Saturday, March 17, 2007

Uncivilized Beasts

Last fall at the Louisiana Book Festival, I had the opportunity to listen to John Burnett speak about his new book, UNCIVILIZED BEASTS AND SHAMELESS HELLIONS. I found him so fascinating that I walked straight out of the auditorium to the book tent and bought his book. One of the advantages of being too sick to write is that one is rarely too sick to read, and so in the last several days I have read three books (a silver lining). By far the best was Burnett’s UNCIVILIZED BEASTS.

As some of you may know, John Burnett has been an NPR reporter for more than twenty years. His book is about what he calls the “sixth W,” the “whoa—bizarre encounters, miserable journeys, horrible hotels, great fixers, dangerous highways, gruesome dead people, gruesome live people, and unsung heroes.” It is insightful, beautifully written, and—like the man himself—marvelously entertaining.

Burnett takes his readers along as he is embedded with the Marines on their push to Baghdad (and when, not embedded, he investigates an obliterated village the U.S. officially did not bomb). We trek with him through the mountains of Pakistan, dodge right-wing death squads in Guatemala, sail the flooded streets of post-Katrina New Orleans (yes, it is weird to find your own city in the same league as Kabul, Baghdad, et al).

One passage that will stay with me always is the section in “Afghanistan: Men with Guns,” where Burnett talks about a translator named Zalmai. During the Nineties when the warlords were fighting for control of Kabul (a period of anarchy from which the Taliban “saved” Afghanistan), Zalmai was left alone at the age of twelve to guard the house from looters after his family fled. Spending much of his time inside (to keep from being killed), he began to collect books. It seems at the time you could buy burlap sacks full of books that had been looted from the Kabul University library. In that war-ravaged land, books were just another raw material, the bindings cut up to make shoe soles, the pages torn out for the paper. Rescuing the books for about a penny a pound, Zalmai hauled them back to his house. There, by the light of a kerosene lamp, he read everything from The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to 1984 and The Quiet American.

UNCIVILIZED BEASTS AND SHAMELESS HELLIONS is full of such powerful stories. A wonderful, wonderful book I heartily recommend


Chap O'Keefe said...

Get well soon! Have you read TELL ME NO LIES, an anthology edited by John Pilger and subtitled "Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs" ? I think you would appreciate it.

cs harris said...

Thank you, Chap! I'll have to look up Pilger's book. I have a copy of Arnett's LIVE FROM THE BATTLEFIELD I intend to read soon--it's been sitting on my bookshelf for a year, waiting for me.

Sphinx Ink said...

I gather from your post you've been sick since our last Wordsmiths meeting. Hope you'll be feeling better soon!

Charles Gramlich said...

Zalmai's story reminds me of Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451." Hope you get to feeling good soon, too.

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