It’s been just about a year since international travel all but came to a standstill, so it could either feel timely or insidious to be presented with a new book of short stories set across East Asia, the Pacific, and Europe, several of which feature travelers. Simon Rowe’s latest collection, Pearl City: Stories from Japan and Elsewhere, fortunately falls into the former category. Rowe is known as a noir writer and these stories all fall under that genre; and here Rowe gets to the heart of everyday people in each of the places he covers.
The Code of Civilization might at first seem to be another in the line of books which includes Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and Samuel P Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations that attempt an overarching view of world history with an aim to model the present and predict the future. This time, however, the author—Vyacheslav Nikonov—is Russian.
Among the most colorful and characteristic participants in the caravan trade between India and Central Asia were the Afghan horse dealers, pictured here in the Fraser Album at the V&A. They brought horses from Bukhara across the Hindu Kush to livestock fairs in the Punjab. Their caravans carried Indian cloths for the return trip. Jagjeet Lally’s India and the Silk Roads describes the sophistication and persistence of this trade, which has frequently been underestimated by both historians of India and of the early modern commerce.
Most book milestones are measured in time—six months to deadline!—or word count. For Nicholas Kitto, author of Trading Places: A Photographic Journey through China’s Former Treaty Ports, the pertinent metric was step count: in the process of searching out the subjects for his photographs, Kitto walked 2,784,010 steps in the course of fifty-one different journeys from his home in Hong Kong—which must have amounted well over a thousand miles on foot.
Japanese art was a breath of fresh air to the citizens of 19th-century France, whose country was being overwhelmed with rapid modernization and industrialism. The focus on individual craftsmanship and quality stood in stark contrast with mass production, and the simple utilitarian designs were the antithesis of perceived contrivances in European schools of art. Japanese aesthetics quickly permeated all aspects of popular culture, from fashion to theatre to home decor, and assembling collections of Japanese imports became a common pastime for the wealthy elite. This enthusiastic reception and emulation of Japanese art was called japonisme.
Biographies have much to offer as a way into the past. Lives are messy, and avoid neat conclusions about history—frustrating things, they refuse to fit a preconception. Human lives have a complexity that can keep history-writing honest. To navigate subjectivities keeps us alive to the truth that the work of history, too, is subjective.
The Hijaz, that part of the Arabian Peninsula which contains the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, was long subject to imperialism, but not of Western variety: it was instead subject to the Ottomans. Although nominally under Ottoman suzerainty for centuries, it was ironically 19th-century British imperialism that forced Istanbul to attempt to consolidate its control over the region.