A Novel View of History

By Cesarani, David | The Independent (London, England), April 25, 2008 | Go to article overview
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A Novel View of History

Cesarani, David, The Independent (London, England)

Human Smoke By Nicholson Baker SIMON & SCHUSTER Pounds 20 (566pp) Pounds 18 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

In Britain, we have become used to books debunking Winston Churchill and questioning whether it was such a good idea to fight a war with Nazi Germany that cost our empire. But evidence of Churchill's belligerence, capricious behaviour and penchant for late- night sessions over brandy and cigars seems to have come as a surprise to the American novelist Nicholson Baker. Until now, Baker has been best known for slim novels extrapolating a life from a brief incident, and entertaining pieces of erotica. His writing has been distinguished by wit and erudition. So his self-confessed ignorance of history is something of a surprise.

His efforts to remedy this deficiency led to Human Smoke. Unfortunately, it is the kind of book you would expect from an autodidact. Superficially it is rigorous and objective: an almost day-by-day account of the period up to Pearl Harbour in 1941, illustrated by anecdotes extracted from reportage, published documents, diaries, letters and memoirs. The bibliography attests to Baker's energy as a researcher.

But is it history? Baker's selection of material is driven by a personal quest, and shaped by his assumptions and prejudices. While his novels are full of navel-gazing and self-examination, this is not the same as the critical thinking which historians put into practice when handling sources.

On the strength of his ruminations and some basic, if voluminous, research, Baker has decided that he knows why the Second World War happened. He has then selected the most powerful, emotive and, yes, entertaining bits of history and pasted them into a sort of scrapbook that pretends to be a narrative. In fact, it presents only one interpretation. The reader is trapped in Baker's paranoid view of history.

He starts more or less with the First World War, implying that its outcome led inexorably to the Second. Baker is a pacifist and believes that wars only cause more wars; there is no contingency in his world-view. It also allows him to introduce such hateful features of modern warfare as aerial bombardment and blockades, as well as some of his dramatis personae.

Churchill is portrayed as a Hun-bashing, Jew-hating, pro- fascist, drink-sodden imperialist spoiling for a fight with Germany. He is also credited with starting the Great Depression which helped bring Hitler to power. According to Baker, Churchill was in the pocket of British industrialists, notably ICI, who always wanted a good war as a reason for flogging arms and poison gas. Baker lavishes much attention on the production of chemical weapons in Britain; he fails to tell the reader that they were never used.

It is correct that Britain used airpower as a cut-price method of maintaining its rule over restive colonies and mandates between the wars. Baker implies some kind of connection between this policy and the air war against Germany from 1939. The opposite was the case. It was precisely because the RAF was heavily geared to colonial policing that it was woefully ill-equipped for a real war.

Baker's depiction of the RAF's offensive during the first two years of the war is so far from the truth, it is grimly hilarious. If only the RAF had been as fearsome as he suggests, it might have succeeded not only in irritating Hitler into launching revenge attacks, but ending the war.

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