Monday, October 19, 2015
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“JERUSALEM – THE BIOGRAPHY” by Simon Sebag Montefiore (first published 2011)
When I review a new book, I generally do so without first reading what other reviewers have had to say about it. It helps that a large proportion of the new books I review are New Zealand books; and in many cases my own reviews of them (on this blog and elsewhere) appear before anybody else has had his or her say.
But after I have reviewed a book, I do sometimes look up what the competition has to say.
I reviewed Simon Sebag Montefiore’s big fat pop-history book Jerusalem – The Biography for the New Zealand Listener when it first came out (11 March 2011). Some weeks later I saw in a newspaper somebody else’s review of the same volume. I laughed at the obvious fact that the hapless chap had clearly not read the whole book (he got some elementary facts wrong); but even more at the fact that, quoting out of context some of the book’s gory stuff, he chose to turn his “review” into an editorial on how religion causes war. The book was used very selectively as his proof text.
Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book isn’t important enough to start a war over. It certainly isn’t a work of painstaking scholarship, and it does not posit any such simplistic thesis as the one given by the reviewer. Montefiore is a well-informed pop historian and pop novelist (as I pointed out when I reviewed his novel One Night in Winter on this blog two years ago.) But Jerusalem – The Biography is entertaining in its broad-sweep way and – if you are totally ignorant of Jerusalem’s history – it does give a reasonable outline.
Anyway, here’s the review I wrote for the Listener.
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An astute critic of Candide once remarked that farce is tragedy played at high speed. Let characters fight wars, make impassioned declarations of love, threaten suicide and die heroically, all in the space of a couple of pages – as Voltaire does – and the effect is inevitably funny. Like watching the jerky black-and-white pantomime of a silent film.
I couldn’t help thinking of this while reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s racy history of Jerusalem. Here, in 614 large pages, we get the history of the world’s holiest and most fought-over city. But given that it encompasses more than 3000 years, even 614 pages is a tight squeeze. After the blood-spattered prologue to whet our appetite – the Roman general Titus sacks Jerusalem in 70 AD – this is the tale of prophets, priests, holy men, rabbis, kings, emperors, wars, sieges, sackings, famines, mass slaughters, persecutions, pogroms and invasion upon invasion – Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantine Christians from the East, Arab Muslims, Crusader Christians from the West, Turkish and Ottoman Muslims, Napoleon, the British and so on up to the present.
The Candide effect overwhelms me. I know I should be taking it all very seriously because of the large-scale human tragedies Jerusalem – The Biography records. But the pace is so helter-skelter it’s hard to contemplate anything with the appropriate gravitas. We’re not given enough time to survey the long outbreaks of peaceful civilisation between the dramatic gory bits.
As in many broad-sweep epics, an inevitable superficiality results when so much history is covered so summarily. Complex concepts are treated with glib brevity. Montefiore shoots out an inaccurate one-liner to cover the theological differences between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism. Errors appear when he dashes on with his narrative and forgets to check his facts. He tells us General Gordon came to Jerusalem after helping put down the Boxer Rebellion in China. This particular upheaval happened some years after Gordon’s death, so presumably Montefiore means the Taiping Rebellion.
And so nit-pickingly on.
A big populist whang-dang is great for the long shots but weaker in the close-ups. It will doubtless provide lots of superior chuckles for specialist historians on any particular era, not helped by Montefiore’s habit of giving us juicy sexual details on everyone from King David to Saladin to officials of the British Mandate in the 1930s.
Mercifully, the helter-skelter eases up in the last third, which deals exclusively with the last two centuries. It’s here that Montfiore shows both his mettle as a polemicist and his humanity as a commentator.
Simon Sebag Montefiore is the product of a very distinguished Jewish family. His great-great-uncle Sir Moses Montefiore was one of the founders of modern Jewish Jerusalem and he knows the city well. About Jerusalem, he is as non-partisan as anyone with such a pedigree could possibly be. He treats the origins of all three monotheistic religions with the same amount of seriousness (and levity). He is fully aware that Jews and Muslims participated with equal ferocity in the terrorism and bloodletting that preceded the founding of the modern state of Israel. He is clearly embarrassed by the disproportionate influence that fundamentalist religious Jews have over the secular state. He is bemused by their tactical alliance with messianic American Protestant fundamentalists.
He even dares to wonder if Israel wouldn’t have been a better place if it hadn’t taken over the whole of Jerusalem after the Six Day War. Six pages from the end he says “If this book has any mission, it is to show that both sides [Jew and Muslim] have unimpeachable claims to Jerusalem, both ancient and modern.”
Bravo for that. And for his clear awareness, born of his understanding of history, that the present status quo can’t help being provisional.