Off the Shelf: Subtle Invasions

New York Mets catcher Kevin Plawecki (26) celebrates with relief pitcher Jeurys Familia (27) after defeating the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park, April 11, 2018. (Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports)
Observations on Arnaud Beltrame, Nam Le’s The Boat, a Norwegian political TV series, the Mets, and more

My last entry left off lamenting what I felt was a totally fruitless and overworked Lent. But, I have to say that my spirits did pick up very late, contemplating the heroism of Arnaud Beltrame, who gave his life as a ransom for that of a woman held hostage in Trèbes. Redouane Lakdim, a criminal who murdered as he entered a supermarket, made his demands. Beltrame offered to take the place of Lakdim’s hostage. When the raid finally came, Ladkim shot Beltrame dead. I experienced it in short radio broadcasts.

The English writer Peter Hitchens recommended the first one, offered by the gentle progressive-minded Anglican vicar Giles Fraser. Following the example of the French ambassador to the United Kingdom, Fraser boldly gave the title of martyr to this soldier. Fraser directly connected Beltrame’s death to that of Christ. “Greater love hath no man . . .” It was a simple description of Easter, and of why the cross remains “a representation of love, absolutely not the celebration of death, though death is sometimes the cost of love.” It was the sort of thought that returns to you over and over again in silent moments, for several days.

The right-wing French provocateur Éric Zemmour used a radio broadcast to contrast the two forms of the word “martyrdom” offered in the moment, each tied to one of the two religions represented. The Islamist terrorist takes his life in hand in order to murder. The French Catholic soldier gives his life over to save:

The mother of the policeman said that for her son the homeland and the family were above all, that it was a “blue-white-red.” Work, the family, the homeland: These are the values that, since May ’68, which have been loudly celebrated these days, we have been taught to reject, to demonize, by systematically associating them with Vichy and Petain. Beltrame has done everything to lock himself in the shackles of tradition. He is the heir of knights and monks, not stars of reality TV. He was not of his time, not of our time.

For Zemmour, Beltrame is a Frankish Crusader, transported into the present. His mission, to liberate not Jerusalem, but France. It’s a powerful image, though I think it is partly wrong. I agree in one sense. Self-sacrifice comes across as even more radical in an age where we are so efficient at making self-interest and lassitude look like virtue and wisdom. But I find it difficult to accept this drugged-up criminal as a representative of Islam. And Zemmour’s real contempt is for liberal France, not for this terrorist whom he is subtly inflating and perhaps envying. There is a way in which Zemmour is instrumentalizing Christianity for nationalism. I want to tell him that it won’t work that way.

Still, it was obvious to me that the convulsion France was thrown into by this heroic act had something to do with the hope to be found in it. When the elderly Father Jacques Hamel had his throat torn open like an animal, at the altar of a Mass he was saying in 2016, his martyrdom was honored, yes. But there was something more chilly about it. Perhaps we in the West, even if only subconsciously, believe that unmarried priests have already been written out of life in some way, or stepped part-way into the afterlife. It’s one of these sentiments that has a false and a true sense. False, in that we are tempted to ignore priests as we go about our business. True, in that really they do go before us in this confrontation with death. But when Beltrame died, a life was saved. And it seemed to symbolize to the French that self-sacrifice will bring forth something good. There was romance in it too, of course. A soldier’s life for that of a French woman. Hard to miss.

There are books I come back to when I need inspiration, or relief. And over a post-Easter vacation, I put down my political books and history books. I went back to a collection of short stories that I have often recommended: The Boat, by Nam Le. The stories range all over the earth. One is clearly autobiographical, and takes up his own inability as a writer to live up to or pay proper tribute to the sacrifices his parents made for him. It’s astonishing to read. But he ranges across the whole earth, telling stories of drug runners in Cartagena, and of a rich foul-minded man suffering from his hemorrhoids in Manhattan, as he goes to see his estranged daughter’s violin concert.

And then the rumor came out. Nam Le was playing poker semi-professionally, and he was pretty good. One news story says that he earned $200 grand over two years at the World Series of Poker.

Le has one of the best backstories for an author. He is the child of Vietnamese “boat people,” refugees who settled in Australia. He worked as a lawyer. Then he went to the Iowa Writers Workshop and released this book of short stories. That was ten years ago. The critical response was overwhelming. It won the Dylan Thomas Prize. It was nominated for just about every literary award in Australia, and a few others elsewhere. There were rumors that he had been working on and reworking his first major novel. But nothing came. I wrote him a few emails through the promotional website for his book, telling him what it meant to me, and how I bought it for friends after they had been fired from a media job. I would inscribe it like a doctor’s prescription: Take six escapes. He responded kindly, “Thank you for your email — it made my day! Still writing, nothing on the immediate publishing horizon, but fingers crossed.”

