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Addressing Tragedy in the Classroom

Edited by Steven Mintz, University of Houston


  1. Introduction
  2. Historical Background
  3. Teaching Tragedy
  4. The Concept of Tragedy
  5. Religion
  6. Literature and Terror
  7. Alternatives to Violence
  8. Lesson Plans
  9. Chronologies
  10. Glossary
  11. Web Resources
  12. Essential Readings


6. Literature and Terror

Terrorism in Literature: Defying the “Politics of Hate”[1]

Dr. Minni Sawhney
Department of Germanic and Romance Studies
University of Delhi, India
sawhney@id.eth.net           

Since the September 11 attacks and the elaboration of a list of terrorist organizations across the world by the U.S. government, terrorism has ceased to be an exotic national problem. There has been much soul searching and speculation by commentators on whether globalization and an unjust world order have contributed to the making of a terrorist who is prepared to renounce his own life in order to eliminate those whom he hates. There have been attempts to understand the “invisible enemy” and why he has become that way. Although it is agreed that terrorism differs in each historical and political context, terrorists do show a distinct family resemblance enough to produce a check list of characteristics. These include a definition of their victims on the basis of identity (which is an open identity as opposed to the closed sectarian identity of the terrorist group), a reliance on destructive methods to terrify people into submission and make life intolerable for those they are against and a complete justification of their actions. According to Mary Kaldor[2], military victories are not as germane to the new wars of terrorism as much as the creation of a climate in which dissent is fraught with danger. This is possible because terrorists live side by side with their victims in all societies. The polarization of the world is not now on the basis of nations but mindsets, The Japanese writer Haruki Marukami calls it an incompatibility between rival networks or circuits that exist together. In his words, “The open circuit is the society and the closed circuit is the world of religious fanatics”. [3]

The methods of terrorism given the times we live in and technological advances are indeed new. But the resistance to open identities and cosmopolitanism has existed at least since the first stirrings of a global order when cultures came into contact during colonialism. Though there is no doubt that resistance to colonialism is legitimate for the political development of a country, the inherently xenophobic methods of revolutionary terrorism during the struggle for independence often repulsed and alienated some intellectuals. Terrorism poisoned even legitimate political struggles. In the first part of this essay I want to look at two novels eighty years apart from two different countries and political contexts. They deal with the effects of terrorism on society at large such as the continuous generalized fear it produces in the minds of people, the disruption of normal life. Their authorial strategies have tried to evoke a sense of revulsion and take away any possibility of empathetic understanding of the perpetrators of terrorist acts. In the second part I will deal with fiction that explores the murky nether world of the terrorist.

The two novels of the first group Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and the World [4] and Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Plenilunio (The Full Moon) are didactic and persuasive in nature and assume that there is a common code of decency and civilized behavior in the world that the terrorist protagonists destroy. The manipulative use of religion is also eerily the same as well as certain other motifs like the appeal of empty slogans and a circular justificatory logic. Both novels are national allegories in that the intimate is linked to the intellectual and one level of reading constantly hearkens to another.

The Home and the World was written in 1915 after the Swadeshi or indigenous movement, an economic agitation advocating the use of indigenous goods and the burning of foreign chiefly British textiles.. The backcloth to the family drama in the novel is the terrorist violence of 1907 in India under British rule when a few British judges and officials had been assassinated. The Swadeshi movement also mobilized religion and the Hindu goddess Kali was used as a symbol in the call for renewed strength (shakti) against the British. This religious revivalism was distasteful to Tagore who believed in a synthesis of East and West rather than the xenophobia of the revivalists. His other chief objection to the movement was its wanton destruction of property and the fact that the poor could not afford to pay for hand made indigenous products as compared to the cheaper mill made goods from Britain. Moreover the way the issue suddenly flared up without giving time to the shopkeepers to change their stocks ensured the ruin of the latter as well. As his hero Nikhil admonishes rioters,” You may do as you please to work off your irritation to keep up your fanaticism. You are well off, you need not mind the cost. The poor do not want to stand in your way but you insist on their submitting to your compulsion”[5].

