First as Tragedy, then as Farce


I love Zizek. I love how he has no Sacred Cows; no sacred concepts, no infallible leaders. He’s a man with no wool over his eyes. He’s great at zapping major events – like the 2008 Meltdown – with a proverbial x-ray and really explaining the results to the reader.

This is more than just an academic, liberal-european explanation for the Meltdown and blaming it on a scary monster called “Capitalism”. This is much more. The action takes place on a much higher level; Zizek isn’t backing any particular horse. The result is a short book that has long consequences.

The title is based on Marx’s observation that events in history “happen twice, once as…” What this means in its simplest form is that there is the actual event and then there is the interpretation and results of that event, essentially forming two separate events that somehow must be labeled the same thing.

This book is about the Death of Liberalism encapsulated by 9/11, the Invasion of Iraq, and the Meltdown. Keep in mind, again, that Zizek has pretty much no illusions and thus is not interested in playing “unbiased” like we are used from newspapers and academic books and such. He assumes that since you are reading the book, you are already some strip of “liberal”. But this expresses itself perhaps best in the term “tough love'” most of the book is a critique of liberalism and democracy. Conservatives and considered too stupid to be even considered. This is a good thing; it saves time.

When Zizek talks about the death of liberalism, he is referring to the social democratic capitalist world order that “triumphed” in the ’90s with the fall of the Berlin Wall. This conception is usually marked by Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History, where he proclaims that humanity has found the perfect formula for social, economic and political success and as such, represents the effective “end of history”; from now on, all countries will be social democratic and capitalist.

Zizek is speaking at a level where the differences between say a Democratic and Republican president are practically nil; it’s the difference between Pepsi and Coke. In this view, Democratic presidents are viewed as a greater threat to human progress because they accomplish the “structural readjustments (i.e. raise the minimum wage) that allows the exploitative capitalist system to continue. They are the bigger threat because they are more acceptable. The American Empire is still the American Empire under Bush and Obama; they pursed nearly identical policies, yet Obama did it with a “human face” and restored much confidence in the Empire.

This book I found to very insightful but also truly amazing for one simple reason. Zizek is probably one a handful of people that propose communism as a realistic option. And this book is all about laying the conceptual groundwork for a return of communism as a viable option, not a punchline.

I should probably explain because I know that things like “socialism”, “Marxism”, and “communism” are dirty words. Communism conjures images of cubist statues, gray apartment blocks, propaganda, and totalitarian gulags. This is Stalinism, and while there is an argument that runs that an attempt to from a utopian society is sure to turn into a totalitarian nightmare. To Zizek, this is not communism. True communism represents an ideal world of cooperation (as opposed to domination or exploitation), a world of reason (as opposed to emotion) and just all around sanity.

The argument that goes “its utopian and will lead to terror/totalitarianism” ignores the reality that the whole “free market/ laissez-faire/neo-liberal” doctrine is hopelessly utopian itself. The US itself, our Declaration of Independence, our Bill of Rights – all this is utopian, for the record. If communism is accused of attempting to make the State control everything and own everyone, then neo-liberals have blinded themselves to how much capitalism needs state intervention, be it from welfare programs to police to military interventions to bailouts to continue to function. Capitalism is on constant life support provided by the State.

Communism, because it is a dirty word, has been split up into different ideas which seek to accomplish similar things. Ideas like “steady state economics” or any sort of ecological standpoint imply a communist stance because it seeks a world where human reason truly makes the decisions, not the profit motive.

An essential book that probably too few people will read. Zizek is fantastic at showing the logical flaws or illusions in the reasoning of various arguments and perspectives. Yes, he does revert to Hegelese on occasion, and sections that trudge through obscure philosophical language and concepts, but ninety percent is brilliant.

A must read if you want to understand today’s world.


The Perfect Propaganda of the Dark Knight Rises


Most of us associate Hollywood and hollywood movies as liberal things. But that’s really not true at all. In fact, it seems that more and more, the movie industry is increasingly conservative. Even if the individuals who act or direct or write or make the props are themselves liberal, the industry itself is increasingly conservative.

The Dark Knight Rises is probably the most telling case in point. Now, there are a few qualifications I feel I have to make before I continue. First of all, Batman is my favourite superhero. He is unquestionably the most interesting. Superman? Yawn. Second, the Christopher Nolan reboots are great batman movies, especially the one with the Joker. I think Nolan is one of the few directors around today that matter.

