Blog | Literature

Richard Flanagan: The Unknown Terrorist

. 4 min read

Gina Davies, also known as the Doll, is a pole dancer in a steamy club in downtown Sydney, Australia. She dreams of a better life and has been saving for a down payment on a house and the beginning of a new career. One day after work she heads out to the centre of town. It’s the night of Mardi Gras. Out on the streets she bumps into a guy who earlier that afternoon had rescued her best friend’s son when he had drifted off while swimming in the sea. He takes her to his apartment and they spend the night together. When she wakes up the following morning he is gone.

She leaves the apartment. When she is sitting outside in a coffee shop she notices that the apartment block is being raided by police. She doesn’t pay much attention to it. A few hours later she sees some television footage of the raid and some grainy images from a surveillance camera from the night before of a suspected terrorist and a woman entering the apartment building. With a shock she realizes that the woman is her.

From that moment on the Doll’s life is turned upside down and her identity reinvented. She is not the only person who recognizes her image. Richard Cody, a television reporter whom she had turned down the night before, after he had offered to pay her for sex, smells revenge and sees an opportunity to resuscitate his sagging career.

He quickly realizes that there isn’t much of a story and that in all likelihood it’s all just based on a mistake, but “none of this predisposed Richard Cody to the notion of her innocence. They were merely problems to overcome. His instinct was to create a story in which he more and more believed, in order to allow him to further create that story” (p. 112).

In less than two days the story gains its own momentum. The story of a homegrown terrorist cell is simply too good for anyone to ignore, from politicians to the media and from police investigators to academics. If they weren’t onto something the police wouldn’t be investigating it and if it weren’t a big story the media wouldn’t put it on the front cover and do a one-hour prime time special. Right?

Some police investigators realize they don’t have much to go by. But as one police officer says, “‘You don’t have to be in a cell to be part of a cell. Once you start thinking that way the rest is inevitable’. Richard Cody liked this way of thinking, whereby the fact of something missing could be used to prove the idea of it actually existing” (p. 256).

It reminded me of the line of reasoning that could be heard in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, when no weapons of mass destruction could be found. To some commentators this proved just how dangerous these weapons were, for why else would they have been hidden so well?

Nothing in The Unknown Terrorist is what it seems and everyone has a hidden agenda. A laundry doubles as a video store, but that too may just be a cover-up. “[The Doll] was twenty-six, though routinely claimed, as she had been claiming since she was seventeen, to be twenty-two.” She thinks that Moretti, one of her private clients, is a wealthy businessman. He is, in fact, a small-time dealer, or so the detective investigating his case thinks. He is also involved in human trafficking, a far bigger crime, but that the police don’t know.

“How could Moretti tell the cop that he had divined in the stripper the same passions that had led him to this house, these possessions, and this life of deception? For he too, after all, was what he had never told her: not rich, not from the eastern suburbs or the north shore, not from an established family of Italian vintners, but just another westie on the make, a westie who reinvented himself after his car smash with a new name for his new body and a desperate desire to rise” (p. 195).

The writing in The Unknown Terrorist is as fast-paced as in any great thriller. The plot is loosely based on Heinrich Böll’s novel The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1974), a novel I read for my German class when I was in high school, and just as infuriating. There is no justice and no hope for salvation.

Everything up to every detail and sideline in The Unknown Terrorist seems plausible and that is perhaps its most disturbing message. As a matter of fact, if this newspaper story is to be believed, in November 2007 a man was evicted from a restaurant in Queensland, Australia, for reading The Unknown Terrorist, because it made the other customers feel nervous. As Richard Flanagan was quoted as saying: “Far from being far-fetched, my novel correctly predicted the future of Australia.”

The Unknown Terrorist feels very contemporary and has a great sense of urgency. I particularly loved Richard Flanagan’s depiction of the seamy, gritty streets of downtown Sydney.

“[Nick Loukakis] made his way as quickly as he could up Darlinghurst Road, twice having to stop to catch his breath and once nearly tripping ove a junkie lying on the pavement. Out the front of a chemist an Aboriginal trannie in a red vinyl mini and black croptop was wiping tears from her cheek when, upon seeing Nick Loukakis bearing down on her, she abruptly turned and started running away awkwardly in her stilettos. And so he continued deeper into the embrace of the Cross, of the city and the destiny that was eating them all…”  (p. 308).