Vikas Datta profiles British journalist-turned-author Adam LeBor and his famous one-woman UN peace-maintaining force
Negotiating with unsavoury warlords with bloody hands, foiling unconscionable machinations of big business bosses who have no qualms at countenancing genocides, preventing assassinations at a peace conference and other personally hazardous and morally distasteful tasks come naturally to this feisty international troubleshooter. What is difficult is protecting her job in her organization primarily responsible for global security but more of a nest of intrigue, jealousy and vested interests, and tarnished by its failures to avert massacres in Africa and Europe in the 1990s.
They have several agents from covert supranational groupings tasked to keep the world safe – in recent times, the incongruous combination (at Cold War’s height) of American Napoleon Solo and Soviet Ilya Kuryakin in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E”, “Our Man Flint” of the Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage (ZOWIE), and others, leave alone those tackling supernatural threats or eldritch abominations as in “Dr. Who”. But none was from the preeminent international organisation under its own name, possibly because the United Nations frowned on its use for commercial purpose, like in these popular 1960s TV series and films.
But in the new century, the field is right open for the spirited Yael Azoulay, who negotiates secret, dirty deals for Secretary General Fareed Hussein (an Indian finally in the post). Their task is not made easier by the need to accommodate the national and special interests of members (especially P5 powers), and of the new, uncontrollable elements – big business and its most worrying manifestation, the military-industrial complex, which has a vested stake in conflict and instability.
Venturing into this largely unexplored genre is British journalist-turned-author Adam LeBor (b. 1961), who began his media career with “assignments that ranged from seeking London’s best dry Martini to investigating Nazi war criminals who found sanctuary in Britain” before becoming a foreign correspondent in 1991.
Covering post-Communist Hungary and the brutal ethnic wars that ripped apart Yugoslavia inspired both his first book: “A Heart Turned East: Among the Muslims” (1997), an unjustifiably neglected account of European and American Muslims, and first novel “The Budapest Protocol” (2009), a chilling intrigue set in the Hungarian capital from World War II’s closing days to the present.
LeBor has written over half a dozen more non-fictional works including “Hitler’s Secret Bankers” (1997) on Swiss complicity with Nazi Germany, a biography of Yugoslav/Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic (2004), “City of Oranges” (2007), about Arab and Jewish families in Israel’s Jaffa town, while most recent was “Tower of Basel: The Shadowy History of the Secret Bank that Runs the World” (2013), on the Bank for International Settlements. It was however his “Complicity with Evil: The United Nations in the Age of Modern Genocide” (2006) on its failure in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur and how these still cast a malevolent shadow on the present that forms the basis for the Yael Azoulay series.
In her mid-30, Yael is a UN employee of 12 years standing who has “brokered ceasefires in East Timor and Darfur, charmed Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, and sweet-talked Shia insurgents in Iraq”. She debuts in “The Geneva Option” (2013), where she is sent to eastern Congo to persuade a Hutu warlord to surrender for lenient treatment but too late realizes what is behind her mission. By then she is out of a job, has several intelligence and law enforcement agencies – and her past ghosts – on her trail, as the narrative weaves between New York, Africa, and Switzerland to a nail-biting finish.
Short story “The Istanbul Exchange” (2013) takes her to the historic city to convince an Afghan warlord to surrender to the Americans, but our intrepid heroine soon finds herself in a murky world of secret rendition and arms trafficking to Syrian rebels.
In her second full outing “The Washington Stratagem” (2015), Yael (a former Mossad agent as we learn) struggles to foil an insidious conspiracy and more demons from her own past to commercialise the UN and destabilise the Middle East and save – again – her job (and of her boss). Unlike the first, not all questions are answered – for which we will have to wait for “The Reykjavik Assignment”, expected later this year.
Peopled mostly by duplicitous diplomats, unscrupulous businessmen, self-serving journalists (the rather vapid Sami of the New York Times and the beguiling, more promising Najwa of Al Jazeera), LeBor’s works are stirring, high-adrenalin adventures, only made mildly distracting by delving into a character’s background right when they appear. His cynical view of a hamstrung, blundering UN or murderous business is scarcely reassuring, but not entirely without foundation. But it is comforting that there are also those who work hard to set right things – if we don’t look too closely into their methods!