Duck Duck Book

15 – the freedom
03.28.2005, 12:01 am
Filed under: history & geography

The freedom : shadows and hallucinations in occupied Iraq / Christian Parenti ; photographs by Teru Kuwayama.
New York : New Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton, c2004.
[MCL call number: 956.70443 P228f 2004; seven copies, 31 holds]

In the library, we’re keeping The Freedom in the wrong place.  It’s with the books on modern Iraqi political history, for the period after 1991 — but I’d say it belongs at 915.670443, geography of Iraq for the same period, which is where travel narratives are kept.  Or maybe it should go in 070.5670443, with books on journalism about Iraq.  I begin my review with this cataloging quibble because I’m afraid that the book will be mis-classified in general, as a work chiefly of history or political analysis.  This is a book of stories, not a structured history.  Also, it does not, as all history books should, have an index. 

Parenti records observations from his journeys to Iraq, and puts them into a framework that includes political and social analysis and stories told to him by other people.  He discusses Baghdad, the Coalition Provisional Authority, US soldiers, resistance fighters, journalists, Falujah, Abu Ghraib prison, Iraqi survivors and bereaved people, US reconstruction contracts, graft and waste, and many other subjects.

The Freedom owes a debt to the works that came before it.  Reading the book I was reminded of other works of personalized reportage and storytelling, in particular, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Joe Sacco’s comics reporting (especially Palestine and Safe Area Goradze), and Ross McElwee’s great film Sherman’s MarchThe Freedom is very much Parenti’s own story, and it records what he saw and experienced in Iraq, what he thinks and feels about being there, and how he thinks his experiences fit into a larger political and social context.  This is not to say that only readers who are interested in Parenti himself will enjoy the book or find it useful, but it is true that his perspective is very much in evidence in his prose.

There are problems with Parenti’s familiar style.  Not once in the entire book does he use Saddam Hussein’s full name — he is always simply “Saddam.”  This particular choice grated on me so much that I really hated the first 20 or so pages of the book — or at least I spent those 20 pages on a roller coaster that involved gritting my teeth with each first-name-only “Saddam,” then relaxing as I read the rest of the language, settling into the story and forming a visual picture in my mind, and then snapping up out of my reverie with the next George W. Bush-like stand-alone “Saddam.”  My readers may feel that I am simply picking nits, but this is only intended as an example.  My estimation is that there are other examples of a slip into informality that will grate on some readers of The Freedom, and I mention it as a warning to those who are, like me, perhaps inclined to fussiness. 

But small irritations do not stop me from recommending The Freedom as an evocative, intense, and useful story.  On the whole, Parenti’s writing is effective and his storytelling is exceptional.  Some of what makes a great story is just that it is worth telling, and that is surely true here; but some is also the teller’s skill in relating just the right elements in just the right way, as Parenti does in this book.


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