October 10, 2008
Brian Moore: The Revolution Script
One thing which may have escaped anyone who started reading my blog recently is that I embarked last year on what it pleased me to call a Mooreathon, that is, a chronological work-through of the novels of Belfast-born, Canadian-citizen, US-resident Brian Moore. Moore was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times, was Graham Greene’s favourite living novelist (at least during one interview), was sometime pals with Richard Yates (who envied Moore’s success), and wrote the script for Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (which was neither Moore’s nor Hitch’s finest hour, but led to Moore’s final settlement in Malibu, where he died in 1999). So if, as they say, you’ve just joined us, go here for the earlier instalments.
I invite you to do that because The Revolution Script (1971) is a bad place to start. It’s unrepresentative of Moore’s novels, far from his best work (he subsequently disowned it, considering it ‘journalism’), and it has never been reprinted since its initial publication. Nonetheless, it is well worth investigating for the seasoned Moore fan.
Five years after the publication of In Cold Blood, The Revolution Script is Moore’s own attempt at a ‘non-fiction novel’, concerning events – entirely news to me, almost four decades later – in October 1970 in Canada (“America, yet not America. Canada, but not Canada. Québec”), when separatist movement the Front du Libération de Québec (FLQ) kidnapped a British commissioner and a government minister. The outcome is detailed in large part in the blurb (and completely in the Wiki link back there) but for the uninitiated there are some surprises.
The biggest one is that Moore before now had produced seven novels intensely examining one person’s life in a moment of crisis: the best of these, in my view, being Judith Hearne, Ginger Coffey, and The Emperor of Ice-Cream. Here, however, he breaks that form dramatically and paves the way for his late period thrillers (which accounted for two of his Booker listings: The Colour of Blood (1987) and Lies of Silence (1990)). The writing is not yet pared down as it would become, and the relinquishing of control on one character means that Moore spreads his characterisation a little thin.
To some extent this is inevitable. Although he gives some convincing portrayals of the public figures – such as the “media-created character, the swinging Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau” – the members of FLQ remain an unknown quantity. Moore in his foreword tells us that he interviewed friends of the kidnappers, and listened to their taped discussions, but the slightness of their characterisation suggests that Moore recognised what the kidnappers and Trudeau did:
The truth was, the kidnappers’ Marxist rhetoric could not comprehend the complexities of the situation: they could no more have imagined the bargaining, the manoeuvring, the jawboning necessary to secure the extraordinary measures now afoot than could Trudeau understand what it was like to be young, enraged, impotent. They would never understand him: he would never think to comprehend them.
This failure of communication and understanding runs through the story. When the kidnappers – whom Moore presents not unsympathetically – are ready to drop most of their demands and release their hostage, another group kidnaps a government minister and takes a much harder line. They adopt the FLQ label, muddying the outside perception of the group and threatening their indirect negotiations with the government. Then again, Moore’s representation of the kidnappers as raving kids playing revolutionaries may simply be accurate, if the “sour Mao dough of revolutionary cliché” in their sombre and pompous press releases – “communiqués” – is to be believed.
Certainly from what I can tell having now read a little around the subject, Moore presents the facts faithfully and all the documents and public pronouncements by the parties involved are on record. This includes what seems to be Prime Minister Trudeau’s most famous statement on the crisis, when asked how far he would go to stop the kidnappers: “Just watch me.” The world did watch, and Trudeau (“the tough in the back alley, his blood up, eager to fight”) invoked the War Measures Act, which the blurb helpfully defines as “the most repressive laws ever invoked in a democracy in peacetime.” The FLQ as presented in the book numbered about half a dozen people, but under the War Measures Act hundreds of innocent individuals are rounded up at the PM’s pleasure – which cannot but bring to mind parallels with the ‘War on Terror’.
As a novel, it all just about works, particularly when the pace picks up after the halfway point, and gives us some surprising developments along the way: we can guess the Canadian government didn’t have much experience of dealing with terrorists, and they are late in recognising the power of the oxygen of publicity. For a Moore reader, The Revolution Script is not of major interest in itself, but it is an interesting development and precursor to what he would later do (and had done before, as he began his career writing thrillers under assumed names). It may well have shaken him away from the habit of his earlier novels – his next book, Catholics, would be another departure. For those new to Moore, start here. Or elsewhere, if you see what I mean.