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Mixed media: Books

The New Threat - From Islamic Militancy

by Jason Burke (Vintage/Bodley Head, ISBN 9781847923479)

Guardian correspondent Jason Burke has written a remarkably thorough primer on Islamist violence. The sweep of The New Threat takes us from the assassination of Egypt’s President Sadat in 1981 to the rise of Islamic State, via al-Qaeda, two Gulf wars and a grisly catalogue of terrorist massacres.

Al-Qaeda’s capacity to carry out 9/11-style atrocities is today significantly diminished, and yet the threat persists. The bogey du moment is not the sophisticated global network but the precocious self-starter: Merah, Adebolajo and Adebowale, the brothers Tsarnaev and Kouachi, et al.

Burke takes issue with the ‘lone wolf’ designation beloved of security discourse and tabloid caricature. These perpetrators were ideologically sustained by social units – families, peer groups, online communities. The process of radicalization and recruitment is, he insists, ‘a fundamentally social activity.’

The New Threat strikes a refreshingly measured note. For all their murderous determination, the terrorists do not pose an existential threat to any Western nation. And IS’s mission to eliminate what it calls ‘the Grey Zone’ – the complex multiplicity of personal identities in contemporary society – in favour of a singular tenet of blind devotion, is surely doomed to failure.

As Burke affectingly observes, the Grey Zone is the repository of ‘all that is best about the world [and] is worth protecting, with all the means and courage we have.’

★★★★ HB penguinrandomhouse.com

The Underground

by Hamid Ismailov, translated by Carol Ermakova (Restless Books, ISBN 9781632060440)

Hamid Ismailov’s novel charts the short life and untimely death of Mbobo, also known as Kirill, child of a Siberian mother and an African athlete competing in the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Abandoned by his father and suffering the intermittent, loving but drunken care of his mother and a succession of ‘uncles’, Mbobo reflects on 12 years of life as the poverty-stricken mixed-race victim of endemic racism in a Soviet Union teetering on the edge of collapse.

In short, punchy chapters which trace the stations on the Moscow underground, Ismailov gives us a suitably gloomy portrait of the soul of Russia, fuelled by alcohol and alternately buttressed and assailed by history.

Mbobo’s infant incomprehension of the forces of change swirling around him is an ironic echo of the failure of the adults to apprehend the import of what they are living through. Ismailov’s prose, ably translated by Carol Ermakova, is dense and allusive, thick with references to Russian folklore and literature, from Gorky and Turgenyev to Dostoyevsky and – repeatedly and primarily – Alexander Pushkin.

The Underground is a dark, gnarly, difficult novel, mining poetry from the squalid and the subterranean, and this reader was particularly grateful f or the glossary of political, cultural and literary allusions. However, its depiction of a damaged individual’s doomed attempt to plot a course through a dysfunctional and disintegrating society is consummate and compelling.

★★★ PW restlessbooks.com

The WikiLeaks Files: The World According to US Empire

by WikiLeaks, introduction by Julian Assange (Verso, ISBN 978 17816 89448)

In 2010 WikiLeaks began publishing more than two million US diplomatic cables and State Department records. To meet the need for scholarly analysis of what these millions of documents say about modern international relations and geopolitics, they have produced a book, The WikiLeaks Files.

It situates the US Empire in global history and offers a user’s guide, written by investigations editor Sarah Harrison, on how to research the cables and their content. Analysts review how the US engaged with dictatorships, human rights and the ‘War on Terror’; while experts on specific areas of foreign policy, including Robert Naiman, Phyllis Bennis, Stephen Zunes and Gareth Porter, examine the cables.

These reveal US meddling in Syria; acceptance of Israeli violations of international law, information, about the invasion of Afghanistan and on how the US dealt with the International Atomic Energy Agency over Iran’s nuclear development.

Julian Assange, writing the book’s introduction, proposes that the diplomatic cables of the State Department are the by-product of its activities. Their publication ‘is the vivisection of a living empire, showing what substance flowed from which state organ and when,’ he writes.

Useful, scholarly, timely – and, as you would expect, eye-opening.

