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Selected highlights from the July 2015 issue:
Jonathan Keates on duelling through literature
PENCILS AT DAWN
Except in an occasional, jokey, ironic fashion, nobody fights duels any more. Of all the various ways in which European and American manhood has sought, over the centuries, to validate itself, this must be one of the most absurd. A so-called affair of honour, its ritual demanding a choice of weapons, the assistance of seconds and the presence of a doctor to perform the necessary headshaking should injury result in death, a duel satisfies nothing except the inflated amour-propre of the surviving challenger. Whatever the allure of this kind of pseudo-gallantry might once have been, nowadays the crack of pistols at dawn or the clatter of unbuttoned fencing sabres constitutes a retro step too far. Read more.
Anna Reid on a survivor's diary of the Siege of Leningrad
Germany's siege of Leningrad was one of the Second World War's worst atrocities. Lasting two and a half years, it killed 700,000 to 800,000 people, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the city's entire civilian population. Atrocities on such a scale are best understood through individual accounts, and this diary, newly emerged from the archives, is one such. It was written by Lena Mukhina, a plain, prim sixteen-year-old living in the city centre with her adoptive mother and an older woman nicknamed Aka - possibly, according to the editors, a retired English governess. Read more.
Donald Rayfield on the remarkable life of Stalin's daughter
FROM THE KREMLIN TO LADBROKE GROVE
I never met Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin's daughter, and before reading this excellent biography I never really understood what she had suffered or achieved. Nonetheless, at various times her peregrinations touched on my own. I was in Delhi in February 1967 when she, by a spectacular oversight of the Soviet leadership, was allowed to fly out with the ashes of the Indian Communist Brajesh Singh, the only man to have given her years of happiness. She took the opportunity to defect, eventually travelling on to the USA. In the spring of 1985 I was living on Chavchavadze Avenue in Tbilisi (a street that leads out of town from the university, and then inhabited by both the party elite and free-thinking intellectuals), when Svetlana brought her American-born teenage daughter, Olga, to live in the USSR; her neighbours reported that Olga, who knew neither Russian nor Georgian, cried herself to sleep at nights. In the early 1990s I occasionally gave talks to elderly émigrés at the Pushkin Club in Ladbroke Grove. Svetlana was living just up the hill in accommodation subsidised by a charity. Recently, I found out that my wife's late mother, a lecturer in English at Moscow University, was largely responsible for teaching Svetlana her excellent (if accented) English. Read more.
Matthew Green on the potency and terror of drones
'FIND, FIX, FINISH'
Few innovations in modern warfare have seduced US presidents as thoroughly as the Predator drone, upstaged in more recent years by its bigger and even deadlier cousin, the Reaper. Under George W Bush, the Hellfire missiles slung under its wings delivered 'sudden justice' to America's enemies. Barack Obama embraced the technology even more ardently, carrying out eight times more drone strikes in Pakistan than his predecessor and opening new fronts in Yemen and Somalia. Read more.
John Keay on India's role in the Second World War
Seventy years after the guns fell silent, India's part in the Second World War is finally receiving the attention it deserves. The two million Indian combatants (according to Raghu Karnad) - or the two and a half million (according to Yasmin Khan) - comprised the largest volunteer army in the world. They pushed the Italians from the rocky heights of Eritrea, trudged back and forth through the minefields of North Africa, quelled an insurgency in Iraq, and in the 'Forgotten War' for Burma suffered heavier casualties than all the other Allies combined. Nor were civilians spared. Cities such as Calcutta and Vishakhapatnam were bombed, ships were sunk and dockyards were shelled. In 1942 some 80,000 Indians perished in the chaotic exodus from Burma and in 1943 several millions starved to death in the war-induced famine in Bengal. Acts of bravery were applauded, medals were won and loved ones were lost. There is much to record. But if the wartime sacrifice has seldom been recognised, it is because so many Indians were ambivalent about the cause they were serving. After all, it was not their war: they hadn't been consulted about it and they objected to dying for an empire they were trying to get shot of. Read more.
Elif Shafak on sexual revolutions in the Middle East
TIME FOR CHANGE
'The Middle East' is a hot topic that shows no signs of cooling down any time soon. Despite the myriad articles, panels, conferences, workshops and live debates on the state and fate of the region, its sociocultural complexity remains little understood. Amid the deluge of political and economic analyses, the people - ordinary people with day-to-day concerns and universal dreams - fail to draw the attention of international experts or attract proper media coverage. And if people are too often forgotten, women are twice as invisible. Read more.
Jonathan Mirsky on Operation Thunderbolt, the 'most audacious hostage rescue mission in history'
ESCAPE FROM ENTEBBE
'Hey Dad, if I were a terrorist I would get on at the stopover.' When twelve-year-old Olivier Cujot says those words to his father on page 2 of Operation Thunderbolt, you know you are in the grip of a thriller-diller. The scene is Israel's Ben Gurion airport in June 1976, where the 228 passengers booked on Air France 139 have been told that their flight to Paris will make an unscheduled stopover in Athens. The airport there, as Cujot knew, was notorious for its hit-or-miss security. Sure enough, four terrorists board in Athens, their uninspected bags full of guns and hand grenades. Shortly after the plane takes off again, they storm the cockpit and order the pilots to divert, first to Libya and then to Entebbe in Uganda. The operation was carried out by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, with the objective being the release of a large number of mostly Palestinian and pro-Palestinian prisoners. Read more.
Dominic Green on Indra Devi's bending path through life
Science confirms the physical benefits of yoga, but the mental risks are considerable. The waistline contracts, but the critical sensibility may wither. The blood pressure falls, but the Downward Dog may lead to prostration before gurus. I should know. Ten years ago, two sessions of yoga cured two decades of back pain. Since then, I have tried, as the yogis say, to make yoga 'part of my daily practice', like gin and tonic, but I remain stuck on the lower rungs of consciousness. Read more.
Jacob Silverman on László Krasznahorkai's Seiobo There Below
PROFOUND EXPERIENCES OF ART
In recent years, László Krasznahorkai has edged into the stable of great living writers. Several of the Hungarian's novels - slabs of text that one of his translators said resembled 'a slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type' - have been published in English, and each has been hailed with words such as 'visionary' or 'mythic'. Like the seven-hour film adaptation of his novel Satantango, Krasznahorkai's works require some commitment. They operate according to their own internal, elastic sense of space and time. But they are also stunning books, and in the thin market for literary translations, they remain exemplars of what many English-language readers are missing. Read more.
Miranda France on Deborah Moggach's Something to Hide
RANGE-ROVIA TO NGOTOLAND
Deborah Moggach's new novel comes with a letter to the reader explaining the different inspirations for the plot. One is the way in which Hoodia gordonii, a plant used as an appetite suppressant by Kalahari Bushmen, came to be registered by a pharmaceutical corporation and marketed as a diet remedy; another is the flourishing of mobile-phone charging booths in Ghana, where a booth owner might conceivably read other people's texts. A third concerns Chinese people using American surrogates in the hope of acquiring a 'human passport': a child born on US soil. Lastly, closer to home, are the travails of a lonely sixty-something who hopes she isn't too old to find love. Read more.