Tuesday, August 28, 2007

If James Bond Had Been a Double Agent

I've posted a entertaining review of what sounds like a good page-turner about the life and antics of Eddie Chapman, World War II double agent, career criminal, famous seducer, film extra, adventurer, celebrity, and the subject of more than one movie in his time. He came from the Depression-era coalfields of the English midlands, was trained by both British and German intelligence, spoke many languages, had a photographic memory, and was rich and poor by turns. Quite a mid-century life of the man who described himself as always an "honest villain."

Iain Banks's "Complicity"

This is a novel I picked up when I was in Edinburgh in July. I've always liked Banks, who's part of a wave of Scottish and UK writers who are verbally more headlong, inventive, and crazy than their more decorous American counterparts (e.g. the eloquent but oddly confined Jonathan Franzen). Complicity came out in 1993, and tells the story of a group of college friends who came of age under Margaret Thatcher: by the time the book's action begins, they are in their mid-30s. The main character, Cameron, is a slightly crank-addicted whisky swilling investigative journalist who's trying to quit smoking and not O.D. on Intel 486-era video games. He works for a newspaper much like The Scotsman, headquartered in Edinburgh. He's having a hot and twisted, long-term affair with a college friend's wife. His closest childhood friend, Andy, joined the military, served in the Falklands War against Argentina (HMS Antelope sinks in the picture), became a start-up millionaire back in London, but has sold everything and is living as a recluse in a deteriorating former hotel in the Western Highlands.

The book is a thriller: Cameron the journalist is getting calls from a military "Deep Throat" source who claims that a series of suicides in the intelligence community were actually murders. He is getting burnt out by various wild-goose chases and goes to visit Andy in his gloomy, cavernous ruin somewhere near the Isle of Skye. The chapters describing his various sex, drugs, and reporter escapes are interspersed with scenes in which an unknown assailant kills one wealthy creep after another, though in a couple of cases stopping with mere humiliation. The killer's chapters are told in the second person: the book's first sentence is, "You hear the car after an hour and a half."

This continues through the first half of the novel. Around that time, the cops come to question Cameron in their investigation of the murders. The reason: a while earlier, Cameron had written a guest column in a magazine in which he named several right-wing powerbrokers who deserved worse than they got. The column was called "Radical Equaliser." And every name Cameron mentioned had been either beaten or killed.

Cameron is superpissed at Thatcherite parasites - speculators, arms dealers, the billionaire pillagers of the villagers. His column read like this (the cop quoting it to back to him in the police station):
Perhaps somebody should make one of these programmes for those of us who're fed up seeing the usual suspects get theirs (corrupt landlords, substance-abusing youths and of course the inevitable drug dealers; reprehensible villains all, no doubt, but too predictable, too safe) and introduce a Real Avenger, a Radical Equaliser who'll take on some alternative hate-figures. Somebody who'll give people like James Anderton, Judge Jamieson and Sir Toby Bissett a taste of their own medicine, somebody who'll attack the asset strippers and the arms smugglers (ministers of HMG included - listening, Mr Persimmon?); somebody who'll stand up against the tycoons who put their profits before others' safety, like Sir Rufus Carter; somebody who'll punish the captains of industry who parrot that time-honoured phrase about their shareholders' interests coming first as they close down profitable factories and throw thousands out of work, just so that their already comfortable investors in the Home Countries and Marbella can make that little bit extra that always comes in so handy darling when you're thinking about trading up to a 7-series Beamer or moving the gin-palace to a more expensive mooring.
Did Cameron actually kill them? Unlikely, of course: he does enough speed to do it, but he lives too much in his head. Someone who knows him well did do these crimes. If it's not actually Cameron himself, then who? As his relations with the cops take a sudden bad turn, Cameron has to solve their cases for them, which he does in a long series of flashbacks that take him back to his childhood, other parts of Scotland, other conversations about the undercurrents of Thatcherite England.

It would be interesting to know whether Banks saw the unknown Canadian masterpiece Clearcut (1991), which came out two years before his novel. In that film, a progressive city lawyer is offered a chance to move from complaint to direct action, and the film is brilliantly ruthless in showing just how unwilling he is to turn words to deeds. A pairing is set up between a main figure who thinks, writes, and rages, and an alterego who acts on the thought, and who may or may not be the main figure himself.

Both film and book are great at showing what the deeds actually look like. They look like what we now call terrorism. They create terror. And, unlike newspaper columns, terrorism makes an immediate difference.

Here's the voice of the (affluent, well-educated, Scottish) terrorist:
You know the evidence: the world already produces . . . we already produce enough food to feed every starving child on earth, but still a third of them go to bed hungry. And it is our fault; that starvation's caused by debtor countries having to abandon their indigenous foods to grow cash crops to keep the World Bank or the IMF or Barclays happy, or to service debts run up by murdering thugs who slaughtered their way into power and slaughtered their way through it, usually with the connivance and help of one part of the developed world or another.

