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Novel Contexts of Political Violence

Daniel Bennett's coverage of the Royal Society of Literature's panel on the Novelist and Political Violence was rather thought-provoking, and I thank him for bringing to our attention something that might have otherwise been missed by those of us out here in the colonies.

The question of political violence and the novelist is one that has long fascinated me, and after reading Bennett's post, I realised that many of my favourite novels of the past few years have been centred around political upheaval and violence, from Roddy Doyle's A Star Called Henry, to Ian McEwan's Saturday, Gil Courtemanche's Un dimanche à la piscine à Kigali, and Rawi Hage's DeNiro's Game, among others.

Take DeNiro's Game, for example. In it, Hage tells the story of George and Bassam, two Christians in 1980s Beirut, caught in the "civil war" that occurred in Lebanon between 1975 and 1990 (I put civil war in quotations because whilst this conflict was initially an internal Lebanese battle, it soon came to engulf its neighbours, with Syria and Israel, amongst others, being involved). George slowly gets pulled into the war, joining a Christian militia and, apparently, being recruited by Mossad during a training exercise in Israel. Bassam, meanwhile, wants nothing to do with the war, wants nothing more than to escape Beirut, to go to Rome.

The success of this novel comes from its humanisation of the two main characters. George becomes increasingly erratic and unstable after he joins the militia, whilst Bassam engages in various criminal activities to survive. All around them, bombs rain down on Beirut; Bassam loses his entire family in these raids. He watches children die from their wounds. He ends up being beaten and nearly killed by the militia, by his own side.

In short, what Hage is so successful at doing in DeNiro's Game is "tackling more complicated aspects of political violence." Hage shows us, as countless others have, that political violence, civil war, and conflict are not simply black and white. On the ground, the line between right and wrong is blurred and sometimes doesn't exist at all. What the novelist can do that the journalist can't is provide deeper context to the story. Simply because the novel is fiction doesn't make it - the context - any less real. In fact, I would argue, as an historian who uses novels and historical films in class as a pedagogical tool, that what we get is an understanding of that context, even if the actual story of the novel is entirely fictitious.

I use this argument when I show The Gangs of New York to my students. Sure, the story is wildly inaccurate and fictitious, but the film does a very good job of showing us what life looked like in the Five Points of Manhattan in the 1860s. It is context that we take away from the novel as well.

So what of Bennett's question of reconciliation? Is it too lofty a goal? Should it even be a goal? I suppose that depends on how you see art. Is the artist responsible for more than just the vision of her art? This is an entirely subjective question. But what I see as perhaps the most valuable end result of the political novel is that it blurs the line between right and wrong, it takes black and white and makes the world awash with grey. In this light, we begin to undertand how the "right" side might engage in horrible and despicable acts and the "wrong" side might engage in glorious and humane acts. Certainly, this relativisation can be dangerous, but in the end, I think that the understanding it represents offers us the best means of moving towards reconciliation.

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