The author of Eating Air looks at the best stories – from Conrad to Ballard – exploring the lethal excitements of trying to smash the system
‘The attraction of risk over security’ … Still from the 2002 film of The Quiet American
Pauline Melville’s first book, Shape-shifter, won the Guardian fiction prize, the Macmillan Silver Pen award and a Commonwealth Writers’ prize. Her first novel was shortlisted for the Orange prize and won a Whitbread prize. She is also an actor – whose work has encompassed roles in Mona Lisa, Utz and Far from the Madding Crowd, as well as appearances in comedies including Blackadder and the Young Ones.
“As a child I wanted to be a trapeze artist. Under the bed I kept a tiny suitcase which contained a red sweater. I was always ready to leave if things didn’t suit me. In books too I was definitely looking for danger and adventure. Without moralising over the rights and wrongs of what, depending on your point of view, is called either terrorism or freedom-fighting, I wanted to write a book that explores the attraction of risk over security, whether for reasons of love, politics or religion. One of the themes of Eating Air is the excitement of revolutionary or terrorist action.
“At a time when bankers have danced back to the top of the heap and are thumbing their noses at us once again, I thought it might cheer the population to read about people who have tried in different ways to overthrow the system. It’s good to be reminded that not everyone submits.”
1. Explosion in a Cathedral by Alejo Carpentier
An exploration of revolutionary euphoria in the late 18th century which sweeps us from Cuba, Hispaniola and the Caribbean through to the French revolution and back again. The book contains a health warning – that revolutions are often followed by the terror or the guillotine.
2. Granny Made Me an Anarchist by Stuart Christie
A rare political thriller that makes you laugh with its warmth and humanity. It’s the true story of Christie, who as a young man in 1964 joined Spanish anarchists in an attempt to assassinate General Franco. Captured, he escapes the death penalty and after a few years in a Spanish jail returns to England where, undeterred, he blithely continues political activism along the same anarchist lines.
3. Snow by Orhan Pamuk
A beautifully written, expansive look at secularism and Islam. Set in snow-bound Anatolia, the book weaves together themes of political violence and religion.
4. Fight Club by Chuck Palahnuik
Boredom and dissatisfaction with a consumerist lifestyle leads to the formation of a fight club. The fight club culture spreads culminating in violent nihilist attacks on corporate America.
5. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
Greene’s cool masterpiece of betrayal and political intrigue is set in Vietnam in the 1950s. Pyle, the eponymous protagonist and probable CIA operative, is betrayed by an older Englishman and love-rival who despises his naive complicity in a terrorist attack in Saigon.
6. The Bacchae by Euripides
Yes, I know it’s a play but it enthrals me. One of the many possible interpretations is to read it as a drama about the conflict between the rational and the ecstatic. Anti-authoritarian, it favours extremism and danger over security and domesticity.
7. Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad
Brilliant psychological study of a student in the turmoil of revolutionary Russia. He betrays a college acquaintance who has committed an act of terrorism. The student then becomes an informer and infiltrates a group of revolutionaries until remorse leads to his explosive confession.
8. Cocaine Nights by JG Ballard
Within the surreal enclave of an exclusive Spanish resort lies a secret world of crime, sex and drugs. Ballard asks the subversive question: “Is crime a healthy and necessary antidote to a society of comatose channel-zappers?”
9. Prisoner of Love by Jean Genet
Genet spent two years in the Palestinian refugee camps in the 1970s. This is a wonderfully observed description of his time there, interspersed with his visits to the Black Panthers in America. Genet, himself an outcast, identified with these peoples and endorses a commitment to rebellion itself.
10. The Possessed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Everybody seems to forget that Dostoyevsky can make you scream with laughter. His satire on certain figures and political groupings (the lengthy meeting to decide whether the gathering does, in fact, constitute a meeting) is hilarious. But the darkness of those possessed by a fanatical commitment to a certain ideology brings about a shocking and tragic end.