Given the popularity of bodice-rippers and hauntings at today's literary smorgasbord, a novel called "Love and Terror" may lead one to expect a casserole combining the ingredients of the cheesecakey historical romance with those of the chicken-flesh-producing chiller a la (Stephen) King. What William Herrick has set before us in this far-from-dainty little novel, however, constitutes more substantial fare. It has weight, texture and a grittily sugar-free flavor that the Tab cola crowd may find altogether unpalatable.
Through research and a fascinating exercise of the artistic imagination, Herrick ushers the reader into the Dantesque world of international terrorism. Here (a place as inaccessible to most of us as the dark side of the moon) youthful idealism and ostensibly mature political commitment cloak themselves in huggermugger raiment, go forth like Eumenides to vanquish authoritarian evil, and write their love notes to humanity in the blood of assorted bigwigs, hapless bystanders and hostages, and occasionally even their own bungling minions. Whether nihilist, communist, anarchist or neofascist, the message, as Herrick scrupulously notes, is almost always the same: "Be my brother or I will kill you."
"Love and Terror" justifies, and glosses, its title by examining in clinical detail and stormy liaison between handsome Viktor Frankel and beautiful Gabriele Strelsin. Having learned that their fathers once consorted with Nazis, these two young people become members of a radical faction at the Free University in West Berlin. To underscore his origins as a foundling whom the Frankels rescued from a quay in Hamburg in 1945, Viktor drops their surname in favor of a mysterious and defiant "X." Gabriele, meanwhile, assumes the nom de guerre "Rainer" to dissociate herself from the capitalistic stigma of her father's hugely profitable steel concern. The lovers make doubting and doubtful revolutionaries, however, for Viktor mistrusts nearly all formal ideologies and Gabriele cannot come to terms with her ambivalent love for her father.
Herrick does not write an exclusively linear narrative. Story interests him far less than do the complicated motivations of his characters. Structurally, then, "Love and Terror" alternates among passages lifted from Viktor's private notebook, omniscient third-person episodes recounted in a spare, vaguely pulpish prose ("Ahab, not a leader for nothing, unwound his length from a Mies van der Rohe chair"), and chapters in which an unnamed journalist interviews three of those who survive an airliner hijacking engineered by Viktor, Gabriele and their terrorist cohorts.
The lives of these three "old ones" -- Avram ben Itzchak, David Grad and the formidable Clara Z. -- provide an illuminating thematic counter-point to the aspirations and methods of the hijackers. Former members of the international communist movement, anti-fascist reformers and freedom fighters, the old ones have lived to experience the bigotry of their fellow ideologues. They are Jews -- but Jews who once submerged this aspect of their identities in heroic, sometimes blind devotion to the cause. Their most eloquent representative, Clara Z., summarizes their relationship to the "young ones" who eventually come to waylay the Tel Aviv-Paris shuttle:
"They were our children, these so-called revolutionaries. Avram and I had each in our way helped to destroy and moral character of the great quest for a freer world, a more equitable world, because we hadn't the decency to say no, human life is more important than our great dream, and there can be no great dream worth a dram once human life becomes less important than the great dream. They are our children, as we are Lenin's and Stalin's, as they in turn were Nechaiev's children. . ."
Herrick's forte is not subtlety. After almost every terrorist attack (each told as breathtakingly as Robert Ludlum or Ken Follett could manage) Viktor and Gabriele make brutal love. These scenes, as Herrick intends, exude more significance than sexiness. Further, too often for my taste, Viktor uses his tattletale notebook to spotlight, spell out and dissect all the novel's lovely implicit ironies. And when Herrick contrives Clara Z.'s final testimony before the tape recorder to suggest that Viktor is her child in melodramatic (fictional) truth, I have to believe that the author has been vamped by a voluptuously tempting metaphor.
So what? Herrick writes with passion, panache and so many convincing documentary close-ups and cuts that these quibbles do not discredit his novel. Delivered up cool and raw, "Love and Terror" tastes real. I heartily recommend it to Muammar Qaddafi and everyone else with an uncompromising ideological grudge. It won't hurt more conventional sorts, either.