By Natasha Walter (THE GUARDIAN, 24/07/06):
John Updike’s new novel, Terrorist, which reaches into the mind of a would-be holy warrior, will surely tempt many of the same readers who fell on Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown, which tells the story of a terrorist assassin, and on Martin Amis’s short story The Last Days of Muhammad Atta, which tells an imagined account of the final hours of the man who piloted one of the aeroplanes on September 11. It’s not surprising if people are hungry for these fictions. We go to these novelists, who are some of the greatest writers of our time, in the hope that they can flesh out a troubling emptiness – what drives people to want to kill us.
It is admirable simply that they are going there, that writers and film-makers are not being held back from these modern nightmares on grounds of taste or modesty. The ambition is impressive, especially for writers, who do not have the luxury that a film-maker has of asking the audience to imagine what’s going on behind the actions. In the recent film, United 93, the terrorists are hardly more fleshed out than in the news reports – we do not reach into their motives or their characters, they remain completely other.
But John Updike, like Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis, is attempting to give you what is in a putative terrorist’s mind as he looks into the eyes of potential victims. I can’t even imagine how difficult that must be artistically, and I can see that it is also difficult politically. Whether a writer chooses to show a terrorist as motivated by a hatred of American foreign policy, or by nothing but religious fervour, or by purely worldly disappointments, or by nihilistic love of death, he or she has entered an ongoing political debate.
If that makes things hard for the writer, it also makes things hard, in a different way, for the reader. On the one hand we are used to this being political territory, but on the other we want something very different from a novel than what we get from the newspapers: we want imaginative understanding, not political positions; we want to get close to a fictional individual rather than stand in judgment over a real group; we want the challenge of speculation rather than the reassurance of certainty. We want art, not news, at a time when news seems to be drowning out art.
It isn’t impossible; writers have mapped similar territory before, and the rollcall of their successes is well-known. When Joseph Conrad wrote The Secret Agent he was responding imaginatively to a real botched bomb attack on Greenwich, at a time when there was real panic about anarchist extremism throughout Europe; when Doris Lessing wrote The Good Terrorist, she knew her readers would be thinking of the real middle-class terrorists of the Angry Brigade and Baader-Meinhof generation; when Don Delillo wrote Libra, he chose to delve into the experiences of the real-life assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, whose act had already horrified the world.
Yet all of those writers went about the task of creating their protagonists’ inner lives with imaginative relish. It’s impossible to generalise about the creations of these uncompromisingly particular writers – whether the nihilistic delusions of Conrad’s madmen, or the unfocused rage of Lessing’s middle-class revolutionaries, or the endlessly paranoid mazes through which Delillo sends his assassin. They weren’t factually exact; but they each achieved something else which we value on a different scale to facts, they dipped us into another world of the imagination.
But although I sat down to these new works with enthusiasm, I left them disappointed. Updike, Amis, Rushdie – here are indisputably great writers who have inescapably coloured the way we view certain places in certain times (sixties Pennsylvania, eighties London, fifties Bombay), and there are impressive things about the way each of them rises to this new challenge. They each choose a different way to explain the terrorist’s motivation, in line with their own creative obsessions; Updike goes most deeply into religion; Rushdie sex, Amis death. But in the end, each of these fictions seems weighed down by the burden they are trying to carry.
They are taking the reality beyond the novel seriously, and they certainly do their research. Rushdie can detail the kinds of weapons Kashmiri terrorists would train with; Updike can quote the Qur’an at length; Amis can reproduce the actual words of Muhammad Atta. Yet rather than giving extra richness, the research produces a feeling of artificiality – as though research has replaced empathy. That rather begs the question of why these writers are choosing fiction rather than political commentary. Is the chorus of news, all around us, still too loud for the artist to come through with his or her own voice?
For Amis and Updike, the feeling of being in thrall to the news seems to have been particularly stifling. Although one would never say a writer shouldn’t stray outside their culture, it is strange to see these writers’ usual ebullience and invention evaporate in the gaps of experience that they are trying to leap. As it is, although these writers seem to be so ambitious in wanting to look at our society from the point of view of the enemy, because they have gone on a journey of research rather than imagination, these fictions feel less ambitious than when they stay close to home.
That isn’t to say that novelists cannot map our changed world; they do that constantly. You don’t have to look directly at terrorism to measure its effects. Some writers have chosen, with greater or lesser success, to map the ripples in us, the bystanders – and in books such as Jay McInerney’s The Good Life and Ian McEwan’s Saturday, the threats of terrorism and war, close or distant, echo through the minds of ordinary westerners.
And writers who are much less familiar to us are facing similar challenges in different ways. An Algerian writer, who calls himself Yasmina Khadra, has just published The Attack, which is not actually told from a terrorist’s point of view, but from the view of an Arab Israeli man struggling to understand the terrorists’ point of view when he finds out that his wife has become a suicide bomber in Israel. He can never understand her decision, but his journey as he goes from one despairing person to another, trying to track her journey, is a truly-felt exploration of injustice and rage. Despairing as that novel is, I closed it with a sense that something invigorating had come off the page. Maybe time will give us more writers who can help us carry on believing that the novel can still go imaginatively undeterred into this territory. This isn’t the time to give up that hope; we need it now more than ever.