The novel revolves around a landowner couple whose domestic life is distracted by the arrival of an agitator, an erstwhile friend turned free loader who, through wildly religious and ultra nationalist slogans, whips up passions within the household. He seduces his friend’s wife Bimala and arouses inter religious feelings amongst the landowner’s workers which lead to riots and eventually to the death of the landowner. Thus, through the prism of family relationships, the irruption of terrorism is examined. The vile manner in which the character of the terrorist is represented and this by a hitherto enthusiastic nationalist writer leaves no room for doubt as to the repugnance Tagore felt for the terrorist method of political action. It gave people a false sense of bravado, inciting them to nihilistic empty violence. This was Tagore’s philosophy throughout, that even though independence was desirable, narrow sectarian thinking would be stifling. [6] His creative spirit was in any case positively hostile to terrorism as it led to an unleashing of violent instincts always below the surface in men that would have disastrous effects for the new polity when the British did leave India. In his words “The anarchy of emptiness never tempts me, even when it is resorted to as a temporary measure…[7] He also lamented that terrorists were praised for their virility and blamed it on the inferiority the Bengali[8] felt vis vis military valor. “Just because Bengalis have long been branded with the shameful stigma of pusillanimity the present events have created in the Bengali mind a secret satisfaction transcending the considerations of right and wrong, at the removal of a long standing slur on the national character”.

The landowner echoes Tagore’s disgust at terrorist bravado

“They accuse me of being unimaginative that is according to them I may have oil in my lamp but no flame. Now this is exactly the accusation which I bring against them. I would say to them:

“You are dark, even as the flints are. You must come to violent conflicts and make a noise in order to produce your sparks. But their disconnected flashes merely assist your pride and not your clear vision”.

And elsewhere he says,

“..that those who cannot find food for their enthusiasm in a knowledge of their country as it actually is or those who cannot love men just because they are men, who needs must shout and deify their country in order to keep up their excitement these love excitement more than their country”.[9]

Nikhil adequately gauges the motives of terrorism here: a boredom with normal hard work, a hankering after easy thrills and he sees in this a harbinger of degeneration. He refuses to fetishize his country or worship it without doing anything concrete to ameliorate actual conditions.

If Nikhil is noble Sandip the terrorist is portrayed as vain, brash and superficial. He tries to seduce Bimala not due to any strong emotion but to feed his narcissism. He revels in her abjection when at the end she is utterly humiliated. He convinces her to rob from her husband for the terrorist cause. Even Bimala occasionally finds him deceitful and vulgar but she is swept along by his energy and derring do. Unlike the calm and controlled Nikhil, he is precipitate and immature.

“But the real thing is that we have this burning at heart,(…) While we are on fire let us seethe and boil”. To which Nikhil’s guru listening to him retorts:

“Seethe by all means but do not mistake it for work or heroism. Nations which have got on in the world have done so by action not by ebullition”.[10]

Sandip is verbally very violent but superficial in his arguments. His language relies for its effect on slogans and clichés. His nervous energy is destructive, it feeds on creating divisions between husband and wife, Hindu and Muslim, landowner and employee but has no concrete plan of its own. In contemporary politics it will also be seen that terrorism strategists try to puzzle out what terrorists actually want but in vain. Destruction seems to be the only end. As Sandip says:

” Whenever an individual of nation becomes incapable of perpetuating injustice it is swept into the dust bin of the world”.[11]

In a reference to Sandip’s fomenting of hatred, Nikhil calls Sandip’s arguments irrational and hypnotic and asks him how he proposes to worship God while hating other countries where he is equally manifest[12]. Nikhil’s voice has been described as a voice in the wilderness. “To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it”[13]

