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Writing Historical Fiction(9): David Gillham

David Gillham, the author of City of Women explains how he created the atmosphere of 1943 Berlin.

One way I tried to build the atmosphere of Sigrid’s Berlin was by introducing wartime movies, music, and food into the narrative. Of course, when Sigrid attends the cinema, it not really to watch a movie. She’s looking for a small space of privacy, which is why she favors war movies. These didn’t do very well at the box office in Berlin; the audiences for them were usually sparse. The average Berliner was less interested in seeing propaganda films such as Soldiers of Tomorrow than Heinz Rühmann in escapist fare such as The Gas Man, or Gustaf Gründgens in a lavish eighteenth-century costume drama. For more recent movies that capture either the essence of Berlin or the stunning contradictions of the war years, I’d recommend Cabaret and Europa, Europa.[Guest post by David Gillham: Watch, Listen, Eat]

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History of Historians

The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes has some interesting musings on history in the first part where Tony Webster and his trio of book-crazy friends analyze the meaning of everything, sometimes in subtle mockery or high seriousness. In one scene, the teacher asks one of them to offer his thoughts as the Serbian gunman who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in 1914.  The boy, Finn, explains one of the central problems of history in his answer, “The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.”

Later, there is a more detailed discussion of exactly what history is. “History is the lies of the victors,” one replies to which the teacher retorts, “It is also the self-delusions of the defeated.” Another one has a simpler explanation, ““History is a raw onion sandwich, sir” and he explains further, “It just repeats, sir. It burps. We’ve seen it again and again this year. Same old story, same old oscillation between tyranny and rebellion, war and peace, prosperity and impoverishment.” Another one has a more precise definition, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

Some of these observations come to reality in Benjamin Schwarz’s piece which is a review of Sheldon M. Stern’s The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory in The Atlantic. For years, through books and movies, we have been fed a story about the incident and how a tough Kennedy averted a global nuclear war and forced the Soviet Union to do a U-turn without offering anything in return. It turns out that this version of history was one scripted by the Kennedy administration. It was repeated by historians and has now been proved to be the lies of the victors. According to the book, the Kennedy administration was not innocent and  bore “substantial responsibility” for the crisis.

According to the new version Kennedy himself admitted that Soviet missiles in Cuba were the same as the American Jupiter missiles in Turkey and Italy. For him, it was not a military issue but a political one. Since he had made Cuba one of his campaign issues, he could not be seen acting soft on it. For this political reason, he had to create an image of toughness and show that he enforced a unilateral Soviet withdrawal.

Even though the crisis was averted by a mutual withdrawal of missiles, it was a different story that came out. The article explains how this story was minted

Only a handful of administration officials knew about the trade; most members of the ExComm, including Vice President Lyndon Johnson, did not. And in their effort to maintain the cover-up, a number of those who did, including McNamara and Rusk, lied to Congress. JFK and others tacitly encouraged the character assassination of Stevenson, allowing him to be portrayed as an appeaser who “wanted a Munich” for suggesting the trade—a deal that they vociferously maintained the administration would never have permitted.

He justifiably excoriates the sycophantic courtier Schlesinger, whose histories “repeatedly manipulated and obscured the facts” and whose accounts—“profoundly misleading if not out-and-out deceptive”—were written to serve not scholarship but the Kennedys.[The Real Cuban Missile Crisis]

The truth finally came out because Kennedy had secret recordings of all the deliberations and thanks to that we now have the history of the historians.

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Jan 2013: Reference Books on my Desk

These are some of the books that I referred a lot in the past year.

  1. Hiriyanna, M. Outlines of Indian Philosophy. Motilal Banarsidass Pub, 2009. Another excellent book is A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy  by Chandradhar Sharma
  2. Danino, Michel. Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati. 2010th ed. Penguin Books India, 2010. (my review)
  3. Tope,Parag. Tatya Tope’s Operation Red Lotus. Rupa & Co., 2010. (my review)
  4. Bryant, Edwin. The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. Oxford University Press, USA, 2004. If you want to understand all angles of the Indo-Aryan issue, this is an excellent introduction.
  5. Singh, Upinder. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. 1st ed. Pearson Education, 2009. This has become my standard reference for Indian history.
  6. Tignor, Robert, Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Aron, Stephen Kotkin, Suzanne Marchand, Gyan Prakash, and Michael Tsin, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World: From 1000 CE to the Present (Third Edition) by  This was my textbook for a course I did at Princeton via Coursera and is my reference for Western History.
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The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis


During the Renaissance period, there was no unified Italy, but it was divided into a number of warring city-states, kingdoms and duchies (see above map). These places were ruled by powerful families like the Medici and Orsini who used both money and matrimonial alliances to their advantage. The Pope, during that time, was Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) and one of his sons, Cesare Borgia, was governing the region of Romagna.  During that period, Leonardo da Vinci worked for Cesare Borgia as his military engineer. Also present in the same place was Niccolò Machiavelli, who was the Florentine secretary.

The Borgias were one of the most notorious families in European history and there is no shameful act that has not happened under their watch. When Rodrigo was around 25, his maternal uncle Pope Callixtus III, made him a bishop. The word nepotism (nepotis – Latin for  nephew) comes from this system which was common during that period. Rodrigo became Pope in the year Christopher Columbus set off to on his voyage to paradise.

