- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 24, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE VIPER OF KERMAN

By Christian Oliver

Halban Publishers, London, 266 pages

Recent events, unprecedented regional influence, historic presidential elections and the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Republic’s founding make it a particularly opportune time to get a grip on contemporary Iran. One excellent addition to Iran’s current and sparse fiction list is “The Viper of Kerman,” a partly tongue-in-cheek novel that sets out a not-altogether-unlikely vision of turmoil afflicting the Middle East’s most strategic country.

Former Iran Reuters news agency correspondent Christian Oliver has written an adventure yarn that makes up for thin characterization by packing a terrific punch of a plot. A scheming ayatollah not altogether dissimilar to former President (two times) Hashemi Rafsanjani seeks to grab power and enrich himself in the process. Appropriately enough for a country where ambiguity is prized as the apogee of sophistication, nothing is quite as it seems.

The devious ayatollah obliquely employs the West’s intelligence services to help him engineer an internal coup against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by dangling the prospect of ceasing Iran’s nuclear program and recognizing Israel. But in an alternative retelling of Iranian folklore in which “perfidious Albion” always pulls the political strings, the eponymous viper of Kerman deftly performs a last-moment turn of the tables on the CIA and MI6 alike.

Mr. Oliver narrates “The Viper of Kerman” in the spoof tradition of the Flashman novels, in which outwardly dashing British anti-heroes who are actually very cowardly banish evil Russian spies and scheming natives to save the empire for king and country.

Mr. Oliver resurrects the genre with an outrageous plot and a cast of stereotypes: There is the weatherbeaten British MI6 spy haunted by a bungled Iran operation almost 30 years ago, when the country throbbed in the throes of revolution; an obnoxious Washington lawyer whose professional representation of American arms dealers includes a sideline in shooting fowl and exchanging confidential information with a Russian agent; and an eager young Tehran news hound called Shirkhan whose local knowledge and repeated scoops are patronizingly shrugged off by Bertie Whelan, the self-important Fleet Street hack who parachutes into Tehran to “cut through the crap” and deliver “another Whelan classic.”

Whelan is by far the most vivid character conjured by Oliver. The hard-drinking, hard-smoking, womanizing, working-class old-timer is a figure recognizable in all newsrooms. Mr. Oliver’s description is so raw it is hard to believe he is not presenting us with a pastiche of a Reuters nemesis:

“Bernie was proud of his caustic, no-nonsense Irish wit and cut-through-the-crap approach to story-writing. He always told his correspondents to keep things simple, tutted when their copy landed and added crass oversimplifications in his editing that showed he didn’t really get the point. Bernie despised the new order of Reuters journalists, in their smart suits and silk ties, always on their mobiles. They were the kind of Oxbridge poofs who went to juice bars and said ‘ciao.’ Pegler was one of them. As far as Whelan was concerned, Pegler was so obsessed with not upsetting anyone that he couldn’t write a story to save his life. Iran needed one of Whelan’s tell-it-as-it-is classics.”

As chaos spreads through the streets of Iran and the plot moves up a gear from drama to farce, some of the character development borders on the cumbersome. Many of the protagonists’ motivations are ill-defined, and much of the dialogue - whether delivered by Brits, Iranians or Central Asians sounds like dialogue scripted from BBC Comedy Central.

But the book comes into its own when veering off into the realm of the surreal: There’s the young British diplomat who nearly misses the revolution as he enjoys torrid threesomes with dark-eyed Iranian beauties, and a lethal Tajik killer sitting with a local warlord on a four-poster bed somewhere in the mountains of Iranian Baluchestan smoking opium and watching Urdu-subtitled Cindy Crawford fitness videos.

Although set in contemporary Iran, Mr. Oliver’s novel is in effect a continuation of the great game literary genre. Accordingly, the tableau stretches across the whole of the Middle East and Central Asia, encompassing Afghanistan, Tajikistan and the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. Aside from its essentially comic nature, the book contains some remarkably vivid descriptions of turmoil in contemporary Iran that bear the mark of a firsthand witness.

“The first cars were gathering and beeping their horns at each other, flirtatiously, like birds of paradise flashing their lustrous plumage. This was how protests began in a police state. Iranians had become masters of protests that weren’t really protests. The same rituals would follow a big success on the football pitch, such as qualifying for the World Cup. Young people, curious people, professional people. They all get in their cars and simply drive around, hoping that they will recognise a few kindred spirits. At first there are a few tentative poops on the horn. Those can always be explained away as a slip of the hand or as a warning to another driver. Then before long hundreds of cars are blasting away on their horns in a dizzying roar.”

Aside from spoof and geopolitical thriller, “The Viper of Kerman” furnishes unique insights into the business of international news. In the tradition of “Wag the Dog,” the book asks whether a revolution can go ahead if it’s not on the tube. Journalists are the true stars of this book as jealous guardians, seekers or interpreters of the truth. The state channel’s head of news makes a pact with the devil as he feeds inflammatory images of street carnage and the ayatollah’s coded declarations to the masses, in between incongruous nature documentaries.

Mr. Oliver makes scathing cultural observations about the demented megalopolis that is Tehran. As MiG-29s swoop over the city to bomb military installations, every channel on Iranian television incongruously is broadcasting “David Attenborough crawling inside the great minaret of a termite nest.” Frustrated Revolutionary Guards pouring out of their bases to take the fight to the rebels are “snared in the creeping lava-flow of traffic. Furious, they returned to base and loaded into Chinooks.”

And an appalled news executive who had envisaged events turning out like Boris Yeltsin’s democratic revolution pores with horror over the carnage being transmitted by Iran’s state-run television and frustratedly asks himself what is wrong “with this damn country? How did we form this inexorable bond with death?”

Mr. Oliver’s skill shines through by the end of the book as he comes to a wholly feasible conclusion. A transfixed world watches media coverage of a coup going down in Iran but misses covert American and British air strikes on the country’s nuclear program, the shifty ayatollah’s attempted power grab and an against-the-odds assassination attempt inside Iran by the Russians.

As thousands of young Iranians pound the streets of Tehran night after night in real life, protesting against the Islamic Republic and prompting accusations of great power involvement by worried Ahmadinejad advisers, “The Viper of Kerman” offers a glimpse of an all-too-likely future.

Iason Athanasiadis is a freelance reporter for The Washington Times, currently in Iran.

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