by Claire Chambers
Much has been written about Boris Johnson as a politician in recent weeks. But Johnson is also an author of fiction, verse (I won't dignify it by using the word 'poetry'), and journalism. As such, another way of understanding the man's worldview is to scrutinize his imaginative work. I examine Johnson's little-known comic novel Seventy-Two Virgins (2004), which centres on the attempt by an Islamist cell to attack Westminster Hall during a visit from an unnamed American president.
In this blog post I consider the book's inescapable Islamophobia, and the light this sheds on Johnson, figurehead of the Brexit campaign. Such Islamophobia is particularly concerning in the context of the post-referendum British upsurge in xenophobia, racism, and religious hatred.
Seventy-Two Virgins is an unpleasant and unfunny book which has a simile and a stereotype problem. Johnson's similes are usually clunky and sometimes offensive. Early on in the novel, he describes West London as being 'spread out … in the morning sun, like a beautiful woman surprised in bed without her make-up'. Not only does this reveal Johnson's patronizing view of women, about which more shortly, but also the image's derivation − unwitting or otherwise − from T. S. Eliot's superior lines, 'the evening is spread out against the sky. | Like a patient etherized upon a table', does no favours to either text. Much later, clapping from the audience in Westminster Palace is compared to 'the spastic batting of a butterfly's wings as it dies against a window'. Here Johnson's verbiage and the imprecision of his image flutter against his outdated and ableist use of the word 'spastic'.
Received ideas about marginalized groups are repeatedly reinforced in this novel, while stereotypes of the dominant race, class, and gender are gently unsettled. Our protagonist is Roger Barlow, a well-connected MP and cycling enthusiast with a chaotic home life. He seems to be a philanderer with little time or interest for constituency matters, but ultimately turns out to be a good egg.
Bromley's beautiful, buxom parliamentary researcher, who has the curious name of Cameron, is portrayed as smart and independent, but deep down she longs for the love of a strong man. This leads her to procure press passes for her opinionated left-wing boyfriend, disastrously enabling his Islamist contacts to enter the historic chamber. Cameron acts uncharacteristically because she is fuelled by an 'endocrinal choir of happiness within', caused by chemicals associated with sexual love: phenylethylamine, norepinephrine, adrenalin, serotonin, and dopamine. Women and their hormones, eh?
Also stereotyped is William Eric Kinloch Onyeama, the Nigerian parking attendant who implausibly uses the obsolete public-school adjective 'wizard' despite being a scarified member of the Hausa 'tribe'. Then there is Dragan Panic, the nominatively deterministic Serbian tow-truck man. During the Kosovo War Dragan set fire to a Muslim hayrick in Pristina, and he now channels his hatred into clamping cars.
Ordinary people and their opinions are routinely derided as 'cretinous' and 'moronic', asylum seekers are 'Martians' or from 'Pluto' – enemy aliens, do you get it? – while words like 'wogs', 'towelheads', and 'niggers' repeatedly rear their ugly heads. Admittedly, the racial slurs are carefully framed as coming from various characters, but the lack of a positive ethnic-minority character does little to counter-balance them. It seems that Johnson wishes to pour poison on the powerless rather than following satire's usual aim of speaking truth to power.
When it comes to Islamists, the portrayal becomes even sketchier. The cell is first introduced as 'four dark customers' who enter a greasy spoon café. The group comprises its leader, who goes by the alias of Jones, and his associates Haroun, Habib, and Dean. Strangely, we are told that Jones's father is a gynaecologist who works in Karachi, Pakistan, but Jones swears in Arabic and is described as looking like 'an Arab-type thing'. As the haziness of his national identity suggests, even though he is central to the plot, the character known as 'Jones the Bomb' is barely present in this novel. This man, who is depicted as being sexually puritanical and well-versed in the Qur'an, inexplicably eats a full English breakfast in the greasy spoon. Although pork products are carefully not mentioned, it seems highly unlikely that this meal would be halal.
