Book Review

Photo by Tom Geerts on Unsplash

The War of the Poor, by Éric Vuillard

This is a very short book; only 66 pages; and set in a large font [not specified, but probably at least 12pt] with wide line spacing; so it should possibly more accurately be described as a booklet or a tract; but no matter: the subject matter is important. It is essentially true, albeit with a certain amount of permissible embroidery, given its historical setting, for the sake of continuity & completeness; it was translated from the original French, La guerre des pauvres, first published in 2019, by an award-winning author in his own right, Mark Polizzotti. I have a few observations about the significance of the text, including a personal connection but, at the risk of appearing to opt for a lazy response, given the fact that this is a non-fiction narrative, there is no plot, as such, to spoil, so I hope my readers will forgive me for quoting in large part from the synopsis at the front of the book, on the inside front cover.

This story concerns a subject which is very important to me, and it is the story of a man whose “terrible and novelesque life casts light on the times in which he lived — a moment when Europe was in flux and history was being written.” So far, so hyperbolic: here I could observe that Europe is again in flux [so what have we learned in between?], but surely, the writing of history is inevitable with the passage of time, so that statement is superfluous? “The history of inequality is a long and terrible one, and it’s not over yet [sadly, true]. The War of the Poor tells the story of a brutal episode from history, not as well known as tales of other popular uprisings, but one that deserves to be told [definitely]. Sixteenth century Europe: the Protestant Reformation takes on the powerful and the privileged. Peasants, the poor living in towns, who are still being promised that equality will be granted to them in heaven, begin to ask themselves: and why not now, here on earth? There follows a furious struggle. Out of this chaos steps Thomas Müntzer: a complex and controversial figure, who sided with neither Martin Luther, nor the Roman Catholic Church. Müntzer encouraged the poor to question why a god who apparently loved them seemed to be on the side of the rich.”

All well & good, and some of my observations could be seen as prejudice, for which I apologise, but they spring from my agnosticism, so I consider The Church, of any flavour, and religion in general, to be fair game. First & foremost, I was somewhat surprised, but also agreeably gratified, to read of a personal connection with the beginning of Müntzer’s ‘career’ in 1520 when, after emerging as a child from the trauma of his father’s execution, and reading The Bible which was produced with the new-fangled process called printing, “he enrolled as a student in Leipzig, then became a priest in Halberstadt  and Brunswick [Braunschweig], then a provost here and there, then, after considerable tribulations among the Lutherite plebeians, he emerged from his hole in 1520, when he was named a preacher in Zwickau.” The beginning of the next chapter nails it for me: “Outside the borders of Saxony [Sachsen], hardly anyone knows Zwickau. It’s just another backwater.” For non-German speakers, there’s an added complication: it’s difficult to pronounce—the combination of the ts consonants, followed by the v pronunciation of the German w is admittedly not easy, but not impossible, with practice. I was there for 6 months at the beginning of 1993; so, only two-and-a-bit years after one of the most momentous events of modern times, whose repercussions were to affect the whole of the soon to be reunited Germany for years to come, and the whole European continent, albeit somewhat less so, and to varying degrees in the different constituent countries. At the end of the GDR, Zwickau was where ‘Trabis’ were built, then VW took the plant over.

My overall concern with the story is that, although Müntzer was fighting for the rights of the common man, he was doing so within the confines of Christianity, and expecting his followers to be willing adherents also; it is reasonable to argue that those were the times in which they lived, when morality & religious observance were seen as inseparable, but he did set himself up as a fundamentalist demagogue: “He cited Luke: ‘Bring hither mine enemies, and slay them before me.’ He cited the psalms: ‘The Lord will smash down the old pots of clay with his rod of iron.’ … But … Müntzer introduced another populace, more invasive and tumultuous, a real populace, the poor laity and the peasants. This was a far cry from the catechistic generality of kindly Christian folk; now it was about ordinary people.” It all ended badly, of course: after several armed confrontations, and even a few victories, Müntzer was captured and beheaded, leaving history to be written by the victors. “These scurrilous legends come along to bow the heads of renegades only after they have been denied the right to speak. Their sole purpose is to make the tormenting voice sound within us, the voice of order, to which we are ultimately so attached that we surrender to its mysteries and hand it our lives.” Apparently, “Nietzsche took inspiration from him, from the Müntzerese gush and extravagance. But Müntzer is a man of action … He quotes Daniel: ‘Power will be given to the people.’ We’re a long way from Nietzsche.”

We’re also a long way from “Power [being] given to the people”, but at least the power of religion is being cumulatively reduced, although we still have some way to go. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by Picador, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-3855-2.

