from The Economist, December 2010
Here is an article on the state of diplomacy in the Pacific.
from Culture Wars, November 2010
Tuskar Rock, 2010
Until the triumphant return of Jonathan Franzen in the autumn, it seemed that Christos Tsiolkas’ novel, The Slap, was a contender for the book event of the year. It has been both a critical and a commercial success, winning both the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and a spot on the Booker longlist, from where it went on to out-sell even those that made the shortlist. As word spread, newspaper headlines accused the book and its author of misogyny (which only boosted sales further) and ensured that The Slap gained a measure of notoriety.
The setting for the novel is a suburban barbecue in Melbourne, which is attended by a cross-section of middle-class Australian society. The host, Hector, is of Greek descent, and his wife, Aisha, is Indian-Australian, while their guests include French-, Aboriginal- and regular ‘bogan’ Australians, and vary in age from Hector’s elderly father, Manolis, to his infant daughter, Melissa. Most of this group witness the book’s eponymous moment, which is delivered by Hector’s brother, Harry, to an insufferably spoilt three-year-old, Hugo, who is the son of Aisha’s best friend. The book is less concerned with the blow itself (a deftly handled set-piece that had this reviewer gripped) than its reverberations among Tsiolkas’ large cast, and what their reactions tell us about contemporary Australia.
The story is told in eight chapters, each of which belongs to a different character. Given that a key plank of Tsiolkas’ plot is the diversity of the responses to the slap, this would seem a sensible way to tell the story. However, creating eight characters of sufficient depth and credibility is a stiff challenge for any author (indeed, not every member of Franzen’s frequently large families is believable), and one that, on balance, gets the better of Tsiolkas. Many of the protagonists feel half-baked, products of a lack of imagination and some lazy editing. Scriptwriter Anouk is a career woman with a younger boyfriend, who is faced by that most hackneyed of plot twists: an unexpected pregnancy. Harry, meanwhile, is an overly aggressive alpha-male with a misplaced sense of value, which is predictably demonstrated by his oft-spoken admiration for his expensive house and ‘his Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses and his black lycra Speedos’. Tsiolkas uses the same unsophisticated signposting to make his teenagers seem real, but he is let down by his editor who has them listen to ‘Gwen Stafani’ and attend a gig by ‘Snoop Dog’.
The problems that Tsiolkas has in developing his large cast are most apparent in the novel’s depiction of sex. There is a lot of it in The Slap, and, given the multiplicity of perspectives in the novel, one might expect to read a number of different representations of the act itself. Instead, Tsiolkas uses the same register for each of the protagonists, a sub-pornographic catalogue of dicks, tits, cocks and cunts; all anatomy and no feeling. Here’s alpha-male Harry: ‘He lifted himself on the bedhead, got onto his knees. He continued fucking his wife in the mouth. He could see her gagging but when he stopped thrusting she clutched his arse and pushed him deep into her. He blew his cheeks out, stifled his shout and came with savage force’. For Harry, this approach to sex is not inappropriate. It is less fitting in the chapter given to Hugo’s sappy mother Rosie: ‘She continued doing it at the new school, the state school, full of boys to fuck. She had fucked and fucked, one night allowing herself to be fucked by seven of them, each taking turns. She had bled, her cunt had torn’. And it is even less apt coming from the otherwise sensitive Aisha: ‘Hector was now a jackhammer, slamming into her, she was full of him, as much in her belly as in her cunt, she buried her face into the coverlet, her outstretched hands were clutching at the sheets’. These three characters share nothing in the novel but mutual misunderstanding, yet Tsiolkas is unable to depict them as individuals in their most intimate moments.
These passages also highlight the laziness of the accusations of misogyny that have been levelled at The Slap. Harry, undoubtedly, has some very dubious views on women (his wife is a ‘faithful dumb animal’ who looks good in a bikini), but then he’s little more pleasant about men (Gary, the father of the boy he slaps, is a ‘weak faggot of a husband’) or children (Hugo is ‘a whining little prick’). His vitriol is not provoked by a hatred of women, as much as a dislike for anything that prevents him from relaxing in his self-congratulatory bubble. Nor does the fact that the majority of Tsiolkas’ women are unpleasant mean that the novel is misogynistic; they are products of a society that the author regards as unhealthy rather than made dislikeable for the fact that they are female.
