Tuesday, December 26, 2006

the last book I read

The Nature Of Blood by Caryl Phillips.

Caryl Phillips is a black author from St. Kitts, and (I gather) much of his earlier work is informed by the black experience among white-dominated society. This book extends the theme of tribalism and belonging a bit wider, in that it is mainly concerned with the persecution of the Jews, either by the Nazis during World War II, or in the Venetian ghetto in the 15th century. There are additional strands concerned with Othello's time in Venice and Cyprus as commander of the Venetian army, and with post-war Israel.

The shadow of Primo Levi's If This Is A Man hangs heavily over any novel seeking to deal with the reality of the Nazi concentration camps, and perhaps wisely the main focus is on the protagonist Eva's experiences after her liberation. There are a couple of interludes giving background detail about the subject matter developed elsewhere in the book (e.g. Othello, Venice) which feel unnecessarily didactic, as if lifted from an encyclopaedia; the well-informed reader might feel patronised at these points. As a meditation on belonging and outsider-dom it's very powerful, though, the final chapter bringing the story into the present day and reinforcing the point that these themes repeat themselves endlessly through history, try as we might (or not) to learn from the past.

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