'Mao's Great Famine' wins Samuel Johnson prize

Frank Dikötter’s ‘stunningly original and hugely important’ Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe (Bloomsbury) was awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize last night. You may have read about it first here (‘The Great Leap Backward’, November 2010). Congratulations to Frank: a very fine historian and one of the good guys.

I was puzzled by the comments of one of the judges, though, the biographer Brenda Maddox, who is reported to have said: ‘Why didn’t I know about this? We feel we know who the villains of the 20th century are – Stalin and Hitler [I could add a few more to that]. But here, fully 50 years after the event, is something we did not know about. It’s testament to the power of non-fiction that it can rock you back on your heels.’ Well, she’s right on the last point, but her comments only serve to reinforce my view that the literati should get out more. Has Maddox not read, or even read a review of Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, for example? Or does her knowledge of Maoism derive from the films of Jean-Luc Godard and the writing of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir? Dikötter gives us much valuable and fascinating new detail, but he does not alter the thrust of what has been known for some time now about the nature of Mao’s appalling regime.

By the way, for what it’s worth, I think the book on the SJ shortlist whose reputation will be most lasting is that of Bismarck by Jonathan Steinberg (Yale). It’s a genuine game-changer whose influence will be enormous and sustained and which you also probably read about here first as well (‘How Did Bismarck Do it?’, February 2011). But I won’t quibble. Dikötter is a worthy winner, not least because bien pensants might now finally confront the true nature of the man who created modern China.

The award ceremony will be featured in a special edition of BBC2’s Culture Show, broadcast tonight (July 7th) at 7pm.