THE TYRANT'S NOVEL

By Thomas Keneally. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 235 pp. $25 Thomas Keneally's best fiction has always been inspired by great political, historical and moral issues. It is hardly surprising that the author of Schindler's List was drawn to the human dilemmas of individuals trying to survive under bestial tyrannies like that of Saddam Hussein. Nor is it unexpected that a writer known in his native Australia for his opposition to the conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard and his horror at that regime's incarceration of illegal immigrants would have wanted to write a book centering on the plight of asylum seekers. Indeed, if Keneally has declared in interviews that The Tyrant's Novel is "the best thing I've ever written," there is more than authorial pride or the understandable desire to come out from under what must be, for him, the oppressive shadow that Schindler's List's worldwide success cast over his work. In important ways, Keneally's new book encapsulates the themes that have haunted him throughout his writing life: the relationship of individuals to power, the role of conscience in a world where the powerful seem conscienceless, the compromises people make to survive, and the curious and often contradictory relations between the demands of morality and those of love.

To Keneally's credit, he has never wavered in his attempt to craft novels that take on such essential questions. The problem with The Tyrant's Novel, however, and it is a weakness that has pervaded his work, is that the themes that absorb him somehow always appear bigger than the characters he devises to exemplify them. It is almost as if these characters were mere stalking horses or emblems of the concerns to which Keneally is drawn. Of course, this has always been the weakness of the "social" novel, as any reader of late 19th- and early 20th-century American muckraking novelists like Frank Norris can attest. A reader looking for a fictionalized denunciation of the U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq during the 1990s and of Australia's policy toward asylum seekers, or a depiction of how artists in totalitarian regimes attempt to placate the demands of the tyrants who control their destiny but also to somehow remain artists, will find Keneally's fable instructive. But a reader wanting fiction that overflows the banks of its theme to acquire that independent life that is the essence of great novels (War and Peace, after all, is not fundamentally a book about Napoleon's invasion of Russia, however brilliant an imagining of that event it also is), will almost certainly find The Tyrant's Novel disappointing.

But if Keneally's approach is finally too sociological and, frankly, too politically correct (the portrait of asylum seekers in their detention center is cloying in its romanticization of them), the book has brilliant set pieces as well as one inspired conceit. Keneally never states that he is writing about Saddam Hussein, although he notes in an acknowledgment that the concept of the book derives from a piece on the Iraqi dictator by Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down. The conceit is that Keneally chooses to give all his (presumably) Iraqi characters Anglo-Saxon names. As a distancing technique, this is worthy of the theater of Bertolt Brecht at its best -- disorienting, effective and difficult to put out of one's mind. The reader is being offered a portrait of Iraq under Saddam, and yet the characters all have names like Alan Sheriff, Sarah Manners, Andrew Kennedy and Ian Stark. The device gives us that neighborly identification with the characters we get from a novel by, say, John Updike, one that a cast of characters called Saddam Hussein, Asan-this and Sabaheta-that would be unlikely to engender. And yet at the same time, the technique may have its limitations. Imagine, for example, that Gabriel Garcia Marquez had tried the same trick in one of his novels, that to appeal to a U.S. audience he had renamed Col. Aureliano Buendia "Col. Andrew Goodheart." Garcia Marquez would have dissipated his account's precious specificity.

Inventive, well-intended and intelligent as The Tyrant's Novel is, in the end the book is neither a profound investigation of the dictator's mind, a la Garcia Marquez, or of the individual under tyranny, a la Koestler, to name two authors who came from the worlds they described. It is not because, again for all its virtues, the attempt by Keneally's foreigners to imagine Iraq gives up too much of the actual Iraq to be convincing. By renaming all his characters in an effort to make their suffering more real to his readers -- and here is where he falls into the trap of his own political correctness -- Keneally leeches his imaginary Iraq of its specific cultural and, indeed, moral gravity. The Saddam figure, called "the great uncle" in the book, becomes too generic, and even the hero, Alan Sheriff, is not a fully realized person but the Artist Living Under Totalitarianism. In other words, it is not only his name that seems contrived.

The artist's relation to the tyrant has been one of the great themes of modern literature, just as the refugee has increasingly become the paradigmatic figure of the post-Cold War world. But in The Tyrant's Novel, the greatness of Keneally's theme is not matched by his ability to turn that theme into fiction; and, as a novel, it is hard not to judge the book a failure. *

David Rieff is the author, most recently, of "A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis."

Thomas Keneally