Sunday, 15 September 2013

in The Catholic Herald, September 13, 2012

Cheap Thrills

Despite some great set-pieces this novel of the 16th century has no heart, says Patrick West

VERSO, £16.99

Wu Ming is not a real person, and the title of this historical novel is irrelevant (“altai” is a type of falcon, but like Trainspotting or Reservoir Dogs, it tells you nothing of the plot). With this in mind, the reader might expect a self-consciously postmodern book, it being the creation of a four-man collective of Italian anarchists. As it happens, Altai turns out to be a rollicking, swashbuckling adventure story set in the late 16th century, the backdrop being a war between the Ottoman Empire and forces loyal to the papacy.

When a fire breaks out in the Arsenal of Venice in 1569, everyone blames the arch-enemy of the Republic, the dastardly Giuseppe Nasi (“The Sultan’s favourite Jew” – a kind of Bin Laden bogeyman). But it is the city’s chief spymaster and torturer, Emmanuele De Zante, who is framed for the blaze, and accused of being a spy himself.

Having escaped jail, De Zante flees to the Balkans, rediscovers his own Jewish roots, heads on through Salonika to Constantinople, and ends up working with Nasi himself. With the patronage of Selim II, Nasi seeks ultimately to build a new Zion in Cyprus. A great religious war ensues when the Turks invade the island, reaching its terrible conclusion at the Battle of Lepanto.

Altai is the follow-up to the collective’s novel Q. Like its predecessor, it’s been a best-seller in Italy. It’s not hard to see why: Altai is gory, epic and sensual, constant with themes of love and betrayal. It’s written in the first person, present tense, in a staccato style that gives it irresistible momentum. At times it has the feel of a detective novel, with each terse chapter ending with a cliff-hanger worthy of Philip Marlowe or a 1970s cop show. (For example: “She left without a sound, leaving me prey to my obsessions, my eyes lost in the night.”)

Wu Ming’s underlying motive, of course, is political: to channel and echo the sentiments of Europe’s disillusioned youth, to the discontents and malcontents who feel betrayed by their elders and rulers. 

Corruption and deception are pervasive in Altai. Venice is a sordid state riddled with anti-semitism. The papacy is rapacious and cynical. The Ottoman Empire, while superficially tolerant and multicultural, is as scheming as its main foe: the Sultan fabricates a pretext for invading Cyprus – a nod, again, to real-life geopolitics.

Like a Sergio Leone film, there are no good guys or bad guys, and no redemption – only the inevitability and thrill of violence: “We fought for ages, acrid smoke and the smell of death filling our lungs … The clash dragged on in a hideous balance of death, attacking, retreating, gaining a few feet of ground, with shouts, curses prayers, insults, music, hissing arrows, roaring arquebuses, the smell of combusted bodies, of burnt wood”.
Throughout, De Zante agonises over his maternal religion, embracing then rejecting his Judaism in turn, seemingly condemned to be the wandering and wondering Jew. He is a man utterly self-absorbed with his identity, a veritable embodiment of Generation Me.

The success of this novel is a depressing sign of the times. Altai, in a perverse way, is a marvellous work, with its stirring pace, attention to historical detail and linguistic wordplay. (If you speak a Romance language you will understand the lingua franca spoken by its seamen: “Kon una barba blanka ke lo faze pareser un profeta.”) But it’s cheap thrills all the same. This book has neither heart nor feeling. It solicits no sympathy. In the end, I didn’t care what happened to the protagonists. There was no one I wanted to live and no one I wanted to die. How strange that such an immense piece of work can feel so hollow. 

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

in the Catholic Herald, July 19, 2013

Mice and men

Science is breaking down distinctions between humans and animals, argues Patrick West

Chimera's Children - Ethical, Philosophical and Religious Perspectives on Human-Nonhuman Experimentation
Edited by Calum MacKellar and David Albert Jones
Continuum, £18.99

One of the central beliefs of Christianity, and indeed of Humanism, is that human beings and animals are different in kind and type. Man has a soul and free will, while animals - slaves to nature - have neither. We hold dear the boundary between us and them, and the thought that it could rupture fills us with horror: consider the fables contained in Animal Farm, Planet of the Apes or The Fly. Even today, when humans are often referred to as "highly-evolved apes", there persists a revulsion towards bestiality, which some speculate arose out of a fear of creating a human-animal cross-breed.

This fear - a natural impossibility - was unfounded until the 20th century, when scientific advances tempted many to break this sacred border. In the 1920s, Stalin ordered Russia's top animal-breeding scientist, Professor Ilya Ivanov, to turn his skills to the quest for an ultimate soldier by crossing human beings with apes. Stalin had told him: "I want a new invincible human being, insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat". Ivanov went to French West Africa, where he inseminated female chimpanzees with human sperm. Having failed with this technique, he asked the French authorities if he could have a native female patient unwittingly inseminated with sperm from a dead chimpanzee. He was refused. Such attempts to fuse man with beast - not least with such racist and sexist overtones - only reinforced a strong taboo.

In recent history, most of us only came to realise that human-nonhuman experimentation had achieved respectability when in 1997 a photograph was released of a mouse with an apparent human ear protruding from its back (the cartilage had been grown by seeding cow cartilage cells and then implanted under the mouse's skin), but paradoxically most Catholics were less taken-aback. Those concerned with the sanctity of life had long been following scientific developments in this field.

As Chimera's Children explains, the first successful example of transgenic animals producing human products was as far back as 1982, when a human growth hormone was produced in the serum of transgenic mice. Two years later researchers in Australia introduced human eggs and sperm into the fallopian tube of a sheep. Since then, this technique has been used successfully to produce a variety of human therapeutic proteins from "non-human animals". Scientists have also created organ-donar pigs with human genes and mice with human immune-system cells - the mice can pass on the human genes to subsequent generations.

Chimera's Children chiefly outlines the current developments in the creation of human-nonhuman combinations, the legal positions currently adopted throughout the world, and summarizes different religious or cultural perspectives on this research. While ostensibly neutral and non-prescriptive, the editors do take a line common with many biologists: that there isn't really such thing as an individual. Scientifically-speaking, this is true. A lichen, for instance, can be considered a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and a green alga. More than 500 different species of "alien" bacteria exist in the human body, making up 100 trillion cells. We are not all ourselves. So stem cells derived from certain types of hybrid embryos that are 99.9 per cent human and 0.1 per cent animal, in the editors' view, shouldn't alarm us. This is because "species differences are a matter of drawing an arbitrary line, and are to some degree illusory and unreal, a matter of quantitative not qualitative differences."

Mainstream Christians and Humanists would disagree. There are, however, those such as the physician and Christian ethicist John Wyatt. He accommodates such scientific developments by talking of human beings as "flawed masterpieces", and that Christians have a duty to correct flaws in the masterpiece, to restore it as much as possible to God's intention. This, however, does raise the spectre of eugenics.

Chimera's Children is patchy and inconclusive. But it is a necessary work, not least because the furore over BSE and GM foods "created an atmosphere of distrust of science and scientists in some quarters of society". Whether we like it or not, the gap between human and animals is collapsing. The establishment of an ethical framework is thus imperative, say the editors: "If this is not done the danger is that ethical principles will no provide sufficient guidance and the gap will be filled by prejudice or commercial interest". But how this will be done is anyone's guess.

in spiked, September 4, 2013

It's true, Brits now love ze Germans