Almost seven years after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, readers still display a surprising hunger for the definitive "9/11 novel." The acclaim that greeted Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland" earlier this year was a sign of this appetite: Critics outbid one another to welcome a book that might make sense of the always receding, ever-present horror. Clearly, the more deeply committed one is to the moral possibilities of literature — the more one believes that, even in a mediatized age, the novel can still be D.H. Lawrence's "bright book of life" — the more is at stake in the emergence of "the" novel about the attacks. If fiction cannot cope with the biggest event of our lifetimes, then its long-prophesied death is surely at hand.
It is significant, however, that "Netherland," while hailed as a "post-9/11 novel," is not a novel about terrorists or terrorism. It attempts to take the temperature of New York in the aftermath of the attacks, to record how the city felt and looked and sounded, but not to enter the minds of those who wounded it. This deliberate restraint is something Mr. O'Neill shares with every writer who has written a successful novel on the subject. The law of this genre seems to be that the more directly the novelist engages with the mind of the terrorist, the less convincing his or her novel will be. Think of "Terrorist," John Updike's attempt to ventriloquize a young Muslim American's growing fanaticism, or Martin Amis's story "The Last Days of Muhammad Atta," from his recent collection "The Second Plane." Both are earnest and conscientious works, and it is precisely their earnestness that sinks them. Mr. Updike seems to be checking off boxes on the terrorist's Stanford-Binet test (sexual frustration, need for a father figure), while Mr. Amis's Atta comes to life only when he is acting less like an Al Qaeda mastermind than like an Amisian clown (suffering constipation on the fatal flight).
The best novels in this genre eschew this kind of direct psychologizing. Instead of delving into the mind of the terrorist and coming up empty-handed, they concentrate on the more comprehensible experience of the victim and the bystander. No novelist has been more fearless in writing about terrorism and conspiracy than Don DeLillo, but Mr. DeLillo's "Falling Man" was a defiantly muted, small-scale study of two survivors of the Twin Towers. The most powerful novels about September 11, 2001, in fact, may be those that treat the entire event in terms of parable, never mentioning the World Trade Center or Al Qaeda at all.
In "Saturday," Ian McEwan evokes the panic of the civilized man confronted by the barbarian, that key emotion of our world in the wake of the attacks. But he does so by telling the story of a neurosurgeon taken hostage by a street thug, who attempts to fight back, sublimely and absurdly, by reciting the poetry of Matthew Arnold — a concrete test of the power of the humanities to humanize. Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America" transposes American Jewish anxieties of the 2000s to the 1940s, substituting America Firsters for Islamic fundamentalists, and offering a cathartic deliverance that the real world refuses to provide.
Why is it that our novelists, despite their best efforts, cannot write a politically informed, psychologically convincing book about Islamic terrorism? Why is it so difficult to bring such a terrorist to life on the page? The appearance of Robert Maguire's new translation of "Demons," Fyodor Dostoyevsky's powerful and prescient novel about terrorism, in the Penguin Classics series (842 pages, $18) offers a new way to approach this question. For "Demons" (known in earlier translations as "The Devils" or "The Possessed") is one of a handful of great novels that, in the late 19th century, achieved what seems impossible in the 21st. Like Henry James's "The Princess Casamassima" and Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent," "Demons" puts the motives and experience of the terrorist at center stage. Dostoyevsky succeeds so well in this that, in the judgment of his biographer Ronald Hingley, "Demons" is "one of humanity's most impressive achievements — perhaps, even, its supreme achievement — in the art of prose fiction."
Looking backward from the perspective of our "age of terror," we tend to view the late 19th century as an era of serenity, a time before world wars and clashes of civilizations. But while it was certainly a fortunate epoch compared with what followed, the late 19th century in Europe actually deserves to be remembered as the original age of terror. It may not have produced any single atrocity on the scale of the September 11, 2001, attacks, but in a way, the steady campaign of assassinations and bombings that terrorized the continent between the 1870s and the 1890s was even more unsettling to the established order. In these years, the Russian People's Will organization killed Tsar Alexander II with a bomb; an Italian anarchist stabbed to death the president of France, Sadi Carnot, and similarly inspired terrorists killed the prime minister of Spain, the empress of Austria, the king of Italy, and other politicians and monarchs.
