Long ago I recall a conversation I had with a Professor of English, who had more degrees and blind utopian zest that was good for him.
“Do you know the difference between fiction and good fiction?”
“Plausibility?” I replied dryly, half caring.
“In a sense, yes. Plausibility, or the suspension of disbelief is one which compels the reader. But there is another- deeper. A story that has something to say, asking a question or telling a truth; that- that is the mark of good fiction.” He replied, sternly staring juxtaposed to his characteristically jovial demeanor.
Good fiction thus must have something to say; a lesson, an allegory. Not fiction for fiction’s sake. It must tell us something we otherwise would not know. This brings us to the question of genre fiction as it stands- what is the point? Is it merely the suspension of disbelief, an enjoyment for a spell, a fantasy? Does it earn laud where accurate or is it read simply for its entertainment value? For this reader, genre fiction comes in several varieties with varying degrees of skill. Some is just entertaining. Some seeks a deeper purpose and falls flat in doing so. And some tales written become modern classics based not on the tale itself but the questions it begs the reader to contemplate on that deeper level. A message, a warning to be heeded.
Bracken’s The Red Cliffs of Zerhoun recalls several tales by authors I consider standouts of their genre; LeCarre, Forsythe, Ludlum, and yes, Hemmingway. In the case of each, the authors at least on some level or another had working knowledge of their subject and a mastery of the art of fiction. The suspension of disbelief was quite simple- the characters are real, genuine, and based upon, in varying degrees, the very people of which the authors experienced. Genre fiction, even decent novels and knowledgeable authors, usually fall short by simply existing for their own sake, posing no real questions but rather simply entertaining. While nothing is wrong with the paperback writer simply telling entertaining tales, the reader is left little at the novel’s close. But of the above mentioned, those frequently pointed to as the marquee of their craft, this novel, beyond all of his before, rises to mention with the likes of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, The Dogs of War, and For Whom The Bell Tolls. Each tell us something on multiple levels, either as a cautionary tale of the human cost of warfare, the hard look at the men it takes for such a task, or a stern and predictive warning. Red Cliffs is all of the above, and should be read every bit as deep as the gravity of that implication.
Bracken creates a cast of characters that could easily come off the pages; these people are real and visceral, and for those of us who’ve been there or seen the elephant, as a good friend would say, these are people we know and have worked with. The emotions they feel, the flaws they exhibit, and their motivations drawing them to the fire- these are all people that have names in the minds of many. That realism makes the story that much more compelling, driving home the deeper purpose of this novel.
In it we find an unlikely alliance in a world turned upside down- two sides of a Christian conflict, unified against the very existential threat mutually destroying society. We are relayed second hand accounts of a Europe wrecked by the very decades of socialism which promised progress at the cost of their identity. The allegory of the intolerability of blind bigotry is made, even amid numerous justifications. Bracken very cautiously reminds us that painting with too broad a brush is a problem, albeit a human problem. Perhaps cornerstone to it all is the brilliant illustration of the brutality of fundamentalist islam- an illustration which so many of us know all too well, but are repeatedly told is nonsense by those claiming to be our betters while berating our own culture as a tool of oppression. This novel casts a light on that brutal world not frequently explored and never truly understood, but verily coming to fruition.
This novel is not an instruction guide to doomsday, it is not a cardboard fantasy of good and bad guys, it is not a simplistic fun summer read on a beach or a boat. One could absorb it simply for the tactical pointers, the lessons and examples both good and bad, or simply a brilliantly written adventure, but to do so would be selling both yourself and the story far short. It would and should be at the top of every best seller list, were the world sane. It is a novel which should be hailed as a contemporary classic as with its aforementioned peers, repeatedly read for its value both as art and fiction as well as the truth of the tale it tells.
All this of course, were the world sane.