Batman was always a conservative superhero (unlike the Fantastic Four for example, a band of freaks and loners who team together (is this an organic socialism?) against a fearful and reactionary society). The very idea of Batman/Bruce Wayne  (a philanthropic billionaire who saves hard working members of society from petty crime somehow not generated ultimately by the very economic system that makes Bruce Wayne possible) is profoundly conservative. But in The Dark Knight Rises Christopher Nolan has created the conservative propaganda movie par excellence. Really, it is up there with Triumph of the Will (the most perfect textbook propaganda film ever made), The Green Berets (one reviewer described this movie as “…Vile and Insane. On top of that, it is dull”. It’s a cowboys-and-indians narrative), and Reefer Madness (nothing needs to be said here) as some of the most iconic pieces of conservative filmmaking of all time. Also: the Death Wish movies, an indulgence of your deepest vigilante fantasy of violence…

Put aside Batman and put aside how much you like the Christopher Nolan Reboots, and think critically here, because Nolan wanted to make a propagandistic point with this film; it’s much more than “another Batman movie”, this is a real piece of political theatre.

And in doing so, Nolan has created the most perfect film of the conservative world view; it really just depicts the inner workings of the conservative mind, its fantasies, neurosis, and its hallmark lack-of-cognitive-dissonance. Many thinkers have already tackled The Dark Knight Rises as a conservative piece, most notably David Graeber in The Utopia of Rules and Slavoj Zizek in The Politics of Batman (žižek-politics-batman). I just wanted to give it my own shot; dwelling less on what the movies shows, and more on the movie itself as conservative propaganda, i.e., what it can tell us about the conservative mind. Both Graeber and Zizek dwell on the ideology of the film; Bane as a Robespierre, the cynical idea of liberal emancipatory politics as leading inexorably toward a totalitarian society.

I want to show how the movie reveals an ideological laundry list. I want to talk about the surreal inconsistencies and logical impossibilities that reveal this movie as a conservative propaganda piece.

Really, The Dark Knight Rises is about the Occupy Wall Street Movement. And boy, did Nolan have to twist this movie into knots to get his message across. Nothing in this movie makes any sense; at every turn Batman is right (even when he seems wrong or misguided or just plain stupid upon reflection). Take the Fusion Reactor subplot; at what point does it make even a little bit of sense? At every turn, Batman’s world view is confirmed…but the movie has to twist itself in knots to make that happen. And this is what I want to focus on.

Here’s the meta-synopsis: Batman is hiding out because he’s chosen to be a scapegoat. The League of Shadows, in the form of Bane and Miranda Tate/Ras’al Gul’s daughter, is bent on destroying Gotham, but not before creating a People’s Gotham City/Escape From New York situation before destroying it with Wayne Industry’s fusion reactor.

The League of Shadows (an organisation bent on “restoring balance” to the world notable for ending the great decadent civilisations of the past like Rome somehow) is inexplicably bent on destroying New York, err hem Gotham City. Note how “The League of Shadows” is the perfect conservative boogeyman; they are everything and nothing. There is no obvious motivation…but they are fiendishly dedicated to overthrowing what ever it is they are bent on overthrowing. They fit the conservative mind’s fear and it’s inability to understand the reasoning or motivations of others. Anything that is different from me and what I believe, the conservative thinks, must be wrong and must be stopped by violence (because that is what they understand). The League of Shadows in The Dark Knight Rises mixes a sort of eco-terrorism ethos with classic Marxist/communist motifs, as well as a Palestinian/terrorist/immigrant imagery. In other words, it makes no sense at all. Every conservative bugbear has been impossibly lumped together.

One of the weirdest bits is that Bruce Wayne has lost all of Wayne Industry’s money trying to build a cold fusion reactor (see billionaires do make the world a better place; the government couldn’t do that). Yet he doesn’t activate it because…it could be weaponised. The fact that it can be weaponised regardless does not seem to have occurred to any of the filmmakers. Miranda Tate/Ras al Gul poses as a sort of Green, liberal business savvy (an unobjectionable liberal figure in the green-tea-yoga mould simply to get her hands on the fusion core. Meanwhile, Bane a “high-tech Robespierre on steroids, a melded triad of Leninbin Laden and Steve Austin set on fomenting “proletarian retribution” takes over Gotham. Simply to do what exactly? Wait for the bomb to explode? Nolan sets out to show us the dangers of supporting Occupy Wall Street Movement.

