Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Mandrake File

I hadn't heard of either this book or this author before being sent a review copy. I'm really grateful to have been introduced to them. Having read The Mandrake File, I am now itching to read more from this author.

The Mandrake File is based primarily in and around Afghanistan. The two main characters are Osama Kandar, an Afghan policeman who heads up the Kabul murder squad, and Nick Snee, an analyst for a shadowy private intelligence outfit called "The Entity". Other colourful characters include the main hit man for The Entity, members of the cop's murder squad and a shadowy former head of the Taliban's governing council.

The story itself details an investigation into a mysterious file, The Mandrake File. The investigation is kicked off after Kandar goes to the scene of a prominent Afghan businessman's supposed suicide, only to conclude that it's murder. The rest of the book involves Kandar determinedly following the case, Nick Snee trying to help him, with The Entity and it's hitman trying to stop the investigation by any means possible.

The author Cédric Bannel is a former French diplomat who served in Afghanistan and it shows. The strength of this novel is in it's portrayal of Afghanistan and how dysfunctional it is post the overthrow of the Taliban by the coalition. The picture painted is of corruption and morally dubious compromises. Everyone has an eye on the coalition's eventual withdrawal - which the Afghans know to be coming - and what will happen after the corrupt and ineffectual Karzai regime goes. The assumption of many Afghans is that the Taliban will return in some form, the only questions being whether they will seize power entirely or join some kind of coalition, and whether when they do return the clock will wind back to the bad old days of pre-9/11.

In fact the author's knowledge of Afghanistan and Afghan society is such that his portrayal of the Afghan characters is much more convincing than that of the Western characters. I was much more taken with the sections of the book dealing with Osama Kandar, than I was with those dealing with Nick Snee and The Entity. I really hope that Kandar will appear in other novels by the author as I would love to see how his story progresses.

There's a concept in screenwriting popularised by Alfred Hitchcock, the MacGuffin. Wikipedia defines the MacGuffin as: "a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation." More often than not this is found in films more than books, think of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction where the briefcase is opened giving off a golden glow. We never learn what is in the briefcase, but various characters fight to possess it. In this novel The Mandrake File is like that. I don't think I'm giving away too many spoilers in saying that we never truly find out what it is, just that it has something to do with international corruption regarding Afghanistan. At first this bothered me, but in hindsight I kind of like it. It avoided having to spoil a perfectly good novel by the need to shoehorn in a reason strong enough to justify the actions of the characters. The Entity and it's hitman goes to extraordinary lengths to stop Osama Kandar, commissioning a suicide bombing and then a drone strike to blow him up. While reading I was worrying just what could be in the Mandrake File to justify all this. If there had been a big reveal at the end, as in so many books and films, I think I would have been disappointed. I think it would be difficult to come up with something both plausible and serious enough a justification. But as with Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, Bannel's use of the MacGuffin as a plot device allows him to neatly sidestep this thorny problem. Some readers might feel cheated but personally I felt that this worked.

A quick word on the translation. Some foreign novels are let down by the translation but the publishers have excelled themselves. The translation here is flawless and there was none of that clunky turn of phrase all too often found in a translated novel.

I've googled the author and found that Cédric Bannel has written a number of novels. This is the only one to be translated into English so far. Please, please, please Scribe publish some more.

I would give this five stars and thank Scribe publishing for the review copy.

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