An easy, sure-fire way of generating a bit of publicity is picking a fight with a provocative public intellectual. Rather than criticising Bernard-Henri Lévy’s blow-dry, or kicking David Starkey in either of his legs, Pankaj Mishra memorably attacked Niall Ferguson in his review of Civilisation in the LRB last November.
So the threat of a lawsuit from Ferguson now means we all vaguely know who Mishra is. (And that he’s married to David Cameron’s cousin.) His latest book From the Ruins of Empire – part biography of three prominent Eastern thinkers and part historical analysis – tackles the difficult relationship between East and West taking the Japanese destruction of the Russian warship in the battle of Tsushima in 1905 as its starting point. John Gray in The Independent called it a ‘penetrating and disquieting’ account of the illusions and disillusions prevalent on each side. Mark Mazower in the Financial Times couldn’t help but agree that the book had the ‘power to instruct and even to shock.’ In the Guardian, Julia Lovell, author of The Opium Wars, enjoyed the ‘luminous detail’ and the thoughtful descriptions of the three intellectuals as they wrestled with Western hegemony:
“From the Ruins of Empire gives eloquent voice to their curious, complex intellectual odysseys as they struggled to respond to the western challenge. All were forced to look far beyond home-grown traditions: Liang Qichao attacked Chinese antiquity as an internal cancer and wrote paeans to Washington and Napoleon; al-Afghani was one of the first Muslim thinkers to realise that ‘history was working independently of the God of the Koran”; Tagore became internationally renowned for his English-language poetry (he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1913 for his “beautiful verse, by which … he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English works, a part of the literature of the west”).'”
There were some dissenting voices however. In The Telegraph, Noel Malcolm admitted enjoying it but couldn’t help noting that Mishra ‘tends to gloss over the imperialism of the Asians themselves’, even getting historical details wrong while doing so. Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times was less generous; not only was From the Ruins of Empire ‘flat and colourless’ but:
‘Like some pound-shop John Pilger, he talks again and again of the “pure plunder” of western imperialism, treating all European powers — the British, the Belgians, the French, the Dutch, the Russians — as though they were part of a satanic monolith. But you do not have to be an apologist for empire to bridle at Mishra’s total disregard for historical nuance.’
Can’t wait to hear Niall Ferguson’s take on it.
Fleur Macdonald is editor @TheOmnivore.