Richard Flanagan: The Unknown Terrorist

Persons and actions of this story are invented. If the description of certain journalistic practices shows ressemblances to the practices of the Bild newspaper, that’s because these ressemblances are not intended nor accidental, they are inescapable

The Unknown Terrorist, Richard Flanagan’s novel, is, as he himself says at the back of his forgettable new book, a modern take on Böll’s Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum. And it is basically the same story. Woman fucks stranger, stranger is suspected of terrible crime, woman is suspected of being an accomplice. And I really like the Böll novel. Must be my favorite novel of his. So why was The Unknown Terrorist such a mess of a novel?

Can’t be the writing. Heinrich Böll is not a great stylist. What success his novels and stories have, style has nothing to do with that. Flanagan is, if anything, a better stylist. Much of the novel drags and much is functional at best, but there are outstanding passages as well. Can’t be the writing? Characters, maybe. That, actually, is the first problem. Although Böll’s characters are cliché characters, they need to be for the story to work in the little space that is allotted to them and Böll is a master in making even cliché come alive. Not so Flanagan. For one thing, he overdoes the cliché, adds many more layers of schlocky details. And then he just lets his characters get away with this. He doesn’t even try to make the characters believable. No Sir. When he slips his characters into the pockets of the story, he adds just the most necessary characterization. He sticks to the dolls (ironic, eh?) he constructed. Interaction between characters is unbelievable, as a rule.

But that is not his main error. The main problem with the novel is the old show-don’t-tell idea. He lets us know what people are thinking. Not just the protagonist, but also the journalist, the cops, and others. Every aspect of the story is examined and explained. It’s as if he was expecting his readers to be less smart than fourth graders. No guesswork for us. And this is where the novel goes terribly wrong. Yes, that’s tedious to read. But the political aspect of it is softened to an extent that is almost criminal. The hard criticism of mass media of Böll’s novel is softened to bad individuals who do know better but decide, greedily, to go ahead with the “story”. Whereas the only dedication of Flanagan is to David Hicks, a victim of misguided governmental policy, Böll’s reads like this:

Personen und Handlung dieser Erzählung sind frei erfunden. Sollten sich bei der Schilderung gewisser journalistischer Praktiken Ähnlichkeiten mit den Praktiken der Bild-Zeitung ergeben haben, so sind diese Ähnlichkeiten weder beabsichtigt noch zufällig, sondern unvermeidlich.

(Persons and actions of this story are invented. If the description of certain journalistic practices shows ressemblances to the practices of the Bild newspaper, that’s because these ressemblances are not intended nor accidental, they are inescapable). Lots of misguided governmental policies in his time, too. However, that’s plainly not his point. It’s about how the mass media distorts something if it conforms with certain bourgeois stereotypes.

This would have worked fine with The Unknown Terrorist, too. Slutty woman? Check. Arab terrorist? Check. Etc. And these stereotypes are seen to be at the basis of the journalist’s doing the story the way he does. However, it stops at this point. Richard Cody. And he does know better, but his greed for money and fame blinds him. Böll exposed the stereotypes that govern the press. Maybe a ‘real’ Richard Cody would not need the incentive of greed. The stereotypes alone are more than enough. This would have made an incisive commentary on the state of our nations. Look at the inane and inherently racist coverage of the remarks of Archbishop Williams, or check out the coverage in Danish newspapers of the alleged plot to kill the damn cartoonist. Or German newspapers covering that. Hell, mainstream coverage of muslims by privately owned media. Daily Express, anyone? Henryk M. Broder? Broder writes the stories Cody would write had he Broder’s erudition or style. Or check out how much of a deal it is that a photograph was published with Barack Hussein Obama wearing a turban.

No, The Unknown Terrorist is not tidy nor subtle. It doesn’t have to. It’s an angry book, wearing its moral indignation on its sleeve. But it is on this account, the political sphere, that it fails first and foremost. It attacks a government who uses a Patriot Act-like legislation to exert pressure on people. But the main protagonist’s life is not destroyed by that. It’s destroyed the hateful discourse taken up and whipped up by the press. Böll’s novel got him into a pickle with the press which launched a spite-and hateful campaign against the little indignant writer, a campaign that lasted years. No such chance with Flanagan, I presume. The boring little antepodean shit.
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