“The only runner who could beat him was Seabiscuit,” said Louie Zamperini’s coach at the University of Southern California, as this track star, who had competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, trained for the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo. But a deeply unfunny thing happened to him on the way to Japan. The 1940 games were canceled. Mr. Zamperini became an Air Force lieutenant. And he wound up going to Japan not as a miler but as a savagely abused prisoner of war.
Yet through torment after hellish torment, he demonstrated the kind of survival skills that would make Paul Bunyan look like a marshmallow in comparison. And Laura Hillenbrand, the author of “Seabiscuit,” knows a winner when she sees one. Ms. Hillenbrand has given Mr. Zamperini the full “Seabiscuit” treatment in “Unbroken,” which is only her second book.
The ideal way to read “Unbroken” would be with absolutely no knowledge of how Mr. Zamperini’s life unfolded. Ms. Hillenbrand has written her book so breathlessly, and with such tight focus, that she makes it difficult to guess what will happen to him from one moment to the next, let alone how long he was able to survive under extreme duress. But blinders are for horses, not for readers of “Unbroken.” So we must acknowledge the good news that Mr. Zamperini is now a snappy 93, and better able to promote this book than its author (who is often sidelined by her chronic fatigue syndrome). He’s on YouTube. The words “Survival,” “Resilience” and “Redemption” are part of the book’s subtitle. And Mr. Zamperini, strongly influenced by Billy Graham more than 50 years ago, has been treating his story as an inspirational tale ever since. Hollywood has had its eye on him for so long that the young Tony Curtis was once scheduled to play the starring role on screen.
The Louie Zamperini story has been crammed with excitement right from the start. “Outraces Death” read a caption with his picture in The New York Times on Sept. 9, 1945, when this athlete’s suffering and survival became big news. His adventure, The Times said, in wording so revealing about postwar euphoria, “followed the usual raft story pattern, except that it eclipsed them all in endurance.” And endurance is what Ms. Hillenbrand has made “Unbroken” all about.
Just as she demonstrated in “Seabiscuit,” Ms. Hillenbrand is a muscular, dynamic storyteller, never using an ordinary verb when a “teeming,” “buffeted” or “porpoising” will do. Her command of the action-adventure idiom is more than enough to hold interest. But she happens also to have located a tale full of unforgettable characters, multi-hanky moments and wild turns. And if some of it sounds too much like pulp fiction to be true, Ms. Hillenbrand has also done a bang-up research job. She interviewed Mr. Zamperini more than 75 times. He has an excellent memory. And he is a pack rat nonpareil: his scrapbook covering the years 1917-1938 is a single book that weighs 63 pounds. Most memorably Ms. Hillenbrand persuaded a man from the Army Air Forces Historical Association to bring a once-top-secret Norden bombsight of the type used in World War II bombers to her house, set it up with a screen of Arizona and teach her how to “bomb” Phoenix.
Thus prepared, Ms. Hillenbrand churns up her drama about how the rambunctious young Louie (“his ears leaned sidelong off his head like holstered pistols, and above them waved a calamity of black hair”) became the fanatically dedicated track star; at the July 1936 Olympic trials in a boiling hot New York City, he claimed to have felt his feet cooking as the spikes on his shoes conducted heat from the track. He went to Berlin, stole the “Do Not Disturb” sign off the door of the world-famous Jesse Owens, elicited the attention of Hitler(“Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish”) and then returned home to Torrance, Calif., as a hero. On Aug. 19, 1942, he went off to war.
On May 27, 1943, Mr. Zamperini’s plane went down over the Pacific. “Green Hornet, its nose and left wing hitting first at high speed, stabbed into the ocean and blew apart,” Ms. Hillenbrand writes, following it up with a visceral description of the young man’s being plunged in total darkness underwater. He and two buddies ended up afloat on rafts, and their sustained survival at sea is eventful enough to make a book in its own right. But there is also a certain sameness to their experiences after a while. And there’s a limit to how many times Ms. Hillenbrand can present a man-socks-shark-in-the-nose anecdote before it begins to get old. Mr. Zamperini did, however, manage to catch lice from a bird and to kill one shark with a pair of pliers.
