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.

William Cowling’s mind is more influenced by the media than by personal experience. Warfare in Beirut makes him think of peaceful Texas: ‘In Amarillo they were manufacturing MIRV’s, and in the Urals there were Soviet answerings in kind, a multiplication. And me – I stewed.’ In fact, ‘stewing’ is all William Cowling does, for the greater part of The Nuclear Age. It begins with Cowling, aged 49, digging a hole to make a bomb shelter while his little daughter tries to dissuade him. He then tells us how his terror began in 1958 when he was a small boy, frightened by ‘pictures of H-bombs in Life magazine, strontium 90 in the milk, the times in school when we’d crawl under our desks and cover our heads in practice for the real thing’. In 1962 he ‘spent the Cuban missile crisis squatting on a toilet’. In 1964 he went to college (‘There was a war on and people were dying ... The Chinese detonated their first nuclear device. Khrushchev was on the skids ... ’) and he stood outside the students’ cafeteria holding a poster with the slogan: ‘The Bombs are Real.’ This attracted other students who formed a Vietnam Peace Movement, with teach-ins and boycotts, eventually defecting to Havana for terrorist training. In 1968 Cowling received a draft notice from the United States Government and went into hiding – still thinking more about worldwide nuclear war than other forms of killing. The assassination of Robert Kennedy made him think: ‘That is how it can happen, a twitch of the index finger, a madman, a zealot, an aberration in human history ... ’

As Cowling madly digs his hole, reciting his chronicle of the years, he attempts a sort of Catch 22 paradox: ‘If you’re sane, you’re scared; if you’re scared, you dig; if you dig, you deviate.’ The hole seems to talk back to him: ‘I am Armageddon. I am what there is when there is no more ... ’ Cowling asks himself rhetorical questions: ‘Why am I alone? Why aren’t governments being toppled? Why don’t we scream it? Nuclear war!’ He had said the same two hundred pages before: ‘Nobody’s digging. Where’s the terror in this world? Scream it: Nuclear war! Take a stance and keep screaming ... ’ But we all know there is no point in screaming. Tim O’Brien has taken on a subject too large for his rhetoric.

Hans Koning has a different problem with the same themes. Acts of Faith is a serious warning against blind faith in the American nuclear deterrent – and it also warns against the danger of going mad through ‘thinking about the unthinkable’. While O’Brien’s readers might yawn shamefacedly at all the screaming, Koning has to stop us being pleasantly ‘thrilled’, enjoying his well-told story as an adventure yarn, a mystery. His narrator, John Baltasar, is an American journalist of Dutch descent. Travelling in Spain, during Franco’s regime, he got involved with terrorists, the Basque nationalist movement, and he feels guilty that he was too frightened to help them. Spain preys on his mind in another way, for he is conscious that one of his Dutch ancestors was burned at the stake by the Holy Office, as an ‘act of faith’, an auto da fé. The anxieties blend in his mind with an ever-present terror of the nuclear deterrent, pressing him with sudden jolts, growing more frequent. He suffers vivid nightmares, even day-time visions, about old Spain. Back in New York, everything conspires to link his three anxieties. His mother-in-law, an Irish-American Catholic, says, almost casually: ‘Our Judaeo-Christian-Humanist country, if that’s what we are, is as ready to burn heretics as the Catholic Inquisition ever was. The heretics live farther away, that’s the only difference.’

Baltasar gets in touch with cranky Spanish exiles in the United States. One of them, a left-winger, is murdered in Miami, a town where, Baltasar believes, right-wing Hispanics are officially encouraged to promote terrorism in Latin America. The victim’s daughter is fobbed off by the police: ‘Lady, you know how many Hispanics get wasted in this city every 24 hours?’ The victim’s ‘friend’ says: ‘Very sad. Killed just like that. The crime of our cities. A lottery.’ But Baltasar does not trust this ‘friend’, for he belongs to an eccentric Hispanic group which favours the policies of the departed Franco and is eager to promote an American war against the Soviet Union. Their propaganda is religious in tone – and they use as their symbol the badge of the Holy Office.

