The Unknown Terrorist

Thursday, 14 October 2010

I was a couple of years late getting to Richard Flanagan's The Unknown Terrorist, but that's probably not a bad thing. Had I read this little thriller that masquerades as a rather brutal assessment of the state of Australian society towards the end of the Howard era I guess I'd have been a lot more outraged than I am in the middle of 2010 in the wake of the downfall of Kevin Rudd and the too-close-for-comfort 2010 election.

While The Unknown Terrorist sits rather comfortably in the period in which it is set, recent events serve as a reminder that the unscrupulous manipulation of public opinion is an inevitable part of the political process in Australia.

Not that the manipulators see it that way, of course. 

As television journalist Richard Cody sets about the story that's going to place him back at the top of the heap in Channel Six's current affairs and news lineup he's not concerned about minor matters such as truth and accuracy. Faced with a substantial demotion in the pecking order, rejection of his advances  by pole dancer Gina Davies (a.k.a. The Doll) is hardly the end of the world, but when he recognizes The Doll in security camera footage alongside a terrorism suspect there are a couple of birds that can be killed with a convenient stone.

There may be those who find the characterisation in The Unknown Terrorist simplistic and unbelievable, but once you accept the basic premise of The Doll's existence and throw in a couple of apparently random coincidences things unfold in a fairly logical manner.

Given her gradually-revealed background The Doll's ambitions are understandable. Pole dancing pays, and at some point in the future she'll be able to afford to escape from the sleazy surrounds of The Chairman's Lounge. At that point she'll be able to pay off that unit, obtain that tertiary qualification and live to a ripe, presumably genteel old age having put the disappointments and dysfunctions of her teens and early twenties firmly behind her.

Her circumstances and her place in the cash economy make the fact that she's accumulated fifty thousand dollars in large denomination banknotes which she hides in the ceiling of her flat when she's not using the money to cover her naked body a perfectly natural state of affairs. At some point in the future she'll convert the cash into the deposit on that unit, and she'll be on her way out of The Cross....

Circumstances, however, aren't going to allow things to work out the way they're supposed to. Add together a chance encounter on the beach, a coincidental coupling in the wake of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and the vindictiveness of a journalist and things go more or less straight down the gurgler.

It takes a couple of days to do that, and The Doll's intention, at least at the start, is to hand herself over to the authorities because she knows she's innocent and everything will be sorted out in the end, won't it?

The problem is, of course, that once things start rolling they develop their own momentum, and the snowballing juggernaut picks up a few passengers who weren't part of the initial package but stand to gain substantially from the way things are going.

Which is the way things end up turning out.  From about half way through it was fairly obvious how things were going to end up, but Flanagan manages to get a few twists and turns into the developing narrative that confirm both The Doll's reactions and, seemingly, the media's portrayal of her supposedly deviant personality.

While it's not quite up there with the best of Le Carre, The Unknown Terrorist is an interesting read that kept me turning the pages till I reached the somewhat chilling postscript.

© Ian Hughes 2012