Nothing But a Circus: Misadventures Among the Powerful by Daniel Levin – review
The lobby of a luxury hotel in Dubai, an over-the-top dinner in Beijing bathed in expensive French wine, a breakfast with a member of the Russian mafia on a terrace in Côte d'Azur ... In Nothing but a Circus: Misadventures Among the Powerful, the Swiss-American lawyer Daniel Levin talks about his own experiences working as a consultant and advisor for the highest international political and economic elite - and comes up to realize that corruption and inefficiency are to be found anywhere.
The son of an influential diplomat, Levin spent his childhood and youth between Africa and the Middle East, which allowed him to develop a special interest for developing countries. After completing his Law degree at Harvard, Levin joined the law firm of a friend in Manhattan. To his surprise, his friend -and boss- turned out to be a workaholic and sickly ambitious man, who always put business first, even when his wife is agonizing in the hospital.
The work experience at the New York law firm occupies the first chapter of the book, in which the author already reveals his constant tragicomic tone. Daniel Levin realizes he does not want to end up as his boss - dying old and lonely - so he decides to quit the firm to set up his own consultancy, which specializes in advising developing country governments on how to implement growth strategies.
What Daniel Levin would have never imagined is that throughout his professional career he was going to run into so many corrupt politicians and magnates, both in Africa and in the First World.
His work as a consultant leads him to participate in various development projects, through which he meets African mafia politicians, UN bureaucrats and even European swindlers who claim to be personal friends of Sheikh Mohammed, Dubai's most powerful man.
“Despite his clownish pomposity, he radiated a certain charisma and intensity that was perversely captivating”, writes the author about Melvin Collodi, a European businessman that assured him he was personal contact of Sheikh Mohammed, ruler of Dubai and Prime minister of the Emirates. Collodi turned out to be a con. “
Melvin eated the bagel and cream separately. First the bagel, then the cream cheese, licking it straight off the knife. There was something obsessive and frantic about his eating habits, and something extraordinarily nauseating, ” he writes.
All the projects in which Levin participates fail, but the author seems not interested in self-criticism. The exclusive purpose of his book is to criticize all those with whom he had occasion to work.
"“Everything in Washington is so comically inflated that words lose all meaning and need to be discounted back to zero,” he writes, fed up of meeting arrogant D.C politicians and their personal assistants.
In the middle of the book, Levin recounts a meeting with a Congressman and his two young assistants. Levin felt patronized by one of the assistant, and expert in China that according to him, the only thing that he knows about China is what he read on the newspapers the day before.
“Yes, Jeff, I know. I also read that long article op-ed piece in last Sunday NYTimes. And before that the article in Foreign Affairs on the president and his Shanghai roots, and before that that article there was the extensive feature piece in the Economist.
Perhaps Daniel Levin sounds naïve and pedantic, but he makes an effort to dismantle some topics and prejudices that prevail in the Western world. He does not bear the arrogance of Americans and Europeans who criticize China or the Arabs for unfounded reasons. "Don’t trust the Arabs, don’t believe a word they tell you, not a word. There is no honour in their words. They are all liars,” says a European character in the book. Levin gets angry with him, as usual.
The author angriness and frustration raises in every chapter. Everybody patronize him or tease him. Even a personal adviser to Vladimir Putin who invites him for breakfast in the south of France made him believe he was a real opponent to the Russian president (and he was the opposite). Levin’s conclusion is always the same: the powerful - in Russia or Washington - just think for themselves.