Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Good Terrorist

Today I finished reading Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist, which leaves me rather exhausted (physically, as I've been reading it without time to sleep or eat cake for several hours) and mentally.

It's to Lessing's credit that even with a book filled with childish, unpleasant, cruel and idiotic people, you don't just fling it across the room in a rage at the characters. It's certainly a hard book to start, because there's no redeeming people; everyone is massively flawed, the sorts you would try to avoid in your life if you could. But perhaps because she's so good at illustrating the many failures and compromises people go through, it's still a book that elicits empathy, if little sympathy for the 'amateur' revolutionaries.

The book centres around Alice, who is one of a band of what turn out to be quite like the 'useful idiots' of Lenin's phrase, but a little more harmful. As they progress from ineffectualness to actual injury, you love them ever less, but as the book concluded, I felt an overpowering sadness for the lives depicted, lives wasted in so many ways. Education scorned, comfort seen as 'bourgeois' without understanding what it was, people groping in the dark without a chance of happiness.

It's not exactly a laugh-a-minute, I'm trying to say, whereas The Secret Agent, a book it's compared to, has its funny moments.

Nothing much happens apart from domestic haranguing for long stretches, although the ending - well, the ending isn't entirely filled with action, in some ways more a meditation on a life wasted. I wouldn't want to spoil the plot for anyone reading, but it's enough to say that nobody leaves the book particularly well; perhaps it's a good way to prevent bogus nostalgia for the 1980s.

But throughout, you feel sorry for Alice, and then recall she's brought this on herself, blundering, selfishly editting her own worldview to exclude contradiction, deceiving herself that they were "revolutionaries, not crooks"; even the good in her is tainted. So I suppose Lessing's real achievement is this monster, in a book of monstrosities, where even the centre of the book is not much more than a cipher, a void, a person who fails to be a moral agent.

Don't take this to the beach, basically.


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