Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 1, 2019

Six Degrees of Separation: From Murmur by Will Eaves, to …

I’ve skipped a couple of these due to life getting in the way, but here we go again with this month’s #6Degrees…

This month’s starter book is Murmur by Will Eaves, which won the 2019 Wellcome Prize.  Apparently it references the appalling postwar treatment of Alan Turing, because he was gay.  Turing was the mathematician who cracked the Enigma Code during WW2 and was crucial in defeating the Nazis.  I haven’t read Murmur, but I have read other books about the cruel suffering of gays, and I credit E.M. Forster’s posthumously published Maurice (1971) with being the novel that enlightened me.  This is how I began my (pre-blog) review at Goodreads:

Published posthumously in 1971, Maurice is set immediately before the First World War and tells the achingly sad story of a young man’s realisation that he is homosexual.  In the circles that I move in today, homosexuality is no longer an issue, except for the occasional intolerant old fossil. For Maurice, however, the issue is social in the sense that his homosexuality in that time and place imposes an appalling loneliness and despair about never being able to love in his own world. But for Clive, Maurice’s lover, religious issues are a torture.

The social impact of rigid adherence to religion is also the basis for The Atheist by Achdiat K Mihardja (transl. R.J. Maguire) but the context is Indonesia’s imminent independence and the possibility of a strict Islamist constitution and sharia law.  So although the struggle for independence and the choices that had to be made are never mentioned, it’s a very political novel.

I like political novels.  They make us think about the constitutional and legal structures that impact on everyday life.  They make us question decisions that governments make in our name.  Sometimes as in Rohan Wilson’s new novel Daughter of Bad Times they force us to confront unpalatable truths about cruelty and neglect in which we are complicit, so that hopefully we are roused to action.  Novels can transform us into progressives and activists.

Which we can be, if we want to be, in a democracy. I’m currently reading  Little Zinnobers by Elena Chizhova (transl. Carol Ermakova), and it shows that it takes heroism to try it in more repressive regimes.  This is the blurb:

Is it possible to cultivate fundamental human values if you live in a totalitarian state? A teacher who has organised the school theatre sets out to prove that it is. Whilst the pupils rehearse Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies under her ever-vigilant eye, Soviet life begins to make its brutal adjustments. This story can be called a book about love, the tough kind of love that gets you through life and death.

Little Zinnobers also includes an excellent Afterword by Prof Rosalind Marsh from Oxford which puts the novel in context and explains some of its allusions.  One of those allusions is to the Russian concept of the Superfluous Man. I haven’t read the specific examples that Marsh references, but I have read Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov (transl. C J Hogarth), and he was a ‘superfluous man’ i.e. a fatalist and a nihilist, because under the iron rule of the Tsar, there was no opportunity for him to contribute his talents.

In complete contrast to that fatalism is the idealism shown in The Naturalist by Kiwi author Thom Conroy.  It’s based on the real life story of Ernst Dieffenbach (1811-1855), a German physician, geologist and naturalist during the early colonisation of New Zealand, and he didn’t give up on his attempts to make the colonisers show respect to the culture they were invading.  It’s a glimpse of what might have been.

So that’s my #6Degrees: from one idealist to another!

Thanks to Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best for hosting:)


  1. Excellent chain Lisa. I particularly liked you point about that we can be activists, “if we want to be, in a democracy”. That was exactly Stan Grant’s point at the conversation with him that I intended recently. It’s a very important point isn’t it.


    • Well, I really think we have to stop this self-defeating nonsense about being disenchanted with politics. Getting involved in politics is how things get changed…


      • True, but it’s not nonsense I think to be disenchanted. Disappointing, perhaps, but you could argue that disenchantment is a valid response to what we are seeing.

        The way I see it is that it’s fair enough to FEEL disenchanted but it’s not fair enough to whinge, without doing something. If you don’t like it do something is, like yours, my response.


        • Yes, that’s what I meant. Just moaning about it – or even worse, switching off and ignoring it altogether – doesn’t change anything.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Clever chain with some interesting books! I have never heard of Ernst Dieffenbach, but the Naturalist sounds intriguing.


    • I’d never heard of him either— which shows you the value of novelists resurrecting good people like him from the dust of history!


  3. Particularly love your first and last links. I hadn’t heard of The Naturalist but sounds like one I’d enjoy.


    • It’s disappointing how little we hear about Kiwi fiction. As I said to a number of people while I was there, I find it hard to know about what’s new, and I’m actively looking for it. I do not know why Australian booksellers don’t routinely stock the best of their books, I really don’t…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Testament to that, I haven’t ticked NZ off my Around the World in 80 Books list yet (2.5 years after starting…).


        • Well, I think it’s because NZ isn’t marketing to us. And booksellers are busy people…

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for introducing me to 6 new books!


  5. A very thoughtful chain Lisa, thanks for sharing.


  6. It’s only now, reading your 6 degrees, that I see I could have done this one. The book I finished last night was about the world of higher mathematics and it has a passage in it about Alan Turing and what happened to him. Prior to this, I would never have heard of it.
    I’ll try and join in next month! I love seeing the differeng connections people make.


  7. […] Why I have it: Spotted in Lisa’s Six Degrees chain. […]


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