New & Noteworthy

Osama bin Laden's mindset; two extraordinary novels; the peaceful collapse of "The Evil Empire"  

A few hours after the first American air strikes against Afghanistan, on October 7, a pre-recorded videotape was broadcast around the world. A tall, skinny man with a scraggly beard, wearing a camouflage fatigue jacket and the headdress of a desert tribesman, an AK-47 assault rifle at his side, stood placidly before a rocky backdrop. In measured language Osama bin Laden again declared war on the United States. Only a few weeks before, bin Laden's statement would likely have been dismissed as the inflated rhetoric of a saber-rattling braggart. But with the World Trade Center laid to waste, the Pentagon heavily damaged, and the wreckage of a hijacked plane strewn across a field in rural Pennsylvania, his declamation was taken very seriously indeed. Precisely how bin Laden achieved this feat is the subject of Peter Bergen's unusually astute book. Bergen, an Oxford-educated television journalist who in 1997 produced the first televised interview with bin Laden, is one of only a few Americans who have actually met him—a fact that alone endows Holy War, Inc. with a perspective that none of bin Laden's other biographers can claim. Moreover, Bergen's research took him not only to Afghanistan but also to the place where the bin Laden family originated, in the isolated Hadramawt region of Yemen, and to Pakistan, Egypt, and Kashmir, among other places. The portrait of bin Laden that Bergen paints is therefore richer and more complex than the image of a hate-filled, mindless fanatic that prevails today.

The broad outline of bin Laden's history is by now well known. The scion of a porter turned construction magnate, whose money-making prowess was perhaps matched only by his ability to produce countless progeny and his religious piety, bin Laden sought to make his own mark in life as a patron of jihad. Accordingly, in the early 1980s, he was drawn to Afghanistan, where he helped to rally—and even more critical, to fund—the Muslim guerrilla forces resisting that country's Soviet invaders. The guerrillas' success in repelling one of the world's two superpowers had a lasting impact on bin Laden. To his mind, Russia's defeat in Afghanistan set in motion the chain of events that resulted in the collapse of the USSR and the demise of communism. This same reductionism, coupled with an abiding sense of divinely ordained historical inevitability, today convinces bin Laden that he and his fighters cannot but triumph in the struggle against America.

Where Holy War, Inc. shines is less in the recounting of these familiar details than in Bergen's insight into bin Laden's mindset and behavior. For example, Bergen notes, bin Laden is a graduate of Saudi Arabia's prestigious King Abdul-Aziz University, where he obtained a degree in economics and public administration in 1981. According to Bergen, he subsequently cut his teeth in the family business and later used corporate-management techniques he had learned in the classroom and on the job to transform al Qaeda (Arabic for "the Base"), which he founded, into the world's pre-eminent terrorist organization. Bin Laden achieved this by cleverly combining an Islamic fundamentalist world view with the technological munificence of modernity: al Qaeda operatives, for example, encrypt messages on Macintosh or Toshiba computers, communicate by e-mail or on Internet bulletin boards, use satellite telephones, and fly first class. As Bergen explains, "this grafting of entirely modern sensibilities and techniques to the most radical interpretation of holy war is the hallmark of bin Laden's network." Bergen offers the professionally produced and edited two-hour al Qaeda recruitment videotape that bin Laden circulated throughout the Middle East last summer (which also subtly presaged the September 11 attacks) as an example of bin Laden's nimble exploitation of "twenty-first-century communications and weapons technology in the service of the most extreme, retrograde reading of holy war." The tape, with its footage of "infidels" attacking Muslims in Chechnya, Kashmir, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, and Indonesia; of children starving under the yoke of UN economic sanctions in Iraq; and of the accursed "Crusader" military forces in the holy land of Arabia, was subsequently converted to DVD format for ease in copying onto computers and uploading to the World Wide Web for global dissemination.

"All men dream: but not equally," wrote T. E. Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia. "Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible." Bergen sees bin Laden as one of those dangerous men. Indeed, in an age arguably devoid of ideological leadership, when the impersonal forces of economic determinism and globalization are thought to have erased the ability of a single man to affect the course of history, bin Laden—despite our efforts—managed to taunt us and to strike at us for years even before September 11. His effective melding of religious fervor, Muslim piety, and a profound sense of grievance into a powerful ideological force—however invidious and repugnant—stands as an undeniably towering accomplishment. Bin Laden cast this struggle as precisely the "clash of civilizations" that America and its coalition partners have labored so hard to avoid. "This is a matter of religion and creed; it is not what Bush and Blair maintain, that it is a war against terrorism," he declared in a videotaped speech broadcast over the Al Jazeera television network on November 3. "There is no way to forget the hostility between us and the infidels. It is ideological, so Muslims have to ally themselves with Muslims."

