I’ve been reading two very different, but equally extraordinary books recently. One’s a huge, sprawling novel–the amazing first novel of English author Susanna Clarke–‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.’ The other’s a huge, sprawling combination of history and intelligence investigation, anti-terrorism expert Yossef Bodansky’s astounding new book, The Secret History of the Iraq War. Just wanted to give my thoughts on them, and ask if anyone else had read them, and what they thought. And if you haven’t read them, they are both highly recommended.
To Susanna Clarke’s novel first. A few years ago, I wrote in Quadrant, and later in The Australian, on the characteristics, affinities and images in popular culture of such beings as angels, fairies and aliens. Back then(in 1996)it seemed to me that though angels and aliens had been taken up in pop culture, fairies were much less visible(much to my regret, as they are the ones that most interest me). I said then that I thought that if fairies came back into pop culture, they’d come back probably via children’s literature. Well, then there was Harry Potter: and the return of the fairies is in full swing. The amazing worldwide reaction to Susanna Clarke’s massive novel(it’s 800 pages) shows that clearly. It’s not been ghettoised in ‘fantasy fiction’ but is in general fiction, and enjoying enormous sales and excellent reviews all over the mainstream as well as the literary press. And it is truly the most daring novel I’ve read in a long time.
It’s an astonishing, intelligent exploration of magic and the whole notion of the fairy Otherworld (and by fairies, please don’t think of cute little things with butterfly wings–these are the original, unpredictable, ambiguous, often chilling, if charming otherworlders of the pre-Victorian imagination).
Set in the early part of the 19th century, it’s written in an elegant, leisurely, discursive, witty style familiar to those who have read not only the novels of Jane Austen but also those of Georgette Heyer! It’s about two English magicians–the uptight Mr Norrell, who tries to put all other magicians out of business, and the ebullient Jonathan Strange, who just loves magic and seems unafraid of anything. Woven into these men’s stories is the history of the Napoleonic wars, a terrifying picture of a fairy Otherworld controlled by a capricious, cruel, charming overlord, the ‘gentleman with the thistle-down hair’, the adventures of Stephen Black, a superior black butler who becomes the protege of the fairy lord..There’s meditations on madness, on the Luddites(here called the Johannites), on venice, on love, on the price of manipulation of physical reality, and lots, lots more. There’s heaps of faux-scholarly footnotes which greatly add to the texture of this extraordinary novel, and the magic that is described–always linked in to the natural forces that the fairies control–is really believable(always a problem in fantasy novels). Enormous in length and breadth and scope, it does have one or two flaws–occasionally, it can be a little bit pleased with its own cleverness, and it can dawdle along–but the flaws never taint let alone overwhelm an extraordinary achievement. Something to totally plunge into–but that like the best ‘fairy’ literature, is never just escapist: it illuminates ourworld in a highly unusual and effective way.
The other book is as you might imagine utterly different in style and effect. I read Yossef Bodansky’s prescient 1998 book (reprinted in 2001), Bin Laden, the Man who Declared War on America, only a couple of weeks after September 11. It is an astounding book too, very comprehensive, and makes a mockery out of most of the silly stuff that masquerades as comment on the whole Islamist situation today. His new book, The Secret History of the Iraq War, is just as much an explosive combination of new information, buried truths resurfacing. It’s a picture of a secret world of double-crossings, explosive secrets buried in mounds of memos, missed opportunities, and ghastly skulduggery of all kinds. Bodansky is not partisan at all, not in a party-political sense; he is convinced Saddam had to be toppled, but he criticises strongly the Administration’s conduct of the war, and of pre-war events. (He is just as critical of Clinton’s Administration, in this book and the earlier one). He reveals some extraordinary stuff: that Bin Laden, Zarqawi and co were hosted by Iran last year(he canvasses Iran’s role in the terrorist pies of the Middle East with devastating thoroughness); that Saddam’s WMDs existed all right but were not at all where the CIA and other American intelligence thought they were(he says they were moved early on to Libya, Sudan and Iran); that the Russians had planned to kill Saddam and all his inner circle to prevent the war, but that this plan was foiled by American intelligence, who passed on, through the third party of Egypt, the Russians’ plans to the Iraqis; that Saddam had planned the ‘insurgency’ from the start, and that there were documents to prove it; that not only did Saddam have links to Al-Qaeda, they had a special terrorist unit, Unit 999, set up within Iraqi intelligence, to handle the various terrorists they were training and sending out; that the terrorists in possession of ricin found in Manchester last year were connected not only to Iraq but to Arafat; that when Saddam was captured by the US, he was actually already a captive–of his Baath enemies who were holding him and had drugged him in order to force him to reveal where he had hidden arms and money..and so on and on.
His main thrust is the absolutely parlous state of American intelligence, and the desperate lack of connection to the Middle East–a disconnection that has been allowed to get greater every year. (Of course now, necessity may well see big changes in that particular area).His conclusions will give comfort to no-one. And there are flaws in his book–in particular, while he profiles the ‘Great Game’ very well indeed, there is simply no account taken of ordinary people. But then you’d expect that, of a guy whose whole life has been in counter-terrorism: he has been the director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and unconventional warfare; longtine director of research at the International Strategic Studies Association, senior consultant for the Us Departments of Defense and State, and much more besides. His formidable book is well worth reading for anyone interested in the Middle Eastern situation today, regardless of your views on the war, or your political orientation.