As Viken Berberian's The Cyclist begins, the protagonist
is confined to a hospital bed after a biking accident; unable at first to speak
with his visitors, he recoils into his memories. We gradually learn that he is an
operative in a small terrorist cell in the Middle East, in the midst of preparing
for a suicide mission and expected to get right back on that bicycle, despite his
increasing misgivings, once his recovery is complete. Berberian spent three
years writing the novel, beginning in 1998, and was waiting for his turn on
his publisher's release schedule when the terrorist acts of September 11th
occurred. Suddenly a literary novel with an empathic portrayal of a man
participating in terrorist acts seemed a much riskier proposition. "Readers'
sensibilities have undoubtedly changed because of what happened," he admits
over lunch at a favorite Lower East Side bistro, "but I hope the book is not
ultimately bound by events." He also hopes that the novel's unusual
perspective will provide a more nuanced view of the problem. "If you turn on
your TV today, there's no shortage of pundits and talking heads recasting
themselves as terrorist experts. But you don't see much from the outsider
RH: Why did you originally want to tell this story?
VB: I would have to say that my fascination with political violence goes back to
1986, when my father, who lived in Lebanon at the time, was shot in a politically
motivated killing. Over the years, the distance of time and geography allowed me to look at
the topic of terrorism more broadly and critically, and to fully realize that political violence
is not an event specific to my family, but a reality experienced by many people every day,
all over the world. As cavalier as this sounds, I thought it would be interesting to slip
inside the head of a man in the business of terror. Except as I was writing the book, it
turned out that my protagonist felt equally comfortable being a dilettante or an esthete, not
just our stereotype of a terrorist with a beard. In addition to napalm, he speaks lovingly
of the smell of saffron in the morning.
RH: You go beyond the shadowy media stereotype to explore the
psychological makeup of someone who would devote his life to terrorism.
VB: I wanted to break out of generic definitions. The problem with a shadow is
that you never see the actual features. If you look at our hero more closely though, it's
apparent that he's conflicted by his national and religious allegiances, by the partisan
politics of the region. He is bound by these particular constraints yet he struggles to escape
RH: And he's not singlemindedly focused on terror. You do your best
to give the character a full, rich interior life. There's a rich awareness of
his heritage, particularly when it comes to his regional cuisine.
VB: The regional cuisine is supposed to help define his identity, place and
allegiance. It also allows him to reflect on the turbulent politics of the Middle East without
talking about specific political groups or armies. So the combustible world of cooking is
sometimes a metaphor for the combustible world of the Middle East. There is a part in the
book where one of the village elders comments on the ethnic composition of the village.
"We used to be two eggs that became an omelet, we're difficult to divide and separate," he
says. Many regional proverbs that touch on food in some way or another weigh heavily in
the book and the protagonist often looks at them for moral sustenance. The proverbs are a
part of his heritage; they're not just there to leaven the narrative.
RH: What sort of research did you do in preparation for the novel? You
mention some of the articles you read in the acknowledgments section.
VB: I went to the closing statements of the U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi to
pick up the language and rhetoric of terror. During that trial, the prosecution introduced a
manual which they had found in the apartment of a suspect, a document that was half
philosophical tract, half how-to book for action. I managed to get a copy of that document
from the prosecution, and a small part of that made its way into the book.
I also went to the Middle East on two separate trips. I went to Lebanon and stayed in the
hotel that is the central target in the book, and to the upper Galilee in Israel, to an idyllic
village where families with different backgrounds--Jewish families, Arab families (both
Christian and Muslim), and Druse families--coexisted. That's where I set the protagonist's
home. This was in the spring of 2000, before the outbreak of violence in the region.
RH: One of the things I enjoyed most of the book, but which perhaps
becomes a much riskier element in the post-9/11 world, is its dark humor.
It's hard to tell whether the public is ready to find anything funny about
terrorism and terrorists.
VB: There is certainly humor in the book, but the humor is more ironic than glib.
And I think it is the strangeness of irony that makes us stop to reflect. This is a good thing. I also think, and maybe this is trite, that humor helps us deal with tragedy. But perhaps most important, I think humor is one of the more human forms of expression. It opens up and leavens the human spirit. I can't imagine what life would be like for people who are not capable of recognizing that. They must lead macabre, Kafkaesque lives, which is not to say that this is a less valid way of living.
RH: How have you been holding up to the varied public response to
VB: Barring the occasional potshot, the reviews have been favorable
and serious so far, but I think there is--and probably always has been--a
danger of politicizing literature, of contextualizing an esthetic work based on
political sentiment. Maybe that risk is more pronounced today. My favorite
writers stay disciplined, block out the hoopla and hopefully focus on their
singular vision. I think it's important to keep that distance in order to look at
the reality around us more critically. If our sensibilities have changed
because of political imperatives, it's too early to tell if those changes are
ephemeral or not. Everything seems to be in a flux. Some people have called
for the premature death of irony, saying we need fiction that is more sensitive
and embracing. But I'm not sure if literature should play the role of therapist.
And as much as our sensibilities may have changed, maybe we're still
fundamentally the same existential beings we have always been, with the same
fears, loves, hopes and hates.