These revolutionaries may not have represented a serious threat to the powers of Europe — nowhere did they manage to overthrow the regimes whose representatives they killed. But they offered a powerful challenge to the conscience of Europe's liberals, since they claimed to be acting in the name of the very ideals — social justice, freedom, equality — that had fueled progressive dreams since the French Revolution.
Nowhere was this dilemma more acute than in Russia, since no other country suffered under a more repressive, autocratic regime. From the 1840s onward, virtually every Russian who claimed membership in the educated class, the intelligentsia, was ipso facto hostile to the existing state of society. The obligation of the writer to fight for liberation was summarized by the critic Vissarion Belinsky in a famous open letter to Nikolai Gogol, which became the creed of a generation. "Only our literature," Belinsky wrote, "in spite of a barbarous censorship, shows signs of life and forward movement. That is why the calling of the writer is so honored among us. ... The Russian people is right. It sees in the writers of Russia its only leaders, defenders, and saviors from the darkness of Russian autocracy, orthodoxy, and nationalism. It can forgive a bad book but not a harmful one."
In 1849, when Dostoyevsky was 28 years old, he was sentenced to death by the tsarist government for the crime of reciting Belinsky's manifesto in public. Along with the other members of his revolutionary organization — which was, in fact, little more than a high-minded discussion group for young idealists — Dostoyevsky was sentenced to death by firing squad. Not until the blindfolds were on the victims did a messenger arrive bearing the tsar's reprieve. Instead of death, the writer spent the next 10 years in Siberian exile, doing hard labor and serving in the army.
Such an experience might well have confirmed Dostoyevsky in his hatred of the tsarist state. But in fact, when he resumed his literary career in the 1860s, he moved in the opposite direction. His experience of the psychology and milieu of the revolutionaries led him to become their outspoken foe, to the point that he became known as a leading reactionary and Slavophile. Yet like so many great conservatives, his writing was always marked by his early radicalism. In a surprising admission near the end of his life, Dostoyevsky said that, even if he had advance knowledge of a plot to kill the tsar, he could not bring himself to denounce the plotters to the police, so deeply bred was his loathing of all informers: "The liberals would never forgive me. They would torment me, drive me to despair."
It is precisely this ambivalence, this recognition that he has fundamental principles in common with the terrorists he loathes, that allows Dostoyevsky to write so penetratingly about them in "Demons." The novel, which he wrote for serial publication in the years 1870-72, was inspired by a notorious political murder that shook Russia in 1869. A young revolutionary named Sergey Nechayev convinced four of his followers to kill the fifth member of their secret cell, Ivan Ivanov, primarily in order to bind the group together in guilt. The killers then weighed down Ivanov's body with rocks and threw it into a pond in St. Petersburg, where it was discovered four days later — too late, however, to apprehend Nechayev, who had already escaped to Switzerland.
What drew Dostoyevsky to the case was the personality of Nechayev, whose commitment to violent revolution put him beyond good and evil. In the introduction to the new Penguin edition, Robert Belknap quotes Nechayev's "Catechism of a Revolutionary": "The revolutionist is a dedicated man. He has no interests of his own, no affairs, no ties, no possessions, not even a name. Everything in him is swallowed up in a single exclusive interest, a single idea, a single passion — revolution ... He knows only one science: the science of destruction."
Dostoyevsky's goal in writing about the Nechayev case, he said, was to "have it out with the younger generation" of radicals, "in total frankness and with no fooling." Yet he was also able to say, "I could probably never have become a Nechayev. But a Nechayevite? Though I can't be sure, I possibly might have become one in my young days." And this inner sympathy is what marks the difference between Dostoyevsky's novel of terror and those of his 21st-century descendants. There is no way to imagine men as worldly, rational, and sensual as Mr. Updike and Mr. Amis ever being tempted by the fanatical puritanism of an Osama bin Laden. They can only write about Islamic fundamentalism from the outside, conceiving it in intellectual, approximate terms. When Dostoyevsky wanted to create a terrorist, on the other hand, he could look into his own soul.
