A few years ago, I spent the winter in Germany, teaching at Leipzig University. I'd never taught before, and it was exciting, particularly because one of the classes I'd come up with was a survey course on spy novels. The class filled up quickly — those resourceful Leipzig students recognized an easy A when they saw it — and I was eager to share the best of an often-maligned genre with them. We looked at W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden stories, Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, John le Carre, Len Deighton, and Alan Furst. Then I introduced them to Charles McCarry's debut novel, The Miernik Dossier.
Chances are that you haven't read this novel, and probably haven't even heard of it. But Charles McCarry's chronicle of a disastrous road trip from Geneva to the Sudan is one of the best books the spy genre has to offer. It's both cerebral and ridiculously entertaining, a textured character study and a thrilling ride into the unknown. At the end of the semester I had my students vote on their favorite book. The Miernik Dossier won, hands down.
Published in 1973, The Miernik Dossier takes place in 1959 and is, as the title suggests, an epistolary novel, a dossier on one Tadeusz Miernik. The preface tells us that the entire text has been "submitted to the Committee in response to the request by its Chairman for 'a complete picture of a typical operation.'" It's made up of agents' reports, written communications, transcripts of phone conversations, "surveillance reports, diary entries, biographical sketches" and footnotes.
While all this suggests a dry rendition of events, it's quite the opposite. McCarry spent nearly a decade working deep cover for the CIA, and as a result his story rings true in many ways, but what really makes the novel so entertaining is the wonderfully disparate cast of characters he's assembled. There's Paul Christopher, the CIA agent who moonlights as a poet — a character who goes on to feature in many of McCarry's novels. There's the bitter British agent, Nigel Collins; the sultry Hungarian concentration-camp survivor, Ilona Bentley; the flamboyant, seven-foot Sudanese prince, Kalash el Khatar; and the bumbling, possibly naive, Tadeusz Miernik.
The story revolves around a single question: Is Miernik, a Polish citizen, an agent of his communist government, or a victim of it? The question is important because Miernik's U.N. employment contract has lapsed, and he's begging his friends — most of whom are foreign spies — to help keep him from being kicked out of Switzerland and sent back home.
As the agents circle, trying to figure him out, a deus ex machina descends: Prince Kalash el Khatar must drive an air-conditioned Cadillac home to his father, and wants to make a party of it with his friends. Miernik insists on joining them. If he's a victim of communism, then this is his escape to freedom. If he's a communist agent, then this trip may be part of a grand scheme.
What begins as an expat novel becomes a road novel, and once they reach the Sudan, where the countryside is troubled by the Anointed Liberation Front, a Soviet-backed terrorist group, the urgency and danger are ratcheted up to a fever pitch.
One of the many gems in the novel is a scene halfway through the story, when the friends stop at a restaurant in the Alps. They notice a group of German revelers and guess that the singing, drinking men are ex-SS officers. Miernik, the scars of the Second World War still fresh, goes moodily silent for a while, then walks over with a knife and says to a German woman cradling a Pekingese, "I want to kill your dog." Stunned silence, then anger.
"Hand over the dog," he continues. "We have been watching you and we have our orders. The dog must die." Despite their protests, Miernik goes on: "How long have you been hiding this dog? Speak up — and remember there are witnesses present."
"Who are you?" asks the German.
"My name does not matter," Miernik explains calmly. "It is enough that you know that I am an officer in the Dog Death Brigade. You have forgotten that dogs are not human beings. They are dogs. Dogs. Dogs who are shitting on our sacred soil, taking food from the mouths of good human children."
It's a wonderful scene, full of layered black humor, and my students spent a good half hour discussing its meanings, and how they, as Germans, felt about the way it portrayed them.
For a novel written 40 years ago, The Miernik Dossier is shockingly modern, from its experimental structure to its exploration of terrorism. Yet what's most modern about this breathtaking novel is the way the central mystery of Miernik himself is answered, or not answered, by the final page. Much like real intelligence work, the answer depends as much on the analyst — that is, you, the reader — as it does on the facts at hand.
