The Orientalist by Tom Reiss

Ali and Nino, the closest thing that modern Azerbaijan has to a national novel, was first published in German in 1937, sold in various translations, hit US bestseller lists in the early 1970s and bears the name Kurban Said as its author.

But the question of the author’s identity had never been resolved. All anyone agreed on was that Kurban Said was the pen name of a writer who had probably come from Baku, an oil city in the Caucasus, and that he was either a nationalist poet who was killed in the Gulags, or the dilettante son of an oil millionaire, or a Viennese cafe-society writer who died in Italy after stabbing himself in the foot.

The answer, which Reiss gets to quickly, is essentially, “All of the above.” And therein, of course, lies a tale. Or twelve.
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Taking Stock: Books

Best books I read in 2006?

In fiction, it would have to be most of the second half of the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian. I read six in 2006 and the last two in early January 2007, and it’s a terrific body of work. Its acclaim and success need little boost from this blog, but I enjoyed and learned from the whole run. The only competition I’ve read in historical fiction is Dorothy Dunnett, with the Lymond and Niccolo series, plus her take on Macbeth.
Beyond the captain and his doctor, best from last year’s reading: Snow, by Orhan Pamuk, the best of his novels and a look at many sides of Islam, modernity and Europe; The Death of Achilles, by Boris Akunin, a witty and subversive detective series set in late Tsarist Russia, far fewer of which have been translated into English than into German, annoyingly enough; An Equal Music, by Vikram Seth, with its insight into the minds of musicians and a virtuoso book by an absurdly talented writer; and Accelerando, by Charles Stross, head-stretching science fiction for the early 21st century.

Over in non-fiction, I would start the list with: At Canaan’s Edge, by Taylor Branch, concludes his epic and riveting account of America in the era of Martin Luther King. Gripping writing, definitive research, passionate commitment, simply a great book. The other favorites from non-fiction also tend toward the long and the historical: The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes, a mold-breaking history of Australia’s colonial period; The Prize, by Daniel Yergin, the history of the 20th century with oil as its central theme; A Writer at War, by Vasily Grossman, annotated stories from a Soviet journalist at the front lines of the Great Patriotic War; The Mission, by Dana Priest, on the militarization of American foreign policy; and The Places in Between, by Rory Stewart, a British ex-diplomat’s walk through central Afghanistan in the winter after the Taliban fell.

Complete list (in order read) is below the fold. Links are to previous writing about the book or author on AFOE.
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It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

A storm with hurricane-force winds is making its way across Germany as I write. The national rail system has stopped all passenger traffic (for the first ever, by some accounts). I’m a long ways inland and in a building essentially sheltered on all sides, but it’s surely rough out there.

Dramatic rescue in the Channel, probably more trouble in the Baltic or Poland, depending on how the storm tracks. Purists will note that this is not a hurricane (being neither tropical nor having a cloud wall), but for mid-winter (or ostensibly mid-winter, the blooming and budding plant life argues otherwise) in Central Europe it’s a good little storm. Hope none of you have had to be out in it too much.

More Stages of the Globalisation Process

Who knew Hungary has an entire shopping centre devoted to Chinese-owned businesses? Der Standard reports on the “Asia Centre” in the 16th district of Budapest, home to a community that has made Hungary the biggest entrepot for Chinese goods in central Europe. Last year, $4bn of Chinese exports entered Hungary, of which two-thirds was re-exported. The centre is 90 per cent utilised and is going to expand. Not entirely surprisingly, its owners are the Austrian construction group Strabag and the Austrian mutual banks’ investment arm, Raiffeisen Investment AG.

Apparently, there may be as many as 60,000 Chinese in Hungary, the flourishing legacy of a botched late-communist trade agreement. In order to keep up appearances after the two sides failed to agree anything substantive, they ended visa requirements between China and Hungary. This came into its own a year later, when large numbers of people quit China after the Tiananmen Square massacre and arrived in a Hungary that was about to be the first mover in the wave of revolutions. Originally, their businesses shot out of the ground around the eastern railway station’s freight yards. Later, the Austrian investors built the new centre.

It’s striking that they will be very well placed if this railway project comes to fruition.

On the other hand, there’s a fist. Jörg Haider’s election posters this time around carried photos of two “violent Chechens”, whose access to social services was then cut off. They haven’t been accused of an offence, and neither does the Klagenfurt police know of any case involving a Chechen.

323 Years of Caffeine

One of Thomas Barnett’s commenters complained about Europe being a cafe society, so why not some café-blogging? After all, the collectif antilibérale over at European Tribune had a whole thread on brasseries not so long ago. Der Standard has a long article on the history of Viennese kaffeehäuser, going back to 1683 and the second siege of Vienna.

