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Totalitarian Fiction

We kick off our week-long celebration of the publication of THE REVISIONISTS by Thomas Mullen, a book that Publishers Weekly called (in a starred review) an “excellent thriller set in the near future” and that Library Journal (also in a starred review) called “an outstanding dystopic novel.” Here, Mullen examines the world of totalitarian fiction. Weigh in with your picks in the comments.

I used to be such a nice, quiet young writer. Only recently did I realize I’d turned into a benevolent dictator.

Unlike most revolutions, it happened gradually.

* * *

It started in 2006, when I saw the amazing Pan’s Labyrinth. A few weeks later, I was surprised when a different film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The golden trophy was awarded to The Lives of Others, which I promptly paid my nine bucks to see, sitting through the opening credits with a healthy dollop of skepticism. “You think you’re better than Pan’s Labyrinth?” I thought. “Bring it on.”

Wow, did it ever. Where Pan’s Labyrinth used fantastical interludes and horror to tell the story of a little girl and her mother during the final days of the Spanish Civil War, The Lives of Others was a deceptively straightforward narrative about an agent of the Stasi, East Germany’s feared secret police, who spies on a controversial artist. They instantly became two of my all-time favorite movies, and I don’t envy the Oscar voters who had to choose one over the other.

Later I realized that they had at least one thing in common: they were both set in totalitarian regimes. Their protagonists had richly developed inner lives, yet they were struggling within systems that tightly constrained them, putting rigid controls on the decisions they could make, the people they could associate with, and the things they could say. They were watched by eyes they could not themselves see.


Washington DC subway
At the time, I had already been planning on writing a novel set in contemporary Washington featuring characters entangled in the new post-9/11 surveillance state. I was alarmed by the fact that my democratic nation was employing tricks straight out of the Stasi playbook: warrantless wiretapping, extraordinary rendition, torture, black sites, and retribution against whistleblowers. More alarming was that these dark orders were emanating from D.C., where I was living at the time.

In addition to reading piles of books about the CIA and NSA, the war on terror, and espionage, I decided I should read about totalitarian states. After barely getting through a few huge (and hugely depressing) tomes on Pol Pot, the Kim’s, and Tito, I decided to revise that strategy. Maybe it would be better to read novels set in such states.

I discovered, to my great reading joy, that a number of contemporary authors have been writing such fiction, particularly as crime and spy stories. The grandfather of this genre within a genre is Martin Cruz Smith, whose Gorky Park was so groundbreaking in 1981. His hero, Arkady Renko, is an honest Moscow cop (yes, they existed), trying to solve a horrific crime while dealing with the Soviet bureaucracy: cops who don’t want to solve crimes, higher-up’s who threaten to send him to a work camp if he steps on the wrong toes, spies and informers in every room. The story follows the basic genre conventions (Renko could almost be Chinatown’s J.J. Gittes in corrupt 1930’s LA), yet it’s all seen through a new, even darker glass, adding complexity and moral shadings I’d never seen before.

Soon I needed a whole bookshelf dedicated to what I am here officially naming Totalitarian Fiction. Olen Steinhauer, who has received much-deserved attention for his recent Tourist novels about CIA agents, also wrote a fabulous five-part, Cold War-spanning series about cops and spies in an unnamed Eastern European nation, starting with the excellent Bridge of Sighs. James Church writes mysteries (starting with A Corpse in the Koryo) set in North Korea, the most opaque nation imaginable. Church was allegedly a CIA spy stationed there, so he knows what he’s talking about, or at least is good at faking it. Zoe Ferraris has written two biting social commentaries/crime novels set in Saudi Arabia (I’ve read the second, City of Veils), where a female forensic scientist and a male amateur detective suffer under that regime’s rigid controls on sexuality. Tom Rob Smith (Child 44) has jumped into the Soviet cop game, and, in a weirder twist, Jeff Van der Meer wrote a wonderful noir/spy/sci-fi hybrid, Finch, about a cop living in a Baghdad-like failed state, where the occupying power is an alien life form that watches over humanity as the city decays around them.

