‘The Tyrant’s Novel’ by Tom Keneally

Keneally_tyrant

2003, 292 p.

I read this book soon after it was published in 2003, when the idea of locking up ‘illegal arrivals’ without visas in detention centres,  introduced in the 1990s by the Keating Government, had been ramped up to the the mandatory off-shore detention of all arrivals by boat under what was euphemistically called the ‘Pacific Solution‘.  The book  has only increased in power in the 17 years since, especially with the very public face of Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, whose book No Friend But the Mountains received widespread critical acclaim. It’s as if Keneally’s book has been brought to life.

Keneally’s novel is in three parts.  Part 1, ‘The Visitor’s Preface’, told in the first person, frames the novel. An unnamed journalist narrator accompanies a female colleague to a thinly disguised Villawood Detention Centre. There he meets ‘Alan Sheriff’, the name adopted by an Iraqi refugee incarcerated there, who proceeds to tell him “the saddest and silliest story you will ever hear”.

The bulk of the body is in Part 2, ‘Alan Sheriff’s Story’. It is also told in the first person as a memoir, although on occasions Alan breaks off to note the detention-centre conditions under which the story is being told.  ‘Alan Sheriff’ is a writer, who after the moderately successful publication of a book of short stories in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, had been working quietly on a novel. When tragedy strikes suddenly and without warning, he puts the novel aside, feeling that his life and work is futile in the face of his grief. Suddenly the summons arrives from Great Uncle (a thinly disguised Saddam Hussein) for him to write a novel within a month which will be published under Great Uncle’s name.  His loyalties to friends who have also become enmeshed in Great Uncle’s web of power, and his fears for their safety, push him to acquiesce.

The novel closes with ‘After-Tale’ which tells of how ‘Alan Sheriff’ has ended up in the detention centre.

Keneally has made a number of authorial decisions here which are interesting.  First, as an article by Caroline Baum reveals, the scenario in the detention centre and the friendship with ‘Alan Shepherd’ are real, and in her opinion, insufficiently disguised. Her article raises questions about the ethics of an author’s use of real people in what is purported to be fiction.

Second, he has decided to replace the Iraqi names of his characters with anglicized ones: Alan Sheriff, Matt McBrien, Andrew Kennedy, Sarah. This adds a sense of identification for an Australian westernized reader, but it is also jarring. I’m not sure if the trade off between making a reader think “This could be me” is worth in effect stripping his characters of all their cultural identity. In Keneally’s hands,  the story is based amongst people of an intellectual/entertainment industry elite, whose lifestyles are not that different from ours.

Third, he does not actually name Saddam Hussein, although in his afterword, he acknowledges his debt to Mark Bowden’s article “Tales of the Tyrant”in the Atlantic Monthly May 2002. Certainly, reading the article after finishing the novel (which I very much encourage you to do), you can see where Keneally has picked up the threads of his own story.

Things happen abruptly in this novel, so much so that you find yourself re-reading to see if you had understood it properly.  Keneally has a rather clumsy attempt at mirroring Shiite/Sunni theology through ‘mediationist’ and ‘intercessionists’, which only muddies the story. I’m not sure that I was convinced by Alan Sheriff’s abandonment of his own novel, and it is an important point in the plot. I can understand why Keneally has chosen to anglicize the names, but I feel condescended to as a reader; as if Keneally expects that I cannot identify with names from another culture.

However, the continued bloody-mindedness of our mandatory detention system has, if anything, worsened, and the increasing presence of so many ‘strongmen’ in politics world-wide means that this book is more relevant today than it was in 2003. Written with a clear political purpose at the time, those politics are even more urgent now.

My rating: 7.5

Sourced from: CAE Book Groups as a book group reading amongst The Ladies Who Say Oooh

One response to “‘The Tyrant’s Novel’ by Tom Keneally

  1. I remember reading this a while ago too, and I agree about the names. I think it works to show people ‘it could be me’ but it also runs the risk of some readers feeling that it lacks credibility, because they think it couldn’t happen to us.
    I hope you and yours are keeping well, Lisa x

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