Dr. Daniel Levin asks us to believe that Proof of Life, a gripping political thriller presented to us in the form of a memoir, is a true account of his secret effort to discover the whereabouts of a young man, Paul Blocher, who went missing in the Middle East in the early years of Syria’s civil war. The wealth of circumstantial detail that Levin provides is overwhelming – dates, events, Information-packed footnotes, names (many of them, he assures us, real). He was approached, he tells us because he had been involved in previous similar efforts in the Middle East and was thus connected to people likely to be able to help. He explains the lack of references to the Paul Blocher episode in the media, or online, as a deliberate effort by those concerned.
Levin is a Swiss-American lawyer, who received his legal education at the University of Zürich and Columbia University School of Law. He is on the board of the Liechtenstein Foundation for State Governance, a charity that transfers appropriate knowledge and know-how to nation-states to help them control their political, economic, and financial futures. He lectures on topics relating to financial literacy, economic reform, capital market development, and so on.
All this may, of course, be a cover for much more exciting and dangerous work connected with the murky, underground industry of war, where corruption flourishes and everything is for sale, including arms, drugs, and even people. Indeed, Levin admits that despite this novel, or memoir, his wife and two children are “still left wondering what exactly it is that I do for a living. For that,” he tells them, “I must continue to beg your indulgence.”
Early on, Levin informs us that his work for the “foundation” (which he does not specify by name) involved mounting a project called “Bistar” back in 2011, when the Syrian conflict had just begun and the Arab Spring was at its height. Syrian President Bashar Assad was seeking to reestablish control over a disintegrating nation, and Project Bistar – with Assad’s blessing – aimed at identifying next-generation potential leaders from across Syrian society through whom he could operate. But when Russia stormed into the Middle East on Assad’s side, and he began winning back great swaths of the country, the idea of a negotiated settlement was dropped. Project Bistar folded, but Levin’s deep involvement with Syrian affairs made him ideal to lead the search for Paul Blocher.
An old friend summoned Levin to a restaurant in Paris, told him that Paul Blocher was known to have entered Syria two months before, and had since vanished. His friend pleaded with Levin to discover what had happened to the young man. Levin knew from experience that all too often such searches entailed a long period of stress and ended in tragedy, so it was with many misgivings that he agreed to try.
The novel, or memoir, then recounts the circuitous twenty-day-long odyssey that Levin underwent in order to reach the truth of the matter. Along the way, he found himself introduced to a variety of shadowy figures – one enormously influential in Islamist circles, another opportunistically seeking to squeeze as much cash as possible out of Levin, a woman desperate to get back to her home in Syria. The trail led Levin around the globe – to France, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Dubai, New York – and into the worlds of corrupt politics, drug dealing, and people smuggling.
Levin believes his whole quest, and the unsavory individuals he meets along the way, reveals the corrupt and inhumane basis of the Syrian civil war. That he feels passionate about the suffering that has been inflicted on the Syrian people he makes abundantly clear in a postscript appended to his main narrative. In it, he lists a succession of horrors inflicted on individual Syrians by the savagery of Assad’s military forces and the chemical attacks that he inflicted on his own people.
It seems something of an anomaly that the trail Levin pursues in his quest for Paul Blocher – who, be it remembered, disappeared in Syria – never leads him into that country. It is one of those odd circumstances that either substantiate the veracity of his account or indicates the opposite. In the final analysis, however, whether Proof of Life is a genuine record of events experienced by Levin or a cleverly conceived novel is irrelevant. The book is a wonderfully readable thriller to be savored from the first page to the last.
Proof Of Life: Twenty Days on the Hunt for a Missing Person in the Middle EastDaniel LevinAlgonquin, May 2021$26.95, 288 pages