, ,

I finish the week with this review of Lavie Tidhar’s Osama. The review first appeared in Bull Spec 7 (Spring 2012).

osamaWe tell stories to make sense of the perverse and mysterious thing that is our world. But where do the stories begin? Where do they end? And how do we know which story is true?

In the ten years since three hijacked planes were flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed in Pennsylvania, we have told many stories about 9/11. But, from Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising to Don DeLillo’s The Falling Man, they are all stories of aftermath, stories about the collapse of the twin towers and the emptiness – moral, emotional, political, physical – left behind. Is that the only story to tell?

9/11 was a beginning. It was where the 21st century began; it was where most of us first heard of al Qaida; it was where the ‘War on Terror’ started. But the War on Terror almost immediately changed into a war on territory, a war against Afghanistan (which was sheltering al Qaida) but not against Pakistan (which was also sheltering al Qaida); and a war against Iraq (which was to that point the only country in the region that had successfully kept al Qaida out of its territory). The 21st century has already become identified with horrors, from global warming to financial collapse, that are different from and more startling than terrorism. And al Qaida began long before the millennium with attacks in Yemen and Kenya to their credit. 9/11 was a beginning, but it was not the beginning.

Tales of aftermath cannot encompass all of this, it needs something different. Lavie Tidhar, who was in Dar-es-Salaam at the time of the American embassy bombings in 1998 and so knows that 9/11 is only a moment in a much longer and deeper story, has turned to older forms of telling, to pulp fictions and noir cinema and to the mythic structures that underlay both those forms.

It looks, at first, like a conventional alternate history. Joe is a private eye in Vientiane, the sort of loner we recognize from so many Humphrey Bogart films, with no clients, an empty office, and a part-finished bottle of whisky in the filing cabinet. Then the archetypal mysterious blonde walks into the office and hires him to find Mike Longshott. It is a world where all the men wear hats, where cigarettes are smoked endlessly, copious amounts of booze are consumed, and beatings incapacitate the hero for no more than a moment. It is a world of grainy black and white film (references to Casablanca recur throughout the novel, though there are echoes of almost too many other films to name), a world, we quickly suspect, of the imagination. But whose imagination?

Mike Longshott is the author of a series of pulp novels featuring an international vigilante called Osama bin Laden. The extracts from these novels that we see do not read like works of fiction, but rather like clinical, journalistic accounts of al Qaida atrocities from our own world. But the novels, cheap pulp fictions published by a purveyor of dirty books in Paris and universally decried, still seem to have been read by everybody, though the world they present makes no sense to anyone in this realm of the noir senses. Joe’s quest to find Longshott will take him through an underworld, literal and figurative, peopled with lost souls, terrors, mysteries, and angelic visitations. At key moments throughout his search, Joe will encounter the mysterious blonde, who is always associated with rain even when he meets her indoors. More significantly, he encounters others who point him on the next step of his journey, and then become insubstantial, fade out as if they never really belonged in this world.

Against these helpers there are the men in dark suits, who may be American agents or may be something other, and who dog Joe’s steps from the very moment he accepts his strange assignment. Periodically they beat Joe up or imprison him, without ever quite explaining their interest in the case. There is something formulaic, both in the quest and in the opposition to it, as even Joe begins to realize. He is, we might recognize, one of those figures from ancient myth condemned to follow a particular course of action at the whim of something beyond his comprehension. Along the way the quest becomes personal, as such quests have a tendency to do, and he begins to get inklings of who the people are who disappear from his world, and what the world is that he is sometimes able to glimpse. But it is only as the quest ends, in the inevitable anti-climax of meeting Mike Longshott (this was, to my mind, one weakness in an otherwise excellent novel; I think the story might have been stronger if there had been no Longshott), that we begin to understand the deeper and more troubling question of who Joe is, and the choice he must make or, perhaps more accurately, fail to make.

In the end, like so many other post-9/11 fictions, Osama is a story of aftermath, perhaps there really is no other way of telling the world we have become. But en route the novel shows some of the ways that the events resonate with our creative imaginations, our sense that deep down the world really does follow the paths laid down by our most haunting myths. It is a novel that unfolds, that becomes bigger the further we go into it, which is why I suspect it will haunt the memory.