2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke (1968)

Origins

It all started with a short story Clarke wrote for a BBC competition in 1948 when he was just 21, and titled The Sentinel. It was eventually published in 1951 under the title Sentinel of Eternity.

13 years later, after completing Dr. Strangelove in 1964, American movie director Stanley Kubrick turned his thoughts to making a film with a science fiction subject. Someone suggested Clarke as a source and collaborator, and when they met, later in 1964, they got on well and formed a good working relationship.

Neither of them could have predicted that it would take them four long years of brainstorming, viewing and reading hundreds of sci-fi movies and stories, and then honing and refining the narrative, to develop the screenplay which became the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968 and one of the most influential movies of all time.

The original plan had been to develop the story as a novel first, then turn it into a screenplay, then into the film, but the process ended up being more complex than that. The novel ended up being written mostly by Clarke, while Kubrick’s screenplay departed from it in significant ways.

The most obvious difference is that the book is full of Clarke’s sensible, down-to-earth, practical explanations of all or most of the science involved. It explains things. From the kick-start given to human evolution by the mysterious monolith through to Bowman’s journey through the Star Gate, Clarke explains and contextualises.

This is all in stark contrast with the film which Kubrick made as cryptic as possible by reducing dialogue to an absolute minimum, and eliminating all explanation. Kubrick is quoted as saying that the film was ‘basically a visual, nonverbal experience’, something which a novel, by definition, can not be.

The novel

The novel is divided into 47 short snappy chapters, themselves grouped into six sections.

1. Primeval Night

The basic storyline is reasonably clear. A million years ago an alien artefact appears on earth, materialising in Africa, in the territory of a small group of proto-human man-apes. Clarke describes their wretched condition in the hot parched Africa of the time, permanently bordering on starvation, watered only by a muddy streamlet, dying of malnutrition and weakness or of old age at 30, completely at the mercy of predators like a local leopard.

The object – 15 feet high and a yard wide – appears from nowhere. When the ape-men lumber past it on the way to their foraging ground, it becomes active and literally puts ideas into their heads. It takes possession of members of the group in turn and forces them to tie knots in grass, to touch their fingers together, to perform basic physical IQ tests. Then, crucially, it patiently shows them how to use stones and the bones of dead animals as tools.

The result is that they a) kill and eat a wild pig, the first meat ever eaten by the ape-men b) surround and kill the leopard that’s been menacing the tribe c) use these skills to bludgeon the leader of ‘the Others’, a smaller weaker tribe on the other side of the stream. In other words, the alien artefact has intervened decisively in the course of evolution to set man on his course to becoming a planet-wide animal killer and tool maker.

In the kind of fast-forward review section which books can do and movies can’t, Clarke then skates over the hundreds of thousands of years of evolution which follow, during which human’s teeth became smaller, their snouts less prominent, giving them the ability to make more precise sounds through their vocal cords – the beginnings of speech – how ice ages swept over the world killing most human species but leaving the survivors tougher, more flexible, more intelligent, and then the discovery of fire, of cooking, a widening of diet and survival strategies. And then to the recent past, to the Stone, Iron and Bronze ages, and sweeping right past the present to the near future and the age of space travel.

Compare and contrast the movie where all this is conveyed by the famous cut from a bone thrown into the air by an ape-man which is half way through its parabola when it turns into a space ship in orbit round earth. Prose describes, film dazzles.

2. T.M.A.-1

It is 2001. Humanity has built space stations in orbit around the earth, and a sizeable base on the moon. Dr Heywood Floyd, retired astrophysicist, is taking the journey from the American launch base in Florida, to dock with the orbiting space station, and then on to the moon base.

Clarke in his thorough, some might say pedantic, way, leaves no aspect of the trip undescribed and unexplained. How the rocket launcher works, how to prepare for blast-off, how the space station maintains a sort of gravity by rotating slowly, the precise workings of its space toilets (yes), the transfer to the shuttle down to the moon: Clarke loses no opportunity to mansplain every element of the journey, including some favourite facts familiar from the other stories I’ve read: the difference between weight and mass; how centrifugal spin creates increased gravity the further you are from the axis of spin; ‘the moon’s strangely close horizon’ (p.74); how damaging an alien artifact would be the work of a ‘barbarian’ (a thought repeated several times in Rama).

Two other features emerge. Clarke’s protagonists are always men, and they are almost always married men, keen to keep in touch with their wives, using videophones. In other words they’re not valiant young bucks as per space operas. It’s another element in the practical, level-headed approach of Clarke’s worldview.

Secondly, Clarke is a great one for meetingsChildhood’s End‘s middle sections rotate around the Secretary General of the United Nations who has a busy schedule of meetings, from his weekly conference with the Overlords to his meetings with the head of the Freedom league, and his discussion of issues arising with his number two.

A Fall of Moondust features hurried conferences between the top officials on the moon. The narrative of Rendezvous with Rama is punctuated all the way through by meetings of the committee made up of with representatives from the inhabited planets, who discuss the issues arising but also get on each other’s nerves, bicker and argue, grandstand, storm out and so on. His fondness for the set meeting, with a secretary taking notes and a chairman struggling to bring everyone into line, is another of the features which makes Clarke’s narratives seem so reassuringly mundane and rooted in reality.

