Sunday 25 June 2017

Review: Biography: Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography by Julian Assange

Canongate, £20

When a subject denounces his own biography, you know you're on to something good. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange agreed a lucrative contract last year with publisher Canongate to lay down his life story with the aid of a ghostwriter.

Currently under house arrest at a country manor in Norfolk as he fights extradition to Sweden on rape charges, Assange sat for more than 50 hours of taped interviews with Andrew O'Hagan.

But when Assange read the first draft, the 40-year-old bête noire of the establishment balked at what he saw. In a 5,000-word repudiation published on WikiLeaks, he describes the manuscript as "entirely uncorrected or fact-checked by me. The entire book was to be heavily modified, extended and revised".

But Canongate, spooked by Assange's cold feet, went ahead and published it anyway, claiming that it had too many commitments on the book and that a sizeable advance had already been paid.

Whatever the truth of the wrangle, it's just the latest chapter of an extraordinary life that began in 1971 with Assange born to hippy-activist parents in the backwater Australian city of Townsville.

His early life seemed at once chaotic and idyllic as his mother dragged him around Australia, driven first by poverty and then by fear of her sinister former partner.

The bohemian lifestyle gave Assange tremendous freedom and encouraged him to explore and ask questions.

But the defining moment of his youth came when he spotted a Commodore 64 computer in a shop window and became obsessed with its potential to upend the old order.

"One day computers would change the world, and they did," he says.

By his account, Assange developed into an elite hacker, one of just 50 or so worldwide in the 1980s able to roam the halls of pre-internet cyberspace, breaking into computers owned by giants such as Motorola, Xerox and the US Department of Defence.

Inevitably, though, the law came calling in 1991 and Assange was busted for hacking but escaped with a fine. During the five-year wait for the case to come to trial, the Australian honed his political outrage about powerful governments and their obsession with secrecy. The acorn that would become WikiLeaks began to grow.

This version of his formative years, however truthful, occupies the first half of the book, presenting Assange as a thoughtful, motivated idealist. He confesses to being "a little bit autistic" and is aware he comes across as pompous and a pain in the arse.

The second half is much less digestible, tracing the phenomenon of WikiLeaks but feeling truncated and inchoate perhaps due to the publisher deadline.

The whistleblower website was set up in 2006 to "keep the bastards honest" by publishing any secret material that casts light on the decisions and actions of governments and big business. "I have a single goal: to help in the creation of a more just society to live in," says Assange modestly.

WikiLeaks has scored numerous successes in bringing corruption and military outrages to light, including the US Embassy leaks known as Cablegate.

But in 2011 Assange is regrettably more known for the allegations of sexual assault of two women hanging over his head. He gives his version of events candidly but only a day in court will establish the truth.

The Unauthorised Autobiography gives us only part of the Julian Assange story but it's a compelling starting point until the rest can be told.

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