We could have something perfectly decent right now - not Utopia, but a fairly equitable world state where there was no malnutrition and no terminal diarrhoea and nobody died of silly wee diseases like measles - if we all really wanted it, if we weren't so greedy, so racist, so bigoted, so basically self-centered. Fucking hell, even that self-centeredness is farcically stupid; we know smoking kills people but we still let the drug barons of BAT and Philip Morris and Imperial Tobacco kill their millions and make their billions; smart, educated people like us know smoking kills but we still smoke ourselves!

. . . The point is, there's no feasible excuse for what we are, for what we have made of ourselves. We have chosen to put profits before people, money before morality, dividends before decency, fanaticism before fairness, and our own trivial comforts before the unspeakable agonies of others.
Complicity asks the classic Noir questions:

  • Are you OK with the law of the Strong ruling and destroying the Weak?
  • If not, what are you going to do?
  • Will anything you do work against the Strong - anything except violence?
Or in Clearcut's formulation: you dreamed anger, and your anger is real.

The Tragic Intersection of Two Families

I've posted a piece from the LA Times about a "gang killing" in Pico Rivera - a piece with unusual depth and decent sympathy for both of the two main families involved, including the one from which the most recent shooters came. The victim, Maria Elena Hicks, is shown at left. R.I.P. for a woman who worked endlessly and looked out for her town all of her life.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Mafia Erupts Again

On August 15, 2007, a machine gun assault killed six Italian mobsters in an Italian restaurant in the western German city of Duisburg. Germany was alarmed, to put it mildly. The story got coverage all over the world, and included this summary from Japan Today:

German and Italian authorities say the gangland killing was a vendetta against a 25-year-old man identified as Marco Marmo who was suspected of shooting the wife of a crime family boss on Christmas Day 2006.

Her death heated up a bloody quarrel between the rival Nirta-Strangio and Vottari-Pelle clans based in the southern region of Calabria, who have been feuding since a 1991 Valentine's Day brawl.

However, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported that the massacre was actually linked to a battle for control of the market for Colombian narcotics.

The deputy prosecutor in Reggio di Calabria, Nicola Gratteri, warned that more bloodshed was likely still to come.
All the classic elements are here: the eternal cycle of kill and be killed and kill again, the permanence of the vedentas, the tangle of money and sociopathic rage. The deeper money story is probably arms trafficking, a competitive but lucrative business in a world awash in arms of every kind and endlessly at war.

The LA Times ran a backgrounder today, with a familiar but well-done storyline of towns both complicit and held hostage by interlocking tribes of warring men. Note the crucial subtheme: mafias and poverty go hand in hand. The law of the gun blocks social development, period - always and forever.

Reminds me of my favorite obscure book title: "Men are Not Cost Effective."

the backgrounder follows below. Noir: the kernel of the Real.


Killings cast light on an Italian mob
The residents of San Luca bury five young men killed in a feud as the 'Ndrangheta drug cartel gets unwanted scrutiny.

By Tracy Wilkinson and Maria De Cristofaro
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

August 24, 2007

SAN LUCA, ITALY — Three coffins were delivered to a waiting town just before dusk. Old men and women, their tough-looking sons and their grieving neighbors filled the main square and stood in near silence as church bells tolled and a police helicopter hovered above.

Then the people of San Luca, home to a raging mob feud, broke into steady and loud applause as each coffin was carried into the Santa Maria della Pieta church and laid on an altar awash in white roses and lilies.

Funerals were held Thursday here and in a nearby town for five of the six Italian men killed last week in a machine-gun ambush in Germany, part of what authorities said was a battle involving factions of one of Italy's least known but most powerful criminal gangs, the 'Ndrangheta. The group, which has grown stronger and wealthier in recent years as it shifted from kidnappings to drug and weapons trafficking, is said to take in tens of billions of dollars in illicit revenue annually.

Fearing reprisal killings, police inspected cars arriving at the funerals Thursday and banned the traditional procession from the church to the cemetery. But some relatives vowed not to avenge but to forgive -- wearing white instead of black.

The slayings outside a pizzeria in Duisburg, Germany, cast a spotlight on the highly secretive drug cartel that is based here in the Calabria region of southern Italy. They also stunned Italians because of the level of brutality (one of the dead was just 16) and the way in which the violence had spilled onto foreign soil.

"We have hit bottom," Father Giuseppe Strangio said as he prepared to eulogize Francesco Giorgi, the 16-year-old, and two others. "Something has got to change."

Choosing unusually blunt language, the priest, who shares a last name with one of the feuding clans, implored his congregation to choose justice and "not the weapons of hatred and vendetta."

