The Unknown Soldier
by Gerald Seymour
I don’t usually do politics on this site. However, in writing about this book, politics are bound to come into the article somewhere. Though I have never read any of Gerald Seymour’s books until now, I do remember him as a roving journalist for Independent Television. He often reported from trouble spots like Northern Ireland and the Middle East. And if that isn’t political, nothing is.
The Unknown Soldier is not a ” nice” story. Indeed, it’s not one I would have normally picked up in a bookshop. I prefer escapism to realism, even in thrillers. However, a friend recommended it and gave it to me to read.
Imagine this scenario if you will:
Somewhere in the world – in all likelihood in what is usually regarded as the Western World – there is a man with a suitcase. It’s just an ordinary Samsonite suitcase, packed full of clothes, toiletries and the usual things a traveler would take on a trip. But, wrapped up inside the clothes etc is an explosive casing, easily triggered, and contained within the casing is some radioactive nuclear material – so destructive that the person who put it there is bound to die very soon. If activated in a major city centre, the bomb will kill a few hundred people – maybe a few thousand, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. The long term effects of the radioactivity, half-life a hundred years or more, will be apocalyptic – missing limbs, deformities, cancer in generations as yet unborn. This device might be discovered by chance but the likelihood of it being picked up by airport scanning devices is very small.
And now the big question:
Where does all this hate come from? What could possibly be the origin of such hatred in this man with the suitcase, hatred that would inspire him to trigger his device and destroy the lives and the futures of perhaps millions of fellow human beings?
It’s a question that must have been asked a thousand times over, post 9/11 in New York, post 7/7 in London, post the events of a few months ago in Paris and elsewhere. Yet, the scenario, and the question, is central to the plot of The Unknown Soldier. Set principally in Saudi Arabia, but also in Afghanistan, Britain and the US, its eponymous protagonist (maybe I should call him antagonist but that would be unfair to Mr Seymour) is Caleb.
” ‘Do I need to know your true identity? No, but I like to have the loose threads tied. There is your accent…… You remember the morning I woke you with a shout, an order, in English, but you did not respond? At lunch ….. in the German language. Five days ago ….. it was Russian. You are a man of great talent, my friend, because you did not betray yourself.’ “
Caleb has erased his own past from his memory and he is on journey to meet his new ‘family’ in the desert. His task is to collect the deadly suitcase. Dedicated, ruthless and without fear, Caleb has fought the Americans in Afghanistan. He has been imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, has undergone interrogation and has been released as being no threat. Resistant to all types of torture and interrogation, he has preserved a false identity as a harmless Afghani taxi driver.
‘Sitting close to him and cross-legged, she said, “Those men with you, because I saw their faces, wanted to kill me, would have. I heard you. Know that I thank you.” ‘
His hunters are members of various American security organisations (never entirely working, so it seems, towards the same ends). There are British agents too, and search and destroy drones, operated from a base in Saudi, shortly destined for closure. Completing the cast are Bart, a disgraced English doctor, and Beth, a minerologist who doubles as a teacher to new expats. All have their own demons, And the hunters hunt without knowing whom they are hunting or where in the world he has come from.
The Unknown Soldier is certainly an exciting thriller. Gerald Seymour has used his experiences (one assumes) in war zones to construct a story that takes the reader on a rollercoaster ride across three continents in a search for a man who has no identity and no past. We are used to the aftermath of terrorism; our newspapers are filled with reports of atrocities and the questioning and analyses that go on once the blood and bodies have been cleared away. Why did it happen? Could it have been prevented?
In this novel, Seymour posits a ‘before’, a ‘before’ that is as scary as you can imagine. Yet perhaps the scariest thing of all is that he manages at the same time to raise just enough sympathy for his protagonist for us to stop and consider that all important question. WHY? To repeat, where does the hatred come from?
‘It was a swan’s song. The far edge of the left wing had been hit, a great destabilizing hole punched in it. The Predator, brilliant white from nose tip to tail, from port wing to left wing, was spinning down.’
Most of us, I suspect, as we go through life, meet people whom we dislike, maybe hate. There may even be circumstances – such as with a child murder – where we might be persuaded to kill the perpetrator ourselves. But to hate a whole society, regardless of skin colour, political or sexual orientation, occupation or belief demands a different degree of hatred altogether. A man like Caleb must have no doubts; he cannot afford to hesitate.
What intrigued most about The Unknown Soldier is not the plot but that the author comes very close to answering the question. As we get to know more and more about Caleb’s former life, we catch glimpses of the rationale behind his actions and we ask another question: born into a different family, a different community, a different environment, could that be ME?
If you like thrillers and hard realism in your fiction, this is a book for you. I found it a very uncomfortable read, scary too, and that last question remained unanswered.