Sunday, 26 February 2017


Don’t Tell Me You’re Afraid, by Giuseppe Catozzella

           In the early months of 2012, Samia Yusuf Omar, a Somali refugee, drowned in the Mediterranean Sea whilst trying to reach ropes hanging from an Italian vessel sent to escort back to Tripoli the barely seaworthy old boat that she and hundreds of others had paid traffickers huge amounts of money to board.  To return to the African continent was unthinkable after everything she had endured:  the ropes hanging over the side of the Italian ship were her last chance at freedom.  She couldn’t be afraid;  she had to try.
So she did, and she died, like countless others who fled their war-torn countries of birth looking for a better life, never reaching the peaceful shores they sought – in Samia’s case, she was to join her older sister Hodan and her family who had made it to Finland, had made ‘the Journey’ and survived to live a normal life in Europe – the dream of every refugee, but Samia had another, more urgent dream:  to run for her country in the London 2012 Olympics.  Time was running out!
In Giuseppe Catozzella’s novel based on the true story of Samia’s short life, he has Samia tell her own story;  how at the age of eight, she and her best friend Ali who lived across the courtyard, would run like the wind through all the narrow winding streets and alleys of Mogadishu – oh, there was never a feeling like it!  To power along a straight stretch at top speed (beating Ali every time), to revel in the freedom that her fast limbs gave her:  she would do this all the time if she could.  Until tribal wars, always hovering in the background meant that Ali and his family (an inferior tribe) were forced away from Mogadishu and an even worse alternative introduced itself:  El Shabaab, fundamentalist moslems of the worst kind.
Samia is forced to run in a Burka; even so, she is actually starting to be noticed by the Olympic Committee;  in 2008 the Olympic Games will be held in China, and Samia has outrun everyone in the country, despite the efforts of El Shabaab.  Her times are good enough for her to compete against the rest of the world – despite terrible family tragedy and ensuing hardship, her dream of representing her country is realised:  in 2008 Samia Jusuf Omar represents Somalia in the 200m heat – coming last, but undaunted;  she won’t give up, she’ll never give up.  If she can get out of Mogadishu and away from Al Shabaab, if she can travel to Europe and join Hodan and her family, her dreams are all possible.
Samia’s Journey takes five months from the start to the finish in the leaky boat.  I have to say that before this point, I was not overly impressed with Mr Catozzella’s writing – until we journeyed together on her last attempt to be free:  then he had me in a grip of iron, each page horrifying me with prose so vivid and cruel it left me breathless.
The Journey begins, that nightmare Journey that no-one speaks of if they are lucky enough to complete the distance, littered as it is by corpses along the diverse routes the traffickers take.  The conditions the refugees endure are brutalising and unspeakable, and more money is demanded at every drop-off point.  Families are allowed a minute on a mobile phone to contact their loved ones to wire more money, always more than anyone can raise.  Those who can’t find the money are left behind in the wilderness.  Life is reduced to its most elemental.  Survival is paramount.
There are many lessons to be learnt from this important story, not least our ignorance of the struggles to the death (more often than not) that people will undergo to have a life that we take for granted.  Samia died, but her determination and drive lives on in this book.  FOUR STARS.

The Pigeon Tunnel, by John le Carré

           At the venerable age of eighty-five, Mr Le Carré has decided that it is time to write a volume of memoirs.  Naturally, his fans (and they are legion) will hope that he doesn’t confine himself to just one volume, for the ‘Pigeon Tunnel’ is a delight, a feast for the reader of perfect prose, wonderful character studies, delicious humour, and memories that are never, ever fed by sour grapes or malice.
            His long and illustrious literary career has been shaped by many diverse people and experiences:  he confesses that his mastery of the perfect sentence came not at Oxford, (where, upon graduating with a degree in languages he was recruited into MI5 as the most junior of intelligence agents) but from his new bosses, all classically trained, who tore apart with derisory skill his first efforts at information-gathering.  No paragraph was left without a scathing comment in the margin:  ‘redundant – omit – justify – sloppy – do you really mean this?’ 
‘No editor I have since encountered was so exacting, or so right.’
            What a grounding for a future novelist, and what a time (the fifties and sixties) to be a diplomat/spy for the British Government.  Based in Bonn, Mr Le Carré practised his tradecraft, but learned to write his fiction based on his previous experiences only after he left the Service, signing an oath never to reveal State Secrets.  His fame as a writer blossomed with the publication of ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’, then increased a hundredfold with the introduction of George Smiley & Co. in ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’.  A Star was Born!  Much to the displeasure of his former masters, who felt that they, and the Service as a whole, had been rather unfairly portrayed, old chap. 
            They all must have breathed a collective and gusty sigh of relief when the Berlin wall came down, the Cold War ended, and Mr Le Carré chose other subjects to write about, i.e. Middle-Eastern terrorism, gunrunning, money-laundering – you name it, there was still plenty of world corruption and scandal for an enterprising writer to expose, particularly someone with his talent and growing fame.
            A particularly fascinating aspect of these memoirs is the author’s meticulous research into the characters and settings of each book:  he has travelled all over the world (and endured some very hairy situations) to give authenticity to his plots, and I was amazed to read of the number of characters who are based (to a greater or lesser degree) on people he has met, who have made an impression on him for good or ill.  Mr Le Carré’s memory for appearances, accents and gesture is prodigious, and to be with him as he picks each character apart is akin to going backstage at the Ballet:  magic is created on the stage, but without the unseen mechanics it would not exist.
            I have included two previous reviews  where, if the reader is enjoying ‘The Pigeon Tunnel’ they may also see that Dima in ‘Our Kind of Traitor’ is a much kinder portrayal than the Dima that Mr Le Carré actually met in Moscow, and diplomat Toby Bell from ‘A Delicate Truth’ has marked similarities to the author as a young man.
            What an absolute pleasure it was to read this book.  I am now waiting impatiently for Volume Two.  SIX STARS!!
A Delicate Truth, by John le Carré

