In Favor of Anansi Tales

Works reviewed:
The Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda by Ali Soufan
Mission Impossible 4 by Brad Bird

I find it impossible to review Neil Gaiman’s The Anansi Boys without mentioning other books and stories I’ve read or heard lately. I blame Anansi, the god of stories, for my inability to examine this one story without seeing its connection to others. We are all bound up in the same great narrative web.
Anansi is the progenitor of the eponymous heroes of Gaiman’s gleeful tale. His two sons, The Anansi Boys, appear at first to be total opposites: Fat Charlie lives a humdrum life, whereas his brother Spider is the life of the party. Yet when Spider drops into town, he is able to effortlessly assume his staid and serious brother’s identity, exposing Fat Charlie’s corrupt boss and seducing Fat Charlie’s chaste fiancée in the process. Is Spider abusing some divine power to impersonate Fat Charlie? Or are Fat Charlie and Spider not as different as they’d like to think? Could it be that Fat Charlie has been squandering divine powers of his own?
For a while it looks like it’s going to take a miracle for Fat Charlie to forgive his brother for shaking up his life. Not to worry, these boys can work miracles. Don’t forget, their father is Anansi, the god of stories. A well-earned miracle arises in every Anansi story.
In the course of this engaging novel, Gaiman goes back—all the way back—to the dawn of stories. In the beginning, he tells us, Tiger owned the stories. Tiger stories reflected the lives of the earliest storytellers—they were nasty, brutish and short. All Tiger stories began in blood, and ended in tears. And then an insurrection took place. Anansi the Spider outwitted Tiger, and took ownership of all the stories. Stories no longer served as rote recitations of violent acts. Stories became as subversive as the clever god Anansi, reflecting a revolution against Tiger’s view of Might as Right. The world became a more nuanced, more civilized, and altogether more enjoyable place, a place where stories flourish.
I had the good luck to hear the delightful audio book version of The Anansi Boys on a recent family road trip. Once we reached our destination, I returned to reading Ali Soufan’s a gripping nonfiction work, The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda. Oddly enough, as I read this urgent firsthand account of high stakes interrogations, I couldn’t help but see the conflict between Anansi and Tiger playing out between two very different styles of intelligence gathering. Ali Soufan systematically displays his successes as the leading Arabic speaking FBI interrogator. He used Anansi-like tactics of outsmarting his interlocutors, who were invariably prepared for Tiger-like torture, and not theological debates on the finer points of interpretation of the Koran. Soufan drew the terror suspects out, discovering their hopes, and also their weaknesses, ultimately tricking them into thinking he already knews everything about them, so there was no point in lying. Defeated, they revealed all.
Sadly, after 9/11, American foreign policy grew more fearful, and less rational. Enter the Tiger. “Enhanced interrogation,” the fancy term for torture, became the order of the day. Sufan continued to elicit actionable intelligence over tiny gifts such as a phone call home, or a plate of diabetic cookies, while the CIA learned nothing whatsoever after hours of water boarding and humiliation. Worse, the CIA took credit for Soufan’s discoveries, using his intel as justification for the continuation of their futile, ultimately un-American, coercive interrogation policies. Sufan’s account stands as a much-needed corrective to well-publicized falsehoods he was powerless, for many years, to contradict. His manuscript preserves the CIA’s redactions, which do pathetically little to prevent the truth from shining through.
I wish I could definitively say that the Tiger techniques are a thing of the past, and that the Obama administration put a stop to enhanced interrogation. Unfortunately, this book remains necessary and relevant. The Black Banners is a must-read for every informed citizen. Not enough decision makers and culture shapers have a realistic understanding of effective intelligence gathering. Since finishing The Black Banners, I’ve seen multiple examples of our pop culture perpetuating misconceptions of torture as an effective means of eliciting accurate information, most recently in an unconvincing scene in Brad Bird’s megahit, Mission Impossible 4. I’d like to send Brad Bird a copy of the Black Banners. Ali Soufan is a true American hero, as overlooked and under-credited as Bird’s fictional heroes from his earlier masterpiece, The Incredibles. The fate of our world may indeed depend on how we tell our stories; a movie version of The Black Banners might be just the way to start.

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