Book reviews

After the Fireworks: A life of David Ballantyne
Bryan Reid. Auckland University Press, 2004. isbn 1 869 40327 4, rrp $49.95

Bryan Reid mounts a case for the re-evaluation of David Ballantyne’s contribution to the literature of New Zealand. Ballantyne is best remembered for his first novel The Cunninghams, a grim and undoubtedly Marxist view of the experiences of NZ’s battler class.

The biography tracks the slow burn of Ballantyne’s literary career—contrasted with his journalistic success—which failed to grant him entry to the pantheon of NZ fiction. Reid, a lifelong friend and fan, reveals the author as a complex man whose battles with self-doubt and alcoholism were commensurate with the state of his flagging literary career.

As a teenager unsatisfied with the state of writing in NZ, Ballantyne looked to the US for stylistic inspiration and found it in the proletarian writing of James T. Farrell. The two men corresponded, were committed socialists and shared a strong dislike for their inherited Catholicism.

Reid’s genuine affection for his subject is immediately perceptible; his personal anecdotes bring a degree of warmth to an otherwise unsentimental, crisp and journalistic text. Though he employs the slightly frustrating indulgence of referring to himself in third person, his work is solidly researched and draws on reviews, literary criticism and an impressive list of sources.

After the Fireworks is a sympathetic testament to a talented but somewhat tragic New Zealander.

Luke O’Callaghan

When faiths collide
Martin E. Marty. Blackwell, 2005. isbn 1 405 11223 9, rrp $57.95


When people speak of strangers, they often resort to slogans. ‘Only marry your own’, the ‘White Australia Policy’. It is also common to compare the most prejudicial account of strangers’ habits with an idealised version of your own. So, after September 11, helpful books on Islam came on to the market, giving implacably negative answers to such questions as: ‘Does Islam respect human rights and women?’ ‘Does the West really have nothing to fear from Islam?’

Martin Marty, a veteran Protestant historian who records this kind of material, also offers the fruit of many years’ teaching and reflection on religious pluralism. His writing is well-argued and clear. Throughout the book, he insists on the importance of complexity. Simple slogans do not do justice to religious difference. Furthermore, they lead to murderous actions by individuals and nations. Marty bases his reflection on the concept of the stranger, and the variety of ways in which they are treated. I found particularly thought-provoking his account of the secularist practice of tolerance. This is often grounded in the belief that religion is private, and that it will disappear as Western enlightenment spreads. It is now evident that the claim of religion is enduring, and that most believers do not accept that religion is a private affair.

Marty argues for public engagement with, and between, religions. His ideal is one of hospitality, coming to understand others on their own terms, making room for them in the heart.

Andrew Hamilton

Classical literature: A concise history
Richard Rutherford. Blackwell, 2005. isbn 0 631 23133 1, rrp $56.95

Those who write concise histories of a millennium deserve sympathy. Scholars, like Richard Rutherford, who carry off the task with elegance and clarity merit admiration. His history of classical literature provides concise and clear summaries of its main figures and movements. Rutherford’s judgments are judicious and not quirky, and the index enables easy reference.

The challenge in such literary histories is to group different writers and movements in an illuminating way. Rutherford arranges them under a mixture of genre and theme: his chapter headings include drama, rhetoric, history, thinkers, believers, and literature and power. These categories are generally helpful. Their limitation is that they place literary works outside the broader political, social and cultural contexts which influence their composition.

Categories always reflect the cultural standpoint of contemporary scholarship. This does not always serve the past well. Rutherford’s distinction between thinkers and believers does not catch the religious impulse of much classical philosophy. Nor does it allow Augustine’s distinctive account of the relationship between philosophy and faith to be given full weight. Nor do his exquisite sermons, so influential on later culture, count as literature.

Andrew Hamilton

In the shadow of ‘Just Wars’: Violence, politics and humanitarian action,
Fabrice Weissman (ed.). C. Hurst and Co, 2004. isbn 1 850 65737 8, rrp $54.50

The possibilities for humanitarian action are always changing. Humanitarian organisations responding to crises since September 11, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, now face a major challenge: the perception of humanitarian organisations as being a part of the occupying forces.

In the shadow of ‘Just Wars’, is a Médecins Sans Fronti`eres publication. Eleven crises are analysed, followed by thematic discussions on the major issues affecting humanitarian aid. Two central themes emerge: the so-called ‘just wars’ and the human consequences, and the international responses to recent crises stemming from a ‘right to intervene’ and the ‘war on evil’.

MSF works in over 80 countries, many of which are in conflict situations. It is little wonder then that this independent medical humanitarian organisation saw the need to reflect on the dilemmas and the limits of the work they do. This book is a reflection on practice. Its contributors—field workers, academics and journalists—are well informed. 

The chapter on Iraq, written at the start of the war, analyses the civil-military relationship, the cost of this on independent humanitarian action, and challenges the notion of occupying forces offering humanitarian assistance.

This is an excellent resource, and many of the issues raised will be applicable to the post-tsunami humanitarian response in Aceh and Sri Lanka.

Michele M. Gierck

 

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