John Kampfner’s review of Adults in the Room – The Observer

15/05/2017 by

‘Self-styled rebel’: Yanis Varoufakis in Aegina, Greece, August 2015
Maybe Barack Obama isn’t such a saint after all. Before welcoming Greece’s embattled finance minister to the Oval Office, the then president told his Greek-American audience: “I might as well walk up to him and ask to borrow some money.” The presidential joke fell flat. Greece had become the object of mirth and bullying by the major powers. Yanis Varoufakis’s six-month tenure was a story of almost daily confrontations with the IMF, the European institutions and, most of all, with a German government that seemingly held him in contempt.

Varoufakis has had his revenge, or perhaps catharsis, by writing a riveting hiss and tell. Adults in the Room, borrowing a term used pejoratively by Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, provides an extraordinary account of low cunning at the heart of Greece’s 2015 financial bailout. The more defiant the leftwing Syriza government became, the more it was met with intimidation from some or duplicitous reassurance from others. The most venal of the first category was Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s hard-as-nails finance minister. He was joined by various EU bureaucrats who will soon be negotiating against Theresa May’s Brexit crew. One of the most intriguing members of the “trust me, we’d really like to help you, but when push comes to shove, we won’t” camp was Emmanuel Macron, France’s new president. Macron promised to help and he did try, but he came up against the stumbling block of President François Hollande. His embarrassed boss intimated that he had been put in his place by Angela Merkel.

This necessarily is a partial interpretation of history – the version of one man, a motorcycling, leather jacketed former academic and self-styled rebel who took pleasure in winding up the besuited political class. Varoufakis’s choice of friends is bizarre, but in keeping with our febrile times. He cites with unabashed pleasure the support he regularly received from Lord Lamont, the ex-chancellor said by his wife to have been in the bath when the UK hurtled out of the ERM, and Jeffrey Sachs, one of the architects of Russia’s disastrous crash privatisation programme of the early 1990s.

Just as the Brexiters and the British right choose their enemy’s enemy as their friend, so it should come as no surprise that the Greek left might do the same. Nor should it seem incongruous that the Telegraph bought the serialisation rights to this book, lavishing it with praise. It should be noted that the paper was not a fan when Varoufakis was in situ, inveighing at the “elite” two years ago. Political allegiances have since become endlessly flexible.

One can retain an open mind about his version while still admiring the tenacity of the protagonist. He says that he recorded many of his conversations: if so, political history by smartphone would be a new variant of the more traditional diary entry at the end of the working day. No conversation is really private, nor when it comes to political skulduggery should it be.

Thus Varoufakis claims that both Lagarde and Schäuble admitted to him that the medicine couldn’t work, but they had to administer it anyway. “As a patriot, no. It’s bad for your people,” he claims the German said to him. Their many conversations are the most riveting. At one point, Varoufakis tells Schäuble: “During the Black Death of the 14th century, I reminded him, most Europeans believed the plague was caused by sinful living and could be exorcised by bloodletting and self-flagellation.” Oh to have been a fly on the wall.

It is the weak, particularly the Greek prime minister and erstwhile friend Alexis Tsipras, who earn the greatest scorn. Varoufakis watches as his cabinet colleagues are picked off, culminating, oddly, in a referendum in which Greece’s voters opt by a comfortable margin to reject Brussels’ austerity terms, only for Tsipras to reject his own victory and cave in to even stronger terms than had originally been envisaged. “He followed his usual practice of agreeing with everything I said but drawing the opposite conclusion.”

I would like to hear the others’ versions. In time, surely, they will come. He dips into the theme of Greece’s endemic corruption, sometimes dismissing its relevance to the crisis, or to claim – with little evidence – that his enemies are complicit. He blames the media for many of his woes, a somewhat tired lament.

Varoufakis paints himself as a flawed hero, but very much the hero. Still, the strengths of this account far outweigh the weaknesses. This is an admirably believable depiction of a Greek and European tragedy. Amid the drama, there is bathos. Varoufakis forgets his coat in Paris and has to borrow one from Greece’s ambassador; on another occasion, he accepts chocolate euro coins as a sardonic gift from Schäuble, only for them to melt in his jacket pocket, smudging the resignation letter he planned to issue on his return home.

Admirably, he eschews denunciations, finding the human in his adversaries, even in his darkest moments. He writes of midnight walks through the rainy streets of Brussels or Riga or wherever the latest fraught meeting had just taken place. “How the human mind forges vistas of pleasure out of pure bleakness is a fascinating mystery.”

The next time I think I have had a bad day in the office, I will remember that someone has had much worse.

[Click here for The Observer site]

Cookies help us deliver our services. By using our services, you agree to our use of cookies. More Information