‘It‘s not enough to have the regard of people you respect‘, reﬂects Iain Banks, infamous fabricator of that gruesome tome The Wasp Factory — a book that turned the stomachs of a hundred squeamish reviewers. ‘lt‘s so much better to be scorned by the people you despise.‘
With a gleeful relish (which his publishers would doubtless despair of) he anticipates poor sales in America of his latest novel Canal Dreams launched today. ‘lt‘s downright un-American rcally.‘ he gﬂns
Projected into the millennium and centred round a Japanese cellist. Misako Onoda. Canal Dreams depicts the fate of a group of hostages trapped on a ship in the Panama Canal in a political timebomb and proposes a scenario ofillicit American interference and aggression on a scale which would leave Ollie North goggle-eyed.
‘The “Political Thriller“ has been left to people with the same ideology as the CIA,‘ Banks criticises, ‘I felt that it was a genre wasted on people whose philosophical, sexual and political views I completely disagree with.‘
Canal Dreams is a terse and fluid novel — a story you are agreeably lulled into, tricked by deceptively innocent passages until a knee-jerk moment when the lurking menace grabs you by the throat and holds you in an unrelenting grip of asphyxiating suspense; you turn the pages with simultaneous revulsion and fascination.
Lightly strewn details evoke an impression of intense familiarity with the places described and l innocently assume he had indeed travelled to Panama and Japan. Banks beams with the delight of a successful trickster; ‘No — was it so convincing? I researched it from home (in Edinburgh). The setting and themes were devised in quite a cold and calculated way; I wanted a tense, enclosed situation but something non-cliched — not the usual “English house party isolated by a sudden blizzard“ type of thing. I remembered that during the Six Day War in ‘67 one bank of the Suez was cut off and twenty to thirty boats were trapped there for years; I paralleled that in the Panama Canal where I could use a sort of Contras/Sandinistas situation.‘
The internationalist scope of this enterprise (though lacking the cosmic scale of his science fiction) allows Banks a new artillery of toys— gone are the catapults and aerosol
An earthquake in Edinburgh? Quite possible, according to the imagination ofIan Banks, resident of that city and author of the celebrated Wasp Factory. Sara Villiers talks to him about his new book Canal Dreams.
bombs of The Wasp Factory (vicious though they were) to be replaced by grenades, Colts, kalashnikov riﬂes and SAMs. This is the Real Thing— and this time the weaponry is wielded by a woman, Hisako. ‘I felt that even though it might be difficult I should try writing something from a woman‘s point of view‘, explained Banks.
The book constantly recalls
Hisako‘s life in Japan, which at first seems straightforward and happy but gradually through the ebb and flow of the narrative and a sequence of blood-drenched symbolic dreams is revealed to be somewhat more disturbing. In one scene she is ruthlessly tortured to the strains of the theme tune of Monty Python ’s Flying Circus. ‘The world was absurd, she decided, and the pain
and cruelty and stupidity were all just side effects ofthat basic grotesqueness, not the intended result at all.‘
It is Banks own philosophy. ‘It‘s good insurance to regard the world as not only incompetent but absolutely malevolent‘, he insists, then rather guiltily admits, ‘although nothing terrible has ever happened to me.‘
Terrible things are inflicted on Hisako. Hell Hath No Fury Like A Woman Raped, Abused and forced to witness her lover and friends being . . . but wait, I‘m giving the plot away. Suffice to say that after extreme provocation she gets a bit shirty and embarks on a rampage of carnage.
‘Well, she‘s pushed to the limits of human endurance,‘ says Banks ‘she‘s entitled to some revenge.‘
Knocking spots off Bond and Rambo, Hisako‘s behaviour in the closing chapters is gloriously 011‘ but somehow strangely straightforward — credit to Bank‘s skill at rendering the totally absurd quite credible.
‘There isn‘t sudden change. This potential side of her is always there’, explains Banks ‘in her passion for music, the violent incidents in her past — and ofcourse her whole existence is tainted by one appalling act: Hiroshima. That‘s only swiftly alluded to, it would have been too obvious otherwise.‘
Canal Dreams is the seventh novel Banks has published in the last five years and he intends to maintain his prolific output. ‘Another sci-fi looms ahead and then I‘d like to do a whodunnit-type mystery with lots of subtle clues. It will be quite macabre and violent‘, he cheerfully adds, quite needlessly.
Banks is a laughing, amiable man and it is difficult to imagine a stream ofsadistic decapitations and other horrors spewing forth from his pen but his prose is a its most joyous and exuberant in his maleficent descriptions of blood and gore. Surely at some point his fecund imagination will run dry ofgrisly deaths?
‘Oh no!‘ he protests, quite shocked at the very idea. ‘They all relate to my own fears, which I embellish and are this infinite. What ifmy hand slipped when I was shaving and I slit my throat? What if there was an earthquake in Edinburgh? Ah, now there‘s an idea! . . .‘
Canal Dreams is published by Macmillan at £12. 95.
The List l— 14 September 198967