Register Saturday | September 22 | 2018

In Cold Blood?

Like Truman Capote before him, the prince of French philosophers makes a novel out of ruthless terror..

It is ten in the morning when I ring the doorbell of a palatial residence on the Left Bank. A tall Indian butler in impeccable white livery shows me to the grand salon. There, I am left alone for some considerable minutes to admire the gazillion objets d’art and religious artifacts assembled in what appears to be a lifelong ecumenical quest. I am here to interview the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy--BHL, as he is commonly referred to in France--the heir to Socrates and Plato. I cannot help noticing how stoically wealth is endured by the postmodern philosopher. After a while, Lévy enters the room with a crisp, martial step. I consider whether clicking my heels together would be an appropriate greeting on his own turf. I resist the urge. We shake hands. He asks me to wait a while longer, to which I gauchely answer, “With pleasure.” The sartorially splendid butler comes back with a bottle of Evian, opens it with a flourish and leaves.

Lévy has written a book called Qui a tué Daniel Pearl? (Who Killed Daniel Pearl?). Its tragic subject, the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was abducted in January, 2002, in Karachi, Pakistan while investigating potential links between al-Qaeda and the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid. After an unknown number of days in captivity, Pearl was beheaded by his kidnappers, who filmed his execution prior to tearing his body into ten pieces. When news of Pearl’s murder surfaced, Lévy was in Kabul on a semi-diplomatic mission for French president Jacques Chirac, putting together a think-tank on the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Lévy decided not only to pursue the causes of the reporter’s assassination, but the interwoven threads of politics, religion and terrorism Pearl was investigating at the time of his abduction.

Aware that, even with extensive research, he could not claim exact knowledge of the victim’s emotions or the kidnappers’ inner beliefs, Lévy has opted to write a romanquête, an investigative novel. The method has its precedents. Truman Capote used such an angle with In Cold Blood. Marguerite Duras wrote a few pieces based on news items. More recently, the great Alain Gerber wrote the “autobiographies” of jazz icons Chet Baker and Louis Armstrong. And Lévy himself tried something similar in a book he wrote fifteen years ago, Les derniers jours de Charles Baudelaire, a re-imagining of the final thirty days of the poet Baudelaire.

When we finally sit down, the interview opens on a stilted note. Sincerely amazed by the wide scope of his investigation, I comment how rare it is for a novelist’s subjects to be alive and in the flesh--the case with all of Lévy’s characters, aside, obviously, from Daniel Pearl. Since the novel came out last spring in France and is only now being published in an English translation, wasn’t he tempted to revisit his manuscript to incorporate new sources or factual developments? Genuine disbelief flashes in BHL’s eyes, as if a critic had submitted to Picasso that he might want to add a touch of crimson to his black and white masterpiece Guernica. 

On the contrary, explains Lévy. Nothing much has happened since the book was published in its original version. When I tactfully point out that, for example, Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf (abundantly held to account in BHL’s book) has made a number of declarations about the case suggesting that Pearl’s death is now a closed book, BHL states with clear composure, “One can’t turn the page so long as he hasn’t told the truth.” 

For BHL, the case is crystal clear: Pearl’s death is no isolated act of terrorism, it is a crime of state, orchestrated by Islamic elements in the Pakistani secret service. As President Musharraf himself said, Pearl was “overly intrusive.” To make a thrilling novel, you need a strong plot. Lévy has found his intrigue and is holding on to it.

The author, for his part, is alive and well, and splits his time between residences in Marrakesh and Paris. A prince in the French république des lettres, Lévy is the ultimate deluxe philosophe, a favourite whipping boy of the satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné, whose jet-set agenda and flamboyant union with mature bombshell Arielle Dombasle--think Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, without the historical polish--are a constant source of mockery and dinner debate. Yet however his silky lifestyle adds fuel to his own caricature, Lévy has a mind as sharp as a Yemeni sword, and his committed views are waited upon by a huge crowd of believers determined to make each and every one of his books a best-selling object in its own right.

For Lévy, Pakistan is the House of Evil: “I say clearly that Pakistan is a rogue state. And if I use the terminology that Mr. Bush uses, it is perhaps to tell him that the ‘rogue state’ in question is not the one he thinks. It isn’t Iraq.” To support his point, Lévy made extensive inquiries into the multifaceted genesis of the crime. In doing so he has delivered a precise portrait of the kidnapping’s master planner, Omar Sheikh.

As Lévy reveals, Omar wasn’t a poor, desperate child of the Third World seeking revenge for his people. A British citizen from a wealthy family, Omar was raised in a Catholic environment in the heart of London and attended the London School of Economics. His brother and sister are Oxford and Cambridge graduates. A fine chess player and a gentleman, Omar was recruited by Islamic terrorist cells during the war in Bosnia in the early nineties. Who Killed Daniel Pearl? shows in striking fashion how the Western world has produced several key proponents of the Islamic cause: bin Laden received money and training from the CIA while fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan; Richard Reid grew up in Great Britain; 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta attended university in Hamburg. And the list goes on . . .

