Three novels from the past offer insights into the political battles of today
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We do not have a Novel of the Year for 2016. Our committee looked for superbly written stories with engaging characters set in a fallen world, clean (or almost-clean) language, and a redemptive flavor without preachiness. That’s a tall order these days: We list five good ones on the next page, but none really stands out.
Instead of reading a new work of fiction, you might try three published in past years that are oddly relevant to our own time. First is the oldest of the oldies but goodies: Homer’s The Iliad, in a new translation by Barry Powell (Oxford, 2014). Forced in college to read this eighth-century-B.C. epic in a translation that made Greco-Trojan wrestlers sound like British lords, I was bored—but Powell’s vibrant work makes the ancient belligerents sound like Republican candidates insulting each other during debates.
For example, Agamemnon attacks the media: “Prophet of evil, never have you said a word pleasing to me.” He tells his chief adversary among the Greeks, Achilles, to get lost: “There are plenty who will honor me, and Zeus above all, whose wisdom is great. You are most hateful to me of all the god-reared chieftains. … I don’t like you. I don’t care if you are angry.” Achilles fires his verbal torpedoes: “Shameless fool! Greedy, how now can your speech gladly persuade any of the Achaeans either to go on an ambush or to fight in the hand-to-hand?”
Remember Donald Trump’s sneers at “Little Marco” Rubio? Here’s Trojan hero Hector reproaching his younger brother: “Little Paris, nice to look at, mad for women, seducer boy—I wish you had never been born. … Evil Paris pretty-boy, girl-crazy, con man.” Meanwhile, polytheistic gods Zeus and Hera are locked in a bad eternal marriage: Hera mocks him—“Who, my clever fellow, have you been making deals with?”—and “Zeus, who assembles the clouds” responds with invective: “Shut up and sit down! Obey my word, or all the gods in Olympus will do you no good as I close in and lay upon you my powerful hands.”
This energetic translation of The Iliad does have bits of bad language along with many explicit depictions of battlefield deaths—and that note leads me to a second book, Jose Gironella’s The Cypresses Believe in God, a novel about the five years (1931-1936) that led to the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and 1 million battlefield deaths.
Gironella sautéed his country’s major political and social movements—in alphabetical order, anarchist, Catholic, communist, existentialist, fascist, royalist—while telling the poignant story of two parents who want peace and cannot sustain it, and two sons: one phlegmatic, one saintly. Other memorable characters include young fanatics on opposite sides, a cynical chief of police, a hate-filled anarchist, a middle-class Communist intellectual who becomes a mass murderer, and two hippie socialist teachers.
Gironella, a political moderate who died in 2003, showed how a country unravels to the point where people indicate which side they’re on by the shirts and shoes they wear. The names of the political movements are different now, but the novel—published in 1953 and translated into English in 1955—is a warning to us: One of the socialists learns that when a leader “shouts ‘Long live our historic mission!’ you ask yourself how many coffins are going to be needed.”
Distinguished author Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, originally published in 1993, is a third fictional work of life and death relevant to our own time (and with lots of bad language). Her three French Revolution protagonists—Robespierre, Danton, and Desmoulins—also show what happens when our egos insist that a country is made up of sodium and chloride rather than salt: God-ignoring ideology poisons everything.
THE BLACK WIDOW Daniel Silva (Harper)
The Black Widow is the latest in a series of cleverly plotted and ethically thoughtful spy novels featuring Gabriel Allon as the main character: He is a superb restorer of classic paintings, an agent/leader of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, and a person willing to take on ISIS. A small warning: Suicide bombers bring violence, characters five times in 500 pages use expletives, and one agent comments on Obama foreign policy: “Madness, absolute madness … what does the American president tell us? ISIS is not Islamic. ISIS is the jayvee team. … Does he truly believe this drivel?” —Marvin Olasky
THE DEATH’S HEAD CHESS CLUB John Donoghue (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
In Auschwitz during the Holocaust and in Amsterdam two decades later, Donoghue’s characters learn about vocation, forgiveness, and repentance. Emil, a Jewish watchmaker from France, survives through championship chess, while Paul, an SS administrator, questions his own beliefs. Plot twists and tightly written prose gently bring to the forefront hard questions: Placed in Emil’s shoes, could we indeed forgive “seventy times seven”? Were we in Paul’s place, would we have done more to resist the evil of the Nazi regime? Knowing its history, how should we confront evil today? —Charles Horton
THE NOISE OF TIME Julian Barnes (Knopf)
In this literary novel, Barnes tries to get inside the head of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who survived Josef Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s and smaller Soviet terrors later by appeasing Communist bullies while trying to retain at least a shred of integrity. Barnes has Shostakovich eventually conclude that Soviet architects “had failed at a very basic level … with the result that the House of Communism was built all disproportionate, and lacking in human scale. … It made everyone—adults and children alike—fearful.” It also makes for a depressing book, but an educational one about life under intellectual tyranny. —M.O.
NO WITNESS BUT THE MOON Suzanne Chazin (Kensington)
The contemporary topic makes this an educational read: Police officer Jimmy Vega responds to a 911 call and then chases and kills an unarmed suspect. Vega becomes a target for those wary of “killer cops,” including his college-age daughter and former-district-attorney girlfriend. He confronts bigotry, fame, hypocrisy, his mother’s unsolved murder, and brutality, giving readers insight into how police struggle in the aftermath of shootings and why others fear them. After Vega almost becomes unhinged, the story wraps up too nicely; but Chazin through most of the novel weaves her two main threads with realism and insight. —Ron Friedman
EL PASO Winston Groom (Liveright)
Largely set in northern Mexico a century ago, El Paso is chock-full of men with big personalities who sometimes act more like chest-thumping boys. Arthur, the central character, is an orphan who grew up in a wealthy adoptive family headed by an extravagant Rough Rider disappointed that his son isn’t as “manly” as he is. Both grow in character while chasing Pancho Villa: Arthur develops courage, his father gains a bit of humility, and both become more manly as they come to view their family as more important than their assertions of manliness. Groom’s biting take on socialist idealists such as John Reed is amusing. —Sophia Lee
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