Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Hideous tricks on the brain

Since I started reviewing (eighteen years ago, mind-bogglingly enough) I've always wanted to get a review into the LRB. As of the current issue, I've finally succeeded. Well, almost.

On the back of the current LRB is a subs ad for the New Left Review. If you subscribe you can get one of two books free. One of the books is Benedict Anderson's Under three flags; beneath the jacket image you can read:
'Under Three Flags is an erudite and beautifully illustrated study of the life and times of José Rizal, the revered founding-father of the Philippines ... The book does triumphant justice to the multi-layered complexity of Rizal’s world ... the result is magnificent' - Independent
That's me, that is. I wrote that. Well, what I actually wrote (time-limited link) was more like this (some edits reinstated in italics)
In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson traced the origins of nationalism in Spanish South America. The first nationalists, he argued, spoke for communities that had yet to be built - a formulation that neatly resolves the question of priority between posing political demands and building a collective identity. Moreover, the nationalist vision grew out of shared experience: of restricted career paths, in particular. Consciousness and campaigning, vision and career: Anderson's model of history is made up of pairings such as these.

Under Three Flags is a formidably erudite and beautifully illustrated study of the life and times of José Rizal, the revered founding-father of the Philippines. A constitutional activist who spent much of his life in Europe, Rizal was a hero to the Filipino independence movement. This was largely due to his novels, which offer a bizarre mixture of bejewelled prose, pointed satire, sensationalist plotting and intimations of anarchist revolution.

In exile, Rizal was seen as an extremist for his insistence on Filipino autonomy; returning home, he was outflanked by the radical Katipunan movement, which nevertheless made him its figurehead. He was executed in 1896 for his part in the Katipunan insurrection, which he had disowned; soon afterwards, its leader was killed by a rival, who later served in an American-led government. The Philippines was ceded to the US by Spain in 1898, only achieving lasting independence in 1946.

This is, Anderson stresses, a contribution to the history of "early globalisation". In Europe, exile communities plugged Rizal into an international network of radicals. The dying Spanish empire linked the Philippines with Cuba, where José Marti's war of independence began the year before the Katipunan uprising.

Commendably, Anderson doesn't contrast the Katipunans' hopes disparagingly with the slow tread of history as usual, or the bomb-throwers of Rizal’s fiction with Rizal’s own professed gradualism. Instead, he demonstrates that French aesthetes and Russian nihilists, organisational slog and utopian dreams, all formed part of the same historical moment. This was the moment which Rizal’s fiction articulated, and one which had lasting after-effects. Anderson’s account opens and closes with the story of Isabelo de los Reyes: a pioneering Filipino folklorist who re-emerged, in American-ruled Manila, as a radical trade unionist. From anarchism to national liberation, to neo-colonialism... to anarchism.

This book does triumphant justice to the multi-layered complexity of Rizal's world, but at a cost. Even while he appears to be ambling digressively, Anderson sets a stiff pace; there are few concessions to readers wanting assumptions restated or conclusions underlined. The result is magnificent but overwhelming. Many historical works deserve abridgement; this one could benefit from dilution.
There's a definite art to picking the quote to go in the ad copy; I particularly like the way they closed with "the result is magnificent".

Anyway, buy, buy, buy, and so forth. (I would have been rubbish at marketing.) It's an extraordinary book in method and approach, even if its subject matter stops it hitting the every-home-should-have-one heights of Imagined Communities. More importantly, if Verso shift lots of them they might bring out a second edition and put my quote on the flyleaf, or possibly even on the back. There's glory for you.


Blogger Rob Jubb said...

Well, now you have got in the LRB. I particularly liked 'metaphysical bricolage'.

30/6/06 14:34  

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