Will to live
When the past becomes the present
Jul 22nd 2010
Inheritance. By Nicholas Shakespeare. Harvill Secker; 272 pages; £12.99. Buy from Amazon.co.uk
NICHOLAS SHAKESPEARE’S new novel, “Inheritance”, begins with a wandering in the wilderness; a four-page piece of bravura writing in which a driven man crosses mountain and desert to peg out an Australian mineral claim that will yield 1,000m tonnes of high-grade iron ore. He calls it Mt Ararat, which should not be forgotten.
“Inheritance” is full of such clues. The miner, son of Australian-Armenians, is a smart if naive boy with an iron will and a heart that is easily broken. By the time he dies he has morphed into a discreet and elegant Englishman by the name of Christopher Madigan. Rich beyond his immigrant parents’ wildest imaginings, Madigan leaves half his fortune to his housekeeper and the other half, randomly at his own request, to the first person who appears at his funeral. Madigan’s estranged daughter, Jeanine, arrives late, to her cost.
This narrative sleight of hand allows for the entry into the story of Andy Larkham, the accidental heir. Like the heroes in Mr Shakespeare’s other novels, Larkham is unsure of himself, stuck in a dead-end job and with a fiancée who is about to ditch him, but at heart he is an intelligent and romantic chap. Madigan’s back story is also the story of Larkham’s maturing as he grapples with the eternal question of who he wants to be while getting used to having £17m in the bank.
In lesser hands this might have been just a cheap literary trick. But Mr Shakespeare (pictured) is a novelist of considerable talent, and his evocation of Krikor Makertich, the grandson of an Armenian woman made pregnant by a man who raped her, and his metamorphosis into Madigan, the English gent, is a study in persuasion and suspense. Thoughtful and beautifully observed, “Inheritance” takes one of the darkest episodes of the 20th century—the Armenians’ history at the hands of the Turks—and explores the gamble that is man’s existence on earth. Never predictable, this novel combines a remarkable narrative force with the lightest of touches. A book to savour and pass on.
(second review of this book)
July 31, 2010 Saturday
1 - First with the news Edition
Extra sensory perceptiveness
Harvill Secker, $35
Just hearing a chance story from a friend was enough to set acclaimed
writer Nicholas Shakespeare off on a new literary journey, drawing the
forces of good and evil into a gripping parable, writes Bron Sibree
NICHOLAS Shakespeare has spent much of his life in thrall to the siren
call of one story or another. So it's not surprising to discover that
four years ago when his friend, novelist Murray Bail, told him about a
man who'd turned up at the wrong funeral only to find out later he'd
inherited the deceased's estate, that Shakespeare was instantly
``It's odd how some stories just creep into your crevices,'' says the
53-year-old Oxford-based journalist and author of nine acclaimed
books, including his famous 1999 biography of Bruce Chatwin, his 2004
Booker Prize long-listed novel Snowleg, the inaugural Tasmania Book
Prize winner In Tasmania, and Secrets of the Sea, which was
short-listed for the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize.
``Murray wasn't going to use his story, so I said, `Can I have it?'.
The details were sketchy, but even as I was listening to him tell me,
I felt the tug of a novel. I saw it instinctively as a kind of comedy
that would lead to something more, a love story definitely.''
But then, as has happened so often in Shakespeare's writing life,
coincidence, happenstance, or fate if you will, again intervened.
Three years later with Inheritance, his 10th book and sixth novel,
he's written an entirely different novel from the one he'd initially
It's hard to think of another novelist who could spin the uneven
strands of two disparate stories into such a cogent parable of good
and evil. Moreover, a parable that weaves the disputed history of the
Armenian genocide together with the fabled discovery of iron ore in
Western Australia and the musings of French Renaissance writer
Montaigne, and imbue it with the melancholy echo of Portuguese Fado
But then Shakespeare, who was nominated one of Granta's Best British
Young Novelists in 1993, has never been predictable on the page.