What The Slap appears to rail against is the perceived failure of liberalism in Australia in the era of John Howard. Here is a society built on the protection of the rights of the individual (Hugo, only three years old, asserts confidently ‘No-one is allowed to touch my body without my permission.’) and a policy of open immigration. The result, according to Tsiolkas’ novel, is a society that is angry, misunderstood and resentful, and lacking a method of self-expression, even one as primitive as violence. These uncomfortable and very conservative conclusions are wrapped inside a powerful narrative that has a real pull, and goes some way to explain The Slap’s wild popularity.
from The Economist, November 2010
An article on the mysterious disappearance of Pakistani cricketer Zulqarnain Haider.
from The Economist, September 2010
Click here for my story on one of the biggest murder trials in the history of the Philippines.
from The Economist, September 2010
Homeless, faction-ridden and riding a losing streak, Pakistani cricket was already having a bad year. But the sensation allegation that its players plotted with gamblers to fix elements of a recent Test match against England has turned a bout of badness into full-blown crisis. Three players have been suspended by the sport’s governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC), and could further face criminal charges. If the accusations stick, the national side risks becoming an international pariah. Our leader argues that the plight of cricket in Pakistan is symptomatic of the country’s graver ills.
The diminution of the national cricket team is a catastrophe in its own right. It had already been reduced to a touring side; Test cricket was suspended at home in 2009, following a terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore. (The same incident also stripped Pakistan of its right to host matches in the 2011 World Cup.) Making matters worse, teams in the lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) have stopped hiring Pakistani players. Despite Pakistan’s status as Twenty20 world champions, none of its nationals were selected for the 2010 tournament. Individual IPL clubs said they had been put off Pakistanis by visa difficulties. Rumour would have it that it was political pressure, and not red tape, that got to the Indian owners.
It may be hard to see today, but cricket needs Pakistan as much as Pakistan needs cricket. It is the second-biggest market for the sport after India, and is home to the world’s most fervent fans. The spot-fixing affair ought to provide new motivation for the ICC and the other Test-playing nations to bring international cricket back to Pakistan. Giles Clarke, the chairman of the England Cricket Board, wants to see a plan drawn up for just this. It must include improved security for touring sides. Agents would have to be accredited. (Mazhar Majeed, the man at the centre of the spot-fixing allegations, being a prime example of an unaccredited agent.) Greater attempts must also be made to form a players’ association, such as to foster an ethic of fair play and provide guidance for the young and inexperienced.
The case of Mohammad Amir, a bowler implicated in the spot-fixing allegations, demonstrates the need for something like this. The intensifying search for cricketers of the highest calibre has turned up players from all corners of Pakistan—no longer is the side dominated by men from the wealthier, sophisticated urban centres. Mr Amir has been a regular for the national side since the tender age of 17. His rapid rise, from a village in northern Punjab to universal acclaim in St John’s Wood, has been dizzying even to watch. Perhaps it could help explain even a grievous lapse of judgment. His co-accused, Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif, have no such excuses. Clubs and managers in other sports have learned, often to their cost, that young players in the spotlight need support and protection. The Pakistan Cricket Board has failed woefully in this capacity.
The ICC must also pick its way through of a maze. Its dilemma is clear: it wishes to give the strongest possible indication that match-fixing is unacceptable, and the most obvious way to do this is to ban guilty players for life. However, to do that could hobble Pakistani cricket for years, and, in the case of Mr Amir, deprive the sport of its most exciting young talent. The solution would be to settle for considerable fixed-term bans. For Mr Amir, or even Mr Butt, a still-sprightly 25, four or five years away from internationals would not necessarily end a career. Yet such punishment, meted without exception, would provide a powerful deterrent.
In addition, clubs in the IPL must be encouraged to consider picking Pakistani cricketers in 2011, as their quality demands. The Pakistani players’ loss of earnings from the IPL’s de facto ban has been suggested as a reason for players’ alleged involvement in match-fixing schemes. In comparison with people who earn the country’s median income, all of Pakistan’s international cricketers look like wealthy men—but not when they are compared with their English or Australian counterparts. Cricket should strive to be a meritocracy off the field, as well as on it. Participation is also a matter of national pride. Shah Rukh Khan, Bollywood’s biggest star and an IPL club owner, described the absence of Pakistani players in 2010 as a humiliation. He has the opportunity to force a change with the next season.
The three players accused of spot-fixing at Lord’s will remain suspended until the ICC concludes its investigation, which is likely to take several months. Pakistan’s High Commissioner in Britain, Wajid Shamsul Hasan, believes that the trio were set up. If he is proven right, then the players should enjoy a golden opportunity to redeem their names on the field. The Pakistan team is scheduled to tour India in 2011, where it has not been since terrorists attacked Mumbai in November 2008. The series would be of great political and sporting significance, though last week’s developments have done nothing to make it more likely. It will take much diplomatic groundwork to make these matches happen—but there is much for cricket to gain.