18 January 2012

"Thank You for Smoking" and "Tamerlane"

Thank You for Smoking, Christopher Buckley
Tamerlane, Jason Marozzi

Thank You for Smoking, Christopher Buckley

The word is "cute."  This is a cute little book.  It's mostly about politics, with a little morality and comedy thrown in.  The protagonist, Nick Naylor, is the chief lobbyist for the tobacco industry at some uncertain but past time - late 80s, early 90s.  He's charming, observant, and clever - and because of this, he somehow manages to be likable despite his job.

You may have seen the movie.  It was also a cute production, mostly about politics with a little morality and comedy.  The differences between the two are interesting and important.

The plot is mostly the same.  The movie plays up the love interest, of course.  But here the real change is that it curves up the dramatic arc.  The scenes of Nick doing his job are shifted around, to fit neatly into open slots of the overall plot.  The audience can't be cranked up on high all the time, so the insertion of some Lovable Roguery allows some relief for a few minutes while also characterizing the fact that Nick is actually good at his evil career.  The events of the book, in contrast, are spread out evenly and sedately, with a dramatic arc that only slumps up a bit.

Another interesting change is that the movie has a moral, whereas the book decidedly does not.  The latter is more of an amoral story - the protagonist is fully aware that he is aiding and abetting villains, but doesn't care very much: his mantra is, "I do it to pay the mortgage," and he means it.  The movie amends this proposition, which is probably accurate but is certainly uninteresting, and gins up an actual intelligent moral.  One might expect renunciation and reformation, but instead Nick Naylor conceives of the ancient defense of the lawyer: everyone deserves a voice.

I very rarely say this, but you would be better off watching the movie.  It takes everything that is good about the book, tightens it, and sharpens it.  The writing, serviceable but unremarkable, does nothing to redeem it.  Skip it.

Tamerlane, Jason Marozzi

It's never a good sign when an author's excerpts make you want to drop his book and pick up another.  Yet that is exactly what happened when I was reading Tamerlane, Jason Marozzi's biography of the Tartar conqueror.  Marozzi's tepid, poorly-organized account is enlivened only by his lengthy excerpts of the 15th-century Syrian historian Ahmad Muhammad ibn Arabshah.  I strongly recommend you pick up the latter, and leave Marozzi on the shelf.

It's not that Marozzi lacks material.  Timur, also known as Tamerlane or Tamburlaine (a corruption of "Timur the Lame"), lived a very interesting life.  It was sensationalized in Christopher Marlowe's 1587 play, but the real thing was even more provocative.  Timur was a nobody in his youth, just a member of a hill tribe in a remote Uzbeki valley.  He rose to warlord on the power of his own sword and bow, and then led his tribe to war against all rivals.  By the end of his life, he ruled most of Central Asia, having sacked such glorious cities as Sarai, Baghdad, Delhi, and Damascus.  He never lost, personally led his army in every campaign, and at the time of his death was marching on China.  More interested in conquest than rule, he repeatedly reconquered certain cities (the kingdom of Georgia rebelled a half-dozen times) and the resulting punishments defy belief.  When the city of Istafan rose against him, he slaughtered almost everyone within the gates, departing with 28 towers of 1,500 heads left outside the city gates.  And in Isfizan, Timur demonstrated his vengeance by building a living tower in the center of the city, constructing it of cement and the living bodies of thousands of screaming rebels.  This is lively stuff.

Timur favored the nickname, Lord of the Fortunate Conjunction.  According to legend, all of the signs of the skies were perfectly aligned at the moment of his birth, presaging his future greatness.  But in reality, he seems to have completely ignored superstition and religion in his quest for martial supremacy.  He was nominally a Muslim, and left the mosques and minarets in Samarkand to prove it, but his creed figured in his life mostly as an excuse for war: he attack infidels for denying the faith, and Muslims for being insufficiently pure, as suited his immediate needs.  The ancient beliefs of the Mongols and the new faith of Islam joined such notions as mercy, governance, and the solemnity of an oath in the dustbin when Timur took up his sword.

Indeed, Timur seems to have lived for war.  He won his battles because he adhered to the timeless principles of successful combat.  He knew that speed was essential, and so he maneuvered his armies by forced marches over incredible distances, surprising and overtaking his enemies.  And he used social power to as great effect as martial might, intimidating armies into submission as frequently as he engaged with them and wooing away enemy allies into his camp.  Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon all acted according to these same principles, and it makes for extremely interesting and exciting material.  There's no reason for it to be tedious.

Neither Marozzi's expertise nor his grasp of the larger perspective is in question.  He clearly knows what he's talking about, and his mastery of the complicated world of the medieval steppes-tribes is impressive.  Timur arrived on the scene a century and a half after Genghis Khan trampled the world under his army's hooves, and the splintered Mongol Empire yielded dozens of nuanced peoples entangled in a massy knot of political nonsense.  Marozzi never hesitates, clearly describing the byzantine relations of these tribes without muddying the scene.

The problem is that Marozzi is not a very good organizer.  He writes from formula, following the recipe most modern biographers adopt.  He opens with an exciting scene from the middle of his subject's life: in this case, Timur's brilliant battle against the Ottomans.  Having baited the hook, he then describes a little history that preceded his subject's birth, before starting the biography in earnest.  As he discusses the life of Timur, he regularly flashes forward to his own travels and descriptions of the ancient battlegrounds - now dusty and desolate towns of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.  Slapping his book together by rote, Marozzi should be on safe ground.  But the execution of the recipe is poor.

Timur's life was perfectly linear.  Almost every year, he would wait out the winter, then march on an enemy in spring.  He struck out at his main opponent, pausing to crush some rebels and build some head-pyramids, and after smashing their biggest army and most glorious city, he'd sack it thoroughly and send back all their artisans and poets to his own capital of Samarkand.  This pattern is continuous from the time he assumes command of his first army until the moment he dies, en route to the Middle Kingdom.  It should not be hard to tell this story clearly, even while doing that hackneyed back-and-forth to the present.  Yet time and time again Marozzi bungles the transition and mucks up the story.  Our perspective zips from country to country and from time to time - in telling of the sacking of Herat, Timur is old, then young, then dead, then young again - and it is done so badly that it is difficult to follow.

The writing itself is also problematic.  His prose is correct and clear.  But it's also uninteresting, especially when set next to the words of Achmad ibn Arabshah, a contemporary of Timur who saw the conqueror sack his home of Damascus, and whose text is alive with hate and awe.  A reader can't help but compare the lukewarm porridge of Marozzi to Arabshah's fiery broth, and Marozzi comes out the worse for it.

My copy of Timur by Achmad Muhammad ibn Arabshah has been ordered from a library on the North Island, and I'm looking forward to it.  I'll also be glad to return Marozzi's Tamerlane, which you should avoid.

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