Book Review: 'The Dynamite Club' by Tobias Grey

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Sunday, March 8, 2009


How a Bombing in Fin-de-Siècle Paris Ignited the Age

Of Modern Terror

By John Merriman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 259 pp. $26

Nine days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, former President George W. Bush hyperbolized the "war on terror" as "unlike any other [war] we have ever seen." In "The Dynamite Club," a chilling look back at the anarchist bombers who terrorized Paris at the end of the 19th century, Yale historian John Merriman attempts to demonstrate that there really is nothing new under the sun.

The central figure in Merriman's book is Emile Henry, a sensitive intellectual from a bourgeois family who felt "dislocated, alienated, and angry" at what he perceived to be the yawning gulf separating the haves and have-nots of French society. Following the lead of his elder brother Fortuné, Emile adopted the anarchist view that "the state could not be transformed by socialist votes or even a socialist revolution; rather it had to be destroyed so that mankind could begin again."

Merriman contends that Henry was the prototype of the modern terrorist because, unlike previous anarchist bombers who had targeted high officials and aristocrats, Henry struck out blindly, tossing a bomb into the Café Terminus, a popular Paris establishment, on Feb. 12, 1894. "The bomber had chosen random victims -- he simply threw his bomb into a group of people. This time the target was not the government or one of its officials or representatives . . . but rather ordinary people having a beer and listening to music in a café."

Drawing from a wealth of private journals, letters, police archives, period newspapers, epochal paintings and novels, Merriman portrays fin-de-siècle Paris as a newly illuminated city awash in money, political scandal and class resentment. He evocatively contrasts the glittering life in the city center with the chaotic sprawl of smoky, industrial suburbs "crowded upon the heights like armies ready to descend, full of sadness and menace."

But Merriman falls down by proposing that "a gossamer thread" links today's fundamentalist Islamic terrorists with Henry and other 19th-century anarchists, then failing to provide any analysis or straightforward comparison to tease out this thread. Instead, Merriman opts to let the dark morass of history speak for itself. In other words, reader, you're on your own.

Three times Merriman quotes Henry's philosophical line: "To those who say: hate does not give birth to love, I reply that it is love, human love, that often engenders hate." Clearly, here is something Merriman thinks the reader should pay close attention to, but whether Henry's sentiment has some parallel in jihadist thought is left unclear.

Far more revealing are the words Henry's mother uttered to a reporter following her 21-year-old son's execution by guillotine: "What madness! Him, dying for the workers! But he was bourgeois to his soul. You understand it was bad advice that lost him, as in the case of my other son."

Whose bad advice could Madame Henry have been thinking of? Despite Herculean research, Merriman was unable to find a satisfying answer to this important question. He devotes many pages to exploring the nobler aspects of Henry's character and his affinity for the downtrodden, but never quite gets to the murky heart of a human being.

Henry, who apparently was in love with another man's wife, may have been drawn to anarchism as more than just political defiance. Merriman offers a tantalizing glimpse of this when he quotes an anarchist pamphlet that called for eliminating the bourgeois family: "Man will grasp that he has no rights over a woman who gives herself to someone else, because that woman is simply acting in conformity with her nature." Other intriguing details also are brought up and not discussed, such as Henry's fascination with Dostoevsky's novel "Crime and Punishment" and his later decision to reject books and embrace "propaganda by the deed."

In his prologue, Merriman explains that he was motivated to write "The Dynamite Club" by a simple question: Why did Henry do what he did? Many asked the same question after Mohamed Atta, a similarly educated young man from a bourgeois family, decided to kill himself and thousands of others by crashing planes into the World Trade Center.

Henry's anarchism was an atheistic philosophy that valued ends over means, while Atta's justification for killing random strangers was a religion twisted out of recognition. Why did they do what they did? "Bad advice" is as good a starting place as any.

Tobias Grey is a freelance reporter and literary critic in Paris.

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