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Eating Air, By Pauline Melville
Friday 02 October 2009
What if the Angry Brigade terrorists of the Seventies were to link up with the Islamist militants of the 2000s? It's a fascinating question, raised by Pauline Melville in her new novel. Eating Air is a fantasia on yesterday's revolutionaries, a divertimento that skims back and forth between London, Brazil, Surinam and Italy. The key is comic; the language pregnant with wit. It does not just rain: "Spermatozoa of rain" wriggle down a window.
Technically, the novel is a virtuoso performance, playing with a gallimaufry of characters, including ballerina Ella de Vries and her lover, Donny, an anarchist beyond anarchism; Vera Scobie, a Vanessa Redgrave lookalike; Seventies radicals Hector Rossi, Mark Scobie and Victor Skynnard. A couple of less than credible Islamist terrorists, Shahid and Massoud, are briefly on stage: "It will be the sword of Islam that slashes the bellies of the fat." There are Trots and Scots and police infiltrators and bloated bankers, all thinly characterised, whirled along on a dervish plot to credit-crunch catastrophe.
The figure linking the two revolutionary groups is Khaled, Hector's comrade on the Paris barricades in 1968, who trains Hector with the Palestinian fedayeen in Jordan. Their early relationship is the novel's most striking success: "They were like lovers, serious and chaste, but speaking only about explosives: Kalashnikovs, grenades, rocket-launchers". The quasi-erotic solidarity of brothers-in-arms is recalled by Hector with passionate nostalgia. Life thereafter has seemed tame, in dull thrall to the domestic round. Vague, shambolic, often parasitic people, they miss their heady afflatus, asking: "What is a revolutionary to do when there are no revolutions?" But it seems odd these militants had not morphed into eco-warriors or anti-globalisation protesters.
Whereas, in The Good Terrorist, Doris Lessing acknowledges the humanity of her Eighties misfit revolutionaries dabbling with explosives in a London squat, Eating Air is written in a spirit of ludic levity. Its characterslack depth and engagement. Hector, who spends years in an Italian prison, reminded me of Stuart Christie, convicted for the attempted assassination of General Franco and in danger of death by garrotte. In his memoir Granny Made Me An Anarchist, Christie recognises past follies. But his joky title covers a passionate seriousness.
Melville's whirligig plot, rich in coincidence, is made crazier by classical myth, including ritual slaughter by a groin-goring wild boar. Mythic motifs whizz round – boars, bees, goats, bulls. In this danse macabre, the havoc-wreaking Donny McLeod plays Dionysus in filthy jeans, orgiastic, ambivalent and feral: "The smell of him was the strong smell of a goat." Donny, like Nietzsche's Dionysian man, is a "pied piper of consciences". Ella's love for him leads into art rather than politics: she exchanges Swan Lake for the frenzies of The Fire Bird and Salome.
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