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December 14, 2006

A history lesson rolled up in an alpha male novel: The Afghan - Frederick Forsyth

Posted by Richard D. North

The Afghan
Frederick Forsyth
London: Bantam Press, 2006
Hardback, 17.99

This is an alpha male novel. It is shades of old timers like Hammond Innes. Real men do what they have to do with a block-jawed camaraderie. It is fast, efficient and engrossing. It has that clipped brusqueness that Martin Bell used to cultivate.

One keeps hearing the distinctive voice of Forsyth, that tone of knowing frustration with the silly liberalism of his time. One imagines him cultivating the kinds of acquaintance who can let him know about the manners and wrinkles of the modern spooks, soldiers and diplomats who populate his pages. He proudly displays his knowledge and is not afraid to be pedagogical as he rewinds the recent history of the Middle East and Eurasia. In subject and technique, this is a little like a Flashman novel. It reminds us of dozens of snippets we have read in the papers (they've been amazing, after all) and lets its characters weave plausible dramas in the gaps. We end up believing that much of the fiction could have happened, had we but known.

There are really two heroes. Mike Martin is a swarthy SAS officer who can pass for an Afghan and is asked to impersonate a mujahideen who is incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay, but is "released" so a switch can be affected. Martin knows and admires the world which he battles with, but we know much more of him by learning his background, skills and exploits than we do by listening to him. Indeed, he is an object - a blip - on a screen more than he is a voiced-character. Like a comic hero, he has substance but not interior. As the fake Afghan, he has to find his way into the heart of a devilish plot and bring it down. Naturally, the two men had actually met in a previous life, when loyalties were different. The eponymous hill fighter may have rather little education but he can't be taught anything about toughness.

For an old reactionary, Forsyth does seem very good at seeing the other fellow's point of view. He doesn't bother us with oceans of disapproval about the medievalist fundamentalism of our Islamist enemy. He doesn't even berate the West for having contributed mightily to the creation of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Rather, he adopts the air of the pragmatist poor bloody infantry who are out there, year after year, knowing the wicked twists events will take and the folly of anyone who much tries to improve them. So Forsyth's western heroes are operatives with arcane skills but they are also warriors whose nobility matches that of their enemy and consists in a narrow code, honourably discharged.

This is a ripping yarn and a history lesson, but not a missionary sermon. It is also a miracle of precision. Forsyth tells us the minimum we need of scenery, character and even of plot. Maybe he knows we have sufficiently heated imaginations and have seen enough news and movie footage for his scenario to spring to life all but unbidden. In any case, this is minimalist stuff: a dab here, a stroke there, and sweaty work, freezing discomfort, gnawing anxiety are driving us on.

Kit is crucial, and Forsyth's terrorists have more of it - and more understanding of it - than is remotely comfortable. The "bad guys" never have anything like the firepower of the West, but they are brilliantly refracting the West's might back on itself. One imagines that Forsyth knows what he speaks of here, and it's exciting to imagine the West's legion listening posts grappling with the evil in the ether. Forsyth takes one to the heart of the new asymmetries. Guerrillas have always held the advantage of speed and surprise. Modern terrorists add the suicidal and the technological. But Forsyth relishes the way the modern terrorist can occasionally be upended by his dependence on laptops and mobiles.

It wouldn't do to reveal too much more of the plot, but it is good to report that ships figure in it. Kalashnikovs, Hummers and mountain paths are all very well, but there is nothing like the romance of the bridge and the engine room to make the spine tingle.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence. In January 2007 the Social Affairs Unit will be publishing his Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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I just listened to this novel on an audio books CD. It, like the previous Mike Martin novel, was incredibly engrossing. As an aspiring new novelist myself I can only hope to grasp the capabilities of an author like Forsyth. I truly recommend this book.

Posted by: Basil Sands at July 25, 2007 08:22 PM
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