I had been looking forward to this one for a while, but the pleasures of an insanely huge TBR pile have meant that I’ve only got around to reading it this month. Which, now that I have got around to reading it, is a shame. I’ve enjoyed some of Lavie Tidhar’s other fiction, both long and short, but for me, anyway, this is his best so far.
Given some of the events of last year, this might have (from the title alone) appeared to be a bit of an opportunistic piece of publishing. I understand, though, that this was not the case and that the manuscript has been around a bit longer than that.
Osama is several things; a hard-boiled detective novel, an alt-history and, in places, it feels like a document of the last decade or so. Also, impressively, Tidhar has created an intensely personal work, yet one which manages to keep some critical distance from what is an emotive subject. I wonder if it is this that makes Osama the most assured piece of work I’ve read by him.
In the alternate world of the novel, Joe, a private detective, is tasked with locating the writer of a series of hack thrillers, entitled Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante. Better yet, the author is the proud bearer of the pseudonym ‘Mike Longshott’ and Joe is employed to track down Longshott by an alluring woman. Were the novel not so assured, you’d be right in suggesting that this all sounds rather clichéd. I think in the context of this particular text, though, it is an excellent use of what could be viewed as rather tired literary tropes.
Joe’s attempts to locate Longshott take him on a series of fast-paced and occasionally dangerous adventures across the world. His reality differs from ours in a number of ways – the key difference being that, of course, Al Qaeda doesn’t exist; there are other differences. Consumer technology is different from ours. Indeed, it seems less intrusive. In one scene where we are given a view of our world from the perspective of Joe’s world, we see the now ubiquitous CCTV cameras in London, the white headphone leads dangling from the ears of pedestrians and so on. These are details, though.
There is a little explanation given to the events in the decades following the second world war that led to the divergent path, though this is done with a light touch. The world building isn’t particularly important, though. What is of greater interest is what the novel can show us about the world in which we live. Depicted as fiction, the events which really happened, seem almost fantastical. I had the image of a publisher laughing at the notion of the shoebomber, for example, as being unbelievable. At this level, the unreality of these events is, in of itself, of interest. However, what is more provoking is the wider comment on the events that have shaped the last decade or so that these sections make.
The western countries were deluded to think that they could continue to exert influence over their empires in the years following the second world war; Al Qaeda (whatever that really means) was mistaken to believe that something like the attack on the USS Cole or the Twin Towers would do anything other than provoke a violent response from the United States and, similarly, the US administration was, and I think it’s fair to say that this isn’t even with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight in glorious Technicolor, mistaken to think that their middle Eastern adventures would make the world a safer place.
This conceit gets to the heart of the challenges that the world faces in the wake of the attack on the Twin Towers and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. I’m not entirely sure that I truly understand what Al-Qaeda is. Is it really a globe-spanning and well-supplied network? A useful invention by hawkish policy makers to describe a few groups with broadly similar aims? A small group who had a very specific aim and who became useful shorthand? An amalgam of these and other things? Of course, me not understanding something could just mean that I am a bit dense and will have little impact upon the lives of others. When, however, powerful men demonstrate a lack of insight and humility, well, then you get the entirely unhelpful invasion of Iraq.
Through the device of an alternate reality with our world impinging through fiction (though this line blurs as the novel progresses) Tidhar shows in, I think a rather profound way, the misunderstanding of terrorism. Though the violence committed by a terrorist may seem to indicate that it is about physical acts of violence, this is only a small part of what they do. I do not intend to belittle the anguish that is suffered by the families of the victims of things such as the London bombings (and nor does this novel). Violence against anyone’s person is abhorrent to me. The effect on all our lives by the various actions by Al Qaeda has been out of all proportion with the individual acts. It’s become trite through how painfully obvious it is in the actions and legislation of western governments and the effects on the way we think and live, but though the US hasn’t withdrawn from Saudi Arabia, the violence perpetrated upon liberal societies has been appalling. These include draconian (and ineffective) anti-terror laws, the profusion of 24 hour surveillance cameras in the UK and even the increased use of bollards outside buildings that may be target worthy giving a further stamp to our public spaces.
Nobody really got the results that they were seeking in the wake of the Twin Tower attacks or the invasion of Afghanistan. Indeed, from a western perspective, the post-Cold War End of History triumphalism that the liberals won seems hilariously quaint (if it didn’t then) as liberal democracy is eroded. For me, anyway, this is what Osama really gets to the heart of.
Joe’s search for the elusive Mike Longshott brings him nearer to his goal, but it also begins to blur the lines between his and our world. If I’ve made the novel sound overly didactic, I apologise; it is nothing of the sort and the merging of our world with that of Joe is handled well and adds further to the notion that the impact of terrorism is far beyond its physical effects.
This is an incredibly brave, but more importantly, assured novel from Tidhar. It deserves a wide readership and, I hope that I can encourage at least one person to read it.