Nothing solidifies the reputation of a spy novelist so much as prescience. Graham Greene’s “Quiet American” appeared only a year after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, and before American advisers had been sent to Vietnam in large numbers. Four years before the Cuban missile crisis, with Fulgencio Batista still in power, Greene wrote another novel, this one about possible secret military installations in Cuba. As for Ian Fleming, his vision of nonstate terrorist groups seeking nuclear weapons remains the most frightening and relevant aspect of the James Bond series.
Richard North Patterson would probably admit he does not hope his latest “entertainment,” as Greene would have called it, is prescient in the least. It tells the tale of Al Qaeda’s plan to set off a nuclear bomb on Sept. 11, 2011. Indeed, all that stands between a solemn anniversary and Osama bin Laden’s evil designs are Brooke Chandler, a patriotic C.I.A. agent, and his mentor, Carter Grey, now retired. The plot sends Chandler to the Middle East, and the narrative alternates between Chandler’s attempts to uncover the bomb’s location, and the workings of Al Qaeda, specifically a dastardly operative taking orders from Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. (Bin Laden’s appearance in “western” Pakistan in the prologue might date the book a bit, but Patterson’s portrayal of the terrorist leader directing plots and speaking portentously is in keeping with the discoveries following his death in Abbottabad last month.)
From before Fleming’s time, villains have always been more complex than heroes, and that’s true here as well. Patterson doesn’t have any huge insights into the two leaders of Al Qaeda, but they are certainly livelier than Chandler, who has all the dullness of Tom Clancy’s stick figures. Patterson avoids the right-wing talking points that animate Clancy’s stories, but the result is still tedious. We are given hints that Chandler’s interests extend beyond his world of intrigue and espionage — on his night table sit a translation of “War and Peace” and some Arabic poetry — but the narrative never allows him much in the way of an inner life. His relationship with an Israeli woman brings the book almost to a halt; their romantic conversations revolve around topics like the political history of her homeland. “A right-wing Israeli had assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, our greatest hope for peace. So we had an election: Rabin’s successor, Peres, who also favored peace, against Netanyahu, a man supported by fanatics.” Chandler undoubtedly finds this kind of talk sexier than the reader will.
Patterson, who has written several best-selling political thrillers, is a solid storyteller who doesn’t allow nuanced characterization to interrupt his well-worked plots. The merit of his books, and what makes them occasionally lugubrious, is his effort to show off his research. “The Israelis provided us with a salutary lesson: another invasion in 1996, this time to wipe out Hezbollah. The result was a mass exodus of Shia from the south and the indiscriminate killing of civilians by the I.D.F., whether by accident or design. The worst was when the I.D.F. shelled Qana, where the U.N. was sheltering Shia refugees.” This is Chandler speaking, and he is only one of Patterson’s characters who enjoy the monologue. We receive lectures on almost every “hot” topic, from the history of Al Qaeda and Hezbollah to the political situations in Pakistan and Lebanon. There are even references to WikiLeaks. Writers as distinct from Patterson as Rebecca West have used this narrative approach to excellent effect, but here it feels painfully choreographed. Patterson can write, and he does seem to have an interest in the world as it exists. Perhaps next time he will tell us tomorrow’s news rather than yesterday’s.
Available at Liberty Books
In the years since Arundhati Roy won the 1997 Booker Prize for her debut novel, The God of Small Things, she has become the anti-globalisation mascot in India and abroad with her strident opposition of the Indian state, free market economics, the war on terror, and much else. Her prose is vivid and sometimes poetic: witty wordplay interspersed with biting satire that riles India’s middle class, the wealthy, and the elite.
But as her appeal rises abroad, she has become increasingly irrelevant at home. Sincere anti-poverty activists find her shrillness exasperating, with some arguing privately that her writing about a cause is a distraction, shifting the focus to herself, and delaying, if not damaging, the prospect of a solution. Roy doesn’t like compromised half-measures, but others have different views of what constitutes the best solution. Her fans abroad, who have little personally at stake in India, applaud her rapturously, so making her more marginalised among nationalistically-minded Indians.
The exasperation comes from the fact that what Roy describes is often an accurate description of a slice of the reality, but her prose has little room for layered nuances and granularity. It makes her critique almost comic-book like, with sharply edged “good” and “evil” forces. In her latest collection of essays, Broken Republic, Roy rightly points out the abysmal treatment of India’s indigenous people who live in the tribal belt, which is rich with minerals and abounds with Maoists. But she is wrong in seeing those amoral nihilists – the Maoists – as harbingers of a better future. That’s a dehumanised worldview.
True, the millions of tribals (as indigenous people are called in India) have been neglected and exploited. And India now wants mining companies to invest there. If the past is any indication, it will cause a massive upheaval, disrupting traditional lifestyles, displacing communities, with the abuse of many human rights.
Roy is a brilliantly articulate cheerleader for the Maoists, who claim to be fighting for the tribals. In perhaps a quarter of India’s districts, the state doesn’t have much control. Paramilitary forces have been deployed, and Maoists have launched spectacular strikes, killing many in the security forces.. In retaliation, politicians and landlords have created a vigilante militia to take on the Maoists.
That’s a grim scenario, and can end in tragedy, but Roy absolves the Maoists. She sees their violence entirely as a reaction when all other means have failed, even portraying them as green egalitarian warriors fighting to preserve a pristine life. In that Manichean world, the tribals and Maoists are one; and anyone against Maoists is against the tribals, therefore for the state, and hence complicit in the abuses.
In her first essay, the Indian home minister P Chidambaram must be colluding with mining companies, since before he became a minister, when he was a corporate lawyer some of the companies were his clients. When mining shares rise after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calls the Maoist threat India’s gravest security challenge, she sees causality in that coincidence. In her second essay, she travels through Maoist territory, and makes the Maoists almost as likeable as characters in the film Avatar. She notes, but doesn’t condemn, their use of child soldiers, nor their summary show trials against “informants”, some of whom are put to death.
But there is hope. In her third essay we see an introspective Roy, slightly disillusioned by Maoist rhetoric. She no longer ridicules Gandhi; now she cites him approvingly. Perhaps her education has begun. Roy sees India’s upwardly-mobile aspirants as morally compromised.