Out of war’s

James Meek finds truth in nov­els harder than hon­esty in jour­nal­ism, Jane Corn­well writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IF it’s all right with me, James Meek would rather not an­a­lyse his latest novel, We are Now Be­gin­ning Our De­scent . ‘‘ No one ever wants to talk about writ­ing in gen­eral,’’ laments the diminu­tive au­thor and jour­nal­ist, sit­ting in an East End cafe on a rain- sod­den Lon­don af­ter­noon. ‘‘ I do all th­ese lit­er­ary events and I’m never asked how a book comes to be, or what nov­els are for.’’ He sips his cof­fee, un­apolo­get­i­cally.

Such se­ri­ous­ness of pur­pose im­bues Meek’s fiction. From his 1989 de­but McFar­lane Boils the Sea to his ac­claimed short story col­lec­tions and 2005’ s The Peo­ple’s Act of Love — a Siberia- set his­tor­i­cal tale one reviewer called ‘‘ a mod­ern Heart of Dark­ness and Apoc­a­lypse Now fused with great Rus­sian masters such as Tol­stoy and Dos­toyevsky’’ — a re­spect for the craft of writ­ing, along with a will­ing­ness to em­brace chal­leng­ing ma­te­rial lends his work pal­pa­ble in­tegrity. As it does his multi- award win­ning jour­nal­ism: Moscow correspondent for The Guardian from 1994- 99, the Scot­land- raised Meek has cov­ered the Afghan war and the fall of Kabul, re­ported from Iraq and on Guan­tanamo Bay.

‘‘ Af­ter 9/ 11 I did a huge amount of trav­el­ling,’’ says the be­spec­ta­cled 44- year- old, whose slightly frag­ile de­meanour be­lies, one sus­pects, a steely core. His im­pres­sion­is­tic pieces deftly cap­tured — and con­tinue to cap­ture — the mood and at­mos­phere of a par­tic­u­lar place at a par­tic­u­lar time. ‘‘ There’s a lot in this book about the im­pulse to visit new and dif­fi­cult places. About cross­ing bound­aries, whether it’s to blow up a sky­scraper or to try and have sex with some­body. Be­ing a war re­porter is just a tiny part of that.’’

Meek the war re­porter is pre­pared for the in­evitable art- life queries about his new, fourth novel. ‘‘ I’ve drawn on my own bi­og­ra­phy,’’ he con­cedes, ‘‘ though not ex­actly my own ex­pe­ri­ences. It’s dif­fi­cult to write about jour­nal­ists be­cause it’s such an odd pro­fes­sion; there is some­thing fun­da­men­tally re­pel­lent about it.’’ His pro­tag­o­nist Adam Kel­las is a writer and war re­porter who, an­chor­less in the wake of a breakup and any real creative ful­fil­ment ( sick of pen­ning lit­er­ary nov­els that don’t sell he is writ­ing a crass anti- Amer­i­can thriller to make his for­tune), ac­cepts a war as­sign­ment in Afghanistan in 2001. There he meets a beau­ti­ful Amer­i­can re­porter, the elu­sive Astrid, with whom he be­comes ob­sessed. ‘‘ My af­flic­tions don’t flour­ish here,’’ she tells him at the start, a com­ment that Kel­las, wrapped in ado­ra­tion, lets slide.

‘‘ It’s a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of mine,’’ of­fers the re­cently sin­gle Meek, one of four chil­dren born to a Scot­tish fa­ther and mother of Hun­gar­ian Jewish de­scent, whose own fa­ther was a nov­el­ist and war re­porter. ‘‘ How can you know an­other per­son, an­other coun­try? Here you have a per­son imag­in­ing some­body they think they love in a cer­tain way. Not re­ally know­ing them, mak­ing them up.’’

Just as The Peo­ple’s Act of Love ( set in the outer reaches of a coun­try re­cently torn apart by civil war) dealt with the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the in­di­vid­ual and greater events, so does We are Now Be­gin­ning Our De­scent look at the way per­sonal pas­sions and fears in­ter­act or oth­er­wise, with ideals. ‘‘ Very of­ten there’s a fail­ure of in­ti­macy be­tween coun­tries as well. Peo­ple imag­ine an­other coun­try be­ing some­thing which it re­ally is not.’’

When the cou­ple be­come in­volved in the deaths of two Tal­iban driv­ers, their deaths ob­served — all the more shock­ingly — from a dis­tance ( and while Kel­las is on the phone to his mother), Kel­las is pre­oc­cu­pied with no­tions of com­plic­ity and guilt. ‘‘ I was ac­tu­ally in that sit­u­a­tion, in that place,’’ of­fers Meek. ‘‘ There was no wo­man there — that side of things I imag­ined — but I was ask­ing ques­tions of this Tal­iban com­man­der and I did think his tank was bro­ken. Be­cause I said, out of cu­rios­ity, ‘ Why don’t you shoot at those guys?’, his nat­u­ral re­sponse was to be of­fended and to or­der the tank to shoot. They missed, but not by much.’’

