Bittersweet memories: Ti Amo, by Hanne Ørstavik, reviewed

This is a deceptively slim novel. Its 96 pages contain multitudes: two lives, past and present, seamlessly interwoven. The narrator, a Norwegian novelist, and her Italian husband live in Milan. ‘Ti amo,’ they frequently tell each other. Easier to say ‘I love you’, than for him to say he’s dying, and her to say she doesn’t know what she’ll do without him. When did it all start, she wonders. ‘When did you actually become ill?’ We’re encouraged these days to view everything as a journey, including marriage, and theirs has been a marriage of many journeys, emotional and geographical: literary festivals, seminars, conferences, interspersed with private time – dinners in

How the left thought they were right to fight the war on terror

Late one soft summer night in 1966, my brother Christopher slipped out of our north Oxford house and bicycled to the centre of the city. There he spent a worryingly long time with a spraypaint can, inscribing the words ‘Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?’ on a long builders’ hoarding outside Trinity College in Broad Street. You will have to work out for yourselves how I know this, but I do. The punctuation was perfect, and a handwriting expert could easily have told it was him. The slogan endured for months and even appeared in a TV drama filmed in the city some months later. This

The complex character of Tricky Dick

In this Age of Trump, as we cast about for some moment in American history that might help us make sense of the present, the name Richard M. Nixon keeps resurfacing. Nixon, who resigned the presidency in 1974 after being swept up in investigations into the crimes and cover-ups known collectively as Watergate, offers easy comparisons with Donald J. Trump: two corrupt American presidents who left office in disgrace; who considered the press their enemy; who accused the previous administration of surveilling them; who weaponised racism as a way to win elections; who employed the politics of division as a way of keeping power; who possessed and indulged an outsized

An interest in the bizarre helps keep melancholy at bay

If you crush the right testicle of a wolf and administer it in oil or rose water it will induce a loathing for sex. The Turks have a drink called coffee (for they use no wine). The Chinese have no nobility, or only those philosophers and doctors who have raised themselves by their worth. If you allowed a human being 25 square feet each, the Earth could bear 148,456,800,000,000 people. The Persian kings trained sparrows to hunt butterflies, inspired by hunting with hawks. Speaking of sparrows, the reason they are so short-lived is because of their salacity, which is very frequent. Once a nun ate a lettuce without saying grace

The attraction of repulsion: The Disaster Tourist, by Yun-Ko Eun, reviewed

Disaster tourism allows people to explore places in the aftermath of natural and man-made disasters. Sites of massacres and concentration camps can be visited; tours operate around Chernobyl, Centralia — the city in America that is perpetually on fire — Aleppo and Fukushima. Tourists can ‘experience’ what it is like to live in a war zone, in extreme poverty or a place emptied by nuclear fallout, and then return to the safety of their homes. In Yun Ko-Eun’s The Disaster Tourist, translated from the Korean by Lizzie Buehler, the protagonist Yoona works for Jungle, a Korean disaster tourism travel company. She returns to Seoul after visiting an earthquake-hit region of

The agony of the ‘almost man’

You may ask yourself, is it worth one of the best American non-fiction writers producing a book of just under 600 pages on an arrogant and abrasive egotist whose highest sustained rank in the State Department was that of a lowly assistant secretary? The answer is unabashedly yes. This is a remarkable work about a remarkable, if deeply flawed, statesman whose career was intimately intertwined with the 50 years of American decline from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Nearly all biographies have long, boring stretches you want to skip. This one has none. The access to Richard Holbrooke’s papers and to the uncensored memories of his wives and mistresses, as well as

Life, death and everything in between

The most striking and difficult aspect of this novel is its incredible scale. How can a reviewer best discuss an enterprise containing a vast survey of life in Germany, Britain and the United States and the transformations of these societies from the end of the 19th century to the 1980s? Two volumes cover the experience of age and youth, the rise of the Nazis in Mecklenburg, the second world war, life and death in a small German town, the evolution of East German communities and the emergence of a Soviet state after the war. The New York Times appears in more or less every chapter, as the conveyer of the

The unwinnable war

Many wars have outsized and enduring effects on the societies that fight them, but for Americans the Vietnam war has one attribute that guarantees its longevity as a suppurating wound in the national psyche: it was a loss. Analyses have been numerous and perennial, from David Halberstam’s contemporary portrait of the policymakers who led the country into war, The Best and the Brightest, to last year’s mammoth ten-part documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War. Now Brian VanDeMark, a historian at the United States Naval Academy who had working relationships with the two secretaries of defense who managed the war — he co-authored Robert McNamara’s In

Delusions of the deserters

‘Keep my name out of it’, was the fairly standard reply when Matthew Sweet started researching the story of the GIs who deserted from Vietnam. People’s concern, it turned out, however, was not about being associated just with desertion, but with a more complex story of duplicity, abuse and insanity. Over time, the American Deserters Committee (ADC), the welfare group established to support the deserters in neutral Sweden, developed into a series of increasingly militant organisations. These were then infiltrated by the CIA. Sweet tracks the changing nature of desertion ‘from an individual act of conscience or cowardice to a political step that GIs could take together’. But as he

BBC4’s The Vietnam War was unique, informative and shattering

The Vietnam War BBC4 The BBC should be praised for showing all ten episodes of this unique, informative and shattering American series on the Vietnamese war, despite screening eight fewer hours than in the original. Before each episode the BBC warned that ‘some viewers may find some scenes upsetting’. Which ones? A frog jumping in a pool of blood from the head of a dead Vietcong (NLF) fighter? The Saigon police chief shooting a prisoner in the head? The American colonel offering a case of whiskey to the first man to bring him the severed head of an enemy soldier? Which he gets. The eager US soldier on his first day in Vietnam noticing strings of

