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Osama: A Novel Paperback – October 9, 2012
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About the Author
Born on a kibbutz in Israel, Lavie Tidhar’s unusual childhood has inspired a life devoted in equal parts to books and to travelling. He has lived and travelled in Southern Africa for years and is a keen player of the ancient game of Bao. He’s since spent nearly a decade living in London before setting off again. He spent a year living in a bamboo shack on a remote island in the South Pacific – “I still miss the volcanoes, sometimes,” he said – and two years in South East Asia, followed by a couple of years back in Israel. He is now back living in London, a city he finds endlessly captivating.
Lavie is a prolific writer, keeping up a steady stream of highly-regarded novels, novellas and short stories. He has been described as an “emerging master” by Locus Magazine, with his work compared to the late, great Philip K. Dick’s in both The Guardian and the Financial Times. His novels include the Bookman Histories trilogy of steampunk novels – comprising The Bookman (2010), Camera Obscura (2011), and The Great Game (2012) – which borrow equally from mythology, classic literature, pulp fiction and noir and kung-fu cinema.
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I would characterize OSAMA as more of an "alternate reality" essay than an "alternate history." At its conclusion, it leaves many unanswered questions. "Joe" (the protagonist) is often described by the other characters as a "refugee," a "ghost," or a "fuzzy-wuzzy." Has Joe died as a result of a terrorist bombing in our "real" world? Is he now trapped between our world and a reality in which Osama bin Laden is only a persona appearing in under-the-counter pulp fiction? Or is Joe simply immersed in an opium-filled hallucination? (The cover of the book and pages between chapters depict apparent cigarette or pipe smoke.)
On the plus side, Tidhar penned several thought-provoking sections. I particularly liked the scene in which Joe, wandering though a strange house, spots a large picture frame titled TIME'S MAN OF THE YEAR, and sees an image of himself. It turns out that the frame outlines a mirror, and Joe simply gazes into his own reflection.
Unfortunately, the author's constant use of short, choppy sentences and agonizingly poor similes and metaphors makes OSAMA difficult to read. A few examples are listed below:
"The girl closed the book and laid it back down on the desk, carefully, as if handling a valuable object. 'Do you think so?' she said. He didn't know what to answer her. He remained silent. She remained standing. They looked at each other and he wondered what she saw. Her fingers were quite long and thin. Her ears were a little pointy. At last, she said, 'I want you to find him,' and her fingers caressed the book."
"The point of transit was like the epicentre of two opposing forces, like the equilibrium found when an equal pull is exerted on a body from all directions."
Before picking up this novel, be forewarned that it is dark and dismal. It's like an apocalyptic ALICE IN WONDERLAND or ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, except in this case, the rabbit hole and mirror contain far less illumination, and Alice never finds her way out.
The publisher of Longshott's books, Medusa Press, is located in Paris, but «the address was merely a post office box, not a street address». After talking with a bookseller friend, Joe finds that Mike Longshots is a pseudonym. From the same seller the detective discovers that Medusa Press publishes all sorts of pulp, from thrillers to softporno. «Filth. Utter junk, of course. Wonderful stuff» - says about these books the seller.
Joe immediately books tickets for a flight to Paris, but before leaving, someone attempts to kill him. To solve the client's case, Joe will have to go to London and New York, meet with shady characters who work for the state, a mysterious private investigator, booksellers and opium dealers. His entire journey, Joe will be reading Longshott's books, trying to get closer to unraveling the truth.
World of Joe is a world in which we haven't lived, a world without terrorism. Explosions of buildings and airports, 9\11 - this never happened in the world of «Osama». And you begin to undersand it only some time since the beginning of the book, when Joe reads Longshott's novels, and we know that he reads books about the bombings and deaths of thousands of innocent people as fiction. He reads and wonders: in his world, it was nothing like this. Joe travels around the world, but perhaps not as a private detective, but as a universal consciousness. Terrorism covers all countries and nations, even those there terrorist attacks have never been. And Joe is just the invisible element that unites the nations, though Joe himself has no idea about it.
Yes, the protagonist here drinks hard, sometimes is trying to crack jokes, falls in love with a client, whom had seen only once, but it is all the formal signs of what «Osama» is not, namely, a PI novel. If Tidhar'd make Joe not a detective with a license, but simply "a master of all trades", this would only make the book better. One can hardly believe in Joe's detective skills, but he does not pretend to be able to find someone. Joe's more comfortable to sit at the bar and sip alcohol, walk through the streets of capital cities, than in solving the case. Joe, and this is obviously, is one of those who are looking for himself, not for others. Tidhar is lucky that with the search of himself, Joe finds what he was looking for, otherwise the novel would fallapart.
Lyrical style of the author alone is at odds with a pace of a thriller, who then serves as a screen. But behind the screen is just lovely Tidhar's prose, with its accurate descriptions of urban landscapes and the ability to capture the sadness of man in a bar with a glass in his hand (Tidhar sometimes overdoes lists, it should be noted):
«The air felt humid, feverish, but not of the tropics: a city's smell hung on it like limp laundry, a smell of pavement slabs and concrete blocks and cars and fumes and smoke and food and urine and spilled alcohol and spilled tears, it was a smell of many lives».
It is difficult to say, has Bin-Laden turned over in his grave after this novel or not (even harder to say is Bin-Laden alive or dead), but who cares about Bin-Laden? Just read «Osama».