When Baltasar secretly reports the activities of the Franco cranks to poker-faced FBI men, the cranks hear about it straight away. One of them comes to visit Baltasar, to explain the policy: a plausible, pragmatic, friendly man, he seems to have powerful friends in the US Government, as well as in Latin America. Baltasar feels that he must be going mad – or perhaps it is the whole United States, so jittery, so reckless. ‘There must be something in the air now,’ he says, ‘in the air of this country, I mean, which makes these old Franco guys feel very much at home. Free to do what they feel like ... ’ They are not all old, either. Baltasar has seen their young supporters training in helmets and flak-jackets, with plenty of money behind them. His dreams and visions get worse, and so does the news, making his terror or paranoia more bizarre and yet more credible. Soon he is camping out on Long Island, waiting for the big blast. This terror-story is no mere entertainment.

A Funny Dirty Little War has already been made into a sort of entertainment. A film of this Argentine novel won the Silver Bear Award in Berlin and is due to be shown on BBC Television. It is a tale of mindless terrorism under an Argentine dictatorship and is much more dirty than funny: the Spanish title was No habra mas penas ni olvido – no doubt an ironical comment on the optimism of political warriors. There is savage fighting, torture and killing in a small town during Peron’s second regime (1973-4): the warriors are deeply confused, for Peron represents right-wing authority to some and left-wing liberty to others, and the principal character has his eyes burned out for being a traitor to ‘Peronism’.

With Maps we have something much more ambitious, original and informative. Askar is a young member of the Western Somalia Liberation Front, eager to fight against the Amharic-speaking rulers of Ethiopia. But what does it mean to be a Somali, asks his uncle Hilaal? They have lived their wandering lives in British, French and Italian Somaliland, and now they live mostly in Kenya, in the Ethiopian-administered Ogaden and in the Somali Republic – where any Somali is entitled to live, just as (Uncle Hilaal explains) ‘anyone born in East Germany after its creation is also a bona fide national of West Germany.’ Somalis share the same mother tongue: they are homogeneous, not like the peoples who call themselves ‘Ethiopians’ or ‘Nigerians’.

Uncle Hilaal tells the boy that the Amharic-speaking people were able to spread their power over the Oromos, the largest ethnic community in Ethiopia, just as they did over the Somalis, because they had an ancient written script – ‘and the written metaphysics of a tradition win, in the long run, the fight for power.’ The Somalis have hundreds of great poets, but in an oral tradition, while the Amharic speakers, for all their ancient script, have none. ‘We know what conquerors with written traditions do,’ says Askar, ‘when they occupy a land belonging to a people of the oral tradition. They impose upon them a law which makes it unlawful to think of themselves as human. The European colonialists have done so.’ Can Uncle Hilaal think of a conquering people who did not impose alien learning, language and culture upon those whom they conquered? He can think of one special case – the Fulani rulers of northern Nigeria, who have adopted the language of the conquered. (It is worth noting that Nuruddin Farah, a Somali with an Indian wife, wrote this novel while living in northern Nigeria. The map of the world in his head is interestingly different from ours.)

Askar and Hilaal remember the Goths and the Mongols, called barbarians because they were illiterate and burned libraries, and contrast them with the Arabs who imposed ‘the word that was read’ upon their Islamic territories. These discussions of little-known ‘nationalisms’ are not dry, for Askar and Hilaal are fully realised characters. The remarkable Hilaal is very cosmopolitan and almost embarrassingly ‘modern’, as he pads over the Italian tiles of his Mogadiscio home, cooking champignon provençal, muttering: ‘Per amor di dio.’ Hilaal, a feminist, does the cooking and his wife drives the car: he has had himself sterilised. Just down the road, as if in another world, a priest-doctor is sacrificing a sheep, exorcising a djinn. Hilaal’s modern, unisex way of life is strange to young Askar, who was brought up as a poor orphan, in the charge of a much more conservative uncle and a foster-mother, with severe Islamic educattion. Much of the book concerns Askar’s childhood, close to the female body of his foster-mother, conscious of her menstruations, her warmth and wetness. Nuruddin Farah’s novels have always taken an unusual interest in femininity, the female body (not just as a sex object), and now he has read and been influenced by Redgrove and Shuttle’s book, The Wise Wound.

