Bunkers, the oppressed and dating apps


Bunkers, the oppressed and dating apps

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH was fascinated by secretive American politics, Native Americans and the dangers of looking for love online.


IT'S strange yet true that the biggest crises to hit our planet since 1939 have been dealt with and resolved underground.

Adolf Hitler shot himself in his underground bunker. Winston Churchill and his confidants used an underground bunker in London, the Churchill War Rooms, as a command centre for the duration of World War 2. Two weeks after the ill-advised Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, President John F Kennedy created the underground Situation Room, where US presidents and their advisers have since allayed, managed and abetted a universe of disasters.

Secret bunkers

George Stephanopoulos reveals in his book that the Situation Room is not as colossally large as Stanley Kubrick hints in his movie Dr. Stangelove. It is in the basement of the White House, a small boardroom with a low ceiling in which one can move only awkwardly and with difficulty, and has no window. Henry Kissinger thought it was unaesthetic. He would, huh? A little bellicose. But Tom Donilon, President Barack Obama's national security adviser, estimated the floor area as 5,000 square feet (465m²). And it makes one get another visual from Kissinger.

Stephanopoulos has a theological background, which explains why he often perceives trivial detail and makes inferences in larger, broader trajectories. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 was not fully dealt with in the Situation Room (it was still too newly constructed), but all the information needed for Kennedy to make his decisions was gathered there. In those years, there was no direct telephone connection between the White House and the Kremlin. But the Situation Room was kept informed, by the CIA, of all that was broadcast by the world's radio services.

Nikita Khrushchev, the cunning old fox, announced his withdrawal of the missiles from Cuba in a broadcast on Radio Moscow — knowing it was the quickest way to get the news to Kennedy. In this way an enormous international disaster was avoided.

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The charm of the book is that Stephanopoulos — who, thanks to his experience as Bill Clinton's media man, knows how to tell a good story — pieces together the historical facts in the enchanting style of anecdotes. It's with astonishment that one reads what a lame duck Richard Nixon was by October 1973 because of the Watergate scandal. Nixon, according to Stephanopoulos, hated the Situation Room and never set foot there. Kissinger and the people who were supposed to gather in the Situation Room determined the course of history. Nixon stayed away and Kissinger made the decisions that mattered.

It is especially around the Israeli crises of the early and mid-Seventies that The Situation Room produces tremendously catchy reading. The way a bluff manoeuvre by Kissinger from the Situation Room caused the Soviet Union to shrink back and the Yom Kippur War to come to an end makes reading this book worthwhile.

“History repeats the old conceits,” Elvis Costello sang, and how true it is: most of the things Stephanopoulos so entertainingly brings together in this book have been published in a more formal vein before. It's just that with the ingenuity of a journalist and a sense of the short concentration span of modern readers, Stephanopoulos presents things in a way that makes you feel you are learning fresh facts.

One can surely view Stephanopoulos's book as a good way to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of every US administration since Kennedy's. As such, it's not to be scorned. For South African eyes, it raises all sorts of questions about our own inner circle. Everyone knows the story of how Jack Viviers lied to the press about PW Botha's health, or the way Botha marginalised and isolated John Vorster — but what is going on in the Presidency? How was the Simon's Town nightmare handled in Pretoria, one wants to know.

Do we have our own boardroom in a bunker somewhere? Is there a journalist somewhere who is going to write about it someday?

Find room for The Situation Room on your nightstand.

The Situation Room by George Stephanopoulos was published by Little, Brown and costs R465 at Exclusive Books.


It is surely a sign of the cultural centres of gravity in the larger South African writers' corps that no one has yet tried to tell the story of Blood River from the standpoint of, say, one of Dingaan's warriors, or the Voortrekkers' effect on the already established population, seen through the eyes of someone regarded by the Trekkers only as a potential servant. Such were my thoughts after reading Tommy Orange's Wandering Stars.

Orange has little time for the Jungian archetype of the victim — the focus is on Native Americans (known in the old days as Red Indians, Orange says) and the way that even in a community that is uplifting itself and freeing itself from spiritual servitude, there are people who can never shake off the mentality of the oppressed. Even when the suppression comes via their genes and finds expression in miseries and addictions of all sorts.

Wandering Star continues the story of Orvil Red Feather, who was hit by a stray bullet at a social gathering in There There, Orange's 2018 debut novel. The story is too complex to summarise here; I can only say that it provides a good idea of the ways racism's stratifications and institutions have worked, and continue to work, in the US. All too familiar to South African eyes. Reading it in the days when the ANC and DA were engaged in their strange ritual dance shook and upset me. I get the horrible feeling that it has not yet ended.

Wandering Stars by Tommy Orange was published by Vintage and costs R526 at Exclusive Books.

Dating apps

After Orange's book, I needed something light. LM Chilton's Don't Swipe Right (in the US, the title is Swiped) was perfect. Because I'm one of those men who is endlessly curious about the things women talk about when they have a hen party. I use that term on purpose — the novel is about a “hen party" during which the bride-to-be finds out that the men she had less pleasant evenings with before meeting her future husband all suddenly began to die. For no good medical reasons.

Dating apps are life-threatening, is the message of this novel. I would like to believe the author, and even have a suspicion that he is a naughty one, judging by the windswept sense of humour with which he tells the story. But, well, weren't dating apps created to nourish your inner naughtiness?

Don't Swipe Right by LM Chilton was published by Head of Zeus and costs R305 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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