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Daniel Pearl's life and death told with facts and fiction

August 30, 2003|Kristin Hohenadel | Special to The Times

PARIS — When French writer Bernard-Henri Levy saw the gruesome video of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's murder last year, he was struck by the suspicion that it didn't tell the whole story. To pursue his hunch, he undertook a risky yearlong, around-the-world investigation that took him to London, Dubai, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Pearl's parents' home in Encino, even to the room in Karachi, Pakistan, where Pearl was killed.

He retraced Pearl's steps and attempted to re-create the twisted rise of one of his killers, the British-born "perfect Englishman" turned extremist Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh.

Levy's 500-page book "Who Killed Daniel Pearl?" -- to be released in the U.S. on Tuesday -- is based on the theory that Pearl was killed not only for being an American and a Jew, but because he was a journalist on the brink of exposing a big story. The author believes that Pearl's killers were not random fundamentalist madmen but officials of the Pakistani secret service with ties to Al Qaeda, an explosive notion that would indicate that a country with which the U.S. has diplomatic ties might, in fact, be a danger.

The book was No. 1 on the French bestseller list when it was published here in April. It was the book people were reading on the Metro and the hot topic at Parisian dinner parties: Those who had read it had opinions; those who hadn't made apologies or judged it based on the reputation of its author.

BHL, as his compatriots call him, has written 30 books and is a high-profile essayist, novelist, cultural commentator, journalist and Middle East expert. He is also a diplomat whose most recent assignment was as a special envoy appointed by President Jacques Chirac last year for a fact-finding mission to Afghanistan.

Levy, 54, began his career covering the war between Pakistan and India over Bangladesh for the underground newspaper Combat, founded by Albert Camus during the Nazi occupation of France. He rose to fame as a result of his 1977 book "Barbarism With a Human Face," which attacked French intellectuals still loyal to Marxism. He is now a tele-philosopher in a country where philosophers still have a place in the national debate. He is also a pro-Israeli, Jewish atheist and an outspoken advocate for what he calls "anti anti-Americanism."

That his embarrassment of riches includes dashing looks, wealth and glamorous actress-singer Arielle Dombasle as a wife makes him, depending on whom you talk to, a national hero or a shamelessly self-promoting celebrity.

'Investigative novel'

A butler answers the door to Levy's sumptuous apartment on the Boulevard St.-Germain and leads a guest to wait in a cathedral-ceilinged salon filled with faded velvet antique furniture, porcelain egg collections, stuffed cockatiels and elaborate gilded and crystal-hung wall sconces.

Levy sashays in a few minutes late for his 11:30 a.m. rendezvous, tall, elegant and slim-hipped in a dark suit and one of the signature white unbuttoned shirts that has long been his much-maligned uniform. His famous hair, which has also earned its fair share of ink, is swirled about his handsome face.

"Sorry I'm late," he says, taking off his dark glasses and leading the way to his spacious study. He is in Paris for the day from his house in St. Paul de Vence in the south of France where he prefers to spend his time these days. He's late, he says, because he was meeting with movie producer Mike Medavoy, who is interested in the rights to his book.

"Who Killed Daniel Pearl?" is what Levy calls an "investigative novel," meaning that his book is based in fact but embellished with the imagination of the writer -- it reads something like a thriller. Levy wrote as his investigation unfolded in longhand, on the road and at home during a year of constant motion.

He says he used "known facts" whenever possible to reconstruct the crime. And, he writes, "when the tracks were missing, when the witnesses fled, or when there was no actual information because I was dealing with his inner existence or scenes in which he was the sole actor," he filled in the story himself.

"Never give in to the imagination when reality is there and direct investigation should be able to find it," he writes. "But give it a role when reality eludes you and circumstances are such that you are compelled to speculation."

This is a method, he points out, that writers such as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote have used.

"Who Killed Daniel Pearl?" can veer extravagantly from sober description to melodramatic rhetoric, and in translation can read like an even stronger version of itself, like an unpasteurized cheese on an American dinner table. Publishers Weekly, the industry's news magazine, gave the book a starred review and called it a gripping read, but noted that Levy's conclusions are "far from an open-and-shut case."

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