Saturday, March 21, 2009
Human Smoke : The Beginnnings of World War II, The End of Civilization by Nicholson Baker
All history is selective, but Nicholson Baker's novel (and novelistic) method takes the art of selective quotation to new levels. We are offered chronological vignettes, a paragraph or two, surrounded by white space. It's an indirect way of getting one's argument across, but the episodic nature of this provocative book is cumulatively more powerful than any conventional narrative, as Baker weaves together a mass of quotations from speeches, newspapers, diaries and other sources. Trust a novelist to invent a new way of writing history. Human Smoke is dedicated to those American and British pacifists and humanitarians who failed to prevent what Baker regards as a wholly avoidable war. With the luxury of hindsight, the allies are presented as only marginally less monstrous than the Axis Powers. Baker is not wrong to agree with Hitler's assessment of Churchill as a warmonger, but he is naive to take at face value Hitler's publicly stated desire not to continue the war in July 1940. As Chamberlain discovered to his cost, word and deed rarely coincided where Hitler was concerned.