Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot

In 2002, American TV journalist and news anchor Kim Barker accepted a 3 month posting to Afghanistan. She stayed four years.

Her experiences were recorded in an observational memoir entitled, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan and made into 2016 film, produced by and starring Tina Fey.

Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot, radio-code for acronym WTF, captures, like M*A*S*H and other war biopics, the ‘dramedy’ or the ‘tragicomedy’ of war time experiences.

Kim, underwhelmed with the state of her career, heads as war correspondent to Kabul, Afghanistan. There, she is engulfed in the ‘other worldness’ of what is affectionately coined ‘Kabubble’ by the community of expat journalists and war reporters she encounters there.

download (1)

Quickly befriended by notable British journalist, Tanya Vanderpoel [Margot Robbie], she is inducted into the rules of Kabubble. She learns not to be ripped off, black-mailed or hit up. Immersed in surreal “lost in translation” moments, newly-single Kim bonds with the curious assortment of expats and locals who guide her through life in her new home.

The story is a journey of sorts;  it’s a hero story but it’s told by a woman in war time middle east. Kim is immersed in gender politics throughout, from her deployment as “childless unmarried staffer” to her induction in Kabul to the  4-10-4 rule. Woman, usually ranked an attractiveness quotient of 4 on home territory, can be ranked a 10 in Kabul, but as she is cautioned by the US  Marines Commander, she will only be disappointed upon her return home to discover she is simply a 4 again.

maxresdefault

Despite these early dismissals as an inexperienced nuisance, Kim is good at her job. Very good.

She grows close to her Afghan colleague and interpreter Fahid and is pseudo courted by the Afghan minister for Defense. She elicits candid interviews from soldiers and dares to penetrate  behind closed doors of Afghan culture to interview and understand idiosyncrasies of the local people and their experiences of war.

But as with all war stories this journey is tinged with tragedy. Kim increasingly puts herself and others in danger to gain insights into wartime Kabul.  A soldier she interviews is injured by mortar fire because of an interview she broadcasts with him. Concerned for her safety and aggravated by her growing boldness, Fahid an MD, cautions her that adrenaline is like a drug, and drugs destroy lives.

download

Kim’s story is one of journey to self realisation. She transitions from a frustrated journalist at a desk covering pedestrian daily news, to a critical player in a crisis zone. She is a change agent, who uses her unique diplomatic skills and in fact the privileges of her gender to gain access to information and connections her male colleagues could not. But there is a world weariness that grows with her as the romance of the war-zone loses its shine and tragedy cuts close to home.

Kim returns to the USA, having found her soul and passion but also having lost friendships, and her thirst for danger.

11760896

The story is refreshing but somewhat ill told. Tina Fey and Margot Robbie are delightful with Martin Freeman playing a unexpectedly charming romantic foil., Iain MacKelpie. However, the choice to cast Americans in the leading Afghan parts  with stilted accents, missed a wonderful opportunity to partner with the film industry of central Asia and lend the story some genuine gravitas.  One feels sub-plots are underdeveloped and the tragicomedy of war time Afghanistan not truly tapped in favour of the American obsession with the evolution of the solitary protagonist.

Nevertheless, I give Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot 3 out of 5 stars. 

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

“ The Soviet Union was destroyed by information
– and this wave started from Solzhenitsyn’s One Day ” —Vitaly Korotich

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Оди́н день Ива́на Дени́совича or  Odin den’ Ivana Denisovich) is a novel written by Aleksandyr Sohlzenitsyn , first published in November 1962. The story is set in a Soviet labor camp in the 1950s and describes a single day of an ordinary prisoner, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.  Written semi-autobiographically after Solzhenitsyn’s own 8 year imprisonment, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is an innocent unjustly sentenced for supposed political dissidence .

ivan d

The novel follows the character through a simple day. This  day begins with Shukhov waking up sick and for waking late, he fears he will be placed into solitary confinement.  However,  he is simply forced to clean the guardhouse a relatively minor punishment.  When Shukhov is finally able to leave the guardhouse, he goes to the dispensary to report his illness. Since it is late in the morning by this time, the orderly is unable to exempt any more workers, and Shukhov must work.

Shukov manages to gain an extra piece of bread at breakfast time which he sews into his mattress before heading out to work. He takes pride in his work, laying bricks as perfectly as possible, hiding his mortar trowel during the break time so no other prisoners could take it from him.  During the freezing work he finds a piece of metal and conceals it in his mitten for later, to create a knife.  At the end of the day, Shukhov is able to provide a few special services for Tsezar (Caesar), an intellectual who is able to do office work instead of manual labor. Shukhov is able to get a small share of Tsezar’s dinner ration and packages by standing in lines for him.

Shukhov’s day ends up being productive, even “almost happy”: “Shukhov goes to sleep fully content. He’d had many strokes of luck that day.” (p. 139). The novel closes with the observation that this was but one of 3653 days of Shukov’s sentence.

day in the life of Ivan

The book’s publication was remarkable as it was the first published account of Stalinist repression.

Its motifs are powerful –  the prisoners are assigned numbers for easy identification and in an effort to dehumanize them, the conditions are sub zero, prisoners are encouraged to report each other for reward. Despite this, Solzhenitsyn shows that a surprising loyalty exists among the work gang members, a warmth and camraderie despite individual selfishnesses.  Shukhov in particular shows that the way to maintain human dignity is not through outward rebellion but through developing a personal belief system. At meal time, no matter how hungry he is, he insists on removing his cap before eating. No matter how ravenous he becomes, he never stoops to  scrounging and begging for scraps.

day in life

At the close of the novel, Shukov thanks God for his day. Alyoshka the Baptist hears his prayer and urges Shukhov to pursue things of the spirit rather than things of the flesh. Shukov follows Alyoshka’s advice in giving him one of his biscuits, spontaneously showing gratitude for the young man. He sleeps with an inner peace considering the day a good day.

Sohlzenitsyn’s literature is a form of subversion of the most powerful type for it encourages hope.  The short novel novel depicts human dignity against the harshest of immoral treatment and finding hope in the darkest place.  The Nobel Prize Foundation reports:

The Nobel Prize in Literature 1970 was awarded to Alexandr Solzhenitsyn “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”. – http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1970/index.html