I do love discovering reviews of Murder in Samarkand by real people. Not that formal MSM reviewers aren’t real, but it is really pleasant to get the views of people who just bought a copy, and this is one of the wonderful things the internet makes possible.
Anyway, this is a review by someone who goes by the Nomiker “Shewhomust”, presumably after the Rider Haggard character.
Craig Murray: Murder in Samarkand
Spoiler: it was the government who did it. And now we’ve got that out of the way, I can talk about Craig Murray’s book without worrying about premature disclosure.
Oh, and a disclaimer: those who know me will not be surprised to hear that he had me on his side as soon as I read the epigraph:
We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.
Like many of its readers, I came to the book already knowing that Craig Murray was the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan between 2002 and 2004, was horrified by the corruption and brutality of the regime there, defied the British government to say so, and found that their response was not to examine his allegations but to attack him personally. I anticipated a grim and worthy read, after which I would be a better informed, if not a better, person; and grim it certainly is. My mind shies away from the photographs of dead bodies, with their smashed skulls and flesh boiled from the bones, and considers instead the less dramatic oppression of everyday life, the lack of law, the systematic corruption, the destruction of any economy the country may have, the influence of drugs barons and warlords.
Depressing reading, but not as bleak as it might be, for Murray is good company. His blog (syndicated to LiveJournal) is a mixture of press clippings and general news, but his personal entries are lively and entertainingly written. But I digress: he quotes a Sunday Telegraph article about rival screenplays for a proposed film of his book. The unsuccessful contender was David Hare:
Hare saw it as an essentially tragic tale and wrote a completely serious script, but it swiftly became clear that the film’s director, Michael Winterbottom, did not share his vision. He wanted to turn it into a farce, starring his old chum Steve Coogan.
Murray seems entirely happy about both interpretations, equally pleased with his stirring speeches, his rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan and his snappy one-liners: when, at the height of the SARS epidemic, a member of staff of the EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development – the text is peppered with initials, but a key is provided) e-mails to ask whether she should wear a face-mask at a forthcoming conference, he e-mails back: “I don’t know – how ugly are you?” This is not what I normally understand by the adjective “diplomatic”.
Tragedy, comedy, romance – but the narrative also uses the familiar crime fiction device of the unreliable narrator. By this I mean not that I doubt Craig Murray’s version of events, but that I was constantly aware that there were things he was not telling us. The elephant in the room is this: what caused this career diplomat to throw away his remarkably successful career? Or, if the answer to that question is too obvious, by what process did he decide that this was the battle he was prepared to fight to the death? No process of realisation is described, no gradual decision; instead the story proceeds a step at a time, I did this and then I did that. It is like reading fiction, interpreting the motives of a fictitious character, and although it feels impertinent to be speculating about a real person in this way, it restores an element of suspense, of uncertainty: I knew how the story turned out but I did not, after all, know what this would mean for the hero.
Impossible to round this off into a neat conclusion: do I summarise the book as a ripping yarn, and present myself as shallow and trivial? Or do I emphasise the appalling nature of the subject matter, and deter potential readers? Better not…