Saturday, September 30, 2017

Book Review: "The Other Side of Silence" by Philip Kerr

The Other Side of Silence (2016)
Philip Kerr (1956)

400 pages

The cold war may have ended decades ago, but the complex machinations of government security services during that period --- between enemies and even supposed allies --- have remained irresistible source material for storytellers. This includes writers of noir, and with The Other Side of Silence Philip Kerr brings his series featuring detective Bernie Gunther out of Germany and central Europe of the 1930’s and 1940’s, and squarely into the middle of cold war conspiracies.

Set in 1956, the story opens with Gunther working under an assumed name as a concierge at a fancy hotel on the French Riviera. His history of having been repeatedly coerced into working as a detective for high-ranking officers in the Nazi regime now has him hiding from potential threats on all sides: Western officials who see him as a former Nazi, and some of his former Nazi blackmailers --- now high ranking officials in the East German government --- who still keep an eye out for how he could be useful to them. His wife having left him and returned to Germany, Gunther’s mostly laying low and biding time, with no clear view of a future. With little to distract him from morosely considering his uncertain lot in life, he has sunk into a melancholy that has drifted dangerously close to depression.

The sudden appearance at the hotel reception of a former nemesis from Nazi Germany shakes Gunther out of his self-absorbed reverie. He barely has time to wonder if he’s been recognized before finding himself caught up in an escalating scheme of blackmail, one that threatens not only delicately maintained cold war relationships between various governments, but also, not surprisingly, his personal safety. When the trap is finally sprung, Gunther must bring to bear all of his decades of experience as a detective to try and escape the pernicious schemes of enemies old and new.

The Other Side of Silence is the eleventh of Kerr’s novels to feature detective Bernie Gunther, a series that began with the books of the trilogy Berlin Noir (my review of those first three novels here). The shift in the setting for this story compared to its predecessors from WWII (and the immediate pre- and post-war years) to a point well into the Cold War changes the atmosphere significantly. Though the tension ratchets up dramatically in the concluding few dozen pages of the story, for the most part the Cold War setting lacks the punch of the earlier novels set in Nazi Germany. Absent the deadly serious implications of the unremitting high-wire act that accompanied Gunther’s compulsory dealings with the Nazi regime, the plot becomes more of an intellectual game of cat and mouse, as spies for foreign powers collide on French soil in pursuit of national advantage.

That quibble aside, there remains much to enjoy in Kerr’s new novel. A portion of the novel includes extended recollections by Gunther of events during the war years, which help establish the backstory of his relationship with a key protagonist; these sections do crackle with the sharp tension induced by the constant risk of sudden death --- from both enemy forces as well as powerful elements of the Nazi regime pursuing their own agendas. And, as in his earlier stories in this series, Kerr brings a thoroughly researched historical reality to the The Other Side of Silence; by incorporating Gunther as a key bit player in among famous historical persons and events, he creates an engaging combination of satisfying noir and fascinating historical fiction.

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Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Book Review: "American War" by Omar El Akkad

American War (2017)
Omar El Akkad (1982)

333 pages

What had already been a dramatically increasing polarization in the political and social discourse in the US in the years leading up to the most recent presidential election has only turned more divisive in the wake of the result. With strident voices on both sides of the spectrum more often turning aggressive, and confrontations between individuals or groups more often violent, the first whispers of an old horror have appeared, whispers that have, in the wake of the rioting and death in Charlottesville (LINK), become more audible: is the US on the verge of a second civil war?  (See for example, here, here or here, or for a rebuttal, here.)

Into this contentious and combustible moment arrives Omar El Akkad’s novel American War, in which he imagines the US mired in just such an internal conflict, some half-century into our future.

The story opens in 2075, with the civil war a half year old and going badly for the south, though the north hardly finds itself prospering in the destructive morass. Already early in the book we are given the outlines of a conflict, learning that it will drag on for twenty more years, and will be followed by an even more debilitating post-war period. El Akkad provides this background in the form of a short “module summary” from a future history book; he uses a similar technique throughout the novel to help fill in the broader context of his story, interspersing exerts from war time and post-war sources such as news reports and government documents.

Through these sources we learn that the war has resulted from a series of rapidly worsening and thoroughly debilitating natural phenomena caused by climate change. A dramatic rise in sea level has left much of the coastal US underwater, particularly along the low-lying lands of the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts. In addition to the lost cities and land, and the subsequent migration of the coastal population into the US heartland, desertification has become widespread, particularly across the south. These changes have left many struggling to make a living in the devastated landscape.

