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Wednesday
29Oct

Political Violence and the Novelist

How should novelists approach the topic of political violence? This was the central concern of a panel at the Royal Society of Literature on Monday. And with your regular CTLab contributors juggling prior engagements, I was drafted in to cover the event.

On the panel we had novelists who had written about political violence from the Second World War through to the present day. Kamila Shamsie's new novel, Burning Shadows, pulls together the bombing of Nagasaki, conflict in Afghanistan and post 9/11 New York; Chris Petit's The Passenger is a representation of the Lockerbie bombing in 1988; and Adam Foulds writes about the Mau Mau uprising in 1950s in The Broken Word. Pankaj Mishra, who has also tackled the subject of political violence in The Romantics and Temptation of the West, chaired the discussion.

Mishra began with a brief overview of political violence in literature starting with Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent. He pointed out that when political violence became attached to ideological movements and the nation-state in World War Two the novelist could easily disapprove of aims and means. But the post 9/11 world challenged the novelist: could potential sympathy with the political and religious grievances of the perpetrators of political violence be reconciled with their capacity to cause indiscriminate death and suffering? And how should the novelist tackle the use of state violence? Mishra also suggested that novelists have struggled to make sense of a form of political violence driven by ideologies that have lost power in the West and involving complex parts of the world.

Taking up these challenges, Kamila Shamsie agreed that "a lot of writers are trying to write about individuals they don't really understand". She emphasised the importance of cultural context, pointing to her own upbringing in Karachi where school riot and bomb drills were more prevalent than fire alarm practice, and criticised a tendency to place the psychology of the individual in a political vacuum.

Shamsie also felt that American novelists had failed to fully consider the impact of "the American Empire" in other parts of the world, and that their counterparts in Pakistan had been writing about the changing definitions of jihad in the 1980s.

Similarly, Chris Petit argued that there is always an intriguing back-story to political violence not always tackled by the British 'novelist of manners'. In a book on Northern Ireland, he considered the turf war between MI5 and MI6 and pointed to America's dealings with Osama Bin Laden and his associates when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.

The focus then turned to the usefulness of the novel for capturing political violence. Mishra proposed that the novelist couldn't keep up in today's interdependent and fast-paced society; the journalist has left the novelist behind. Unsurprisingly, this was rejected by the panel.

Shamsie said the novel still had a role in tackling more complicated aspects of political violence, and Adam Foulds pointed out that War and Peace was written in the 1860s, long after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. There's "no reason", Foulds said, "for novelists to be town criers of major political news". But he admitted that it is easier to deal with history, and Petit said that the basic rule of writing what you know is difficult when everything is changing so quickly.

As interesting as the discussion was, I didn't feel the panel tackled some of the central questions about the role of the novelist. If the novelist has a role in society - and I would guess the panellists do believe that writing novels should be about more than merely making money - then how, if at all, has that role changed since 9/11?

The panel briefly mentioned the fact that the novel lends itself to sympathy with the individual and was not so good at imagining state violence. But what implications does this have for governments who claim to be combating 'terrorism' with 'legitimate force'? And if the novel is about making "individual suffering real", as one questioner said, can it be used as a vehicle for political reconciliation? Or is this far too lofty a proposition?

Daniel Bennett is a PhD Candidate in the Dept. of War Studies at King's College London. He writes via the Frontline Club at Reporting War, and at his personal blog, Mediating Conflict.


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