Aside from the ridiculousness of the motivations and deception of the League of Shadows, it is Bruce Wayne’s entire world that is even more puzzling upon reflection. He’s a vigilante who, especially in this movie, has to fight other vigilantes (of a kind). Even though Bruce Wayne is mired in violence and Gotham seems in constant peril of succumbing to crime, poverty and the rest of it…somehow Nolan makes sure that everyone leaves the theatre thinking that “this is the best possible world.”

My favourite bit is when the police charge Bane and his revolutionaries – the whole thing dissolves in a brawl – and again, it makes no sense. First of all…it clearly wouldn’t work. Anyone who knows anything about WWI would be able to tell you why. I know why it’s in the movie: tear-jerking. But the very fact that Nolan put this in the movie tells us more about him then about us. 

Several different characters represent change of some kind. And each is carefully shown to be wrong or misguided. Only Batman’s vigilante violence seems to be pure and this is what I find to be the most ridiculous. Because this cannot be justified by claims of dramatic cinema. It’s just pure propaganda. The fact that environmentalists are portrayed as terrorists is the most egregious error here. It’s ridiculous.

Ironically, the fact that his movie of fantasy cannot imagine an alternative to Batman; the fact that no characters emerge with a solution or an answer or a way forward is, I think, this movie’s most damming criticism.


Lost Horizon


It starts – like all proper novels a la Joseph Conrad – with Englishmen chatting and reminiscing over after-dinner cigars and brandy at their club. And thus does it end, in Imperial India no less. This the British Empire at it’s most decadent peak.

The conversation soon turns to an old Uni pal – Conway – who has disappeared in India under mysterious circumstances. Thus the tale unfolds. It’s the late ’30s, and Hilton is both agonised over the human disaster of WWI, and broodingly prescient about the bigger disaster to come. Lost Horizon is a utopian fantasy bordering on escapism.

Look, it’s not especially well written. The characters are stock, the dialogue clumsy and repetitive, and the plot, thin  and somewhat confused, like Hilton could never quite make up his mind on how he wanted to end it.

Nonetheless, without this book there would be no Indiana Jones, no Tintin in Tibet, and about 90% of our fascination with Tibet/Nepal/Bhutan. Not to mention the phrase “Shangri-La”, perhaps most excellently used by FDR when obfuscating about the source of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo.

I’m given to understand that for quite some time, Lost Horizon was the sort of book you were made to read in high school, and so it’s been far more widely encountered then you might expect. Here’s what I like about the book. There are the obvious cribbing from Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling; an unmistakeable air of British Empire about the whole book that I find quite enjoyable. And despite the absurdity, Hilton does make a good point, which he drives home. It’s an escape from our frantic “western” lifestyle which is made to look fairly absurd.

It’s escapist; it’s about a refugee from capitalism (there is no other way to describe it) finding a ultimate harbour and escape from this society spinning wildly out of control. It’s a pressure valve.

It hasn’t aged well. There are no great insights. But it’s an interesting book. And every fifty pages or so, Hilton’s mountain rhetoric soars to great heights (pun intended).

You probably don’t have to read it.

Command and Control


Awesome. It’s like a Tom Clancy novel except that it’s reasonable and factual. It’s rare to learn so much and have such a great time simultaneously. This is nonfiction, history and “current affairs” at it’s best. I have not read Fast Food Nation (also by Eric Schlosser) but I plan too now…

Command and Control takes you through America’s nuclear history, from Einstein’s warning letter to FDR that it was possible for the Nazis to develop the Bomb all the way through today’s nuclear issues and problems. Most of the history deals with the Manhattan Project, and the development of the USA’s nuclear arsenal and strategy (and all the terrible technical glitches and problems) during the Cold War. Woven through the history is the detailed, dramatic, nail-biting techno-thriller depiction of the Damascus Incident; the 1980 explosion of a Titan II rocket in the silo because of a dropped spanner wrench.


The focus rests primarily on the safety and control of the US’ nuclear weapons. The tone is reminiscent of techno-thrillers. It’s the Cold War: the Soviet Union could opt at any time for a nuclear strike; the US’ nuclear deterrent has to be real. Our bombers and missiles were on high alert; massive computers and radars sought the early detection of a missile launch; bunkers, shadow government…it’s all here. Perhaps most amazing is SIOP – the US’ all out nuclear attack plan on the Soviet Union, which reached a truly maniacal level of absurdity: bridges leading nowhere hit with multiple nuclear weapons, Moscow being hit dozens of times. A truly surreal document.

