Alberto Manguel, A Reading Diary

I haven’t entirely stopped reading ‘books about books,’ but this one sets me back almost as far as Book Savvy did, if for quite different reasons. Manguel is clearly a serious reader and intellectual in a way that the author of Book Savvy, alas, did not seem to be. But here is another case in which the books take second place to personal reminiscences, and while Manguel (to me at least) is more intrinsically interesting as a narrator than the author of So Many Books, So Little Time, for my project at any rate such a book rather misses the point (which is not autobiography but literary analysis). I also tired of Manguel’s anti-war rhetoric (much of the diary is composed in 2003) which reaches the moral low point of stating that as Americans enter Iraq “under the banner of ‘liberators,’ freeing Iraq of a vicious dictator in order to install American control in the region” there “is no moral distinction between figures such as Saddam and Bush” (218). This is after he includes the following anecdote:

Saddam Hussein wrote a novel under a pseudonym, but everyone in Iraq knew who the real author was. An Iraqi journalist exiled since 1999 in Berlin told me that, after Saddam’s henchman had ransacked his house, killed his father and brother and beaten him until he was almost unconscious, one of the men placed Saddam’s novel by his side, telling him that now he could try reading “something good for a change.” (207)

There may be lots of reasons to mistrust the public stories told by the Bush administration about reasons for invading Iraq, and the outrageous violence in Baghdad right now should sicken the whole civilized world. Were America and its allies naive, hubristic, mistaken about their chances of success? Apparently so (though as books such as Ajami’s The Foreigner’s Gift and Packer’s The Assassin’s Gate detail, not for entirely blameworthy reasons). But surely the happiest scenario all round would have been a complete triumph of American plans for Iraq, and even now–well, the suicide bombers may be motivated in part by the American presence, or the invasion may have made this kind of tribal and sectarian horror show possible by removing the appallingly violent regime that kept its crimes more or less indoors, but it’s not Americans blowing up students or shoppers or reconstruction projects. And despite everything, haven’t Iraqi readers in fact been liberated in ways that are worth celebrating? If an honest reckoning today has to acknowledge weights on both sides of the scales, how could it have been obvious in 2003 that it was not worth trying? (How differently might the effort have gone if the world’s free countries, including Canada, had spent less time congratulating themselves–in their free press–on not taking the risk and stepped up? They could have taken advantage of American leadership and might to prove, among other things, that United Nations resolutions have some teeth in them. Also, humanitarian motives [which Manguel implies would have sat better with him than the profiteering, imperialistic ones he attributes to the U.S.] surely should have brought countries like Canada into the coalition, not kept them out: they are good reasons for ‘regime change’ even if the change is only possible through allying yourself with the U.S.) As I have written about before, McEwan’s Saturday seems to me to do justice to the tangle of reasons for being for or against the invasion. Smart, thoughtful, well-meaning people really could, in the moment, have been on both sides of this debate, and Manguel offers no defense of his own position, simply reporting it (as if it needs no defense?).

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