A semi-naked woman in a sequined Carnival costume. A veiled woman with only her eyes showing in a niqab. Two stereotypes of two vastly different regions — Latin America and the Middle East.
On the surface, these two images couldn't be more diametrically opposed. What could the two have in common, right? What a woman wears — or what she doesn't wear in Brazil's case — is often interpreted as a sign of her emancipation. The veil for many is a symbol of female oppression, the right to wear a bikini one of liberation.
As a woman and a foreigner who lived in Baghdad and Cairo and worked throughout the Middle East for years, I always felt the need to dress modestly and respectfully. Frankly, my recent move back to Latin America was initially a relief. Brazil is the land where less is more — and it was wonderful to put on whatever I wanted.
But underneath the sartorial differences, the Middle East and Latin America's most famously immodest country both impose their own burdens on women with the way they are treated and perceived.
On a recent balmy afternoon, I was sitting at a seafront kiosk watching Brazil's carnival coverage on the biggest broadcaster here, GLOBO. Suddenly, a naked woman pops onto the screen during a commercial break. She is wearing nothing. Literally nothing except a smile and some body glitter. Called the "globelleza," she is the symbol of GLOBO's festival coverage and she appears at every commercial break.
Later programming showed a contest where women from various Samba schools — all of them black — were judged on their dancing and appearance by a panel that was all white. They all had their measurements read out for the crowd. But when one woman said she was a studying at one of Brazil's premier petrochemical departments to eventually work in the oil and gas industry, the male judge smirked in surprise.
The Role Of Women In Brazil
And that's the thing about Brazil — it has a female president and women are well represented in the work force. This isn't Saudi Arabia where women cannot drive or Afghanistan under the Taliban where women could not study.
And yet it is one of the most dangerous countries to be female.
Statistics show that about every two hours a woman is murdered in Brazil, a country with the seventh highest rate of violence against women in the world.
This juxtaposition of sex and violence isn't new, according to Rosana Schwartz, a historian and sociologist at Mackenzie University. Brazil imported more slaves than any other country in the Americas, and slavery was only abolished in 1888.
"The female slaves were used as sexual objects to initiate the master's son's sexuality or to satisfy him. And the result has been that until today, Brazilian women are seen in a sexist way, in a more sexualized way because she was used as a sexual object for so long," she said.
The legacy still effects women of every class and race here.
In many parts of the the Middle East, women are mostly hidden away at home, and in the most traditional countries, females are not allowed to have unsupervised contact with men outside their families. Female genital mutilation, where a woman has her clitoris removed, is still practiced in many parts of the Middle East.
Pressure To Conform
Brazilian women don't face the same kinds of restrictions.
In Brazil, women are second only to the U.S. in the amount of plastic surgeries they have and in the number of beauty products they consume.
In a recent article talking about vaginal reconstruction — yes, Brazil is a world leader in that cosmetic surgery, too — psychoanalyst Regina Navarro noted that there is a huge amount of pressure in Brazil to conform to an ideal.
"Women want to adapt to what they think men want," she told Brazil's Glamour magazine.
I recently spent some time at a leading international modeling agency in Sao Paulo. During the afternoon, waif-thin models came in with their amateur portfolios and big dreams. The girls were all in their early to mid-teens.
The main headhunter told me confidently that all young boys in Brazil wanted to be soccer stars, and all young women aspired to be models.
You can go to schools here and quickly learn that little girls are not encouraged to become the next Ronaldo. While Brazil is a global force in men's soccer, women's soccer in Brazil is almost nonexistent. But girls as young as 6 or 7 know which models are on the cover of magazines.
Which brings us to the recent controversy over Adidas. Clever marketers (presumably male) came up with two shirts that the World Cup sponsor was selling in advance of the games later this year.
One shows a woman in a bikini beside the slogan, "Looking to Score in Brazil." The other says "I (Heart) Brazil," with the heart in the shape of a women's backside in a thong bikini. After Brazil complained that the T-shirts were sexist, they were pulled.