I highly recommend this book. Very highly. All sorts of people form all walks of life will enjoy and learn from this book.


I want to touch on something beyond the review of this book. What I was struck by was the terrifying logic behind nuclear weapons. A lot of this book deals with the bureaucracy of the Pentagon, the rivalry between the Services, and the growth of the military-industrial complex. But there is a deeper level here.

And that is the inescapable logic of the whole thing. Wave after wave of US presidents – from both sides of the aisle – come power and are shocked by the plans, the weapons, the lack of control, etc..the whole apocalyptic death wish of the thing…and they each wind up surrendering to the logic of the Bomb, in one way or another.

So. Truman decides to use the Bomb. It’s highly experimental, but it’s a massive expensive project and US war weariness is growing; the continuation of the war against Japan could be costly both in terms of US lives and politically. Look; Truman was very much trying to fill FDR’s shoes – an unenviable task; it’s like following George Washington and Abraham Lincoln combined.  Truman – remember, no college education too – decides to use the Bomb.

And really, without really thinking about it, the Bomb takes over. At no point does the horrific destructive power of the Bomb really impact the thinking of the top military brass, nor waves of presidential advisors. Even as the power of the Bomb goes from being a very big bomb to a truly insane device whose destructive power is truly unimaginable, nobody is able to step back and stop the stampede for nuclear weapons. Even though the command and control of these weapons has never really been establish and for most of the history of the Cold War the weapons were distressingly vulnerable, and the idea has nuclear deterrence is purely psychological and not grounded in reality at all…Truman’s decision has trapped all of his successors.

I’m not blaming Truman; I am trying to make a point about the amazing logic that is no logic of the thing. Any president (cough cough Carter) who really tries to undo the logic of the Bomb is quickly called an appeaser and a coward; it’s amazing how seemingly flawless arguments the effect that the US needs only about 300 or so nuclear weapons is so completely foiled. It’s an indictment of our technological society.

This book is not scary. You will not bother with a bomb shelter after reading this book. And that’s a good thing. You don’t want to survive anyway.

Sartre: A Philosophic Study


Sartre: A Philosophic Study by Anthony Manser is a product of the mid ’60s; a time of transition. A time of upheaval, and at the same time, a time when the old Europe was still around in many ways. The problem with philosophy is that most of the problems that they encounter are pre modern cognitive sciences. They’re understanding of the operation of the human brain and body where surprisingly primitive. They knew what they knew primarily by introspection and observation of others.

I picked this book up at a used books store in order to get a neat introduction to Sartre’s (pronounced Sart-tra, with the “tra” very spoken very softly) philosophic edifice. A 1980’s copy of Being and Nothingness stares out at me from my bookshelf accusingly. I had not gotten more then the first few pages. My failure to read Being and Nothingness is up there with Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Heidegger’s Being and Time. Just couldn’t put down those books fast enough.

But I wanted to stick with Sartre. Unlike the larger Anglo-Saxon tradition of philosophy and numerous other traditions which seek to explain things like “how do we know this table is a table”, Sartre is one of the handful of philosophers who spent their entire lives trying to discover How to Live. What is meaningful action? What is Ethical behaviour? What is the best way to live?

Most philosophers tend to be analytic or sociological. Few tend to go introspective and personal; this is the appeal of Sartre as he seems to offer a way to live with one’s self in contemporary times.

Sartre’s philosophic lineage is drawn from Socrates’ “Know Thyself” (and it is doubtful that anything meaningful has been added since then) and Plato, through Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Kirkegaarde, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. The tradition of Kirkegaarde, Nietzsche and Heidegger is particularly interesting: it’s the most interesting. Considered rebels against the Enlightenment and the European tradition of reason, both Nietzsche and Heidegger (explicitly so) are associated with the Nazis. The common perception is that their obsession with the individual’s metaphysical essence supersedes values of rational understanding or social utility. In more mundane parlance, these guys are moody, elitist rebels and romantics. But, they do place high value on the human individual and the power of the individual in an unjust, paradoxical and surreal world.

Sartre is known for his plays, most famously No Exit, where the concluding line is “Hell is other people”. An introvert’s sense of the world if there ever was one. But Sartre has good reason to say it. But Sartre is also known for epic and ponderous tomes of philosophy, Being and Nothingness and Critique of Dialectical Reasoning. I would stick with his plays, which seem to do a perfectly good job of summing up the gist of his philosophy. Sartre also has a trilogy of novels, which, having read them a few years ago, I remember them being decent and interesting but I would have to say that they failed as novels and as philosophy. Sartre didn’t seem able to decide what direction he wanted to go there.

