Of all the literary and cinema genres, the most thrilling is escape. Escape from prison, escape from predators, escape from burning buildings, escape from sinking ships, escape from aliens, escape from prehistoric creatures, escape from eruptions, escape from hurricanes.
Argo by Antonio J. Mendez, 310 pp, 2012 Penguin paperback. Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops, 325 baht
The most dramatic escapes are from countries. When the government is determined to keep you in or catch you if you are on the run, its control of the borders and means of transportation makes it virtually impossible to escape. "Virtually" is the operative term. Meaning possible, however unlikely.
John le Carre and lesser writers of espionage fiction enjoy plotting their novels with clever escapes from Nazi Germany, Communist Russia and elsewhere. The Western reader and viewer doesn't question the means of exfiltration _ the term in the spy trade.
To us the trick was obvious the whole time, but of course the Gestapo, the KGB and others were too dim to catch on until the man, woman or group were safely away. To be sure, there are exfiltrations in real life. But the CIA and MI6 are unwilling to reveal how they did it.
What makes Argo unique is that its author, Antonio J Mendez, a retired CIA high officer, details an actual exfiltration he was responsible for three decades ago. Though not the first work about the event, he insists that his version is definitive. The event was the illegal, outrageous occupation of the American embassy and consulate in Tehran in 1979-1981.
First and foremost, the author shoots out of the water the contention that it began as a students' prank. Evidence clearly pointed to a planned _ not spontaneous _ attack by armed militants with the connivance of the theocratic ruler. The personnel were repeatedly abused during their 444 days of captivity.
Though the exiled shah, whose return they demanded to stand trial for his crimes passed away from his illness, the hostages weren't released for nearly 15 months. Six US employees had luckily evaded capture. Canadian embassy diplomats gave them refuge. The Pentagon's effort to rescue all the Americans failed through a tragedy of errors.
Mendoza, drawing on Hollywood's expertise concocted a plan to shoot a phony sci-fi episode in Iran, disguising the six as members of its cast and crew. It worked and they flew out on Canadian passports. Canada was rightly praised for its good neighbourliness. President Jimmy Carter was wrongly blamed for not getting the lot out sooner. Iran remains hostile.
How To Outwit Aristotle by Peter Cave, 378pp, 2012 Quercus paperback. Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops, 395 baht
Food for thought
In my teens in university I majored in history, my close friend in philosophy. In my home and his, over games of chess, we recounted interesting things we'd learned in our classes. I quoted historians, he philosophers. The problem was that what I said couldn't be more clear, but I was unable to understand much of what he was saying.
I like to think I was intelligent, but expressions like existentialism and Caesarian dualism were over my head. I felt embarrassed when I asked him to explain them and other terms. Which he did, yet I still didn't get them. As curious about the cosmos as the next guy, my imagination can't take in the philosophical implications.
I have since managed to get through and appreciate Bertrand Russell's History Of Western Philosophy, but generally skip other books in the field. Until I took a deep breath and perused How To Outwit Aristotle by British philosophy professor Peter Cave. To his credit, he endeavoured to write its 35 chapters with a light touch.
Alas, this reviewer found it no easier to understand. My fault, of course.
He lost me early on when he turned Descartes' "I think therefore I am" around by asking "When Descartes isn't thinking does that mean that he isn't?" Cave handles two millennia of Western philosophers with respective put-downs. He is obviously familiar with all their works _ be it Spinoza or Kant, Schopenhauer, Sartre, Hume, or anyone in between.
He asks, do you know or just think you know? And what is meant by think? What is reality? The use of correct words is essential to convey intended meanings. Synonyms convey other meanings. Can computers be programmed to think? Is something beautiful when one person says it is and another doesn't?
Cave focuses on the cosmos at length. If there are parallel universes, are their inhabitants likely to have gone beyond the amoeba stage? Learned astrophysicists can't disprove the existence of God, but neither can theologians prove His existence. Nevertheless, theories abound in both camps.
Like Socrates, the author advises us to examine our lives. Still, he is aware that all too many of us don't. We float along in a kind of serendipity, unaware of all the things we should know. And for better or worse, such is mankind. As long as there are those among us who reflect, there's hope for us all.
I recommend How To Outwit Aristotle to readers with better imaginations than my own. For terms you don't understand, there is a glossary. As for me, I write therefore I exist.
About the author
- Writer: Bernard Trink
Position: Freelance Writer