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Is there – and this is the question, the real question – is there one girl, just one, whether she be called Bea or Eva or Djemia, who has not experienced the war? Just one who has not made war with her body, with her gentle face and moist eyes, with her mouth and teeth, with her hair? Just one who has been neither prey for the hunter, nor hunter herself? On all sides are watchful gazes, darts bristling from loop-holes. On all sides, breastplates, shields, scabbards, arrows, machine-gun barrels.

Stephanie gave me this book as a gift. “Here’s a nice short one”, she said, an easy read that would not take up too much of our time during the weekend. Oh how wrong she was.

I have gobbled down some fat books well under a day. As I tell people, this is usually because I have an interest in the material. If I am having a good time reading, my speed increases. If I am having a hard time, my reading speed crawls to a halt. Please don’t misunderstand, I am not saying today’s book was poorly written – I do not have the courage to go up against the judges of The Nobel Prize for Literature – but it certainly belied its slim size.

This book is something very special.

For a start, from the book’s beginning the tone is quite similar to a long-form prose poem. War is described as an onrushing event, an already present eschaton, indeed the inevitable death of humanity itself that is prophesied by modernity. Bea B and her lover Monsieur X are the nominal protagonists of this book, witness to the dehumanising influence of ‘war’. The ruining of a face is revealed to be symbolic for the destruction of a cityscape. Bea B imagines herself becoming electricity and infusing a simple light-bulb with energy. War is the chaos of clashing forces, the impossible to predict outcome of humanity’s desire to destroy itself.

Le Clezio extrapolates this same desire from every innocuous element in life. Each chapter opens with a seemingly random quote from science, literature and science fiction. A particular favourite was a long quotation from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, describing a world entirely covered in artificial, man-made structures. Le Clezio shines a new light on this most anachronistic of science fiction authors, identifying a Ballardian aspect to his writing that has perhaps gone unnoticed. Ballard is largely credited as a prophet of urban nihilism and War certainly evokes a similar style. This is a comparison that, thankfully, others have noticed.

I also found his vision of the apocalypse, an absurdist eruption of meaninglessness, reminiscent of Antonin Artaud, where the apocalypse is simply a breakown in our sense of what is real, what is normal. Le Clezio mines a similar theme, such as when Bea B. finds herself involved in a ‘man hunt’, or Monsieur X’s description of events in Vietnam. That he can describe such war crimes in such a matter of fact manner once again underlines the omnispresence of horror and destruction in today’s world. So who is to say that the ‘war’, has not already begun?

I found this to be a very difficult read, but a nonetheless incredible piece of writing. Sublimated poetry, with a philosophical tone, a literary revelation.


In fact, there are many uses of the innumberable opportunities a modern life supplies for regarding – at a distance, through the medium of photography – other people’s pain. Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A call for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.

Folks I am beat. Today has been a long day. I volunteer with an organisation based in Sydney known as the Centre for Volunteering. Today the third annual New South Wales Volunteer of the Year Award was held at Parliament House, to celebrate and acknowledge the good works of people within the state who give of their time to help others, often with little recognition.

It was a wonderful morning. Standing in a packed out theatre of volunteers, all of whom evidencing incredible reserves of goodwill and determination, I really felt as if I was fortunate to have played some small part in helping the event go off without a hitch.

So I am quite tired at the moment and am about to prepare dinner for my lovely wife, so this is going to be a short and sweet review. Nevertheless, I mention the above for a reason, which is that oftentimes watching the news, reading the papers (or browsing my personal source of Orwellian ‘Two Minute Hate’, http://www.bocktherobber.com), I can’t help but feel we have become sunk in a mire of corruption, misery, greed and, quite frankly, evil. Is this the result of civilization, a growing sense of impotence at the suffering of others in the world? Or worse again, a voyeuristic impulse to observe and not interfere with the tragic events unfolding on our television screens?

In this discursive examination of the role played by photography in our awareness of atrocities both home and abroad, relating to war and/or violence, Susan Sontag questions to what degree our appreciation of these images is founded on an abiding voyeurism. At one point she quotes from Plato’s Republic, where Leontius, son of Aglaion, is reported to have approached the bodies of just executed criminals, despite his strong feelings of disgust. He runs up to the corpses and cries “There you are, curse you, feast yourselves on that lovely sight“.

