A Mentally Ill Anti-Hero

I had not been specifically looking for depictions of mentally ill individuals in literature.  That would be the subject of a doctoral thesis and indeed a matter for debate. But I am a big Eric Ambler fan.  He relished producing thrillers based on the most diverse array of male narrative personalities, each with his own particular voice, take on life, peculiarities and obviously reactions to the dangerous situations in which he is put or put himself into with little or no moral handwringing. They are hardly professional spies, bumbling at first but ingeniously able to land on their feet by the end. It is the triumph of the amateur in a nasty world.

One such book I just recently finished, A Kind of Anger, surprised me with its mental ill protagonist, Piet Maas. Maas has recently been released from a psychiatric ward after a suicide attempt brought on by a failure of his own cherished literary magazine and his love affair.  He is eking out a precarious living as a journalist in the Paris bureau for a major American weekly newspaper (think Time or Newsweek). It is precarious because the owner of the weekly newspaper does not take well to “psychos” and the chief of the Paris bureau just plain does not like him. Morose, slovenly and with a negative attitude, he is pushed into following what seems like a wild-goose-chase of a story. But it’s not. He thinks of himself as unwilling to take risks and place himself in harm’s way, but he does. He goes rogue on his employers, engages in a deadly dangerous plot to extract money and ends up with the girl (his equal in intrigue), the money and a much rosier outlook on life.

Obviously someone who is seriously depressed is not going to act this way and engaging in death-defying activities, while perhaps exhilarating for some, is not going to lead to the road to recovery.  But Ambler’s choice of a mentally ill narrator was a bold choice in 1964 when the book was published and the stigma of mental illness was even stronger than today.  Perhaps that was the point.  It would be refreshing to have a contemporary writer take on more realistically the voice of a mentally ill protagonist who somehow manages to overcome.  There should be quite an audience.

By the way, A Kind of Anger still has a modern feel—the intrigue involves the politics of Iraq, oil and the Kurdish desire for an independent state.  You might enjoy it!

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