Thursday, March 1, 2012
Review: From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant by Alex Gilvarrry
Nearly five years ago, a British man of South Asian origin named Hemant Lakhani was arrested in an FBI sting operation, accused of selling arms that were to support Somali terrorist activities. At the time Lakhani argued that he was framed and his cause was taken up by prominent journalists including Amitava Kumar in his book, “A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm, a Tiny Bomb.” Despite an appeal, Lakhani was eventually convicted. Now, years later, a fictional character very similar to Lakhani, makes an appearance in Alex Gilvarray’s debut novel, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant.
Ahmed Lakhani is in the import-export business living in New York City--except nobody knows exactly what he imports and exports. What matters is that he has enough money to throw around, a fact that is especially appealing to a young immigrant from the Philippines, Boyet Ruben Hernandez.
Boy is a recent graduate from the Fashion Institute of Makati (FIM) from his native country (the institute, one assumes, is a riff off of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology) and arrives wide-eyed to America’s warm embrace. The young grad knows he has to earn his keep in his adopted country; for now he lives off a meager stipend his doctor parents send him monthly, taking odd jobs for the fashion designer Vivienne Cho while working on a line he hopes can land him a breakthrough at Fashion Week in Bryant Park. “I understood the force I was up against” Boy says, “One needed friends much more than lovers and enemies. This city was cutthroat. This city, crossed with the exclusivity of the fashion industry, was a closed network on new talent. This city wasn’t hard on its newcomers--it was goddamn relentless.”
Boy somehow manages to make a small break through this “closed network”--his name gets mentioned in a fashion magazine as an up-and-coming designer. The two-line blurb is just barely enough to get him noticed but Boy works this to his advantage eventually getting ready to launch his line of women’s fashion, (B)oy.
At precisely the time when Boy is running out of money and when he needs to take his work to the next level, he runs into Ahmed Lakhani, a resident in his apartment building in Brooklyn. Lakhani, a Canadian Muslim, is smitten by Boy’s talent and slowly wheedles his way into Boy’s good graces. It’s uncomfortable--Boy can smell lies when he sees them and Lakhani is no angel, but when Lakhani offers to pump a huge sum of money into his fashion business as an angel investor, well, the temptation proves to be too fierce. Boy accepts, falling into a business relationship with Lakhani. “If, in my desperate state, I had to choose between finding the location of a deadly time bomb and saving my fashion label from complete demise, I would choose my label--my dream, my work, my livelihood,” Boy reasons. As most others would.
Trouble strikes when Lakhani is arrested in a few months on charges of supplying Somali terrorists with bomb-making materials. This is of course the Bush era of hyper-vigilance so the wide net that gets cast after Lakhani’s arrest also traps Boy who gets deported to Guantanamo.
The novel tells Boy’s story through segments set in New York alternating with the present time when he finds himself in “no man’s land.” Brief flashbacks to his childhood in the Philippines also populate these pages. Gilvarray expertly melds truth and facts (there are many footnotes that provide a sort of fact check to parts of the story) and the novel is an interesting experiment in how to tell a gripping story.
Boyet Hernandez comes across as a likeable everyday Joe who just happened to be caught up in a wider web beyond his wildest imagination. Nevertheless the early parts of the book set in New York seem out of place. We know what happened to Boy eventually yet the wry, la-di-da tone of the “fashion terrorist” seems out of pitch for what is to follow. Even as we read the parts set in Guantanamo one is never quite sure what to make of his experience because the light-hearted tone seems a little misplaced.
The last 100 pages or so are the best parts of From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant. Here’s where the book turns darker, when the gravity of Boy’s situation hits in full force. In the end, this debut novel is a strong look at the darker side of the war on terror. It shows just how easy it is to get caught in it and just how hard it is to leave. Your heart goes out to Boy when he worries, “Maybe it’s like the Qur’an says: I was placed on this earth to be tried with afflictions.”
Thanks to the publishers for a galley of the book through Netgalley.