As Bergen makes clear, bin Laden has been an intelligent, crafty, and formidable adversary. Holy War, Inc. should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand him.

—Bruce Hoffman

Mercy Among the Children

by David Adams Richards

Arcade, 371 pages, $25.95

Margaret Atwood once taught a course, at New York University, on southern-Canadian gothic literature. This sounds like a joke, but it isn't: a strain of the melodramatic, touched with grotesquerie, magic realism, and gallows humor, runs through much of Robertson Davies, Michael Ondaatje, Timothy Findley, and Atwood herself, to mention only a few prominent writers from up north. Certainly this throat-gripping novel by David Adams Richards (a winner of Canada's Giller Prize) displays an almost Faulknerian excess: its heroes are Christlike idiot-saints, its villains as over the top as the Snopeses, the diction odd and gnarly in an old-fashioned, almost scriptural way, and the plot—well, the plot is a medley of nefarious doings, dark revelations, and tragic coincidences, not to mention heartbreaking deaths.

Mercy Among the Children focuses on the Hendersons: the father, who as a young man nearly killed a friend and subsequently vowed never again to hurt any human being; the mother, an orphan of astonishing beauty and gentleness; and their children—Lyle, who yearns for acceptance from the New Brunswick town that scorns his poverty-stricken family; his albino sister, artistic and fiercely intelligent; and his brother, a child of almost preternatural sensitivity to nature and the world around him.

Unfortunately, the very gentleness and rectitude of the Hendersons dooms them to be forever victimized, whether by roughneck louts or by the local tycoon, who has polluted the water supply. Mrs. Henderson is eventually accused of theft, Mr. Henderson of blowing up a bridge; yet never once do they waver in their simple faith or love for each other. But Lyle, alas, finds himself susceptible to the allure of our fallen world: "There is no worse flaw in man's character than that of wanting to belong."

Richards's story is multi-generational, intricate, and doleful, though some readers may feel that he goes too far with such soap-opera elements as illegitimate births and unexpected bloodlines. Still, I find that he conveys his moral vision so fiercely, and he addresses the question of how one should live with such urgent seriousness, that he simply sweeps away all objections. Read twenty pages and you'll surrender to Mercy Among the Children—and to its language. Look closely, for instance, at the novel's resolute and avaricious femme fatale, with "her swaying way that seemed to squander so much, like the scent of late-summer flowers, the overripe apple bins of fall." Pity the desperate Voteur family: "Their door faced the bay, but like so many rural houses of the poor they were surrounded by land and owned no property, had the bay in front of them and never had a boat."

At one point Lyle describes himself as "a thug with Tolstoy in my pocket." I suspect that Richards himself kept Tolstoy in his pocket—especially the later Tolstoy—when he wrote this dark parable about the rewards of goodness and the wages of sin.

—Michael Dirda

Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000

by Stephen Kotkin

Oxford University Press, 267 pages, $25.00

This briskly written, elegantly argued book is a triumph of the art of contemporary history. In fewer than 200 pages the Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin elucidates the implosion of the Soviet empire—the most important and startling series of international events of the past fifty years—and clearly spells out why, thanks almost entirely to the "principled restraint" of the Soviet leadership, that collapse didn't result in a cataclysmic war, as nearly all experts had long forecast. Eschewing the fashionable academic focus on social movements, and the related notion that the Soviet downfall was owing to an uncontrollable wave of popular support for democracy—and also countering the self-congratulatory idea that unrelenting ideological and military pressure from the West led to the USSR's demise, Kotkin concentrates instead on Soviet elites, persuasively arguing that the collapse was the outcome of Mikhail Gorbachev's "pursuit of a romantic dream" of socialist reform.