The dramatic changes in the climate and their impact on the US have led to far-reaching new regulations --- most importantly one outlawing the use of fossil fuels. Protests in the south against these new rules bring a forceful response from the government, which in turn re-ignites southern feelings of the north as condescending toward its values and culture; anger eventually turns to violence, and finally to a rupture that precipitates the second civil war.

Within the larger story of the conflict, the plot centers on Sarat, a young girl who lives with her family in southern Louisiana. Despite living in a landscape destroyed both by climate change and by its location just beyond the borders of the “Free Southern State” and so all too close to the fighting, Sarat opens the story as a happy, carefree and inquisitive six year old. As she grows into her teen years, however, and she and her family slip ever more deeply into the destructive clutches of the misery and violence of a south on the losing side of a long, drawn out conflict.

An escalating string of devastating events irredeemably shatter Sarat’s innocence and spirit, leaving her with a hatred of the North, an obsession for revenge that builds to a fever pitch. Despite the fact that she does not follow any particular religious doctrine, and that the southern cause she nominally considers herself to be fighting for is based on a history she little firsthand awareness of and only the lightest connection to, her traumatic experiences leave her bitter and angry, desperate to strike out. Through Sarat, El Akkad examines what lies beyond hope, how the disintegration of a person’s spirit can re-direct them onto a darker path, from which escape becomes impossible to imagine. He imagines how far someone might go to assuage their overpowering anger.

Beyond the personal story of Sarat, El Akkad’s novel presents a scary vision of how climate change could lead to the disintegration of a nation, and, how such an economic and social disintegration can destroy lives and create bitter hatreds. Despite the powerful impact of his dystopian view of the future, however, there are several elements that distract from the effectiveness of his story.

Must strikingly, the series of events that lead to the civil war seems outlandish. As someone who has long enjoyed science fiction, it is perhaps a bit hypocritical of me to point out such a shortcoming, but the explanations given for the country slipping into the war seem so alternately implausible and flimsy as to threaten to undermine the story.

Perhaps the most conspicuous of these issues is the amount of the US mainland that El Akkad describes as lying underwater as a result of rising sea levels by 2074. According to the information given in the prologue, over just two decades starting at mid-century the sea level rises sufficiently to not only cover much of the American Caribbean and Atlantic coastal regions --- for example causing the US capital to be moved to Columbus --- but in fact leaves all of Florida except for tiny peninsulas along the panhandle underwater. However, according to on-line apps (e.g., here), such an inundation would require nearly fifty meters (164 feet) of sea level rise; how to square this with current worst-case estimates for sea level rise by the end of the century of only about two meters (6.6 feet)?

Then there is the precipitating cause of the civil war: in reaction to the extreme effects of the changing climate, a law is passed that outlaws the use of fossil fuels in the US. Protests in southern states over the new law turn violent, and ultimately drag the country into civil war. Though southern rebels use historical grievances with the north to rally support, the main cause of the war is described in the story as southerner’s refusal to give up the use of fossil fuel vehicles.

As outlandish as the amount of sea level rise seems, the idea that an entire population in the South would support 25 years of misery and a losing war because of a desire of a few to keep using gasoline powered cars seems ridiculous. And that is aside from the current expectations that we will already largely be driving electric vehicles before mid-century. Hard to believe that even a few tens of thousands of hold outs could motivate an entire portion of the country to fight an unwinnable war.

Finally, El Akkad describes the US as suddenly collapsing inward over just two decades due to the impacts of climate change, withdrawing from the world stage except as a supplier of cheap manufacturing; he imagines other countries, in Asia and the Middle East, quickly fill the void over that same period. This seems at best unlikely. Clearly it is not impossible to imagine the US declining at some point; but a more likely scenario, especially if it happens that quickly, would seem to be an extended and massive disruption of the world economy, as the gigantic US market --- “the buyer of last resort” to borrow a phrase from economist William Greider’s book One World, Ready or Not --- disappears in nearly the blink of an eye.

Clearly, empires do collapse, and sometimes into civil war, losing their standing in the world. And it can occur quickly and with seemingly no apparent warning signs (or perhaps ignored warning signs) to many in the midst of it. As historian Yuval Noah Harari writes in his book Sapiens: A Short History of Humankind (my review here): we construct our social, economic and political around a communal belief in a set of imagined orders; once that communal belief is shattered into competing viewpoints, a society can turn on itself. Thus one can imagine a decline and fall of US power, perhaps even more quickly than Americans could believe possible. But El Akkad’s path to that decline, and the impact of it on the world at large, seems too outlandish to be credible.

