One of the very best things about writers and readers festivals is discovering writers you haven’t read. I’ve mooched along to sessions just to fill in an hour and found authors I now regard as must-reads; Denise Mina and Geoff Dyer spring immediately to mind.
Pankaj Mishra was a discovery at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013. He sounded far too intellectual to mooch along to, but he was fascinating on the radio and he came highly recommended so I went to his session in an alert and mindful manner.
The Economist called his latest book, From the Ruins of Empire, “subtle, erudite and entertaining”, and The Wall Street Journal it “thoroughly readable”.
Entertaining and readable. Promising. Subtle and erudite. A bit daunting.
From the Ruins of Empire rethinks the way we understand Asia by telling the story of the men who met the aggression and challenge of the West over a period of two hundred years, creating the ideas that have built the powerful Asian nations of the 21st Century.
As Mishra talked about beginning the book with the Battle of Tsushima I knew I was going to learn something in this session because I had never heard of the Battle of Tsushima. But that was ok because according to Mishra most of the figures in From the Ruins of Empire are unfamiliar.
Mishra’s story about empire is “not the one that was on parade during the war on terror”. He thinks the histories that show empire as a wonderful thing are fraudulent but acknowledges their ideas have a real force. He would like us to stop, look and ask “are these histories true?”
If we step back and consider the longer histories of the Islamic countries of Asia even familiar events start to look very different. We have to ask the hard questions of commentators and journalists – what does the ‘rise of Asia’ mean?
Definitely more questions than answers, but I certainly came away examining lots of things I thought I knew, which can’t be bad.