Graeme Wood

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Trotsky and Tahrir

Originally appeared in Bookforum (Summer 2011).

Bibliomancy—the ancient practice of opening a sacred text to any page, then mining a random line for prophecy and advice—is not one of my
standard journalistic research methods. But for those who write about the Middle East, 2011 has been an exceptionally demanding year. With
autocracies toppling and teetering decades ahead of schedule, untold shelves of books on Arab politics now need revision (or pulping). Could the methods of yore be any worse? The medieval bibliomancers liked to consult Virgil, Protesters and soldiers celebrate in Cairo, February 2011. And the ancient Chinese—along with plenty of hippies— preferred the wisdom of the I Ching. Back home after covering the Egyptian revolution and the fall of President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, I tried both. I hoped the Aeneid would yield something apropos about Carthage, but instead I landed on a verse about naval architecture; my random page in the I Ching was “Ta Kuo” through “Wei Tzu” in the index). Any relevance to Arab revolution was opaque.

But I am happy to report that bibliomancy of a more recent vintage has held some promise. It is a special book whose every page offers an insight and an expertly deployed phrase. In this season, more than in most, Leon Trotsky’s energetic and embittered The History of the Russian Revolution is ripe for bibliomancy, and capable on any page of furnishing an aperçu uncannily relevant to the Arab world today. It is also among the most thrilling works of history ever written. Trotsky wrote “a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny,” which should in itself sound similar to much of the masters-of-our-fate liberation rhetoric in common currency in revolutionary Arabia. In its characters, but even more so in its depiction of the eddies and microcurrents of collective action during the crucial February Revolution, it is riveting and intelligent, capable of nourishing any reader who wants to know what the Arab Spring feels like from inside.
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Liberty Abroad

El sueño del celta.
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Madrid: Alfaguara. 464 pages. $20.

Originally appeared in Bookforum.

Those who wish to see politics in everything frequently get their wish. The selection of a Nobel laureate in literature is a case in point. In 2001, the choice of V. S. Naipaul looked to some like a post-9/11 gesture of sympathy with America—even an endorsement of America’s incipient military rebukes to Islamism. Four years later, awarding the anti-American Harold Pinter looked like a rebuke to the American rebuke. And last year’s selection, the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, looks like the most overtly political winner in the past three decades.

The attention garnered by other laureates for their politics has been, by and large, a byproduct of their writing. This is true of Pinter as well as of Gabriel García Márquez (a “courtesan of Castro,” Vargas Llosa once called him). But for Vargas Llosa, politics is his métier, and his best work, both fiction and nonfiction, is political to the core. As a result of his failed 1990 campaign for the Peruvian presidency and five decades of political journalism, we know that he espouses Thatcherite classical liberalism with a Latin American face. (Much of Vargas Llosa’s journalism remains unavailable in English; to confuse matters further, his collected early political writing, Contra viento y marea [Against the Wind and Tide], happens to share a title with the Spanish edition of the autobiography of the conservative Walker, Texas Ranger star Chuck Norris.) Now, with the release in Spanish of his seventeenth novel, El sueño del celta (The Dream of the Celt), Vargas Llosa’s political reputation is due for a reappraisal. Read the rest of this entry »

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Bibliophilia in Zimbabwe

Originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Bookforum.

JUNE/JULY/AUG 2010

End Papers

A traveler through Zimbabwe nearly a decade ago recalls how hyperinflation made a penniless student book-rich.

GRAEME WOOD

In 1922, the German mark was shedding value so fast that anyone who visited the country holding a stable foreign currency could live like a kaiser. Ernest Hemingway crossed from France into the German town of Kehl and saw that economics was not wasted on the young. Students had figured out that their francs could take them a long way across the border. “This miracle of exchange makes a swinish spectacle where the youth of the town of Strasbourg crowd into the German pastry shop to eat themselves sick and gorge on fluffy, cream-filled slices of German cake at 5 marks the slice. The contents of a pastry shop are swept clear in half an hour.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Ted Conover’s Routes of Man

In the February/March print edition of Bookforum, I review the latest by Ted Conover.

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