“He missed that first cigarette”. The first line of this novel.I didn’t. Easing back into my own chair after lighting my first, I didn’t realize that it would be many more before I finished A Cause Untrue.
Combining the pace of Forbes, the action of Ludlum and the imagination of Forsyth, Blacker’s intoxicating thriller is a technical tour de force. But to compare it against Western authors is an injustice – Blacker’s achievement lies in his ability to make what is essentially Sri Lankan into a thriller with global appeal. There is simply no comparable work of fiction by a Sri Lankan author.
Writ against backdrop of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and terrorism, the book weaves a plot that ricochets from Sri Lankan battlefields to the autobahns of Germany, from clandestine meetings of terrorists in British pubs to suicide bombers on the rampage in Canada.
Blacker’s novel begins with one of the flights that plowed into the World Trade Centre towers in New York on 11th September 2001, which is then linked to the international terrorist network of the LTTE. In the ensuing global war against terror led by the US, the novel masterfully plots the developments leading up to a covert operation in Europe, run by Sri Lankan Special Forces operatives, to weed out LTTE agents. This is conducted in the backdrop of proposed anti-terrorism legislation in Canada that agitates the LTTE and results in cataclysmic consequences around the world.
The action takes place in the battle scarred landscape of the North and the East of Sri Lanka, Europe, America, Canada and with decisive events in many other countries and continents. It is an expansive and exhaustive palette of locations that Blacker draws from – each drawn with great accuracy giving an uncanny sense of location and time. This authenticity is what is at times jarring – Blacker’s ability to mix the real with the imaginary is magical, in part explained by the author’s combat training and active military service.
As noted earlier, the strength of Blacker’s writing is that it is hugely believable. We know we are reading a work of fiction, but the familiar names, places, incidents – all serve to sharpen the illusion of reality. Intense, thrilling and intoxicating – the Schumacher pace of this book fuels the careening progress of its plot. The thrill, primarily, is in reading the fictional accounts of familiar actors– the Government of Sri Lanka, the Special Forces of the Army, the LTTE etc
The resulting prose is tight with the action gaunt and visceral. This is not a novel for younger readers – many descriptions of death and murder are graphic, intense and grip the reader in their horrifying appeal. Blacker’s plot rarely meanders – every page has meaning and purpose, each character a pronounced destiny, each incident a deliberate and planned denouement. This is the world we inhabit 590 pages – meticulously planned, an intricate tapestry of love, murder and violence
Blacker’s violence is to print what Tarantino’s is to movies such Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction. Sadistic, cruel and strangely appealing, the visceral nature of Blacker’s gore satiates a hidden desire for catharsis, to read in and live through fiction what one has seen and experienced in real life. It’s not that the novel promotes violence or terrorism – if anything, the novel grapples with the problems of building trust and peace in contexts of pure violence and active terrorism.
In this sense, the novel intersects with reality – the dialogue between Minister Jayawickrama and Arjuna Devandra, two characters in the novel, is a case in point. “Without trust, there is no future…. What d’you think would have happened if we hadn’t ordered this ceasefire, offered the option of talks?… Do you then think this government – or successive ones – would have the political will to deal with the Tamil issue, to prevent it smouldering on and breaking out into violence again? I think not.” Arjuna’s laconic reply (“Bullshit, sir”) displays a remarkable maturity of the author, who refuses to allow the novel to be shafted easily into one that espouses peace or condones terrorism. The plot and characters, finely drawn, often grapple with the severity of their decisions – the outcomes rarely matching the intended aims, the ensuing violence rarely justifying their avowed intent.
Blacker’s fiction is about that which we have become desensitized to in real life. No more violent than the images of suicide bombings and the violence we have endured for 25 years as a country, this book is inspired by real life events and actors. This is a sobering thought since the action, characters, plot all mirror the cursed and bloody history of Sri Lanka, which by definition separates this book to similar works with gratuitous violence from Le Carre or James.
However, this novel is not without is failings. The novel’s strongest female character, a suicide cadre of the LTTE called Devini Sundaralingam, is best described as caricature – raped when young with the resulting bitterness fuelling a stereotypical fanaticism to a diabolical cause. Military acronyms litter the novel, confusing a reader unfamiliar with the argot of terrorists and the operational lingo of the military and police. A glossary of terms at the end of the book only partly serves to ease the annoyance of having to guess the meaning of an acronym that isn’t explained in the text. There is, on occasion, too much of detail. The average reader can only cope with so much of context and Blacker, through what Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu calls “a punctilious attention to detail”, overpowers the ability to grasp the pertinent details of the plot amidst a litany of peripheral detail.
There is also the danger of romanticizing the Sri Lankan conflict. To be sure, this is a work of fiction. However, the fiction constantly plays with the memory of the living and real – this is sometimes exhausting, as the passages sometimes bring to mind memories best left at rest. The violence, exuberant and thrilling, doesn’t leave in its wake characters who are influenced by its ultimate senselessness – the gore simply fuels more of the same. The terrorist remains a terrorist, the sniper a sniper, the Army General a cynic of peace, the politician ever the hypocrite – we don’t see the scope for change or the possibilities for trust and reconciliation. Blacker’s world is dark with no redemption – it is fiction without hope, a faux catharsis that long after the thrill of the first read, makes us wonder whether the novel would have been as compelling had it been about the IRA, the ANC or ETA.
These remain literary criticisms that when addressing a work such as A Cause Untrue, fail to capture why it will be a success. Blacker’s debut will undoubtedly sell in the thousands, if not millions, worldwide. We might want a more philosophical novel, a more sensitive novel or a more critical novel. A Cause Untrue isn’t any of these, but warts and all is an undeniably gripping read.
And that’s the heart of all great fiction.
A Cause Untrue, published by Perera-Hussein Publishing House is available at all leading bookstores.