Same here. Floyd is flying to the moon to take part in a top secret, high-level meeting of moon officials. He opens the meeting by conveying the President’s greetings and thanks (as people so often do in sci-fi thrillers like this).

In brief: a routine survey of the moon has turned up a magnetic anomaly in the huge crater named Tycho. (The anomaly has been prosaically named Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One – hence the section title T.M.A.-1.) When the surveyors dug down they revealed an object, perfectly smooth and perfectly black, eleven foot high, five foot wide and one and a quarter foot deep. Elementary geology has shown that the object was buried there three million years ago.

After a briefing with the moon team Floyd goes out by lunar tractor to the excavation site where digging has now fully revealed the artifact. Floyd and some others go down into the excavation and walk round the strange object which seems to absorb light. The sun is rising (the moon turns on its axis once in fourteen days) and as its light falls onto the artifact – for probably the first time in millions of years – Floyd and the others are almost deafened by five intense burst of screeching sound which cut through their radio communications.

Millions of miles away in space, deep space monitors, orbiters round Mars, a probe launched to Pluto – all record and measure an unusual burst of energy streaking across the solar system… Cut to:

3. Between Planets

David Bowman is captain of the spaceship Discovery. It was built to transport two live passengers (himself and Frank Poole) and three others in suspended animation, to Jupiter. But two years into the project the TMA-1 discovery was made and plans were changed. Now the ship is intending to use the gravity of Jupiter as a sling to propel it on towards Saturn. When they enter Saturn’s orbit the three sleeping crew members (nicknamed ‘hibernauts’) will be woken and the full team of five will have 100 days to study the super-massive gas giant, before all the crew re-enter hibernation, and wait to be picked up by Discovery II, still under construction.

Clarke is characteristically thorough in describing just about every aspect of deep space travel you could imagine, the weightlessness, the scientific reality of hibernation, the food, what the earth looks like seen from several million miles away. He gives an hour by hour rundown of Bowman and Poole’s 24-hour schedule, which is every bit as boring as the thing itself. He describes in minute astronomical detail the experience of flying through the asteroid belt and on among the moons of Jupiter, watching the sun ‘set’ behind it and other strange and haunting astronomical phenomena which no one has seen.

Then there’s a sequence in which he imagines the pictures sent back by a probe which Bowman and Poole send down into Jupiter’s atmosphere: fantastic but completely plausible imaginings. After reporting what they see from the ship, and the images relayed by the probe, the couple have done with Jupiter and set their faces to Saturn, some three months and four hundred million miles away.

The awesomeness doesn’t come from the special effects and canny use of classical music, as per the movie, but from straightforward statement of the scientific and technical facts – such as that they are now 700 million miles from earth (p.131), travelling at a speed of over one hundred thousand miles an hour (p.114).

4. Abyss

All activities on the Discovery are run or monitored by the ship’s onboard computer, HAL 9000, ‘the brain and nervous system of the ship’ (p.97). HAL stands for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer. It is the most advanced form of the self-teaching neural network which, Clarke predicts, will have been discovered in the 1980s.

HAL has a nervous breakdown. He predicts the failure of the unit which keeps the radio antenna pointed at earth. Poole goes out in one of the nine-foot space pods, anchors to the side of the ship, then does a short space walk in a space suit, unbolts the failing unit and replaces it.

But back inside the ship the automatic testing devices find nothing wrong with the unit. When a puzzled Bowman and Poole report all this back to earth, Mission Control come back with the possibility that the HAL 9000 unit might have made a mistake.

Poole and Bowman ponder the terrifying possibility that the computer which is running the whole mission might be failing. Mission Control send a further message saying the two HAL 9000 units they are using to replicate all aspects of the mission back home both now recommend disconnecting the HAL computer aboard the Discovery. Earth is just in the middle of starting to give details about how to disconnect HAL when the radio antenna unit really does fail and contact with earth is broken. Coincidence? Bear in mind that HAL has been monitoring all of these conversations…

After discussing the possibility that HAL was right all along about the unit and that they are being paranoid  about him, Poole goes out for another space walk and repair. He’s in the middle of installing the new unit when he sees something out the corner of his eye, looks up and sees the pod suddenly shooting straight at him. With no time to take evasive action Poole is crushed by the ten-ton pod, his space suit ruptured, he is dead in seconds. Through an observation window Bowman sees first the pod and then Bowman’s body fly past and away from the ship.

Bowman confronts Hal, who calmly regrets that there has been accident. Mission orders demand that Bowman now revive one of the three hibernators since there must always be two people active on the ship. HAL argues with Bowman, saying this won’t be necessary, by which stage Bowman realises there is something seriously wrong. He threatens to disconnect HAL at which point the computer abruptly relents. Bowman makes his way to the three hibernator pods and has just started to revive the next in line of command, Whitehead when… HAL opens both doors of the ship’s airlock and all the air starts to flood out into space. In the seconds before the ship becomes a vacuum, Bowman manages to make it to an emergency alcove, seal himself in, jets it up with oxygen and climb into the spacesuit kept there for just such emergencies.

Having calmed down from the shock, Bowman secures his suit then climbs out, makes his way through the empty, freezing, lifeless ship to the sealed room where HAL’s circuits are stored and powered and… systematically removes all the ‘higher’ functions which permit HAL to ‘think’, leaving only the circuits which control the ship’s core functions. HAL asks him not to and, exactly as in the film, reverts to his ‘childhood’, his earliest learning session, finally singing the song ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do.’

