These are strange times. Capitalism, crippled by its own contradictions—there are thirty million people out of work in the oecd countries alone—is nonetheless triumphant. From New York to Beijing, via Moscow and Vladivostok, you can eat the same junk food, watch the same junk on television and, increasingly, read the same junk novels. In the newly marketized counties of Eastern and Central Europe, a book can be consumed just like a McDonald’s hamburger. Indigestion and an excess of wind are no longer a preserve of the stomach. Just as the rival hamburger concerns advertise their respective wares, so the giant publishing concerns of North America and Britain buy authors and exhibit them like cattle. Potential bestsellers are auctioned by a new breed of literary agent. Such books need to be sold and it is at this stage that the hype-merchants enter the fray and the promotion begins.

Many self-proclaimed postmodern writers have entered the spirit of the new times. Without any sense of shame or modesty they tout their own work and pander to a literary culture of consumerism. Why shouldn’t they? Hasn’t Lyotard, one of the high-priests of postmodernism, declared that capitalism is an orgasm? Can’t you see them quivering with pleasure, those citizens of Mogadishu or La Paz, as they deconstruct this offering from Paris?

Is it particularly surprising, then, that in the face of today’s prevailing winds many a European or North American novelist has consciously or subconsciously begun to write in the language of advertising? Mass-market fiction, like the indigestible filler in junk food, is meant to be consumed quickly and then excreted. Don’t misunderstand me. Good books, even great books, are still being written and some, believe it or not, are even being read, but in most cases these are the products of writers who either live in marginalized countries or have themselves been marginalized by the dominant culture of a triumphalist West.

More and more one finds oneself re-reading old books, if one wishes to recapture the critical tradition. None of us will have exactly the same old books on our shelves, but as the century reaches its conclusion one turns to them more and more. And what do we find? We may be married to the time in which we live in many different ways. We may regard ourselves as modern or postmodern or whatever else. Lost in an old novel written a century or more ago one is often startled by the parallels and analogies with our own times. ‘Ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia, the revival of anti-semitism in Germany and Russia, the Gulf war. . .the loud and unbearable noises which pierce our eardrums. Are they not echoes of the Crusades or what happened in Spain in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries? The postmodernists may want to forget history, dismiss it as a set of random incidents, but history refuses to fall silent. Read the novels of Joseph Roth, writing in the thirties, and see how he describes the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Serbs and Croats flit through his pages in the wake of the collapse. The story, alas, is only too familiar.

Historical echoes are very pronounced in literature. Juan Goytisolo has written of how it is difficult to read Cervantes in isolation from the real Spain of that time. The great novel is full of allusions to what had happened and what was happening even as the author was composing his text. Take for example the episode of the Morisco Ricote, the shopkeeper from Sancho’s village, expelled from Spain by royal edict because he is a Muslim. The homesick Ricote returns to his country in disguise and Cervantes gives him the following lines:

‘Wherever we are we weep for Spain, for in short here were we born and this is our native country. We nowhere find the reception which our misfortune requires. Even in Barbary, and in all other parts of Africa where we expected to be received, cherished, and made much of, there it is we are most neglected and misused. . .We knew not our happiness till we lost it.’

The speaker could easily be a Bosnian, a Kurd, a Palestinian, a Somali, a Sudanese. I will now suggest to you a writer of a different nationality and a later century, the Frenchman Balzac. In what for me is the high point of his Human Comedy novels, Lost Illusions, one of Balzac’s most demonic characters, Vautrin, speaks thus: