Bright Review banner


CHRISTOPHER OTHEN, author of 'KATANGA 1960-63: MERCENARIES, SPIES AND THE AFRICAN NATION THAT WAGED WAR ON THE WORLD' and 'FRANCO'S INTERNATIONAL BRIGADES: ADVENTURERS, FASCISTS, AND CHRISTIAN CRUSADERS IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR' (amazon.co.uk or amazon.com) is sitting in a Warszawa cafe, thinking non-fiction, bank robbery, and girls.



After you've read this check out my new blog for all kinds of cultural and military weirdness.

christopherothen.wordpress.com/


Self-Inflicted Wounds


Four Non-Fiction Books You Need To Read

Check out the second part of this article here.



I should rob a bank. The money from the writing game isn't enough to keep me in champagne and Hugo Boss. Even worse, non-fiction writers don't get no respect. Identify a subject, hit the archives, read the secondary literature, interview survivors, carve the material into a lean piece of prose ... and what do you get? Some book rats who tell you it was an interesting subject. Subject. They don't much care it was a subject whose teeth you single-handedly kicked out and wrestled to the ground.

Listen, says the rats, anyone could have written a good book about a subject that interesting. Until someone doesn't and they figure the subject wasn't that interesting after all.

And forget brand loyalty. Forget it. If a fiction writer produces consecutive novels about doomed romance in World War II, a search for the Holy Grail in contemporary Paris, and a Victorian murder mystery set on the London-Liverpool express, the rats gobble them up, one after another. What a great writer. But by the time they've cracked the spine on your non-fiction account of that Dutchman who tried to take over Indonesia in 194 ... whatever, they've already forgotten the name on the cover. Just to squeeze lemon juice into the wound, they'll regard your book as obsolete the moment another on the same subject hits the market. Ask Feral House, who must publish each book counting the seconds before vultures pick clean the bones of their indie hits and fly off to a major label.

Forgive the bitterness. I'm sitting on the upper floor of a cafe overlooking Plac Zbawiciela, with half a tall glass of hot chocolate inside me, watching pretty Polish girls shivering at the tram stop across the road. It's -15° and their faces are pale as vanilla ice cream. A publisher has just told me my new book is too commercial for him. I guess he's running his business as a tax loss now.

It's time to throw some recognition towards non-fictioners who deserve it. Here are four books you need to read.


'Carlos: Portrait of a Terrorist' Book Cover Carlos: Portrait of a Terrorist (Mandarin, 1995)

Colin Smith, former war correspondent for the Observer, first published this in 1975 when Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka international Leninist terrorist Carlos the Jackal, was still on the run. When the Sudanese sold Carlos out to the French, Smith added some extra chapters. There are more thorough books out there (like John Follain's 'Jackal: The Complete Story of the Legendary Terrorist, Carlos the Jackal') but no better written ones.

Smith is the master of detail. That's what years of frontline journalism does for you. Ask questions, ask more questions, then question the answers. Others would tell you that on Sunday 15 September 1974 Carlos leant over the balcony of the Le Drugstore shopping centre in Paris and dropped a hand grenade into a kiosk below. Some might tell you it was in support of the Japanese Red Army, whose members had taken over the French embassy in the Hague. Only Smith will tell you the Le Drugstore was in St-Germain-des Prés; that it was patronised by wealthier young people who liked the chrome, light wood, and anglophile atmosphere; that Carlos dropped a American-made M26 fragmentation grenade; that the explosion killed two and injured thirty-four; that in the aftermath a twelve-year-old boy wandered through the mess looking for his missing left hand.

That level of detail makes 'Carlos: Portrait of a Terrorist' more than just the story of a Venezuelan terrorist who killed and got caught. It's the difference between the naked eye and a telescope.


'The Devil's Captain' Book Cover The Devil's Captain: Ernst Jünger in Nazi Paris, 1941-1944 (Berghahn Books, 2011)

Allan Mitchell is an academic who understands the power of brevity. His account of German writer and soldier Ernst Jünger's time in occupied Paris during World War II comes in at a slim 140 pages. I've had thicker instruction manuals for a dishwasher. But this works.

'The Devil's Captain' is life with the fat cut out. Mitchell understands detail but supplies only what is required to illuminate Jünger's psyche, that badly stirred mix of genius and banality, as the man in feldgrau travels among the bars and hotels of Paris, the wooden heels of French girls clicking on the cobblestones behind him. If Smith's 'Carlos: Portrait of a Terrorist' is the subject illuminated by arclight, Mitchell's work is a face suddenly lit by a struck match down a dark alley.

The book gives us exactly what is necessary to understand Jünger: the vivid dreams, often involving a nightmarish Hitler, experienced during the last years of the war; how the diaries record a placid stay in hospital with no mention of the firing squads audible outside; the young French waitress felt up in a cinema during the newsreels by this fortysomething married man. Each detail shows Jünger as the king of internal migration, the true Anarch, who lived his life behind smiling, sociable armour that kept out everything from the Third Reich to his own family.

"Not being able to govern events," wrote Frenchman Michel de Montaigne in 1595, "I govern myself." Stick that in a pair of jackboots and you've got Jünger.

Good writing is the art of knowing what goes without saying. Mitchell does it well.


'The Ern Malley Affair' Book Cover The Ern Malley Affair (University of Queensland Press, 1993)

Michael Heyward is an Australian journalist and publisher. Like Mitchell he knows how to write, like Smith he knows the power of deep investigation. His speciality is the kind of vividness that brings dead people and the world around them back to life.

In 1944 James McAuley and Harold Stewart, a pair of late twenty-somethings in the small world of Australian avant-garde poetry, hoaxed their better connected contemporary Max Harris. They created Ern Malley, an unknown and dead Aussie Modernist who wrote, thought, and theorised just enough like Harris to bait the hook. They knocked out some poems (occasionally ridiculous, discreetly obscene) in an afternoon and sent them off. Harris fell for it and published Malley's work in his magazine Angry Penguins. Chaos, humiliation, and court cases ensued.

Heyward has the gift of colourfully recreating the characters involved (McAuley's drinking, Catholicism, and depressions; Stewart's isolation from the world around him and obsession with Japanese culture; Harris' youthful enthusiasm and belief that Modernist poetry was more important than the War) and resurrects 1944 Australia with its black outs, provincialism, and philistinism towards any abstract art. He structures well. The first third of the book starts with a fake chapter that treats Ern Malley as real, segues into Harris's reaction when he receives the poems and then zooms into McAuley and Stewart on the other side of Australia, before the big reveal that the whole thing was a hoax.

There aren't many writers who could make a poetry scandal enjoyable, fiercely readable, and thought-provoking. Heyward is one of them.


'Franco's International Brigades' Book Cover Franco's International Brigades (Hurst & Co, 2013)

This wonderful book is a perfect example of etc. etc. What do you expect? Self-promotion is the spirit of our age. You're lucky I'm not illustrating this with a shot of a half-naked girl holding a cute cat. Not a bad idea. That waitress with black hair is an animal lover.

Self-promotion is symbolic of a deeper issue in culture. We care more about the story behind the story now. We'd rather read the life than the work; look at the photograph of the process than the result. Our primary cultural consumption is paratexts. Get the tenth anniversary edition of 'Franco's International Brigades' in extended director's cut with limited edition Making Of novel, exclusive interview, t-shirt, commentary. If you want you can even read the book.


My hot chocoloate is almost finished and I'm feeling better. Warszawa's banks are safe today. The publisher's throat will stay uncut. The cafe is filling up, getting warmer. That couple linking fingers across the table look happy and in love. That guy with the laptop is smiling as he finishes his business presentation. I have somewhere to be in twenty-five minutes.

Baby, it's cold outside. But I think everything is going to be alright.



Recommended Articles For You


Don't Bury Me Alone

More self-inflicted wounds. Here are three more non-fiction classics you should read, discussed in a cafe on Zbawiciela as the day gets dark.

Or try the Bright Review Main Page.




Katanga 1960-63 Book Cover






General Franco's International Brigades Book Cover








New

Wars

Music

Heists

History

One Man Army

They Live By The Pen

One Man Army

History

Heists

Wars

New

Wars

Music

Heists

History

One Man Army

They Live By The Pen

One Man Army

History

Heists

Wars

New

Wars

Music

Heists

History

One Man Army

They Live By The Pen

One Man Army

History

Heists

Wars

New

Wars

Music

Heists

History

One Man Army

They Live By The Pen

One Man Army

History

Heists

Wars

New

Wars

New

Wars

Music

Heists

History

One Man Army

They Live By The Pen

One Man Army

History

Heists

Wars

New

Wars

New

Wars

Music


General Franco's International Brigades Book Cover



All website material Christopher Othen 2009-2014. Something to say? E-mail brightreview@aol.com.