The underground men

January 12 2004 / New Statesman

“I could be bounded in a nut-shell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Hamlet

What did Saddam Hussein think about as he lay in his hole in the ground in the bleak scrublands surrounding his home town of Tikrit? How did this 21st-century underground man endure the hours of darkness and dead time? Did he think about the recent past, the palaces that were once his, the land he once owned and lost, the people he had once controlled? Did he ever think about his victims and their suffering? There must have been a time when, like Hamlet, he counted himself king of infinite space, but now his world had shrunk to a tiny space—in effect, to nothing at all. The hunter had become the hunted and, like a terrified fox, he had gone to earth, burrowing deep underground. But even there he was not safe; he was trapped and eventually pulled from the soil.

Watching the televised images of the captured Saddam, I thought often about what can be called the literature of the hole, of those writers and books that have shown us something of how it feels to be truly isolated from the world, incarcerated in solitary confinement, locked in a prison cell or lost underground. In children’s literature, the hole is at once a place of fear, adventure (Alice in Wonderland) and transformation (the Ugly Duckling goes into a hole for the winter and emerges as a swan). Holes are either imaginative, secretive places to which children retreat from the adult world or places in which they are locked, such as cupboards under the stairs. They are places from which we emerge the vagina, the womb—but to which we also long to return. They are simultaneously places of danger and of safety, where you can, like Saddam, hide but also be trapped.

Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume(1985), set in pre-revolutionary 18th-century France, is about a grotesque young man called Jean Baptiste Grenouille who is born with a remarkable sense of smell. His gift is a blessing and a curse; his olfactory refinement enables him to make the sweetest, most sensuous perfumes in France but, at the same time, the stink of ordinary humanity repulses him, tie longs to withdraw from the world of the senses, to isolate himself, and so, having become a celebrated perfumer in Paris, he retreats to the mountainous wilderness of the Massif Central. There, at the end of a long tunnel, he finds a small hole into which he climbs. It is as if he has found his own grave. “Never in his life had he felt so secure,” writes Suskind of his peculiar fictional creation. “He lay in his stony crypt like his own corpse, hardly breathing, his heart hardly beating—and yet lived as intensively and dissolutely as ever a rake had lived in the world outside.” This is the literary hole-dweller as hermit or mystic: the isolated fanatic who seeks revelation in retreat, vision in darkness.

In Geoffrey Household’s thriller Rogue Male (1939) the central character’s retreat underground is of an altogether different kind from the misanthropic Grenouille, for whom the hole was a sanctuary. The novel’s unnamed narrator is a gentleman-sportsman whom we first encounter as he is poised to assassinate a loathed central European dictator who may or may not be Adolf Hitler. The sportsman is not a secret agent; he is acting alone. Yet when he has the dictator in his sights, he refuses to pull the trigger, as if it is enough to know that he could have killed him. Perhaps he should have done so, because soon afterwards he is captured, tortured and thrown from a cliff. Miraculously, he survives the fall, and then makes his way back to England. There he is never at peace again: hunted by assassins, he flees, as Saddam did, to the place he knows best and from which he came. In this instance, he returns to his home county of Dorset, and there, on barren moorland, he digs himself a hole in the ground and hides in it. Household writes well about the loneliness of the hole, about fear, anxiety and regret, and the knowledge that although the rogue male can hide, he knows he will also he caught.

In Charles Dickens’s great protest novel Hard Times (1854), the hole in the ground is less a place of greater safety than of entrapment. It is a place of death. Stephen Blackpool is a humble mill-worker in an era of unrestrained capitalism. His wife, from whom, against social convention, he seeks a divorce, is a drunk and he is ostracised by his fellow workers when he refuses to join their nascent union. One afternoon, he falls down an abandoned mine shaft, where he must suffer alone, marooned from the world. Blackpool is eventually discovered and pulled from the earth, but it is too late for him. His injuries are too severe, and he becomes merely another unfortunate victim of a riven and corrupt society.

In Mary Webb’s Gone to Earth (1917) the hole once more becomes a kind of sanctuary, but it is one where no true peace can ever be found. The novel was written during the First World War; three of the author’s brothers were at the Western Front, wading through mud and living in trenches. The setting for the novel is the remote Shropshire Hills, where Hazel Woodus, the daughter of a Welsh gypsy mother and a father who is a beekeeper and coffin maker, roams with freedom. She is a child of the earth who is happiest when she is alone with her pet fox-cub. But like the fox, she herself is hunted—by two men, Edward Marston, a Nonconformist minister whom she marries but discovers is impotent, and Jack Reddin, the local squire and leader of the hunt, for whom she experiences a desperate passion. In her struggles, she becomes symbolic of “all things hunted and snared and destroyed”. Her only escape is to go to earth, to burrow under ground. But her hole is not a den; it becomes a coffin.

JM Coetzee once said of Robinson Crusoe, a novel he rewrote in his own Foe(1986), that the idea of a man being marooned alone on an island is perhaps the “only story”. In Coetzee’s fiction his lonely protagonists usually find themselves in societies without any recognisable moral centre. They are often afflicted by a nameless menace, guilty of no crime except that of being alive. For Coetzee, writing under the influence of Kafka, it seems as if life itself is a prison sentence, from which there is no fixed date of release. We are all, in our own way, hole-dwellers.

Samuel Beckett, in his plays, novels and prose-poetry, offers a dramatised representation of this peculiarly modern dilemma. His tramps, outcasts and vagabonds, with their fluid, interchangeable identities and patterns of repetitive behaviour, are sent off in search of missing people or on bizarre quests that have no end. Increasingly confused, they find themselves retreating to smaller and more claustrophobic spaces—dustbins (Endgame), a single bed (Molloy), a muddy hole (How It Is). They are inhabiters of the psychological underground, because they have few expectations and exist in a kind of exaggerated limbo, perpetually waiting for nothing. They do not want to go on, but they go on, all the same, towards “a long unbroken time without before or after ... life and death all nothing”.

For Dostoevsky, writing in the mid-19th century, the underground man, the isolated consciousness freed from all religion and social responsibility, was the voice of the future. He is the nihilist who, like Saddam, longs to elevate himself above the common morality of the herd, to create his own laws, become his own man. But though he fears death, this underground man cannot embrace life. And so he must remain, like the scabrous narrator of Notes from the Underground (1864), locked inside a metaphysical prison, unable to “make myself anything, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect”.

Yet what of works of actual (as opposed to metaphoric) prison literature? A book such as Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling (1992), his remarkable memoir about his four and a half years as a hostage in Beirut, is valuable because it testifies not only to suffering hut also to human resilience and to the wealth and freedom that can, paradoxically, be discovered only in real poverty and isolation. Alone in his cell in Beirut, Keenan discovered truths about himself—about his needs, his selfishness, his failures and his longing for company—that, in any other circumstances, he would never have known. Shut away in his bole deep beneath the streets of Beirut, the walls of Keenan’s prison came to represent the whole world and his place in it. What he experienced was cruel and humiliating, but it was freedom-in-isolation of the kind that Saddam Hussein would never have known as he lay in his own hole in the ground in Tikrit, with nothing but a revolver, a bottle of water and bad dreams for company.