Monday, June 28, 2010

The Good Terrorist

by Doris Lessing

Part of my reading of Nobel laureates. Very good piece of writing, brings up the claustrophobic, dysfunctional and materially stark situation of a particular subgroup. It’s one of those stories that is so clearly about a single specific time and location, making it clear the claims of the narrative don’t transfer anywhere else. And yet the picture is complex and engaging enough within that to have some very effective insights into broader human nature, how other groups conduct themselves similarly to this one, in degree or in whole. The main insight is sociological, yet it benefits from an imagined situation rather than a purely historical one, using the historical context to flesh out imagined specifics for a wider insight into larger human patterns. It’s not in any way science fiction, but as a novel shares some of the same virtues as good science fiction does in making the ambigious clear and the clear more ambigious through intensive imagination.

The protagonist was deeply and intensely irritating. Self-righteous, ignorant, willing to use violence on behalf of political ideology she didn’t really understand. That was definitely the point, and the core unreliability and psychologically flawed nature of her forms much of the basic energy of the book. Going through the book in her head isn’t always comfortable but it is substantive, and by the end feels like a real gain in reading to have experienced it. Nor is it only a matter of pointing and laughing at the crazy person--there is enough in there to point up to common patterns of disconnect that are simply magnified her. When the protagonist falls into line with talk of class warfare and bombings but then insists on going to her mother for help there’s a measure of simultaneous isolation from the world and dependence on it that’s breath taking and, in some measure, is quite typical. Similarly the fact that she’s for all her issues in many ways the most practical and functionally necessary of the group paints a fascinating picture of a petty ideological terrorist cell. In its own sake, the tragicomedy of this communist splinter group seeking a tactical alliance with the IRA and eventually undertaking its own private, bungled, bombings is a thing of dark beatufy to see unfold.

Above all, what Lesing does very well is in material descriptions, bringing the solidity, appeal and squalor of everyday objects home.

Better than: Something Out There by Nadine Gordimer
Worse than: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

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