"My request -- my appeal -- is that we condemn energetically any type of Mafia," he said. "We must condemn and rebel against this evil that perverts the good in each one of us. . . . We are all responsible."

Some in the congregation cast their eyes downward as the priest spoke. Most of the mourners filling the pews were women, with a few rows of men in the back. Several hundred grim-faced men, and more women, stood outside through the hour-long service.

In the 'Ndrangheta's tight-knit and insular culture, it is often said that the women determine the spilling of blood and the waging of vendettas. At the funeral here, both Francesco's mother, Teresa, and the mother of another of the dead men, Marco Marmo, said they were prepared to forgive the killers.

If that proves sincere, another bloodbath that many officials fear might be averted. But some authorities remained convinced that the rancor would continue to fester and eventually explode again.

Police believe Marmo was the intended target of the Aug. 15 hit, with the other five victims becoming collateral damage when the group left the pizzeria together after a birthday party. Marmo had fled to Germany a few days before the ambush purportedly to escape threatened retaliation.

The San Luca feud, as it is known, began 16 years ago when families fought over something involving carnival celebrations. Roughly one person a year was killed until 2000, when something of a truce took effect.

But last Christmas, the feud erupted anew when a gunman (possibly Marmo, according to police) attempted to kill the leader of one clan over disputes in the drug business. The gunman failed, but killed the man's wife, unleashing another spasm of violence.

This kind of internecine killing is, in a way, a mere sideshow to the gigantic business that the 'Ndrangheta manages.

Authorities say the 'Ndrangheta (pronounced en-DRAHN-geh-tah) controls an illicit empire that hauls in an estimated $50 billion annually from drug and weapons trafficking, extortion and counterfeiting. By dealing directly with Colombian cartels and nudging out other competitors, the 'Ndrangheta now has a near monopoly on the cocaine trade in Europe, according to Nicola Gratteri, lead anti-mob prosecutor in Calabria.

Though the Sicily-based Cosa Nostra has dominated the headlines and popular culture for a generation, it has in reality been eclipsed by its Calabrian counterpart in terms of power and wealth, Gratteri said.

Like other crime syndicates, the 'Ndrangheta emerged two centuries ago and evolved after World War II, in part as a protection racket in sorely neglected southern Italy. Its name derives from a Greek word meaning heroism or virtue. It also made big scores by kidnapping the children of Italian industrialists and other wealthy families.

(One of the most notorious cases was the 1973 abduction in Rome of the grandson of J. Paul Getty. His kidnappers cut off his ears and mailed them to a newspaper before a ransom eventually won his release.)

Eventually the 'Ndrangheta halted the kidnappings, which brought undesired police scrutiny, and shifted to drugs and smuggling. A key to its success has been its ability to maintain a low profile and to co-opt local politicians, even as it spread its criminal branches beyond southern Italy to the rest of Europe and to Australia and Latin America.

Another key is its structure, which is almost completely based on family. Couples are generally encouraged to have five or more children to give the syndicate an ample pool of trusted foot soldiers. Families often intermarry, as well, to maintain the networks. This makes the 'Ndrangheta far more impenetrable than other crime syndicates, authorities say. Several years ago when the government offered reduced sentences to those who would turn state's evidence, more than 1,000 Cosa Nostra members accepted. But fewer than 50 turncoats have presented themselves from the 'Ndrangheta, Gratteri said.

"To say anything, a turncoat from the 'Ndrangheta would have to talk about 300 relatives," Gratteri, a prosecutor for 18 years, said during an interview in his armored BMW as he drove to an appointment. His bodyguards followed in two police cars.

"They are harder than granite. They are the most compact and the less visible, but by far the most dangerous."

Whatever great fortunes the Calabrian mob is amassing, they are not visible here in its homeland, where Calabria's spectacular if shoddily developed coast gives way just a few miles inland to jagged mountains covered with olive trees and cactus.

San Luca, a town that could not be called pretty, sits haphazardly along these ridges at the edge of the Aspromonte range. Its roads are rutted, its trash uncollected. Some houses that started to fall down were left that way; others were halted in mid-construction. There are scores of cars with German license plates, and no outward signs of wealth or even prosperity.

Authorities say the riches are invested elsewhere, in affluent northern Italy and other parts of Europe. It leaves this area as desolate as ever, fertile ground for criminal organizations and despair.

"Young people especially are forced to leave. There is no work and no education," said a 20-year-old bartender named Giuseppe.

The day before the funerals, the people of San Luca eyed visitors with angry suspicion. They were fed up with prying journalists, resentful of being portrayed as a nest of gangsters and, presumably, were on the lookout for any stranger who might try to carry out the revenge that most people were predicting.