So how com­plicit, then, are Astrid and Kel­las? How com­plicit was he? Meek pauses, sighs. ‘‘ That’s some­thing that pre­oc­cu­pies the more

thought­ful and neu­rotic re­porter in­volved in th­ese sit­u­a­tions,’’ he says care­fully. ‘‘ Michael Herr in his book about Viet­nam ( 1977’ s Dis­patches ) talks about that; he ac­tu­ally took up arms to give cov­er­ing fire to a sol­dier go­ing out to pick up an in­jured comrade. That is rare, of course. Though dur­ing the Iraq war I did hear of an embed­ded pho­tog­ra­pher be­ing is­sued with an M16. If you’re with a group of sol­diers and they’re fir­ing, what do you do? As Herr says, ‘ They’re my guys and they’re fir­ing for me’. It’s cer­tainly some­thing I’ve won­dered about and I know other war re­porters have as well.’’

Meek has said that it is harder to be truth­ful in fiction than it is to be hon­est in jour­nal­ism, that it is harder to tell the truth about your­self rather than sim­ply re­port what is hap­pen­ing. Writ­ing and the truth and lies of fiction and imag­in­ing are key themes of We Are Now Be­gin­ning Our De­scent . Kel­las, pre­oc­cu­pied with Astrid and her coun­try, sets out for the US be­liev­ing he has a con­nec­tion with both. Astrid is emo­tion­ally out of reach. His book con­tract, in the wake of 9/ 11, comes to nought.

‘‘ What is a plan but imag­i­na­tion of the fu­ture? You can write a plan in which the fu­ture has an un­re­al­is­tic happy end­ing, which is what some of the plans made by gov­ern­ments over the last few years have been. Peo­ple are al­ways ask­ing nov­el­ists where they get their ideas from,’’ con­tin­ues Meek, ‘‘ but maybe we politi­cians where they get theirs?’’

Meek is stick­ing closer to home for his next, asyet- un­ti­tled novel. ‘‘ It’s set mainly in Lon­don,’’ he says. ‘‘ I’m se­ri­ously think­ing about writ­ing a travel book called A Jour­ney to My Neigh­bours.’’

In be­tween, how­ever, Meek will be jour­ney­ing to the Ade­laide Writ­ers Week, on his first visit to Aus­tralia. Where, he hopes, ques­tions will be asked on char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment, on truth and sin­cer­ity and writ­ing in gen­eral.

And maybe — just maybe — on what nov­els are for. Which is? Meek bright­ens, draws breath. ‘‘ The novel is the only art form that, if it’s good, ac­tu­ally cre­ates in the con­scious­ness of the reader a sec­ond life par­al­lel to their own,’’ he says an­i­mat­edly. ‘‘ A novel has a scale and de­tail and pulse which only your own life has. So for a reader to have a good book on the go is like hav­ing a sec­ond pulse. In the same way as you can put down par­tic­u­lar strands of mem­o­ries of peo­ple you know and places you’ve been and pick them up again later,’’ he con­tin­ues, ‘‘ so you can with a book. You can put it down and pick it up again a lit­tle later and that pulse is still beat­ing.’’

He flashes a rare smile. ‘‘ To make it work is a great thing,’’ he says with a hint of sat­is­fac­tion. ‘‘ A re­ally great thing to do.’’



James Meek is a guest at Ade­laide Writ­ers Week.

YOU could be for­given for read­ing the open­ing pas­sage of James Meek’s novel and think­ing you’d picked up a com­mer­cial air­port thriller: the type of novel de­signed to ap­peal to au­di­ences in mul­ti­plex cine­mas across the Amer­i­can mid­west. You could also be for­given for turn­ing the page with an an­tic­i­pa­tory thrill about what might hap­pen next. Meek knows how to push the but­tons: ac­tion, pathos and high drama in a con­tem­po­rary theatre of war. And you could for­give Meek for not de­liv­er­ing on what his open­ing prom­ises, be­cause the novel he has writ­ten is in­fin­itely bet­ter.

Meek’s hero, Adam Kel­las, is a for­eign correspondent and as­pir­ing nov­el­ist work­ing in Afghanistan for a Lon­don pa­per in 2001. His novel is an ac­tion block­buster about a fic­tional Europe united in a just and bloody war against Amer­ica. It’s a sell- out, writ­ten for the ex­press pur­pose of mak­ing money, some­thing that Kel­las is not proud of.

Meek is also a for­eign correspondent who has re­ported from Afghanistan, Guan­tanamo Bay and Iraq, and a some­what more suc­cess­ful nov­el­ist than Kel­las. His pre­vi­ous novel, The Peo­ple’s Act of Love , was long- listed for the Man Booker Prize and won the Scot­tish Arts Coun­cil’s book of the year award. Its film re­lease is sched­uled for next year.

