It’s a bright cold day in the austral midwinter. The low sun is dropping into the lake, drawing long shadows from the dead trees, broken streetlights, and bent telephone poles that stick out of the water as if planted there. Three flamingos are floating down the Avenida De Mayo, past the half-sunken ruins of the Azul Hotel. Their pinkness almost glows against the dry white crust that covers every exposed surface. It looks like ash, or frost, but is actually salt. There is 10 times more salt in this water, per cubic centimetre, than in any of the world’s oceans. The lake was named “Epecuen” by the Mapuche tribes who once populated the surrounding lowlands of central Argentina – it was their word for the itch caused by the salt drying on their skin, though they also found that it had health-giving properties.
Around the time that David Mitchell was writing his epic, polyphonic, pan-historical novel, Cloud Atlas, a 13-year-old Japanese boy named Naoki Higashida was working on a kind of memoir about his own autism. Naoki’s condition was severe enough that he could only do this by pointing to the relevant characters on a custom-made cardboard alphabet grid. With great effort and patient assistance, he compiled a list of answers to the most frequently asked questions about his behaviour. The resulting book was titled The Reason I Jump, and first published in Japan almost a decade ago. David Mitchell didn’t hear of it until years later, when his own young son was diagnosed with autism. “Before that, I had no reason to know anything about it,” says Mitchell.
This is war. A convoy of highly-trained, heavily-armed, hyper-caffeinated American Marines rolls towards Baghdad in open-top Humvees, down a highway that Saddam Hussein ordered built in his own honour. En route, these men follow poor instructions and bad directions, taking friendly and enemy fire while struggling to obey changeable rules of engagement that needlessly endanger their lives, and result in numerous civilian deaths. They complain constantly, swear pornographically, and sing past or current pop hits when bored, which is often. It makes for phenomenal viewing. “And it’s all true,” says David Simon of his new seven-part miniseries Generation Kill, scrupulously adapted from Evan Wright’s non-fiction book about the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. “Evan really did get the perspective of these guys in the Humvees. This is what they thought and feared. This is where their anger was rooted. This is how they regarded command. We wanted to get it exactly right.”