Free spirit looks back in anger

WHEN novelist Tariq Goddard was a scholarship student at a West Country public school in the 1980s, he spent hours reading about the Republicans who briefly formed the Spanish government in the 1930s. His first novel, Homage to a Firing Squad, is set during the last desperate days of the Civil War, but it owes as much to If as it does to Goddard’s interest in history.

"That period was one that caught my imagination the most, because if you feel like an anarchist at school," says Tariq in his deep London growl, "reading about hundreds of thousands of anarchists 50 years earlier is incredibly inspiring." Goddard admits that his disruptive behaviour was akin to engaging in battle and resulted in his expulsion. "The whole thing was like a war, it was very exciting."

That youthful rebellion seeps into Homage, where a band of bumbling Republican volunteers, all in their early 20s and more obsessed with drinking and sexual adventuring than with politics, attempt to assassinate a local Don who has betrayed their cause - though the lads are really in it for the money. The story is told over a single night in which a band of amigos, Captain, Largo, Ali and Josip, wander from a Republican fair to the Don’s residence, narrowly avoiding massacres en route.

Waiting at the Don’s hacienda are his daughters, Rosa and Captain’s lover, Lucille, who proves to be a cooler operator than the boys. Goddard is strong on one-liners, on the relationship between the men, and rather precociously, on middle-aged angst. The Don is "a man for whom acting and essence are two parts of the same confusion" and who recognises that all the world really is a stage. His wife mourns her lost youth and precarious future; the Don’s brothers are eaten up with jealousy over his power; the battles are a shambles.

This might sound like the territory of Latin writers such as Marquez or Mario Vargas Llosa, but Goddard is adamant that his novel is not documentary fiction and could just as easily have been set during the Franco-Prussian war or in post-1944 Eastern Europe. "I wanted to pick a period that we’re familiar with and that dealt with the issue of ideology," he says. But, I ask, doesn’t the reader inevitably bring their own romantic ideas or fragments of historical knowledge to the novel and view it through that particular spectrum?

Over lunch in a West London tapas bar we tease out the thorny problem of novelists plundering history. Many have set the precedent and Goddard’s novel makes a nod towards those who supported the Republican struggle in his title, which is a homage itself to George Orwell’s non-fictional account of the war, Homage to Catalonia. There is also now a vogue for the subject, with English historian Paul Preston making headlines in Spain with his revelations about the Civil War, novelist Chris Paling’s forthcoming The Repentant Morning about a London intellectual’s involvement with the Republicans due out next year, and American scriptwriter David Benioff’s new adaptation of For Whom the Bell Tolls currently in production.

"Where you get crass or do badly is if you embellish the horror," says Goddard. "But in a novel you can convey something of what it was like to be alive then with a whole range of people’s experiences and responses."

Among Goddard’s own earlier experiences and responses was his feeling of being set apart from his friends by his family background. His mother was an air hostess, originally from Uzbekistan, who was orphaned in Mecca and, along with her brother, adopted by the British consul in Oman. His father was a British army officer who married late in life (he met Goddard’s mother in the Middle East), read his son military histories and took ferrets to the school sports day. "When I was growing up I was always ‘other’," he says. "It encouraged me to go out and make friends because I was never going to find someone who was the same as me. I felt strange wherever I’d go."

For all Goddard’s adolescent angst, at the age of 27, he oozes self-confidence and optimism. Homage was written while he was still a student at the University of Warwick. His second novel, Dynamo, is already scheduled for publication next spring and he is writing his third entitled War Pigs - "a British Deer Hunter" - set just after the Second World War in the New Forest. All his novels take liberties with actual historical events and chronology but "the wider epoch is basically recorded in the spirit of the times and in the mood generally". These are ambitious undertakings for such a young writer, but Homage is a promising start.

Goddard insists that I should read Dynamo because it’s a better book, and more faithful to history. " I wanted to tell my own story, but at the same time tell something about the original story. It’s about more than just standing up to authority, it has parallels with today." Standing up to oppression is a recurring theme in his fiction and the plot of Dynamo revolves around a football match in Moscow in 1938 between the NKVD team and Spartak, the workers’ team and Soviet heroes.

During the darkest period of the purges, Soviet workers could vent their rage on Stalin’s secret police, through backing their favourite team. Goddard says that he wants to create such a unique fictional signature that anyone would immediately recognise his style picking up any of his novels. Indeed, in Dynamo, he makes an obvious link with Homage when, in the first chapter, you realise that the Spanish team secretary for Moscow Spartak is Muerta Astro, the tough beer maid first encountered in Homage. Other Catalan migrs from Goddard’s first novel make an appearance, reinforcing the connection between his two fictional worlds.

For a debut novelist who has already sold the film rights to his first novel and is short-listed for the Whitbread First Novel Award, his confidence is probably not misplaced. Goddard still seems like an ingnu who can’t quite believe his own good fortune and is oblivious to the caprice of fashions in fiction when he tells me with a grin that he is going to be writing novels until he’s ready to retire. I hope he’s right.

Homage to a Firing Squad is published by Spectre at 12.99