Hours later Bowman makes a journey in the remaining pod to fix the radio antenna, then returns, closes the airlock doors and slowly restores atmosphere to the ship. Then contacts earth. And it is only now that Dr Floyd, summoned by Mission Control, tells him the true reason for the mission. Tells him about the artifact in Tycho crater. Tells him that it emitted some form of energy which all our monitors indicate was targeted at Saturn, specifically at one of its many moon, Japetus. That is what the Discovery has been sent to investigate.

And it is only in the book that Clarke is able to tell us why HAL went mad. It was the conflict between a) the demand to be at all times totally honest, open and supportive of his human crew and b) the command to keep the true purpose of the mission secret, which led HAL to have a nervous breakdown, and decide to remove one half of the conflict i.e. the human passengers, which would allow him to complete the second half, the mission to Saturn, in perfect peace of ‘mind’.

5. The Moons of Saturn

So now Bowman properly understands the mission, goes about fixing the Discovery, is in constant contact with earth and Clarke gives us an interesting chapter pondering the meaning of the sentinel and what it could have been saying. Was it a warning to its makers, or a message to invade? Where was the message sent? To beings which had evolved on or near Saturn (impossible, according to all the astrophysicists)? Or to somewhere beyond the solar system itself? In which case how could anything have travelled that far, if Einstein is correct and nothing can travel faster than light?

These last two chapters have vastly more factual information in than the movie. What the movie does without any dialogue, with stunning images and eerie music, Clarke does with his clear authoritative factual explanations. He gives us detailed descriptions of the rings of Saturn from close up, along with meticulously calculated information about perihelions and aphelions and the challenges of getting into orbit around Saturn.

But amid all this factuality is the stunning imaginative notion that the moon of Saturn, Japetus, bears on its surface a vast white eye shape at the centre of which stands an enormous copy of the TMA artifact, a huge jet black monolith maybe a mile high.

Which leads into a chapter describing the race which placed it there, which had evolved enough to develop planet travel, then space travel, then moved their minds into artificial machines and then into lattices of light which could spread across space and so, finally, into what humans would call spirit, free from time and space, at one with the universe.

It is this enormous artifact which Bowman now radios Mission Control he is about to go down to in the pod and explore.

6. Through the Star Gate

In the movie this section becomes a non-verbal experience of amazing visual effects. A book can’t do that. It has to describe and, being Clarke, can’t help also explaining, at length, what is going on.

Thus the book is much clearer and more comprehensible about what happens in this final section. Bowman guides his pod down towards the enormous artifact and is planning to land on its broad ‘top’ when, abruptly it turns from being an object sticking out towards him into a gate or cave or tunnel leading directly through the moon it’s situated on. He has just time to make one last comment to Mission Control before the pod is sucked through into the star gate and his adventure begins.

He travels along some faster-than-light portal, watching space bend around him and time slow down to a halt. He emerges into a place where the stars are more static and, looking back, sees a planet with a flat face pockmarked by black holes like the one he’s just come through, and what, when he looks closely, seems to be the wreck of a metal spaceship. He realises this must be a kind of terminal for spaceships between voyages, then the pod slowly is sucked back into one of the holes.

More faster than light travelling, then he emerges into a completely unknown configuration of stars, red dwarfs, sun clusters, the pod slows to a halt and comes to rest in… a hotel room.

Terrified, Bowman makes all the necessary checks, discovers it has earth gravity and atmosphere, gets out of the pod, takes off his spacesuit, has a shower and shave, dresses in one of the suits of clothes provided in a wardrobe, checks out the food in the fridge, or in tins or boxes of cereal.

But he discovers that the books on the coffee table have no insides, the food inside the containers is all the same blue sludge. When he lies on the bed flicking through the channels on the TV he stumbles across a soap opera which is set in this very same hotel room he is lying in. Suddenly he understands. The sentinel, after being unearthed, monitored all radio and TV signals from earth and signalled them to the Japetus relay station and on here – wherever ‘here’ is – and used them as a basis to create a ‘friendly’ environment for their human visitor.

Bowman falls asleep on the bed and while he sleeps goes back in time, recapitulating his whole life. And part of him is aware that all the information of his entire life is being stripped from his mind and transferred to a lattice of light, the same mechanism which Clarke explained earlier in the novel, was the invention of the race which created the sentinel. Back, back, back his life reels until – in a miraculous moment – the room contains a baby, which opens its mouth to utter its first cry.

The crystal monolith appears, white lights flashing and fleering within its surface, as we saw them do when it first taught the man-apes how to use tools and eat meat, all those hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Now it is probing and instructing the consciousness of Bowman, guiding him towards the next phase. The monolith disappears. The being that was Bowman understands, understands its meaning, understands how to travel through space far faster than the primitive star gate he came here by. All he needs is to focus his ‘mind’ and he is there.

For a moment he is terrified by the immensity of space and the infinity of the future, but then realises he is not alone, becomes aware of some force supporting and sustaining him, the guiders.

Using thought alone he becomes present back in the solar system he came from. Looking down he becomes aware of alarm bells ringing and flotillas of intercontinental missiles hurtling across continents to destroy each other. He has arrived just as a nuclear war was beginning. Preferring an uncluttered sky, he abolishes all the missiles with his will.