During this period, alum, which was an important dye for the cloth industry, was discovered in the Roman hills. Previously it had to be imported from Turkey and following the fall of Constantinople in 1452, it was no longer an option. The revenue brought by the sale of alum was augmented by the sale of indulgences, a practice against which Martin Luther would revolt. This wealth was quite useful for Rodrigo to secure the future of his illegitimate children. He also ruled by terror; it was not considered a good idea to come in the path of the Borgias as murders and poisoning were common.

Among his illegitimate children, Rodrigo, who fathered when he was the Pope and also kept a mistress, had great ambitions for Cesare who was given command of the papal army. The novel is set in motion with the murder of his elder brother Juan and Cesare along with several Roman barons are suspect. This was followed by a series of grotesque murders of women who are considered as prostitutes and witches and their body parts are dispersed in carefully arranged patterns along the countryside.

To find the killer, the Pope sends Madonna Damiata, a courtesan who was the lover of the murdered Juan. At Imola, she meets Machiavelli and da Vinci, who work with her in solving the mystery. The first one-third of the book is written as a first person account by Damiata as she meets the various players in Cesare’s court and gets familiar with the vastly different techniques of the scientist and the man who studies people.

While The Secret Supper focused on Leonardo as an artist, this book is about the scientific methods he uses. In Imola, he is all about dissecting corpses, quantifying everything, creating maps and finding patterns based on that data and not guesswork. One of the fascinating parts of the book is when he disagrees with  Machiavelli on his techniques; his technique is based on analyzing historical events and the men who shaped them. Even though the times have changed, the nature of men remain the same, he argues and Leonardo cannot agree to that since it is of subjective nature.

During a ceremony at the place of a Romagnole witch, Damiata disappears and the remaining two-thirds of the book is a first person narrative by  Machiavelli. There is urgent need to find the killer because Cesare is about to make a pact with the Roman barons and it is possible that they might advance to  Machiavelli’s homeland of Florence.

All the characters in the book are real historical characters and all of them did what the historical record tells us. The missing part is why they did those things and Ennis fills those gaps. In an essay, Michael Ennis wrote

This evidence brought my sleuthing-geniuses premise squarely back into the domain of documented history: I had discovered a true crime story – involving, as it turns out, a brilliant serial killer–interlaced with one of history’s pivotal political events. Although this was a story Machiavelli, for very good reasons, decided to keep to himself, The Prince contains artifacts of it, once you know what you are looking for. As Machiavelli confesses to us at the beginning of his narrative, there is a “terrifying secret I deliberately buried between the lines of The Prince.” The words are my creation, but they are based on admissions that Machiavelli made later in his life. The truth that can be found between the lines of The Prince – a revelation of man’s capacity for evil far more ghastly than anything Machiavelli wrote explicitly in the text–is no mere fictional invention. With consequences that have resounded throughout the subsequent course of Western culture and history, the dreadful secret of The Prince is all too real.

It is also a great character study of Machiavelli  and shows how he came up with the concepts he later wrote in Prince. Even though the book looks a bit disconnected at some points, it is a great read and gives you a good account of the Borgias and politics of 16th century Italy. Also thanks to this book, I came across two television series (1, 2) based on this period.

References

  1. BBC. In Our Time. The Borgias
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Briefly Noted: Solomon and Sheba (1959)

The Hebrew Bible does not have a lenient view on idolatry. The Genesis, besides talking about the origins of the world and the existence of evil, also wonders how could idolatry exist in a world created by a good god. The authors of the Bible lived in a region where the worship of little household idols and local fertility deities were common and it is believed that this rant against idolatry was an attempt at distinguishing themselves from the local customs and traditions. When God makes a covenant with Abraham and promises him the land, one of the justifications is that the current inhabitants were polluting it with idolatry. The primary book of the Priestly school talks about ritual purity and moral purity and the three heinous sins on the moral side were idolatry, homicide and sexual transgressions. Since idolatry defiles the land, the offenders are to be stoned. All this is put to test during the Queen of Sheba’s tempestuous visit to Jerusalem during Solomon’s reign.

According to myth, the Queen of Sheba, on hearing about the wisdom of Solomon, visits him. He too has heard about her and her cloven feet. Solomon talks to her about his God Yahweh and she converts. In the movie, the narrative is completely different. The Egyptian Pharaoh and the Queen of Sheba (Gina Lollobrigida) are allies who after failing in an effort to capture Israel come up with another plan. The Queen will travel to Jerusalem and influence Solomon (Yul Brynner). She will introduce pagan rituals which involve idols to Egypt and thus cause a rift between Solomon and his people. Once that is done it would be easy to conquer Israel.

It was a solid plan with one major loophole. The pagan fell in love with the monotheist. The monotheist too fell in love with the pagan and was willing to do anything to please her including giving permission for an an orgy festival. This, as expected, turns the clergy against Solomon. God too turns against Solomon and hits the temple and the Sheban idol with lightning.   Meanwhile the Egyptians, who were waiting for an opportune moment, attack and Solomon’s army has to retreat. Hearing the news, the Queen of Sheba goes to the temple and affirms the supremacy of the one and only God. Solomon too asks for forgiveness. Everything goes well as Solomon defeats Egypt and returns right in time to Jerusalem to save Queen of Sheba from death by stoning. God forgives the Queen, but mandates that she return back to her country. Sheba returns, carrying Solomon’s baby.

The movie ends at that point, but according to an Ethiopian legend, the son of Sheba and Solomon returns to Jerusalem to meet his father. But on his return, he takes the Ark of the Covenant and the Ark has stayed in Ethiopia ever since.

Reference:

  1. Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) by Prof. Christine Hayes, at Yale
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