Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Book review: Cries of a Dying Waterhole, Wa’qaar A Mirza (2018)

This novel is promoted as a thriller but it relies on such a stale confection of tropes that you find yourself pinching yourself every time a character opens his or her mouth. In addition there are a lot of basic grammatical errors that might have been prevented by better subediting.

The drama centres around an actor named Harry Firstone who has a mixed Lebanese and English background. When the novel opens, Harry is on his way to attend a ceremony where he is to receive an award. He goes by train and arrives at an art gallery in London. For his acceptance, Harry ostentatiously screws up the speech he had prepared and wings it, giving the audience, which comprises people from the London entertainment industry, a piece of his mind. Poverty is his subject and he lets rip with both barrels. After he has finished, the place is invaded by a group of anarchists who use smoke grenades to create havoc and who unfurl a banner with a message on it. During the confusion, Harry is injured and is transported to hospital in an ambulance.

Harry’s manager Max goes with him to the hospital and Harry is taken into the operating theatre as soon as they arrive. The action then switches rather abruptly to Virginia where Harry meets an American industrialist and the two then meet with a CIA operative of some seniority. This man also wants to talk about poverty. The action switches again, this time to the offices run by an Israeli software firm. Here the two men meet an attractive woman aged in her late 40s who shows them a large control room filled with computers and holograms of city streets representing places around the globe.

There is very little preparation for each of these cuts of scene, and you get the feeling that the author thinks that this is how thrillers are meant to work, just as he thinks that, on the level of prose, stale clichés are enough to keep a reader interested in the narrative he is making. And the mechanics of the work are just as poorly conceived as are the ideas behind it, ideas that suffer from a desperate lack of information. It’s as though the lamest commonplaces that animate Twitter had been hastily cobbled together to formulate the semantic core of the novel, ideas of such blundering obtuseness that you fairly grunt with the effort needed to sustain your belief in the story unfolding.

The stupidity starts very early on in the piece, as Harry is travelling to the art gallery. On the way, the author conveniently lets Harry take in with his eyes the sight of a beggar on the pavement and, at almost the same moment, two men driving Aston Martins (not one, mind you, as if without two you wouldn’t get the message strongly enough). Stretching the credibility of the artifice even further, the author lets us see into the cars as they pass along the street and note that the drivers are both well-dressed and, as well, that they are both using mobile phones as they are driving (just to press home the idea that such people must necessarily be so selfish they are completely heedless of public safety).

You can almost hear the gears clashing in the author’s head. But the problem with this sort of material is that it shows the author doesn’t understand the complexity of the realities of wealth and, especially, of homelessness. Most people who are homeless are not rough sleepers; only a very small proportion of the people without a home on any given night are sleeping in parks or on the streets, although the UK doesn’t count these people as homeless. Most homeless people are in fact sleeping in friends’ living rooms, in cars, or in some other kind of unsuitable accommodation.

Further than that, the solution to rough sleeping is not just making accommodation affordable. Even if you find an apartment for a rough sleeper and give them the money they need to pay the rent, and even if the rent is low enough for them to afford, the chances are that they will not stay there very long unless they are supported in a number of different ways. You have to wrap rough sleepers in a swathe of services in order to keep them housed, and even then some of them will end up again on the streets. For many rough sleepers, there are multiple problems preventing them from living normal lives. There might be alcohol and drug addiction (or both). There might be mental illness. There might be all three operating on the same person. A rough sleeper might never have finished secondary school and may have spent their childhood in foster homes because of problems with their biological parents. There are any number of reasons that a person is unable to even use a welfare payment to pay their subsidised rent.

But well-intentioned, misguided people like A Mirza don’t care about facts, they are so focused on pushing a line aimed at shaming what they see as a distant and uncaring elite in the developed world. This author doesn’t care about the problems with incipient democracy that are faced by the demos in many countries around the world. He doesn’t acknowledge the steady stream of refugees travelling across borders intent on finding homes in one stable democracy or another. He ignores the fact that what these refugees want more than anything else is an opportunity to get ahead on their own steam. He thinks that a simple transfer of wealth will solve all the world’s problems. In the same way that many Americans chose to vote for Donald Trump, he decides to turn to an undemocratic solution because he can’t see elected governments making the kinds of changes he aspires to create room for. And to top it all off he can’t write a line of prose to save himself.

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