Thursday, 10 May 2012

The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing

I picked this up after reading a rather interesting article on Huffington Post about Doris Lessing and the 50th anniversary of the Golden Notebook. It’s a book that still divides opinion; personally, I didn’t like it, but I enjoyed The Grass is Singing and wasn’t prepared to write Lessing off as an author simply on the fact that I just couldn’t get on with her most famous novel. However, the writer in the HuffPo handily suggests five other books to get on with, and this is one of them.

Set in the 1980s, the story follows Alice, a leading figure of the Communist Centre Union, a fringe Marxist revolutionary group. She has just moved into a squat in London with Jasper, a gay man with whom she is obsessed, and who ruthlessly exploits her affection, stealing her benefit money and scrounging off her family before frequently rejecting her for a week’s drinking binge, or pushing her aside when he becomes infatuated with the charismatic leaders of the group. Alice has, over the years, been reduced to the status of a domestic slave, her life dedicated to looking after Jasper and other members of the communes and squats they live in. She cooks, cleans, sorts out the electricity and gas, and when she needs money, she steals off her parents as well.

I have to admit that I found Jasper the most repellent character I have ever encountered in a novel. A nasty, self-serving ponce who has ruined not only Alice’s life, but that of her mother Dorothy – their years of staying rent free at her home bankrupted Dorothy and drove her out of her house – I longed for him to receive his comeuppance. Alice at least has the benefit of being utterly deluded. Her naivety in both her commitment to Jasper and in her devotion to the revolutionary cause is breathtaking and she seems completely unable to see that their group is being manipulated by the KGB, as well as getting itself into dangerous territory by trying to link up with the IRA. Although they are rebuffed by the Irish, they decide to start up a bombing campaign anyway, and despite their complete amateurism, they manage to cause bloody and violent carnage.

Just before the bomb is set to go off, Alice decides to visit her mother, now living in a tiny flat that she can’t afford to heat. Sitting wrapped in blankets next to a switched off gas-fire, Dorothy is drowning her sorrows:

The armchair her mother had been in had books stacked up beside it to the level of the arm. On the shelf above the gas-fire was a bottle of whisky and a glass, a third full... She half got up – she did not need to do more – reached over for her glass of whisky, and took a firm ration of it, her mouth a bit twisted. Grant’s whisky. Oh yes, Dorothy might be poor, though Alice bitterly, but she wasn’t going to drink anything but her brand of Scotch.

Alice, away with the fairies as ever, laments the fact that Dorothy has had to leave the family home. Mother tries to spell it out, once again, in words that her daughter might understand. She’s wasting her time:

“It’s funny,” she said, “How you simply don’t seem to be able to take it in.” If Alice seemed unable to grasp an essential point about the situation, then Dorothy was unable to take in an essential fact about Alice. “Why can’t you?” she inquired, not of Alice but of the room, the air, something or other. “I simply cannot make you see ... the point is, I would be there now, at home, if it weren’t for you and Jasper. No, Alice, I am not blaming you, I am blaming myself.” Another good gulp of Scotch. At this rate she would be tight soon. Then Alice would leave! She hated her mother tight; it was when she began saying all those negative things.

Quite unable to understand what her spoiled, selfish behaviour has done, and that she in turn is wasting her life (Dorothy’s simple suggestion that degree educated Alice get a job and do something with her time meets a prim retort from the crusading leftist that there are three million people unemployed) she leaves in a state of muddled outrage. Dorothy is now alone with the bottle and the unlit fire and the next day five people will lose their lives.

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