The foster-mother, Misra, is an important character in this novel. She lives among the Somali, but she is of Oromo origin (one of the non-ruling peoples of Ethiopia), and when the Somali warriors are betrayed to their Ethiopian enemies, Misra is suspected of the betrayal and cruelly executed. It is a complicated story and Farah has made it still more complicated by telling it in the form of a literary experiment. In the first chapter, Askar is addressed as ‘you’, as if he was talking to himself. In the second, Askar takes up the tale, as ‘I’. In the third, Askar’s deeds are reported, as ‘he’. So it goes on for 12 chapters, four sets of three: ‘You’, ‘I’, ‘He’. The experiment is successful. Any reader who is gripped by this remarkable novel will turn to reference books, to find out more about the Somalis of Mogadiscio, and to the maps which are so prominent in Nuruddin Farah’s imagery.

For light relief from these geopolitical exercises we turn to the merry snobberies of Kenya in Tennis and the Masai. In this farce-novel, Nicholas Best deliberately imitates Evelyn Waugh, but he is less serious, more racist in an unthinking, harmless way. Most of the action is set in Haggard Hall, a gruesome Kenya-British prep-school, multi-racial in intent – for the houses are called Gagool, Umbopa and Quatermain. Among the teachers’ servants is a Somali, a Muslim irritated by his Roman Catholic wife: the celebration of Guy Fawkes’ Day inspires him to burn down a Catholic church. The English gents, vaguely C of E, are most understanding and bribe the magistrates to acquit the arsonist, since he is the only chap who can roll the cricket pitch properly.

The principal character is a rather-common-little-mairn from Purley Way who has been trying to become an Army officer in Wiltshire but has failed his leadership tests (most amusingly described) because he is too wet. Advised to go abroad and toughen up, he becomes a schoolteacher at Haggard Hall: his first duty is to join a posse of teachers chasing Smith-Baggot through the Aberdare Hills, because the wretched boy has run away again. Here come the gents, like a bat out of hell. ‘I thought we had him, but the hounds went cold!’ cries the monstrous riding-mistress, sitting her horse like a Heseltine. ‘I gave them Smith-Baggot’s games shorts, but they lost the scent.’ Smith-Baggot is an agreeable sort of Kenya White, a proper little Baden-Powell: sentimental readers will be sorry when he is captured by the gents and despatched to another snob-school in England, with nothing to protect him but his gun and bush knife, his gazelle hide, his elephant-hair bracelet and his Kikuyu witch-doctor’s charm.

Even more restful is Max Egremont’s Dear Shadows, a good English comedy – with just a touch of farce, when the commercial exploitation of stately homes, Our Heritage, is considered. The gallant young Lord Erdley is (like Smith-Baggot) bold but ill-educated: he is quite prepared to joust for his estate, mounted and armed with a rubber lance, in the costume of Bluff King Hal – but which King Hal, he wonders, was the bluff one, V or VIII? He is obsessed with his catchpenny shows. Half-blinded by his oversized coronet, trammelled in peerage robes, he ascends in a balloon, mumbling groggily: ‘All the other entertainments will be going full blast as well. The model railway, the pony rides, pets’ corner, dungeons, torture chambers, the Mickey Mouse Fun Park. More than enough for most tastes.’ At a rather touching moment of the comedy, when Lord Erdley has lost his wife to another, he blurts out: ‘Let me ask you something. How would you like to have to face the quarter-finals of the south-eastern area hang-gliding championships alone?’ Perhaps he ought to hive off his heritage to the National Trust, before the Government sells it to Disneyland. Max Egremont is not the only peer whose laughter becomes manic when he watches noblemen coaxing the multitude into their once-exclusive grounds. Constantine Phipps enjoyed similar jokes in his funny novel, Careful with the Sharks, last year.