San Luca, like a few rural Italian communities, clings to traditions. Knots of men sat outside cafes, played cards, drank beer and swapped stories in the town's unkempt plazas. Nary a woman was in sight.

"We are honest people," a shopkeeper in her 40s said as she scolded a journalist to "write the truth."

Like everyone spoken to, she would not give her name and mentioned being terrified no fewer than three times in a 20-minute conversation. "Just because there are four or five jerks," she said, "the whole town is criminalized."

But when asked about the upcoming funeral, she said she would be there. Out of "solidarity," she confided.


Monday, August 06, 2007

King of Noir

That would be this man, John Le Carre, who defined the Cold War thriller with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and who has never let up. His last books have focused on Africa - in this case, the eastern Congo where it borders on Rwanda. The forces at work there are the same as those he found underlying the Cold War, the ones we've been calling "noir."

My friend Elizabeth Robinson gave me Le Carre's new book, The Mission Song, for my birthday last September, but I didn't have time to read it until last week when I was in Vienna, where Hapsburg imperial history has been lovingly preserved and traces of the Cold War completely erased. This is a appropriate enough, since for Le Carre postcolonial African history is an extension of both the colonial period and the Cold War overlay.

The novel is told in the first person by a professional interpreter who is called in to work at a secret summit among rival leaders of an area in the eastern Congo that has been plundered by Rwandans to the east and the Congolese capital "fatcats" in Kinshasa 2000 kilometers to the west. The point of the summit is for the rival parties to come together under a new leader and create the conditions for peaceful trade and prosperous development. The sponsor is, importantly, not the British government acting openly, but a nameless business consortium run by apparently realistic idealists who, aware of the facts on the ground, will do well by doing good - well by minerals, good by a new elder statesman come to unite.

I had trouble getting through the first 50 pages because the narrator is such a prat (the Britishism means ass, but, at least in my mind, an ass who binds with elites and looks down on regular people). He is of mixed race, cultures, and nationalities, and in part because he grew up in an interesting crossroads in Central Africa speaks maybe a dozen languages with a perfect ear. But then, as in all Le Carre novels, and in life, the trap door opens and the ride begins.

I won't say more about the plot, which has Le Carre's trademark of multiple reversals. The book is quite good at laying out the standard rules of noir, which came originally as much from Le Carre as from Hammett or Chandler or anyone else:
Rule 1: the official story is a cover story.
Rule 2: to understand anything, you have to stop hearing only what you want to hear.
Rule 3: rulers seek only money and power
Rule 4: rulers admire coercive force, believe in it, and will always use it.
Rule 5: your opposition to any of this, when it becomes effective, will put you in mortal danger.

One of the leaders being forced to the table by the syndicate spells all this out in a compact way. He is being coerced into saying who his contacts in Kinshasa are, and he replies like this:

You want to know who they are, these wise guys in Kinshasa I spoke to? Your fucking friends! . . . the fatcats [your guy] won't have anything to do with till he's built Jerusalem in Kivu! [eastern Congo] You know what they call themselves, this band of altruistic public servants when they're swilling beer and screwing whores and deciding which kind of Mercedes to buy? - the Thirty Per Cent Club. What's thirty per cent? Thirty per cent is the People's Portion that they propose to award themselves in exchange for favours they are granting to the Middle Path. It's the piece of this crappy operation that persuades arseholes like my father that they can build schools and roads and hospitals while they line their fucking pockets. What do these fatcats have to do to earn themselves the People's Portion? What they like to do best: nothing. Look the other way. Tell their troops to stay in their barracks and stop raping people for a few days.

[Now pretending to speak to the new hero-leader backed by the corporation: "No problem. . . You want to stage a couple of riots in Bukavu and Goma, take the place over ahead of the elections, kick out the Rwandans and start a little war? No problem! You want to grab Kavumu airport, play the minerals game, steal the stockpiles, take them to Europe and depress the world market with a short-sell? Do it! One small detail. We distribute the People's Portion, not you. And how we distribute it is our fucking business. You want your [guy] to be Governor of South Kivu? He has our total, selfless support. Because every fucking building contract he awards, every road he thinks he's going to build and every fucking flower he plants along the Avenue Patrice Lumumba, we take one-third. And if you shit on us, we'll throw the constitutional book at you, we'll run you out of the country in your fucking underwear. Thank you for your time.
Le Carre has always excelled at setting up the binary oppositions by which we order our world: capitalist vs. communist, freedom vs. tyranny, civilized vs. savage. But with him it's always a set up. He gets us to ask the question, are we really the opposite of our enemy? Or do we resemble each other in some ways. We aren't the same as our enemy, or our appointed "other." But aren't we closer than we think? So here the question is, isn't London (or Washington DC) more like Kinshasa than we think?

Noir Rule 6: fighting the corruption of your enemy means first fighting it in yourself.