When they thought things could not possible get worse, things did. There were now only two survivors of the plane crash, and both became Japanese prisoners of war. From the moment of capture, “Unbroken” devotes itself to the terrible humiliations heaped upon such prisoners, from being punched in the face repeatedly to having to clean a pigsty by hand. In ways that underscore the cinematic potential of this story, and would actually seem less theatrical on the screen than they do here, our hero has many ugly encounters with the frothing, drooling, sexually sadistic Japanese officer who has singled him out for special torment. “Six hundred prisoner,” this man would say years later, in an interview with CBS News. “Zamperini No. 1.”
In “Unbroken” Mr. Zamperini is No. 1 on any occasion, in any contest, facing any ordeal. Ms. Hillenbrand writes about him so hagiographically that he can come out ahead even when not quite making seventh place in a 5,000-meter race, because she chooses to emphasize the extreme speed of his final lap.
So “Unbroken” is a celebration of gargantuan fortitude, that of both Ms. Hillenbrand (whose prose shatters any hint of her debilitating fatigue) and Mr. Zamperini’s. It manages to be as exultant as “Seabiscuit” as it tells a much more harrowing, less heart-warming story.
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A thrill rushes through Imran Khan’s voice at the mere mention of Egypt. The former Pakistani cricket legend-turned-politician is pleased for Hosni Mubarak’s former subjects, but he’s even more keen for similar scenes to play out in his own country. “I think Pakistan is completely ready for it,” Khan, an opposition politician with a growing following among Pakistan’s youth, tells TIME. “In fact, it’s even more ready than Egypt was.” Ever since Cairo’s crowds seized the world’s attention, many have wondered whether the insurgent spirit will spread from the Arab world to the wider Muslim one, and in particular, to nuclear-armed and militancy-wracked Pakistan. Some, like Khan, are counting on it.
Egypt and Pakistan are different in a few crucial ways, the primary one being that Pakistan’s dictator has already departed, though not in an entirely dissimilar fashion. In his final year in power, General Pervez Musharraf was harried by a lawyer-led protest movement that demanded his exit, a return to democracy, and an independent judiciary. The streets were filled with photogenic displays of people power; there was a crackdown on pro-democracy activists; pro-Musharraf supporters were blamed for violence in the capital; the media was muzzled; and Washington fretted over the fate of a long-favored strongman, who cast himself as a bulwark against an Islamist takeover.(See photos of tempers flaring across the Middle East.)
For nearly three years now, Pakistan has had a civilian democracy. Long-established political parties, a lively media, and other political freedoms allow its citizens to dissent in ways that were not possible in Egypt when the protests started. Upcoming elections, scheduled to be held by 2013, will give Pakistanis another opportunity to oust the government. Indeed, Egypt seems to be moving toward today’s Pakistan. Though civilian leaders are expected to emerge at the front of a fledgling democracy, major decision-making will likely remain backstage — as in Pakistan — in the hands of a powerful, U.S.-funded army.
But, as Khan points out, the two countries share many afflictions that make Pakistan prime for a new wave of unrest. He says Pakistan’s youth, which comprise 70% of the country, are in exactly the same situation as the Arab world: completely discontented. According to a 2009 report by the British Council, only one in 10 of Pakistan’s youth, defined as between 18 and 29, have confidence in the government. Half fear that they will not find jobs. Nearly four-fifths believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction. And if anything, Pakistan is even younger than Egypt and other countries engaged in protest this week: The median age in Pakistan is 21. Across the Arab world, it is 22.(See TIME’s complete coverage: “The Middle East in Revolt.”)
