A global crusader for common sense
Tim Johnston I Wouldn’t Start from Here By Andrew Mueller Picador, 460pp, $ 35
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.