Friday, October 01, 2004

Mere Anarchy

Today while I was travelling I did what I rarely do and read a novel, Ronan Bennett’s Havoc in its third year.

This is his first book since the publication of The Catastrophist six years ago, although he has become known for his influence on The Guardian’s editorial line on the Northern Ireland peace process. This month, just before the third anniversary of 9/11, the TV drama-documentary he wrote about the hijackers of Flight 93, The Hamburg Cell, was shown on Channel 4.

The title was probably chosen to echo the three unsettled years since the massacres of 2001, although neither the settings nor the storyline show the heavy-handed anti-Americanism of Wayne God Little or Dogville. One of the most repellent characters is a brutal constable named Scaife, possibly a reference to Richard Mellon Scaife, tormentor of the Clintons.

Set in the rural Yorkshire at the beginning of the sixteen thirties, the novel tells the story of coroner John Brigge, who is called from his farm and his wife’s labour to investigate the apparent murder of a newborn child.

In a small town convulsed by the religious fanaticism of the Puritans, a vagrant Irishwoman fits the role of villain convincingly if uncooperatively. Brigge, himself a crypto-Catholic under a police-state that hangs believers in the old religion, has no ambition apart from the safe delivery of a healthy firstborn child and a good harvest. Having first set out to reform the citizenry through charity, the bourgeois town governors who have wrested control from the local landlord have embarked with authoritarian zeal to whip and hang until sin is driven from their jurisdiction.

The narrative thrives on the conflicts that Bennett creates between Brigge’s longing for his family and the increasingly paranoid plotting among the leadership. This steadily engulfs Brigge while the tensions between the destitution of the landless beggars and the fearful insecurity of the townsmen, Brigge’s dalliance with a maidservant and the betrayal by his clerk who marries her, the violent rhetoric and ruthless repression of the religious, especially the disfigured clergyman Dr Favour.

The tormenting need to balance justice and mercy in human affairs gives the major theme of the book. The ambitious and ruthless puritans lack this and Bennett brings his trademark insight into chaos and violence to bear in describing the consequences - the persecution of the innocent, the brutal treatment of moral frailty and the justice denied the powerless poor. The writing is powerful and moving throughout, such as the mother waiting for the clean dry bones of her executed son to fall from the gibbet.

As a harsh portrait of the sour combination of sectarian fundamentalism, Havoc in its third year is a masterpiece in its power and refusal to stereotype, which carries a universal moral admonishment to see people as ends rather than means separate from condemnation of any one time or place. The only off-key element, in my opinion was the somewhat surprising lack of human weakness shown by Brigge, his seeming immunity to the temptations of position and power. Perhaps there is something in common with Bennett’s portrait of the hijacker Zaid Jarrah in The Hamburg Cell. In the film we saw his evolution from middle-class student to jihadi terrorist, but never saw him fulfil the role he prepared for - cutting the throats of the pilots and flight attendant and crashing Flight 93 rather than lose control to the resisting passengers.