And then the rumor came out. Nam Le was playing poker semi-professionally, and he was pretty good. One news story says that he earned $200 grand over two years at the World Series of Poker. He insisted he was still a writer but that he earned a third of his income playing poker. “You do play live poker with other people, but it’s a solitary pursuit in a sense, just like writing,” he said. “They both require you beat your head against a wall, just in a different way.”

Believable, I think.

What I like about Nam Le is that he is willing to daub the page with just a little purple. Here’s a bit from that story about the man who is seeing his estranged daughter, along with his ex-lover and her husband. Here, he is almost stumbling in his pain, drunkenness, and regret into Carnegie Hall:

I don’t realize until I’m a little ways down Fifth. It’s the height of fall. I turn around. Central Park is in bloom, spastic with color — red, orange, green, yellow, purple, brown, gold. The asters have broken out into their annual parade of white, lavender, red, and pink. My head knows this but my eyes missed it — my poor eyes didn’t see it.

I hang my head, trudge west along Fifty-seventh. Finally I get to Carnegie Hall. Focus, I tell myself. I convince the man at the box office that I’m Elise Kozlov’s father. This makes me feel grubby and proud at once. Of course it’s important, I tell him. He tells me where they’re rehearsing, doing sound checks or something. I follow the sound to the parquet entrance of the main auditorium, push the door open and see her immediately, the black-gray smudge of four smudges on the distant stage, the one with the instrument between her legs. The one made small by her instrument. I move closer. She’s just a girl in a dress that barely covers her knees. She looks like the girl in the website photo. Her face under the heavy lighting so young, yet so stern. Even the way she holds the cello is stern. I see it all clearly now.

And she’s beautiful without me. I hate the young for that too. That they’re assured in their beauty, in the way that only animals are assured — unmussed by the thought of death.

I guess I hope Nam Le takes down a big prize at the World Series of Poker this May and June and finishes whatever novel he’s working on. Truly, The Boat is a collection worth having.

I’ve sort of been tuning out of the Golden Age of television the last two years. I couldn’t get into the superhero stuff on Netflix beyond a few episodes of Daredevil. I had stopped watching House of Cards well before people decided to admit Kevin Spacey was . . . like that. The adults in my house watch only three things, really. Major League Baseball, Veep, and Silicon Valley. And often that’s just to drive out of our heads the music from my daughter’s favorite show, The Octonauts. She’s taken to teaching me about phenomena of the deep sea that I’ve never heard of before. Things like brinicles.

The premise of Occupied is oddly fun. What if you took a small European country that was somewhat infantilized by Atlanticist peace treaties and suddenly reintroduced its unprepared leadership class to a Europe of realpolitik?

But I made an exception to binge on the show Occupied. It’s a Norwegian political thriller that is just as ridiculous and implausible as House of Cards, but somehow it feels fresh and satisfyingly reactionary. It’s in a near future, where there is an unspecified climate crisis, and the U.S. has withdrawn from NATO and become energy-self-sufficient. We drop in on the prime minister of Norway, Jesper Berg, a green-party leader who is celebrating his nation’s ditching of fossil fuels and switch to thorium reactors. This angers people. Russia responds with a soft invasion of Norway to help it ramp up fossil-fuel production again, and does so with the connivance of the EU.

The premise is oddly fun. What if you took a small European country that was somewhat infantilized by Atlanticist peace treaties and suddenly reintroduced its unprepared leadership class to a Europe of realpolitik? The result is that, mostly, Norway falls flat on its face. The categories their politicians have for understanding the world are made useless almost overnight. There is some deeply subversive stuff in the show. My favorite bit is when a Norwegian judge ends up endorsing the placement of Russian judges on local courts because she sees the occupying Russians as a minority suffering nativist discrimination. The writers obviously enjoyed playing with the theme of good intentions that become corrupted by self-interest, or perverted by others. Maybe too much, as I longed for a few more heroes. Anyway, I highly recommend it as good fun.

What else this week? In an appreciation of my colleague Jonah Goldberg’s forthcoming book, David Brooks lists me and a few friends (and my boss) as bright young things. I’ve just become old enough to be more flattered by the “young” than by the bright bit. The Mets are 10–1 as I write. They aren’t even playing particularly well. Just catching the right opportunities. And today’s the first real day of spring weather here. Deo Gratias.

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