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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 It’s like finding out that Norman Mailer left behind an unpublished manuscript detailing his true views on women, or that the elderly Ezra Pound wrote an epic poem about Jewish bankers.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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Hitch-22

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.

For Americans of my generation—the wrong side of thirty, but too young to remember the golden age of student protest—the tales of youth offered by Christopher Hitchens in his new memoir may provoke somewhat more envy than we care to admit. A Trotskyite protester in Hitchens’s salad days could enjoy the thrilling illusion that letter-writing campaigns and streetside invective might one day succeed in buckling the world order and building an epoch of peace on its ruins. Thirty years after Hitchens, if any of my college classmates were spending their off-hours atop milk-crates yelling into bullhorns, I am sure they were ignored. During the Hitchens era, these protests mattered. Now such protests as are held have the character of an elaborate costume party, with no more revolutionary commitment in evidence than at a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Even if one’s slogans would have been different, it is hard to beat away the feeling of having been born late.

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Canny Valley

Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review.

Update: Reprinted in Salon.

 

War

By SEBASTIAN JUNGER
Reviewed by Graeme Wood

 

In mid-April, the U.S. military executed what it called a “strategic withdrawal” from Korengal, a small valley in northeast Afghanistan that it had tried for four years to pacify. Dozens of U.S. soldiers and many more Afghans had died violently there. When the U.S. pulled out, the valley was still so dangerous that officers had to offer village elders six thousand gallons of fuel as a bribe not to attack the convoys during their drive to safety.

 

This is about as close to an acknowledgment of defeat as one is likely to see in this war. Sebastian Junger’s new book, War, is a depiction of one year in the life of the U.S. soldiers who tried to turn the occupation of Korengal around, and whose battle against a steady barrage of Taliban attacks was eventually judged to be not worth the trouble. Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and a reporter for Vanity Fair, visited Korengal’s forts and outposts serially for one year, and his dispatches present a sometimes unbearably gritty look at the daily life of soldiers there. As a narrative of combat in Afghanistan from the U.S. ground perspective, the book has no rivals. It makes one wonder how any army could hold ground in Korengal, and indeed why it would even want to.

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In the Graveyard of Empires

A review of Seth G. Jones’s In the Graveyard of Empires, in the Barnes & Noble Review.

 

A few years ago, the Turkish defense minister bragged that the Turkish contingent in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had finished an entire tour in Afghanistan’s Wardak province without firing a shot. To some, including his intended audience of Turks, this boast was cause for approval and appreciation. To others — presumably the battle-weary American soldiers who complained bitterly that ISAF had come to stand for I Saw Americans Fight — the boast demonstrated all that was wrong or bogus about the NATO effort in Afghanistan, and epitomized the woes that the Americans would eventually have to redouble their efforts to repair.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Encounters in the Changing Middle East

Review of Neil MacFarquhar’s The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday, in the Barnes & Noble Review.

On October 3, 1997, New York Times correspondent Neil MacFarquhar was bicycling down Fifth Avenue and got hit by a bus. This was a bad day for MacFarquhar but, in a strange way, a lucky one for journalism. After a coma and long recovery, MacFarquhar returned to work with lingering frailty and a permanent medical excuse never to cover another war. His Sarajevo and Kabul days over, he moved to Cairo in 2001 and reported on the parts of the Middle East most underserved by foreign journalists, namely the parts that are not war zones.

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The Great Gamble

Originally appeared in The Barnes & Noble Review.

To stumble into Afghanistan is to stumble into history — or at least to stumble into a trap laid by historians, whereby any foreign occupier of the country is compared, all too tediously, to his failed predecessors. Notice the hierarchy of these comparisons. If the historian draws parallels to the armies of Alexander the Great, he does you an honor: Alexander’s empire had at least conquered the known world before Afghanistan undid it. Analogies to the Anglo-Afghan Wars and Elphinstone’s army in 1842 are less flattering, and more menacing. And if the historian remarks that your unit is “just like the 154th Spetsnaz Detachment,” he is saying not only that you’re doomed to ignominious defeat but also that you’re too historically ignorant to realize when you’re being insulted.

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