The book is a must read for those who are interested in war and peace, and the place of democratic idealism in the world of realpolitik
By Saeed ur Rehman
Try the Morgue: A Novel
Author: Eva Maria Staal
Translated from the Dutch by Pim Verhulst
Publisher: Liveright, 2012
There are many things that make this book stand out when you browse the fiction list of any bookseller. The book defies categories. It is fiction but the author is not willing to reveal her identity because the novelist, like the protagonist, has also been a weapons dealer. Some reviewers call it an autobiographical novel, a point further complicated or substantiated by the fact that the pseudonymous author has the same name as the protagonist. The Dutch publisher has also claimed that the book is based on actual events.
If the book is based on real happenings, we are living in a very scary world where greed, power, and profit are the prime movers and everything is up for grabs. The state of nature, a war of all against all, is not eliminated by modern institutions but rather accelerated by them.
In primitive times, violence made both the perpetrator and the victim vulnerable by bringing them in close proximity. You had to go near your victim to stab him with a dagger or hit him with a club. Rationality started increasing the distance between the perpetrator and the victim. The distance also helped reduce any moral pangs of the perpetrator. You are less likely to feel guilty if you do not see the consequences of your violent stratagems.
But the protagonist of this novel is convinced that a good pay and a personal connection with the Chinese-Canadian employer are valid enough reasons to join the global network of weapons dealers: “[my boss] sees in me things that I don’t see, that no one sees. Not even Martin [my life partner].”
From the first assignment, exchanging a cache of guns for a baby left behind in China by a couple running from the Chinese re-education gulags, to the last, procuring children for camel races in UAE, it is a thrilling, rather chilling, read.
The chapters are divided into alternative versions of the protagonists life as it has changed over time. Then and Now are convenient pointers for the reader to figure out that the criminal past has now been replaced by a cosy family life and the suspense is sustained by the curiosity of the reader to find out how the transition from the high-flying cutthroat life to a cosy life of a homemaker and a mother took place.
There is plenty of material for Pakistani readers as well. And, if the publisher’s claims that the book is based on real events are true, Pakistan is also a scary country. During the reading, this reviewer started wishing for all this to be pure fiction. The protagonist meets and deals with almost all the sensitive parts of our security establishment and even gets sexually molested by them.
The moral unravelling of the protagonist takes place when she visits Balochistan to procure Afghan war orphans for adoption in the UAE and later learns that the children are used as camel jockeys and are deliberately kept undernourished so that they don’t slow the camel down during a race. It is one of the scariest real life scenarios in almost any contemporary novel and there are many in this novel.
There is a description of biological weapons that is difficult to categorise as horror, science fiction or the arrival of the moment when the human capacity for scientific inquiry and innovation will turn upon itself and eliminate the species itself:
“I learn a lot the next few weeks. About how freeze-dried microorganisms endure being used as heavy weaponry. About the technique for detecting aerosol particles that measure 0.8 by 4 microns and have a density of 1 gram per cubic centimetre: roughly the volume of an anthrax spore. And about micro-encapsulation: a “packing method” to protect germs from heat, oxygen, light and drying out. I read about microcapsules that, due to gas generation, open up in sunlight. Fired at night, they slumber, like their future victims, until just after the start of a new day.”
The consequences of this nefarious relationship between scientific innovation, war industry, and the human desire for profit are also made obvious when the author visits war-torn places, such as Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, while the skirmishes are still underway. The analysis of Chechnya, as presented in this novel, could teach a thing or two to our warmongering strategists.
The parallels between Chechnya and Pakistan are too obvious after reading this passage: “Three plotlines tell the story of this area. The battle between radical Muslims and nonradical Muslims, the inequality between the corrupt elite and regular citizens, and the war between the Russian Federation and Chechnya.” Replace the Russian Federation with any external force that is hostile to Pakistan and add a violent conflict between the minority of radical Muslims and the majority of nonradical Muslims, you can have the Battle of Grozny here.
All in all, it is a rewarding read that could cure the reader of his or her idealism and utopian daydreaming. It is also a testimony that Clausewitz had it right when proclaimed “war is not a mere act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means.” The other means of ruling the world are the main professional concerns of the protagonist of this novel.
Therefore it is a must read for those who are interested in war and peace and the place of democratic idealism in the world of realpolitik. The lessons that the protagonist learns make her give up her deadly occupation. The readers can also learn this lesson.
Published in The News on Sunday
dated June 02, 2013