Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Weapons of Mass Diplomacy Review (Abel Lanzac, Christophe Blain)


A clich├ęd phrase critics like to over-use when praising books is “tour de force” and, while it’s wholly appropriate for Weapons of Mass Diplomacy which is an exceptional comic, the “force” part is especially applicable with regards to the main figure in the story, Alexandre Taillard de Vorms - and not just because he’s sometimes depicted quite literally as Darth Vader!

De Vorms is the fictional representation of Dominique de Villepin, former French Prime Minister but, during the time the story takes place in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs at the Quai d’Orsay. Our protagonist is Arthur Vlaminck, a young scholar hired as a speechwriter for de Vorms and Weapons of Mass Diplomacy (WMD) takes a behind-the-scenes look at how the Foreign Affairs office is run with particular emphasis on de Vorms’ personality.

A political satire these days will inevitably be put up against the enormously successful BBC TV series, The Thick of It, and while it feels similar in part, WMD is a much less farcical take. Both satires brilliantly reveal how chaotic things are like in the run up to an important speech at the United Nations, with the speech being punched up on cramped small planes and being printed off on the floors of massive hallways outside the auditorium. But whereas The Thick of It carries on its farcical tone into the speeches themselves, going for out and out comedy, WMD stops being overly silly once de Vorms gets in front of the cameras and the reader sees the chaos has manifested into a rational calm, appearing as if the Ministry had been nothing else the entire time. It’s less funny than The Thick of It but no less entertaining and helps make WMD a more distinct satire. 

The writer’s name – Abel Lanzac – is a pseudonym for Antonin Baudry, whose experiences this book is based upon (and who is currently the French Cultural Counselor in New York), and who vividly brings to life what working in the Ministry was like. He spends long hours, well into the night after everyone has left, drafting speeches for the Minister, trying to get his voice right, working in de Vorms’ bizarre ideas and penchant for quotes by Heraclitus, only for the Minister to take the briefest of glances at it the next day and dismiss it outright – do it again! And again! And…

His social life disappears and his relationship with his girlfriend shrinks to snatched moments in between trips tailing the Minister and he often finds himself living out of his small office, chain-smoking while reading lengthy government reports and composing draft after draft of a speech, aware that it’ll likely be torn apart and have to be rewritten the following day. The stressful and demanding nature of the job is communicated very intensely and memorably in these sequences.

Besides the youthful Vlaminck is a wonderful supporting cast of colourful characters who’ve been in public services for years – from de Vorms’ trusted chief of staff, a calm and indispensably competent man with enormous knowledge and expertise in foreign affairs, to an increasingly stressed out advisor who at one point head-butts his desk in the middle of a meeting, to a beautiful but backstabbing female advisor. All create a vibrant atmosphere in the department but also underlines how dedicated and hard-working the staff are, contrary to public beliefs that the civil service is run by sponging layabouts. 

By far the most memorable aspect of the book is the Minister himself, Alexandre Taillard de Vorms. Drawn by artist Christophe Blain in a delightfully cartoonish way in the tradition of satirical political cartoons, de Vorms appears as a wave of hair, a unibrow that doubles as his eyes, a massive phallic-like nose, and an imposing, hulk-ish body with broad shoulders and large hands he whirls around expressively and powerfully as he talks. As he walks he leaves wind trails in his wake and his appearances are preceded by the word DOOM! as if he were an actual force of nature.

De Vorms is an imposing figure both physically and personally, his machine-gun manner of speaking emphasised in his instructions to Vlaminck that his speeches should be structured one bullet point after another in quick succession – RAT-A-TAT-TAT! Baudry occasionally pokes fun at his former boss by alternately imagining him at times as Darth Vader, the legendary Minotaur of Greek myth, and, in one memorable sequence, as a celebrated figure in the future whose world owes its existence to his diplomatic efforts to avert, what he perceives will be the start of, World War 3.

It’s definitely a satirical take on the man but a very gentle and almost loving one as you get a strong sense that Baudry/Vlaminck genuinely does admire and enjoyed being with this highly energised, idealistic and intellectual man whose mission of peace and truth is nothing but laudable – though he is also undoubtedly a bit mad! 

The book builds toward the imminent invasion of Khemed (the fictional Iraq) by the Americans and de Vorms’ extensive but ultimately futile efforts to divert what he believes will be the beginning of a devastating and costly war. Like renaming Iraq Khemed, numerous recognisable figures like Colin Powell and Silvio Berlusconi are all renamed though are easily recognisable – Berlusconi’s portrayal is especially funny.

Weapons of Mass Diplomacy is a stunning book. It’s a well-conceived memoir-esque story of life in high-level foreign politics at a turbulent time, executed masterfully by both Baudry and Blain whose talents elevate this fascinating story to the top tier of artistic successes. More than anything though is the character of Alexandre Taillard de Vorms who’ll stick with you long after you put the book down – he’s an unforgettable and brilliant figure. Easily one of the best books of the year, don’t miss Weapons of Mass Diplomacy!

Weapons of Mass Diplomacy

1 comment:

  1. Thanks much for this awesome review! I'm tickled that you singled out the sound effects as effective. I worked closely with the writer to reinvent these during the translation process, and later they were lovingly hand-lettered by Blain. I wrote a piece on some of the changes if you're interested: http://wordswithoutborders.org/dispatches/article/from-the-translator-tintin

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