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Tom Chaney: No. 278, Understanding the Enemy
Of Writers and Their Books. No. 278, 19 December 2010Understanding the Enemy a review of "The Faithful Spy," by Alex Berenson
The next earlier Tom Chaney essay, Images of Mammoth Cave
By Tom Chaney
Email: Tom Chaney email@example.com
Understanding the Enemy
When I was a small boy I remember reprimands for whispering in church. When I shifted to note-passing I got caught at that. I am caught less often in church these days, but since I started writing this column I tend to get books either passed to me during the sermon or suggested for reading.
I have discovered that it is not polite to begin reading the book before the benediction even if it was tendered as a sort of adult pacifier.
This week's book came that way -- surreptitiously passed over the pew.
It has lain around long enough for the owner to wonder whether it ever will be returned. 'Tis the first novel from the pen of New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, The Faithful Spy, Jove of Random House 2008.
John Wells is the only American to successfully go undercover in al Qaeda. His employers, the CIA no longer trust him because he has done his job so well that he has long been out of touch. His minder at Langley, Jennifer Exley, still trusts him but does not know what to expect when he is sent back to America by the al Qaeda mastermind, Omar Khadri, who spearheads attacks on America.
Wells has become a Muslim during his stay with al Qaeda, prompted in part by the fact that his grandmother had been Muslim.
In the end only Wells and Exley are able to stop a deadly terrorist attack on America -- even as the CIA remains skeptical and untrusting.
The Faithful Spy is a splendid first novel. Berenson makes a worthy successor to the likes of John le Carre and Jack Higgins. Its tight plot compliments the fact that the novel deals with some compelling current issues.
I have been alarmed at the tendency to paint the entire Muslim world with the same brush as was done with the German enemy during World War I and with the Japanese as well as Germans in the Second World War. How tempting to demonize rather than understand those whom we find ourselves pitted against. And how unproductive.
Berenson observes in an interview that the current conflict differs from the cold war in that during the cold war both sides were playing by roughly the same rules and were recognizable to each other. "Don't kill civilians; don't target the other side's agents. Do not push too hard. Neither side wanted a nuclear holocaust. The game was chess match, complex and difficult but controlled."
"Now we're confronting an enemy that doesn't just want to win the game. It wants to tear up the board."
Consequently sympathy with the other side is difficult. "But as a novelist you have to make both sides real to the reader. The bad guys can't just be cardboard cutouts."
As a reporter for The New York Times Berenson could not but be tethered to the facts. As a novelist one can avoid the silence necessary when the facts are unavailable. "I wanted to see how it would feel to build a world where for once I had all the facts, and I knew what everyone was thinking.
"They lie to each other all the time, my characters. Sometimes they even lie to themselves. But they always tell me the truth."
And therein rests the heavy responsibility of the novelist -- to communicate that truth to readers when a lie seems more palatable.
It is hard in these days when bombs are thrown, when airplanes become missiles killing thousands, to realize that terrorists are "real people. They all have reasons that they've joined Qaeda; they aren't idiots or psychopaths."
To love our enemies may be too much to ask. But Berenson helps us to understand them, and in the process tells a cracking good tale.
Several more John Wells novels have followed since The Faithful Spy. I'm eager to follow along.
Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
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