What 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.