Osama by Lavie Tidhar
Reviewed by Michael Levy
14 September 2011
Lavie Tidhar is an Israeli-born science fiction writer who has spent extensive periods of time in Europe, South Africa, Southeast Asia and elsewhere around the world. He is the author of several novels, most recently the steampunk adventure The Bookman (2010) and its sequel Camera Obscura (2011), and the short story collection HebrewPunk (2007). He was a Writers of the Future finalist in 2005 and this year was nominated for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for his short story "The Night Train," which appeared in Strange Horizons in 2010. According to a note at the end of his new novel, Osama had a somewhat peculiar genesis. Tidhar was "in Dar-es-Salaam during the American embassy bombing in 1998, and stayed in the same hostel as the Al-Qaeda operatives in Nairobi." Further, he and his wife have "narrowly avoided both the 2005 King's Cross and 2004 Sinai attacks" (p. 278). These experiences eventually led to his short story "My Travels with Al-Qaeda" (2006).
Osama is a very literary novel, one that a reader unfamiliar with science fiction might assume was primarily influenced by Kafka, Borges, and perhaps Lewis Carroll. To a science fiction reader, however, the influence of Philip K. Dick seems equally likely. It's clear in any case that Tidhar knows his science fiction; the book contains direct references to, among other writers, James Tiptree, Jr., Robert Silverberg, and Samuel Delany, not to mention one brief and loving, but hilarious send-up of science fiction fans, conventions, and fanzines. The tale is alternate history, set in a world that diverged from ours sometime during or before World War II; de Gaulle, for example, although a war hero, was never elected President of France, whereas Saint-Exupéry, also a war hero as well as the author of The Little Prince, did not die in 1944 and was elected President. This world has seen less recent violence than ours has and the current hostilities between the West and the Muslim world are largely absent. Scientific progress has been slower, however; there are no cell phones and personal computers are unknown. Also, Osama bin Laden is not a world famous terrorist, but rather the fictional antihero of a series of pulp novels, Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante.
In 1991 Norman Spinrad published Russian Spring, an excellent very near-future novel that unfortunately found itself rendered largely irrelevant by the almost simultaneous collapse of the Soviet Union. Tidhar's story is unlikely to meet with a similar fate, however, despite bin Laden's recent capture and execution, because it is more surreal and less tightly connected to our actual history than was Spinrad's book. It's an odd coincidence, though, that Spinrad also wrote a novel about the world's most famous terrorist, Osama the Gun (2007), but was unable to find an English-language publisher for it, eventually having to bring the book out in a translated French language edition. I have to admit that it gave me pause for a moment to discover this fact soon after finishing Tidhar's Osama, with its enigmatic secret agents and its interdimensional conspiracies. If I were given to paranoia I might begin to wonder what actually happened to bin Laden's body? If anything, his (dare I say "supposed"?) death makes Tidhar's novel all the more creepy and powerful.
Joe, the protagonist of Osama, is a private detective living in what appears to be contemporary Vientiane, Laos, albeit a Laos peculiarly untouched by recent violence and happily allied with Japan as part of the Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Joe has few, if any, characteristics beyond those traditionally assigned to his profession by pulp writers. His almost bare office contains a desk, with a drawer within which resides a bottle of whiskey. He has few clients and spends much of his time sitting around the local bars. He smokes heavily. He knows how to take a punch. That's about it, though; Joe doesn't even appear to have a last name and in a sense is a walking stereotype. His one note of individuality, perhaps, is his love for the Osama bin Laden: Vigilante novels (which bear such individual titles as Assignment: Africa, Sinai Bombings, and World Trade Center) written by the presumably pseudonymous Mike Longshott.
One day, while sitting around his office with nothing to do, Joe has a visitor, a mysterious and sexy young woman whom he specifically doesn't notice entering the room (this will become a motif). By an unbelievably odd coincidence (but, of course, it isn't), she wants to hire him to find Mike Longshott, one of whose novels is currently sitting open on Joe's desk. She won't tell him why she wants him to trace Longshott, and leaves Joe with no contact information, insisting that if he is successful, she will find him. She also leaves him a credit card with seemingly unlimited funds behind it. Joe's only clue as to the possible whereabouts of the author is his publisher, Medusa Press of Paris, which is otherwise known exclusively for pornography. The next day, however, as Joe leaves for the airport, he notices that he is being followed by someone who is well-dressed and wearing polished black shoes. Moments later the man shoots at him from a speeding Mercedes. Although Joe escapes injury, he finds a scrap of newspaper evidently blown out of the car's open window. On it is the date, September 11, 2001 which, of course, means nothing to him.
