HAVING been detained for four and a half years, Brian Keenan completed his account of his captivity in little more than 18 months after his release. This is worryingly quick work. It would take a remarkable person to assimilate this hellish experience so quickly and to develop a way of writing that could describe the outer edges of human experience.
Brian Keenan, fortunately, is such a man. His book is colossal. Although it is painful, at times almost unbearable to read, it brilliantly relates the static conditions of his captivity and the awful odyssey of his mind. It manages this by a near- perfect balance of narrative and reflection.
Keenan's first purple words on release, about 'crucifying aloneness', did not bode well for a book, however much one sympathised. Something of that manner clings to the opening chapter here, where he describes his life up to the time of his trip to Beirut in December 1985. But once we are in Beirut the style becomes urgent. There is a poignantly brief description of 'normal' life and then they are on him: three men with Kalashnikov rifles and one with a pistol, hustling him into a Mercedes. He is calm in his squalid cell; he is Irish and therefore, he reasons, can be of no importance to his captors; he tries to 'deny' what is happening.
One of the remarkable things about this book is that while Keenan's experiences are, mercifully, unusual, and while his responses over the years take him into areas of self-knowledge that most people will never need to visit, the processes of his mind are entirely comprehensible. He is thus able to take the reader with him through unfamiliar levels of despair and self-discovery.
The routine - solitude, toilet, exiguous meals - varies little. One of the guards crawls into his cell wearing an ET latex mask. On another day Keenan decides to dance. It is a small gesture but an important one: the former heating engineer dances because he can conjure music from the rumbling noise of a long vent of piping.
The major turning-point is the arrival of John McCarthy. The tough Irishman and the English public schoolboy tease each other with vicious scatological humour. Keenan never ceases to be surprised that an upper-class Englishman can be so resourceful and gentle; McCarthy takes manifest delight in Keenan's strength and certainty. The most harrowing moment comes when both are wrapped in brown parcel tape and inserted into a coffin-shaped space beneath a lorry. They are moved some 17 times. When the day comes for Keenan's release he is torn by leaving his friend, but he knows McCarthy is already free because he has defeated fear and found in his cell a liberty denied to the men who are holding him.
Keenan shows little interest in the politics of his captors, but considerable insight into their minds. They are young, religious and sexually repressed. They are more brutalised and diminished by the situation than the men they guard, and periodically beat. They dream of a revolution secured by the cartoon violence they have seen in videos of Rambo. They are pitiable, but also inhumanly cruel.
For the reader in sunny freedom there is little consolation to be taken from this terrible story. Keenan is the least vainglorious of narrators, but he is also an exceptional man; there is no reason to suppose that if such a fate befell any of the rest of us we could survive it as he did. If there is something cheering about the way he overcame adversity, there is something just as depressing about the nature of the people who imposed it on him. What there is to applaud wholeheartedly is the book itself. Keenan has nothing extenuated nor set down aught in malice: the scope and grandeur of his reflections is supported by the concrete detail of his narrative. It is a moving and remarkable triumph.
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