‘Part reportage, part travelogue, part speculation’ – Snake Dance by Patrick Marnham

“…what is striking about the National Atomic Museum is its exuberance. The B-29 has become part of the American nation’s heroic myth …The museum takes its tone from one of the exhibits, a front-page report in the New York Daily News of 7 August 1945: ‘ATOM BOMB ROCKS JAPS – Packs the wallop of 2000 fully-loaded B-29s.’ In the visitors’ book someone has written, ‘Bombs are fun. Let’s drop more.’ … There are lots of bombs on show, including the casings of Little Boy and Fat Man, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki … In the gift shop, a very helpful lady thanked me for supporting the museum and explained that the silver earrings that were scale models of Little Boy and Fat Man were still on sale but kept behind the counter, following complaints from Japanese visitors. She assured me that these little bombs were the work of Native American Navajo silversmiths…”

sdpmSnake Dance, the story of the birth of nuclear weapons, could so easily be esoteric. Aside from amateur historians, and those who spend hours in a shed constructing Airfix models of battleships, a linear account of who did what and when, could struggle to capture a wider audience.

This is no linear account, however. Indeed the start is so oblique, and so meandering, that after 50 pages one would be forgiven for thinking the printers have made a mistake: for a book subtitled ‘Journeys beneath a nuclear sky’, there is but one passing mention. Thus for those expecting – needing – to traverse a regular trajectory, this is not the book for them. And furthermore, if you want some tub-thumping, military porn, this work will similarly disappoint.

Snake Dance is part reportage, part travelogue, part speculation. It’s also about barbarism, and those operating behind a veneer of advancement; a façade of civilisation. But as the passage above illustrates, the ‘bent’ of this work is not spoon-fed to the reader. ‘Take it or leave it’, is the approach. And indeed, one must be willing to indulge the author – to follow his speculations and his flights of fancy. For those who can take the high road, they’ll be rewarded with spectacular vistas, as they ride pillion on a journey of the mind.

Any Cop?: Snake Dance is more a concept than a historical account, but there is grandness in the vision here – of linking events over time, over centuries, to unearth a pattern, an invisible but indivisible coupling of barbarism and chaos. If you are up for the journey, it’s one hell of a trip.

Tamim Sadikali


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