Sandip insidiously inveigles himself into the household, and Nikhil’s guru fearing the effect he has on Bimala advises Nikhil to send her some place else. But Nikhil thinks it unjust to order her around when contrary to social conventions he had given her complete freedom and education. Sandip mesmerizes even Nikhil’s young employee Amulya who also wants to rob from Nikhil’s treasury in order to donate for Sandip’s terrorist cause and says he will not hesitate to kill the cashier. Citing the sacred Hindu scriptures and grossly distorting their meaning Amulya says that the Gita has taught him that “He who kills man kills naught”.[14] At the end of the novel, Bimala, who has come a long way from the bright optimistic woman with her love for life who Nikhil had encouraged to leave the purdah (veil) and for whom he had engaged a British tutor to learn English also invokes death. “For myself there was no good or bad but only death beautiful alluring death”. [15] She blames forces beyond her control “Some demon has gained possession of me, and what I am doing today is the play of his activity it has nothing to do with me”. This glorification of death as Tagore sought to demonstrate in the case of Bimala was due to inertia and resignation and in the case of Amulya, a dehumanization. In contemporary accounts of terrorism one reads that suicidal terrorists are anything but cowardly because they defy the hedonist West with their disdain for life. Tagore who could never be considered hedonist would differ sharply with this analysis. The motif of abdicating responsibility, of blaming forces exterior to the self is a common delusion as will be seen in other novels.

The text does give us ideas as to why Bimala who has been offered the best of a cosmopolitan lifestyle prefers nevertheless to be duped by Sandip. After an argument amongst the three, Nikhil, Sandip and Bimala the latter sides with Sandip and Nikhil is dismayed. But he questions his conscience on whether the dismay is merely because she has sided with his friend against him. He had initially encouraged her to freely speak her mind. He comes to the conclusion that the reason for his anguish is because he had hoped an education would make her appreciate temperance. “I had hoped that when Bimala found herself free in the outer world she would be rescued from her infatuation with tyranny… I know Bimala finds it difficult to respect me for this, taking my scruples for feebleness, - and she is quite angry with me because I am not running amuck crying Bande Mataram”.[16] Unlike Nikhil she has come late to education. Nikhil is intellectually evolved, an M.A. which was relatively rare at the turn of the century. He believes in the redeeming power of education that could erase a feudal hierarchical society of dominator and dominated. He finds feudalism being replaced by the brute force of the kind Sandip promotes. The latter sneeringly exults in Nikhil’s resignation and referring to Bimala and the country says: “Nature surrenders herself, but only to the robber. For she delights in this forceful desire, this forceful abduction.” Nikhil is constantly advised by his sister- in- law to keep a tighter rein on his wife, something he abhors because he finds it inconsistent with his notions of marriage. The reader is overwhelmingly drawn towards Nikhil and his openness. He after all didn’t curtail the movements of Sandip either even when warned by all saying that Bimala was mature enough to decide. Many cultural theorists have linked terrorist mentalities to feudal family structures where male control is manifest. Nikhil who contests such a system loses the fight as the tragic end of the tale suggests. There is thus a link between “intimate violence and international violence” as Riane Eisler has observed.[17] “Dominator mentalities” according to her gravitate towards violent means in order to get a point of view accepted. These mindsets flourish in feudal societies but often terrorists are feudal in a bizarre way. They opportunistically use the post modern world and yet maintain an inflexible hierarchical attitude.

In this allegory Bimala could represent the duped masses and Nikhil the cosmopolitans who desire the winds of freedom and universalism.

Plenilunio (The Full Moon) written by the Spanish writer Antonio Muñoz Molina in 1997 is centered around the terrorist violence of the Basque separatist organization ETA fighting for independence. The Basque separatists fought initially against repression by the dictator Franco (who ruled from 1939-1975) and gained much sympathy during his rule. After a new Statute of autonomy was declared by the government in Madrid for the Basque region in 1979, it was widely acknowledged by ex militants and sympathizers among them Jon Juaristi, that Basque separatism had lost its raison d’être. The Statute granted the Basques the right to have their own universities, schools, newspapers, language and administration subsidized by Madrid. It was voted for by 60% of the population and ratified by 90% of those who voted.[18] However terrorism continued and, as some observers have pointed out its demands have increasingly become fantasmagorical with ETA demanding portions of France as part of their homeland. Till a sudden peak in violence in 1997 ETA continued getting support in certain circles.

