Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Two Good Books and a Movie: Avoid if you're feeling blue

The common element in stuff I've been reading and watching lately is this: It could really bring you down. We're talking about the suffering and death of millions of people here. So you've been warned. On the other hand, these are stimulating works, they might make you think a lot, and then you might have some new thoughts about how things could be made better. Then you could act on those thoughts and the world would become a better place. I guess we'll see.

First up is the movie Body of Lies. Great photography and editing. Great casting and acting. And a gripping story without a cheesy ending. To me this film was drenched in authenticity. AFAIK, what you see in this film is very close to how things really are in the field of espionage, as in "espionage in the field" and the people who run it, both locally and remotely.

As Far As I Know, there is this huge gap between remote agent and central office--the controller cheering his kid's suburban soccer game or taking his son to the bathroom, while calling in the kill--which suddenly collapses with a plane flight into the field. Then it zooms back into the clinical and chilling detachment of eye-in-the-sky operational monitoring and direction (with echoes of Patriot Games and The Bourne Supremacy but with great real world moral ambivalence). We are left in no doubt that local assets, people we turn when we pursue humint, are considered expendable, and there's a school of thought that says this is the way it must be. You rarely see that portrayed as bluntly as it is in Body of Lies.

Second up is the novel, Timebomb, which echoes that same theme of the expendable asset, with deeper historical context as to how it arose. The action here is in Europe, from the UK to the eastern Soviet bloc, but present day, so we have disaffected Russians, Jewish mobsters, and Middle Eastern terrorists. Again the operational authenticity is there, but layered into the basic spy v. terrorist story you find the horrific story of a Polish death camp. And this "second" story is not pasted on, it is integral to the picture that Seymour paints of hate and fear breeding more of the same.

The author of this thick but very readable thriller is Gerald Seymour, a former ITN television news reporter, back when that title meant you got a lot of experience reporting in the field (he covered the Munich Olympics massacre and the Great Train Robbery, and spent time reporting from Vietnam and Northern Ireland). Relatively unknown in the States, judged by a dearth of Seymour titles on the shelves of two different Barnes & Nobles I have visited in the last three months, Seymour is a consistent best-seller in the UK and has penned a string of excellent novels.

For me, his The Walking Dead A Thriller is the definitive novel about suicide bombing. One of my guilty pleasures on a trip to the UK is stocking up Gerald Seymour novels (not sure why I said "guilty" because "stupid" is more apt--I have to drag the things home on the plane and you can actually order online in the U.S.).

On a literary note, these books rise above the "thriller" tag for me, much like LeCarré's work. Seymour's style is faster-paced but the depth is there. His trademark technique is weaving multiple points-of-view. There are no "main" characters but rather a half dozen or more people that we follow throughout the book. The fun part is deciding who's POV you're getting at the start of a new section. A rare case of entertainment tastefully blended with substance.
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The last review is 1491 and there's an inverse relationship between the amount of truly fascinating content in this book and the brevity of its title. (Okay, so the full title is 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus but what I'm saying is, this book is stuffed with good stuff.)

This such a good book I am now reading it for the second time. I don't read many books twice, so this is quite the accolade (others so honored in my post-college life include Gibson's Neuromancer and Count Zero, and Doctor Wooreddy's Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World, the latter having more than enough ironic content to warrant the long title).

What I'm doing with 1491 right now is dipping into several different sections at once. It is a testament to author Charles C. Mann's superb writing that one can do this. I can flip from the amazing city of Cahokia on the Mississippi to the dozens of feuding Mayan city states. I can read about the vast earthworks of the Beni and the sophisticated aquaculture of the Amazon, then travel via Norte Chico, a Peruvian civilization older than Egypt, to the indigenous forest-scaping of the North Eastern U.S. And all the while I can follow the plot, which is basically this: America was a heavily populated and highly civilized land before contact with the Europeans.

That many millions of people died as a result of European arrival in the Americas, either killed in conflict or killed as a consequence of contact, is now clear. This truth had been slowly emerging in scientific papers and publications for decades, but Mann has pulled all of the data together and the effect is almost overwhelming. I had long suspected that the sophistication and scale of indigenous culture and civilization was being ignored or suppressed.

With a minimum of moralizing and finger-pointing Mann documents the whole sorry story. He leaves others to state the obvious conclusion: Americans of European origin stole this land and we did our best to destroy the civilizations that once thrived here. It took less than 500 years to erase tens of thousands of years of human history, hundreds of languages, scores of magnificent cities, dozens of libraries, and millions of people.

I believe that many of the consequences of this history have yet to be played out. After all, the consequences of ancient conquest in the Middle East are still shaping events today, and our post-imperial ahistorical ineptness in dealing with them is still causing problems, some of which can be seen in a film like Body of Lies or a book like Timebomb. Watch and read, just try not to get too depressed about it.

(Note: In the interests of full disclosure, all the above links are to Amazon through my Associates account. That doesn't add anything to the price but it means that this blog gets a small kickback from Amazon when you buy from these links.)