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Updike decodes mind of a terrorist

What fires the burning cocktail of hate, despair and disenfranchisement with the potential to turn a young Muslim

india Updated: Jun 08, 2006 20:34 IST

What fires the burning cocktail of hate, despair and disenfranchisement with the potential to turn a young Muslim against the Western country of his birth and make him a terrorist?

The question, which perplexed Britons after last year's London transport suicide bombings, and now puzzles Canada after arrests of young Muslim men allegedly plotting terror strikes, plays out in Terrorist a daring new novel by John Updike.

Updike, 74, sometimes referred to as America's greatest living novelist, leaves the sexually charged suburbs in which he has chronicled decades of middle class angst, to pry open the mind of Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, an 18-year-old Muslim lured towards terror by a fundamentalist imam.                                           

 On a terror trail

                                                                        "I thought I could animate from inside a homegrown terrorist, and present at least some of the other sides in what indeed does make young men and now some women blow themselves up, turn themselves into human bombs," Updike said in an interview with ABC's This Week prograemme.

Updike's hero is the lonely 18-year-old product of a long extinguished marriage of an Irish-American mother and an Egyptian father.

Islam and eventually jihad, become his escape route from the seediness of lurid modern life and the loneliness born of his father's desertion.

But Updike's often sympathetic portrait of his hero, has drawn fire from some critics, and is a risky move, as even nearly five years on, the September 11 attacks remain an emotional minefield.

Several other writers have delved into the attacks, and a genre of post-September 11 thrillers is emerging, but Updike is the most famous and most critically acclaimed novelist to put his reputation on the line in this way.

Often, Updike seems to vent more disgust on America in Terrorist than with the young anti-hero bent on committing mass murder with a truck bomb in the Lincoln tunnel between Manhattan and New Jersey.

"America is paved solid with fat and tar," Updike writes.

Here, the United States is a land scarred by racial prejudice, gross over consumption and economic blight, lurching through an era of vulgar frivolity, exemplified by puerile soap operas, mountains of junk food and the flesh baring clothes of flirty teenagers.

Ahmad's jihadist reflex is drawn from alienation from those excesses, a disgust Updike seems to share, in a somewhat bleak fictional world.

"Devils, Ahmad thinks, These devils seek to take away my God," writes Updike, in the first words of this, his 22nd novel.                                                    

But his treatment of his hero, and the new America wrought by the September 11 attacks, which Updike witnessed from Brooklyn, have irritated some influential critics.