Jones picked up his false name from time spent at the fictional Welsh institution of Llangollen University, which allows Johnson to shoehorn in some hackneyed jokes about the intellectual laxity of former polytechnics and degrees in media studies. Little explanation is given as to what has driven this former hairdressing student to become a murderous extremist. A seemingly baffled Johnson resorts to the erotic rationalization also deployed by other Islamophobic writers such as Martin Amis:
Because if Palestine was the cause for sickos like [the terrorists], it was only at best the proximate cause. There is one really psychologically satisfying explanation for the suicidal behaviour of young men, and it is something to do with sex, or at least with self-esteem.
Certainly Haroun and Habib, unequivocally Arab and almost interchangeable stock characters, are fuelled by sexual frustration and lust for the seventy-two virgins they hope to find in paradise. They are caricatured as wily Arab Muslims with hooked noses and 'almost Disney-ish features'. In cartoons such as Aladdin, the Arab is likewise illustrated with an aquiline proboscis and as blood-thirsty and barbaric. To adapt Hari Kunzru's recent phrasing, Seventy-Two Virgins' physical distortion of Arabs creates a 'Weimar feeling'.
Reviewing Seventy-Two Virgins in the Observer, David Smith charitably asserts that one of the novel's strongest suits is the insight it provides into the mindset of the final terrorist, Dean, and what causes this 'young boy from Wolverhampton' to turn to extremism. I respectfully disagree. We are presented with much detail about Dean's adoptive white parents Dennis and Vie and their banal feud with a neighbour over his home cheese-making. Despite having some potential as a character, however, the mixed-race Dean comes across simplistically as a benefits scrounger and opportunist. He is given the following free indirect discourse line of racial self-hatred: 'The interesting thing about his half-caste looks, he decided, was that he didn't look Negroid'. Given his indeterminate looks, Dean decides to pass as Arab to impress a girl.
Johnson predictably zeroes in on cultural confusion and the split self of his novel's lone biracial character, articulating great pessimism about hybrid identities. Dean's biological father was a Midlands businessman who went cruising for 'a bit of black' and impregnated a non-white woman of indeterminate subjectivity. Adopted by an ageing couple, the boy is a mediocrity at school. As a teenager he sets fire to the neighbour's partition hedge after ill-advisedly stepping in to help in the family dispute. When he is arrested for this vandalism, his adoptive father calls him a 'coon' and thus sets off the boys' descent into petty crime and radicalization.
To be clear, I am not arguing that it is illegitimate for a non-Muslim author to write about Muslims or Islamist terror. This is not some plea for 'authenticity', but artists do have to do their homework. Chris Morris spent years researching and talking to people in preparation for Four Lions, and this comes through in the film and its warm reception from many young Muslims. By contrast, for his 'research' Boris seems to have had about three website windows open. He makes some basic mistakes: for example, he twice refers to 'a haram', which he glosses as 'a disgrace'. But haram is an adjective rather than a noun and it means 'forbidden' – perhaps Johnson is thinking of the Urdu word sharam, shame or disgrace. He also construes the word ummah as meaning 'the diaspora of aggrieved Islamic youth' when it actually denotes the global Muslim community. These kinds of error further invalidate his plot, and indicate a laziness of thinking and of action similar to the one which got us into the current political mess.
In the final analysis, Johnson's contempt for his characters – except a certain buffoonish politician with a classical education – is barely concealed. There is little to admire in this novel: one laugh-out-loud moment when a panicky security officer speculates on whether a living terrorist can be said to have a history of suicide bombing, and a few nuggets of information about Ancient Greece and Rome. Other than that, he takes pops at all the usual right-wing targets: the Labour Party, anti-Iraq War protestors, the BBC, academics. Increasingly, Johnson's narrative voice does not even pretend to stay neutral, so that we are given heavy-handed steers about how to judge 'the pathetic Islamofascistic male' or his 'perverted Wahhabi mixture of lust, terror and disgust'.
As we head into the virgin territory of Brexit, it is worth remembering this slight and nasty little book. Let this, not his deceptively affable appearances on satirical news show Have I Got News For You, stand as Boris Johnson's epitaph as a politician and a cultural producer. As Jonathan Freedland puts it in a recent article, 'we won’t forget what you did' – or wrote.