Then he waited, marshalling his thoughts and brooding over his still untested powers. For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next.

But he would think of something.

And those are the final sentences of the book.

Thoughts

Like Childhood’s End the book proceeds from fairly understandable beginnings to a mind-boggling, universe-wide ending, carrying the reader step by step through what feels almost – if you let it take control of your imagination – like a religious experience.

Eliot Fremont-Smith reviewing the book in the New York Times, commented that it was ‘a fantasy by a master who is as deft at generating accelerating, almost painful suspense as he is knowledgeable and accurate (and fascinating) about the technical and human details of space flight and exploration.’

That strikes me as being a perfect summation of Clarke’s appeal – the combination of strict technical accuracy, with surprisingly effective levels of suspense and revelation.

His concern for imagining the impact of tiny details reminds me of H.G. Wells. In the Asimov and Blish stories I’ve been reading, if there’s a detail or the protagonist notices something, it will almost certainly turn out to be important to the plot. Clarke is the direct opposite. Like Wells his stories are full of little details whose sole purpose is to give the narrative a terrific sense of verisimilitude.

To pick one from hundreds, I was struck by the way that Dr Floyd finds wearing a spacesuit on the surface of the moon reassuring. Why? Because its extra weight and stiffness counter the one sixth gravity of the moon, and so subconsciously remind him of the gravity on earth. Knowing that fact, and then deploying it in order to describe the slight but detectable impact it has on one of his characters’ moods,strikes me as typical Clarke.

Hundreds of other tiny but careful thinkings-though of the situations which his characters find themselves in, bring them home and make them real.

And as to suspense, Clarke is a great fan of the simple but straightforward technique of ending chapters with a threat of disaster. E.g. after his first space walk Poole returns to the ship confident that he has fixed the problem.

In this, however, he was sadly mistaken. (p.140)

Although this is pretty cheesy, it still works. He is a master of suspense. The three other novels I’ve read by him are all thrilling, and even though I’ve seen the movie umpteen times and so totally know the plot, reading Clarke’s book I was still scared when HAL started malfunctioning, and found Bowman’s struggle to disconnect him thrilling and moving.

As to the final section, when Bowman travels through the star gate and is transformed into a new form of life, of celestial consciousness, if you surrender to the story the experience is quite mind-boggling.

It also explains a lot – and makes much more comprehensible – what is left to implication and special effects in the movie.

Forlorn predictions

Clarke expects that by 2001:

  • there will be a permanent colony on the moon, where couples will be having and bringing up children destined never to visit the earth
  • there will also be a colony on Mars
  • there will be a ‘plasma drive’ which allows for super-fast spaceship travel to other planets

I predict there will never be a colony on the moon, let alone Mars, and no ‘plasma drive’.

On the plus side, Clarke predicts that by 2001 there will be a catastrophic six billion people on earth, which will result in starvation, and food preservation policies even in the rich West. In the event there were some 6.2 billion people alive in 2001, but although there were the usual areas of famine in the world, there wasn’t the really widespread food shortages Clarke predicted.

The future has turned out to be much more human, mundane, troubled and earth-bound than Clarke and his generation expected.

Trailer

Credit

All references are to the 2011 reprint of the 1998 Orbit paperback edition of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, first published by Hutchinson in 1968.


Related links

Arthur C. Clarke reviews

  • Childhood’s End (1953) a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
  • A Fall of Moondust (1961) a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
  • Rendezvous With Rama (1973) it is 2031 and when an alien object, a cylinder 15 k wide by 50 k long, enters the solar system, and Commander Norton and the crew of Endeavour are sent to explore it

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke – a thrilling tale of the Overlords who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

American Colonies by Alan Taylor (2001)

Alan Taylor’s American Colonies is the first volume in the multi-volume Penguin History of the United States, edited by Eric Foner. It is a big-format book, with 470 densely packed pages covering the colonisation of America from the arrival of the first humans 15,000 years ago up to AD 1800. It is an extraordinarily thorough, wide-ranging, thought-provoking and exhilirating read, but which deals with some extremely grim and depressing subject matter.

Broad canvas

Most of the histories of America I’ve read start with Sir Walter Raleigh and the early English settlements of the 1580s and 90s, and then briskly run through the Anglo-Saxon settlement of the Atlantic coast in the 1600s, in a hurry to get to the War of Independence (in the 1770s) when the ‘true’ story of America begins.

Taylor’s approach couldn’t be more different. His canvas is longer and broader and much, much bigger. Longer, in that he starts with the arrival of the first humans in America some 13,000 BC. Echoing the picture painted by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel, he describes how a probably small group of hunter-gatherers in Siberia moved across what we now think of as the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska and then, as the climate improved, a) the land bridge flooded, separating America and Asia and b) the early settlers were able to move south into the huge empty continent.

Domesticable mammals

As we know from Guns, Germs and Steel, their arrival coincided with the mass extinction of all the large mammals in America – presumably through human overhunting – leaving no mammals on the continent capable of being domesticated. According to Jared Diamond this is perhaps the decisive difference between the inhabitants of Eurasia – which domesticated pigs, goats, cows and sheep and, crucially, the horse – and the inhabitants of all the other continents, which had hardly any or simply no domesticable mammals.