Plenilunio has two parallel stories running through it. The immediate context is that of a psychopath who has terrorized a small Spanish town by luring a young seven year old girl on a full moon night, possibly trying to rape her and then mutilating her before killing her. The inspector in charge of the crime has a long history in dealing with Basque terrorists in Bilbao, the major industrial city of the Basque region (País Vasco) and continually compares this senseless crime to what he is accustomed to. There are recurrent patterns of experience which reflect contemporaneous political developments outside the text but images are jumbled up and then just as suddenly incongruously juxtaposed with resultant intermittent sparks of meaning. The emotions of the reader who has to function as an active participant are constantly impacted. We may wonder at the use of a figure like that of the psychopath’s to evoke a reaction against terrorism. The psychopath functions as a symbol that makes us think not only about the specific terror that he represents but also about the general way in which terror works. Only by understanding the inner logic, the mind of someone who creates terror on an individual can the external world be understood. The use of this kind of political allegory also protects the author as the onus of interpretation is on the reader. As is evident in the story line, moral relativism is completely eschewed in the handling of terrorism in Plenilunio. As a friend of the inspector says, brushing aside suggestions that the psychopath is mentally ill, “ Don’t tell me that they are sick, that they can’t avoid it. Its like saying that the army in Serbia cannot resist the impulse to kill and rape women”.[19] The murdered child has the holy Christian name of Fatima and the narrator likens her murder to the ancient martyrdom of children.[20] The town priest, an ex communist urges on the inspector to find her murderer. In the pages dedicated to this figure we discern a coming together of forces against terror.[21]

As in the earlier text the terrorist uses religion to exonerate himself. For in the end the psychopath also carrying a Bible says “I don’t have to reply to the laws of man but to those of God”. [22] and “It wasn’t me who did it, my hands and body did it but not me. It was the devil”.[23] Loquacious and irrational, we have compared the words of the psychopath to those of an ex ETA terrorist when released from prison after serving sentence for a murder of a neighbor in a small Basque village. The assassin was obeying orders to kill a man whose only misfortune was that he knew someone distantly in the then UCD government. Ramon Baglietto one of ETA’s earliest victims had also earlier saved the life of his future killer Kandido when the latter was a boy.

-How did you become a killer.

-I am not a killer

- But you have killed.

-Due to historical necessity. – The man waves his huge hands.- As responsibility before the Basque people who are a magnificent people, who have a magnificent culture, who speak one of the oldest languages of Europe, who were never conquered by the Romans nor the Visigoths nor the Arabs. A people who are very different from the Spaniards.

-Kandido, The Basque Country was never independent, never a State and the Basque Country has been bilingual for many centuries now.

-We Basques have been here before anyone else.

-Kandido, only one fourth of the people who live in the Basque Country can speak the language, only one tenth of the people use it.

-How did you kill him?

The man looks at his huge hands and pulls up his socks. He keeps quiet and trembles. He touches his face with his hand.

-An armed action is never carried out with balloons. What happened was the action of a consistent member.. Nothing more

Did you know that he had saved your life once?

My father never told me that. Nobody told me that.

And if you had known?

- What do you want me to say? If I had known… It had to be this way”.[24]

What is absent in the terrorist is any kind of remorse or repentance or even compassion. In Plenilunio the psychopath calls up the victim’s family at the hour of her murder every night, taunting them by repeating her name. The inspector remembers other anonymous phone calls made by terrorists to his home when he was on their trail in Bilbao and the panic and terror resulted in his wife having to go to a mental hospital[25]. For him personally fear has long been a constant companion. “What the inspector had to get used to now was the absence of fear. He had lived and breathed it for too much time, he had administered it to himself like a vaccine, a necessary dose to get a certain immunity…”[26]

Terrorism is compared to a cancer something that grows inexorably, and once it has taken root “who can know what there lies within a soul, what someone carries within, maybe even the person is unaware of the virus that has started poisoning his blood?”.[27] It is reiterated that this cancer isolates the terrorist from his fellow beings forever.

