The Guardian, Sat 3 Jan 2004 23.53 GMT
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Due Preparations for the Plague
Janette Turner Hospital
401pp, Fourth Estate, £17.99
It is an ill wind that blows Janette Turner Hospital’s books along. Her last novel, Oyster, traced the implosion of a mysterious cult in the Australian outback and featured a memorable evocation of the foetid atmosphere that settles over remote parts of the author’s native Queensland: “a sort of mephitic fog, moistureless and invisible, like an exhalation of the arid earth itself”. Queenslanders have a name for this suffocating air: “we call it the Old Fuckatoo”.
The Fuckatoo comes to roost in this new novel as well; though instead of a parched, Australian wind, this time it takes the form of a pall of poisoned gas. The prime agent of evil in this story is a slippery international terrorist codenamed Sirocco – evocative, as he proudly reminds his victims, of “the desert wind which scorches as it blows”.
“Plagues come and go,” Hospital writes. “They mutate and return in different forms.” According to this novel, our present plague is terrorism. A former medieval scholar, Hospital suggests that the current attitude to terrorism mirrors the incomprehension and vulnerability felt by medieval communities in times of blight. To emphasise her point, her plot revolves around an airline hijack codenamed Operation Black Death, which climaxes in a grisly parody of the Decameron.
The great post-9/11 literature is probably still waiting to be written: in the meantime we have dubious ventures such as Richard Curtis’s tasteless appropriation of the final phone messages from the hijacked planes in Love Actually, as well as the grotesque use of similar monologues which Hospital employs here. Towards the end of the novel, 10 hostages are removed from the flight and incarcerated in a bunker in the Middle East. The chamber is pumped full of sarin and mustard gas, and the hostages supplied with masks and clothing sufficient to protect them for 24 hours. Instead of waiting for a slow and agonising death, one by one the hostages remove their masks and deliver a monologue in the three minutes or so available to them before they expire.
I found this utterly specious: not simply because the espionage plot it hinges on relies on spectacularly outdated intelligence (“only we ourselves are producing high-octane anthrax of the kind a terrorist would need, though we are keeping a sharply watchful and deeply nervous eye on Iraq”). The greater incongruity is that half the condemned speakers play no other part in the novel, being introduced to us only minutes before their demise, while the other half have elaborately engineered reasons for being there. This morbid anthology is the central feature of the book, yet it is only half-connected to the highbrow thriller constructed around it.
Clearly, Hospital would like us to draw parallels with Boccaccio (the recorded testimony of the hostages is known as the Decameron tape). But Boccaccio understood the need for light and exuberance as an antidote to darkness, whereas Hospital’s tone is unremittingly bleak. She is very partial to cumbersome metaphors of foreboding: “he seemed soldered to doom”, “kettledrums of death”, “she felt as if she were carrying a virus of bereavement”. One might wish to quibble that a virus may be fatal, but death itself is not contagious.
The mixture of metaphors becomes no clearer when Hospital switches to prophetic mode: “From Sodom and Gomorrah to Nagasaki we walk with alchemists and gods … We are Zeus of the thunderbolts, and we are the survival and decontamination experts. We may not yet have learned how to make a heaven on earth … but we are specialists in making that other world spoken of in the Gospel of Mark a place where their worm dieth not, and their fire is not quenched.” It isn’t clear why both Zeus and St Mark crop up in the same paragraph, other than to prove that Hospital can spin heavy, periodic cadences that sound mightily portentous.
The convenient shorthand for Hospital is to refer to her as the Australian Margaret Atwood; but there is an innate stateliness, not to mention a wicked strain of wit, in Atwood’s prose that you will not find in this dark, fatalistic book. I suppose dire times call for dire narratives; but the best way to avoid the plague is to steer clear of it altogether.