Books: In Another Country

Set in Africa, Ronan Bennett's third novel is as much about his native Northern Ireland; but is he more interested in heroic myth than bloody history?
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The Independent Culture
GUILTY. IT'S a strange word to hear from the lips of Ronan Bennett. Sitting in the sun, drinking beer from the bottle, we are supposed to be talking about his new novel, not the past. But then he says the word, and his history becomes unavoidable.

You need to know that as a young man from Northern Ireland, Bennett was accused of two serious crimes: the shooting of a policeman, and conspiracy to cause explosions. His name was cleared on both counts - but only after he had spent a total of two and a half years wrongly imprisoned in high- security jails, with real murderers and terrorists. Even after his release people assumed he was a member of the IRA, which he denied.

All this was 20 years ago and should no longer be relevant, except that those experiences continue to inform his writing and give him a certain authority. Knowledge of them makes me think twice when he describes how it feels to be a successful author. "In this new book the main character reflects on the enormous amount of status that goes with even the most mediocre published word. Status, respect, financial privilege. But I have never felt comfortable with it. There is something almost fraudulent about being a writer. It is something I feel guilty about."

It seems that this man who grew up in the midst of trouble now feels too comfortable. Enjoying the breeze with him by the window of a pub in Islington - just a car chase away from his home - one can almost see his point. "The minute you start making your living out of working in your room, in your house ... it worries me, that respectability and comfort could take the edge off what I do."

His career is certainly respectable now. This time last year he was in Cannes, at the film festival, publicising a British gangster movie he had written called Face. With Robert Carlyle, Ray Winstone and Damon Albarn in the cast and Antonia Bird, director of Priest, at the helm, it was, not surprisingly, a great favourite with the critics. There have been other screenplays - mainly for television - and two previous novels that have drawn comparisons with Richard Ford and Graham Greene.

His third, The Catastrophist, is set in the Congo during its difficult transition from Belgian colony to independent state at the end of the 1950s. Both the lead characters are writers: Ines, a politically active Italian journalist who sees her work as being in the service of a greater good; and Gillespie, her Northern Irish lover, who believes a writer should keep an emotional distance from his subject.

"You can find umpteen examples from the great masters to support Gillespie's point of view," says Bennett. "But you have this situation of great turmoil like the Congo - it could have been anywhere, like Bosnia or Angola - and what does the role of the writer become then? Ines has no doubts: it is to serve the side that is in the right. Gillespie's brain tells him something else entirely." As a result he is unable to engage effectively with any of the remarkable events that take place around him.

The two attitudes wage war inside Bennett's own head. A line in his novel says that politics demand commitment, and he has shown enough of that over the years with his support for a united Ireland; but it also says that fiction requires doubts, and he has them by the handful. Does he wish he could be more like Ines? "Absolutely. But I can't bring myself to do that sort of writing. Ranting is not effective."

His body language is deceptively languid. Dressed in a pale blue short- sleeved shirt, he is small and lean, and sits deep in the sofa as we talk. This man is at ease with himself, you think. Then you notice the care with which he chooses his words, and the edgy intensity of his bright blue eyes. At the corner of his smile is a scar.

The guilt he now feels was born at the end of his teenage years, in dreadful confinement. "There were 10 years when I didn't read a word of fiction. A friend of mine in Long Kesh prison convinced me that fiction was an artefact of bourgeois culture, and it was doomed and pointless. He was a very well-read Marxist, a powerful influence on me at that time. He bullied me, intellectually."

A decade later, Bennett was in Yorkshire to research a PhD on the English criminal justice system of the 17th century. Desperate to read something other than history and politics for a change, he found a second-hand bookshop, and bought a copy of The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. "I remember going up to the till with it, and it was like I had picked up Penthouse or something - feelings of shame that I had done this. Then, when I read it, I said, 'Fuck! Why have I denied this to myself for so long?'"

Even now, he can't quite bring himself to deny that the friend was right. "That is the question. Is this all totally pointless? Is it just about self-aggrandisement, the chance to sit in a bar for two hours and talk about yourself? It is something you have to keep tugging away at."

The middle section of The Catastrophist describes a garden party for Gillespie's third birthday, at which the toddler, on the shoulders of his usually distant father, is seized with joy at the chance to chase balloons. "The sun was out and the sky was blue. My mouth was full of giggles." The novel is not an autobiography, but these images of childhood are drawn from Bennett's own memory. "My father put me down," the passage says. "He took his jacket from a garden chair, hoisted it to his shoulders, put on a pair of sunglasses and smiled at me. I watched him approach the French windows, behind which I saw my mother, and, behind her, my godparents. My father stood this side of the window, spread his fingers against the glass, and was gone. Tears streamed down my mother's face."

Did this sudden desertion really take place? "There's no mystery. I drew very heavily on the history of my family for this," says the author. "This book is the most personal thing that I have done."

Like his creation, Bennett was the son of a Catholic mother and a Protestant father, who separated. He grew up on the northern edge of Belfast, which lacks the strong cultural identity associated with other parts of the city. "I was from a one-parent family at a time when these things were virtually unknown in Belfast, and we lived in a flat, which was unusual. These things led to a sense of not knowing where you fitted in."

