An unauthorized autobiography, it has to be said, is an unusual category. What it means for Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography is that Assange agreed to write his life story, in collaboration with the UK journalist Andrew O’Hagan, but asked to be released from the contract after the first draft was completed. Seeing that he’d already received an advance, and that that had been spent to pay for legal expenses, the publishers, Canongate, decided to go ahead and publish what they had.
With 38 other publishers worldwide waiting to issue their own editions, Canongate’s decision is certainly understandable.
But the view of this reviewer is that Assange has little to worry about. The book reads not only well but in many places magnificently. If you want a version of the WikiLeaks saga from the horse’s mouth, and in addition a defense of press freedom in the tradition of John Wilkes, Tom Paine and Daniel Ellsberg, this is undoubtedly it.
As WikiLeaks is built on a belief in unfettered access to information, one expects as much of the truth as can be fitted into 250 pages from Assange. (The last 100 pages or so consist largely of extracts from the leaks themselves, generally less sensational than one might have expected.) There’s one fact of local interest close to the start — the name Assange, taken from the author’s stepfather, derives from the Chinese Ah Sang, the stepfather’s ancestor several generations back, who was “a Taiwanese pirate.”
START AT THE END
The story begins with Assange’s thoughts while on the way to London’s Wandsworth Prison in December last year, an incarceration he was released from nine days later. It then proceeds to narrate his life story from childhood until that release.
JULIAN ASSANGE: THE UNAUTHORISED AUTOBIOGRAPHY
By JULIAN ASSANGE
The book is characterized by carefully calculated plain-speaking, and it’s hard not to believe everything Assange says here. Near the end he describes — for the first time, he states — the events that took place in Sweden in August last year that led to the request for his extradition from the UK. He reports making love to two Swedish women and to his being uncertain whether the subsequent police involvement was due to jealousy on one or both their parts or was some kind of “honey trap.” He’d been warned that a smear campaign based on alleged sexual impropriety might be resorted to by some of his highly placed enemies.
A similar openness characterizes his account of his activities as a 20-year-old in Melbourne hacking into some of the world’s most secure computer systems. He was convicted of an offense at the time and fined. He notes how he was then, with an online name taken from the Roman poet Horace, one of perhaps only 50 people worldwide engaged in such a high level of technical security breaching. “As experiences of young adulthood go,” he writes, “it was mind-blowing.”
Once he comes to the WikiLeaks years, you’re treated to accounts of the leaks relating to, among other things, Somalia, Guantanamo, Fallujah, Kenya, Scientology, a Swiss and an Icelandic bank, the far-right British National Party, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Every page is of absorbing interest. The wording feels considered, and there’s no evidence at these points of this being merely a first draft. Only at the very end, when Assange describes the differences that developed between him and the Guardian and New York Times, does the tone begin to appear hurried.