What is highlighted at every turn is the fear among the people, the inconsolable grief of the family and the senseless cruelty of the psychopath.

… The father had the dry red eyes, the eyes of someone who hasn’t slept and will not sleep for a long time and even if he sleeps will not find rest because in his dreams he will again see the disappearance of his child and the fear and the search and then the phone call and the doorbell and two policemen who take off their hats as soon as they see him.[28]

When a girl who escapes from the psychopath and is rescued clings to her father, the inspector’s blood freezes at the sight of her sobbing with its “primitive suggestion of suffering, of unmitigated terror which no one could understand”.[29] The psychopath leaves the girl for dead and when she returns and gives clues to the police the inspector keeps the news a secret remembering that criminals like terrorists love reading about their exploits in the press.[30]

The novel as we said is constructed in such a way that one image hearkens to another. In the following passage the first line refers to the psychopath and the second to terrorists

“One minute before or after and Fatima’s life would never have crossed with that of her killer. Someone decides, makes a phone call, says some important words, someone takes out a map and looks for a city and someone with all the naturalness in the world hires a car from a garage.”[31]

The psychopath has the most normal of jobs, he works in his father’s butcher shop and the neighbors refer to his unassuming quiet nature. Yet the inner workings of his mind show him as a resentful being muttering curses against the women of the neighborhood even as he goes about his work. He hasn’t been able to finish his education and has a grouse against those who manage to get to university. But his seething anger is against all, the little medieval town he lives in, his old parents, his inability to get a girlfriend. This undirected resentment which is said to characterize the psychopath as well as the hoodlums on the streets of Bilbao is emphasized in the text. The psychopath is the correlate of the terrorist and his politics of hatred. He has no interests, no friends but because of his normal outward demeanor goes completely unsuspected. He nevertheless feels a thrill when he remembers what he has done “. …This man was the monarch of the clandestine, the absolute owner of the worst of all secrets, the worst of all unconfessed crimes”.[32] His secret gives him a power and status that he feels he lacks in a hitherto unfocussed life. During his monotonous daily routine he thinks of the full moon night and the danger of the crime forms part of its temptation. The inspector blames cinema for glamorizing crime for making it seem brave when all it needs is cruelty.

In his search for the criminal what worries the inspector is the absolute nonchalance of the people who do not react against terrorism unless personally affected. Many witnesses say they haven’t seen anything or noticed anything abnormal the night Fatima is abducted. The assassin had crossed the street with his hand on Fatima’s neck and licking blood from a wound on his hand but no one noticed anything strange. As the priest says “They have eyes and they pretend not to see, ears and they don’t hear.”[33]

Like The Home and the World, this novel also ends on a pessimistic note.

In the end after listening to the psychopath’s rhetoric and banalities, like blaming a full moon night for his deed, the inspector wearily tells him that after serving sentence he will probably be out in the street again and commit the same crime.[34] As the narrator tells us at one point about the inspector’s wife who had lost her mind due to terrorist threats, “Maybe it wasn’t necessary to understand after all, maybe it wasn’t even possible to or in reality there wasn’t much that could be understood beyond the crude evidence of what took place on the ground”.[35] Could the narrator here be making a reference to debate-driven scenarios that always plead for understanding a terrorist mindset which to the narrator is absolutely evil? Could he be making the case that rationalizing something like this is bizarre and obscene for victims’ families because either you know or intuit what it feels like to be a victim or you do not and don’t want to imagine. Intellectualizing it will not evoke the feeling. The author of this novel Antonio Muñoz Molina was in New York during the attacks and his dispatches in the Spanish newspaper El País match the despair of Plenilunio’s narrator in finding the right words.

