Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Book Review (#6 of 2013) Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence

Seven Pillars of Wisdom is T.E. Lawrence's account of his actions in leading the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks in WWI. One reviewer called it a "novel traveling under the cover of biography," and I think that's accurate. After a new account of Lawrence's war was popularized this year, I became intrigued and decided to watch the epic Lawrence of Arabia, which I'd never seen before. We watched it a couple weeks ago.

I thought it would be helpful in understanding some of the formation of Syria and the current tribal fighting from there across the Middle East.

The movie is essentially a recreation of Lawrence's account. Peter O'Toole not only looks like Lawrence but also does an incredible job portraying Lawrence's obvious discomfort in his own skin, something that often front-and-center in the book. Lawrence admits his own inferiority complex, how much he dislikes himself, and his conflicted emotions leading the Arabs in the pretense of independence knowing full well the Allied powers will never allow it.

Without more detailed knowledge of the map and the Arab divisions, it is somewhat difficult to follow all of the book; having seen the movie beforehand helped (even with the liberties taken with the timeline). Uncomfortable parts include Lawrence having to kill his own comrades either out of mercy or to prevent a blood feud, and Lawrence being sexually assaulted by a Turkish Major when he was captured (from reading other books on Turkey in WWI, I know sexual abuse of prisoners by the Turks was widespread).

Lawrence's previous history in Arabia and how he obtained his knowledge of Arabic is left out, Lawrence only mentions it in passing. Unlike the movie, there was much more participation and coordination of the British and Australians with the Arab fighters, Lawrence was not a Lone Ranger out there. 

The book ends with Lawrence being granted leave, and he expresses regret. But regret for what? Taking leave? Regret for his participation in the war? Regret for not staying? It's up to the reader, I suppose. History tells us that Lawrence was mentally and psychologically shaken by his war experience, something very real in the book.

In all, I give it 3.5 stars out of 5. I look forward to reading a historical documentation of Lawrence's role in WWI.


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