14 January, 2008

'The Unknown Terrorist' - Richard Flanagan

This is a novel that opens brilliantly and provokingly, then maintains a compelling level of dramatic and intellectual tension. At every plot development the reader is affronted simultaneously by the idiocy of Flanagan's public, as well as the fact that in the very recognisable and believable world that Flanagan has created, such idiocy is entirely plausible.

The novel is set in Sydney, slightly into the future, but within this decade. Flanagan writes Sydney in a way few Australian authors do. In American and British fiction it is common to feature a globally-known city such as New York or London as another character, with its own moods and by giving locales by name only, rather than swerving from the story to explain their significance. This is how Sydney is presented in The Unknown Terrorist: Kings Cross and its Coke sign, Mardi Gras, street names and landmarks. So too recent Australian events, such as the Cronulla riots and the Beaconsfield miners.

Such familiarity creates authenticity. Flanagan brings it down to even finer detail, introducing thinly-disguised media and political figures to push along the furore and bloodlust around a nationwide obsession with the search for the eponymous figure, who in reality is a 25-year-old female victim of circumstance. Most prominent is the character of Richard Cody, a very nasty Ray Martin clone. His boss is Mr Frith, head of media conglomerate Six. The cloning act is so recognisable that Cody is at one point mistaken by a character for Ray Martin. Therefore, Martin himself exists as part of the fictional world, although we know him to be real. Does this make the real Australia more imaginary or this fictional representation more real?

This constant blurring of identity is consistent throughout the novel. Nearly every character has multiple names, the main character being endowed with three: her nickname the Doll (shortened from Russian Doll due to her layers of character); her pole-dancing name of Krystal; and her real name, Gina Davies, itself a smooth blend of Euro-Anglo descent. The whole premise of the novel spins around a case of mistaken identity and the media's ability to convince the public to believe in a truth through bludgeoning repetition and insinuation, rather than through any element of truth.

Truth, in Flanagan's Australia, is as bendable as identity. Cody sees the "art" of journalism as "to use the truths you could discover to tell the story you believed to matter". There was a time when belief could mean truth, at least a personal one, but in this world those with enough media power feel comfortable turning their beliefs not only into an accepted truth, but one that actively incites racial hatred and a mass cry for vilification. The Doll is at one point actually confronted when she finds out someone hasn't lied: "It now seemed too stupid to be true - that who someone said they were, was, more or less, who they were".

Amongst all this hate, dishonesty, xenophobia and greed is an ongoing theme of love. The novel's first line - "The idea that love is not enough is a particularly painful one" - is a preface to an extraordinary, contemporary religious statement. Each of the main characters learns the truth of this opening salvo. Love is not enough to save a marriage, a life or an ideal. Rather than believing in and loving our country, we prefer to be swayed to believe in terrorism, to validate what we have by believing someone would want to destroy it.

This is absolutely the best Australian novel I have read. Flanagan gives Australia the respect denied to it by the novel's characters by representing it with such unashamed familiarity. The novel is extremely pertinent, placed utterly within the context of the ongoing period that will come to define the War on Terror. That war is being fought within the pages of this book, but not by soldiers of democracy against radical fundamentalists. Instead our fear has inculcated a country to believe the worst, to prostrate ourself for both information and redemption in front of a media who created the context for our fear in the first place. The novel is bold, confronting, incredibly revealing and almost faultlessly crafted.

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