"Kamal" aspires to be more than a conventional thriller, being a philosophical and psychological portrait of a young terrorist. But the book suffers from substantive and stylistic problems that ultimately are its undoing.
The central figure in the book, Kamal Jibral, is a Palestinian-American who has undertaken a kind of on-the-job training course in terrorism, starting out with the Tupamaros in Montevideo, moving to Paris, where he makes contact with the Palestinian underground, and then ultimately making his way to Syria, into Israel, and out again.
As the book opens, Kamal already has killed twice--a Uruguayan government official and another terrorist whom he suspected of being a double agent. The evidence against the suspected double agent was entirely circumstantial and deductive: an operation ends in disaster with the death of the cell leader. Only three persons knew about the operation. One is dead, Kamal reasons, leaving himself and the suspected double agent. Ergo, the suspected double agent is responsible. For his impulsiveness, Kamal has been banished by the Tupamaros. He lands in Paris, where the story begins.
This impulsiveness is characteristic of Kamal, despite the careful training he has received. Arathorn's publisher would like us to believe that Kamal makes a "compelling" statement about the futility of terrorism. It may be, though, that the book's most compelling statement is about the dangers of carelessness and faulty reasoning.
In Paris, Kamal moves in with a Cuban exile, Justina, who--unbeknownst to him--is an informer for French counterintelligence. He kills a former lover of Justina's in the midst of a riot, suspecting him of being an Israeli agent and rashly blaming him for Kamal's own failed mission to Israel, from which Kamal had just returned. He only realizes toward the book's end that Justina may have betrayed him.
As long as the story remains in Paris, though, it has promise. Arathorn gives us a nice feel for the place, dropping in the li among Palestinian terrorists near Mount Hermon on the Israeli-Syrian border is similarly lifeless. The characters, the setting, the whole scene apparently spring full-blown from the author's imagination, wiience as well.
Another major problem is the author's use of the first-person present to tell the story. We are inside Kamal's mind, seeing what he sees, listening to him talk to himself, feeling what he feels, and so forth. Or, we are inside Justina's mind, as she observes Kamal. This is an attempt to give us a little distance from the principal narrator. And, toward the end of the book, we are briefly in the mind of Samir, a Dubain prince who appears--improbably--in the terrorist camp.
These other narrators have as much trouble making out who Kamal is as the reader and Kamal himself do, and this difficulty reflects, in part, the author's peculiar choice of method in telling his story, which requires him to flesh out his character on the run. Even in a first-person account told in flashback, the narrator has an opportunity to present some perspective, since he has had time to reflect on what happened. In "Kamal," however, everything is happening right now and the narrator's ruminations on the past are fleeting, accurate as a reflection of the way the mind works, but unsatisfactory in giving us a coherent picture of the person.
But the principal failing of the book is in its logic: We are asked to take Kamal seriously. Yet it is difficult to believe that someone living as dangerously as he has been able to survive in the world he describes--where minor mistakes are fatal. Kamal acts rashly, using less than airtight reasoning, while lecturing himself about discipline and self-control. If the author wants us to see Kamal as hotheaded and illogical--a kind of adolescent emeritus filled with romantic illusions about the world and blinded by his own macho image--why should we take him seriously?
Although "Kamal" has pretensions of making some kind of statement, ultimately these shortcomings leave us unsatisfied.