Empire of Silver [Conn Iggulden]

It’s been a while, but I was back in the gers of the mongols.  Khasar, Kachiun, Temuge, Tolui, Ogedai, Kublai and General Tsubodai, all here, except one.

Genghis is dead, and his legend casts a long and imposing shadow over his fledgling Mongol nation.  His chosen heir, Ogedai battles with his health as well as his brother as he builds his people’s first true city, Karakorum.

Book four of Iggulden’s Conqueror series is as slick as the first three.  There are few who do such epic historical narratives as Iggulden and it’s a genre that I think can offer a lot as well as bringing history to vivid life for people who may not have any interest in the actual events or people.  His Emperor series did this for Rome and all it’s intrigues, but the Conqueror series offers more for me.  While I love Roman history I know less about Genghis and his nation, and this keeps me engaged as the novel gallops along at pace, barely pausing as the Mongol tumans head west to expand the empire.  Iggulden cleverly changes historical fact if he thinks it fits the narrative better but always highlights these during his author’s notes.

By the end of Empire of Silver the Mongols have pushed so far west their scouts were gazing upon Italy.  They had swept through Russia and Hungary, destroying all before them.  In the end it is not the Europeans that stops them, but events closer to home.  After years expanding the border, General Tsubodai is ordered to return the tumans to Karakorum

I assumed Empire of Silver would be the last book in a series of four, but before I started reading it I saw Conqueror in the bookshop and I remembered that Kublai had been running around as a small child at the end of Bones of the Hills, so it seems I will happily be riding along with the Khans for a while yet.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes [Mohammed Hanif]

For Brigadier TM, an all-woman gathering was a security nightmare even when he wasn’t implementing Code Red.  All those loose shalwar qameez dresses, all the flowing dupattas, the bags, the jewellery that sent the metal detectors wild and then the bloody burqas!  How did you know weren’t carrying a rocket launcher under that tent?  How did you even know they were women?

“I know these burqas look good on television and I know the President likes them but our security level is red and I can’t allow in any ninjas whose faces I can’t see”

There are precious few books where the humour of the narration resonates closely with my own, the little know A Very Peruvian Practice by John Lane is one, and this is another.
Ali Shigri is the son of a Colonel, and one of the potential causes of the death of General Zia Ul Haq, Pakistan’s military dictator, in 1988.

Shigri’s deadpan narration is inter-sped with what’s happening to and around General Zia, reminiscent of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Feast of the Goat, which Hanif mentions in his acknowledgements.   But this is much lighter than the dark and troubling world of the Goat.
Shigri’s sarcastic wit courses through the story as the numerous plots build up to a rousing crescendo at the end.  Yet there is more than humour, a satircial look at power and it’s corrupting influences, the intrigues of international relations, and of course, class struggle.

They are fighting so that their feudal lords can keep them in their shackles.  They are subverting the genuine class struggle of workers like me and you”
I am relieved.  I am finally in the fold. I am a worker and my struggle is genuine.

Underplaying all this is the touching relationship between Shigri and Baby-O and the slow trickle of information about Shigri’s Colonel father.

Mohammed Hanif has crafted a rolling, darkly comic book that seems to just about balance intrigue, the art of silent drills, plot, code red security, fate, mangoes and humour into an enjoyable blend.

I caught them whispering during the silent drill practice and now I am administering a lesson on the virtues of silence.  They are groaning like a bunch of pansies.  Probably the coke bottle tops that I have put under their heads are causing some discomfort.

Modern Chinese Ink Paintings

Room 91 in the British Museum, past the Picasso exhibition (reviewed here), hosts the Modern Chinese Ink Paintings exhibition.

I love Chinese landscapes, the classical ones, always filled with mountains, waterfalls, trees and a man on a boat, but it is also the lines, the detail that I enjoy and this exhibition promised to drag me into the last hundred years.  Chinese ink painting is one of the longest painting traditions in world history, beginning over two thousand years ago.  So the forty works on display from 1913 onwards are grounded in a long and rich history.

Zhang Daqian opens the exhibition with landscape in blue and green.  Despite the dark colours the light blue waterfall makes it seem as if you are peeking through the foliage, you can almost hear the soft fall of the water and feel the spray on your face.  Zhang met Picasso in the 1950’s, and Picasso commented to Claude Roy “If I were born Chinese, I would not be a painter but a calligrapher, I would write my pictures”, you can only imagine how that would have turned out.

Peonies by Wu Changshi has bold firm strokes while in Wang Zhen’s Buddha Amitayus, infinite life the firm outlines and imprecise strokes contrast with the soft thin depiction of the Buddha, who almost seems to be in the background, until you focus, and his detailed outline forms up.
The scribbled outlines and lack of a background make the almost comical looking scholars stand out in Fu Baoshi’s Scholar’s suffering from hardship.  In Narcissus and Rock by Zhu Qihzan the bold strokes of the flower seem much more western compared to the soft indefinite rock, almost as if the flower has the strength and the rock the grace.

Wang Tiande mutates the art by painting a landscape in the traditional manner and then uses an incense stick to burn images into silk or paper placed over the top. The precisely titled Digital-no-8-mh70 is included in the exhibition and was a riot to look at, I tried to look at one level or the other, as both together confused my eyes.

My favourite works was Huang Yongu’s Two Owls.  Big bold eyes and the indefinite outlines stand out on the full blue background.  Neither is winking, a previous work by Yongyu featured a winking owl was ‘criticised’, these owls have wide open eyes.

Billed as the highlight of the exhbibition are works by Liu Dan.  His Poppy is beautifully drawn, all in black and white shades, even the shading is detailed.  Cloud Root, despite potentially being either of these things , looked like a root to me, again in black and white, it is almost an incomplete sketch.  Landcape is a long thin horizontal strip, a flame from the right blows across to condense and form a landscape in incredible detail.

Wu Guanzhong’s Paradise for Small Birds is the most abstract in the exhibition.  The banyan tree is a mass of black and grey ink, amongst which are scattered a few defined birds and splashes of bright colour.  Nearby the abstract is Boating Towards a Misty Valley by Huang Junbi.  A classical Chinese landscape with a waterfall, rocks, trees and fisherman in a house boat, all sketched and shaded with earthy colours with precise lines and blurred edges.

Qi Gong’s Calligraphy Couplet does exactly what it says on the tin, beautiful Calligraphy.  The first referring  to the image of  a white stupa on jasper flower island in Beihai park at sunset in Beijing and colourful boats on the pearl river under the mid autumn moon in Guangzhou.

Jin Cheng’s landscape fan with calligraphy on reverse render incredible detail on a small surface, in greens and greys while Pu Quan’s Jay Bird combines meticulous brushwork (Gongbi) with spontaneous strokes (xieyi), notably the Jay Bird itself is detailed with a blue under wing which stands out amongst the greens, greys and browns.

My last view of the exhibition was Sun and Moon, Floating? Sinking? by Liu Kuo-Sung.  A pinting of the cosmos (taikong hua) in which a round white disc has abstract dark blue mountainous shapes float against it.

Overall the exhibition is just the right size for a casual look round, particularly if you have an interest in painting or Chinese art and I’m planning on looking up a few of the artists soon to look at other works.  The exhibition is on until the 2nd of September 2012.

British Museum site here