Mr Le Carré, long the undisputed King of the Spy novel, has changed literary direction considerably since the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, instead aiming his expository arrows closer to home, his last novel ‘Our Kind of Traitor’
being a perfect example (see review below).  In ‘A Delicate Truth’, the Blair New Labour government and its infamous alliance with its American counterparts are mercilessly exposed in their relentless use of any method to achieve victory – and profits -  in the War on Terror.
WILDLIFE is the code name for a combined U.S./British Special Forces counter-terrorist operation to capture a notorious jihadist arms buyer at a secret location on Gibraltar.  There is also a mysterious private right-wing arms and security company involved:  ‘War’s gone corporate, Paul!’
Fergus Quinn, a Junior minister of the Crown fuelled more by ambition than good sense recruits a diplomatic ‘low-flyer’ (codenamed Paul) to be his token Man on the Spot, his Eyes and Ears as the top-secret (even from his own government!)  mission is carried out and – the ‘low-flyer’ expects – the wit to abort the operation if the situation warrants it.  Ah, in a perfect world …..!
Things go wrong.  After the collapse of radio and computer contact Paul is literally left in the dark on a Gibraltar hillside until his rescue and hurried evacuation back to England by a young woman constantly exhorting him that the operation was ‘a triumph, right?  No casualties.  We did a great job.  All of us.  You, too.  Right?’
And maybe that was true, because the low-flyer ends up with a knighthood and a very cushy diplomatic post to the Caribbean. 
Enter Toby Bell, aspiring Foreign Office employee and soon-to-be Private Secretary (read minder) to Junior minister Quinn just prior to the Gibraltar fiasco.  Toby has been recommended by his long-time friend and mentor Giles Oakley;  this is a plum job which could lead to even higher things and Toby is delighted by his good fortune, for his origins are humble, his educational distinction and linguistic qualifications gained through intelligence, hard work and scholarships and disguising ‘the brand marks of the English tongue’ – his Dorset burr – in favour of the ‘Middle English affected by those determined not to have their social origins defined for them.’
Yes, Toby has ambition but he also has morals: ‘ he wishes to make a difference, to take part in his country’s discovery of its true identity in a post-imperial, post Cold-War world’;  he is an ethical, decent man, and whilst he is not naïve, he is far from prepared for the corruption he is forced to confront, or its extent.  And this is the fulcrum upon which Mr Le Carré’s fine story turns:  will Toby fold under the pressure of bribes or threats, physical and otherwise, or will he follow the maxim ‘evil triumphs when good men do nothing,’ and act on it?
Yet again, Mr Le Carré has constructed with trademark elegance and style a novel of honourable men -  21st century anachronisms, their integrity derided and courage discounted -  but not content ‘to do nothing’.  And again, Mr Le Carré demonstrates effortlessly why he leads and others follow:  he still blows lesser writers right out of the water.  FIVE STARS.

Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carré   

Dima is a Russian gangster, and proud of it.  He is also an expert money-launderer for the Russian Mafia and has amassed huge wealth for them, and for himself – but a new young ‘Prince’ is coming to the fore in the Mafia Hierarchy, and the Prince doesn’t like Dima;  Dima is too ‘Old-School’, he dwells too much on the old Vor code of Honour amongst thieves (and murderers) and after one last, biggest laundering operation – the opening of a new ‘respectable’ bank in the City of London – Dima and his family will be eliminated, as were several of his dear friends and colleagues already:  it’s time, thinks Dima, to defect with all his secrets and sell them to his preferred country of asylum, Great Britain. 
Yet again John Le Carré has crafted an impeccable story of secret service diplomacy, political corruption and life-and-death back-room dealings;  his characters are superb,  almost Dickensian in range and description and utterly, utterly believable.  Mr. Le Carré has the best eye and ear for accents and body language in the business, and his wit, interspersed even at times of great suspense in this beautifully plotted story, is delicious.  This is the master at his best: FIVE STARS



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