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      Elliott Colla: Baghdad Central.

       Bitter Lemon Press £8.99

Most remember the scene at the big wheel from The Third Man.  Those that do can often quote what Harry Lime says about cuckoo clocks, the Borgias and the Renaissance.   Before that, though, Harry tells small time writer Holly Martins that, ‘the world doesn’t make heroes.’

Of course, Harry Lime is only a man with a gift for making money.  He is not likely to understand heroism.  The sharp and unscrupulous Lime does not realise that heroes are like stuff, they happen.  Khafaji, the Iraqi poetry-loving detective in Baghdad Central, understands heroism but then he is different from Harry Lime.   He is employed by the Iraq occupation forces to recruit suitable people for the new police force.  Like Holly Martins in The Third Man, he agonises about his collaboration with the new authorities.  Mostly he thinks of himself as an employee in what will inevitably happen after the invasion but the doubts and self-hatred persist and so Khafaji requires consolation, a sense that something of him and those he loves will be preserved despite everything.

Maybe this is why the memory of Harry Lime was so important to Anna, the woman that Lime betrayed to the Russians.  It had nothing to do with Harry looking like Orson Welles.  We all have something to preserve and the something means the past whatever its flaws.  Khafaji does little to help the Americans build their police force despite this being his actual job.  He sits at his desk and avoids making decisions because he knows that the invasion has ensured that knowing who can be trusted is impossible.  In The Third Man Anna is pleased to receive gifts like whisky and tea.  They help her survive, and, in Baghdad Central, Khafaji endures the day with his prized cigarettes and sweet tea. The Americans are like the British in Vienna, unable to understand the people around them - their language and their circumstances.   Americans offer coffee and fast food without realising that the world they wish to replace is a complicated civilisation that has the measured comfort of sweet tea, the decadence of nicotine and intellectual curiosity, the poetry loved by Khafaji.

All help identity persist but a hero requires more than mere comfort.  Khafaji becomes involved in an investigation into the disappearance of translators employed by the Americans.   Progress is made and some lives are saved but others are lost and Khafaji discovers identities as secret and opaque as those of the candidates for the well-paid police jobs being offered by the Americans.

The criticism of the Americans in Baghdad Central is restrained.   The occupiers are naïve and heavy footed rather than the sinister idiots that exist in the non-fiction classic, Imperial Life In The Emerald City.  But, apart from an intriguing plot, the reader will recognise the neo-conservative nightmare with its contempt for the past that was the liberation of Iraq. If we want a clue as to why Anna walks past Holly after the funeral of Lime, Baghdad City is a good place to begin.

By Howard Jackson