Osama by Lavie Tidhar

Solaris 2012, 302 p

The novel opens in Vientiane, Laos – part of the Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, a signal that we are not in our time line. Among other differences to our world there are references to Kuomintang China and Chiang Kai-shek. Here credit cards are novel, “The world is safe and healthy Opium comes from Asia, is made into medicine… and eases suffering. The money is taxed, which aids governance,” and cigarettes are smoked openly.

Joe is a private detective who reads the novels of Mike Longshott, extracts from which are reproduced in a typewriter–like font every so often through the novel. These recognisably feature our real Osama bin-Laden, or at least the actions of his followers.

A girl wanders into Joe’s office and asks him to find Longshott. This is only the first of many echoes of films noir or certainly those of Humphrey Bogart. This influence is made explicit when Joe meets in a bar a man called Rick (though Rick Laszlo) and with a couple of nods to the final departure scene in Casablanca.

Joe is puzzled by Longshott’s novels, wondering why the various bombings would take place as they are obviously part of a war of some sort. He muses, “If this was a war, how many dead were on the other side.” In Joe’s world there are Osama conventions – and all sorts of rumours about the reclusive Longshott.

Joe doesn’t know what The World Trade Center is or was, nor Samsung and Sanyo, nor the song Imagine, nor why people have “wires trailing from their ears.” The graffiti 9/11 and 7/7 also mean nothing to him. His world does contain the statue of Anteros in Piccadilly Circus but also WS Gilbert’s Topseyturveydom.

In his investigations – which take him as far as Paris and London – he encounters a girl who fades away unless she drinks alcohol and agents of the Committee on the Present Danger who are trying to prevent him contacting Longshott. The CPD questions him about iPods, flash mobs, DRM, Asian fusion, Star Wars, modems, James Bond, smart cars, Al-Jazeera, how cell phones work, what Area 51 is etc. It is very anxious indeed that none of the troubles of our world intrude into its, where the Cairo Conference of 1921 didn’t divide up the Middle East for the British; there was no Hashemite king in Iraq and no revolution in the 1950s, no US involvement in Vietnam and the British lost their African colonies after WW2.

As the book progresses ghosts increasingly flicker at the corners of Joe’s eyes. These are dubbed fuzzy-wuzzies. In their meeting at last Longshott talks about a woman who waxed and waned with the Moon. The CPD is desperate to prevent the fuzzy-wuzzies manifesting properly.
Perhaps because Tidhar is an Israeli the text has frequent USian touches (dove, off of, cell phone, curb, airplane) but there are also British usages.

I noticed an overfondness for the phrase “went past,” epicentre is used to mean point of balance and we had a “shrunk,” plus the text was littered with typos like “dusty shops selling stationary,” “snails … leaving their rails behind them,” “ the books did not seem particularly conductive for airplane flights,” “There was something her voice,” “he couldn’t… been explain.”

Some of the typos teetered on the edge of genius. “One woman was trapped under the rabble,” “the depilated building,” “baskets imprisoning the singing of live frogs,” “they were gone, fleeting from the edges of his cell like ghosts.” The last might not even have been a typo while “the depilated building” is positively Ballardian.

Despite the presence of these small irritants Osama is a well-written, gripping novel, casting a sly sidewise eye at our poor troubled world.

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