Bookmarks: Why the trouble with Brexit is the Troubles
A bi-weekly column on books, reviews and writers
All borders, it is said, are hard – something that may become tragically apparent for the residents of Belfast after March 29 when Little England drags the rest of the British Isles from the European Union. The decision to sever ties with Europe crops up only in the last pages of Patrick Radden Keefe’s superb new book, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (William Collins).
“It would be ironic, to say the least,” Keefe writes, “if one inadvertent long-term consequence of the Brexit referendum was a united Ireland – an outcome that three decades of appalling bloodshed and some 3,500 lost lives had failed to achieve.”
But as Irish novelist and dramatist Roddy Doyle has noted, Brexit’s more likely outcome would be a fresh border – right on top of the old one. Reviewing Keefe’s book for the New York Times, he pointed out that the border between the Republic of Ireland and Britain began to grow less relevant in 1973, when both countries joined the Common Market, the forerunner of the EU.
“The border is there,” Doyle writes, “but hard to discern; ‘Spot the Border’ is a popular game with people driving across it. Driving north, the kilometres become miles and the road signs are in English instead of both English and Gaelic. But there’s no evidence of the checkpoints or observation towers that were there before the Good Friday Agreement.”
The border dividing Ireland is 499km long. It is crossed by about 200 roads; some of them do so two or three times. After March 29, Doyle emphasises, this division will become the only land border dividing Britain from the EU: “There will be checkpoints; there might also be observation towers. There will be men and women in uniform; there might also be armed soldiers with English and Scottish accents. There will be trouble, and there might also be Troubles.”
Doyle, like many others, has stressed that Keefe’s gripping account unpacks, in a profoundly human manner, a past that denies and defines the region’s future. “Say Nothing,” he concludes, “is an excellent account of the Troubles; it might also be a warning.”
Melanie Reid, a critic with the Times of London, has noted that Keefe, a staff writer with the New Yorker, is an American, which counted in his favour. “Only an outsider could have written a book this good,” she writes. “Irish or British writers are tainted by provenance … If conclusions are possible, Keefe’s is that everyone became complicit in the terror … I can’t praise this book enough: it’s erudite, accessible, compelling, enlightening. I thought I was bored by Northern Ireland’s past until I read it.”
ANOTHER LONG DIVISION
Which brings us, appropriately, to crime writer Don Winslow’s epic The Border (HarperCollins), the concluding novel in his monumental Cartel trilogy, which examines, in Dickensian sprawl, the Mexican drug cartels, on one side of the fence, and, on the other, the US dealers, fixers and addicts who keep the narco-traffic moving. Stuck between the two is Winslow’s protagonist, the US Drug Enforcement Agency operative Art Keller.
For more than four decades, Keller has been after Adán Barrera, the fictional godfather who Winslow has placed at the head of the real-life Sinaloa cartel. It’s an obsession, explored in 2009’s The Power of the Dog and 2015’s The Cartel, that has come at great cost. With Barrera out of the way, convoys of narcos arrive to pay their respects at his funeral in the Mexican hills – then fight one another to the death to succeed him.
This is bloody, hard-hitting and punchy writing from Winslow, who argues that the governments on both sides of the border are not waging a war against drugs, but rather waging a war to manage its trade, this being a major US industry — and one demanding scrutiny in a major US novel. The Border could well do the trick, stuffed as it is with dramatic subplots in which characters come and go and are killed off with dramatic frequency. This is hardcore thriller writing at its best.
Another recent crime fiction recommendation is Sam Bourne’s To Kill the Truth (Quercus). Bourne made headlines in 2017 with To Kill the President, in which his regular protagonist, seasoned Washington political “fixer” Maggie Costello, discovers a plot to assassinate a US president – the unique difference here being that this is not an altogether bad thing: the US has just elected a volatile, and rather Trumpish demagogue to the White House whose war of words with North Korea is bringing the world to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe. Does Costello save Potus and leave the free world at the mercy of an increasingly crazed would-be tyrant, or commit treason by letting the commander-in-chief have it and risk plunging the US into civil war?