“The radio in my ear describes the scenes of terror and misfortune and noone knows how to calculate the number of those killed but in a sidewalk café there are those who are still peacefully having breakfast and the blue skies in the south are still clean. (…) The shops are still open and when the sound of the last sirens dies down the silence of the people on the road becomes more pronounced. One can only faintly hear the sirens now. One doesn’t know what the truth is what one hears on the radio or what one is seeing on this warm sunny day in New York”.[36]

We can sense the difficulty in finding what to say that would not be insufficient for the magnitude of what has happened. In the end Muñoz Molina can only describe what he sees and hope it will work.

Many theorists talk about removing the underlying causes that produce a terrorist but the two novelists discussed make it clear that even if terrorists perceive their violence as retributive, violence in itself can never be a form of liberation. The young boys who take part in wanton street violence in the Basque region in Plenilunio as well as the agitators in The Home and the World are shown as irrevocably evil. Their actions have not been romanticized whatever their cause might have been. Like Sandip, the psychopath is a megalomaniac who has no compunctions about the effect of his actions. They use religion as it suits them and have no real goal in mind. Moreover for both any kind of irrational justification is valid. With the wisdom of hindsight even historians have concluded that terrorism never socially widened the national struggle. It was reduced to pure spectacle and adventurism at best. As Mary Kaldor points out, the only cure that can prevent the nurturing of terrorists is a truly cosmopolitan society the kind that Tagore’s beloved hero Nikhil tried so hard to create. The Japanese writer Haruki Marukami has called the terrorist the product of a “closed circuit mind”. In the next section I look at how this mind derives its sustenance.

II.

You ask me, traveler, why did we die so young,
And why did we kill so stupidly?
Our fathers lied: that’s all.

Jon Juaristi, “Spoon River, Euskadi”[37]

Jon Juaristi’s El bucle meláncolico[38] (The curve of melancholy), unravels the surfeit of stories and nostalgia stretching back to the 19th century that Basques grow up with. Juaristi’s account is an effort to separate romantic histories from reality and he points out the manipulative use that has been made of them over the years. These stories of martyrdom and desperate glory try to fill a lack and wash away perceived hurts. A history of grievances often imagined is enmeshed in a feeling of separateness and this potent mixture forms part of the imaginary separate history that the terrorist group ETA feeds on and uses as justification in its fight for illusory independence from France as well as Spain. Its assertions range from the fantastic (that Basques have a separate blood grouping) to outright xenophobia against “immigrants” from the rest of Spain. Although Franco aggravated the alienation felt by the Basques and ETA was founded as a reaction against Francoist repression of the Basque region and its culture, the 1979 Statute of Autonomy for this presently most prosperous region of Spain has taken away any reasons for alienation and separatism. This is the general feeling of most Basque intellectuals, even initial ETA sympathizers like Juaristi. From selective targeting like the assassination of Carrero Blanco, Franco’s designated successor, ETA has degenerated into a dispensation to create terror with strikes in supermarkets, car parks in the Basque region and the rest of Spain.

What Basque terrorism illustrates is the inertia of violence that continues without any real strategy or aims. As Juaristi and others realize, once violent energies are released they are difficult to contain. They can be whipped up against any perceived enemy. For these reasons, Tagore had opposed violence and the resultant anarchy which though heady for repressed minds which saw in it an outlet, distracted attention from a legitimate cause. In the heat of a conflict such positions are risky. In The Home and the World Nikhil fears that apart from being estranged from his wife he had become suspect in the eyes of his countrymen because he hadn’t joined them in their “carousals”. They thought he wanted a title from the British[39]. Little wonder that in contemporary Spain philosophers like Fernando Savater and writers like Jon Juaristi and Bernardo Atxaga who though Basque travel with body guards.

