I began to read Doris Lessing`s novels late, when she was awarded in 2007 as Literature Nobel Laureat. Today she is among my favourite writers. The Grass is Singing, The Golden Notebook, Shikasta , Alfred and Emily and The Good Terrorist are great pieces of literature. The latter I like the most and I think it is very topical today.
The title sounds like a oxymoron. It’s not a book with a political statement. It’s about a certain kind of political person, a kind of self-styled revolutionary that can only be produced by affluent societies. There’s a great deal of playacting that I don’t think you’d find in extreme left revolutionaries in societies where they have an immediate challenge.
There is nothing exotic about The Good Terrorist. It is a novel in unsparing close-up, featuring a cast of damaged and disaffected characters, living in squalor in a very real London.
So to begin with I was fascinated by The Good Terrorist because it took a domestic situation and pushed it to an extreme. Lessing is exploring the territory where the personal becomes political (and when I understood that, I realised that it is indeed a sister book to her earlier novels, to books such as The Grass is Singing, where the evils of a political system, apartheid, are exposed through close examination of individual lives). In The Good Terrorist she shows us the point where the heaped-up disappointments and hopes and contradictions of individual lives coalesce into wilfully murderous public action.
The plot is simple.. Alice is a founding member of the Communist Centre Union, a leftwing group committed to revolutionary action. The comrades are living in filth in a house scheduled for demolition. At first, suspense centres on the house: will Alice be able to rid it of gallons of raw sewage, to hack cement out of the toilet, to repel the police, to clear the rubbish and restore water and electricity, and prevent major fallouts between antagonistic members of the household, before the council meeting that must decide its fate? And as this race against time accelerates, other questions are set ticking; why is Alice so obsessed with creating a home? Why does she dote on the odious Jasper? How will the IRA react to Bert and Jasper’s naive offer of assistance? Will the apolitical Jim, who was the first to move into the derelict house and welcomed all comers, get thrown out? Who are the mysterious comrades next door, and are they really burying explosives in the garden?
The key to Alice’s character is her perverted relationship with her mother. Alice’s need to go to any lengths to see her comrades eating happily together around the big kitchen table is motherly. Her protectiveness of deadly Jasper is motherly, and she even acknowledges that while she is with him she can never have a child. When she hugs him it is as though she held a wraith, something cold and wailing, a lost child. When Jim is about to start his new job, Alice thought she was rather like a mother, making sure a child had eaten before going off to school. In the final confrontation between Alice and her mother, Dorothy, Dorothy’s cruelest retort is to reveal the similarity between them: „I thought … I won’t have Alice stuck in my position, no qualifications for anything. But it turned out you spend your life exactly as I did. Cooking and nannying for other people. An all-purpose female drudge.“
Motherhood here is terrible: for poor Dorothy, giving and giving to her crazily selfish daughter, until she is reduced to bleak poverty. For Alice, giving and giving (financially and emotionally) to cruel Jasper, who occasionally rewards her with a crumb of love – permission to put her sleeping bag along the same wall as his. The theme is echoed in the lesbian relationship between Roberta, comforting mother figure, and Faye, the pretty, naughty child who harms Roberta in the most effective way she can, by blowing herself up. Motherhood is presented as an obsessive need to love and protect those who seem weaker and less adequate than yourself, and yet who reject and hurt you. Alice’s motherliness is even applied to the act of terror itself; after the bomb has exploded she pities those who don’t understand the necessity for the outrage. „Alice sat with tears in her eyes, thinking, Poor things, poor things, they simply don’t understand! – as if she had her arms around all the poor silly ordinary people in the world.“
The media image of a terrorist is shark-like in its simplicity – which is why it’s terrifying: the notion of a person so driven by one idea, that he or she can sacrifice everything else, even love of life itself, to that single idea is appalling.
Yet such shark-people are rare, as Lessing shows us; her terrorists are contaminated by the muddle of being human, have parents they rebel against, have suffered injustices, have maternal impulses and physical needs, and a burning need for identity and recognition. This is not to suggest for a moment that Lessing demands sympathy for her characters; this is no touchy-feely book to help us understand the poor things who are driven to such extremes. It is a witty and furious book, angry at human stupidity and destructiveness, both within the system and without. It shows us people who commit an evil act and it shows how that evil springs out of our own society. It connects us to it, while condemning it. It makes any kind of complacency impossible.
I think in our days this novel is more than ever worth reading.