Costello returns in To Kill the Truth, and this time more anarchy is in the offing. Persons unknown are trying to wipe out evidence of history’s greatest crimes. Academics and Holocaust survivors are being murdered in mysterious circumstances, as museums and libraries are attacked. Out on the streets, Black Lives Matter demonstrators clash with slavery deniers and neo-Nazis. Someone, however, stands to gain from all this chaos and a world without truth, and Costello’s on their case.
“The history of the United States,” according to the historian Daniel Immerwahr, “is the history of Empire.” That most Americans are unaware of this and may even take issue with such an assertion, he argues in his provocative new work, How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States (Bodley Head), is all due to a convenient myopia. And some rather clever semantics.
Consider, Immerwahr argues, that by 1945 the US had the fifth largest empire in the world, with 19 million subjects in her colonies. Only they weren’t called “colonies” but “territories”. As George W Bush insisted, in 2004: “We’re not an imperial power, we’re a liberating power.” Such “liberating” stretches back to the time of US independence; those who opened up the American West were all but colonisers in name, for this was not an “empire” but a “frontier”, and here were “settlers” who lived in humble cabins and not colonial estates. The killings and theft were just the same, however. War and disease cut the Native American population by some 90%. The imperial quest didn’t stop at California but continued into the Pacific. The US claimed almost 100 islands in the ocean as territory to satisfy demand by farmers for guano, or nitrogen fertiliser. More convenient fertiliser sources would be found, but some of these islands, conveniently, became US military bases. The rather brief Spanish-American War of 1898 provides perhaps a more traditional example of empire-building, as the US “liberated” Spanish colonies and took control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. Cuba was an American protectorate until 1902 and the Philippines until 1946, but Guam remains US territory as does Puerto Rico.
The latter exists in a sort of territorial twilight zone. Its people are considered US citizens but cannot vote in federal elections, and Washington refuses to grant Puerto Rico statehood, a reluctance that is fundamentally racist. US labour laws do not apply here, so the island is a haven for exploitative industrialists. What’s more, over the years, Puerto Ricans have been subjected to a host of medical experiments, ranging from mustard gas to contraceptive pills. Nothing demonstrated US contempt for the island as clearly as Donald Trump’s response to the devastation following 2017 Hurricane Maria. Here was an attitude of disdain that was as blatant and reprehensible as any of the 19th century’s more traditional villains, from Leopold to Rhodes.
Samuel Moyn, professor of law and history at Yale University, has described How To Hide an Empire as a breakthrough in “our collective understanding” of the US’s role in the world. “[Immerwahr’s] narrative of the rise of our colonial empire outside North America, and then our surprising pivot from colonisation to globalisation after World War 2, is enthralling in the telling – and troubling for anyone pondering our nation’s past and future. The result is a book for citizens and scholars alike.”
Readers requiring a more cerebral response to the culture’s present Oscar-crazed pap could do worse than seek out Adina Hoffman’s Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures (Yale University Press). Rightly regarded as both the anarchic bad boy of Hollywood’s 1930s and 1940s heyday as well as its most influential screenwriter, Hecht was an Oscar-winner who famously loathed Tinsel Town.
Hecht was born in 1894, and his first choice of career was journalism. He was working as a crime reporter when in 1927 he received what is regarded as “the most legendary” telegram in movie history, from his friend Herman Mankiewicz: “Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures. All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.” Hecht used his newspaperman’s knowledge of the Chicago underworld to toss off dozens of now-classic scripts, including (the original) Scarface and Notorious, and became one of Hollywood’s most outspoken and quick-witted provocateurs. During World War 2, he emerged as an outspoken crusader for the Jews of Europe, and became an impassioned Zionist. Hecht harshly denounced the British occupation of Palestine to the extent that he was once labelled the US’s “Number One Britain hater”, a notoriety that he welcomed. His star has dimmed somewhat since his death in 1964, but Hoffman’s playful and vivid account of this charismatic and contradictory figure, part of Yale’s Jewish Lives imprint, could stir up renewed interest.
THE BOTTOM LINE
“Europeans didn’t win in the end: Their empires fell, and their military capacity shrivelled. Even the United States has experienced more defeats than victories against non-Western forces over the last half-century.” – Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order by JC Sharman (Princeton University Press).