I just read four novels in a row…

….. without a single interruption from development, economics, news, or the appositely named ‘grey literature’ of papers, reports and all the rest of the stuff that pours into my inbox every day. Yep, I’ve been on holiday. Actually, the supposed detox of reading fiction proved to be an unplanned exploration into the links between individual citizens and politics – there appears to be no escape.

First up was a classic Balkan novel, The Bridge Over the Drina, by Ivo Andric. The beautifully sculpted book, which won him the Nobel prize for literature in 1961, charts 300 years of history in a riverside town in Bosnia, ending in the cataclysm of 1914. He expertly portrays the subtle interactions between inertia and continuity (represented by the bridge), and the constant flux of Balkan politics, as great forces like the decline of the Ottoman empire, or the arrival of the railways influence the worldviews and social interactions of Turkish muslim, Christian, Jewish and Gypsy communities.

Andric brought home to me both how much the development industry focuses on relatively short term political change, often ignoring the huge element of continuity in people’s lives (and then we are often startled when we return to some community years later and discover how little has really changed) or the slow undertow of cultural shifts. Part of the problem is incentives – no academic is going to get funding for a research proposal saying ‘basically, not much has changed’, part of it motivation – if you see yourself as a ‘change agent’, stasis is unattractive. The alternative view – that nothing ever changes – is equally misleading. It is those ‘tides in the affairs of men’ and their interaction with culture and human relationships that we need to identify, study and influence. 

My other holiday reads were Rose Tremain, The Road Home, a wonderful and uplifting account of a Polish migrant’s efforts to build a life between Poland and the UK and The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, a grim (the narrator is Death…) but gripping story of a girl growing up in Germany in World War Two.

The last book is not strictly a novel, but is definitely Literature – the last work of the wonderful journalist and travel writer Ryszard Kapuscinski. Travels with Herodotus interweaves The Histories by the Greek writer acknowledged by Cicero as the ‘Father of History’ with Kapuscinski’s early experiences as a Polish correspondent in China, India and East Africa. Part of Kapuscinski’s genius is the honesty of his observation, including when he does not have a clue what is going on – something that happens to everyone who travels, but that not all of us are willing to write about!

Now it’s back to work, where a tidal wave of grey literature is waiting to engulf me, but those four books were a tonic – if you still have holidays coming up, I recommend them.


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