But the objection smacked of selectivity, if not hypocrisy.
A column in Brazil's biggest daily, Folha de Sao Paulo, said: "Compared to the naked woman dancing on GLOBO TV every day during Carnival, this is nothing. My 5-year-old daughter asked, 'Why is that woman dancing naked on TV, dad?' And I had to explain that she was very warm. Our carnival coverage focuses exclusively on the female body, so by that standard these T-shirts are pretty tame."
The 2022 World Cup will be played in Qatar, a country that is not known for its sex appeal. Women's activists often target the Middle East for its policies towards women. But as living in Brazil has taught me, for women, even having all the freedom in the world can be its own cage.
Residents of Crimea have begun voting Sunday on the contentious question of whether to split from Ukraine and join Russia.
Although Western governments consider the vote illegitimate, the referendum is widely expected to pass. Crimea's parliament has already voted to seek annexation by Russia.
NPR's Gregory Warner reports that pro-Ukrainian activists inside Crimea have called for a boycott of the election, saying it was called prematurely and without debate.
But the Crimean peninsula is predominantly ethnic Russian, and residents say they fear being oppressed by the interim Ukrainian government that took over when President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February. Yanukovych fled to Russia after months of protest and bloodshed.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he will respect the voters' decision. The U.S. and EU have warned that annexation would prompted more economic sanctions against Russia.
Russia voted on Saturday against a UN resolution condemning Sunday's vote, the only Security Council member to do so.
Russian troops have taken control of government buildings and military bases in Crimea since Yanukovych fled. On Saturday, Russian troops made what was apparently their first foray outside Crimea, crossing the border to take over a natural gas plant that serves the region.
Update, 3:50 a.m. EDT: Voter Enthusiasm
Voters lined up before polls opened and more than 70 people surged in during the first 15 minutes in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, where Russia maintains its Black Sea fleet, according to the Associated Press.
"Today is a holiday," said one voter, 66-year-old Vera Sverkunova. Asked how she voted, she broke into a patriotic war song: "I want to go home to Russia, it's been so long since I've seen my mama," the AP said.
With hundreds upon hundreds of bands and tens of thousands of music lovers descending upon Austin for just five days, South by Southwest moves pretty fast. So we slowed it down for you. Because they're awfully considerate, NPR Music's video team — led by Mito Habe-Evans — picked out some of the fastest moments at SXSW 2014 and made them go real slow.
There's something about the way that Future Islands lead singer Samuel Herring moves that's hypnotic. If you've been trying to follow along with his steps, here's the place to start. Just a few seconds of the band's Thursday night set at Cheer Up Charlie's, but with the brakes on, so you can catch every undulation.
The Trophy Club on 6th Street in Austin has windows open wide to the street, and through them our video guru Mito Habe-Evans sat and watched the mechanical bull tempt the brave and stupid alike for nearly 30 minutes late on Thursday night. Other people would try the bull and fall off immediately, but these guys have clearly had some practice.
On Friday, NPR Music took over the back yard of local boutique/coffee shop Friends & Neighbors to shoot a series of short concert videos. One of those sets was by the mambo band Sergio Mendoza y La Orkesta. Here, the fancy feet of singer Salvador Duran-Maracas double as stomping, percussion.
Occasionally in Austin, you come across crowds in the street, usually gathered around a drummer or a band that's starting the party. This time, there was just a crowd, and music coming out of a nearby storefront and lots of jumping.
You know what's happening here. It's just more fun to see it in slo-mo.
The online magazine Ozy covers people, places and trends on the horizon. Co-founder Carlos Watson joins All Things Considered regularly to tell us about the site's latest feature stories.
This week, Watson talks with host Arun Rath about the prevalence of high-end sweats acceptable for office wear. Not the semi-tacky, rhinestoned wear of the 1990s, but fancy items — like leather sweats — that might not actually work at the gym.
They also discuss the rise of a religious group called the Hebrew Roots Movement, which fuses elements of Christianity and Judaism.