Dogs

Ronan Bennett

Set in Beirut in the early Eighties, Oriana Fallaci’s novel opens at the moment when, on the morning of 23 October 1983, an Islamic Jihad militant drove a truck laden with explosives into the headquarters of the US contingent of the Multinational Force (MNF). A second suicide bomber attacked the French military base at the same time. Altogether more man three hundred servicemen were killed.

The Americans and French had returned to the city the previous year, along with a body of Italian troops, after the catastrophic Israeli invasion of the Lebanon. The MNF’s presence was highly controversial and subject to conflicting interpretations. Its self-proclaimed goal was vague and, with hindsight, absurdly optimistic: to protect the innocent from slaughter and oversee a return to some kind of normality. Others, perhaps casting their minds back to 1958 when US Marines landed at Beirut to fight off ‘international communism’, saw the MNF’s presence as yet another show of force on the part of a Western bloc determined to impose its will on a vulnerable part of the Arab world. Fallaci takes the generous view of the MNF’s role, and the book’s heroes are the soldiers of the Italian contingent. In the aftermath of the bombings, they ready themselves to face a similar attack. But there is no third truck, no third suicide bomber.

Having been spared annihilation, the Italians are condemned to a living hell in which violent death is part of everyday life, cruelty the norm. They live under constant threat of being targeted. Negotiating the tricky currents of Beirut’s political underworld, they do what they can to guard their lives; but this is straightforward compared with the difficulty of preserving their sanity and moral perspective. Will they survive their time in Beirut? Will they get home body and psyche intact?

Beyond this, Inshallah has little in the way of narrative. The novel is a shapeless, sprawling mess, a densely crowded, confusing and episodic collage in which incident, portentous speculation and opposing galleries of goodies and baddies take the place of plot, theme and characterisation. There are more than a hundred characters: few are sufficiently differentiated for the reader to recognise them on second meeting. The Italians have names like Condor, Eagle and Onion. If Fallaci, in giving her characters such names, was striving to enhance the surrealism of the nightmare the soldiers inhabit, the effect is immediately undercut by a naive literalism. Onion, we discover, is so called ‘because his face was shaped like an onion’. Sugar, the bomb disposal expert, is so called because ‘his gentle face emanated an almost sugary sweetness.’ Then there is String, who is nicknamed String ‘because besides being very tall, he was as thin as a string.’ Fallaci makes an extra effort with his characterisation: ‘like a string he could Squeeze nay strangle you each tune he opened his mouth.’ The picture conjured up by this line can hardly have been the intended one, and Fallaci makes it worse by forgetting to give String any good lines.

Fallaci’s treatment of the Arabs makes her handling of the Italian soldiers look subtle. They are, without exception, villainous; many are psychopathic, some are out of their heads on drugs. Zandra Sadr, a Shiite Imam, is a cunning, fork-tongued politician who plays a double game with the Italians. Hezbollah militants are crazed fanatics. An adolescent thug murders the girlfriend of Angelo, one of the Italian soldiers and the nearest the book comes to having a central character. The Arabs are men who, when they are not raping and murdering nuns, will disguise a bomb as a doll in the hope of maiming the man who stoops to pick it up. In Beirut people drag around guns the way ‘normal people’ drag around umbrellas on a rainy day. A child can strip and clean a rifle the way ‘normal children’ fiddle with toys.

The book was published in Italy in 1990 and later appeared in translation in the US. This accounts for the American cast of speech – ‘Buttfuckers’, ‘Don’t bust my balls,’ and so on – but does not help the strained and artificial dialogue. This effect is heightened by the disjointed and deliberately impressionistic use of language. It is a device from Catch 22: to capture the insanity of war by adopting, in the writing, something of war’s surrealism. This is fine when it is done well. When it fails, as it frequently does in Inshallah, it fails badly. Some of the language is surreal in other ways; no matter how some sentences are read, they fail to make sense. The book is really only partly fiction. Oriana Fallaci made her name as a reporter and interviewer. Her work – in books and in articles – has always been passionate and opinionated. She has never been shy about setting out her position; and Inshallah is no different. Here is her version of the Lebanon before the civil war:

Beirut had been one of the most agreeable spots on this planet: an extremely comfortable place to live and die of old age or illness. Whether you were rich and corrupt or poor and honest, there you found the best a city can offer: a mild climate in the summer and winter, blue sea and green hills, work, food ... A more or less democratic regime existed, civil liberties were respected ... War didn’t exist ... It was called the Switzerland of the Middle East.

But then ‘one ugly day the Palestinians had arrived. With their anger, their pain, their money.’ These violent sectarians destroyed the splendid villas, the ‘immaculate gardens and verandas paved with superb Alexandrian mosaics’, the ‘stunning’ residences and ‘exquisite’ art deco houses, the ‘magnificent’ racetrack, and the ‘sumptuous’ hotels.