This sets up the structure for the rest of the book. Joe, the tireless investigator with quite literally, it seems, no life outside of his profession, traverses the globe, following clues and meeting a gallery of odd individuals, including an antiquarian book dealer, prostitutes, opium eaters and their dealers, even another private eye. Periodically he is assaulted by mysterious enemies who want him off the case for unknown reasons. Joe occasionally considers quitting and going back to Vientaine, but never does, in part because he is a detective—he has no other function in the world, this is what he does—and in part because he has fallen in love with the mysterious woman who put him on the case. Always nameless, she reappears from time to time, invariably without warning, usually when it's raining, to make ambiguous, increasingly emotional requests and comments.
Another major component of the book that I haven't yet mentioned are multiple excerpts from the Mike Longshott novels, each of which relates the commission of an act of terrorism by Al-Qaeda operatives. One of these actually opens Osama as a prologue:
The men in room 107a were not backpackers. They had checked into the hotel using fake passports, and were in the final stages of preparing to commit an act of mass murder. They did not, perhaps, see themselves as murderers, though under both the American and Kenyan penal code that is what they would be considered. The men believed they were acting on God's behalf, and perhaps they were right. God was on their side. Soon they would be successful. (p. 9)
These "excerpts" are invariably written in a flat, intensely factual manner, full of lists, sometimes including a timeline relating what the terrorists are doing from moment to moment. None of them seems particularly "novelistic." They read more like a talented true crime writer's reconstruction of the period leading up to and including the commission of a crime. Despite their factual orientation, the largely effaced third person narrator does skim beliefs and emotions from the minds of his characters and to some extent offers opinions on their actions. The statement "perhaps they were right," has a chilling effect on the reader. Although these accounts of various Al-Qaeda terrorist acts are well-written and add significantly to the novel, they don't really feel much like excerpts from pulp novels.
Meanwhile Joe is still doggedly on the trail. As readers, we understand the clues he's finding better than he does and we're invariably several steps ahead of the detective. As science fiction readers who understand the tropes of alternate history, and especially alternate history in its paranoid conspiracy form (a la Dick and numerous others), we quickly realize that the man in the black shoes and his confederates are secret government agents (members of the Committee on the Present Danger or CPD as it turns out) who somehow know that the Longshott novels appear to be channeling the actual events of another universe. Their activities, and those of at least one other mysterious group (it's hard to know how many sides are actually involved in the story), are designed to at first warn Joe off of the case and then, once he's taken prisoner, force him to disclose exactly what he's learned:
What is an iPod? What is in Area 51? . . . How do you make a computer the size of a brief case? What is the meaning of flash mobs and how do you control them? What is DRM? What is Asian fusion? Is it a nuclear technology? (p. 234)
Unlike most traditional science fiction stories of this sort, however, Tidhar's novel never really explains what's happening. Joe does eventually catch up with the man who writes the Osama bin Laden books, but the author's purposes remain obscure. It's clear that on some level the walls between the two universes have become permeable, that "refugees" from our world have begun to appear in Joe's, and it may well be that the CPD fears that events from our more violent universe may be leaking in along with them. Ultimately, though, it's all a bit indeterminate in a very Kafkaesque way. There are also hints that Joe may in fact be an opium addict, that his minimal, no-last-name life may be a result of everything having been stripped away by the haze of addiction, and that the entire story may be little more than an opium-induced hallucination.
Seemingly contradicting this possibility, however, is the powerful climax of Osama, in which Tidhar places us momentarily within the minds of a series of victims of Al-Qaeda violence, airplane and bus passengers, firemen, innocents going about their daily lives until their worlds explode around them. He then places Joe, in a scene of hallucinatory power, on a hill over Kabul as it is being bombed by what are presumably United States forces. Adding to the impact of the ending is the author's willingness to show us that, as Noam Chomsky so succinctly stated, "It's close to a historical universal that the term 'terror' is used for their terror against us and our clients, not our terror against them." Tidhar points out, for example, that far more Iraqis and other citizens of the Middle East have died as a result of the War on Terror than have Americans and Europeans. Alluding to the controversy that occurred earlier in the decade when Time Magazine considered naming bin Laden as their Man of the Year, Tidhar has Joe, a sort of western Everyman, see a copy of the Time Man of the Year magazine cover framed on Mike Longshott's wall, except it's one of those gag mirrors which reflects the viewer's own face. As Walt Kelly's cartoon character Pogo famously said, "We have seen the enemy and he is us." Tidhar's unusual perspective (from the Western point of view at least) as an Israeli, a person whose country has been a constant nexus of terrorist violence, both against Israelis and by them, as a seasoned traveler who has lived extensively in parts of the non-western world, and as someone who has accidentally had a number of close brushes with terrorism, makes it possible for him to recognize how complex the issues involved are and, without condoning terrorist violence, see the terrorists as real people, neither entirely evil nor entirely heroic, to some extent themselves victims of the very terrorist acts they perpetrate. Moving seamlessly between intense realism and equally intense surrealism, Osama is a powerful and disturbing political fantasy by a talent who deserves the attention of all serious readers.