seems. But whether the powers that be spin stories to their best advantage or totally fabricate them, the common motivation is a belief that perception management can influence public opinion massively, in their interest. PR and strategy firms such as Hill+Knowlton and Bell Pottinger earned hundreds of millions of pounds in advising their governmental clients how best to massage the message. But as George Orwell astutely predicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Ministry of Truth can in reality be a factory of lies.

Latterly, the situation has become even more complicated by the growth in disinformation, generated not just from Russia, and the weaponisation by Donald Trump of Fake News and “alternative facts”, leading to the widespread acceptance of the idea in swaths of the population that something is true if they believe it. For someone such as myself, who has spent half a century working in the media, this is all very depressing. But Kinross does offer a glimmer of hope in the final section of his book, by focusing on the positive aspects of what Harvard Professor Joseph Nye dubbed “soft power” and the potential of bodies such as the British Council. Nonetheless, in the specific context of the Middle East and the information war with the West, the challenge is daunting, in both directions. Opinion polls in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia found as much of 90 per cent of the population had a negative opinion of the United States, mainly because of Uncle Sam’s interventions in the region. With regard to Britain there are similarly hostile reactions, especially among the young, over the legacy of the Balfour Declaration and the 2003 Iraq War in particular. But does the British public really care? A 2017 poll discovered few people in the UK know very much about the Arab world and few are interested in finding out more. Reading this book would be a salutary lesson.



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My End Is My Beginning

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 19th March, 2020

Moris FarhiThe late Moris Farhi was a great hugger. Bearded, short in stature, barrel-chested, he wore his heart on his sleeve and spent much of the time when he wasn’t at his desk campaigning against injustice and for the freedom of imprisoned fellow writers. A Ladino-speaking Turkish Jew who fled to England from his hometown of Istanbul at the age of 19 because of growing anti-Semitism, Moris was known as Musa — Moses — to his closest friends, and there was something of an Old Testament prophet about him, exiled from his homeland and gifted with a global vision, sometimes darkened by awareness of the cruelty inherent in so much of life. He also revelled in fantasy and the prospect of time travel. Many years ago he was commissioned to write two scripts for Dr Who in the early days of that cult TV serial. Although neither made it on to the screen, they were later published. One featured the Doctor meeting Alexander the Great. Another was set on a planet called Fragrance. For Moris/Musa, the real world and imaginary worlds seamlessly co-existed, as in the Arabian Nights. It might seem odd to start a book review with such a lengthy introduction to its author. But in many ways, the posthumously-published My End Is My Beginning (Saqi Books, £11.99) is Farhi’s Last Testament.

My End Is My BeginningHis alter ego in the novel is Oric, a self-doubting orphan who rebels against the oppressive rule of Numen, not a divinity as the Latin word suggests but its antithesis: a ruthless dictator so familiar to the peoples of the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. Numen is one half of a duumvirate, the other being an Islamic Grand Mufti who is based on a Russian-made aircraft carrier. Religion and autocracy go hand-in-hand in the unnamed land, where only a few brave souls risk raising their necks above the parapet to challenge the ruler and his aggressive minions, knowing that imprisonment, torture and death may be their lot for such disobedience. However, Oric has a kindred spirit and lover, a fellow orphan called Belkis, who we learn right at the start of the novel has been killed by the “Saviours”, i.e. Numen and his ilk. Yet she lives beyond death and literally flies in and out of Oric’s presence as he recounts human rights missions they have taken part in around the world, in solidarity with the Mothers of the Disappeared or the protesters trying to save Gezi Park in Istanbul and so on. The novel may be fantasy, but the contemporary incidents and situations that are interspersed in the text are very real, from the Chinese cultural suppression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang to the abuse of South Asian domestic servants in the Gulf. Past, present and future all merge, as do the real and the imagined, in a kaleidoscope of concerns that troubled the novelist’s mind.

Dystopian fiction always seems so much more gripping than its Utopian counterpart. Think George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four over Samuel Butler’s Erewhon. But such is Farhi’s compassion for the world that even after cataloguing all the horrors of nightmare reality he opts for a hopeful ending. On the last page of My End Is MyBeginning Oric wails, “Conflicts never end. Peace never comes. Hatred always survives. The end of one horror always spawns the beginning of another. Can we defeat hatred — ever?” Belkis responds, “Yes, my Oric. We can. Believe me.” And he does. This climax made me want to start the book all over again, aware that I may have missed the significance of so many signs and symbols along the way — including Oric’s “Moses basket”. Trust me, whether you like fables and fantasy or not, by the end of this novel you will know Moris Farhi.


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