It is not clear what day Fallaci is referring to, but one assumes she is thinking of September 1970, when the PLO was driven out of Jordan. However, there had been Palestinians in the Lebanon for almost a quarter of a century before the PLO set up its new headquarters in Beirut, and their lives had been anything but pleasant. It is hard to recognise the ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’ in The Disinherited, Fawaz Turki’s account of his family’s flight from Haifa to Sidon and on to Beirut in 1948. His experience, shared by thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, was one of poverty, deprivation, surveillance and discrimination. Nor could the Shia of South Lebanon – among the poorest people in the country – have had many opportunities to enjoy a day at the races and a night at a sumptuous hotel in the capital.

The truth is that Lebanon before September 1970 was a great place to be if you happened to be one of the rich Muslims or rich Christians who had divided up the country and its spoils. For these people, there were few if any irksome regulations in the way of turning a dishonest dollar. If you made your money out of smuggling guns or drugs, that was no one’s business but your own. If you sold your ministerial vote, only the most churlish would criticise you. And there was always plenty to distract you from the pressures of high finance and politics. In Fallaci’s disingenuous phrase there was ‘a thoughtlessness that put up for sale any kind of pleasure’. For the rich whose interests ran in that direction there was unrestricted access to prostituted women and children, and drugs of every variety. Lebanon before 1970 was as much a paradise as Havana before 1959. The disparities of wealth and the polarisation of politics – the Christian fascists, the Phalange, had been around long before 1948 – meant that Lebanese society was unstable in a way Swiss society never was. Lebanon was, moreover, a ‘fake’ state, the result of post-colonial realignment, a hodge-podge detached from Syria after the imperialist misadventures of the French. The arrival of the PLO in 1970 merely provided the trigger for a civil war that had been brewing for years.

How important is this for Inshallah, which is, after all, fiction spiced with polemic rather than polemic with fiction thrown in? It seems to me to go to the core of the book’s weakness. What it demonstrates is the imaginative short comings of an intellectual from a modern agnostic culture faced with strong, anti-liberal belief in another. The civil war in the Lebanon is just one of the many ‘ethnic’ conflicts that seem to defy all reason. The novelist wanders, weary and outraged, around the hell that has been created. And the book the novelist writes from the inferno is the equivalent of the white flag of reason and peace, of compassion and humane wisdom, a flag all the more poignant because it is spotted with the blood of the innocent. This is the understandable reaction, the instinctive response to slaughter on such a horrific scale. But if the reaction goes no further than this, the writing will be all too predictable. And indeed, Inshallah deploys a familiar metaphor on its first page: ‘At night the stray dogs invaded the city ... Like men they divided into bands consumed by hate, like men they wanted only to tear each other to pieces, and the monotonous rite always took place under the same pretext: the conquest of a sidewalk made precious by food scraps and scum.’

The book closes with the same image. The dogs are still there, still tearing each other apart: ‘Filthy, bloody, covered with sores, encrusted with tinea, some with only one eye, one ear, three paws.’ The madness goes on. And the dogs, far from being reduced by their mutual slaughter, are strengthened by it: they kill each other without mercy, but they seem possessed of such energy and life. And while the dogs thrive on violence, the innocent suffer. Angelo arrives at the bombed US barracks: ‘Every step, a stab of rage and horror, Here a finger, there a foot, or a hand, a forearm, an ear that improvised sextons picked up and threw in plastic bags like the garbage of a butcher shop: most of the bodies had been in fact dismembered into dozens of pieces.’ Angelo finds a Marine cradling a helmet in his arms ‘with the obstinacy of a child who refuses to give up an object very precious to him’. The Marine’s histrionics irritate Angelo until he realises that the helmet contains the decapitated head of the Marine’s buddy.

Fallaci’s simplistic and apolitical take on the situation has not helped her. Her sensitivity to the suffering and the slaughter is evident, but what comes across most strongly is her naivety and the sense of our having heard and seen it all before. Every step of the territory Fallaci traverses is familiar; it carries echoes from Hemingway. Joseph Heller and Michael Herr without possessing a fraction of then power: the descriptions of the war-torn city, the psychotic gunmen, the well-intentioned if ineffectual soldiers doing their best to ‘hold the ring’, the brutalised population, the dead children, the doomed love – the novel’s treatment of these people and things has suffered because the author is transfixed by the corpses and the rubble and does not know where else to look. Most of all, what is tellingly absent is a convincing psychological portrait of someone from the other side, the anti-Western, anti-liberal side, the side engaged in the fighting. What Fallaci serves up here, unintentionally is further proof of how difficult modern novelists – with exceptions, like Timothy Mo and Amos Oz – find it to write about sectarian conflict.