Assessing Assange


So Andrew O’Hagan has written a looooong piece in the London Review of Books about his experience ghostwriting the still-born memoir of Julian Assange. What was ultimately published was an extremely odd book, for obvious reasons, so I dug up my review of the book from the time. A lot of the conclusions I draw in it are justified by the O’Hagan piece, it turns out.

From The Irish Times, October 8th, 2011

Review: Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography
Published by Canongate

Early in this unconventional memoir, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange recounts his days as a teenage computer hacker, infiltrating top-secret networks around the world: “Every hacker has a handle, and I took the name Mendax, from Horace’s splendide mendax – notably untruthful, or perhaps ‘delightfully deceptive’.”

Perhaps “notably deceptive” is a fitting description for this most unusual autobiography, originally envisaged by Assange and publisher Canongate as a hybrid memoir and manifesto, but which has ultimately been released into the wild as an “unauthorised autobiography”, with neither its subject nor its ghostwriter, Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan, supporting its publication.

As is all too frequently the case where Assange is involved, what was once a mutually respectful partnership between subject and publisher quickly descended into acrimony, with Canongate’s Jamie Byng justifying publication of a roughly edited first draft in the face of Assange’s lack of co-operation, and Assange firing back with an angry, annotated rebuttal, dismissing what he calls “an unfinished and erroneous draft”.
Many have remarked on the irony of Assange’s own autobiography essentially being “leaked” into bookshops, and in these circumstances, the prospect that this book might represent a definitive account of Assange’s extraordinary life and career seems remote. Forget unauthorised, this should be called unauthored – rarely has a book been so orphaned as this one.

Given the complex and controversial gestation, this is a very problematic text, and the result is almost a formal experiment in authorial ambiguity – it’s a first-person account of Assange’s life and times, but the difficulty in knowing whose voice we’re listening to haunts the book. The tone veers wildly, at times literary, at others conversational, and on occasion like a roughly edited transcript of a late-night rant. The space between the “Assange” that appears on the page and the Assange that rejects the integrity of the book altogether is a kind of postmodern conundrum, as if the literary conceit of the unreliable narrator has made its non-fiction debut.

The extraordinary promise of WikiLeaks, a mechanism for speaking truth to power and removing the veil of secrecy that powerful interests rely on, has long been overwhelmed by the idiosyncratic personality of Julian Assange. By last December when he was arrested in London for extradition to Sweden to face rape allegations, all the revelations provided by the Iraq War Logs, the Afghan War Diaries and the release of quarter of a million US diplomatic cables were being overshadowed by the saga of this notoriously difficult Australian. An autobiography was surely Assange’s opportunity to put this vital work in its proper context, and reveal what sort of character can be so ambitious as to challenge the very nature of state and corporate secrecy.

To a degree, the book manages to shed some light on that character. The account of his childhood succeeds as an almost impossibly convenient explicatory backstory, with not one but two departed father figures; peripatetic wanderings with his mother and brother; more than 30 different schools; and a shadowy, obsessive stepfather who stalked Assange’s mother across Australia after they split. If you were looking to invent the sort of childhood that might result in a nomadic, socially awkward, driven, paranoid hacker-turned-activist with a history of broken relationships with women, then this upbringing is exactly what you might imagine. From a very young age, Assange has been unsettled in the most literal sense of the word, and we can clearly see that his is a life on the run, an act of continuous, decades-long evasion. Only someone who could never be a “hostage to normality” would be willing to pursue such grand ambitions, to “crack the world open and let it flower into something new”.

In terms of explaining his motivations for founding WikiLeaks, the book is rather less successful – his guiding philosophy is woolly and poorly articulated, a kind of utopian digital libertarianism: “It seemed as if justice itself might live on the other side of a flashing cursor,” he writes. Passages that attempt to draw parallels between his study of quantum mechanics and his drive to “chase secrets into the open air” make less sense than the Paradox of Schrodinger’s Cat.

However, it is not just the corrupting dynamics of power that Assange rails against, but the complicity of modern journalism. At one stage, Assange pronounces that “Disclosure is my business, but we won’t deal in gossip.” Unfortunately, too much of the latter half of the book does little but deal in gossip, whether dismissing the role of former WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg, giving an account of what happened with the two Swedish women who accused him of rape, or belittling Bill Keller and the Guardian in the most vindictive manner imaginable. Indeed, it says a lot that the text is most convincingly “Assange-ian” when engaging in bilious, bitter attacks on his enemies in the media. It is one of the recurring ironies of the man and the book that he repeatedly berates vanity in others, while obviously suffering from a good degree of narcissism himself.

Of course, only an egomaniac of the highest order could harbour ambitions as far-reaching as Assange’s, and only an extremely accomplished egomaniac could actually make those ambitions a reality, but this book never manages to put that ego into context.

At one point, “Assange” the narrator makes a suggestion: “let us agree to let this book fail as a celebrity memoir.” It most certainly fails as celebrity memoir, but possibly not for the reasons Assange might have thought. WikiLeaks has brought so many fundamentally important issues to light – both directly, such as the immorality of US military interventions and revelations of corruption in north Africa, contributing to the Arab Spring, and indirectly, such as the Obama administration’s pernicious pursuit of whistleblowers and the inhumane treatment of alleged leaker Bradley Manning – but these issues all too rarely come into focus. Instead, what we get is an almost fictionalised, mediated version of Assange, a version that is disowned by the man himself. Ultimately, this version remain true to the handle he took as a teenager, Mendax by name and by nature, notably untruthful on every level.

Sorry, comments are closed for this post.