A global cru­sader for com­mon sense

Tim John­ston I Wouldn’t Start from Here By Andrew Mueller Pi­cador, 460pp, $ 35

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THEY say truth is the first ca­su­alty of war, but more of­ten nowa­days com­mon sense is dead and buried long be­fore truth is sur­prised by the thump of an in­com­ing round. Andrew Mueller is a cru­sader for com­mon sense. In his book I Wouldn’t Start from Here he sets out to ‘‘ un­der­stand why na­tions, peo­ples and faiths seemed so self- de­struc­tively keen to cre­ate un­nec­es­sary mis­ery for them­selves and oth­ers’’.

Armed with lit­tle more than an in­quir­ing mind, his sense of hu­mour and a wind- up rab­bit called The Chicken, Mueller vis­its the places of mod­ern night­mares: Bagh­dad, Kabul, Gaza, Abk­hazia, Kosovo, ever on­ward and down­ward.

This is geopol­i­tics for the MTV gen­er­a­tion: fast paced, im­pres­sion­is­tic and with judg­ments doled out in snappy one- lin­ers.

And when ev­ery back­packer clutch­ing an air­line ticket and a well- thumbed Lonely Planet guide seems to think their ba­nal ob­ser­va­tions and clunky in­sider jokes merit book- length treat­ment, Mueller man­ages to stand above the crowd. A Lon­don- based for­mer rock jour­nal­ist who was born in Wagga Wagga, NSW, he’s an amus­ing and in­tel­li­gent com­pan­ion, an ac­ci­den­tal war correspondent who goes to the right places and isn’t fright­ened to ask some very fright­en­ing peo­ple the right ques­tions.

But if Mueller is able to keep his head when all about him are los­ing theirs, he re­mains sus­cep­ti­ble to his own ego. We learn more than needed about his ro­man­tic en­tan­gle­ments, and his chats with ubiq­ui­tous U2 front­man Bono that top and tail the book il­lu­mi­nate lit­tle more than that the au­thor is well con­nected.

How­ever, he avoids many of the more ob­vi­ous short­falls that spoil so many con­tem­po­rary books of its type. I Wouldn’t Start from Here isn’t clut­tered with ir­ri­tat­ing fac­toids culled from ill- re­searched travel guides. Mueller in­stead mines his gre­gar­i­ous na­ture to get the in­sights of or­di­nary peo­ple whose or­di­nar­i­ness is an ex­tra­or­di­nary achieve­ment given the con­di­tions un­der which many of them live.

This is an ad­di­tion to the genre founded by P. J. O’Rourke’s Hol­i­days in Hell , but it is one that pushes the bound­aries. If it starts as a romp through some of the world’s hell­holes, it ends as a polemic. Given that the episodes are not pre­sented in chrono­log­i­cal or­der, this isn’t ac­ci­den­tal; de­spite the lev­ity, Mueller is an­gry, and he has a point to make. He is par­tic­u­larly an­gered by the con­vo­luted ar­gu­ments used by apol­o­gists to jus­tify the man­i­fest in­jus­tices of man’s in­hu­man­ity to man: ‘‘ as­ton­ish­ing non­sense’’, as he calls it at one point.

He talks to smug for­mer Hezbol­lah fight­ers, key fig­ures in the Ir­ish Repub­li­can Army, a man who was once a leader of Al­ge­ria’s FLN, and through­out he man­ages to keep his moral com­pass aligned de­spite the pro­pa­ganda and bul­ly­ing of the ad­vo­cates of ha­tred, and in the con­text of the suf­fer­ing that besieges the places he’s visit­ing that’s no mean feat.

But there are some com­mon as­pects at the roots of many of the con­flicts he vis­its that are hinted at but not prop­erly ex­plored, par­tic­u­larly the ou­traged sense of vic­tim­hood that the lead­ers of all fac­tions in in­ternecine wars tend to nur­ture in their fol­low­ers.

It may pro­vide part of the an­swer to a ques­tion he asks af­ter visit­ing a resur­gent Ti­rana, the cap­i­tal of Al­ba­nia: ‘‘ Why were some places able to re­build, re­gen­er­ate, rise above the vi­o­lence and ret­ri­bu­tion, even when al­most no­body out­side their borders cared about them? And why did oth­ers sulk and fes­ter and fight de­spite bot­tom­less in­ter­na­tional con­cern, in­dul­gence and ex­pense?’’

His broad con­clu­sion seems to be that if peo­ple have the con­fi­dence to re­ject the di­vi­sive as­pects of faith or na­tion­al­ism or po­lit­i­cal dogma, and avoid the at­trac­tions of the apol­o­gists’ view — hold­ing on in­stead to the fact young sui­cide bombers who kill women and chil­dren are mur­der­ers and not mar­tyrs, for ex­am­ple — the world has the po­ten­tial to be a much nicer place.

In other words, he says, com­mon sense could be the an­swer for much of the strife that plagues the world. He’s got a point, but read­ing I Wouldn’t Start from Here , par­tic­u­larly the sec­tions on the Mid­dle East, I couldn’t help be­ing haunted by the rec­ol­lec­tion of the old saw that if you think you know the an­swers, you prob­a­bly don’t un­der­stand the ques­tion. Tim John­ston has re­ported ex­ten­sively from cen­tral and South­east Asia.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

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