Book Review

Photo by Chris Gallagher on Unsplash

La Belle Sauvage [The Book of Dust, Volume One], by Philip Pullman

The Belle Sauvage in the book’s title is a canoe, owned by the hero [a designation which can be given without reservation, which the book will reveal], Malcolm Polstead; interestingly, I don’t remember reading how the canoe acquired that name: perhaps this will be revealed in the next instalment of the trilogy, for this book is the first of three which form a prequel to the highly successful His Dark Materials trilogy [HDM] by the same author. They are ostensibly children’s books, but many adults [of which I am not ashamed to admit I am one] have also read & enjoyed them: I like to think that they broadened my daughters’ minds, for they are both avid readers. Philip Pullman is acknowledged to be an important modern critical thinker, and his books have won awards too numerous to mention, including the Whitbread Book of the Year Award for The Amber Spyglass, the third in HDM: the first time that award has been given to a children’s book; the trilogy has also been translated to the big screen—debatably successfully—and to television, by the BBC, much more accurately and, consequently, successfully.

Given that, as previously stated, this is a prequel, some of the characters & locations will be known to those familiar with the alternate world which Pullman has created. The timeframe is now, approximately, and the setting initially Britain; specifically Oxford & its environs; but the technology is slightly different; or, at least, its terminology is: there are Zeppelins for long-distance air travel, but also gyrocopters, and there does appear to be internal combustion available for small vehicles, but electrical power is referred to as anbaric. Not Steampunk specifically, but different enough to be noticeable: if you accept the concept of parallel or adjacent universes, this one is only one or two steps removed. The main protagonist in HDM, a young girl named Lyra, is here introduced to us as a baby, who is entrusted to the care of nuns at a nearby priory, Godstow, because she is in need of special protection: primarily from the ruling religious authorities, which exert a near-total control over the country’s moral development. This is a relatively recent manifestation, but the observance of Christianity is now being inexorably enforced; one of the aspirations of the authorities in this mission is the suppression of research into any areas of science which might contradict Christian dogma.

Lyra’s parents are either unable, or unwilling to participate in her upbringing, but they are both aware of her potential to upset what is regarded by the authorities as the natural order; there is no risk of plot spoilers for new readers of HDM, because this parentage is revealed quite early in the trilogy. Her father is Lord Asriel, a rich explorer who is convinced that there is some unifying force which can explain the functioning of the universe, and he is relentlessly searching for it: a quest which he knows cannot include a baby, however much he might like to spend time with her. Lyra’s mother, however, has no maternal instincts, but she has been made aware of Lyra’s potential, so she sets out to reclaim the child. Mrs Coulter’s husband was killed by Lord Asriel, but the circumstances were such that the latter was not held responsible for the death, so he is free to pursue his quest.

Eleven-year-old Malcolm, the son of the proprietors of The Trout pub in Port Meadow, a village three miles outside Oxford, opposite the priory by the Thames, helps out at the priory, as well as working for his parents. He learns about the arrival of Lyra, and is instantly smitten: this might seem strange for a young boy, but he is obviously sensitive, as well as being very practical. One aspect of this world hitherto unmentioned is that all human beings have physical familiars of the opposite gender, referred to as dæmons: they serve many functions, but they always stay in close proximity to their owners, primarily because physical separation is painful. Children’s dæmons can take any form, albeit youthful, until they become fixed; after puberty, if I remember correctly. Malcolm’s dæmon, Asta, forms an instant rapport with Pantaleimon, Lyra’s dæmon, which is helpful for the later events. The action of the narrative is Malcolm’s escape from Port Meadow when a disastrous flood [whose proportions could be described, ironically, as biblical] destroys the priory and threatens Lyra’s safety, so he decides to head for London to find Lord Asriel, taking with him Alice, a fifteen-year-old girl who also works for Malcolm’s parents.

Luckily for the three passengers, La Belle Sauvage has been upgraded somewhat after Malcolm lent it to Lord Asriel for a few days, so it is better able to withstand the foul weather & onslaught of not only the flood on its journey, but also the trio’s pursuers. Although this first volume is 546 pages [and this makes a heavy hardback, not ideally conducive to bedtime reading!] it is very easy to read: not only because the prose is well written, but also because the font & line-spacing is just right for the page size. This hardback was published in 2017 by David Fickling Books, Oxford, in association with Penguin Books, London, ISBN 978-0-385-60441-3 [a trade paperback is also available, ISBN 978-0-857-56108-4]. Admittedly, this type of material might not be to everybody’s taste, but this is one of the few fantasy genres I can accommodate, so I will certainly be keeping my eyes open for the next book in this trilogy.