What a week, mes amis. Scott-land: The Man Who Invented A Nation has been published, and, after the usual tail-spin of self-confidence, I’m delighted with it. Thanks to all at Polygon, who have been absolutely ideal as publishers. I had the eerie sensation of seeing it stacked high as Waterstone’s Book of the Month (only, I think, in Scotistan: if anyone down south wants to leave a comment on what’s being sold in Letchworth or Upper Framlingham or London, feel free. Good to check out the competition) and the even eerier sensation of seeing it in the window. It feels like a bit of my brain has been extracted and made manifest. I now, probably, will forget everything I ever knew about Scott. Wednesday was an appearance on ABC Radio in Australia; Tuesday was mostly taken up with writing a conference plenary and a fantasia on Scottishness for my friend Robert Powell; and on Thursday I gave said paper and had the launch party (to all who came: my absolute and utter thanks: it’s rare that I can go to a literary event and not dislike a single person in the room) – and got the wonderful news that Scott-land has been selected as Radio 4’s Book of the Week. If Karen Gillan or David Tennant reads it, I will be in fan-Elysium.
Speaking of Dr Who, I’ve finally figured out how to make Walter Scott popular again. We must have an episode where the Doctor goes to Abbotsford. It’s one of the weirdest places in Scotland, a collage of different periods, a chroniton anomaly of the first order: futuristic and medieval at once, it’s Steampunk and alt-Hist and Bangsian fantasy simultaneously. It also has a roomful of cool weapons.
Mrs McShandy is off to Devon to do things with horses I find inexplicable and scary, so I have a week of survivalism at home.
As you may know, the tendency to descend to autobliography is sorely tempting; so here’s some less egocentric oddities. Firstly: everyone must read Jeff Vandermeer. The man’s a genius. His new novel has a world-weary cop trying to solve a locked room murder: the twist being one corpse is human, and the other is a Mushroom Person – and it ain’t from Super Mario. H P Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, Michael Moorcock and Gilles Deleuze, all put in a blender. Secondly, read Chris Beckett’s The Holy Machine. What if a pornbot from the world’s only secular state read the Bible and had to confront theocracies? It’s delightful, smutty, heart-breaking and damn smart. Beckett might well be the second best person with the surname Beckett in literature. And finally, this week’s review: a blisteringly clever book by Paul Kriwaczek.
Paul Kriwaczek opens this eloquent and consistently thought-provoking account of ancient Mesopotamia – the cities and culture of Ur of the Chaldees, Babylon, Nineveh, Sumer, Akkadia and Assyria – with a killer fact that lingers long in the mind. The first wedge-shaped cuneiform marks, the very first recorded signs of history, date from just before 3000 BCE. That culture held sway for roughly 2500 years until its defeat by the Persians in 539 BCE. From that defeat to our now is another 2500 years. Half of human history is Mesopotamian.
In that fertile crescent that now includes Iraq, humans first created cities, writing, engineering, mathematics, taxation, archaeology, the rule of law and God. It is, as Kriwaczek says, “the backbone of history”. But it is more than a list of achievements and antiquarian data. Kriwaczek balances, very finely, the utter difference of the past with its equally startling continuity; and by subtle analogies, shows how the rise and fall of Mesopotamia can inform us about cataclysmic events and changes in our own history. Discussing King Shulgi’s ambitions towards godhood, he compares a Sumerian hymn with a poem to Stalin; looking at the accounts of city-wide devastation and subsequent recovery, he finds parallels between Elamite Susa and Minsk or Nagasaki. The falls and rises of the various power bases shows there is no standard story for imperial catastrophe. Old Babylonia groaned under unbridled debts and spiralling interest rates; Sumer collapsed under centralised State planning of the economy. Environmental disaster did for Uruk.
Unlike classical Greece, or even medieval Paris, we have relatively little literature from Mesopotamia (with the great exception of The Epic of Gilgamesh); and describing their culture means trawling through law codes, palace accounts and diplomatic letters, all of which Kriwaczek manages to bring to life. The study of Mesopotamia often throws light on the Bible: the word for “ladder” is the same as for “staircase”. Perhaps Jacob’s vision of a ladder to heaven distantly recalled the ziggurats of Ur.
Perhaps the most chilling similarity comes towards the end. King Ashurbanipal – known to us, wrongly, as the decadent Sardanapalus – was so frightened of immigrants from the East, with their simple but radical new communications technology (the alphabet), that he ordered a gigantic library to preserve Mesopotamian culture. That culture is still being reconstructed from its ruins.