Animal diseases

The domesticated animals of Eurasia were important not only for their use as food, in providing skins and hides, manure to fertilise crops and the pulling power of horses and oxen – large numbers of farm animals allowed the fomenting of terrible epidemic diseases, which jumped the species barrier into humans and then spread through our densely populated towns and cities. We are the descendants of the survivors of repeated epidemics of plague, smallpox, tuberculosis and so on which devastated Asia and Europe.

Thus when the first Europeans arrived in the New World (on Columbus’s First Voyage of 1492), it wasn’t the gunpowder or steel swords or even the warriors on horseback which did for the natives – it was the diseases we brought. Again and again and again, Taylor tells harrowing stories of how our diseases – especially smallpox- devastated the populations of the West Indies, of the Aztec and Inca empires, then of the Mississippian civilisation, and then all up and down the Atlantic seaboard.

It’s only recently that historians have taken the measure of this devastating biological warfare: for a long time it was thought that the Native American population was about 1 million when the English started colonising the Atlantic coast; but now it is thought the original population, before the Spanish arrived in 1492, may have been as high as 20 million. I.e. in about a century (1490-1590) 95% of the Indian population was wiped out by European diseases.

Thus, Taylor emphasises, until recently historians thought that the Indian tribes which the European settlers encountered had inhabited their territories from time immemorial. The new ‘disease-aware’ theories suggest the exact opposite: that Europeans encountered survivors who were still reeling from the devastation of their populations by disease, which in turn had led to internecine warfare and the seizing of territory, to regrouping and realliancing (p.74). Often this occurred before the main body of European explorers arrived – after all it only took a few sailors going ashore from a Spanish ship to fill water barrels on the south coast to infect an Indian, who then took the disease back to his tribe, which passed it up along the Mississippi and to decimate the entire population.

Thus Taylor shows again and again that the social and ecological and political arrangements of the Indians which Europeans encountered, and took to be timeless, had in fact only come about because of the disruptive activities of the Europeans themselves.

The Spanish

So – number one – Taylor’s vastly broader canvas starts thousands of years before the conventional histories, in order to place the Native Americans within the fullest possible context.

It then – number two – very sensibly takes the time to give a thorough account of the Spanish conquests starting with Columbus’s first voyage of 1492. In fact, Taylor goes back before Columbus to give us enough European history to place the entire ‘Navigation Revolution’ in its full global context. The biggest single element of this was the continuing success of imperial Islam. The Turkish or Ottoman Empire finally captured Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, in 1453, and spread up into the Balkans (thus creating the hodge-podge of ethnicities and religions which has caused instability and conflict right up to the present day).

These Ottoman conquests closed off overland trade routes from Europe to India and the Spice Islands far to the East. And it was this closure of the Eastern route which gave a big financial incentive to adventurers and explorers to try and find a route west, across the seas, to the Spice Islands. As countless commentators have pointed out, it is one of the greatest ironies in history that the discovery of America was a terrible disappointment to the explorers and their royal patrons back in the capitals of Spain and Portugal and France and England. (And Taylor’s book is brutal about the terrible consequences for the native peoples everywhere the Europeans went.)

Taylor explains the economic and technological background to the Spanish conquests of Central and South America not just for their own sake, but because the Spanish also expanded up into what was later to become the USA. The Spanish colonised Florida and sent expeditions deep into what would later become California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. In doing so they established a particular pattern of landholding – vast haciendas farmed by natives turned into serfs – which would remain influential in the south-west USA for centuries, as well as bringing disease and disruption to the native peoples.

The West Indies

Taylor devotes a lot of space to the settlement of the numerous islands of the West Indies, firstly by Spain in the early 1500s. He describes how French and English pirates took to preying on the regular Spanish shipments of silver and gold from central America back to Europe via the Indies. Then how France and England set about establishing colonies of their own in this scattered archipelago of islands.

Taylor describes tells in great detail the settlement of Barbados and then of Jamaica. Several points emerge.

  1. The original settlers dropped like flies. The climate was inimical to white men, who also didn’t know – for a long time – what to farm in these places. It took some time before the invaders worked out that sugar cane was the perfect crop for the climate. Unfortunately, working cane is – as Taylor explains in detail – extremely labour-intensive.
  2. So the Europeans then proceeded to enslave and work to death as many of the native population as they could capture, waging genocidal wars with the rest, all the while spreading their fatal germs.
  3. It was when they’d worked the natives to annihilation, that the settlers began buying African slaves. The trade had existed for over a hundred years, but the Spanish and Portuguese had mainly made do with enslaving the local Indians. It was the sugar economy of the West Indies which converted the Slave Trade into an industrial concern.

The British colonies

There then follow a sequence of chapters which describe the English settlement of the Chesapeake Bay area. I learned that originally, the entire coast from the Spanish colony of Florida up to the French territories in Canada, was all known as ‘Virginia’, after the supposedly virgin queen, Elizabeth I. A familiar pattern is established. The original settlers drop like flies (mostly from water-borne diseases caused by the low tidal movement of the bay – for decades they were drinking water polluted by their own faeces). So it takes a long time for settler deaths to be outweighed by new arrivals and the colony to really take hold. The ‘indenture system’ is widespread i.e. poor whites from England sell themselves into 4 or 5 years servitude, to pay for the transatlantic crossing. After 4 or 5 years they are released, having paid their debt, and given a basic amount of land and tools to make it themselves. Initially weak in numbers and understanding of the environment, the colonists rely on trade with the Indians to get by. But as soon as they are strong and numerous enough, they start expanding their settlements, inevitably coming into conflict with the Indians who, in any case, are regularly devastated by the diseases the colonists have brought, especially smallpox.

