Fallaci's elegy to a freedom fighter; A Man, by Oriana Fallaci. New York: Simon & Schuster. $14.95
Oriana Fallaci seems to think the political novel is a sledgehammer for pounding ideas into the reader's head. She will have none of the bittersweet tales of a Milan Kundera or the sardonic fables of a George Orwell. In order to narrate the true-life saga of a 20th-century Greek freedom fighter, she turns to the spy thriller while ultimately sabotaging its techniques.
Under firmer control, in the hands of a Graham Greene for instance, the conventions of the thriller could have served Fallaci's purpose well. But Fallaci lets her story be overwhelmed by the burden of sending a message. While "A Man" fascinates initially and its early chapters are assembled with an artful attention to dramatic effect, its repetitiveness and headlong pace soon become exhausting, its allussions to ancient Greek tragedy irritating, its windy speechifying boring.
Alessandro Panagoulis, the ebulient protagonist of "A Man," was anything but boring. He was a poet, a revolutionist, a man intensely in love with life. For trying to assassinate right-wing dictator George Papadopoulos in 1968, he spent five years in prison. Three years after his release from prison, on May 1, 1976 , he was killed in an automobile accident, as he was about to release documents incriminating high officials of the successor regime. Panagoulis was a libertarian who hated party labels and fought repression from left or right. In his last years, he was also the lover of Oriana Fallaci.
As the fearless interrogater of the Shah, Kissinger, Khomeini, Fallaci has established herself as perhaps the most famous political interviewer in the world. She is not a novelist, but she has vowed to tell the world about her beloved Alekos, the lonely rebel-hero who would not give into power of any stripe.
Telling her story as a novel enables Fallaci to endow it with a shape and immediacy not permitted in orthodox biography. And the first third of the book -- the attempted assassination, the trial and imprisonment -- works very well indeed. No torture can make Panagoulis reveal his secrets or betray his co- consprators. When he confronts his captors, he mocks them and vows revenge. He escapes once but is tracked down and locked into a wretched solitary cell made just for him.
After the colonels are ousted and Panagoulis is freed, he makes a half-hearted try at a vaguely left-wing political stand. He wins an honorary seat in parliament, but is clearly out of his element. The world of compromise and tit-for-tat is more alien than the black-and-white reality of prison walls. Unable to rage at physical and psychological torment, he sputters and grows dispirited. Only when he realizes he is being followed does his life take on the old vibrancy, at least until near the end, when he knows there is no putting off the inevitable showdown.
Fallaci functions in the novel as both omniscient narrator and as dutiful Sancho Panza to Aleko's Don Quixote. It is dismaying to see this spokeswoman for feminism tag along when Panagoulis changes overnight from bomb-thrower to would-be politician, or even when he arbitrarily makes vacation plans for the two of them. But there she is, right at his heels, no matter how silly or arbitrary he is. If all this a matter of personal politics better left to Fallaci herself, it nonetheless speaks volumes about the mystifying powers of romance.
Fallaci's easy acceptance of Panagoulis's political pronouncements, however, should concern us all. To take his ideas seriously is to endorse the mesmerizing but insidious half-truth that no state governs with clean hands, that the good man must stay outside and above politics. For all his courage and righteousness, Panagoulis ultimately stands for a pietistic anarchism. For to be morally pure in his sense, to be constantly "outside the system," is to be outside history. It is to relinquish the struggle for truth and justice to the very people who killed him.