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Nicholson Baker’s reputation was until now largely a product of his career as a novelist with a strong streak of sometimes salacious whimsy (one novel, The Mezzanine, was entirely devoted to recounting a ride on an escalator, another, Vox, to an episode of phone sex, a third, The Fermata, to episodes from the career of a man gifted with the ability to stop time, and a taste for indulging the resulting voyeuristic possibilities, etc). Baker has also published non-fiction, in one case a book (The Fold) about libraries’ poor stewardship of now-microfilmed newspaper archives, which was apparently fuelled by passionate indignation. I have not read it, but having worked with archived 18th and 19th century newspapers, Baker’s anger over the loss of the originals has my complete sympathy.

Again passionately indignant, he has now written Human Smoke, a very peculiar history of the first half of the Second World War. Baker is a pacifist, and his book’s chief villains include Churchill and Roosevelt. He is pretty clearly attempting to evenly divide his readers’ stock of loathing between the Nazis, where Baker implies uninstructed loathing has until now been too exclusively focused, and the leaders of the Western allies. Baker, whose works are sometimes described as exquisite miniatures by his admirers, and by less admiring readers regarded as examples of the Spirit of Twee on steroids, has written a book guaranteed to offend, which it has, but some reviews have been curiously charitable, and a few have even been flattering. This is strange, for the book’s implied arguments are often absurdly weak, and its moral posturing imperfectly persuasive. The very existence of so many reviews is odd: books insinuating that Churchill and FDR were quite as odious as Hitler have until recently been reviewed only in odd venues, chiefly in magazines catering to the political equivalent of what pornographers euphemise as specialized tastes.

Human Smoke sequentially recounts odd bits and bobs of the war’s history and background, generally in a would-be plangent tone, and the episodes are usually expected to speak for themselves. Baker recounts many different kinds of event, but spends a fair amount of time tracing the fate of Europe’s Jews  the people whose flesh will become the human smoke of the title – while also charting the escalating campaign of Allied strategic bombing, which would eventually kill hundreds of thousands of Axis civilians, some of whom also became human smoke. In this reading the political leaders who brought on the two fates as equally repellant, although Baker has a particular loathing for Churchill. In his view, FDR was guilty of many things – inter alia, provoking Japan by arming the Chinese (Baker does not seem to care a whit that the Chinese were the victims of truly savage aggression, for example, the Rape of Nanking) – but Churchill was even worse. Churchill had a touch of his era’s and class’s anti-Semitism, as do Baker’s New Dealers, but Churchill is also pilloried as an unabashed imperialist, as a criminal who initiated a bombing campaign directed at civilians, and as a man who sometimes enjoyed war.

These charges are true, but for the most part peculiarly overstated. For example, Churchill was in fact one of the most philo-Semitic members of his class and age, and Baker makes what exists of his point with some very selective quotation already noted by Noel Malcolm in the Daily Telegraph. What of Baker’s tu quoque about imperialism? Churchill was, of course, an enthusiastic imperialist. The empire he defended had some ugly moments – the Raj’s authorities admitted killing 379 at Amritsar – but it is odd to implicitly damn British imperial methods during Churchill’s day as morally equivalent to the methods by which Hitler built and ruled the empire he constructed in, say, Poland, Russia and Serbia, and imply that the moral authority of both imperialists is in consequence roughly equivalent. Baker suggests the equivalency by making sly comparisons: for example, noting that Churchill once endorsed the use of poison gas as a method of imperial rule. Hitler, too, used poison gas in his imperial projects, and the incautious reader may assume a devastating point has been scored.

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Dr J
January 14th, 2009
1:01 AM
Winston Churchill was a staunch Zionist and a great man. His work will be remembered long after Baker's work is remaindered.

Terrence Cole
August 17th, 2008
8:08 AM
Wonderful review Fred!

June 16th, 2008
6:06 PM
A penetrating review. Smoler is correct to expose Baker's bizarre perspective on the Holocaust.

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