The publisher's blurb describes it as ``a romance for our times'' that
stretches ``from early 20th-century Turkey to modern-day London''. But
Shakespeare hints at the unusual, almost mythic tilt of Inheritance
with a prologue set in the West Australian desert in 1960, where an
unnamed, one-eyed man trudges through a desert of iron ore, thinking
He then opens his narrative on a rainy London afternoon in 2003, with
Andy Larkham, an idealistic young publisher of self-help books who
arrives late at the funeral of his former teacher, only to find
himself at the wrong crematorium. Too embarrassed to leave, he stays
and signs the attendance register, only to later discover he, along
with the one other person who attended, has inherited the massive
pound stg. 17 million fortune of one Christopher Madigan. The dead
man's daughter, Jeanine, who arrives too late to sign the register and
is disinherited because of her tardiness, then decides to dispute the
But when Andy, who is mired in unpaid bills and the backwash of a
broken love affair, lies to Jeanine, saying he knew her father, she
drops her objections to the will. Thus he becomes the inheritor not
just of Madigan's millions, but of his story.
Andy also feels a sense of responsibility to his dead teacher who'd
entrusted him with his unpublishable manuscript on Montaigne and after
a long, aimless and somewhat crass dalliance with all that immense
wealth can buy, he sets out to discover Madigan's true identity.
He discovers Krikor Maketich, aka Madigan, was born in Aleppo, Syria,
and built his massive fortune on hard work and talent as well as his
discovery of iron ore, but has lost his wife, his daughter, and one
eye to an Australian con man, Don Flexmore. As he unravels the secrets
of Maketich's past, his survival of the Armenian genocide and his
mysterious years in Australia, Andy not only grows into who he is, but
the novel itself grows deeper into its original promise. Deeper, too,
into an inquiry into the nature of evil.
This is not the first time Shakespeare has explored the ordinary face
of evil. Snowleg, also a love story, was at another similarly mythic
level an exploration of the banality of evil. But he likens the
experience of writing Inheritance to that of penning his now famous
1995 novel The Dancer Upstairs, which was inspired by the
extraordinary hunt for Abimael Guzman, leader of Peru's Shining Path,
and made into the 2002 film of the same name directed by John
``I could just see the whole plot, which sometimes happens. The skies
open, you're given the plot, the sky is then firmly closed again, and
you are left for the next three years working out how to sort it
out,'' he says.
In the case of Inheritance, ``it all presented itself in the first
hour of having heard the initial story'', he says.
Shakespeare's first novel, The Vision of Elena Silves, featured an
Armenian trader up in the Amazon.
``I was aware of the Armenian diaspora and that they didn't have a
homeland, but I suddenly became overly enraged about it after reading
Philip Marsden's wonderful book, The Crossing Place,'' he says.
But the real catalyst for his exploration of evil came through a
curious encounter with an unknown Australian con man, who rang him,
posing as an old friend from Oxford University (Shakespeare went to
Cambridge), suggesting they meet for lunch.
``Paralysed by the guilt of an Englishman who takes hospitality abroad
and never gives it back,'' chuckles Shakespeare, ``I kind of said
Whereupon this stocky stranger tried to convince Shakespeare to part
with all the telephone numbers of his friends from university, as he'd
lost touch. Then, after regaling him with an extraordinary tale of his
extensive travels, including seeing his wife shot dead on the Czech
border, his new acquaintance declared that he had eucalypt plantations
in Uruguay, and would Shakespeare like to invest?
``I said, `well I'm a novelist, I could give you my copy of In
Tasmania, that's about it'. So I left him in St James Square holding a
paperback copy,'' Shakespeare says.
Many of the characteristics of this man now belong to his fictional
creation Don Flexmore, whose good looks and ruthlessly exploitative
nature embody what Shakespeare calls ``a contemporary model of the
devil, a kind of figure of greed and selfishness who darts into that
crack which opens when you're not sure of yourself''.
He makes no bones about writing the entire novel around ``a couple of
Montaigne tropes'', but says it was largely unconscious. He also
believes in following hunches and in coincidences, and happily admits
that almost his entire life he has been held hostage by coincidence
and happenstance on the one hand, and his unquenchable writerly
instincts on the other. Yet Shakespeare is still reluctant to call
himself a novelist or writer.
``Writing is a process that I can't justify at all, artistically or
economically,'' he says.
``But I do think the novel is just the most incredible baggy monster
that can absorb anything, and when you read a book like Roberto
Bolano's The Savage Detective, your socks are knocked so far off that
you are rejuvenated by the genre.
``A novel that succeeds is a victory against the darkness.''
