With all this talk of the NSA and its activities, espionage has stormed back onto the front pages. Perfect time to publish a spy novel set in China, the USA and Germany, one should think, and cometh the hour, cometh the man in the form of Olen Steinhauer. That surname suggests another Nordic star but [...]
With all this talk of the NSA and its activities, espionage has stormed back onto the front pages. Perfect time to publish a spy novel set in China, the USA and Germany, one should think, and cometh the hour, cometh the man in the form of Olen Steinhauer. That surname suggests another Nordic star but Steinhauer was born in Baltimore and attended the University of Texas, Austin. He now lives in Budapest and he’s bidding to be the new John le Carré. Given the quality of An American Spy, he’s got a great hand of cards.
And better again, Steinhauer has got a great sense of the Zeitgeist because he’s peopled An American Spy with characters such as Comrade Colonel Xin Zhu, the corpulent head of the Expedition Agency within Beijing’s Sixth Bureau of the Ministry of State Security. He’s had 33 CIA agents killed across the world in a breathtaking act of liquidation, but he’s got to watch his back because Wu Liang and his associate, Yang Qing-Nian, of the Supervision and Liaison Committee, a branch of the Central Committee’s Political and Legislative Affairs Committee, are not fans. Xin Zhu speaks:
“It wasn’t just revenge, you know. Everyone thinks that’s what it was — the committee, you, probably even the Americans. Revenge factored into it, but it was also a practical decision. That’s something I’ll have to explain on Monday morning. By eradicating one of their secret departments, we have sent a serious message to the Americans, the same message we want to send with the Olympic Games. That we are the primary force in the world. We are a nation that has suffered long enough — that’s the past. The present is this: We are a superpower of unfathomable riches, and we will not stand for interference, particularly from a country on the other side of the planet that still refers to itself as the world’s only superpower.”
Yes, it’s only fiction but le Carré’s fiction was infused with fact and there’s a lot in An American Spy to suggest that Steinhauer intimately understands the nexus of global strategy and dirty deeds, too. His portrayal of Zhu is measured and menacing and the useful idiots who marched in Hong Kong at the weekend in solidarity with Edward Snowden would do will to read An American Spy. There are no paradises upon this earth.
“Somewhere in the east: early morning: set off at dawn. Travel round in front of the sun, steal a day’s march on him. Keep it up for ever never grow a day older technically.” So muses Leopold Bloom early in Ulysses. Interestingly, one of the books that James Joyce places on Bloom’s bookshelf in his [...]
Spent part of the weekend reading part of The New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen. The book exudes positivity and Richard Waters noted in the Financial Times that “it lays out a mainly optimistic case for why the world’s tyrants should tremble in the face of universal internet access.”
In their Introduction, the two authors sing the praises of “digital empowerment”, the result of which is that “authoritarian governments will find their newly connection populations more difficult to control, repress and influence, while democratic states will be forced to include many more voices (individuals, organizations and companies) in their affairs.” Then, comes this sentence: “To be sure, governments will always find ways to use new levels of connectivity to their advantage, but because of the way current network technology is structured, it truly favors the citizen, in ways we will explore later.”
Is “the citizen” here Jared Cohen or Edward Snowdon? The revelations about the PRISM project would appear to suggest the transition to a total surveillance society is underway and while Schmidt and Cohen don’t dismiss such dangers, they come across as somewhat naïve when they write: “In fact, technology will empower people to police the police in a plethora of creative ways never before possible, including through real-time monitoring systems allowing citizens to publicly rate every police officer in their home-town. Commerce, education, health care and the justice system will all become more efficient, transparent and inclusive as major institutions opt in to the digital age.”
More “efficient”, no doubt. But more “transparent”? One has doubts. That, by the way, is from the first chapter, “The Future of Identity, Citizenship and Reporting”, which asserts: “Governments, too, will find it more difficult to maneuver as their citizens become more connected.” Really? The NSA data-mining PRISM project is, in fact, a partnership with at least nine big US internet companies, among them Google, Skype, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and Apple. Governments, it turns out, regardless of what Schmidt and Cohen say publicly, are very agile in The New Digital Age.
In a future where everyone is connected, Juvenal will be more relevant than ever: “Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (“But who will watch the watchers?”) he asked.
It’s hard to put a finger on the individual spark that lit the fuse in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, but the air was filled with a number of combustibles: Secularists point to the recent barrage of restrictions on alcohol; intellectuals highlight the number of journalists in jail (there are more reporters in prison in Turkey than in any other country in the world); activists complain about the country’s draconian anti-terror laws, and environmentalists are enraged by mega urban-development projects that involve the nihilistic destruction of nature. All in all, people have tired of Prime Minister Erdogan’s authoritarianism and they want him to know how they feel about creeping Islamism.
