Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist

Doris Lessing | The Good TerroristWhat did she do in her room? Caroline said she was studying handbooks on how to be a good terrorist. She said this laughing, as was her way. p. 319

Do not expect gunfights, car chases, and other flashy action scenes in Nobel Prize winning author Doris Lessing’s 1985 novel, The Good Terrorist. While Lessing’s heroine is the “good terrorist” which the title alludes to, she is no femme fatale. It is not a thriller by Le Carre or Ken Follet.*

Instead, what we get is a slice of the life of Alice Mellings, a committed full-time revolutionary active in London in he 1980s. We follow her as she relate with her comrades and cope with their diverse personalities and differing levels of conviction. She takes the lead mending an abandoned old house which they occupy as squatters while organizing their activities.

Alice faces her parents from whom she looks for money to shoulder their household’s expenses. She confronts the police, deals with nosy neighbors, and negotiates with local government clerks to keep themselves from getting evicted. At the same time, they attend demonstrations, get arrested. They have fun, hold meetings that never start on time and always end abruptly, discuss politics, plan their actions, and bicker amongst themselves and with other groups. When Alice and her comrades actually do bombing, they botch it.

Today, any mention of terrorism immediately calls to mind images of 9-11 and Islamist suicide bombers. The Good Terrorist was written in a time when the typical terrorist was pictured as the leftwing rural or urban guerrilla from the Viet Cong to the Irish Republican Army. Bin Laden and his Afghani mujahideen, today’s avowed enemy of Bush’s “War on Terror,” were still Reagan’s freedom fighters.

Lessing’s novel has been compared to Dostoevsky’s Demons and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (which I haven’t yet read) in its portrayal of the mentality of revolutionaries. Unlike Dostoevsky, Lessing does not satirize her “terrorist” protagonists. She sticks to depicting realistic circumstances that lead her characters to act as they do. Lessing makes no judgment.

She shows the bleakness of the urban landscape, the poverty, the State’s ineptness and capacity for brutality, and her protagonists’ dedication, weakened or strengthened by each unfolding experience, is contrasted to the complacence and pretentiousness of the middle classes. We see that perhaps the authorities and the order they represent, while claiming to be against terrorist acts, are the very same entities who generate terrorism.

Lessing does not shy from showing their ridiculous sides too. But ultimately Lessing seem sympathetic with her “terrorists” and in the end one feels the same way too.

There are no flashy action scenes. Yet, The Good Terrorist is just as gripping. In fact, as the novel comes to its end, one cannot help but get a strange feeling of disappointment. What happens to them next? The novel ends at almost five hundred pages and yet one still will want more. ■

* Although the latter comes close with The Man From St. Petersbug, a sympathetic yarn about the life of an anarchist.

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9 Comments

  1. Interesting, I own this but haven’t read it yet, I bought it I think shortly after finishing Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions (one of the first books I blogged actually). I intended to pick up Eat the Document too, to complete my 1970s terrorist reading list as it were (I’ve already read Massie’s excellent The Death of Men) but haven’t managed to as yet.

    You certainly make a good case for this one. It reminds me why I bought it, and makes me question whether I should have put it higher up my TBR pile than so far I have.

  2. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. I haven’t come across the titles you mentioned yet and will definitely watch out for them on my next visit to the secondhand shop.

    I’m a (recent) occasional reader of your blog. Will look for your post on Kunzru’s My Revolution’s at Pechorin’s Journal.

  3. I’ve been trying (not very hard) to get around to reading Lessing ever since she won the Nobel Prize. I couldn’t decide where to start, but this sounds like something I would enjoy.

  4. Thanks for leaving a comment, nicole. Also try watching out for Lessing’s science fiction series, Canopus in Argos: Archives. One of the five books from the series is the only other Lessing book I read. It’s kinda strange, not the standard “literary” I expected from her.

  5. Do you have a feel for how good she is as a science fiction writer Karlo? Literary authors often struggle when they try to write genre, frequently either rehashing tired old tropes without realising it (Handmaid’s Tale, Death of Men, neither at all original in sf terms even if well written) or just tending towards what looks awfully like pastiche (Jeanette Winterson). I had the impression Lessing had written a fair bit of sf, but if so I’ve not personally encountered any of it. I’d be interested to know what you think.

  6. Max: The one I read was not really striking when compared to other sf books I read. There’s this planet called Shikasta (which is really Earth) where two rival alien species with clashing ideologies try to outwit each other and conduct experiments but the text really is just an exposition of Lessing’s views on history, society, mankind, social engineering, and so on… My reading it was (actually) driven by the fact that Lessing wrote it, hehe. It is (obviously) well written, but honestly, I think I liked good old Frank Herbert better! :)

    lethebashar: You are always welcome!

  7. Well, Dune and Dune Messiah are very good, and I actually rather liked The Hellstrom Hive, so I know where you’re coming from.

    I’ll read The Good Terrorist, I think though having read your thoughts for sf I’ll go back to people like Stross and Reynolds.

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