Nicholas Shakespeare will be a guest
of the Melbourne Writers Festival,
August 27 to September 5.
"A half-mad imperial enterprise of fin-de-siècle Europe," is McMeekin's description. The Rasputin of the piece was Baron von Oppenheim, a man of protean hatreds, not only towards the entente powers (the British, French and Russians), but most notably towards himself. A self-loathing Jew of pathological proportions, every word of his title was a lie: he was neither a baron, a "von", nor in the dynastic or religious sense an Oppenheim. The wealthy grandson of Salomon Oppenheim, founder of the great bank, he lived as a harem-keeping Arab and filled the emperor's ear with anti-British and antisemitic bile, and chaotic dreams of empire.
After his attempts to goad Muslims into massacring the infidel came to not very much, Oppenheim was, by the 1930s, on the Nazis' payroll, introducing his fanatically Jew-hating friend Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (appointed by the British) to Hitler. It was Husseini who helped Heinrich Himmler form Muslim SS units in the Balkans; they proceeded to murder 12,600 of Bosnia's 14,000 Jews.
Third in a book rich in antiheroes is Abdul Hamid II, Ottoman Sultan from 1876 to 1909 and paranoid reactionary, eventually dethroned and imprisoned by the Young Turks revolt in 1909. McMeekin suggests that it was in part the failure of the British to support the reformists that kept Turkish ties with Germany in place after Hamid's fall.
McMeekin is scathing about British blindness. A more imaginative approach to the Young Turks could have changed this aspect of the war: Germany's ties with Turkey were predominantly with the reactionaries and our influence with the forces for change could have weakened Berlin's position. The reasons we failed to see the future were culpably stupid: a distrust of the Young Turks based on crazy rumours about their supposedly Jewish connections.
The Berlin-Baghdad railway runs like a thread through the whole calamitous tale. Strategically, its aim was to bind Turkey and the Germans together, while sabotaging Britain's links with India by threatening Suez, and providing Germany with its own shortcut to the east through Basra.Its construction, begun in 1903, was repeatedly delayed for financial and technical reasons: 27 tunnels were required, many of them kilometres long through the Taurus mountains. The only concern the Germans manifested about their Turkish allies' infamous massacre and deportation of Armenians in 1915 was that it delayed construction further. Despite massive injections of German cash, the railway was only completed in 1940.
McMeekin talks of this aspect of the first world war as the new great game, and its ironies and anomalies were endless, especially from today's viewpoint. To ingratiate themselves with the Arabs, at one point the Germans and the British were competing to subsidise the purest strain of Islam. Then there is the idea of Catholic and Protestant Germany issuing vicious propaganda inciting Muslims to massacre their Christian brothers. And though they failed to stir up holy war, the Germans had better luck in dispatching Lenin back home to cripple Russia's war effort. Unfortunately for Berlin it was this, together with Germany's success in bringing Turkey into the war, that hastened the downfall of the Romanovs and the onset of the Bolshevik era.
McMeekin's book is also rich in farce. The Bedouins Oppenheim was keen to recruit for his jihad were unreliable holy warriors, given to shouting "Allahu Akbar" so loudly before battle they gave away their position. Muslim recruits to the SS taught about the closeness of Nazi and Muslim ideals responded so well that some began to see the Führer as the second prophet.
The biggest winners in this theatre, the author believes, were the Bolsheviks and the Turks, who regained lost territories as well as their independence. For Britain, there was little more than the poisoned inheritance of Mesopotamia and Palestine. McMeekin is hard on everyone involved, but especially the Germans. To encourage reactionary Islam, squandering a fortune in bribes in the process, and help the Bolshevik revolution succeed while losing the war, does not say much for the abilities of the Kaiser and his lieutenants.
The roots of current catastrophes in the Middle East, he writes, are conventionally attributed to the postwar cynicism of the entente powers. There are reasons for this, but McMeekin wonders why Germany's responsibility is missing. To me, it appears as another example of Anglo-American puritan guilt-grabbing, a perverted form of spiritual pride illustrated by our tendency to beat our breasts louder than anyone else.
McMeekin has written a powerful, overdue book that for many will open up a whole new side to the first world war, while forcing us to be less reticent in confronting indelicate matters, such as the origins of Nazi-Islamist links