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The Writing on the Wall Hardcover – November 6, 2007
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A tautly narrated thriller. --Midwest Book Review
About the Author
After graduating in International Conflict Analysis and a special education in negotiation and mediation techniques Hannes Artens was associated with the Atlanta based Carter Center and a think tank advising the German parliament on U.S. foreign policy.
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By saying that I do not mean to imply that the United States would quickly win a war with Iran as we did in the even more lamentable "Executive Orders" by Tom Clancy, just that if Hannes Artens wanted to tell a story where we didn't, he could have avoided most of the actual pitfalls of this book. Artens weaves his story around three main characters (or four, if you choose to include the President of the United States). In his place I probably would have let the story be told entirely from the viewpoint of the President (Jim Whitman) and the Kurdish oilman (Seran Burkay) who becomes a senior diplomat for his government. These are the most sympathetic characters. It might also have helped to have one Iranian character, for whom presumably things would fall apart even faster than they do for all the others. Instead the Iranians are virtually an abstraction. Nor is the book really about the war so much as it is about its root causes and secondary effects.
Artens is right about a lot of stuff (for example, that the election of a moderate Republican President is unlikely to result in a moderate foreign policy). He is also right in having the Great Recession be caused by the bursting of a real estate bubble. Fortunately for us this happened the year the book was published rather than two and a half years later in the aftermath of another big terrorist attack. God knows what would really be happening now if, as in the book, a rogue Hezbollah faction had enabled a Lebanese-Mexican to blow up this year's Super Bowl.
However, Artens cannot transcend his early training as a political scientist or his obsession with oil. I feel as if I'm listening to NPR commentary most of the time, not reading a novel. When I wrote fiction, it was commonly said of my characters that they all talked like the author. This is also true of the characters in "The Writing on the Wall." I would have most liked to see Artens transcend his obvious distaste for American policy past and present; the character he liked the most was probably his European diplomat, Elia Gravani, who is willing to see Europe lose its pluralism, its prosperity, and its very soul in order to break free of its dependence on America. The fact Burkay subsumes his impulse to shoot Gravani to death after she betrays him, is a major reason I think Burkay is a better man than me.
The last major character, Bryan Dawson, is an American diplomat and Gen-Xer like myself who must 1) see his family laid low by the Great Recession and 2), after the climax of the story, try to find meaning in his life. He seems to be succeeding at the end; I was surprised the book ended on a note of such optimism. The beginning and middle of the book, however, are anything but optimistic. I could have accepted this if Artens had once permitted his book to be a work of fiction first and speculation second.
This fictitious take on a showdown between the U.S. and Iran is loaded with allusions to real life politicians and events. Artens doesn't shy away from naming names; he seems to be deliberately out to provoke with his realism. Not only are the aerial strikes against Iran masterminded by the fictitious CEOs of ExxonMobil and Northrop Grumman at the Dallas Theological Seminary; his President, Jim Whitman, is a "maverick, straight talking" former senator and POW who pandered so excessively to evangelicals and special interests during his election campaign that he can't control them once he's won the White House. The author's legally necessary disclaimers won't wash: this is the American version of Robert Harris', "The Ghost", and President Whitman is a barely disguised John McCain. And yet, "The Writing on the Wall" is not a partisan vendetta; Jim Whitman is the tragic hero of the book who founders against powers he thought he could manipulate, but who actually have him tied up on puppet's strings.
Its realism is also the book's only drawback. This is not a fluffy read to be enjoyed by the pool while your toddler buries toys in the sandpile. It requires a bit of an effort to read, even more for the not so politically savvy. But for all those who spend hours blogging every night about America's self-created quagmire in Iraq, and who hang on the delegate count of this presidential campaign, it's a must read. Highly recommended.
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