Red Army Faction Blues by Ada Wilson

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Red Army Faction Blues by Ada Wilson

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Andy Lancaster
Reviewed by Andy Lancaster
Summary: Wilson has created here a place where worlds collide, firstly the worlds of the Red Army Faction of German terrorists in the 1960s and the world of the excesses of pop music in the same period, and then the world of fiction and history. While this fusion takes some work on the part of the reader, ultimately it is a revealing and entertaining exploration of both dimensions.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: January 2012
Publisher: Route Publishing
ISBN: 978-1901927481

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Ada Wilson admits that his fascination with the period is what drove his work on this novel, and it is the wealth of detail and background that strikes one when reading his account of Peter Urbach, the undercover agent whose role was to act as an agent provocateur to the Red Brigade. Urbach is revealed from the outset as a plant, an undercover operative who needs to keep all events of the group 'noted and filed' for his masters. And throughout the first half of the novel we see Urbach recording the changes and developments, the complex web of political ideology, naivety and the pure egocentricity of youth which created the happening of the Baader-Meinhof gang.

But this is not merely the record of an observer, for Peter is both without and within, a detached commentator on the weaknesses and childishness of the students, but also thanks to his emotional involvement with one of their member, he does convey an excitement and freshness about their ideals. The use of contemporary documents and extracts from speeches and court cases gives this the ring of documentary accuracy, but Wilson's imagining of the character in the events, responding to these young idealists as people also creates if not sympathy at least an empathy with them.

This isn't an easy trick to accomplish, and there is sometimes a tension between the heavy politicking of the members of the group and the cynical thoughts of the double-agent which makes this a difficult read, as does Peter's 'terse' and rather truncated inner speech, which without concentration makes it easy to lose sight of what was a very complex tangle of relationships, and even of motives and policies. At times I felt I needed a quick glance at a glossary of who was who just to regain my bearings.

But the aspect of the novel which gives it a radically additional dimension from the 'factional' insider account of the events in 60's Germany is the intriguing evidence that the mental breakdown of Peter Green, ex-guitarist of Fleetwood Mac, came shortly after his visit to Berlin where he met with members of the group. The mystery of these events takes Wilson/Urbach into a parallel investigation of pop music and commercialism, of the fame and drug-fuelled egotism of the rock star, and to the connection between the world of music and politics which was so evident in the 1960s. It is a thought-provoking direction to take, and raises questions about the mix of politics, alienation, drugs and music that was encapsulated by Berlin in 1967.

Ultimately I am not sure that the complexity of the issues and directions here can be truly borne by the Peter Urbach character, and such a situation called for a more subtle observer. For some, the conclusion may be rather trite, but the novel inspired me to undertake more background reading on Baader-Meinhoff and Green, so full marks for working with a theme to capture the imagination of at least this reader.

The novel for me definitely kindled a desire to find out more about the complex events of the Baader-Meinhof group and that 60's Germany which spawn them, and for that, one of the classic texts must be The Baader-Meinhof Complex by Stefan Aust, at 500 pages a detailed documentation of the whole phenomenon.

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