Tom Sutcliffe: Suicide bombers and a novel twist

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The Independent Online

I'd like to propose an axiom. You cannot be both a good novelist and a good suicide bomber. Other combinations are possible I would have thought, even if unlikely. You could be a good novelist and a really lousy suicide bomber, so stricken by doubt and empathy for your victims that you botch the operation for reasons of troubled conscience rather than fumbling incompetence. Or you might be a terrible novelist, all sloganeering certainty and manipulation, and a really fine suicide bomber. But if we're talking about notable achievement in either field then one set of qualities effectively precludes the other.

The question of whether a suicide bomber can be in a good novel is quite different, though in our current circumstances it throws up a related difficulty. Which is to what extent can a suicide bomber be a sympathetic character for a general readership? A bad or mediocre novel has no problem generating unsympathetic ones – as a useful hate figure or a monster that must be hunted or captured before disaster strikes. And I take it there would be a pretty substantial audience out there for fictions in which the bomber is seen as a simplistic martyr hero (if only amongst their fellow self-immolators).

But what about a suicide bomber who will appear to his potential targets as a fully rounded and understandable character? That surely is a little more tricky, given the notoriously unstable ground between comprehending and condoning. And yet if you value the novel for anything it would be for its ability to bring something back from such territory, to make us understand what it might feel like to think this was the right thing to do. Some time back the novelist Matthew Kneale had a go – in a short story about a Palestinian suicide bomber. But he understandably ended up creating an extra victim in the crime – a character confused and trapped by his circumstances.

I'm prompted to these thoughts by a good novel with problems – Sunjeev Sahota's Ours are the Streets, which presents itself as the journals of a would-be shaheed from Sheffield called Imtiaz – an intriguing thing to be reading in the week that Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly blew himself up in Sweden, engaged in an attack very similar to that planned by Imtiaz. And one of the book's problems is that it has a first-person narration – the only way to go, obviously, if you don't want an omniscient voice hovering around passing comment, but also a decision that makes things more difficult for a reader. To put it simply, where you might expect to find an unreliable narrator – unconsciously betraying his own failures of imagination – you find a good one.

Opacity is quite helpful to the creator in these circumstances. Chris Morris created a relatively sympathetic suicide bomber in his film Four Lions (or at least a witty one, beleaguered by the stupidity of his colleagues – which counts as a kind of sympathy from a satirist). But because we were outside that character the mystery of his impulse never really needed explanation. You looked at a loving father making his preparations for mass murder and felt just as in the dark as you do when you read of Abdaly's Facebook entries and his family in Luton. Being inside the head of someone planning such an attack raises your expectations that it might be provided with some justification. But – a moment of transcendence in Pakistan aside – that doesn't seem to be forthcoming in Sahota's novel. His book is vividly persuasive about the confusions and uncertainties of a second generation immigrant in Britain, his feelings of attraction to and exclusion from the culture he finds himself in, but can't quite bridge the gap between that and the arbitrary violence he plans. It's possible, I suppose, that he is an unreliable narrator and I've missed it (since these are journals we can't be sure that the attack ever takes place). Possible, too, that such acts are carried out without a coherent inner sense of why they're happening – that the boilerplate messages to the West mean as little to the self-appointed martyrs as they do to us. But I think Sahota's means and his subject are at odds.

In his writing Imtiaz has the qualities of a good novelist – candour and self-examination and even a rueful sense of his own absurdity. All of which makes it much harder to believe that this is really the writing of a suicide bomber.

Festival farce turns out to be a turkey

Off to see Marianne Elliott's production of Season's Greetings the other night, I was full of expectation both because of the director (always fascinating) and because Alan Ayckbourn is an odd lacuna in my theatregoing experience. I seem to remember seeing an odd play about a companion robot in the late Eighties, which didn't do a lot to stir my enthusiasm, but apart from that an almost Ayckbournian set of inadvertencies and near-misses meant that I never saw the masterworks. I hope I still haven't... because, as skilful as it was in terms of performance, Season's Greetings seemed pretty thin stuff to me. In the absence of direct knowledge I'd settled for the received opinion, a narrative in which Ayckbourn's reputation has been unfairly downgraded because of a metropolitan snobbery about boulevard comedy (not to mention a metropolitan snobbery about people who prefer to enjoy their success in Scarborough).

I accepted, on trust, that we should think of him as Pinter by other means or a Chekhov of English suburbia. But if Season's Greetings is typical – with its startling twists of character and its improbable slapstick – one can only think that those who make such comparisons don't have much respect for Chekhov. I think I'm going to have to see (or read) The Norman Conquests first, but at the moment he's looking to me like our most overrated underrated dramatist.

Difficult second film syndrome

The concept of the difficult second novel and the difficult second album seem to be embedded in our cultural vocabulary – capturing the plight of the artist who sets the bar very high with his or her first jump and then has to match it with the second. I suspect it's an artefact of a particularly feverish modern attitude to cultural fashion, though it's hard to pin down its history because a search of the OED for the phrase "difficult second" turns up nothing at all. What does seem a little odd is that there isn't really an equivalent for film – and there really should be, because the difficulties here are quite distinct. In the case of novels and albums the problem lies mostly in the expectations of audiences, but in the case of films something else is going on, too. A first time film-maker who has a breakthrough success will usually have achieved it through a modestly budgeted film or one in a foreign language. They will almost certainly have had problems raising money, but their decisions about casting, style and final cut will have been largely independent of outside influence. Then they get swallowed by Hollywood and put through a studio machine. If you want to see what can happen compare Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's first feature The Lives of Others (one of the best films of the last 10 years) with his second The Tourist (one of the most negligible).