Saints and sinners | 19 October 2017

Any rival reality-TV makers watching Channel 5 on Thursday will, I suspect, have been both mystified and slightly embarrassed at not having thought up Bad Habits, Holy Orders themselves. After all, the concept is a blindingly obvious one. Take five young women whose primary interests are selfies, booze and clubbing and make them live like nuns for a month. And not metaphorically either: the five are staying with the Daughters of Divine Charity at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Swaffham, where days filled with prayer, reflection, manual work and wholesome play end at a 10 p.m. bedtime. The first episode began by taking perhaps unnecessary care to make

The rise of toytown pop

Pop’s counterfactuals tend to be built on questioning mortality: what if Jimi Hendrix had lived? Or Buddy Holly? Rarely does geopolitics enter into the speculation. Nevertheless, there’s a case for arguing that the landscape of British pop would have been markedly different had Harold Wilson acceded to the wishes of President Lyndon Johnson and sent British forces to Vietnam. That’s worth contemplating now, ahead of the latest reissue — deluxe and expanded and remastered, as these things always are — of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released last week for the 50th anniversary of the original album. The Beatles — along with Pink Floyd, who were recording The Piper

The war in the shadows

I once spent an evening, back in the mid-1980s, with William Colby, the legendary spy and director of the CIA. I was an undergraduate at the time, and the CIA’s Iran–Contra debacle was in the news. Lured by the agency’s mystique, I was eager to ask him about the fabled Phoenix programme he directed — a top secret initiative to target and eliminate Viet Cong who had infiltrated South Vietnamese villages, often conducted by Americans who had crossed over some invisible line, leaving behind them the normal life that comprised my world. To my disappointment, Colby demystified Phoenix. He was very proud of the programme, and while he never said

Short – but far from sweet

Like his Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel, The Sympathisers, the stories in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees are set largely among the Vietnamese diaspora on the west coast of America, where Nguyen himself lives, having fled to the US from Vietnam with his family in 1975. They mostly feature characters juggling the lives they’ve made in their adopted culture with their memories of — and loyalties to — the old land. In one story, set in the Reagan era, a penny-pinching woman who runs her family’s New Saigon grocery store is reluctantly moved to donate money to the futile guerrilla war against communism back in Vietnam. In another, a young refugee,

The McMaster plan

When Lt Gen H.R. McMaster was appointed by Donald Trump to the post of national security adviser, newspaper reports hailed him as a military strategist. It’s not fully clear what the phrase means: not, presumably, that he originated a big idea akin to Alfred Thayer Mahan’s theory of seapower or Billy Mitchell’s conception of strategic bombing. More likely it is supposed to mean ‘a soldier who thinks’. Or more crudely, ‘not a knuckle-dragger’. Or ‘preferable to the cretin who Trump just fired’. Of course, the responsibilities of the position to which McMaster now ascends extend well beyond mere military matters. The national security adviser operates (or should operate) in the

The legacy of Vietnam

At first glance, Robert Olen Butler’s Perfume River seems like an application for a National Book Award. Its protagonist, Robert, a 70-year-old history professor, lives in comfortable ennui with his semiotician wife, Darla: tenure, sabbaticals, staring through separate study windows in their sprawling Florida home. It’s a life of carefully brewed coffee and uninterrupted research. All is well, save for the growing distance in the marriage, man and wife siloed into their respective Kindle-glows at night. But a chance meeting with Bob — a homeless man Robert assumes to be a veteran — reveals the reason for the disconnect: Robert’s unacknowledged guilt about his war in Vietnam. This is compounded

The quiet moment in a Vietnamese church that saved my career

I believe it was Christmas 1971, and I was up in Phu Bai, north of Danang, south of Hue. It was a miserable time, I was lonely and my career as a journalist was going nowhere. There wasn’t even any fighting going on to keep one’s mind occupied. On Christmas Eve I went to a Catholic church and was the only round-eyed man there. I prayed rather hard and after that, as by miracle, all my prayers were answered. I became a roving correspondent for an American weekly and have never looked back. To read more from our Spectator survey of answered prayers, click here

Arms and the woman

In August 1939, Clare Hollingworth, a 28-year-old aid-worker, had been employed as a reporter for less than a week by the Daily Telegraph when she landed her first serious journalistic coup. Using feminine wiles and diplomatic skills extraordinaire, she convinced a friend in the Foreign Office to lend her his chauffeured car. Stocking up with supplies in soon to be starving Poland, and charming the border guards, she crossed into Germany with nothing but her gut instinct and her smarts — the most important of a reporter’s tools (together with ‘ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability’, in the words of the late Nicholas Tomalin). She didn’t

Diary – 29 September 2016

Monday night’s US presidential debate should convince a majority of American voters that Hillary Clinton is their only credible choice for the White House. Yet it may well fail to do so, in the new era of ‘post-truth politics’. The historian Sir Michael Howard suggests that on both sides of the Atlantic, we are witnessing a retreat from reason, an attempt to reverse the onset of the 18th-century Age of the Enlightenment, which banished superstition and religious faith as a basis for reaching conclusions. The progress of Donald Trump supports his thesis. I have just spent a fortnight in southern California, researching a book on the Vietnam war, and saw

Where should the line be drawn over the famous Kim Phuc photograph?

Can you imagine, in the wake of a terror attack in London, a tabloid, or any other kind of media outlet, publishing a photograph of a naked and distressed child caught up in the melee? It isn’t hard to answer the question. Of course they wouldn’t publish it. It would break every rule in the book. It is bizarre, then, to see Facebook accused of censorship for coming to exactly the same conclusion: that it wasn’t right to carry an image of naked and distressed child. It is even weirder to see Facebook attacked from a corner – the Guardian – which would normally be among the first to damn