Book reviews: The Incas | Odessa

A round-up of literary reviews from The Scotsman's book critics

The Incas

by Craig Morris and Adriana von Hagen

(Thames & Hudson, 19.95) ****

Massive, irregularly-shaped drystone boulders, yet slotted together so tightly you can't get a knife's blade between them … if they'd done nothing else, the Incas would have left extraordinary monuments to themselves. They did infinitely more, yet so much of it makes so little sense to us that, when it comes to appreciating their achievement, we don't know where to start. Fortunately, Craig Morris and Adriana von Hagen help with a lively introduction that's full of fascinating detail. Even so, overall their book bemuses, hammering home the clich that different cultures carve up experience in different ways. They really do: the Incas didn't write, but may have done much the same thing with their khipu – clumps of knotted string; their mystic geography invested every fold of the landscape with religious properties; they conquered a vast empire, ruling it with awesome efficiency and chilling ruthlessness, yet simply let it fold when their king was captured by the conquistadors.


by Charles King

(Norton, 19.99) ****

Perched between sea and steppe, Odessa was situated still more precariously in civic psychology – 'somewhere between success and suicide', Charles King says. A dramatic formulation, but it doesn't seem exaggerated. In Russian history Odessa was obviously and obstinately a place apart. Like so many seaports, it had its back to its hinterland; along with the raffish air went a stroppy exceptionalism – its people bolshy avant la lettre, and, as King makes clear, by no means always in a nice way. Waves of pogroms brought a reaction in Vladimir Jabotinsky and the Zionist Right; sedition flourished in what Trotsky (a schoolboy here) called 'the most police-ridden city in police-ridden Russia'. Gamy as this history is, it has a far more healthy feel than the culturally-cleansed heritage of today's Ukrainean nationalist establishment. There's at least a life in the passions (even the hatreds) of the past of a place which, as King's irresistible chronicle concludes, represented 'a hundred different ways of being Jewish or Christian or neither'.