The real subject of "Demons," in fact, is not the ideology of the terrorists, but the mysterious authority they exercised over the very society they hoped to destroy. That is why the first section of the novel deals not with Pyotr Verkhovensky — the character Dostoyevsky based on Nechayev — but with his aging, foolish father, Stepan. Stepan is a liberal of Dostoyevsky's own generation, a man of the 1840s — that is to say, an idealist, a humanist, a lover of art and poetry. Yet he is also, again typically of his generation, completely ineffectual at actual politics. While he believes that the government regards him as a dangerous subversive, the narrator lets us know that, in fact, the authorities in Petersburg have never heard of him. Worst of all, while he makes endless speeches about humanity, he is entirely complicit in the abuses of Russian society. A serf he once sold off to pay a gambling debt, Fedka, reappears during the course of the novel as an escaped convict and hardened killer — a perfect example of a chicken coming home to roost.
His son Pyotr Verkhovensky, Dostoyevsky shows, represents a similar judgment on Stepan and his whole generation of Russian liberals. The ideals that Stepan mouths off about, Pyotr means to put into effect, by any means necessary. One of the best scenes in "Demons" comes when Pyotr visits a gathering of the provincial town's self-proclaimed radicals, who are mainly interested in making speeches and setting forth theories. As they work themselves up into a high-minded froth, Pyotr calls for scissors and starts cutting his dirty fingernails.
To him, mere talk is beneath contempt; all he cares about is finding men willing to die and kill for the revolution. "Your every step now," he harangues his underlings, "should be taken in order to bring about the collapse of everything, both the state and its moral code. Only we shall remain, we who have destined ourselves to take power; we shall join the intelligent ones to ourselves and ride roughshod over the fools ... We must reeducate a generation in order to make it worthy of freedom." It is the language of Leninism, and while Verkhovensky is not a Marxist, he has something of the ruthlessness, the readiness to sacrifice countless human lives, of the future Bolsheviks.
This ruthlessness, Dostoyevsky shows, is exactly what gives him such influence over the town's respectable citizens. Verkhovensky enjoys the same kind of radical chic that Tom Wolfe identified 100 years later in Leonard Bernstein's kowtowing to the Black Panthers. In "Demons," even the governor of the town, the bumbling von Lembke, tries to ingratiate himself with Verkhovensky by showing him his private collection of revolutionary manifestos. The governor wants to prove to the terrorist that he understands his grievances, that he is really on his side. "I agree, I agree, I agree with you completely," he pleads, "but it's too early for us, too early. ..." The governor's wife, the vain socialite Yuliya Mikhailovna, even invites Verkhovensky to help her plan a charity gala — an opportunity which he uses, predictably, to humiliate her and sow chaos in the town.
The culminating horror of "Demons," then, is not just the murder of Shatov, a former revolutionary turned fervent Christian, who is Dostoyevsky's version of Nechayev's victim Ivanov. It is Pyotr Verkhovensky's success in persuading his followers, a group of contemptible losers, to participate in the murder, by getting them to agree that evil is good and good evil. The attempt of one member of the cell, Virginsky, to protest is brilliantly thwarted by Verkhovensky:
"I'm opposed. With all my soul I protest against such a bloody decision!" Virginsky got up from his chair.
"But?" Pyotr Stepanovich asked.
"What do you mean but?"
"You said but ... and I'm waiting."
"I don't think I said but ... I only wanted to say that if the others decide on it, then..."
Verkhovensky sees that there is indeed a silent "but," a hidden reservation, in Virginsky's protest. A murder that he would never commit for his own gain, that he considers "bloody" and horrible, he is willing to commit at the behest of "the others." "I'm for the common cause," as Virginsky finally says, capitulating to moral blackmail. It sounds very much like Dostoyevsky's own admission that he could not bring himself to betray the "cause" of revolution, even if it meant allowing an assassination to take place.
Of course, there is much more to "Demons" than a dramatization of the Nechayev case. Dostoyevsky surrounds Verkhovensky with demonic figures of other kinds — above all, the charismatic, terrifying Stavrogin, whose loss of faith in any moral values compels him to commit shocking crimes, including the rape of a child. Against these forms of moral decay Dostoyevsky poses enigmatic possibilities of redemption, through self-sacrificing love or self-abnegating faith. But it is Pyotr Verkhovensky, above all, who makes "Demons" a perennially relevant book about the seductiveness of political evil.
If contemporary novelists have not produced a comparable book about the terrorists we face today, the reason may be that the variety of evil that confronts us is so unalluring. There is hardly an American of any political persuasion who sympathizes with Al Qaeda's vision of Islamic theocracy. Dostoyevsky's lesson is that it is when evil comes to us wearing the mask of goodness — as it has so often in the past, and certainly will again the future — that we have to be most on our guard.