The novels of Bernardo Atxaga, El hombre solo (Man Alone) and Esos cielos (Those skies) published in 1994 and 1996 respectively, appeared before the almost unanimous condemnation of terrorist violence and its perception as an evil that could not ever be relativised. These novels while never legitimizing terrorism describe it and humanize the unfortunate young people who willy nilly get involved. Brought up on a goulash of Marxist revolutionary texts, Basque separatist writings and general liberalism, the children of the Madrid movida (movement) of the 1980’s found in Basque struggles the exemplification of their readings. Most contemporary authors and film makers like the immensely successful Pedro Almodovar were also nurtured in this general atmosphere of a Madrid glasnost or letting one’s hair down and sneering at the establishment. These intellectuals used the events productively to show the underside of the dictator Franco’s stable Spain. Through the protagonists in their art they initially concluded that terrorism was a radicalism gone awry. Terrorists were portrayed as victims as well as purveyors of terror. With Plenilunio this paradigm has since undergone a shift. Immanol Uribe the director of the film Plenilunio was also the director of Días contados based on the novel by Juan Madrid.[40] Like Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game in the latter too young people became unwitting abettors of terrorism through their association with narcotrafickers and pimps. The novel is set in the Spain of the 1990’s when cities have designated zones flush with drugs. Terrorists from the north find it easy to escape detection and change identities if they mingle in a somnolent uncontrolled crowd of pushers, prostitutes and addicts. There is a conscious effort in Días Contados to show the big city ghettos sans their bohemian air and hipness and rife with potential assassins and criminals. It is not as if a case is being made out for more police control rather limitless permissiveness is pondered on. Far from glamorizing the margins of big cities there is an attempt to show how the fine line between right and wrong is blurred. The film and novel allude particularly to the ease with which terrorists find havens in such areas.

Bernard Atxaga’s El hombre solo is based on an ex ETA member Carlos trying to live a normal life after his years in prison. He along with other friends owns a small hotel near Barcelona. He longs however for the Basque countryside he grew up in. This kind of nostalgia and hearkening to the land is not just a literary conceit but also an effort to build bonds of exclusive identity and community. From the words of the assassin Kandido to the musings of Carlos it is constant in Basque writing. As in The Home and the World, there is a romanticizing of the nation or the land.

Carlos’ partners most of whom have also been in jail try to integrate back into society. The arrival of two ETA terrorists wanted by the police and Carlos’ attempt to hide them out of loyalty leads ultimately to his death. Though the novel has an omniscient narrator, we see Carlos’ life through his eyes, his early readings of revolutionary literature, his guru in the subversive struggle whose voice haunts Carlos long after the former’s death and his desperate attempts to get a woman and some normality in his life. Carlos’ emotional arc and the outside reality are thus compressed and the text points to the dead end of terrorism. The novel was originally written in the Basque language and then translated into Spanish. One possible reason why Atxaga is a wanted man by ETA today is that the novel divests any romantic notions of terrorism and clandestine movements. Carlos calls the mental state he is in “The land of Fear”. The tragedy of seeing friends dying for an undefinable cause, the ensuing loneliness and the longing for the kind of life that every body else has in Spain makes Carlos’ cause seem worthless even in his own eyes. Atxaga’s other novel Esos cielos[41] has a similar theme. An ETA woman activist is freed from prison in Barcelona and takes a bus journey back to her home in Bilbao. The novel describes this journey and the traffic in the woman’s mind caused by the rush of sensations and thoughts and memories. She is initially disoriented and fearful but the bustle outside is heartening and her spirits begin to lift despite herself. She finds old certainties eroding. As in the case of Carlos who also hears voices absolving him of responsibility for criminal acts “Nobody is ever guilty, we are not in control of our karma and after all our actions are not ours alone”,[42] she feels tempted to justify her past but concludes that she never really consciously chose to become part of an armed gang and rob banks to help with the terrorist cause. She drifted into the network to escape an oppressive family. Throughout her life she has come up against different sets of people who wanted to straighten her since the time she got married to when she divorced and then when she got involved in politics. Now after her jail term she is up against more dangerous critics. She is finally tired of the certitudes of a political cause that rests on fanaticism and terrorism. Though life outside is difficult because it has to be improvised at every turn and will now lack even a political focus, she is delighted in ordinary experiences like spending money or thinking about romantic prospects. She has stepped out of closed terrorist networks that provide easy answers. The novel also makes references to the financiers of terrorist activities, aristocrats who live in Biarritz and lend their houses for meetings to discuss strategies. The Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater has discussed these apparently genteel motivators of terrorists who live in summer and winter chalets and are part of the “xenophobic scum that sabotages and fulminates against the democratic freedoms that it enjoys to the fullest extent”.[43]