In an attempt to understand how such a good boy could have metamorphosed into such a monster, BHL considers every aspect of Omar’s personality, from his obsession with arm-wrestling leagues in English pubs to his sexual arousal at the contact of fellow terrorist fighters. Lévy asserts that Omar was most certainly a virgin when he met his veiled wife-to-be at the age of twenty-five. For Lévy, the unstable relationship between Muslim fundamentalists and women has to be taken into account if one wants to fully appreciate the origins of Islamic terrorism. “The hatred of women has always been one of the roots of fascism,” insists Lévy. In the next room, the stunningly blonde and slender Arielle Dombasle starts her voice exercises.

Omar Sheik was a “favourite son” of Osama bin Laden while at the same time maintaining close relations with the Pakistani secret service. Washington’s confidence in the government of Pervez Musharraf seems misconceived and naive in this light.

“Though I think Musharraf could be sincere, I just don’t think that true power lies in his hands,” asserts Lévy. “The research I have made and the little knowledge I have now of the region lead me to believe that the real leaders are to be found in the most virulent section of the Pakistani secret service, the one favourable to radical Islam.”

Lévy also points to warm relations between al-Qaeda and the father of the Pakistani atom bomb, physicist Abdul Qadeer Khan, as an indication that the spectre of an Islamic nuclear threat is real. Lévy expresses even more doubts about Khan’s frequent visits to North Korea. The Americans, Lévy believes, are “making a tragic error in the elaboration of their foreign policy in southern Asia.”

So what did Daniel Pearl know? Was he truly assassinated for coming too close to the truth? Or has the handsome and, at fifty-five, still youthful philosopher and novelist cast himself in the leading role, conducting a whirlwind inquiry that has very little to do with its title and alleged main character? 

Judea and Ruth Pearl don’t share Lévy’s enthusiasm for political intrigue, BHL confides. “The fact that a European and Jewish writer has followed in their son’s footsteps certainly has moved them. Yet Pearl’s parents told me with great kindness that ‘the man who knew too much’ thesis wasn’t right. They don’t believe that Daniel was executed because he was getting too close to a Pakistani state secret.”

In a recent editorial in the widely read French literary journal Lire, the editor Pierre Assouline accused Lévy of narcissistic opportunism. Stating that Truman Capote took six years to investigate the multiple murders that make up In Cold Blood, Assouline proclaims, “BHL is the central character of his book . . . The unfortunate Daniel Pearl is only a pretext, his torturer a foil, and the Pakistani Hydra just a handy evil.”

It’s true that Lévy often becomes his own caricature. Returned from a month split between a four-star hotel on the Côte d’Azur and his Hollywoodian villa in Morocco, this crème de la crème of French philosophers is sporting a fine tan--he fancies a good game of tennis--which he proudly exhibits by unbuttoning his famous white shirt down to the navel. “Much too glamourous to be honest,” as they say. Even when he is utterly devoted to his work, Lévy’s writing is so full of Me, Myself and I that it is tempting to dismiss the man lightly. Very little remains today of the nouveaux philosophes, the self-proclaimed group of mind-bogglers formed by Lévy and others in the seventies (Lévy says he never really fancied the appellation). Gone are the fierce debates that divided French intellectuals of the previous generation: Raymond Aron and Jean-Paul Sartre no longer sharpen their teeth on bones of brilliant contention. Even today, with former New Philosopher André Glucksmann supporting the American attack on Iraq--a position Lévy opposes--Lévy considers it more important to fight terrorism directly than debate his old friend. 

But one must doff one’s cap at the risks BHL takes in the pursuit of Reason. Truman Capote may have spent six years perfecting In Cold Blood, but by choosing to write in the heat of the moment, Lévy challenges directly our understanding of the moment we live in. Under these conditions, the act of writing becomes arguably more important, even noble--the very thing an unrelenting journalist like Daniel Pearl was trying to do. Back in 1994, with war raging in Yugoslavia, BHL made Bosna!, a brave documentary that sought to clarify the chaos in the Balkans and lay the groundwork for greater European involvement. The film travelled the festival circuit. Mass distribution came too late, after the end of the conflict, yet Bosna! represented one man’s more-than-miniscule effort to change the world. Of course, the deluxe philosopher can’t stop himself from dropping the factoid that Sarajevans were chanting “BHL! BHL! Bosnia-Herzegovina Libre!” but what the heck, the guy really did invest himself in the cause. 

A few weeks after the assassination, Pearl’s wife Mariane gave birth to a son. Who Killed Daniel Pearl? is dedicated to Adam Pearl, and an important portion of Lévy’s American royalties will go to this already fatherless child. Strangely enough, Omar Sheik’s wife also gave birth to a child during this same period; this child too may soon lose his father. Omar Sheik was sentenced to death last winter in Pakistan, but has appealed the conviction. From a distance, his accidental biographer will await the verdict. BHL has sworn to me that if the death sentence is maintained, he will publicly take sides for Omar, since he is and always will be opposed to capital punishment.

I cannot help thinking that if we ever want to find a dialogue between people and end this terrible bloodbath, the book should have been dedicated to this child as well . . .

Check out our Fall 2003 issue (No.5) for an exclusive English excerpt of Who Killed Daniel Pearl?