(I’m sure I missed some other great books. If you have some favorite examples of Totalitarian Fiction, post them in the Comments section below.)

As Americans, autocratic regimes seem so foreign, so terrifying, so other. It’s fascinating to see the different moral and ethical calculus that the protagonists (who, in such stories, are usually employed by the state) need to perform in order to navigate their daily lives: whether to inform on a neighbor or risk being informed on themselves; whether to attempt to solve a wrong or to sit back and let the wrongs continue; whether to let their voices be heard and suffer the consequences, or keep their eyes shut to the oppression before them.

Perhaps there’s another reason why these settings intrigue us. In a time of privacy vs. security debates, of Orange Alerts and GPS phone tracking, we can’t help but fear that these autocratic nations aren’t quite as foreign to us as we wish they were.

Riga - LatviaConsider two more books, very different but eerily similar. Shahriar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story shows us two would-be lovers in Iran, trying in vain to fall in love (or even just flirt) in a land where they’re barely allowed to converse. Mandanipour gets all postmodern on us, blacking out certain words, lines, and even pages of the book, as if a government censor has cut away parts of the story that are too sensual. The same technique is used in Joseph Weisberg’s An Ordinary Spy, a memoirish novel about a former CIA agent trying to tell his own story, but only after the CIA blacks out all the book’s compromising details. (This, by the way, is exactly what happens whenever a real-life former CIA employee writes a book. Weisberg would know—he is one.) Weisberg’s novel too is heavily blacked out, not by fictional Iranian cleric critics but by fictional bureaucrats at Langley. It’s all fiction, of course, but the sense that our own government is aping a charter member of the Axis of Evil adds an unnerving layer to the story.

* * *

Which brings me to the author’s uncomfortable role in all this.

I’ve been dabbling in two other forms of writing lately, ad copywriting and screenplay writing, and I’ve been struck by how collaborative they are. Ads are written as part of a two-person writer/designer team, and screenplays receive contributions from other writers, directors, actors, studio heads, and more. True, they’re both looked down on in some quarters (the usual refrain is that ad men are hacks, and screenplays are dumbed-down by committee, etc). But it’s not that simple, and the art of collaboration just as often elevates a work beyond where a solitary writer could have taken it.

Novelists, in contrast, work alone. We get input from agents and editors and workshops, sure, but we can ignore them. We often do. We are The Novelist, after all. We are God. We are the Great and Benevolent Leader of the cowering nation that is our book.

During the wave of postmodern criticism a few decades back, Roland Barthes proclaimed “The Death of the Author.” It was fashionable to say that, in contrast to olden days when the author could decide What His Book Meant and what the themes and meaning really were, we had now reached an anarchic period in which each individual reader could determine for him or herself what the book was about, what it meant to him or her personally. As someone who has seen how my own work can be interpreted so many different ways, I’m inclined to say that Barthes got it right. And perhaps, because we know he is right, we writers secretly (we dare not admit it aloud) miss the time when we got to be in charge.

Because, after all, my earlier point about people who live in totalitarian countries applies just as equally to the characters in any novel. They are constantly watched by the eyes of others (the readers’), they operate in a system of rigid controls (set by the author), and they can only associate with other characters or say things that they’re permitted to say (if they do something out of character, the author steps back and revises it out of existence). The author and the reader are a joint Big Brother.

These are all issues I was mulling over as I wrote The Revisionists: the collaborative yet competing role of government and journalists and writers, how history is made and how stories are told. Maybe this comes across in the book, or maybe people will just get swept away by the story. Maybe I’ll be pulling all the strings, or maybe I’ll be all but dead (figuratively speaking). Regardless, I’ll also be here, near my writing desk, nose in another book, as the poor oppressed characters search for a way out, pleading with the powers that be, yearning to be free.

Thomas Mullen is the author of The Last Town on Earth, which was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today, was a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year, and was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for excellence in historical fiction and The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers which was published in January 2010. His new novel, THE REVISIONISTS is available from Mulholland Books. Learn more about Thomas Mullen at ThomasMullen.net