Edinburgh International Book Festival: Robert Macfarlane, Elif Shafak, George Szirtes and Jenny Robertson

Elif Shafak: perils of populismElif Shafak: perils of populism
Elif Shafak: perils of populism
How do we respond to deep, geological time?

If we go beneath the earth, whether pot-holing in Derbyshire or visiting the vast hole in Finland where nuclear waste is buried which may well reach the end of its half-life long after the end of human life on earth, does it leave us feeling crushed by a feeling of irrelevance or reawaken a sense of wonder?

As it’s Robert Macfarlane asking the question, you can place a firm bet, not just on the answer being wonder, but also on it linking an impossibly wide range of subjects. That was certainly the case as he talked about his latest book on Thursday night, a week after it won the Wainwright Prize.

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Underworld ranges effortlessly from the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilmagesh to the search for dark matter in a potash mine beneath the North Sea to the subterranean social network of trees and fungi in what we are now learning to call the “wood wide web”, and he talked about all three with spellbinding eloquence.

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Edinburgh Book Festival: Tracy Chevalier, Dina Nayeri, Nick Thorpe & John Burnsi...

The title of Elif Shafak’s new novel 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World refers to the amount of time scientists reckon the brain might take to completely shut down after its blood supply stops. Not much hope there, you might think, and nor was there in her talk with Allan Little about the perils of populism, which these days is affecting countries far beyond her native Turkey. There, though, she has fallen foul of the increasingly repressive regime, not only needing a bodyguard for 18 months after her 2006 novel The Bastard of Istanbul was prosecuted for “insulting Turkishness” but also facing a “social media lynching” after she came out as bisexual late last year. Yet this, she maintained, is not the whole story of modern Turkey, and the more people insist on diversity and reject “Otherisation” the less darkened hope becomes. Even as it is, despite the Turkish government controlling the media and being the world’s leading jailer of journalists, half the population still vote against it.