Bin Laden Belongs to Me: A Mysterious Terrorist. A Secret Cell of Fanatics. an Audacious Attack on a World-Famous Target ... the Stuff of Novels. but Are the Writers Robbing Graves?

By Cowley, Jason | New Statesman (1996), September 9, 2002 | Go to article overview

Bin Laden Belongs to Me: A Mysterious Terrorist. A Secret Cell of Fanatics. an Audacious Attack on a World-Famous Target ... the Stuff of Novels. but Are the Writers Robbing Graves?


Cowley, Jason, New Statesman (1996)


The latest issue of Granta includes fragments of an e-mail "conversation" between the editor Ian Jack and the writer Andrew O'Hagan, who is working on a novel about the life and painful death from anorexia of the Scottish-Italian singer Lena Zavaroni. An extract from the novel, published in the magazine, prompts Jack, in his introduction, to wonder why O'Hagan had chosen fiction rather than biography. "Your question is really about ethics," O'Hagan replies. "Is it right for an author to make use of a person's circumstances in a book? And the answer is complex and simple at the same time: a person does not own the story of his own life. Even when alive, what happens to them and what they do and who they are does not belong to them--it belongs to the world, and possibly to literature as well."

The life of Lena Zavaroni is an interesting subject for a novel, but I share anxiety about what the American novelist Jonathan Dee has called the art of literary grave-robbing: the way more and more contemporary writers are appropriating real-life characters and the actual events of the recent past for fictional ends. In so-called psycho-historical novels, the past itself has become a kind of fiction, a mere construct. It is inherently unstable and open to endless reinterpretation. It is there to be mangled, stretched and distorted--according to the whim of the novelist.

In addition, rather than inventing their own characters--with their own distinct fictional biographies--and recasting them, if they must, in the context of an actual historical narrative, more and more writers prefer simply to adapt the lives of the already known, with their familiar quirks and eccentricities, their successes and their failures. The urge to create something out of nothing is therefore being supplanted by a desire to fiddle with the facts. "But", as Dee says, "simply adopting or impersonating an already interesting real-life character cannot be considered as substantial an achievement as creating a character who enters the reader's consciousness as a total unknown."

There is nothing unknown about Osama Bin Laden--except, perhaps, his present whereabouts. Since the events of 11 September, his public life has been oppressively documented, in an endless flow of articles and instant biographies. His face, with its large, mournful eyes and ragged beard, has become as iconic as any student poster of Che Guevara. But what does he think? What does he want? How disturbed is his consciousness?

If fiction, as Novalis wrote, arises out of the shortcomings of history, the shortcomings in our knowledge of the private Osama, his mystery and opacity, seems to offer thrilling fictional opportunities. Bin Laden is already appearing as a "character" in novels, most notably in Giles Foden's Zanzibar (Faber and Faber), a convincing thriller about the bombing by al-Qaeda of the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in August 1998. (Foden began the book long before the attacks on Washington and New York.)

The world-historical moment of 11 September means that Bin Laden no longer owns his own story: he belongs to the world now, and possibly to literature, too. But how to write about, and respond to, the shock of what happened a year ago without succumbing to the gruesome effects and eschatological anxiety of the concept thriller, as perfected by Tom Clancy, or the cheap appropriation of the Hollywood biopic?

How to write, in other words, about the reality of the new terrorist threat, and the collective cognitive dissonance it has induced, without robbing too many graves?

In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the twin towers, our major writers competed with one another to offer a definitive interpretation of what had happened. The most portentous reaction came, predictably, from Martin Amis, who saw in the attacks the "worldflash of a coming future" and felt nothing but "species shame"--as opposed to species pride at the heroic reaction of so many ordinary New Yorkers. …

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