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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
La Douleur - Marguerite Duras Since 9/11, there has been much debate about whether torture is justified. Its apologists in the Bush-Cheney administration were eloquent about why it can sometimes be necessary. We were frequently told about ticking time-bombs and the threat of a mushroom cloud over an American city. Some horrifying stories surfaced from people who had been tortured at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere. But, and it just occurs to me now to think how odd this is, I don't recall reading one straightforward account told from the torturer's point of view.

If you're curious, you can read one here. Marguerite Duras was a member of the Resistance in wartime France. In Albert des Capitales, one of the pieces in this book, she describes in her usual matter-of-fact way an incident that occurred a few days after the Liberation. She and the other members of her cell are hanging around when a waiter comes running in and says that there's a guy at his bistro who's an informer. Everyone in his home town knows he is. But they'll have to move fast and grab him before he disappears.

So they rush into the café and arrest him. He's an overweight, unhealthy-looking guy in his 50s. He looks kind of dirty and unwashed. They make him empty his pockets. There's a notebook with names and addresses, and every so often the notation ALBERT DES CAPITALES. They want to know what this means. The guy thinks, or pretends to think, and then he says, oh yes, he's a waiter at another café, Les Capitales. He has a drink there sometimes on the way home.

Okay, says the leader of the Resistance cell, this must be his contact. We need to start rolling up the network. He immediately sends three people over to arrest Albert, but they come back empty-handed. He left days ago. They figure they'll interrogate the informer anyway. He must be able to tell them something else, and if they wait the trail will go cold. The leader asks Marguerite if she wants to lead the interrogation. Why not, she says.

They take the informer into a back room and order him to strip. He takes his clothes off slowly, hanging them up on the back of a chair so they won't get creased. One of the guys tells him to hurry up, they haven't got all day. He apologises and carries on removing his clothes. His underpants and socks are dirty. When he's naked, Marguerite asks him how to find Albert des Capitales. He answers evasively and the guys start hitting him a bit. Then Margurite asks him what he did when he visited the Gestapo headquarters. Nothing special, he says, moaning a bit and rubbing the places where they've hit him. I left my ID card at the door and went up. It was just some black market crap, nothing important.

So what color was your card? asks Marguerite, but he won't answer. They hit him, and then they hit him more, and he's bleeding in several places. She asks him again what color his card was, and he still won't answer, so they carry on hitting and kicking him. Several other people have come in to watch. A couple of women say uncertainly that maybe this is enough. The leader says that anyone who thinks it's disgusting is welcome to leave. No one leaves.

The informer's screaming and covered in blood as they kick him around like a ball. But he still won't say what color his card was. Marguerite tells him he'd better answer or they'll kill him. It looks like she means it. She tries different possibilities. Was it white? He moans no. Red? Also no. Yellow? No again.

In the end, he screams out that it was green. That's the color that means he's an S.D. secret agent. Marguerite tells the guys to stop torturing him and let him put his clothes on. She goes out and sees a woman who'd missed all the fun.

He confessed, says Marguerite. So fucking what? shrugs the woman. Marguerite starts crying. We should just let him go, she says. People won't like that, says the cell leader.

She didn't get around to publishing this story until 1985.

The "green card" plays an important role in Simenon's La Neige Etait Sale. It becomes clear that anyone who had a green card was a tool of the Nazi occupiers, and could legitimately be regarded as the worst kind of collaborator and traitor.