Category Archives: Books

Osama bin Laden and the power of nightmares

A couple of days ago, I read what in retrospect was a fortuitously timed article on After detailing Osama bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora, Tim Lister ended by noting that OBL probably wasn’t hiding in the ‘tribal’ area on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border at all. He reckoned that the fugitive might be holed-up in the wilds of Kunar, a remote zone that includes places where “no man has set foot”. Lister was, as we know today, only half right. Osama bin Laden was actually hiding near Islamabad in what seems to have been relative comfort. He was shot dead last night by US special forces.

So the era of bin Laden at #1 on the FBI’s most wanted list (he was already there when the September 11th 2001 attacks happened), is over. I can’t help but feel that it makes little difference now. Because America has already accepted mortal head wounds as ‘justice’, permanent internment camps as ‘security’, and permanent war as normality.

Adam Curtis’s film “The Power of Nightmares” dealt with the twin forces of militant Islamism and neo-conservatism that ended up shaping much of the current geopolitical landscape. Together (and they must always be taken together, for they needed each other desperately), they succeeded in causing probably over a million deaths, most of which occurred in the middle-east. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend that you try to get hold of a copy. UPDATE: As Erik points out in the comments below, the film is available to watch or download for free at the Internet Archive.

If all this is making you nostalgic for the days of “Get this!” Iberian Notes, check out this online novel which features a familiar-sounding character. It’s eerie.

More national policy soon. Until then, sleep well: they haven’t invented their new nightmare yet.

Review: Barcelona – City Of Crime by Larry Kovaks

Barcelona - City Of Crime

Barcelona has something of a reputation when it comes to crime. Which is what you’d expect from any Mediterranean city packed to the rafters with tourists, sailors, hookers and grifters. It’s not exactly a dangerous place (Barcelona has a very low homicide rate) but plenty of bags get stolen and plenty of people get gypped. And that’s exactly why this city needs someone like Larry Kovaks whose latest (and first) book, City Of Crime, tells the story of one man’s fight against the ne’er-do-wells and miscreants (‘gypmeisters’) of the Ciutat Vella.

Consisting of a series of stories set in Barcelona’s old quarter, City Of Crime introduces the reader to the scams, tricks and mischief that take place right under any visitor’s nose. From illicit Chinese brothels (one has recently opened here in Cerdanyola, so the flyposted adverts say) to villainous dwarves, Kovaks lays bare the criminal heart of the city as well as its sordid underbelly, all in the gravelly voice of an American b-movie detective.

Kovaks, both the author and the star of the book (though I suspect that editor Andrew Minh deserves some praise for his work on the text), is an impressive beast of a man. His girth is only outsized by his quick wit (for the most part) and possibly his disgust with the bad boys and girls of Barcelona’s underworld. Fuelled by Ducado cigarettes, Voll Damm beer and Mascaró brandy, Kovaks fearlessly confronts the Tracksuit Mafia through the cold, piss-streaked streets of the Raval, like an 18-stone angel.

Much of the material in City Of Crime has been published on the web, both at Kovaks’s own website and in the pages of The New Entertainer. However, that shouldn’t deter readers from buying the printed edition which is attractively bound and features a brand new installment, The Danger Of The Perfect Brunette. My only criticism of the book would be that some of the earlier stories are somewhat short: this is a character who really comes into his own in the longer episodes.

A joy for residents of the Catalan capital and a forewarning for visitors, City Of Crime left me hungry for more. We can only hope that Kovaks, wherever he may be, gives us more of the goods in future editions.

Barcelona – City Of Crime by Larry Kovaks – 1/1
Buy the book online from Lulu here.

Things I like: O alienista (The Psychiatrist)

About eight years ago, I lived in Fremantle, Western Australia. I had a great time there, working as a door-to-door salesman (more on this in the future), getting into scrapes, going clubbing and listening to Royal trux and the Flaming Lips. I also indulged my habit of wondering around second-hand bookshops looking for new, interesting books that I thought I’d enjoy.

One such book was a collection of Latin American short stories edited by Thomas Colchie (it’s still available second-hand from Amazon or you could spend a pleasant afternoon in an actual shop, looking for it). The anthology is packed with moving and amusing stories by writers from all over Latin America, translated into English. At the time, I knew nothing about Latin American authors (still don’t, really), except that I had enjoyed the dreamy romance and masculine mendacity of Love In The Time of Cholera.

I devoured the collection and have read it several times since. But one story I always come back to, and must have read nine or ten times now is The Psychiatrist (O alienista) by the famed Brazilian author Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. First published in 1882, The Psychiatrist tells the story of one Dr. Simão Bacamarte, a famous physician who decides to start studying psychiatry. He constructs a mental hospital in the town of Itaguaí and begins the process of committing those who appear to be mentally ill according to his theories.

The story is an obvious metaphor for the abuse of science, power and authority on the part of Bacamarte but it’s also a stinging (and hilarious) indictment of bureaucracy, populism, demagoguery and selfishness. Another fascinating aspect of the story is that even though it was written in the 1880’s, if not before, it seems to gently foreshadow much of the madness that was coming with the century ahead.

In turn funny and thought-provoking, O alienista is also helped along by the very modern direct-narrative form employed by its author. Machado de Assis had a very interesting background as he was apparently the son of a mulatto housepainter and a Portuguese washerwoman, not an upbringing which one would expect to produce a famous writer and journalist (at least, not in the 19th century). His writing is clear, simple, witty and absorbing and The Psychiatrist almost feels like it might have been written in 1952.

If you’ve not been lucky enough to enjoy this fine piece of literature, I cannot recommend it strongly enough. It’s almost certainly available in numerous anthologies and if you find a copy of Colchie’s, it’ll be accompanied by a fine selection of great Latin American writing.

Update: Apparently, you can still buy the anthology I have, published under a different title.