Tucked into the pages of The Tyrant’s Novel, Thomas Keneally has slipped a short letter. Giving his reasons for writing the book and stating that he believes it to be the best he has yet produced, the letter is presumably intended for reviewers and booksellers, and it provides information in many ways crucial for readers, so crucial that it is hard to see why it was not included in a preface. The Tyrant’s Novel, Keneally explains, grew out of visits he made to the Villawood detention centre for asylum seekers outside Sydney, a ‘double-walled gulag’ behind razor wire and prison walls, where he felt outraged by the visible signs of Australia’s current policy of exclusion and extreme hostility towards refugees who land on their shores. This seems to him, he writes, ‘one of the great injustices of our history’. Writing the novel was a way of releasing the sense of fury and shame that overcame him. ‘I’d rather’, he has his anonymous visitor to the detention centre say, ‘be a citizen of a big, dramatic, baroque pre-Fascist country like the United States than of a little, pissant, head-stuck-up-the-arse pre-Fascist country like this.’
The Tyrant’s Novel is a book within a book, the story of how a dissident writer living under a dictator in a modern Middle Eastern country finds himself corralled into writing a novel for its ruler — Great Uncle — designed to win sympathy and admiration from American audiences. Caught within this trap, followed and watched by a sinister group of special forces known as Overguards, the writer eventually finds a way to escape, but not before becoming embroiled in painful emotional and moral dilemmas. To ensure that his characters remain close and familiar to western readers, that they are not distanced through a ‘kind of pre-rational, gut-mistrust of names different from our own’, Keneally gives them Western names. But the country is clearly Iraq, the war it has just been through the long war with Iran, and Great Uncle, with his psychopathic, cocaine-sniffing, Kalashnikov-toting son Sonny, is clearly Saddam Hussein, even if there are touches of other tyrants — Idi Amin, Charles Taylor — in the nuances of his crazed and obsessive behaviour.
Other contemporary novelists, writing of the refugee experiences that now mark our times and which are becoming a distinctive genre in the way of survivor novels, have most often set their stories at the stage of exile. Ghasan Kanafani placed his three Palestinians in Kuwait in his marvellous novella Men in the Sun, while in The Tortilla Curtain, T. C. Boyle follows his Mexican couple into California. Keneally has opted for an earlier moment, for what happens before exile, as the gates begin to close and the options diminish, one by one. What gives The Tyrant’s Novel its tense, edgy tone is the implicit understanding of the exile that is to come, the sense of being sucked without alternative towards flight. Escape, as Keneally’s hero Alan Sheriff well knows, is not in doubt, but what awaits him in terms of horrendous journey and the uncertainty and enforced idleness of prolonged detention is not something to look forward to. Writing about what he calls the ‘aged weariness’ of people readying themselves for the giant task of displacement, Keneally rides the thin line between fiction and non-fiction with great and pleasing ease, never forgetting that refugees very seldom want to be refugees, nor that their stories are often the sole passports that they carry with them into exile. ‘Displacement,’ says Mourid Barg- houti, the Palestinian poet who has written so hauntingly about refugee life, ‘is like death. One thinks it happens only to other people.’