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The Monday excerpt: Andrew O’Hagan on the strange story of “Satoshi Nakamoto”

An excerpt from the latest London Review of Books.

Spinoff Review of Books literary editor Steve Braunias writes: Andrew O’Hagan! Novelist, essayist, very smart person who wears a suit and tie even when he’s writing at home – every inch an aesthete, all that, but he’s also an awesome reporter and his latest get in the London Review of Books concerns a fugitive from justice who made an exciting getaway to New Zealand.

O’Hagan’s epic story – 34,317 words – is about the real or fraudulent identity of“Satoshi Nakamoto”, inventor of the so-called bitcoin. “Journalists had spent years looking for Nakamoto. His identity was one of the great mysteries of the internet, and a holy grail of investigative reporting,” writes O’Hagan. But he was given his  name on a plate – Craig Wright. The great mystery had been solved, and O’Hagan was granted exclusive access to Wright, and to Wright’s story.

And so begins a kind of tormented sequel to O’Hagan’s story on that other strange warrior of cyberspace – Julian Assange. That ended badly. O’Hagan had no reason to think this one would, too. He interviewed Wright at various locations in London. O’Hagan wanted to make sense of the data technology that Wright said he used to create the revolutionary bitcoin: “I had brought rolls of disposable whiteboard and stuck it up around the flat, and, while we were speaking, he would jump up and cover the walls in formulae, along with arrows, arcs and curves. His wife told me she sometimes goes into the shower room and finds him standing there, stark naked, writing on the steamed glass.”

It’s a fantastic read – everything O’Hagan writes is a trip – and it includes a very exciting account of Wright’s escape from a police raid. That story is told right at the beginning of the London Review of Books piece. The cops came for Wright on December 9 last year in Sydney. He managed to escape by hiding in a stairwell. His wife Ramona got hold of him, and told him he had to leave the country, immediately… Read on!

She called the Flight Centre and asked what flights were leaving. “To where?” asked the saleswoman.

“Anywhere,” Ramona said. Within ten minutes she had booked her husband on a flight to Auckland.

In the early evening, Wright, scared and lost […] texted Ramona to come and meet him, and she immediately texted back saying he should go straight to the airport. She’d booked him a flight. “But I don’t have my passport,” he said. Ramona was afraid she’d be arrested if she returned to their apartment, but her friend said he’d go into the building and get the passport. They waited until the police left the building, then he went upstairs. A few minutes later he came back with the passport, along with the other computer and a power supply.

They met Wright in the airport car park. Ramona had never seen him so worried. “I was shocked,” he later said. “I hadn’t expected to be outed like that in the media, and then to be chased down by the police. Normally, I’d be prepared. I’d have a bag packed.” As Ramona gave him the one-way ticket to Auckland, she was anxious about when she would see him again. Wright said New Zealand was a bit too close and wondered what to do about money. Ramona went to an ATM and gave him $600. He bought a yellow bag from the airport shop in which to store his computers. He had no clothes. “It was awful saying goodbye to him,” Ramona said.

In the queue for security, he felt nervous about his computers. His flight was about to close when the security staff flagged him down. He was being taken to an interview room when an Indian man behind him started going berserk. It was just after the Paris bombings; the man’s wife was wearing a sari and the security staff wanted to pat her down. The man objected. All the security staff ran over to deal with the situation and told Wright to go. He couldn’t believe his luck. He put his head down and scurried through the lounge.

Wright was soon 30,000 feet above the Tasman Sea watching the programmer Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) being chased by unknowable agents in The Matrix. Wright found the storyline strangely comforting; it was good to know he wasn’t alone.

At Auckland Airport, Wright kept his phone on flight mode, but turned it on to use the airport’s wifi to Skype with Stefan [a friend] using a new account. They had a discussion about how to get him to Manila. There was a big rock concert that night in Auckland, and all the hotels were full, but he crossed town in a cab and managed to get a small room at the Hilton. He booked two nights, using cash. He knew how to get more cash out of ATMs than the daily limit, so he worked several machines near the hotel, withdrawing $5000. He ordered room service that night and the next morning went to the Billabong store in Queen Street to buy some clothes. He felt agitated, out of his element: normally he would wear a suit and tie – he enjoys the notion that he is too well dressed to be a geek – but he bought a T-shirt, a pair of jeans and some socks. On the way back to the hotel he got a bunch of SIM cards, so that his calls wouldn’t be monitored. Back at the Hilton he was packing up his computers when the dependable Stefan came on Skype. He told Wright to go to the airport and pick up a ticket he’d left him for a flight to Manila.

The full story is in the latest issue of the world’s best literary journal, London Review of Books – read it online here.


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