Sunday 30 April 2017

Context in Adrian McKinty’s Irish Police Procedurals

The following review, which originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because during the novels under review illustrate how during the Irish 'troubles"  all the paramilitary groups and the British security forces crossed that line of darkness.

Crime novelist Adrian McKinty.

If we were to only read Adrian McKinty’s sixth and most recent entry of his Sean Duffy series Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly (Seventh Street Books, 2016) and his previous Rain Dogs (2015), we would be gripped by his outstanding opening chapters. In Police at the Station, we are dropped into a tableau that could have emerged from The Sopranos – except it is 1988 in Ulster, during the Irish “Troubles” in which over the course of thirty years 3,600 people were killed by Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries, and the Security Forces. Detective Sean Duffy is being prodded forward with guns to his back through a patch of woods to dig his own grave. (The 2009 film, The Crying Game, is perhaps a better comparison.) He knows this scene well. He has been the responding officer on “half a dozen bodies found face down in a sheugh, buried in a shallow grave, or dumped in a slurry pit on the high bog." Before the reader can wonder whether this series is coming to an end, the next chapter veers back to the beginning of the mess in which Duffy finds himself, the investigation of a drug dealer’s murder shot in the back with a crossbow. In Rain Dogs, Muhammad Ali is visiting Belfast as a "peace tour" and Duffy is on security detail. Although Ali did visit Ireland twice, this fictional scene has the feeling of verisimilitude, given McKinty’s description of the boxer and his face to face with a bunch of skinheads opposed to him on the grounds of the colour of his skin. It is a marvellously constructed opener even though it has nothing to do with the plot that follows.

Monday 17 April 2017

An Act of Mercy Finds its Karma Years Later in I Who Did Not Die

This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced here because it is a moving example of how the refusal to cross a line during the Iran-Iraq war  had a hugely positive effect for two people.

Zahed Haftlang and Najah Aboud, authors of  I Who Did Not Die.

“When I crashed back to earth, I had no more faith in anything. I didn’t believe in God, in humanity, or in war. There was no time for such devotions, as blood seeped from my forehead and chest, and all around me men were being executed as they begged for their lives. There was only one truth left: I was going to rot in a mass grave with hundreds of other forgotten soldiers…. I opened my eyes and saw a child soldier pointing a rifle at my temple. He was so small that he had to roll up the sleeves and pant legs of his uniform. The boy had been brainwashed to hate me. I spoke as softly as I could. ‘Please,’ I said ‘I’m… just like you.” 
- Najah Aboud, I Who Did Not Die
It is rare that I would cite such a long passage from a book as an epigraph, especially when it is on the back of the dust jacket. But this description from I Who Did Not Die: A Sweeping Story of Loss, Redemption, and Fate by the Iraqi, Najah Aboud, and the Iranian, Zahed Haftlang, with the assistance of journalist Meredith May (Regan Arts, 2017), is possibly the seminal moment in this astonishing alternating-narrative memoir about the horror of the Iraq-Iran war and its aftermath. Iraqi forces had seized the Iranian city of Khorramshahr and committed ghastly atrocities, killing all the men and raping the women. In 1982, Iran retook the city and came close to annihilating the Iraqis. Najah was almost one of them as he crawls into a bunker to die, but Zahed’s intervention dramatically altered the lives of both men.

In what follows the words quoted above, Najah slowly removes the Koran from his breast pocket; Zahed grabs it and pages through it and finds a photo of a beautiful woman and a baby. It is not the Koran that makes the difference and saves his life: it is the photo that for Zahed defines Najah’s humanity. Instead of following orders to execute all Iraqis, including the severely wounded Najah, Zahed feeds him water, injects a pain killer and bandages him up, admonishing him to be very quiet while he looks for a way to hook up an IV drip, before assuring, at considerable risk to himself, that Najah is transported to a medical tent and a doctor who will attend to him. He follows that up with a hospital visit where, despite their inability to communicate in each other’s language, their body language and emotions more than compensate. Najah will not forget the “angel” who saved his life even though, as Zahed departs, neither expects to see each other again

This episode is a powerful expression of the better angels of our nature, a bolt of light in the ghastly Iran-Iraq war. Had they encountered each other under similar circumstances a year later, after Zahed suffered the tragedy of losing the two most important people in his life and was bent on revenge, Nahjah’s fate would likely have been very different. As it was, however, Zahed was thirteen when he joined Iran’s Basij paramilitary, running away from a home where his father repeatedly beat him. When he and the other child soldiers were used as human minesweepers to clear the fields for the armed Revolutionary Guards, he balked and saved himself by training as a medic. The fact that he hadn't killed before – there is sufficient evidence that the first kill is the most difficult and combatants initially resist it – and didn't want to kill because of the guilt that he was afraid would forever haunt him also helped Zahed to make his decision to spare Najah’s life. 

Sunday 2 April 2017

A German Family that Refused to Conform: Joachim Fest’s Not I

This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large appears on this site because the memoir is about a family  that refused to cross a dark line during the Third Reich.

The Fest family: (from left, back row) Winfried, Hannif, Wolfgang, and Joachim and (front row) Elisabeth, Christa, and Johannes.

“One sometimes had to keep one’s head down, but try to not look shorter as a result!” 
“They [Germans] have lost their passion for introspection and discovered their taste for the primitive.” 
 Johannes Fest, father of Joachim Fest, from Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood
Throughout his professional career, first as a radio journalist and later as an historian and as a biographer of Hitler and Albert Speer, Joachim Fest was haunted by the question: how did Germany, a country almost obsessed with culture, descend into Nazi barbarity? In his final and most personal work before his death in 2006, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood (Other Press, 2014), Fest explores the reverse question: how was it possible that his family maintained its moral bearings and did not succumb to the mass hysteria engulfing the country? The answer starts with his uncompromising father, who is, at least in the first half of the book, the central figure of this remarkable memoir that tracks the author’s life into young adulthood. Fest, the son, takes his title from his devout Catholic, proudly Prussian, father, whose inspiration is derived from St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Even if all others do, not I.” The author pays tribute to his father (and mother) by serving up a memorable tale of courage and stoic endurance of “the revolting Nazi period” reminding us that simple human decency is possible even during an oppressive tyranny.