Tuesday, 11 December 2012

On Verisimilitude in Art

Ranulph Fiennes's novel The Sett is a sprawling, over-researched conspectus of the seedier side of the 1980s that, despite its flaws, packs some punch.

The book's basic premise is a simple legal rule: you can't libel the dead. Thus Paul Blackledge, a violent badger-baiter murdered by a love rival — a man, who, one might suppose, had no reputation to defend — is chosen as the key figure in a complicated globe-spanning web that through chance encounter has resulted in the brutal deaths of two innocent people and robbed a third not only of his wife and daughter but, through post-traumatic stress disorder, of his memory.

Part of the attraction of such speculative fiction dealing with recent history and actual, if deceased, people is the question of how much truth there is in the mixture. Being a former member of the SAS, Ranulph Fiennes — a reader might conclude — may be privy to information that is not in the public sphere. As some people have claimed regarding The Da Vinci Code, it may in fact be "all true". Having been written during the first half of the 1990s, the book belongs to the pre-Internet age, and if the author has not employed researchers, he may be one of those people who keep "runs" of The Times in the attic. A lengthy list of interviewees is appended to the tale, including, as a final flourish, Alex Goodman, the pseudonym of the hero.

It is perhaps the very ambition of the work that is its undoing, both because the result is incredible (taking in the ALF, the Yardies, the Broadwater Farm riot, the CIA, Pablo Escobar and an American spree-killer) and because its convolutions mean that is often a whirlwind of confusing detail. A host of minor characters are introduced by name, often with quite some biographical background, only to be killed off or disappear from the action. One sub-story, in which the hero is required to have a ferry sunk, is so skirted over as to render it an unbelievable aside. The first 10% or so of the book in particular, when the reader is still coming to terms with the basic narrative thrust, is extremely difficult to follow.

One of the problems with the past is that everyone has their own version, and Fiennes is no exception. His description of the Broadwater Farm riot differs fundamentally from the version at Wikipedia, for example. To some extent that will be merely a question of focus, but there are also instances of what one might broadly term "political incorrectness": people of mixed race are "half-caste"; there are Paddy "bar-proppers" speaking Stage Oirish; an underage prostitute remarks that rape is not so bad for people in her profession. On the other hand, many ethnic characters are portrayed as human, likeable, loyal and loving. Perhaps it would not be going too far to ascribe this odd mixture of tactlessness and affection to the "banter" of army life. We know who the tale's real baddies are because their interest in rape or abusing minors and because of their penchant for cruelty both animal and human (Ranulph Fiennes himself once famously removed the frost-bitten parts of his fingers with a hacksaw, so it's perhaps no surprise to read about them flying off in the book too).

At times the working-class characters are not well drawn. Their diction varies between colloquialism and stilted formality, the latter sometimes a result of barely assimilated factual prose being inserted into the dialogue. As a Northern Ireland resident, I found the character of Tosh, the former UVF killer, particularly implausible. The notion of a flame-haired Irish-speaking assassin who dispatches attackers with kung-fu kicks à la Mrs. Peel and whose favoured method of execution is "ANC", or "apparent natural causes", suggests a sophistication wholly lacking in that organisation, not just this week but any week. I almost suspected a last-minute change in her background from Republican to Loyalist, though she would have been unbelievable as an IRA woman too. Her speech sometimes lacks realism. Nota bene: in the vernacular, "after tellin'" has perfective force rather than suggesting volition. Similarly, a Glaswegian character uses the word "ken", which, owing to mass immigration from the Highlands and Ireland, is no longer a feature of the dialect. Of course, to a certain sort of English person — recently, Jemima Khan — any urban Scots-speaker is "Glaswegian".

Perhaps it was the description of Tosh, but the book reminded me of another exponent of this tantalising speculative genre, Eoin McNamee, and in particular the character of a fellow SAS man, the tragic Robert Nairac, who may or may not have been involved in the Miami Showband Massacre, and who on the night of his death was told by one drinker at the Three Steps Inn near Forkhill that he had the strangest Belfast accent he had ever heard.

Oddly, although I much preferred the sections dealing with Alex Goodman to those describing the flamboyant criminal masterminds ranged against him, it was some of the ostensibly factual, background information that I found the most interesting in the book. I don't know if or how much Fiennes departed from the truth in writing it — though Pablo Escobar seems to live more like a deranged Roman Emperor than anything else. Above all, the novel affords an opportunity to draw together the text and subtext of a decade and, in so doing, to make sense of our own collective memories.

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