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Paul William Roberts: 'Mr. Love'

After superb Iraq reportage, he invents a nasty future.

By Charles Demers 14 Nov 2006 |

Charles Demers is a frequent contributor to Tyee Books who last wrote about Fred Booker's Adventures in Debt Collection.

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For many people, the prospect of interviewing one of the world's most infamously barbarous and arbitrarily violent dictators would seem a frightening enough endeavour even with all of one's faculties at their disposal. The idea of interviewing Saddam Hussein under the influence of ecstasy, then, as British/Canadian author Paul William Roberts has done, seems exceedingly terrifying.

But as he sits across from me stirring his coffee in the Sylvia Hotel lounge, torrential rain embarrassing Vancouver in front of our guest by its sheer clichéd predictability, Roberts explains his thinking: "I'm sort of Mr. Love on psychedelic drugs. I mean everything's great, I love everyone, I just have a great time and see no bad anywhere. I mean the worst place -- body searches by the Republican Guard, I thought: 'This is kind of nice.'"

If Roberts's narcotic interview of Saddam Hussein seems a gimmicky place to start, I hasten to add that I bring it up for a reason: Roberts has just written one of the most profoundly pessimistic and depressing novels of recent years, Homeland, whose conceit is the autobiography of a conservative foreign policy planner named David Leverett who works during the years that American democracy unravels into the neo-conservative nightmare of our current era and becomes a world in which Israel and its Arab neighbours are destroyed by an atomic explosion, Canada becomes part of the United States, the president is anonymous, war rages with China, and New York city is underwater.

Yup, he's psychedelic Mr. Love alright -- somebody get this guy some ecstasy.

Leverett: recognize him?

Roberts is perhaps best known for his very literary non-fiction work, most recently the outstanding A War Against Truth: An Intimate Account of the Invasion of Iraq (Raincoast), which was nominated for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, and his writing has earned him fans among British Columbia's narrative non-fiction pioneers. (Deborah Campbell and friends attended Roberts's Homeland reading at the Vancouver Public Library on Nov. 2.)

If works such as A War Against Truth are factual essays on world affairs that read like novels, Homeland is, in a sense, their precise opposite; if the demands and styles of narrative fiction weigh heavily on his reportage, this particular work of fiction is infused with political philosophy and political science, history and theory, even breaking into Leverett's policy papers.

Leverett, Roberts explained to his audience at the VPL, is based upon George Kennan, one of the chief engineers of post-WWII American foreign policy, and a man in whom Noam Chomsky has identified an unalloyed villain, but in whom Roberts seems to find a tragic hero, and a template for his conservative protagonist suddenly surrounded by radical, neo-conservative policy writers as well as sundry "spooks," "economic hitmen" and high-level thugs.

Though based on Kennan, the protagonist is also a conduit for Roberts's theories and, to a lesser extent, politics; during our interview, Roberts makes several of the same points, in the same language, as his fictional narrator.

Too hot for Globe?

But whereas Roberts is something of a radical outsider (he's been a regular target for recently-apologetic National Post columnist Jonathan Kay, and even The Globe and Mail distanced itself from an excellent essay Roberts wrote for the paper), Leverett is the hyper-privileged insider, meeting and chatting with real-life figures from Brzezinski to Weinberger, as well as fictional composites, such as Caleb Luposki.

"Look at the people involved in this whole travesty of the last decade or so, which is the story of the book," Roberts explained to me at the Sylvia. "Luposki is quite clearly [Paul] Wolfowitz -- the name is only changed because I didn't want real people doing fictional things, and it does go into the future."

When I suggest that his character's lupine surrogate name is less than cryptic, he laughs.

"Yes -- thinly concealed."

Of course, in a context such as ours, where media conceals reality using far thicker, more opaque tricks, Roberts's work is refreshing and necessary. He wears his politics on his sleeve -- and those politics are harder to get a grip on than one might think; he's candidly politically incorrect, for example, and nowhere in the pantheon of the Marxist left is there room for Roberts's somewhat romantic notion that Indian polytheism might just have made the country more susceptible to liberal democracy -- he lets readers judge for themselves, which is far more than many are willing to do today.  [Tyee]