Thursday, December 06, 2007

Surveillance by Jonathan Raban

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started to read “Surveillance”. The title suggested to me that it is about spying and being spied upon and in essence that is the book’s main theme. However, it is also about paranoia and the many insecurities, fears and weaknesses in our modern society. The Spectator reported ‘Raban’s book should certainly be required reading. Of all the 9/11 books so far, Surveillance is perhaps the most disturbing because it offers scant comfort and no certainties.’ The Sunday Herald Books of the Year described Surveillance “like Dickens revived to witness the “age of terror”.’

There’s a lot going on in this book. It starts with a bang:

“After the explosion, the driver of the overturned school bus stood behind the wreckage, his clothes in shreds. He was cupping his hands to his ears, as if to spare himself the noise of sirens, car alarms, bullhorns, whistles, and tumbling masonry. When he brought his hands away and held them in front of his face, both palms were dripping with blood. His mouth opened wide in a scream that was lost in the surrounding din.”

However, things are not always what they seem. The main characters are Lucy, a journalist and single mum, her daughter eleven year old Alida, and Lucy’s friend and neighbour Tad, who is HIV positive and full of conspiracy theories: “You think you’re living in a democracy, then one morning you wake up and realise it’s a Fascist police state and it’s been that way for years.” Alida, in contrast, believes in facts and is “hungry for realism”. She prefers non-fiction to fiction, Ann Frank’s diary to Lord of the Rings and tries to understand human relationships in terms of algebra.

August Vanags (Augie) is a professor of history who has recently written the bestseller “Boy 381”, a memoir of his terrible childhood in Europe during World War Two. Lucy has been assigned to interview Augie, said to be a recluse. Augie believes that the world is in a worse state than it was in 1939, presaging a catastrophe for civilisation. Lucy, whilst terrified of terrorism, feels more threatened by natural disasters such as greenhouse gases and earthquakes. The instability of the planet and our precarious existence run parallel with the violence and fear generated by terrorism. As the story unfolds Lucy investigates the truth of Augie’s memoir – was he really a refugee from Hitler’s Europe or did he spend the 1940s on a farm in Norfolk?

Then there is Finn, a schoolboy geek who can “rattle out stuff in HTML and Java faster than the girls could write English when they were IM-ing. If Finn had a life, which was doubtful, it lay somewhere out in cyberspace.” Another character who may or may not be what he seems is Mr Lee, the Chinese landlord of the Acropolis building where Lucy and Tad live. To Tad Mr Lee epitomises what is wrong with society “the way the world had lately fallen into the hands of grifters, liars and cheats.” Tad’s anger with himself, everything and everyone else threatens to overwhelm him and possess him.

As the novel built to a climax I was so engrossed in wondering what was the truth about the characters and what the outcome would be, that I failed to foresee how the book was going to end, even though thinking back over it now I can see that hints were given almost from the beginning. This is not a book where all the ends are tied off, or where all the questions that have been raised are answered. Everything is left unresolved and to my mind there could be no other conclusion.

3 comments:

Table Talk said...

I couldn't for a moment think of why I leapt on the name Jonathan Raban like greeting a long lost friend, but a quick whisk through the archives revealed that I used to read and enjoy his journalism twenty odd years ago. This sounds fascinating, if only that TBR pile wasn't so precarious!

Dorothy W. said...

Hasn't Raban done some travel writing too? He's on my TBR list for nonfiction; this novel sounds interesting too though.

BooksPlease said...

Table Talk, my tbr piles are all over the house and spreading fast. Do read this book when you can.

Dorothy I don't know if he's written travel books, but I'm on the lookout for more of Raban's books, whatever the subject.