Perhaps as a result, he became "desperately attracted to belonging". He could have satisfied that attraction as an undergraduate - but in 1974, as an 18-year-old about to begin studying history at Queen's University in Belfast, he was wrongfully arrested for the shooting of a policeman. He was found guilty, given a life sentence and locked up alongside terrorists in the notorious Long Kesh prison, where conditions were so bad that the inmates rioted. Their reward for burning down the camp was to sleep for three winter months outdoors. Bennett was released after a year, after convincing the appeal court that he had been a victim of mistaken identity.

"In Long Kesh there was this amazing feeling of being in something together," he says. "That experience has been very important to me." While in prison he received moral support from a group of anarchists based in London, and after release he moved there to join them. In 1978, he was one of the six members of the group arrested and charged with conspiracy to cause explosions. While he spent 18 months on remand as a Category A prisoner in Brixton, the evidence against the group fell apart. The charges were infamously changed to conspiracy to rob "persons unknown in places unknown", Bennett defended himself at the Old Bailey and was acquitted, much to the dismay of the tabloid newspapers.

After returning to his studies he was awarded a first-class degree in history at King's College, London, and then became a research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research at London University. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour MP for Islington North, made Bennett his research assistant in 1987, but his Commons security pass was withdrawn after more tabloid outrage. Denied the opportunity to participate in Parliament, he chose to become a writer, and helped Paul Hill of the Guildford Four with his autobiography. Since then he has been an energetic contributor to the media debate on Northern Ireland, arguing for all-party talks at a time when they seemed unthinkable.

His first novel, The Second Prison, was published in 1991 and is the story of a republican activist who comes to England after being released from gaol. The second, Overthrown by Strangers, appeared in 1992 and was a thriller set in Northern Ireland and the war-zones of Latin America. He saw parallels between the situation in his home country and those in Peru, Guatemala and Brazil. "I can't write about people who are stable and successful. They have to be fragile, come from a background which has political and social tensions, where people have to cope with violence and death."

The Catastrophist took him five years to write, during which time he made a two-week visit to what is now Zaire. "I have to say it was the most awful trip of my life. This was in a relatively stable period in Zaire's history, but just before I went a journalist working for a British newspaper was robbed in Kinshasa airport of everything, at gun point, by the police. It cost me an absolute fortune in bribes - paying the police not to arrest you, that sort of thing."

The real hero of The Catastrophist is Patrice Lumumba, leader of the independence movement in the Congo before he was usurped by the man who would become President Mobutu. "I remember those images of Lumumba in a white shirt being taken away by lorry after he had been arrested," says Bennett, who believes the conflict in the Congo was as memorable to one generation as Bosnia has been to another. "My family talked about Lumumba as a good man."

His novel describes the way in which various well-intentioned factions in the struggle for independence were used and abused by foreign powers for their own ends, and their aims distorted by greed and vanity. "Lumumba was deeply flawed: he was a womaniser, and what went on in the office seemed to be less politics and more sex." And yet there was one episode at the end of his life which redeemed Lumumba as a heroic character in Bennett's eyes.

"I spoke to somebody who had helped him escape from house arrest, and who was with him when he crossed the Sankuru river. On the other side of that river was safety: he would be in his own territory, where the national troops couldn't follow him. When the soldiers pulled up, Lumumba was already on the far bank, and he could have just turned away and disappeared. Instead he recrossed the river, to what turned out to be his death; and a dreadful, cruel, hideous death it was." By giving himself up he saved the lives of his wife and son, who were stranded on the same side as the soldiers. "It was such a noble thing to have done. That has to be taken seriously."

Those are the words of a storyteller and not a realist. Lumumba may equally have believed he could placate the troops, as he had done before. He might have won power and become a dictator, like Mobutu. "And probably would have. It's tricky, yeah. There are all sorts of contradictions and flaws that make those people endlessly fascinating to me. And as I grow older I become less judgmental."

Despite the African setting, The Catastrophist was obviously intended to explore some of the tensions and motivations in all similar conflicts - including Northern Ireland. Gillespie twice refuses invitations to write about what's going on in his homeland, and Bennett believes there has been a similar failure of nerve among writers of his own generation. "Most of the stuff that has been done about the North is grounded in the politics of compassion for the victims. I'm not saying there's no place for that, but fiction has been so affected by, overwhelmed by the death, the squalor, the sheer awfulness of it all, that it can't actually go beyond that and ask, 'Why did this happen? Who are these characters? Why are they doing it?'"

That is easier to do by proxy, when you appear to be writing about Africa, and it is easier to think of people like Lumumba as heroes when time has passed and they have been mythologised. Bennett says the same thing will happen as future generations look back at the Irish Troubles. "In 30 years time there will be a reappraisal of who the protagonists were and what they were about. That is already taking place - it used to be said that these were men and women who were addicted to violence, and who would never be able to give it up, which drove me mad. Having known quite a few of them from prison and afterwards, I knew that was not what it was about for them - but finding space to say that was difficult. Now it has become quite apparent. It is possible that there will be a few more killings, some bombings, but I don't think that will last. The support won't be there. I do believe it's over."

'The Catastrophist' is published by Review at pounds 14.99