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

Elif Shafak: perils of populism
Elif Shafak: perils of populism
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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.

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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In the past, he said, his books have often been about walking across the landscape; here the aim was to go deeper, and to look at the earth we were handing on and “whether we will be good ancestors”. Already, we have a sense of constant crisis as our Anthropocene era stumbles towards the “slow violence” of its end, so imperceptible by comparison with the drama of the nuclear nightmare but potentially just as final. His own sense of that was heightened by watching, the calving of a Greenland glacier which he described as first like a white freight train running across a cliff, then a toppling blue cathedral, then a whole city of hundreds of thousands of tons of white and blue ice peeling away into the sea, causing a 50-foot wave out of which emerged a “black pyramid of ice like nothing I have ever seen”. Somehow, Macfarlane left room for hope. Hope in the dark, maybe, but still hope.

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.

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Strong-willed women who defied both the Nazi and Communists were the subjects of an equally engaging event yesterday morning. In The Photographer at Sixteen, Hungarian poet and translator George Szirtes explained how his moving portrait of his mother Magda, who committed suicide in 1975, was of necessity a work of invention, but this did not invalidate it as “invention can be a form of love”. Magda was a survivor of the Holocaust, which wiped out her entire family, and later escaped to Britain after the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. She sounds every bit as indomitable as Zofia Nalkowska (1884-1954), the grande dame of Polish letters and the subject of Jenny Robertson’s biography From Corsets to Communism. Medallions, Nalkowska’s 1946 book of short stories about Holocaust atrocities is, she said, one of the classics of antifascist literature. My “to-read” pile of books grows ever-bigger ....

DAVID ROBINSON

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