WASHINGTON -- From Hugo and Zola to Camus and Sartre, there is a long French tradition of public intellectuals as superstars. Bernard-Henri Levy, 54, continues this tradition self-consciously.
His studied conspicuousness extends to his clothing, which is invariably, as at a recent breakfast here, a black suit, a white shirt unbuttoned to expose some chest, and unbuttoned cuffs, too. His 30 books include a biography of Sartre. He appears frequently on French television. After his mission to Afghanistan at the request of President Jacques Chirac to advise on the role of French culture in reconstructed Afghanistan, Levy recommended, among much else, ``hussars to spread the values of 1789'' in the Afghan hinterlands. Levy is married to a beautiful movie star and singer. There is no theatrical American philosopher who manages Levy's blend of glamour, literacy and political engagement -- imagine actor Alec Baldwin as he evidently imagines himself.
Levy's book ``Who Killed Daniel Pearl?'' will earn him a broader American audience. It is a wild ride of a read, reaching conclusions the speculative nature of which does not vitiate the remarkable reporting that preceded Levy's reaching them.
The January 2002 kidnapping and murder in Pakistan of Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter, occurred, Levy surmises, because Pearl had discovered collaboration between Pakistan's intelligence service, Pakistani nuclear scientists and terrorist organizations. Neither The Wall Street Journal nor Pearl's father say that Pearl was pursuing such a story.
The novelistic flights that interrupt Levy's journalism, as when he imagines Pearl's thoughts as he was about to die, are evidence of Levy's admiration for Truman Capote's ``In Cold Blood'' and Norman Mailer's ``The Executioner's Song.'' But readers wondering how seriously to take Levy's speculations about Pakistan may be wary of this hybrid literary genre -- not-quite-journalism that blurs the line between reality and fantasy.
Even allowing for the fact that Levy calls himself a ``partisan'' of India, it is not fantasy that there have been many reports that the then-head of Pakistani intelligence was responsible for $100,000 being wired to Mohamed Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker. Because Levy sees a danger of Pakistani nuclear technology leaking to stateless terrorists, he thinks the United States' understanding of the war on terrorism is insufficiently frightening.