A few days ago I went to the last class of my evening course on Terrorism in Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck. An odd choice of course, or perhaps an odd choice of literature categorisation, you may think, but I was interested in the way language twists and turns to express this aspect of the contemporary world.
People who resort to acts of terror must believe that words will not serve them in the way that violence will. And yet the vocabulary of the underlying conflicts twists and turns in each of our mouths. Your freedom fighter is my terrorist; his jihad is their crusade. When does an ‘insurgency’ become a ‘civil war’? When did coups go out of fashion? Who invented the euphemism ‘regime change’? When did you first hear the phrase ‘weapon of mass destruction’ or use the acronym ‘WMD’ yourself?
One question to which we frequently returned in the class was whether it is firstly appropriate, and secondly, possible, to explore, in fiction, the point of view of the terrorist, to imagine them as individuals with specific motivations.
My own conclusion was that it is a legitimate endeavour to seek to understand all aspects of humanity, no matter how unpleasant, through literature. After all do we not have great monsters populating most of the cannon, setting up the conflicts that are the meat of most plot and drama?
Having said that, I don’t think any of the books we read on the course were successful in achieving any significant insight. Maybe it’s too soon; maybe the issues are too difficult and complex?
It’s the first time I’ve done a pure literature course since I left school; the reading and critiquing on my MA in creative writing was more focussed on the techniques being used, to learn from a craft point of view. The process of subjecting novels to a purely literary critique, doesn’t always serve them very well, does it? For example, I read The Reluctant Fundamentalist very happily, and enjoyed it as a sort of coming of age story, of a young man trying life in the big bad city, but then finding his place in the world only when he returns to, and accepts, his origins. When forced to concentrate on the allegorical aspects of the story and the silly naming conventions the author used, we were all groaning with the portentousness of it.
I’d read two of the books on the reading list before. John Updike’s Terrorist and Ian McEwan’s Saturday. I remembered enjoying both of them the first time round when I read them for pleasure. Only one of them withstood the test of a second go, and it wasn’t Saturday, which on a repeat viewing felt insubstantial and smug, with one of the most ridiculous plot devices involving poetry imaginable. I’d erased it from my mind after our first encounter, but revisiting it made me throw the book across the room.
Updike’s novel, although not perfect, stood up much better, and, when, at our final meeting, we came to deciding which was the most successful, and which the least, of the books we’d read, this was the unanimous choice.
Here’s a little extract of my arguments for it: I like the Updike style of understatement and slightly cool phrasing. Fancy imagery is kept to a minimum. He builds the images through small details and hints. I always knew where the action was taking place, in the sterile, yet slightly threatening environment of the school or the squalor of Terry’s apartment; the novel is set in a very recognisable America, in which it is possible to believe that radical Islam is being preached in a room above a shop in a strip mall.
The characters he draws most effectively are the white middle aged – the teacher, his wife and the unlikely girlfriend. The portrait of Ahmad, the young, potential terrorist, is perhaps less convincing, but it is possible to look at the novel as a portrait of the people around Ahmad who have failed him. As this, I was better able to understand why an American boy, embarrassed by his sluttish mother, abandoned by his father, and not well served by his school, might come under the influence of a radical Imam and others who would try to turn him to violence.
As an attempt to investigate the failures of the all American authority figures of the teacher and the parent, I thought this novel did shed some light on how malign influences could bring a boy to the brink of violence.
(The least successful book, also unanimously, was The Last Night of a Damned Soul by Slimane Benaissa, translated from the original French. Interestingly, all of us had bought pristine decommissioned library books, being the only copies available…….. sometimes things need no explanation…….)
Having said all of that, I don’t want to give the impression that the class was a grim experience. Perhaps my favourite bit was the pre-class discussion of the sex scenes in each of the books. I think it would be fair to summarise the consensus view as ‘generally poor’, largely because the female characters in the books were generally cyphers, there to be abandoned, rejected or exploited.