NOVEL AL JAZEERA MAN
“The Dream of the Decade” comes with high praise. Dan Franklin, publisher of Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan is an admirer of the book and says that 30-something Rattansi “captures the atmosphere of the late 1980s.” But with the first British publication of this quartet, it’s easy to see that these characters are very much living with us today.
It’s always difficult for a new novelist to break through the household literary name strata. And, often, more difficult for the aspiring writer is answering questions as to what their work is about. J. D. Salinger would have found it difficult to describe immediately why the plot of “Catcher in the Rye” was inherently interesting. Norman Mailer would have had trouble with “An American Dream”. It’s the “hook” books like “A Handmaiden’s Tale” or “The Satanic Verses” that are altogether easier.
There are hooks in Afshin Rattansi’s debut novels, four of them published in one volume and all loosely connected, not least that they centre on life in London. The first book is about the growing divide between rich and poor just as balsamic vinegar was becoming fashionable amongst the new yuppie class. There follows a book on how Londoners respond to a terrorist bomb scare and another on how property prices began to dominate life in London. The final book is a very thinly disguised satire, or what looks like a satire, on news values at the BBC. But what unites the quartet is an ineluctable quality of the writing.
The thirty something British-born writer, whose Kenyan father is an expert on Sir Isaac Newton and alchemy, is slightly dismissive of the publication of the book.
“I went through two agencies, Curtis Brown and A.P. Watt and I can’t say I was helped much and now it’s twenty years on,” he says about to pull another cigarette from a packet on the table and then replacing it. “I think publishers in the eighties and earlier nineties were more interested in my Indian origin than the subject matter of the book.”
The first chapters of the first book were written at a time of resurgent Commonwealth writing. Rattansi, himself, worked on stories about Salman Rushdie during the Satanic Verses affair when he was on Tariq Ali’s groundbreaking Channel 4 series, Bandung File.
Dressed in fashionable jeans and a black T-shirt, Rattansi is sitting in a Chateau Marmont seat after being interviewed by Los Angeles’ most progressive radio station, KPFK. On the same programme was the now dead activist and former co-founder of LA’s notorious Crips gang, Stanley “Tookie” Williams whose clemency pleas didn’t prevent him from being injected with Sodium Pentothal.
“Los Angeles has always fascinated me and it was Mike Davis’ book, City of Quartz, that enlightened me so much as to why. Whereas London is two organisms, the centre and the suburbs, Los Angeles is a myriad directly opposing entities. It has a sophisticated left, a developing world level population, a strong harbour union, fabulous colonies of wealth and it creates rightwing propaganda. And natural disasters have repeatedly shocked and devastated the area.”
The prologue begins with one of the lead women characters of the books, now settled in marriage, relocating to the site of the 2005 Asian Tsunami. It is as if the person who most embraced the new opportunities that privatisation and a city that encouraged entrepreneurship is most shattered by its consequences.
“There is even a theory that the reason why Diego Garcia wasn’t affected by the tsunami was because there was no commercial prawn fishing there. In Sri Lanka and Aceh, increasing commercialisation of the shrimp industry destroyed the protective reefs.”
Rattansi sees politics in everything. He worked as a chief risk analyst at the insurers’ Lloyd’s of London after they had lost billions of pounds. His expertise was in catastrophe analysis, both environmental and political. But the books are in no way political tracts.
“One of the most moving letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald is the one he writes to his daughter, urging her to read Marx. His novels may be liked by criminal conservatives like Jeffrey Archer but whether a novel is political one way or another is in the eye of the beholder.
“What animates the title novel, I hope, is that I was part of a generation which was convinced that the social fabric that was ripped apart by Mrs. Thatcher would take a long time to mend. It’s perhaps difficult to remember for those in their twenties that there was a time when music and politics were incredibly sophisticated and polarised. Well, perhaps popular music is still as polarised. And it was a time when one section of society leapfrogged at the expense of another.”
Despite looking in his later twenties, Rattansi is on Jonathan Coe’s eighties’ territory about the post-punk, post-New Romantic time of The Smiths and the Orgreave battle of the Miners’ Strike. But The Dream of the Decade is much more international than Coe.
“I always envisaged that the four main themes or even obstacles that the characters would have to circumnavigate were class, political terrorism, property and the media. They are vague but actually impact on everyday life. Well, at the time, terrorism didn’t impact on daily life and the book rather explodes the myth that it does. But certainly, property does. As for the media, its place is an education system for adults – a dangerously flawed education system. I actually wrote a novel about education but it wasn’t up to scratch.”
Rattansi’s first job was at The Guardian and he has a younger brother who followed him into journalism, now anchoring world news from CNN in the U.S.
The novels do have a distinctly American feel about them even though they capture the texture of London, something that many publishers commented on as he received his rejection slips. Rattansi was born in Cambridge but has lived all over the world, covering wars and political stories and just writing. Among the places he’s lived in are Vancouver in Canada, in Los Angeles and in Havana and Caracas. In Dubai, for two years, he headed up the developing world’s first 24 hour English language news station, devoted to an incredible remit that at times, according to Rattansi “made Al Jazeera look like Fox News.”
“It was a station devoted to issues of globalisation and international capital except ‘from below’ and the brother of the Crown Prince of Dubai footed the bill. Someone obviously told someone that this station was very much not in the mould of Bloomberg and the station was closed down. I sometimes feel as if my approach as editor of the channel was just as it was in setting about writing the novels.”
From there, it was out of the frying pan and into the fire. Returning to the BBC where he had worked as a producer for a number of years, he found himself at the Today programme under one editor – Rod Liddle – who resigned and then under no editor, just as the question of Weapons of Mass Destruction led up to unprecedented resignations by the Director General and Governor’s Chairman of the BBC.
“Today was a hell of a place to work. Liddle may have been quite mad but he was a startlingly original editor. When I came back after being editor of a whole station, I was dreading Television Centre. I expected it to be staffed full of the usual wire-copiers whose idea of originality in journalism stretched as far as a vox pop. Rod was very different and he recruited staff that were inspired enough to take on the Government spin machine with relish. The whole David Kelly disaster was terrible. Even more so for our realising how little power the Today programme could, in the end, exert when it came to stopping the madness of the Iraq war.”
Apart from the final novel, which reads as a Scoop for the twenty-first century, Rattansi’s characters are usually doomed in love, either because of distances, class or the overpowering pressures of life in London. But this isn’t Bridget Jones. There’s a real anomie in the characters – whether they are drinking champagne or sitting injured in cardboard boxes – which recalls Beckett as much as F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Christopher MacLehose, the publisher of Richard Ford, Haruki Murakami, Georges Perec and Jos?? Saramago, said that he could still feel the force of “The Dream of the Decade.” The novels are not historical. The evocation of London, in particular, is as palpable as in Peter Ackroyd’s biography of the city. Sometimes, it is to the capital city as Bukowski’s prose was to Los Angeles – indeed the Barfly himself read it and found it uplifting. At other times it is strictly Waugh. Whereas most journalists’ fiction demonstrates that being a hack is an Enemy of Promise, Rattansi creates big characters whom we feel for because he examines the minutiae of their emotions. But, as one would expect from someone who covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and who worked at the controversial Arabic satellite TV station, Al Jazeera, the themes are far from small.