First of all, a classic trope of European history-the fact everyone knows, but that turns out to be rubbish. Like King Canute telling the tide to back off (a little like keeping spam out of our comments threads, but I digress) – everyone remembers that, but hardly anyone realises that Canute did it to humble his courtiers with the limits of power, rather than in a gesture of deluded arrogance. Every schoolboy knows that one Georg Franz Kolschitzky was rewarded for sneaking through the Turkish lines with a message by being given a stash of coffee beans from captured stocks. Another version is that, after the relief of Vienna, he looted the beans from the Turks’ abandoned baggage train, or bought them for a song from a soldier who didn’t know their value.

The only problem is that it’s not true.
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Sensible German Regulations, Part 1

The government of Berlin has become the first German state government to get out of the business of telling retailers when they can and cannot do business. Mostly, anyway. As the German newspaper whose web site could be better organized notes today (on page one, but is it on the front page of the web site? certainly not), Berlin has told shop owners that they may keep any hours they please from Monday to Saturday. Credit where credit is due, this is progress. Not leadership, not parity with numerous other EU nations, but still, progress.

On the other hand, the (Protestant) Bishop of Hanover said that quiet Sundays were good for everyone. Except of course tram drivers, bus drivers, conductors, police, firefighters, hospital staff, etc etc etc. Or maybe the good bishop is on to something, and a state-mandated day of rest really is the way to go. Why not Tuesday?

HOWTO Protest with a Tank

Der Standard reveals all you need to know about driving a stolen tank into the police lines. Apparently, the man who stole an ex-Soviet T34/85 from the 1956 revolution commemorations and used it on the Hungarian riot police has been arrested. He is reportedly a former soldier (no surprise, as Hungary either has or used to have universal conscription) who might conceivably have driven one before.

This is not that likely but is possible. The T34/85 was possibly the best tank of the second world war and remained a mainstay of the Red Army into the 50s, but was already being replaced by the T54 series in 1956. By the time anyone likely to be fighting with cops in Budapest this week would have been serving, the Warsaw Pact armies had long since flushed most of their T34s out of the ranks, and for that matter their T54s. Most of the T34s that avoided scrapping, museums or use as targets were exported to the Third World – as is well known, there’s nothing you can do for poor people that will do them more good than sending guns.

Anyway, the report in the Standard gives some useful hints on how to protest with a tank. You’ll need enough voltage to turn over a really hefty diesel engine. The Hungarians solved this with several car batteries hooked up in series (not in parallel, mark!). You’ll probably find the tank is locked or worse, so bring an angle grinder, oxy-acetylene torch or arc welding set. In Budapest, the tank’s hatch proved to be padlocked – so it was a good job he came with the right tools.

It doesn’t sound likely that the tank would be fuelled up and ready to go, so the wise man would want to bring a jerry can or three of diesel – after all, once you get it started you can always stop and fill up. Given all the equipment, you’ll almost certainly need an accomplice, or perhaps several. But when arrested, remember to say that you acted entirely alone.

Dutch Diplomat Dooced

Apparently the Northern European fondness for plain speaking is an art not full appreciated by the genocidal government in Sudan.

Jan Pronk, a Dutch national working for the United Nations in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, was declared persona non grata for writing on his weblog that Sudan’s army had suffered hundreds of casualties in fighting against rebels in northern Darfur. Pronk, the top UN official in the country, was given 72 hours to leave.

Technically, of course, Pronk has not been dooced, because he still has his job with the UN. Still, he’s been shown the door, and the blog was the ostensible reason. Was he surprised that his blog was read in Khartoum? Was it a deliberate provocation? No word yet from the suddenly tight-lipped diplomat.

An Experiment in Globalization: Results

First off, Apple did get back to me within the time frame that they promise. (I was in New York on business part of this week and last, thus the lack of blogging.) So far, so good.

But I can’t say I’m satisfied with the results. Instead of finding a way for me to acquire music from iTunes, they replied:

Currently, iTunes Music Store Gift Certificates can only be redeemed in the country where they are purchased. It is not possible to send an iTunes Music Store Gift Certificate to a recipient in another country.

Because of this, the order was canceled and a refund was issued in the amount of $[foo] to the sender’s credit card. This credit should post to the their account within 3-5 business days of [date]. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Upshot is no tunes for me, no money for Apple, or the artists, or anyone else interested in making some euro cents from legal downloads of music. (I suppose I could log onto iTunes US whenever I happen to be in the States; how’s that for convenience?) Market failure, thy name is copyright lawyers.