How does that anecdote, apart from its classical origins, distinguish itself from a contemporary teenager browsing ‘SomethingAwfulDotCom’ (I’m not going to link to that site here)?

Sontag’s breadth of reference in this book is incredible. She concentrates for the most part on war photography and its origins, covering the period from the Crimean War up to Franco’s atrocities in the Spanish Civil War; from Vietnam to the Serb-Croat war in Bosnia.

She investigates the history of staged war photographs, such as the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. Contrasting with such images of soldiers in war, meant to inspire hope for success in the conflict, or an image snatched from a moment of pure horror that is seared on to the mind of anyone who has seen it – Huynh Cong Ut’s photograph of Vietnamese children running from an American napalm attack, with their skin on fire – we have a delightful description of a photograph taken in London during the Blitz of three men inspecting a wall of books that has survived the bombing. I was inspired to track this image down, as for me it carries great metaphorical weight relating to the value of literature and present it to you below.

 

Sontag questions the argument that war photography has innured in us a sense of banality in response to images of death, by revealing that as far back as 1800 (!) similar concerns were being raised about news reporting. This was before photographs came on to the scene. It is as if exposure to the awareness of the evil that men do is thought of as being threatening to the moral character of the viewer. Hence the level of censorship in current war reporting and the phenomenon of ’embedded journalists’.

There may be a visceral response on the part of the viewer to an image that would be considered horrific, but in no way does that justify the blanket censorship of such imagery. It is only through confronting these images that we can defeat that much maligned apathy towards the suffering of others.

Incisive, wide-ranging and brilliant in its argumentation. Fantastic book.

The boat was so small that we were jammed into every crevice, corner and spare patch of deck. It was almost impossible to get downstairs into the hold, which was heaving with sweating bodies and the suffocating stench of old fish. Forty people had transformed this tiny fishing boat into a living, seething mass of human desperation floating in the English Sea.

I find myself wandering through Town Hall’s shopping area in Sydney each morning thinking fondly about how this is my home. It is not my home though. My status is still uncertain. There is no guarantee I will be granted residency in Australia. It is confusing sometimes, as having lived here already for a year this place feels like home to me. I am caught between two worlds, two different cultures – and despite people speaking English here, living in Australia is a very different experience from being in Ireland. I am an immigrant, it sneaks up on me every now and then, but despite the inconvenience of not being able to work, I enjoy a very comfortable life.

When I think about the experiences of refugees who come here to escape from war, persecution and impoverishment, I realize just how lucky I am. In the recent Australian election the term ‘boat people’, was bandied about like an unfeeling political football. For the experiences of so many refugees to be reduced to a pithy sound bite, this struck me as extremely unfair. Which is why I was very interested to read Anh Do’s story. Here we have a much loved Australian celebrity, who is a comedian, actor, screenwriter and unstoppable centre of charisma, and just also happens to be one of these much discussed ‘boat people’.

Anh Do was born in 1977 in Vietnam. His parents decided to risk the many dangers of travelling out of the country on a simple fishing boat to escape to Australia. Anh Do’s family survived pursuit from Communist soldiers, storms, marauding pirates and starvation, eventually arriving at a safe harbor and from there on to Sydney.

Anh attributes their survival to a welcome combination of incredible luck and his father’s quick wit. At one point following a boarding of the boat by pirates, the starving refugees were stripped naked, robbed, assaulted and in a final humiliation, their engine was stolen. Thankfully Anh’s father Tam replaced a missing rubber band on a second broken engine with a strip from the bottom of a shoe. The boat roared into life.

The family’s life in Sydney was free of the oppression they had fled from, but they were instead crippled by poverty. Thanks to the goodwill of charities and generous neighbours the refugee Vietnamese family managed to make a start of life in Australia, with Tam and his wife worked to support their growing family of three children. Eventually other members of the family made the trek from Vietnam, with the Do household often hosting more than one family, including other refugees who simply needed a place to stay until they had the means to move on. Anh attributes this to his mother’s enduring desire to help others, an aspect of her training as a nun. Troubled times were ahead for the family though, with Tam, having become more and more reliant on alcohol, eventually leaving his young family. With the household income suddenly halved, Anh took it on himself to help his mum make ends meet, excelling in his studies in the hope of one day getting a decent job to help buy her a proper house, so that she might never want again.