Eventually, in Virginia the settlers discovered that tobacco is the crop of choice, hugely profitable when shipped back to Europe. But Indians refused to work in the kind of prison-camp labour the crop requires, and the flow of indentured servants dried up in the 1650s as economic conditions in England – the bad economy, overcrowding and unsettled social conditions of the British Civil Wars (1637-60) – improved. Solution: African slaves.

Slaves to the sugar plantations of the West Indies, slaves to the tobacco plantations of Virginia. Taylor describes how large planters flourished, picking off smaller planters who tended to go under in bad periods of trade fluctuation. This set the pattern for what would later be seen as the ‘Old South’ of vast plantations worked by slaves and overseen by fine white lords and ladies living in grand style, in big mansions, with countless servants to organise their lavish feasts etc. The lifestyle of Gone With The Wind. Very hard for a modern white liberal not to despise.

Taylor then goes on to describe the settlement of New England, the northern colonies settled by English Puritans – religious exiles from the old country – arriving in the 1620s. A key distinction which sticks in my mind is that, whereas the Virginia settlers were mostly single men, the Puritans came in well-organised groups of families. Those Virginian men were aggressive competitors who broadcast their success once they’d ‘made it’. The Puritans, by contrast, set up tightly organised and disciplined townships, each with local administrators based on their numerous churches and congregations, and closely monitored each others every word and action to make sure they conformed with ‘godly’ practice. In time the New England Puritans were to get a reputation for republicanism and democracy, both dirty words in the 17th century.

I knew some of this already, but it is all given in more detail, more intelligently and with more insight than I’ve ever read before. Also I hadn’t appreciated just how thoroughly New England fed into the Atlantic Economy. Put simply, New England farmers produced the staple food crops which were traded down to the West Indies sugar plantations. Ships from the West Indies and Virginia brought sugar and tobacco to Boston, where it was transferred into ships to carry it across to Bristol and Liverpool. The empty ships carried back food to the sugar and tobacco colonies. The ships which sailed east across the Atlantic emptied their goods in England, then sailed down the coast of Africa to buy slaves, before catching the Trade Winds which carried them west across the Atlantic to the West Indies and up to Virginia where they sold the slaves, and loaded up with sugar and tobacco.

I knew about the Atlantic Economy and the Slave Trade but Taylor’s book is the first I’ve ever read which explains lucidly and thoroughly the background, the climatological, environmental, social and economic forces behind the growth of this immense money-making machine.

New York and Pennsylvania

Different again was the settlement of New York, which was originally carried out by the Dutch. I knew that the Dutch had created a surprisingly far-flung empire, given the smallness of their country and population (1.5 million to England’s 5 million). And I knew that the British fought three wars (1652-4, 1665-7 and 1672-4) with the Dutch, because they loom large in the history and literature of the British Civil Wars (1637-60).

Taylor explains the fundamental reason the British were able to seize the few Dutch territories on the Atlantic coast (famously New Amsterdam, which we renamed New York after the Duke of York, Charles II’s brother and future King James II). Because a) the Dutch lacked the manpower to defend it b) it wasn’t making much money, unlike their colonies in South America, at the Cape in South Africa, and especially in the Far East.

Taylor gives a characteristically thorough account of the creation of Pennsylvania, a huge tract of land simply given to the aristocrat William Penn by Charles II in 1681 to pay off a gambling debt, and which Penn then settled in a systematic and well-organised way with members of his own non-conformist sect, the Quakers, naming its first main town Philadelphia, the city of Brotherly Love.

New France

Meanwhile, up in what would become Canada, the French had been exploring and settling the St Lawrence Waterway, the long river which penetrates at an angle deep into North America, ultimately linking up with the Great Lakes. They founded settlements at its mouth, Louisbourg, and along its length at Quebec and Montreal. In the cold north, the French could barely grow wheat let alone the hot-climate crops of tobacco or sugar. Therefore they pioneered trading with the Native Americans for furs and pelts: because of the climate and this economic model ‘New France’ was always thinly populated, mainly by hunters who worked closely with their Indian allies and often went native, marrying Indian women and adopting their ways. All the chapters about the French echo with the lamentations of the French governor or military commander, that they barely have the men or resources to hold the territory.

This is all the more puzzling since France was the largest, most powerful nation in Europe, population 20 million, compared to England’s 5 million, and the Dutch 1 million. In chapter 16 Taylor gives some reasons:

  • In France the peasantry was more rooted to the land. In England the 17th century saw a movement of ‘enclosure’ acts in which the gentry seized common land and drove the rural poor off it, creating a pool of unemployed keen to travel to find work.
  • If French peasants did want work all they had to do was walk south into Spain where there were labour shortages.
  • The English encouraged their religious dissidents (the Puritans) to emigrate to the colonies, where they turned out to be hard working and disciplined pioneers. The French banned it. French protestants – known as Huguenots – were forbidden by law from going to new France. Instead some 130,000 artisans, craftsmen and merchants fled to Switzerland, Germany, Holland and England, especially after the fool King Louis XIV in 1685 revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had previously granted them religious freedom.
  • Word came back that New France was freezing cold, with poor agricultural prospects – all true enough.
  • Finally, the ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV was determined to make France the greatest power on the Continent and so built up a massive war machine, inheriting an army of 20,000 in 1661 and growing it to 300,000 by 1710. England’s surplus population created America; France’s created an army.

