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Book Review August 8, 2002
Berkeley Bustard, Afghan Sucker
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 3 of 3
For example, when you hiss in annoyance at the "abyss" poem and flip a few pages forward, you see a pretty decent picture of a Soviet helicopter coming down for a landing and look to the caption to see what was going on. And here's what you get: "Let them be quick," he said quietly, staring fixedly at the sky."

"He"? Who the Hell is "he"? Tamarov is trying for a quick-cut cinematic prose technique here, but it doesn't come off. You gather, finally, that "he" is a wounded comrade waiting for the "copters" to pick him up. But you don't find out what happened to him until near the end of the book, a hundred pages on, when Tamarov suddenly resumes this anecdote.

A good rule for the aspiring memoirist is this: what would happen if you tried this shit when you were telling the story to your friends? What would happen if you started a story, "I remember holding this guy who'd been wounded. He was listening for the medevac chopper. Then he lost consciousness again..." If you were dumb enough to finish the story there, with the intention of finishing it a couple of hours later, your storytelling license would soon be revoked.

Good memoirists tell stories to their friends; bad memoirists write compositions for their English teachers. Tamarov, unfortunately, is more concerned with impressing his old teachers than with finishing his war stories. And that's fatal.

If only Afghanistan HAD taught Tamarov to believe in action rather than words -- rather than this sort of verbal cheese, at any rate. Unfortunately, Afghanistan actually taught him to form grand phrases. This is practically the ONLY way you can ruin a war memoir. As I mentioned in a recent review of Vietnam memoirs, almost any combat veteran with a good memory, a tape recorder and a sufficiently ruthless editor can crank out a decent war memoir. But only if you talk and talk to the machine until all the grand phrases have drained from you.

Then there's the translation. I hesitate to call it that. It's more like the product of one of those first-generation machine-translation programs. Tamarov's English, as exemplified in his email to me, is much more compelling than the work of the three (!) people credited with the English translation. Every sentence contains an irritating mistake or two. This sort of just-slightly-wrong wording grows with compound interest; after ten pages you feel like you've been pushing through sawgrass, itching from a hundred tiny scratches. Sentences like this pile up: "Through the window the lights of my city were visible. The city where I hadn't been for two long, hard years."

Maybe Tamarov's original was just like this, with the awkward passive ("were visible"), lame sentence-fragment, clumsy negation ("where I hadn't been") followed by a maudlin cliche "two long, hard years." If so, somebody should've smacked him and sent him home to do another draft. But even if every graceless sentence is Tamarov's, the hacks who translated Tamarov's text into English are accomplices in a sustained assault on the English-speaking reader.

Oh, and of course there's the Vietnam connection. This book was first published as Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam, and is full of facile and unconvincing parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan. Tamarov writes with the breathless America-philia of Russia circa 1992, praising the Vietnam monument, the rehab centers for Vietnam vets, and going into long greeting-card orations about the beauty of international friendship with "the American people, who, I'm sure, like the majority of [Russians], sincerely want peace and hate war."

Who says they do? Americans rather like war, as long as it isn't happening to them. In fact, it's rather difficult to think of a tribe which truly hated war. Why do you think your book is such a hot item, Tamarov? Not because we Americans "hate war."

If Tamarov had dropped his fatuous Soviet platitudes long enough to see what was really going on in Afghanistan, he could have written an extraordinary book. This is not such a book. Even the photos are dull things, posed and melodramatic. It's no accident that Tamarov won a Soviet prize with the cover shot of himself and an Afghan collaborator standing tall on a dry Afghan hillside, facing the camera bravely. He renounces the caption which won him his prize: "They defend the Revolution!" But Tamarov is still falling for "words," slogans, maudlin phrases cut out of old speeches. Mark Twain has some hard words to say about the alleged value of experience, and Tamarov's book illustrates the cynical point all too well. Suckered at home, suckered at Berkeley, and still a sucker for every pop-song cliche, poor Tamarov stands not as a witness to the horrors of war but the grim American proverb: there's one born every minute.

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