I’ll boil down Sartre for you. He’s all about accepting yourself as a finite, limited flawed human individual. A human being: no soul, no God, no justice or group identity to cling to. It’s just you and you need to accept yourself. Anything else – even something as mild as say, seeing yourself as an intellectual, or any sort of noun; any sort of verbally designated identity is false. Sartre calls this “bad faith” or the “lie in the soul”. His idea that “existence precedes essence” implies that there is a “nothingness” to each and everyone of us; that is, we have no identity as such. It’s what we choose to make of it that counts. Someone who does not life in bad faith, and manages to own his own actions and thoughts is the goal. As such, you recognise that all other people are equally important and cannot be treated as objects or as ends to themselves (employee, athlete, etc). Each person is totally unique.

It’s a very philosophical way of saying that we must all “know thyself” and act like adults and treat everyone else like human beings. See. It’s really not so hard. You’re human and fallible. At times though, Sartre borders on an extreme form of personal responsibility. Like: “Did something terrible just happen in a poor African country? Well, it’s your fault as much as anyone else’s:  if you had really wanted things to be better in that poor African country you would have done something about it.”

I think French is a tough philosophical language to translate to English. And I think this has a lot to due with why Sartre is not terribly well known. Which is too bad because I think Sartre is important. It think that what he says is valid and meaningful.

Pursue Sartre’s plays if you want to know more.

A Wild Sheep Chase


This is my second Murakami. I’m not even close to reading his books in order. I can report that his tone, his “voice” does stay remarkably true over the course of his works.

A Wild Sheep Chase is…well…hard to describe. “Postmodern” and a “work of magical realism” is probably a good a description as any. One part mystery a la Sherlock Holmes, one part epic quest with moral/universal undertones a la Moby Dick, and one part novel of a man coming to turns with his past and middle age. These elements are all there, and yet I have completely failed to capture this book. I mean that in a good way.

It’s surreal. It’s challenging. Things are explained but never fully explained. You will scratch your head over wether half the characters in the book are really real. But I mean this in the best possible way. It’s this aspect that makes Murakami so delightful.

That’s his special genius, is being able to blend the real, surreal, the personal and the philosophical into one (somehow) totally believable story line. My favourite example of this is in Kafka on the Shore, where a character that can talk to cats is so well done that more than just believable, the reader will find himself attempting to talk to cats in all seriousness the next day because of it.

This book is fun to read, but it also makes you think. From the sinister and powerful Organisation Man, the Chauffeur who has God’s phone number, to the Girlfriend whose ears have a sort of cosmic transcendent beauty – it’s a book full of surprises and hinted meanings. I love it when he blends what me be called an internal emotional reality with what seems to be an external reality; leaving the reader to pose the question: is it real? Is it supernatural? What is the meaning of this, or is this a character’s emotion projected on to the outside world?

And I think that his is probably one of my favourite things about Murakami. It’s totally unpredictable. He’s absolutely comfortable leaving loose ends. Of not being clear. Of not coming to conclusions. It all somehow winds up feeling closer to real life than most books.

Any serious reader of novels, anyone who enjoyed Kafka or Gabriel Garcia Marquez will love this book.

Fives and Twenty Fives


Warfare has this way of generating amazing literature. Just look at American wars. The Civil War gave us The Red Badge of Courage. WWI gave us All Quite on the Western FrontThe Sun Also Rises, and The Good Soldier Svejk. The Spanish Civil War gave us For Whom the Bell Tolls. WWII gave us The Thin Red Line, The Naked and the DeadDas BootCatch-22, Slaughterhouse 5. The list goes on and on. Same for Vietnam: The Quiet American and The Things They Carried.  

Some of the world’s best literature, and certainly a lot of America’s stems from wars. And I don’t see why Iraq and Afghanistan should be any exception; in fact, I think there may be even more reasons for generating fiction about the wars then previous conflicts.

I was very excited to see this book – Five and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre – at Oxford, Mississippi’s Square Books, as I think it is probably the first novel (?) to come out of the wars of Bush II.

And it does not disappoint.