The furs and pelts never covered the cost of the colony. This is the single most important fact about New France: it always needed to be subsidised by the Crown, and was a constant drain on French finances. This was even more true of ‘Louisiana’, the vast area either side of the Mississippi which the French optimistically claimed for themselves in the 17th century. In reality this boiled down to a poverty-stricken settlement at New Orleans, which suffered from disease, lack of crops, periodic flooding, hurricanes and constant harassment by local Indians (pp. 384-385).

The sole reason the French crown continued to subsidise both wretched settlements was geopolitical – to hem in and contain England’s settlements along the Atlantic coastline. As I know from reading about The Seven Years War (1756-63) the simple geography of the situation made conflict between the two empires inevitable, indeed French and Indian raids were a menace to settlers in New York state and Pennsylvania from as early as the 1690s. The surprising thing is that it took until the 1760s for the British to defeat the French, but this is the benefit of hindsight. During the later 1600s and early 1700s both sides were too weak and geographically separated to engage in proper conflict.

Indian torture and European brutality

At several places Taylor goes into detail about Indian beliefs and religion (granting, of course, that different nations and tribes often had different practices). Broadly speaking:

  • men were warriors, seeking opportunities to display their prowess, which they proved through the number of scalps i.e. the skin and hair from the top of an enemy’s head
  • in wars among themselves, the Indians sought plunder and increased hunting territory
  • the loss of warriors prompted grief but also fear of the dead which was assuaged by loud mourning and ritual feasts
  • deaths in battle prompted further ‘mourning wars’, in which they raided enemy tribes and seized prisoners
  • these prisoners were then incorporated into the tribe, replenishing its numerical and spiritual power
  • most tribes were matrilinear i.e. power descended through the female line and so the older women of the tribe decided the fate of captives: women and children were invariably adopted into the tribe and given new names; young male captives were generally tortured to death
  • death was inflicted as slowly and painfully as possible: the Iroquois tied the captive to a stake and villagers of both sexes took turns to wield knives, torches and red hot pokers to torment and burn the captive to death
  • ‘the ceremony was a contest between the skills of the torturers and the stoic endurance of the victim, who manifested his own power, and that of his people, by insulting his captors and boasting of his accomplishments in war’ (p.103)
  • once dead, the victim was dismembered, his parts put in a cooking kettle and the resulting stew served to the entire tribe to bind them together in absorbing the captive’s power
  • torture and cannibalism bound the tribe together, gave them spiritual power, hardened adolescent boys for the cruelties of war and dramatised the tribe’s contempt for outsiders

It goes without saying that the Europeans had their own grisly punishments. Accounts of the conquistadores’ behaviour to captured Aztecs and Incas are stomach-turning, and the slave-owning British invented all kinds of brutal punishments for rebellious or insubordinate slaves. What surprised me was the brutality of the French in Louisiana to their own men. I’m disgusted but not really surprised to learn that the French turned over rebel or runaway slaves to their Indian allies to be tortured or burned to death as only the Indians knew how – to deliberately inspire terror of rebellion or flight in their slaves. But the French paid their own soldiers so badly that they lived in conditions little better than the slaves – a visitor reported them lacking shirts or boots and on starvation rations – leading to repeated desertion and runaways. And if these runaway soldiers were caught, ‘the lucky died on the gallows; others died as their backs were broken on the wheel or severed by saws’ (p.387). Severed by saws!

This is why I described the book as depressing at the top. Maybe grim and hateful would be better words. The breadth of Taylor’s view, the grasp of detail, the clarity of the narrative and the incisiveness of his insights all make this a brilliant read. But the subject matter is appalling: the catalogue of suffering and violence and epidemic disease and starvation and torture and more violence call for a very strong stomach.

Summary

All of this is covered in just the first half of this long and fascinating account.

You can see how Taylor’s account restores to ‘the colonisation of America’ its full historical scope (stretching back to the very first human arrivals) and fullest geographical scope (making it abundantly clear that any telling of the story must include the economic and social colonisation by the Spanish and explain the colonisation of the West Indies a) because the Caribbean economy established the pattern of slave-worked ‘plantations’ which was to be copied on the mainland, and b) because the West Indies sugar colonies formed the lynchpin of the entire Atlantic Economy which allowed the North American colonies to flourish).

His account explains the surprising variety of types of European settlement made in American – in terms of their economies and cultures, their crops and religions – and how this variety left a legacy of diverse and conflicting social ideals to later Americans.

It explains in great detail the tragic encounter between Europeans and native peoples, with scores of examples of how initial co-operation turned sour as both sides failed to understand each other’s notions of law and rights and property, leading to violence and counter-violence, to wars large and small – and how the Indians always ended up on the losing side, partly because the whites controlled their access to guns and ammunition, but mostly because the Indians everywhere fell victim to the terrible diseases the whites didn’t even realise they’d brought with them from the Old World.