For these youth, Pakistan’s current system of government is perceived as denying more than it offers. Prospects for social mobility are slim: Pakistan is ranked below Egypt in the Human Development Index at 125th, with 60% of the nation living on less than $2 a day. Power is seen to be the preserve of a predatory few. Justice and security are elusive. The country’s rulers are popularly thought of as venal, inept and distant, and they’re widely accused of carving private fortunes out of a treasury to which they contribute scandalously little in tax. Plans to bequeath their political parties to their sons are as grave an affront to many as Mubarak’s suspected intention to anoint Gamal his successor. Some 119 suicides, like the one committed by Tunisian vegetable seller Mohammed Bouazizi, took place in Pakistan in 2010.
President Asif Ali Zardari is no Mubarak. It has barely been two years since he assumed power, and his weakness is as emblematic of his leadership as the Egyptian dictator’s strength was of his. Where Mubarak brutally silenced his opponents, Zardari’s could not be heard more loudly. In Pakistan, real political power lies not in Islamabad, but at the army’s headquarters in neighboring Rawalpindi. As in Egypt, the military is careful to shun an overtly political role, but away from the glare of public scrutiny, it quietly manages national security, foreign policy, and elements of the economy. And, also as in Egypt, it evades direct blame for circumstances it helped create.
Nevertheless, any popular upheaval in Pakistan would likely target Zardari, not the military. “Never in our history have we had such levels of corruption and such bad governance,” alleges Khan. It’s a sweeping claim that has been denied repeatedly by the government and called into question by analysts who, while not doubting the existence of corruption and poor governance under Zardari, doubted whether Khan is right about the relative scale of the problems. But the replacement of a few corrupt ministers as part of a recent cabinet reshuffle has done little to halt the spread of unconfirmed tales of legendary greed within government halls — all of which accumulate in the public imagination.(See the Arab world’s lessons about democracy through revolution.)
On the economic front, things don’t look likely to improve anytime soon. Pakistan is already struggling to meet requirements for an IMF rescue package, and the government, despite U.S. pressure, has failed to broaden its tax base. To generate revenue, it has resorted to printing bank notes. In the coming weeks, economists foresee hyperinflation, the local currency crashing, and capital being spirited abroad. Khan believes that such conditions will inflame an already hostile public mood, one that is being amplified by the local media. “You can see the whole thing already bubbling under surface,” says Khan, referring to a recent strike by airline workers that recently won the dismissal of its managing director.
Still, it is difficult to see disgruntled Pakistanis matching the Egyptians’ unity. Some groups have already abortively attempted their own day of rage, to little effect. Unlike the victorious residents of Cairo in Tahrir Square, Pakistanis are riven by deep ethnic, cultural, political and sectarian divides. The middle class in Pakistan is a mere sliver of the population at just 20 million people out of a population of180 million. Social media tools like Facebook and Twitter are only going to animate tiny crowds. Pakistani revolutions also suffer a notorious history of false alarms, and Khan, for one, has a record of raising the level of revolutionary rhetoric, only to see no groundswell of popular anger to back it up.
Khan is correct, however, in pointing out that a vast stock of tinder has gathered. The question is whether a flame will be set to it. Khan suggests that it could be the case of Raymond Davis, a U.S. diplomat awaiting trial who killed two Pakistanis in Lahore last month. President Obama has asked that Davis be released under diplomatic immunity, but Pakistanis have become increasingly united in their rage at his alleged crime. Zardari’s government, which is siding with the U.S. and putting pressure on the courts to release Davis, is caught in the crossfire. “This is not an ordinary situation,” says Khan. “If he is returned to the US under diplomatic immunity, it might trigger the revolution off.” If it does, it is unlikely to be anywhere near as peaceful or as stable as the one the world has just witnessed.
