exercises in compound storytelling

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Buda's Wagon: "the poor man's air force"

The Quiet AmericanImage via WikipediaI wrapped some work a little early yesterday and had a chance to finish Mike Davis's book Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb. The book, like the history it covers, descends into lists of dates and body counts once it moves past 1983 or so and deals with the Italian mafia maxi-trials, the Colombian drug cartel wars, the IRA's bombing of the London financial district (now site of the Gherkin), and of course the current Iraq war. It's dismal stuff: it's difficult to tell an ordinary car from a car carrying a small bomb without getting close to it, buildings require visits from delivery trucks and trash trucks, etc. It's virtually impossible to ring a building with enough steel and concrete to keep it outside the blast radius of a very large car bomb, and some of the bombs in this book are just plain huge.

Davis doesn't isolate the nature of the car bomb itself from the bombing stories themselves and I think misses the chance to write a much better book; this would have been better organized if he'd separate the technical aspects of the history of car bombs from the sketched history of resistance: how one group that used car bombs was related to another, the various conflicts, and the movement from anarchism and warfare (New York and Saigon 1920-1955) to urban terrorism.

The theme of the book, the car bomb as the "poor man's air force," gets lost in the details: Davis devotes a chapter early to the concept, and mentions it again late, but the basic idea of the car bomb as the equalizer between occupier and occupied doesn't hold up since the various conflicts don't always have that structure.

I'm glad and relieved to be done with this book.

One closing note: I'm baffled by Davis's treatment of Graham Greene's 1955 novel The Quiet American as a piece of straight reporting. This was an odd editorial choice and suggested to me that Davis isn't overly concerned with facts qua facts, but rather considers what he has to say to be "more true" than the facts he uses to decorate his arguments.

Next up is probably a Deborah Lipstadt book on Holocaust deniers, but I found a copy of Davis's book No One Is Illegal, so I need to give it a look too.

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1 comment:

Deborah Lipstadt said...

I suggest you start with History on Trial: My Day in court with a Holocaust Denier.

Deborah Lipstadt