Nuclear Fiction

D.A.N. Jones

  • The Nuclear Age by Tim O’Brien
    Collins, 312 pp, £10.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 00 223015 1
  • Acts of Faith by Hans Koning
    Gollancz, 182 pp, £8.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 575 03744 X
  • A Funny Dirty Little War by Osvaldo Soriano, translated by Nick Caistor
    Readers International, 108 pp, £7.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 930523 17 2
  • Maps by Nuruddin Farah
    Picador, 246 pp, £3.50, March 1986, ISBN 0 330 28710 9
  • Tennis and the Masai by Nicholas Best
    Hutchinson, 176 pp, £8.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 09 163770 8
  • Dear Shadows by Max Egremont
    Secker, 310 pp, £9.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 436 14160 4

Four of these novels are political, not to be taken lightly. Acts of Faith and The Nuclear Age are concerned with the terror offered to us all by the nuclear deterrent. This is a large theme and it is proper to adopt a grave, tongue-biting tone, as our ancestors did when considering H-11 and the D-v-1. Unlike ‘terrorism’ – which it otherwise somewhat resembles – the nuclear deterrent is presented by state authority as a measure for preserving the great peace: it is customary for state authority thus to associate peace with terror. In Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, the King’s infant daughter is praised in a powerful prophecy: ‘She shall be loved and feared,’ and her royal attributes shall be ‘peace, plenty, love, truth, terror’. Our disputations about the nuclear deterrent are connected with the suspicion that it terrifies the tender but not the tough. The narrators of the first two novels, middle-class American citizens, admit to being terrified out of their wits: they fear that the martyr-venerating warriors of Islam and the rough Catholics of Latin America may not be deterred from small-scale warfare by the threat of international escalation. Acts of Faith, Hans Koning’s scenario, warns of a danger of global nuclear war arising from the Hispanic connections of the United States. Tim O’Brien’s more discursive narrative, The Nuclear Age, breaks out in desperate little cries, like: ‘Beirut was a madhouse. The graveyards were full ... ’ This narrator is not really concerned about the deaths of Beirut citizens: his terror is that a Middle East crisis might ‘escalate’.

It happens that we also have here two novels set in regions where political terrorism is normal: one in Latin America, the other by the Red Sea, among Somali Muslims. There is plenty of terror – for both Maps and A Funny, Dirty Little War are concerned with the cruel execution of a suspected traitor – but the idea that their little wars might escalate into a breach of the great peace and the end of the world never crosses the characters’ hot little minds. They are not deterred. It may be that the terrorism of little wars casts out the larger terror.

The Nuclear Age suggests as much. Tim O’Brien’s characters, United States college graduates, go to Cuba in 1968 for training as terrorists: their instructor is called Ebenezer Keezer (a name reminiscent of the stunt motor-cyclist, Eevel Kneevel). ‘Terrorism is a state of mind!’ yells Keezer. ‘A state of mind is a state of bliss! Extremism in the pursuit of bliss is no bummer! ... States of mind! States of bliss! Down with the states!’ Keezer, a dissident Vietnam veteran, always talks in this perky way. He imitates television performers: ‘This is your life. Terror tends to terrorise, absolute terror terrorises absolutely. Th-th-that’s all, folks!’ The narrator, William Cowling, fails to become a terrorist, since he is too frightened, but his girlfriend, Sarah Strouch, passes the test and, by 1980, she is saying: ‘Terrorism is a state of mind, but nobody gets terrified anymore.’ Some two hundred pages later, she is saying much the same thing (this is a repetitive book), though she is no longer a terrorist (‘or not exactly, but she enjoyed the wordplay’). She tells William Cowling and his wife: ‘You wouldn’t believe how tough it is. Not all glamour and fun. I mean, shit, nobody gets terrified anymore. Excuse the shit.’ The dialogue rarely rises above this level.

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