This latest novel clearly draws on his ex­pe­ri­ence in Afghanistan and Iraq. Among other things, it pro­vides a graphic in­sight into the ab­surd, itin­er­ant world of war cor­re­spon­dents, liv­ing in strange de­tach­ment from the events they wit­ness de­spite their in­evitable com­plic­ity. But it also takes us into the equally strange worlds of the bour­geois Lon­don din­ner party set, where so­cial­ists with mort­gages rub shoul­ders with work­ing- class po­ets and rightwing colum­nists, and also to the red­neck marsh­lands of the Amer­i­can south.

Strangest of all is the light Meek sheds on the world of com­mer­cial pub­lish­ing, where huge ad­vances are paid for pap that even the com­mis­sion­ing ed­i­tor is em­bar­rassed to pub­lish.

Kel­las’s mis­guided jour­ney in search of the ec­cen­tric, gun- tot­ing Astrid Walsh, whom he falls for while on as­sign­ment, forces a re­assess­ment of what Amer­ica means, and a con­fronta­tion with his own fail­ings. Meek brings an in­formed intelligence to the cat­a­strophic events that ush­ered in the 21st cen­tury and ad­dresses the big moral is­sues they pose for in­di­vid­u­als who think they can ob­serve with­out act­ing.

If Kel­las ad­mits that the char­ac­ters in his dumbed- down block­buster have less sub­stance than a sticky note, the same can hardly be said for the novel of which he is a part. Meek’s char­ac­ters oc­ca­sion­ally wax philo­soph­i­cal and un­nec­es­sar­ily ar­tic­u­late Meek’s ideas through di­a­logue, but they are com­plex char­ac­ters with their own demons to wres­tle.

Kel­las has re­turned to Afghanistan against his bet­ter in­stincts, seek­ing some sort of ab­so­lu­tion af­ter the events of 9/ 11 shat­tered his love re­la­tion­ship as well as his lit­er­ary as­pi­ra­tions. Lost and dis­con­nected, he turns on the very friends who have his best in­ter­ests at heart, in a shame­fully de­struc­tive act of be­trayal.

Rather than find­ing ab­so­lu­tion, he finds Astrid , a ver­i­ta­ble mine­field of com­pli­ca­tions, who chal­lenges his core be­liefs about the ethics of jour­nal­ism and of be­ing hu­man. When he re­proaches her for car­ry­ing a gun, ar­gu­ing that it makes her a com­bat­ant, she replies, ‘‘ Oh, and you’re not a com­bat­ant. What do you think you’re do­ing here? You’re look­ing for where the war’s at. You’re sell­ing it. That’s enough. You’re in it. You’ve joined.’’

It’s a chal­lenge that ex­tends equally to those who con­sume the news sto­ries de­liv­ered to us in the com­fort of our lounge rooms. Given the de­tached, anony­mous way war is waged th­ese days, news- watch­ers are likely to have as in­ti­mate a view of the con­se­quences of com­bat as the com­bat­ants. One has to ask: at what point does one be­come cul­pa­ble by wit­ness­ing with­out in­ter­ven­ing?

Meek brings the ques­tion of com­plic­ity and dis­tance home in a re­mark­ably pow­er­ful scene in­volv­ing two men in a burn­ing truck that will haunt read­ers as surely as it haunts Kel­las. Astrid ef­fec­tively takes Kel­las over a line he would have pre­ferred not to approach. In a dev­as­tat­ingly graphic set piece, Kel­las si­mul­ta­ne­ously wit­nesses the sim­ple hor­rors of war at binoc­u­lar length while re­lay­ing the event to his mother via satel­lite phone.

This is the brave new world of 21st- cen­tury war­fare. ‘‘ There was a dis­tance, a mod­ern dis­tance of things, a ter­ri­ble mod­ern dis­tance where the war­riors and their camp fol­low­ers were nei­ther close enough for the in­ti­mate killing of blades and teeth . . . nor as far away as the home fires used to be from the front lines.’’

In stark con­trast to Kel­las’s fail­ure as a com­mer­cial nov­el­ist is the re­mark­able lit­er­ary suc­cess of his old school friend Pat M’Gur­gan. Kel­las ar­gues there are two types of writ­ers: bards and priests. M’Gur­gan is a bard. He talks, tells sto­ries, en­ter­tains. ‘‘ The priest, on the other hand, isn’t there to tell sto­ries, and he’s no good at jokes. He’s try­ing to sell you ideas.’’

Per­haps the most re­mark­able thing about Meek is that he is both priest and bard. This is a novel rich in ideas, but Meek knows how to keep you turn­ing the pages. Liam Dav­i­son’s nov­els in­clude Sound­ings and The White Wo­man.

Steely core:

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