This book revolves around three characters – Lieutenant Donovan, Doc Pleasant, and Dodge/Kateb – who speak in their own voices. Donovan is a typical college type. One might almost say liberal arts. It’s absolutely fascinating to see Millennials at War; even more to see one that you identify with. Doc Pleasant is a typical poor white Southerner. Each face their own challenges and demons in Iraq. Dodge is the Iraqi interpreter for Donovan/Doc’s Marine brigade; his character is probably the most interesting and powerful.

Dodge has a real sense of humour. It’s weird to think of Iraqis having a sense of humour, but Pitre has created a masterpiece character in Dodge, who is both cuttingly insightful and genuine funny. At it’s best, Pitre shows how Iraqi history and culture makes it effectively impossible for Iraqis to work effectively with Americans. Dodge does his level best to help the Marines, but the patchwork of alliances, family loyalties make this impossible. It’s worth reading this book simply for Dodge’s chapters.

Both Donovan and Doc are having trouble adjusting to civilian life. Both characters seem to suffer from varying levels of PTSD. But in both their cases, loving, open women pursue them, and one senses that it is women’s love that will heal and redeem the lieutenant and fix the Doc. I found this to be charming, but unrealistic to be brutally honest. This theme of the book was more awkward more than anything else. I felt that Pitre portrays the problem and a possible solution, but he never really grapples with it. The problems of the VA are mentioned, but aside from showing us some problems, no body every really confronts the problem of the VA.

Pitre did a surprisingly good job of mixing great and very telling character cameos, which both added political depth as well as weight to the book as a novel. For example, there is the appearance of Blackwater mercenaries who “scowl” and “play at war”. then there is the US diplomat who speaks with an “upper class Texan accent”. His preppy incompetence and disdain mark him as a sly commentary on the Bush Administration. Wall Street and that ilk make a brief appearance; again we are shown intrenched, spoiled wealth and the terrible decisions that it generates. Then there is “Gunny Stout” the baddass, true-hero sergeant figure of the book: his senseless death is a powerful turning point.

I would have loved more Iraq war stories; more politics and modern mythology and less “adjusting to being home”, especially since I don’t think Pitre’s execution of those chapters were that great.

I would say this book is very important to read. Not just because of what it represents, but also how it depicts the war and the reasons why “victory” in the sense that most people would assume it to mean is impossible.

The White Guard


The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov – I couldn’t resist the Melville House cover – is set in Kiev during the Russian Civil War / Revolution. It’s probably one of the few portrayals of the “Whites”, or the Tsarist Russians and various counterrevolutionary groups that existed in Russia between 1917 – 1920.

This book is also interesting because it’s a fantastic book that was nonetheless written by a Soviet author for Soviet censors and a Soviet audience. It was made into a play, which Stalin obsessed over. He went to go see it something like seventeen times. So there are lots of reasons to find this an interesting book.

I’ve also noticed a high level of cover production value. Maybe that’s a bad sign. Oh, well.

Bulgakov’s writing is at its best and most unique, most powerful when he describes sweeping scenes that cover a wide geographical and character-extent. If this sounds weird, yet intriguing, it is. He does it well; he’ll set the scene, usually the morning in Kiev, then the “scene” rushes out to say, a rebel commander waking up in the field, then back to a glimpse in Kiev of one of the main characters, then he well end with a rhapsodic movement comprising a large crowd. I’ve probably done a poor job describing it; but it’s different and pretty damn cool when you think about it.

At times, his writing reminds me of the South American “magical realists” or just a whiff of Murakami. But just a whiff, nothing more. His writing is very visual; one gets the sense that Bulgakov would have made a great movie director. No wonder they made it into a play.

It’s humorous, even if most of the humour was lost on me.

There are clearly many passages written for the censor. And while odd, it is fascinating. In probably the most cloying bit, a communist sentry – guarding Trotsky’s train – sees the Red Star fill the night sky. It’s subtly unsubtle.

All this being said, I found his writing to be disjointed, and I could never quite figure out why we or anyone else might be interested in the Turbins – the Tsarist family that makes up the main characters. At one point, you think Bulgakov is heading towards a Shakespearian comedy happy ending (where everybody gets married at the end) but all that peters out before the end of the book.

I could’t really discern any overarching point, theme, or object, like you can do for Tolstoy or Dovstoyesky. This I found disappointing.

All in all there is some good action, some good dialogue. And it takes place in a fascinating time and place, one that I wish I knew more about. There are a whole lot of episodes that took place during the Russian Revolution just begging for a novel or a movie or something.

This book is good but not great.