The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean, By David Abulafia

Friday 06 May 2011

The Arabs invaded Mediterranean Italy in the ninth century, leaving behind mosques and pink-domed cupolas. The Saracen influence remains strongest in the Mafia-dominated west of Sicily, where the sirocco blows hot from Tunisia. A joke told in the north of Italy (though scarcely a funny one) is that Sicily is the only Arab country not at war with Israel. For many northern Italians, Sicily is where Europe ends; beyond is an African darkness. The term “Mafia” probably derives from the Arab mahias, meaning bully or braggart. Yet, wonderfully, Sicily is the only place in Europe where they make jasmine ice cream. It was the Arabs who brought ices and sherbets to this part of the Mediterranean, and jasmine is surely a Saracen touch.


The Box: Tales From The Dark Room, By Gunter Grass

Monday 04 October 2010

Since the war’s end, Germans have tried in various ways to come to terms with the Nazi past. Some have turned guilt into a national virtue and performed “the labour of mourning” (trauerarbeit); others have sought to renovate themselves through undertaking pilgrimages to Israel or Auschwitz. Günter Grass has declared that whoever thinks about Germany today must also think about Auschwitz. The novelist used the existence of the death camp as an argument against a unified Germany (a Fatherland reborn might become belligerent and dangerous).

Believe in People: The Essential Karel Capek, Translated by Earka Tobrmanova-Kuhnova

Monday 04 October 2010

A key aspect of the mid-20th century, one might say, was the quarrel between popular and serious culture.

For George Orwell no artefact was too lowly for considered analysis. In a legendary essay of 1939, “Boys’ Weeklies”, he scrutinised Wizard and Hotspur for evidence of racism. Before Orwell, the Czech writer Karel Capek had applied literary judgement to ephemera in much the same way.