Fiction - Writing for survival

The Tyrant's Novel

Thomas Keneally <em>Sceptre, 293pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0340825251

The tireless Thomas Keneally's 26th novel is a liberal fable about a hard-done-by Iraqi forced to seek asylum in Australia, though Iraq and Australia are never identified by name. The author describes meeting the refugee on a visit to a grim maximum-security detention centre. The refugee is himself a writer, known to the English-speaking world for a highly praised collection of short stories. But now he insists on being called Alan Sheriff. "I would very much like to be the man you meet in the street. A man with a name like Alan. If we all had good Anglo-Saxon names . . . Or if we were not, God help us, Said . . . and Saleh. If we had Mac instead of Ibn."

He tells the Keneally figure: "Do you know, my story is the saddest and silliest you would ever hear." Keneally recalls Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier: "It had made the boast in its first line that it was the saddest story the reader would ever hear. From what I remembered, Ford Madox Ford hadn't quite delivered on the promise." Hmm. Well, Keneally doesn't quite deliver either, though this story is certainly sad, and a bit silly, too.

"Alan" tells it himself from here on. He gives all the Iraqi characters the kind of Anglo-Saxon or Celtic names that white Australians have. Matt McBrien. Andrew Kennedy. Louise James. Emma Carter. (Hang on, isn't she in The Archers?) Keneally is obviously making a point about the brotherhood of man, but the effect is rather odd. Place names get the same treatment, so the Straits of Hormuz become the Hordern Straits, and one of the Iraqi dictator's residences becomes Highgate Palace. Sunni and Shia Muslims are turned into "mediationists" and "intercessionists", so that they sound like members of Protestant sects.

Yet these Peters and Sarahs eat Arab food and refer to English as a foreign language. The whole conceit keeps drawing attention to itself like an ill-fitting toupee and reminding you of the very thing it's supposed to conceal: in this case, not baldness but otherness. Besides, Keneally has an international following. In the German and Finnish editions, these middle-class Aussie names will sound foreign again. You can't substitute German or Finnish names because there is no internal rationale for that. And what if the book is published in Arabic? Oh, well.

Alan's literary talent comes to the notice of Saddam Hussein, here referred to only as "Great Uncle", in homage to Orwell's Big Brother. Alan is driven blindfold to a presidential palace, put through bizarrely paranoid security checks and ushered into the presence. The portrayal of Great Uncle, quiet and reasonable-seeming, and thus deeply scary, is interesting but not altogether convincing.

Great Uncle wants Alan to ghost-write a novel for him. It will describe the sufferings of the people under western sanctions, a top American translator will put it into English, a New York PR company is standing by to hype it, and it might influence opinion at the next G7 summit. It will be ready in a month's time.

Faced with this terrible deadline (which, if missed, will mean all-too-literal death), Alan starts churning out a melodramatic potboiler, much like previous novels that unfortunate hacks have produced in Great Uncle's name. But Alan's friend Matt, a cultural bureaucrat assigned to mind him, says that isn't really what is wanted. Great Uncle wants the book to be authentic, classy stuff, like the acclaimed short-story collection. As Matt knows, Alan has recently finished a brilliant novel, three years in the writing, which bangs on about sanctions and would fit the bill perfectly. The trouble is, the discs and printouts that contain the text are in a not very accessible place just now. To get them back, Alan would have to do a Dante Gabriel Rossetti. If you don't know what that means, then I haven't spoiled one of the shock twists of the plot.

There are more shock twists in store, anyway. Towards the end, Keneally seems to be parodying the sort of nonsense Great Uncle no longer wishes to be associated with. Alan and Matt make digs at second-rate writers who win the Booker Prize: Ben Okri is mentioned, but Keneally is also implicating himself. Curious.