As a correspondent for The Economist you belong to a rich tradition of journalists-turned-novelists. Do you find that your role models as a novelist tend to have backgrounds in journalism, too?
No. I am a hack and loyal to hacks, but hacks are not particularly interesting for literature; journalists fire arrows which pierce only the present and are crudely barbed to the past. I am averse to self-celebration among hacks, of the kind seen on television networks, as if they are stars. In Submergence, my main characters are a spy and a scientist—two fields which are more enduring and suited to reflection and perspective.
In Submergence you write about African jihadist fighters. Where do you find the empathy, as a writer, to depict people whose aims are so different from you own?
Everyone is human, and inhumane humans are more so than humane humans. Zealots are very different from me and from you, and sometimes repulsive in their brutality, and their paradises must always be stillborn, but nevertheless there are many points of contact. When I was sent to Afghanistan after 9/11 for a year or so, I met with an intelligence officer who dismissed the terrorists as “puerile”. He went on to explain his view that most Al-Qaeda operatives joined the jihad because they were younger brothers not able to get married: They blew themselves up because they couldn’t get blown in other ways. At the time, I found this point of view unfathomable, but as I spent more time tracking Al-Qaeda operatives and (in a limited way) assessing them, I came to see it was much closer to the truth than many more complicated explanations. Men, and it is often men, want to have their principality, and to dominate this small land sexually and physically. Besides, the jihadists are not immune from crises of faith, or from commonplace enthusiasms for soccer, film and the rest. There was a jihadist commander I interviewed in South Somalia. He was a very hard man, in other circumstances he might have considered decapitating me, but when I met him he sat under a tree stroking a dik-dik, which is a kind of dwarf antelope found in drier bits of eastern Africa. Now dik-diks are usually shy and nervous, they bolt at the slightest shadow, their lives are lived in fear. But this little dik-dik was like a child next to the commander; he stroked it and it demanded to be stroked. He explained that when his men had been living in the bush to escape being hunted down from the air by the Ethiopians and their allies, they had killed a dik-dik for meat. It was a female dik-dik and when they slaughtered it the unborn calf came out of the womb alive and walked. The commander took this as a sign from Allah and adopted the calf; it became attached to him; it was in a sense his child. By which I mean to say, everyone is more explicable and multifaceted than they would prefer to be.
The main characters in Submergence are on radically different journeys—one is a British spy being tortured by Somali fighters, the other is a biomathematician studying the bottom of the ocean—but they are linked by a love affair. Is this more than a plot device? Do you mean to suggest that love is somehow the answer?
Well, regardless of our religious or atheistic beliefs, this reality we have in common is mysterious. Our consciousness is born out of nothingness, it dies into the unknown, and so very quickly, and our lives bookended thus are necessarily contrary. On the one hand in the cosmic time and space we are by a factor of ten to the fourteen, say, less significant to the solar system than the shortest lived fruit fly is significant to us. We are almost nothing. Yet, we are everything to ourselves. This is what I wanted to explore in Submergence. The spy, James, is living in the moment, captured, brutalised, becoming more animal in the hot dark and with every kicking. The scientist, Danny, she has a vertiginous sense of another world in our world which resides on the ocean floor in the absolute darkness, a chemosynthetic life which far outweighs life on the surface of the world, which has been stable in evolutionary terms for a billion years, whereas we homo sapiens are so fragile it is not clear that we will make it as a species. But yet, we live these few days, and the very shortness of our span, if we manage to acknowledge it, makes choice more precious, every yes and no; love is the most powerful choice of all these because it implies an attempt at union. Love is no kind of answer, but it is the most meaningful response.
You’ve said that you consider Submergence to be an example of “planetary writing.” (There’s a line that I loved: “Oh, the scale of things was planetary for him then.”) Could you elaborate on what you see as the writer’s obligations and opportunities with respect to the state of the planet?
Thanks, and what a tremendous question. I have been really fortunate to have travelled geographically, and also from the apex of power down to the bottom, and what those travels have led me to believe, is that we are living in a moment of maximum acceleration. If you prefer to render it visually, we are in a clapped-out VW Beetle, our foot on the floor, the steering wheel loose, the brakes with no bite, and we are trying to make it down a mountain pass, and, oh, it’s a gravel road. We are not talking about the precision instrumentation of Iron Man. The human population of Africa is doubling. The ratio of African youth to European youth will rise from 2.2 to 1 now to 4 to 1 by 2025. Stand back for a moment, wherever you are reading this, and imagine the political, economic, cultural and environmental implications of just that change in the world. We are entering a post-industrial age which will lack jobs and meaningful lives—we can talk about Zygmunt Bauman’s Wasted Lives, the infrastructure of bridges and sewers falling apart in some western countries, climate change will have an effect as will the rising competition for water and food, the seasons and the journeys of birds are not something that are paramount to human experience anymore, we are apparently indifferent to the destruction of habitat and the annihilation of species, so my belief is that literature must have a voice in understanding and locating ourselves in the acceleration. If as novelists we don’t have much to say about this scale of change on our place, then we reduce ourselves to entertainers and escapologists from reality. I feel that is a bitter loss, because literature is sometimes enduring and instructive for those yet to come.
Can you give us any hints about your next book?
I can say that I managed to wander across an uninhabited bit of South Sudan recently. No roads, no villages, no shelter; a world untouched by humans, yet so alive with beasts and birds. That will be my starting point.
– Brian Hurley