Friday, June 06, 2008

Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker

Tim Adams reviews Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker in the Observer Review for June 1st.

A few years ago, dismayed that libraries were destroying their newspaper archives in favour of microfiche, Baker purchased 20 tonnes of old newsprint, including a complete run of the New York Times from the British Library, which was about to pulp it. He has the archive stored in a warehouse near his home in New England. His obsession, subsequently, has been to immerse himself in this paper history.

He has emerged with this extraordinary book, which is, at the very least, a new way of looking at the steps that led to 1939, and the conduct of the war until America's entry in 1941. In a series of dated snippets and cuttings, each one perfectly crafted, the reader is invited to relive an alternative history, one that asks Baker's two explicit questions: 'Was it a good war?' and 'Did waging it help anyone who needed help?'

The book is apparently conceived with an eye to the appeaser's case: For every malevolent action, Baker begins to allow, there might have been an equal but opposite gesture of peace. Churchill, in this astute, comprehensive but energetically selective reading, comes across almost exclusively as bloodthirsty and anti-Semitic, goading Hitler into expanding the conflict by indiscriminate bombing of the Ruhr, intent on promoting 'shock and awe' by inflicting maximum damage on German civilian populations.

The Third Reich, meanwhile, from scrupulous contemporary reports, is seen to dwell on a preferred Final Solution that would have seen the transport of European Jews to Madagascar, a possibility prevented by the British blockade of ports. Baker does not shirk from Nazi horror stories, but he includes, too, the Gestapo commanders who sought to bring bread to the starving Warsaw Ghetto, and by default begins to suggest that Hitler was 'forced' into genocide by the brutal Allied conduct of the war.

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