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  • Mussolini’s Barber August 7, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

    Mussolini’s Barber is a bizarrist’s wet dream, fifty well-written ‘weird’ stories as told by Graeme Donald ranging from the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 to Vietnam, with a heavy bias towards the Second World War. Long time readers of this blog will recognize many of the tales collected including the twice atom-bombed Yamaguchi, Mussolini’s Irish assassin, self-castrating Corbet and Wilmer Mclean, who saw the American Civil War begin in his kitchen and end in his living room.

    The book has the rather serious even slightly sententious subtitle: And Other Stories of the Unknown Players Who Made History Happen. But the bit actors our author has assembled do not make anything happen. The idea is laughable! They walk, fight, sleep, copulate and stumble through life setting off domino runs of events that they could never have imagined and that they certainly cannot control. If you belong to those who prefer conspiracy to cock up then this book may be an antidote written as it is by a historian who has shed all illusions about humanity’s nonexistent gps direction finder.

    Of course, there are lots of ‘zany’ books out there that raise a toast to humanity’s humanity and play fast and loose with our fig-leaf size dignity. This work – and, indeed, all titles by GD – have, however, a couple of other things going for them.

    First, GD has that self-satisfied, detached but potentially amusing moral superiority characteristic of the post superpower British: Beachcombing suffers from the same vice unfortunately. For the purposes of Mussolini’s Barber this would be tiresome if this was just, as it normally is, a way of trumpeting universal health care and slapping Goebbels over the wrist. But how refreshing to find someone who will also put the boot, hard, into Kitchener, JFK and John Brown! Hell, GD even kicks Simon Wiesenthal sharply on the shins…

    Second, GD doesn’t tell stories in a conventional fashion. He employs what Beach likes to think of as the House that Jack Built version of history. The House that Jack Built for those lucky enough to escape an Anglo-Saxon childhood is a nursery rhyme that repeats by increments.  ‘This is the house that Jack built.’ ‘This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.’ ‘This is the rat that ate the malt That lay in the house that Jack built.’ Etc etc

    A normal historian describing, say, Trotsky’s assassination would give us some dirt from the vast dunghills on top of which Stalin and Trots sit, set up the scene in Mexico with traitor and icepick (the killing weapon): then camera, action, roll. But, instead, GD begins – and this is typical – with a recent auction of the icepick; looks at the origin of Trotsky’s name; moves on to Trots’ sexual relations with the Mexican artist Kahlo, she of the eyebrows and the blue house; lingers over gestapo-NKVD relations in Mexico City; throws the assassin Ramon onto the stage; examines the assassination; examines the trial with copious reference to the assassin’s mother. Then just as things are getting dangerously linear he cuts to relations between Trotsky and Orlov; the travails of Mark Zborowski, an NKVD agent with a walk on role for, of all people, Margaret Mead; has a lot of fun at the expense of Kahlo; then offers up, on a tiny silver platter, a final reflection on the ice pick.

    A lesser writer couldn’t pull this off: in fact, for a lesser writer it would be taken as what made them a lesser writer (if this makes sense). For a good writer like GD though it is a way to envelope the reader. Beachcombing doesn’t normally like being enveloped, but he’s going to make an exception for GD. He is glad, however, that no one was put up to making an index: that would have been a simple and gratuitous act of cruelty…

    Beachcombing is always on the look out for bizarre books: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com