All of these questionable elements are introduced early in the novel, to set the stage for the story of Sarat’s coming of age in a time of immense misery and pain, and I initially found them a significant distraction to engaging with the plot. Once the action picked up, however, it became easier to simply accept the premise and ignore the implausibilities, and focus on the dramatic transformation Sarat undergoes as she repeatedly and all too personally experiences the devastation and dehumanization of the war.  As another character observes after witnessing what Sarat has become:
She knew from experience that there existed no soldier as efficient, as coldly unburdened by fear, as a child broken early. (180)

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Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Book Review: "Exit West" by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West (2017)
Mohsin Hamid (1971)

231 pages

Whether escaping the threats of deadly wars or the miseries of brutal economic conditions, migrants have long made the desperate decision to leave their homes, communities and countries in search of a better life. For citizens of the countries in which these migrants arrive, a desire to provide humanitarian relief for people in trouble often conflicts with fear of the economic and cultural implications of absorbing large numbers of outsiders. These fears include not only the perceived loss of jobs and squandering of public services, but that the very cultural fabric of one’s country is being irrecoverably undermined.

Such concerns over the arrival of migrants have become a prominent feature in the recent rise of nationalism in many Western countries, compounded by the specters of terrorism and economic stagnation. The resulting public discourse on immigration has become --- as on so many topics --- increasingly polarized, with the left caricatured as being simply for ‘open borders’, and similarly the right as being narrowly for ‘no immigration’. Centrists discussing how to maintain immigration but with reasonable constraints often seem to find themselves shouted down by extremists on both sides.

Into the swirl of all of these hopes and fears steps author Mohsin Hamid, with his thoughtful novel Exit West, a story at once delicately tender and unflinchingly direct.

Set in an unnamed country shuddering on the brink of a seemingly inevitable descent into civil war, the story follows the lives of a young couple as they struggle to deal with events beyond their experience or control. In their mid-twenties, the two work at jobs that have not yet been shut down by the fighting that is closing in on their city.

They first meet, as the story opens, at an evening business class. Saeed, caring and low-key, finds himself immediately smitten with the fiercely independent Nadia. Even as their cautious relationship deepens, however, the chaos of civil war descends on the city; within the shifting battle lines between fundamentalist militiamen and government forces, Saeed and Nadia must find inventive ways to meet, and to help one another survive.

Eventually the situation becomes too dangerous, and they make their escape, leaving friends and family behind. Arriving in the West, however, they discover that though they may have left the civil war behind, their survival instincts and skills remain necessary as they face fear, suspicion and even violence from natives as well as from their fellow refugees. The two also come to realize that their many challenging and unexpected experiences in distant lands with foreign cultures changes them, and so their relationship, in ways they could never have imagined.

Hamid centers his novel on the story of Saeed and Nadia --- the only two named characters in the book, but through their experiences tells a larger story of the hopes and fears of migrants in general, as well as the terrible dangers and cherished communities left behind as they venture abroad in search of safety and opportunity. And, through an inspired plot device, Hamid forces immigration on the entire world in his story, making it an ineluctable presence in all countries. His story thus becomes one about a world in which many, particularly in the West, feel that a kind of migration apocalypse is at-hand. Rather than descending into a dark dystopia, however, Hamid ultimately presents a hopeful vision of a world that adapts to the new reality, if only grudgingly.

In occasional vignettes sprinkled throughout the novel, Hamid presents other, anonymous characters caught in the same challenging implications of the new world-wide reality of immigration as Saeed and Nadia. One such passage tells the story of an old woman who has lived her entire life in the same house: “it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.” (209)

I’ve come across a similar sentiment in other texts recently --- views that provide a broader understanding of the implications of immigration. From a book of selected writings of the Spanish economist and philosopher José Luis Sampedro, for example:
In a certain sense, as you see me here, I am an immigrant. Naturally, we understand well the migratory phenomenon in a spatial sense: if someone comes from Sudan, sub-Saharan Africa, they are an immigrant. However, we don’t realize that there are also immigrants in time, because eras are different. The world of my youth is not that of today. It doesn’t belong to the world of today. I am here as a stowaway. Certainly, I haven’t arrived by boat and I have my papers in order, but I am not from here.
(185, Dictionary Sampedro, my review here.)

Austrian writer Stefan Zweig also captured the often dispiriting challenges of becoming a migrant --- both in time and geographically --- in his autobiographical work The World of Yesterday (my review here), in which he describes his traumatic transformation from being born into an upper class family in a seemingly stable Austrian empire into a stateless refuge finally driven to flee Europe, as the Nazi’s rose to power.

Hamid’s captivating writing in Exit West evokes the complexity of the immigrant experience, from the heartbreaking choice to leave family and community behind for a better life abroad to the challenges of making a new home in a foreign land. Through his characters we witness the startling violence and constant wariness that can follow migrants in their search for security, but also the unexpected moments of kindness and grace that can give them hope for the future.

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Read quotes from this book here.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf