Winnipeg Free Press Newspaper Archives Aug 22 2015, Page 100

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Winnipeg Free Press (Newspaper) - August 22, 2015, Winnipeg, Manitoba C M Y K PAGE 1 BOOKS D24 Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, August 22, 2015 ON THE NIGHT TABLE Larissa Peck Communications co- ordinator, Downtown Winnipeg BIZ and author, Decaf Coffee Dates “ I’ve just gotten into The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules by Swedish author Catharina Ingelman- Sundberg. It’s a hoot. I wouldn’t say I’m one for tales of deceit and crime- plotting, but this is a charmingly light- hearted exception involving a group of over- 75- year- olds defying the rules of the retirement home, scheming a bank robbery over contraband schnapps after their designated bedtime. Not that the author doesn’t offer enough cues, but the one part I struggle with is remembering that the characters are seniors — I wonder if other readers feel this way too. Perhaps it’s a bit of a reflection of the youth- centric society we live in today, and a good reminder that age is hardly a barrier to creative activity.” an Br A UTHOR Delphine Schrank covered Myanmar for the Washington Post from 2008 to 2012, a time that saw the release of popular leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who’d been under house arrest for 15 years, and her election to Myanmar’s new parliament in 2012. The military junta changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, although many English- speaking countries still refer to the country as Burma based on the English- language version of the country’s 1947 constitution. Myanmar had been used for centuries before British colonialists adopted Burma — derived from the ethnic Burman majority — in the 19th century. Schrank’s mission in The Rebel of Rangoon is to document the underground activities of a network of pro- democracy workers that, in a small way, fostered those changes. Her main contact was a young man she calls Nway, a leading member of the National League for Democracy ( NLD) youth wing. “ Into Nway’s life I became, for weeks at a time a fly on the wall... My reporting for this book is documented in sixty- three notebooks and hundreds of hours of digital and audio and video recordings.” Indeed the wealth of detail in her book is impressive, especially considering for the first few years she, too, was working underground. The military junta that had ruled Burma since 1962 would not allow foreign journalists in the country, so she had to pose as a tourist and watch her back. To tell her story, Schrank has chosen the fictional technique of inhabiting the psyche of her informants. Thus readers follow the perilous lives and thoughts of Nway and a handful of his contacts as they evade government agents, skip from one Internet cafe to another, gather young people for secret classes or discussion groups ( assembling in group exceeding five is illegal), and travel across the Thai border to meet other dissidents in exile who provide advice and money. By mid- 2009, one of Schrank’s informants has been picked up, interrogated and held in prison for two months with no charges laid. Nway is forced to “ disappear” into the slums of Rangoon to avoid arrest. Still, he continues to work night and day, maintaining and expanding his contacts. Finally, when the junta begins meaningful reforms, the NLD decides to run candidates in the 2012 byelections. At this point, Nway’s network surfaces and contributes to an overwhelming victory for the NLD. The party, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, gains 37 out of 42 seats. But these are by far the most exciting moments. Most of the time there is a minimum of action, and a lot of looking back at how the once- popular NLD was crushed and fractured by one of the most repressive regimes in modern times. The NLD had formed during a wave of protests in 1988- 89, won a general election in 1990, and then had been declared illegal. The 1990 parliament was never called. The NLD’s leaders were imprisoned or forced into exile or underground, Nway’s father among them. He died after four years in prison. Added to the weight of the backstory is the sometimes- convoluted prose. One example: “ He had no cause yet to doubt the service he would henceforth shoulder, but preemptive caution, like subtlety and subterfuge, were the natural due of minds inspired by birth to cheat a system they chafed at being trapped inside.” Despite these glitches, Schrank’s detailed portrayal of poverty, oppression, and hard choices in the lives of all the characters makes the breakthrough in 2012 seem almost miraculous. In the epilogue, though, she acknowledges that Burma’s new democracy is still very shaky. Many repressive laws are still on the books, and the constitution reserves onequarter of all seats in parliament for the military. Not one person has been brought to justice for the wrongful killing or imprisonment of thousands. In addition, the opening of Myanmar into the modern world has triggered a backlash among extremist Buddhists, targeting the country’s Muslim minority. Faith Johnston will be watching the Myanmar general election this year with great interest. T HE marriage of history and fiction doesn’t always work. But when it does, the result can be splendid. Case in point, this novel. It’s a story of the recent past, set in two different, but not distant, times and places. The first past is late- 1980s Great Britain, domain of Conservative leader and ardent freemarket advocate Margaret Thatcher. She entered 10 Downing Street in May 1979, and resigned as prime minister in November 1990. By the time she left office, Britain was a different country. The other past is the waning days of Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar’s rule in the early 1970s, set mostly amidst that nation’s ill- fated military campaigns to hold onto its African colonies. Author Jonathan Weisman is a Washington D. C.- based economic- policy reporter for the New York Times . This is his first novel. The plot in a nutshell: In 1988, American university student David Heller is studying abroad for a year at England’s University of Sussex. When his year is up, he extends his stay by taking a job as a live- in aide to a formerly wealthy quadriplegic, Hans Bromwell. The household includes Hans’ alcoholic elder sister, Elizabeth, and her beautiful teenage daughter Cristina, born of Elizabeth’s brief marriage to a Portuguese physician whose unexplained death lingers in the background of Bromwell family history. Hans is physically broken, and the Bromwells are a broken family. But understanding their past ultimately begets compassion in both Heller and the reader. Weisman integrates Heller’s personal life with an acute look at the messiness of late- 1980s British society as Margaret Thatcher’s regime winds down. His story comes complete with a soundtrack of British post- punk pop music — the Psychedelic Furs, the Cocteau Twins, the Cure, Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen — favoured by the campus student- left crowd the naive American falls in with. At the same time, the novel interweaves Elizabeth’s backstory, which takes the plot to two of the last outposts of Portugal’s African empire — Guinea and Angola — and the violent strangeness of those anachronistic colonial holdings. The lengthy flashbacks to Elizabeth’s prior life, set against the backdrop of independence- movement wars in Africa, are terrific. The combat scenes are good, the episodes depicting the more subtle clashes of colonial European and African cultures are better still. It’s one thing to situate fictional characters in recognizable historical contexts. It’s another to bring those contexts as alive as Weisman has. Throughout, the novel telegraphs a moral or message about how we assess the past — even the recent past. It reminds, in the words of British writer L. P. Hartley: “ The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The veteran journalist’s debut novel is part literary novel, part historical fiction and part thriller. And all parts mesh quite nicely. Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer. Reviewed by Faith Johnston Rebels with a cause Journalist inhabits informant’s psyche to detail Myanmar’s fight for democracy The Rebel of Rangoon A Tale of Defiance and Deliverance in Burma By Delphine Schrank Nation Books, 320 pages, $ 29 Reviewed by Douglas J. Johnston Thatcher looms over literary thriller No. 4 Imperial Lane By Jonathan Weisman Twelve Books, 341 pages, $ 32 T HE Cold War dominated world history in the latter half of the 20th century. It was a global competition for spheres of influence between the United States and the Soviet Union, the two superpowers that emerged after the Second World War. Author David E. Hoffman, a contributing editor at the Washington Post , has written a gripping true story of Cold War espionage. While the Cold War never escalated into open military combat between the U. S. and the Soviet Union it was contested, Hoffman remarks, “ in the shadows between war and peace.” On the front lines of this struggle was the Central Intelligence Agency ( CIA). Founded in 1947, the CIA was originally intended to provide objective analysis of intelligence, but its role quickly expanded into espionage and covert action. There was one place, however, where the CIA had not been able to gain a foothold: the Soviet Union, and especially Moscow. It was simply too dangerous. Moscow was swarming with KGB, the Soviet secret police. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin had created a brutal, closed society rife with suspicion. The CIA’s fortunes in Moscow were to change dramatically in the late 1970s, Hoffman writes, when Soviet engineer and radar specialist Adolf Tolkachev clandestinely contacted the CIA and offered to spy for the Americans. After some initial caution — the CIA had to ensure Tolkachev was not a “ dangle,” a plant controlled by the KGB to mislead the Americans — the agency realized he was legitimate and a productive, albeit risky, relationship began. Ultimately, Tolkachev was to meet with CIA officers 21 times during six years on the streets of Moscow. Most of these meetings, Hoffman observes, were held within five kilometres of KGB headquarters. At these meetings, Tolkachev passed to the CIA diagrams and documents he would smuggle out of his laboratory, take to his apartment, photograph with a camera supplied by the CIA, and then return to the laboratory. Sometimes, he would even photograph documents in the washroom at the laboratory. What motivated Tolkachev to take such risks? He detested the Soviet regime, and wanted to damage it as much as he could, describing himself as a “ dissident at heart.” The intelligence Tolkachev provided to the CIA was invaluable. The U. S. Air Force estimated Tolkachev’s material had saved it about $ 2 billion in research and development costs. Tolkachev had “ unlocked the secrets of Soviet radar and revealed sensitive plans for research on weapons systems a decade into the future.” The Tolkachev operation, however, ended badly. He was betrayed by a disgruntled former CIA employee who defected to the Soviets. Tolkachev was arrested and executed in 1986. Hoffman’s narrative is an intense, dramatic and ultimately tragic story of what he calls “ the shadow war against communism.” Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer. Reviewed by Graeme Voyer Engineer- turned- spy invaluable to Cold War- era CIA The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal By David E. Hoffman Doubleday, 312 pages, $ 35 KHIN MAUNG WIN / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES Aung San Suu Kyi waves to supporters as she leaves National League for Democracy party headquarters in this 2010 photo. D_ 24_ Aug- 22- 15_ FF_ 01. indd 1 8/ 20/ 15 6: 14: 46 PM

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