That dream was rooted in Gorbachev's sincere belief (shared, as Kotkin shows, by most of the Soviet people) in socialism as "a higher and more humane system than capitalism." To Gorbachev and many of his generation of Communist Party leaders, socialism had been perverted by Stalin and corrupted by Brezhnev and his geriatric associates and successors. Lamenting the destruction of Czechoslovakia's Prague Spring, in 1968, Gorbachev and his fellows sought to create "socialism with a human face," as the earlier Czechoslovakian reformers had termed their aspiration. (In 1987, when a Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman was asked what the difference was between Gorbachev's perestroika and the Prague Spring, he replied, "Nineteen years.") Indeed, Kotkin argues, Gorbachev originally and ardently believed that perestroika sought only to reclaim "the ideals of the October revolution." (In the early years of reform Gorbachev actually rewrote his speeches to include more Marxist-Leninist theory than even his apparatchik speechwriters had incorporated.) But Soviet socialism, rotten at the core and from its inception, proved immedicable, and the quest to recapture what he (erroneously, I believe) thought to be its founding ideals ultimately led Gorbachev to repudiate not merely the perversions of Leninism but Leninism itself (just as Lenin, who abhorred any form of romantic idealism, would have predicted). Jeanne Kirkpatrick's notion that (friendly) authoritarian states were preferable to the "totalitarian" Soviet Union because only the former were capable of reform breaks down completely under the weight of Kotkin's analysis: the Soviet Union not only reformed itself, it reformed itself out of existence.

Just before the Soviet collapse the historian Paul Kennedy noted that "historically, none of the overextended, multinational empires ever retreated to their own ethnic base until they had been defeated in a great power war." But the Soviet Union acceded to the liquidation not only of its political and economic system but of its empire, and thus relinquished all the territory it had gained in the most destructive struggle in world history. Kotkin's most valuable contribution lies in reminding us, in chilling detail, that this outcome was hardly preordained. The Soviet leadership could have used its immense military and internal-security apparatus to hold power, regardless of the cost. Yet even while it was faltering, the USSR "did not even attempt to stage a cynical foreign war to rally support for the regime." And, of course, as Western analysts had always feared, "even if Soviet leaders had calculated that they were doomed, they could have wreaked terrifying havoc out of spite, or engaged in blackmail." Instead, under Gorbachev's leadership the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the vanguard of world socialist revolution, abolished itself with barely a whimper. Never has the Nobel Peace Prize been more appropriately awarded than to the man who in the end proved more devoted to a romantic dream than to the state he had served for nearly forty years.

—Benjamin Schwarz

Hotel World

by Ali Smith

Anchor Books, 256 pages, $12.00

Hotel World, the second novel by the young Scottish writer Ali Smith, was one of the six short-listed for England's 2001 Booker Prize. It has received tremendous accolades in the British press, and Smith has been compared to Faulkner, Joyce, Woolf, and (inevitably) Dave Eggers. The novel's easy allusiveness, playful engagement with literary theory, and bold experimentation have all earned high praise.

Well, it's all true; but don't let it put you off. Yes, there are plenty of what are usually referred to as "literary pyrotechnics" in this book, but it is above all a visceral piece of work, as affecting a novel as any that has been published for a long time. Experimentation that would be merely pretentious in a lesser writer—much of Hotel World is written in stream-of-consciousness monologues, extremely difficult to maintain over more than a few pages—works here almost magically.

The novel is built around a recent tragedy: nineteen-year-old Sara Wilby, on the second night of her new job as a chambermaid at the Global Hotel, climbed into the dumbwaiter on a bet; the cables snapped, and she plunged four stories to her death. Now her disoriented spirit, only half remembering its former life, wanders around looking for clues to its past—even seeking out its body, entering the coffin, passing "through the lid of the wooden room, smooth and costly on the outside, chipboard-cheap at the centre." (The subsequent conversation between body and soul is one of several moments in the novel in which Smith obliquely invokes the metaphysical poets.)

Sara's spirit grieves most of all for the felt reality of the physical world, now lost forever. "Imagine an itch. Imagine a foot, and a pavement beneath it, and a stone, and pressing the stone with my whole weight hard into the skin of the sole ... or the small ball of muscle that keeps a body upright and balanced and moving across the breathtaking still-hard surface of the world." As life and its memories slowly fade, Sara's ghost tries to impart a message to the living creatures she glimpses, an inversion of Muriel Spark's memento mori: "Remember you must live."

Smith expands the narrative to include other characters: a homeless woman who begs outside the Global Hotel; a kind girl who works at the reception desk; a narcissistic guest. When Sara's devastated younger sister comes to the hotel on a mission she hardly understands herself, this odd group combines to help her accept her loss.

Hotel World is one of those rare books that are simultaneously sad and hopeful. Smith maintains a rhapsodic pace that slackens, very slightly, only toward the end of the narrative. Startlingly accomplished and, for all her literary tricks, a smooth and straight storyteller, Smith has proved to be one of Britain's major talents.

—Brooke Allen

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