Orhan Pamuk, the winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, brilliantly captured the tensions at the heart of Turkish society in Snow. Early in the novel, the central character Ka is sitting in the New Life Pastry Shop in the east Anatolian city of Kars when an Islamist murders the director of The Education Institute, who had barred headscarf-wearing girls from attending class. Because the director was carrying a concealed tape-recorder, Ka is later able to get the transcript of the fatal conversation from his widow. In this excerpt, the killer pours out his mad idealism:
“Headscarves protect women from harassment, rape and degradation. It’s the headscarf that gives women respect and a comfortable place in society. We’ve heard this from so many women who’ve chosen later in life to cover themselves. Women like the old belly-dancer Melahat Sandra. The veil saves women from the animal instincts of men in the street. It saves them from the ordeal of entering beauty contests to compete with other women. They don’t have to live like sex objects, they don’t have to wear make-up all the day. As professor Marvin King has already noted, if the celebrated film star Elizabeth Taylor had spent the last twenty years covered, she would not have had to worry about being fat. She would not have ended up in a mental hospital. She might have known some happiness.”
Upon hearing this absurdity, the director of the Education Institute bursts out laughing. Pamuk describes the end of the transcript:
“Calm down my child. Stop. Sit down. Think it over one more time. Don’t pull that trigger. Stop.”
(The sound of a gunshot. The sound of a chair pushed out.)
“Don’t my son!”
(Two more gunshots. Silence. A groan. The sound of a television. One more gunshot. Silence.)
No fiction writer in recent years has come near Orhan Pamuk in his depiction of the spiritual fragility of the Islamic world and its rage against the “godless West”.
Gatsby anticipation is in the house. We’ve got a ticket for this evening’s 7 pm screening and great are the expectations. Meanwhile, the spin-off industry rumbles on and no (precious) stone is left unturned as it seeks to cash in on the film of the book.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was a customer of Tiffany, the American jewelry emporium, and in The Great Gatsby Tom Buchanan gives Daisy a string of pearls worth $300,000 on the eve of their wedding, a nod by the author to the fact that Tiffany promoted pearls as a female rite of passage during the Jazz Age. To honour the film, Tiffany has introduced two lines of Fitzgerald-themed jewelry: The Great Gatsby Collection features replicas of 30 pieces seen in the film, while the more modestly priced Ziegfeld line is a 14-piece collection that includes a sterling silver Daisy Heart Locket; a pair of 18-karat gold and black enamel cuff links decorated with a “GG” monogram; a sterling silver ring set with black onyx carved in a daisy motif; and a tassel necklace of tiny pearls — redolent of the Champagne bubbles of the era — that would have been the ultimate accessory during a late-night orgy in Gatsby’s Long Island mansion.
For the rest of us, there’s the soundtrack with songs by Lana del Ray, Gotye, Bryan Ferry, Florence and the Machine, Jack White, Beyoncé and Jay-Z.
“But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you percieve, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T.J.Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T.J.Eckleburg are blue and gigantic — their irises are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous [...]
It’s a mix of utopianism and pragmatism and it’s online. Robert Darnton, the creator of the National Digital Public Library of America, has this to say about the project: “What could be more utopian than a project to make the cultural heritage of humanity available to all humans? What could be more pragmatic than the designing of a system to link up millions of megabytes and deliver them to readers in the form of easily accessible texts?” New York Review of Books
Love the URL, btw: dp.la
Today, the Wednesday before Easter, is known as “Spy Wednesday“, indicating it’s the day Judas Iscariot conspired with the Sanhedrin to betray Jesus for 30 silver coins. An ideal day, then, for an espionage thriller and our recommendation is Rip Tide by Dame Stella Rimington, the former Director General of the British security service MI5. [...]
“Bestselling-author Dan Brown sat down to a simple Tuscan meal of tomato stew followed by steak in a family-run trattoria.” Back in November 2004, Geoffrey Pullum revealed to readers of Language Log that when Dan Brown constructs his formulaic opening sentence “an occupational term is used with no determiner as a bare role NP premodifier [...]
Federico Pistono is a young Renaissance Man whose formal education has taken him from studying science and technology in the ancient Italian city of Verona to an immersion in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning at the ultra-modern Singularity University in California. A thinker, a social entrepreneur and an aspiring filmmaker, he is also the author [...]
“There are two sides to every story” declares the strapline on the cover of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and the author sets us up for the telling by alternating between versions of events as experienced by her protagonists: Nick Dunne and Amy Elliot. It’s the perfect device for what’s she’s got in mind as [...]