Graeme Wood

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Salman Rushdie’s “Joseph Anton”

The prospect of a hanging may, per Dr. Johnson, “concentrate the mind wonderfully,” but the prospect of ritual execution by an Iranian death squad evidently has the opposite effect. On the morning of February 14, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini announced Salman Rushdie’s death sentence for The Satanic Verses, and Rushdie made his final public appearance for years. At the funeral of the travel writer Bruce Chatwin in London, he listened to Greek Orthodox monks groan out their liturgy while swinging thuribles of incense. Already he was stunned, his mind preparing to unravel. Paul Theroux — an exemplary defender of Rushdie over the next several years — at the time hissed unhelpfully from the pew behind him, “I suppose next week we’ll be here for you, Salman.”

Rushdie has taken over a decade to tell the full story of his subsequent descent into mental vertigo, panic, fear, paralysis, and depression. His memoir Joseph Anton – which touches briefly on his pre-fatwa years before he was whisked away by British cops and sheltered by a network of literary luminaries — derives its title from Rushdie’s fugitive alias, a combination of the first names of Conrad and Chekhov. (It perhaps has an echo, too, of Kafka’s Joseph K., that other victim of interminable persecution.) His British police bodyguards, provided somewhat controversially at public expense, referred to him on daily basis as “Joe.”

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Paul Theroux’s “The Lower River”

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.

If the purpose of travel is to be disabused of illusions, then Ellis Hock, the protagonist of Paul Theroux’s novel The Lower River, has spent his airfare wisely. Recently separated from his bullying wife, Hock sells his Medford, Massachusetts haberdashery and sets out to the village in Malawi where he taught English as a Peace Corps volunteer forty years ago. As a young man in that village, he found and lost love, became adept at handling serpents, and spent his life’s happiest years improving the village. Everything in his life since then — a marriage undermined by his wandering eye, a business crashing toward obsolescence, a daughter greedy for an early taste of her inheritance — has reeked of failure, and eventually the temptation to escape to Africa proves irresistible.
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The Man Without a Face

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.

By MASHA GESSEN
Reviewed by Graeme Wood

The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir PutinThere is a case to be made that Vladimir Putin is the only world leader operating today with a coherent long-term strategic vision for his country. Russian policy has been derided as amoral, wicked, and misguided. But for the last ten years, since the departure of the stroke-addled boozer Boris Yeltsin, Russia has never been called unguided, and its mysterious steersman is unquestionably Putin himself.

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Tongue-Tied

Review of Michael Erard’s Babel No More.

The ability to speak multiple unrelated foreign languages fluently counts among a short list of showstopping talents, like the ability to play a Bach fugue or fly a helicopter (assuming one isn’t a harpsichordist or pilot by profession). It impresses in part because it suggests discipline, time, and effort — and, perhaps, other hidden skills.

But what if the languages came effortlessly? There are, in the history of polyglottism, a few examples of people who seem to have found a way to cheat the system and acquire languages so easily and quickly that what would normally appear a feat of discipline and erudition looks instead like savantism. These hyperpolyglots chitchat fluently in dozens of dialects, and they pick up new ones literally between meals. For the rest of us who have to slave over our verb tables, their talent resembles sorcery.
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Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

The Barnes & Noble Review published a few of my words on the death of Hitchens.

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Bob the Destroyer

The Fear

By PETER GODWIN
Reviewed by Graeme Wood

The word “autogenocide” came to English from a French coinage in the 1970s, meant to convey the self-slaughter of Cambodia in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge. The category has been a rather lonely one since then, with just a few instances of mass death that were truly self-inflicted, and could not plausibly be explained away as collateral damage in a fight against an outside enemy. The pre-eminent current example of autogenocide is Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and Peter Godwin’s new book The Fear is the most enraging account of what has happened there yet published.

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I am the Market

I Am the Market

By LUCA RASTELLO, Translated by Jonathan Hunt
Reviewed by Graeme Wood

What kind of craziness are they teaching in Italian journalism schools these days? The new generation of Italian nonfiction crime writers has gone rogue, forsaking the ancient gods of clarity and journalistic remove, and instead going so deep into criminal netherworlds that the criminals’ voices and the writers’ have become indistinguishable. Writers like Roberto Saviano have embraced the nonfiction version of what some are calling “the New Italian Epic”—a sprawling, undisciplined form whose goal is not to explain the netherworld but to become, in a way, part of it. (This undertaking can be as dangerous as it sounds, as in the case of Saviano, whose 2006 exposé Gomorrah so angered the criminal syndicates of southern Italy that they put a contract on his life.)

 

At 192 pages, Luca Rastello’s I am the Market is the shortest of these epics, and probably the one that tries hardest to get into the minds of its subjects. Told in the voice of a convicted Italian cocaine smuggler, the book is structured as five cautionary “lessons.” The smuggler imparts many practical tips for the would-be narcotrafficker (mask your shipments with coffee or mustard—dogs will sniff right past ketchup), but is strongest when giving a glimpse of the life of those living a few steps ahead of the law and the competition, and of the death of those to whom the competition and the law have caught up.

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V. S. Naipaul in Africa

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review .

 

The Masque of Africa

By V. S. NAIPAUL
Reviewed by Graeme Wood

 

If you’re bothered by political incorrectness, discovering that V. S. Naipaul has written a travel book about Africa should have you ready to assume the brace position. It’s like finding out that Norman Mailer left behind an unpublished manuscript detailing his true views on women, or that the elderly Ezra Pound wrote an epic poem about Jewish bankers. According to his erstwhile protégé Paul Theroux, Naipaul once remarked that  “Africans need to be kicked” and said their continent is “obscene, fit only for second-rate people.” Anyone who has read his novels and travelogues knows that he despises illiteracy, violence, and above all the failure to bend the knee to literary genius. When Naipaul meets Africa, then, expect a train wreck.

 

Naipaul’s best and worst work has come from Africa. A Bend in the River, set in Zaire, is among the finest novels ever to emerge from the continent, but Half a Life, set partly in Mozambique, must rank among the most sluggish victory laps by a recent Nobel Laureate. His present book, The Masque of Africa, is Naipaul’s first travel writing since 1998′s Beyond Belief, and it takes on the question of African belief—the fundamental views of the world held by people he meets in Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, Gabon, and South Africa. For Naipaul the Uganda portion marks a return: he lived and taught there in the 1960s, a catastrophic period portrayed memorably by Theroux in Sir Vidia’s Shadow. He seems to have mellowed considerably since then. Theroux’s Naipaul was called upon to judge a campus literary competition and announced that the entries were so bad that he would award only one prize, called Third Prize. Now Naipaul mostly refrains from insulting his hosts and even singles out one as having “merit” as a poet.

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