★★★★ CS versobooks.com

America’s Dreyfus: The Case Nixon Rigged

by Joan Brady (Scyscraper Publications, ISBN 9780993153327)

In 1950, the high-flying US diplomat Alger Hiss was found guilty of perjury relating to espionage charges and sentenced to two concurrent five-year terms of imprisonment.

The trial, which came at the height of the Cold War and the US anti-communist witch hunt, hinged on the testimony of an ex-communist, Whittaker Chambers, and the case was orchestrated by Richard Nixon, at the time a junior member of Congress.

Joan Brady knew Hiss personally and it is her contention that Nixon knowingly distorted, manipulated and invented evidence and shamelessly used the red-baiting press in order to secure a conviction and advance his own political career.

Brady’s account is engagingly written and she argues persuasively – if not entirely conclusively – that Hiss was ‘a wronged and innocent man battling the vast resources of an unjust state’. She shuttles between a forensic examination of the evidence against Hiss and a highly personal memoir and, although the gossipy, subjective tone occasionally grates, she succeeds in throwing substantial doubt on the soundness of the verdict.

For a contemporary audience, the value of Brady’s investigation, beyond historical interest, lies in the parallels she draws between the Hiss case and the ongoing ‘war on terror’. She cites comparisons with Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden and, tellingly, quotes the Cold War strategist George Kennan:

‘Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial complex would have to remain substantially unchanged until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy.’

★★★★ PW skyscraperpublications.com

Also out there...

Gwenno: glorious electro-pop

MUSIC Y Dyadd Olaf (The Last Day) is a glorious work of sci-fi-influenced electro-pop, from Cardiff’s Gwenno.

Sung mostly in her native Welsh (with a bit of Cornish for good measure), Gwenno originally released this in a minuscule edition on local label Peski, before Heavenly snapped it up for a bigger release. There’s something Portishead-like about its floating melodies and Gwenno’s voice has a strong presence.

Led by the Damascus-born, London-based oud player Khyam Allami, Alif is a five-strong group of Middle Eastern musicians fluent in the vocabulary of both traditional and experimental musics. Exhilarating in its reach, Aynama-Rtama (Wherever It Falls, released by Nawa) offers settings of lyrics by Mahmoud Darwish and other luminaries.

FILM Long-term readers of this magazine will be familiar with the unique and intense work of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado.

The genius of Salgado

Shooting only in black and white, he has got closer to his subjects and the great social and political themes he covers, than, probably, any other living photographer. Salt of the Earth documents his life and work across the world – including the despair he experienced after covering the Rwandan genocide, and the return to life with his great nature project, Genesis.

The film, directed by Wim Wenders and Salgado’s son Julian Ribiero, also shows the key role played by Lélia Wanick, Sebastião’s wife, agent and generator of ideas. Engaged, unusual, wonderful.

The social and political context is strong in the tense, moody, stunning-looking Spanish thriller Marshland, where two ill-matched detectives investigate the murder of two schoolgirls in the immediate post-Franco years.

Magali Pettier’s Addicted to Sheep is an attractive, unsentimental doc about people happy because they have a strong sense of belonging and the value of their work farming sheep on the Pennine Moors.

Tangerines is about two Estonians who stay in their Georgian village to harvest tangerines when the war with Abkhazia surrounds them. They find themselves nursing two wounded combatants who want to kill each other. A serious, well-made drama.

BOOKS In her new book, Shadow Sovereigns (Polity), Susan George homes in on the global corporations that are increasingly seizing power, demanding control over decisions that affect labour laws, finance, public health, food, agriculture, trade, everything. Knowledge is power and she provides us with plenty with which to challenge the assaults on our rights and freedoms.

In a similar vein is TTIP: The truth about the transatlantic trade and investment partnership (Polity). Authors Ferdi deVille and Gabriel Siles-Brugge, tell us ‘everything you need to know about the secret trade deal that will affect the lives of millions’.

Reviewers: Houman Barekat, Louise Gray, Malcolm Lewis, Chris Spannos, Peter Whittaker

Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird; email: [email protected]

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