Short Takes 

Book briefs for the month of May, 2001

To the Elephant Graveyard By Tarquin Hall Atlantic Monthly (2000), $24

Associated Press journalist Tarquin Hall was stationed in India when he heard that a rogue elephant was murdering farmers in Assam. The rogue wasn't just rampaging through farm villages; it was creeping through them stealthily (as stealthily as a nine-foot-tall elephant can creep), selecting a particular hut, then battering the hut apart to reach the terrified individual inside. Then it got really ugly; the victims weren't identifiable after the tusker was finished with them.

Indian law decrees that an elephant must kill twelve people before it can be legally marked for execution; the hope is that the elephant will mend its ways before reaching that point. This elephant showed no signs of reform, and a warrant had been posted for its destruction. Hall contacted the hunter who had been assigned the job of dispatching the elephant and asked if he could tag along. The reporter theorized that the farmers' reports were hysterical lies designed to protect their crops, not their lives, and that the hunter was a blood-hungry oaf who'd do anything to shoot a seven-ton animal. World-wise Hall intended to expose the whole rotten scheme.

Of course, the real story was much more complicated. The elephant did single out its victims: they were all drunk, and we learn later why the beast had a grudge against drunken men. Hall paints himself the buffoon, sometimes too well--my only quibble with this book is that there are occasions when our narrator takes too long to catch up to what the reader has already grasped. But mostly I was vastly entertained by Hall's hilarious recounting of the characters and animals he meets on his adventure. The chapters are interlaced with amazing facts about elephants (some are alcoholics; all are way too intelligent to be kept off farmers' property)--and we soon appreciate why the animals are raiding villages and fields. Like animals everywhere on earth, the tuskers are losing their habitat by hundreds of acres a month, being herded into smaller and smaller areas as rain forest is replaced by crop land.

The hunter, Dinesh Choudhury, is likewise a much more complicated individual than Hall had foreseen, and the journalist soon finds himself in the odd position of begging the hunter to kill the animal. But Choudhury has his own standards to satisfy, and during the course of the hunt, he uses Hall's fascination with the myth of the elephant graveyard to get across a conservationist message that is more compelling than what Hall originally intended. This is a book that creeps up on you, much like the rogue; by the end, you'll see how much of the wild we've lost.

--Linnea Due

Unacknowledged Legislation:Writers in the Public Sphere By Christopher Hitchens Verso (2000), $25

The best book review ever written was a single sentence by Ambrose Bierce, and it went: "The covers of this book are too far apart." The victims of Christopher Hitchens' reviews collected between these covers probably ought to pray that it will be over that quickly. In fact the prurient reader should probably skip ahead to the "Enemies" section to savor the execution, simultaneously brutal and surgical, of soon-to-be-inhabitants of the Hitchens crawlspace: Tom Clancy, dispatched as a pitiful hack who deserves to be praised by Ronald Reagan; Tom Wolfe, exposed as a not-so-crypto-racist; and bring-me-the-head-of Norman Podhoretz, aka "perhaps the most unscrupulous man of letters of our time." Now sated, the reader may consider the theme of this collection: the rescue of literature from "employ[ment] of political standards as a device for the analysis and appreciation of poetry" (and fiction). To this end, Hitchens drops the penalty flag on Raymond Williams for deliberate misreadings of George Orwell, celebrates Oscar Wilde for his egalitarian irony, nominates Gore Vidal as the latter-day Wilde, and unmasks Isaiah Berlin as that most regrettable of modern archetypes, hiding behind a facade of disinterested scholarship while handing fig leaves to the powerful. He also detects previously unsuspected, "involuntary" political dimensions in writers as unlikely as P.G. Wodehouse and Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Hitchens will inevitably come in for criticism for his choice of subjects, generally pale and penised as they are. In discussing conservative authors he remains true to his roughly Trotskyist politics, the kind of socialist who, when called to criticize T.S. Eliot, would never stoop to calling him, as did one Communist Party member uncomfortable with the poet's arid modernism, "an enemy of the people." (This goes a long way toward explaining why so many of the American party's "martyrs" were often nothing more than highly paid Hollywood hacks.) Hitchens is an alert and well-armed sentry on the border of literature's "zone of ambiguity," and Unacknowledged Legislation is beautiful barbed wire.
--David Hill

Killing PabloBy Mark Bowden Atlantic Monthly (2001), $25

Mark Bowden, author of the best-selling nonfiction technothriller Black Hawk Down, tells the story of how US special forces and intelligence agencies collaborated with Colombian authorities and rival traffickers in tracking down the violent, multibillionaire head of the Medellín cocaine cartel, Pablo Escobar. It is not a pretty story.

The first part deals with Escobar's rise to power, his successful war against the government to make Colombia renounce its extradition treaty with the US, and his voluntary incarceration in a palatial prison designed according to his specs on a hilltop high above his native Medellín. For this, Bowden tells a story already well known. It is after Escobar's cakewalk from the prison and the humiliated Colombian government's acceptance of US help that Bowden's access to US intelligence sources proves fruitful, though that access has its limits.

With the Cold War over, competing US intelligence agencies scrambled to prove their worth (and maintain their budgets). The result was that the search for a renegade drug dealer became "like a sweepstakes. See who could demonstrate the most effectiveness first.... There were so many American spy planes over Medellín, at one point seventeen at once, that the Air Force had to assign an AWAC, an airborne command and control center, to keep track of them. It took ten C-130s just to deliver the contractors, maintenance and support staffs for all this stuff."


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