A delayed flight, an almost two-hour ride from airport to hotel because of traffic, a v-e-r-y careful examination of her passport – because it’s Pakistani – that made check-in painful, and nothing to eat since dinner last night (it’s now 2.30 pm). After all this, you’d expect Moni Mohsin, the London-based Pakistani author of The End of Innocence, a novel, and The Diary of a Social Butterfly, a collection of her satirical columns for the newspaperFriday Times, to not like Mumbai much. This is, after all, her first visit to the city and she’s only here for a day to release her new novel, Tender Hooks.
But once lunch has been ordered – Goan prawn curry with rice (“You decide please, I don’t want North Indian food”), a roomali paratha (“You don’t get it in London and I miss it”) and green chillies on the side (“I hate it when people assume I don’t eat spicy food”) – Mohsin surprises you.
“I always thought Mumbai must be beautiful, but I never imagined it would be this beautiful,” she says, settling into her seat at Indus Cocktail Bar and Tandoor at Colaba’s Hotel Diplomat. “I was told I’d see appalling slums, but I saw nothing like that on the drive from the airport. What was really interesting was the trees. Lovely trees.”
Trees? Trees? Can Mohsin really be the creator of Butterfly, a Lahori lady who lunches, who thinks her husband’s farm is bore and who only worries about terrorists and fundamentalists because they get in the way of her parties and GTs (oho baba, get togethers, don’t you know anything?).
Was it difficult transferring Butterfly to a novel when she continues to turn up in your Friday Timescolumn?
Not at all. The column responds to what is happening in Pakistan. That’s journalism. Tender Hooks is not Like Butterfly, I’m a Punjabi girl. I know my character thoroughly. Once you know your character, you can, well, read her like a book. I know what Butterfly will do in any situation. For instance, while I was driving here from the airport, I knew what Butterfly would think about Mumbai.
Did you wonder, when Diary… was published in India, how it would be received?
People kept telling me I should publish the columns as a book, and I kept resisting. But then I attended the Jaipur Literature Festival and found that the halls where Pakistani writers spoke were as full as the hall where Ian McEwan spoke. I was writing a novel at the time, which wasn’t going well, so I compiled the columns. Since it took only a month, it was no skin off my nose if it didn’t do well, but I was told by a friend one day to check the Indian bestseller lists, and there it was! Tender Hooks is also being published in the UK now. I didn’t want to publish there before because there’s a lot of Urdu in the book, but we’re doing it now.
Why shouldn’t books with words in Urdu be published in the UK? I mean, we read books written in Irish and Scottish dialects.
I suppose they’re just not used to it coming back to them. But that’s changing now in the UK. They’ve been exposed to quite a lot of South Asian lingo recently, with TV shows like Goodness Gracious Me and movies like East is East. So Tender Hooks is being published in the UK, though it is in an English version – some of the phrases have been translated. For instance, ‘the bhookha-nangas’ has been translated to ‘the hungry-nakeds’ and ‘khandaani’ is ‘old family’ and so on. I don’t mind. I don’t like books that have, for instance, too much French.
Every chapter of Tender Hooks begins with a headline. The picture we get of Lahore is distressing. Bomb blasts, shootouts, schools threatened by fundamentalists… Is it really like that?
Yes. On a daily basis, it’s bad. If someone were to write a novel about it, it would be very grim. But people have become resilient, and that’s what I wanted to show by using those headlines in every chapter. People just carry on. That’s the sad part of it.
Your novel, The End of Innocence, didn’t do as well as Diary… Does that hurt?
I feel bad that something I slaved over wasn’t well received, but… it’s like children. Some do well, some don’t. But it did hurt because I’d put a lot of myself in it, which I hadn’t with Butterfly. Actually, no. No. Butterfly is me really. Exaggerated, but me. I notice things like brand names and labels. But that doesn’t mean this is all there is to my existence. If that was entirely true, I wouldn’t have had the distance and irony to write the book. But if I’d been Mother Teresa, I couldn’t have written it either.
For an extract from Tender Hooks, go to
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