In the war between terrorist networks and the open society the authorities in the latter have been piecing together possible motives to find out what made the September hijackers so out of sync with their environment. Since literature concerns itself with incertitude, with what defies understanding its insights could enable the ideas in this war against “final solutions”.

I wish to thank Pablo Ballesteros for his help in writing this essay.


[1] This expression is Juan Luis Cebrián’s from his piece “La política del odio”, in El País, 12th September, 2001.

[2] Mary Kaldor, “Comprender el mensaje del 11 de septiembre”, (Understanding the message of the 11th of September) in El País, 27th September, 2001.

[3] Howard W. French, “A Japanese writer analyzes terrorists and their victims,” in The New York Times,14th October, 2001.

[4] It was made into a film by the director Satyajit Ray in 1984.

[5] Rabindranath Tagore, The Home and the World trans. Surendranath Tagore ( Madras: Macmillan, 1992) p.132.

[6] David Kopf, The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).

[7] Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore, The Myriad Minded Man, (New Delhi:Rupa, 2000) p.146.

[8] The native of the province of Bengal where the Swadeshi movement first erupted.

[9] Rabindranath Tagore, The Home and the World, p. 45-46.

[10] Ibid., p. 70-71.

[11] Ibid., p.99.

[12] Ibid., p.37.

[13] Ibid., p.26.

[14] Ibid., p.186.

[15] Ibid., p.190.

[16] Ibid., p.44, 45.

[17] Helen Knode, “The School for Violence, A conversation with Riane Eisler”, L.A. Weekly, September 28-October 4, 2001.

[18] Erwin Koch “Confesiones de un asesino”, El País, Madrid, 14th Aug, 2001.

[19] Antonio Muñoz Molina, Pleniluinio, (Madrid: Punto de lectura, 2000), p.159; my translation throughout.

[20] Ibid., p.88.

[21] Ibid., p.26.

[22] Ibid., p.528.

[23] Ibid., p.527.

[24] Erwin Koch “Confesiones de un asesino”, El País, Madrid, 14th Aug, 2001; My translation.

[25] Ibid., p.76.

[26] Ibid., p.114.

[27] Ibid., p.190.

[28] Ibid., p. 19.

[29] Ibid., p. 398.

[30] Ibid., p. 409.

[31] Ibid., p. 193.

[32] Ibid., p.38.

[33] Ibid., p.342.

[34] Ibid., p.529.

[35] Ibid., p.282.

[36] Antonio Muñoz Molina, “Apocalipsis en Manhattan”, in El País, 12th September, 2001 My translation.

[37] Jon Juaristi, Mediodía, (Granada: La Veleta, 1994) p.74 My translation.

[38] Jon Juaristi, El bucle melancólico, Historia de nacionalistas vascos, (Madrid: Espasa Calpe, 1997).

[39] Rabindranath Tagore, The Home and the World, op. cit. p.45.

[40] Juan Madrid, Días contados, (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1993).

[41] Bernardo Atxaga, Esos cielos, (Barcelona: Ediciones B,S.A. 1997).

[42] Bernardo Atxaga, El hombre solo, translated from the original Basque by Arantza Sabán and Bernardo Atxaga, (Barcelona: Ediciones B,S.A, 1999) p.423; My translation.

[43] Fernando Savater, “Terror y conflicto político” in El País, 7th October, 2001. My translation.


Page 7: Alternatives to Violence

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