I read a set of books by David Peace a few months ago – Tokyo Year Zero and Occupied City. Both set in Japan in the post war period. Both were clearly well researched, by someone who is sympathetic to and at least tries to understand the Japanese experience of that era. Although David Peace is British, he has lived in Tokyo for years and certainly did not seem to be ‘using’ the setting with consideration. On the other hand, both books felt like writing exercises: the first a detective novel with traumatic flashes of memory and a twist; the second a book with many characters and sources providing their own take on events, each written in a unique style. It all got a bit much in the end. I actually laughed at John Crace’s Digested Read for once.
An Artist Of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro isn’t like that at all. Ishiguro moved from Japan to Britain when he was five, so he probably has similar reference points, but approached in a different direction. Here, a retired artist deals with the consequences of his role in Japanese militarism. The story feels like it has a greater purpose – there is style here: subdued tone, delicate description, unreliable narration (?) – but the theme of faxing up to misguided ideals is a strong one. Perhaps though, Ishiguro plays things on the safe side: he raises questions and poses multiple answers but doesn’t come down one way or another.
I’m happy enough to have read David Peace and he has a third coming out next year, which I may read; but I’d be unlikely to return to them. Ishiguro, I enjoyed and I’d happily read again.
This was one of the first proper history books I bought, back in 2007. Fresh from Robert Harris‘ Cicero first novel and Tom Holland’s Rubicon, I overreached. It’s a fascinating, interesting, well written book, but it is a lot more academic than either of those. I enjoyed it, but being unfamiliar with the details of the debate on the end of Rome I didn’t really get the most out of Heather’s arguments. More recently, I read his The Restoration of Rome and found it to be a much lighter book than my memories of this. Inspired by this and my improved understanding of Rome in the intervening decade, I decided to return to The Fall of Rome.
Peter Heather has the same stylish way with words that he showed in the more recent book ( one quote that stood out: “Clovis, in particular, seems to have enjoyed the merry crack of axe on skull”) but the popular analogies don’t come quite as frequent or quite as broad. This is a much more serious book, which tries to set out a middle ground between the ideas that Rome either fell entirely because of internal decline, or that it collapsed solely due to the external force of the invading barbarians. As he states near the start, no one seriously takes either opinion so a middle opinion was always inevitable; but he does have some points to make about the exact role that the Huns played in the process.
In Heather’s opinion the western movement of the Huns sparked the movements of other peoples, and it was these that caused the real damage to the empire. There had been similarly fierce nomads before – the Sarmatians in the first century BC – but this did not have the knock on effect because the Germanic tribes that bordered Rome were too small and localized to have the same impact. In the face of Roman power large confederations of tribes formed and united into even bigger ones. Once these were forced to move, real trouble was unleashed.
The book covers both this argument and the surrounding history with some skill. It’s not overly populist, but Heather uses anecdote and colour where appropriate. On the other hand, he compares the archaeological record against established ideas and offers conservative and plausible figures on numbers. I’m glad I returned to the book, and even after my intervening decade of reading about Rome felt that I was reading a unique and valuable account of the topic.