Who knew becoming a standup comedian could be so profitable?

Anh’s story is not a sentimental rags to riches story. It is sincere in its treating of inspiring themes such as the importance of family and the capacity of the individual to excel. The book opens with Anh finally tracking down his father Tam in Melbourne to confront him years after he walked out. It ends with him now the father of a family of his own, a professional film-maker along with his brother Khoa and an ardent supporter of local charities in the Sydney area that help disadvantaged youths.

He’s also a very funny bloke. This book is filled with moments just as likely to make you laugh out loud as cry. The Deal or No Deal appearance was my personally favourite sequence.

An amazing story.

“Are those explosives?” Surprised.

“Claymore mines. All wired and ready to go.”

“You have them at your house?”

“not officially,” David said. “This one boy, Willard, keeps some in his closet. I think he’s a little crazy.” They were silent and he didn’t add until some moments later, “But I’m glad he’s on our side.”

Hollywood loves Elmore Leonard. After Get Shorty, Jackie Brown and Out of Sight, how could they not (let’s not speak of Be Cool). He writes in a punchy, breezy manner about criminals and culture clashes, all the while spurring on the plot to a racing pace. I was worried he was another James Ellroy, someone whose writing lends itself to adaptation as opposed to the cruel wide open plains of the printed page. Thankfully I was wrong on that score.

Al Rosen is a man who enjoys the finer things in life. He measures his pleasures in hotel suites, Israeli wine and of course women. Especially American tourists on package tours. Them he sizes up by the hotel they are staying in, whether they are divorced, or widowed (he prefers a middle-aged lady over a preening teen). He can be charming, even a little mysterious when he wants to be and lies easily about his age. His life in Israel is going swimmingly, until he spends the night with Edie Broder in her hotel room. Smelling smoke, he peers out the door of the room and discovers the building is on fire. Managing to rouse the other guests, this heroic act is mentioned in the press that follows, but Rosen does not come forward to take the credit. In fact the photo that accompanies the story all the way back to the States shows a shocked Rosen starring at the camera in dismay at his photo being taken. He knows what’s coming next. There are people back in Detroit who want a word with Al Rosen, formerly known as Jim Ross. What’s worse, Rosen takes off forgetting that he shoved his passport and jacket into Edie’s suitcase before they fled the bedroom. So now he’s stuck in Israel with the mob on their way.

Fortunately for Rosen he crosses paths with a Kentucky-born Vietnam vet named Davis. Employed by Rosen’s lawyer to be a bagman, the marine takes an interest in the harried American expatriate and offers to help him escape. The guys from Detroit include the man he tried to indict, a explosives expert and Rashad an ‘Alabama Arabian’. It is the latter, hired as a hitman by Rosen’s old enemy Valenzuela, whose botched attempt on the American’s life lets him know the mob has arrived in Israel. Davis takes him on the road trying to evade capture and failing that, show these contract killers how a military man takes a life.

Leonard sets the story up as a conventional thriller. We have a man on the run, we have criminals and crooked lawyers circling like vultures and we have a noble soldier with a heart of gold. What makes this story stand out is the quick banter and the fascinating use of location. By setting the story in Israel, we have a contrast between the American mobsters, with their punching the clock attitude to murder and those who have come to see the Middle East as a constant battlefield, somehow normalised through the continuous conflict.

There’s also lots of trademark Elmore Leonard banter and humour on hand to lighten the mood. My favourite scene is a great inversion of the Stockholm syndrome cliché, with a young Yemenite kidnapped by Rashad quickly bonding with him over their shared hatred of ‘the Man’. Also I love the phrase Alabama Arabian. It reminds me of that great Blues Brothers quote – ‘Illinois Nazis’. Rashad is perplexed by his treatment at the hands of Israeli police and customs agents. He cannot understand why having a Muslim name is a problem in this country. There something absurd about his claiming to be a Muslim, making a living as a contract killer and being completed bemused about the religious conflict in the Middle East.

Fast, snappy and thrilling. This is a great little read.

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