And it explains in thorough and appalling detail the scale and brutality of the transatlantic Slave Trade, explaining why it became ‘necessary’ to the one-crop economies of sugar in the West Indies and tobacco in Virginia, why the nature of these crops demanded exhausting and back-breaking labour which couldn’t be supplied by either local Indians or indentured labourers from England, but why – as a result – the white owners lived in constant fear of rebellion by blacks who came to outnumber them by as much as 9 to one and so were forced, by a bitter logic of fear, into more and more brutal discipline and punishments of slaves who ran away or organised any kind of rebellion.

His book paints an enormous canvas, full of startling and terrible revelations, which for the first time fits together every element in the story into what must become a definitive account for our times of the very troubled origins of the ‘United States’ of America.

The landing of William Penn in 1682 by J.L.G. Ferris

The landing of William Penn in 1682 by J.L.G. Ferris (1932)


Related links

Other blog posts about Empire

Other posts about American history

The Constant Gardener by John le Carré (2001)

‘It’s time educated men and women had some balls to speak out for truth instead of cringing in the shit-house like a bunch of craven cowards.’ (p.424)

This is a long novel at 560 pages in the paperback edition. It deals with serious social, medical and political issues, and also includes sections of great suspense and tension, but I found it very difficult to read because, like most of le Carré’s later novels, the focus is very much on a handful of terrifically upper-class chaps and chapesses.

The main protagonist is blessed with the ‘good manners and ancient chivalry that were bred in him from his Etonian cradle’ (p.439) – and the relentlessly upper-class patois, speech rhythms and habits of thought evinced by him and almost all the other characters (unless foreigners or servants), almost made me throw the book away more than once. But I’m glad I soldiered on to the end because there are lots of good, and even brilliant, things in it.

Part one – the High Commission

Like most late le Carre’s novels this one starts in media res, in the middle of the plot, and then cunningly interweaves multiple flashbacks and memories to paint in the backstory and build back up to ‘the present’ while also moving the action moving forward, with the result that multiple timeframes interpenetrate each other. This always makes for a satisfyingly complex and interesting reading experience.

The Constant Gardener opens by introducing us to Sandy Woodrow, Head of Chancery at the British High Commission in Nairobi and his gossipy wife Gloria. Sandy has been lusting after Tessa, the young, free-spirited wife of Justin, the Old Etonian British representative on the East African Donors’ Effective Committee (EADEC) at the Commission. But Tessa appears to have been having a long-term affair with a black doctor, Arnold Bluhm, and now – the central event in the novel which triggers everything else – she has been found dead, murdered in a jeep on a trip into the back country along with Bluhm, who is missing, apparently on her way to visit the (real life) Dr Richard Leakey.

Posh characters

In these early pages we realise with a sinking feeling, that we are, once again, among the very posh. All the main characters went to private school:

– When Sandy goes to the hospital to identify Tessa’s body it reminds him of the dormitory at his boarding school, the trestle the corpse is lying on like ‘matron’s ironing board’. Sandy’s father was a British Army General and he reads his two young sons bedtime stories from Biggles (p.144).

– His wife Gloria keeps in touch with her old boarding schools, likes to play act the school prefect, channeling her inner ‘head girl’ (p.472), and her thoughts – which we are given far more of than we could possibly want – are peppered with jolly hockeysticks expressions – Well played, that man! (p.52) Singing at Tessa’s funeral reminds both of them of chapel back at boarding school (p.138). And Justin is not just an Old Etonian, he is ‘the right sort of Etonian’ (p.98). (It is taken for granted that we all know how beastly it can be having to deal with the wrong sort of Etonian.)

– The High Commissioner’s jacket labels still say ‘P. Coleridge, Balliol’, to remind him of his jolly days at Oxford. Bernard Pellegrin, the Permanent Secretary, is always referred to as ‘the Pellegrin’ in that ho-ho public school drawl they all use, but he is always ready to take a chap to lunch at his club.

In other words, all the main characters dress, speak and think in the tones of Britain’s white, public school élite.

Part of their superior attitude is looking down on the lower classes. The impertinent secretary to the High Commissioner, Mildren (with typically mirthless ‘humour’ nicknamed Mildred, ha ha) has, in Sandy’s view, ‘the insolence peculiar to lower class secretaries’ (p.128). The police who arrive to interview Sandy also display tiresome characteristics of the lower classes, such as expecting their questions to be answered. Tut tut, what can one do about such ghastly people, darling?

I laughed out loud when Sandy drifts off during the church service for Tessa and a stained glass depiction of St Andrew reminds him of ‘Macpherson the gillie that time we drove the boys to Loch Awe to fish the salmon’ (p.139). Like the older Richard Hannay in John Buchan’s later novels, le Carré’s very pukka protagonists are only really comfortable with members of the working classes if they are servants or Victorian-style retainers. (Of the peasant fisherman who ferries Justin across the lake at the novel’s end, Justin thinks ‘this fellow was your born family retainer, which was why, to be honest, it was easy to confuse him with Mustafa’, p.564 – to even categorise the wily old peasant as a family retainer seems patronising and narrow-minded, and then to say it’s so easy to muddle up these helpful old black chaps…).

Because of course, here in Africa, each High Commission official has a large house staffed with plenty of servants who they forge sentimental bonds with. Justin in particular is held up as some kind of paragon for his close paternal friendship with his houseboy and his head servant Mustafa et al. The characters pour lofty scorn on their Victorian imperialist ancestors (and everything else) but their patronising self-regard, and their fondness for servants, seems absolutely unchanged since 1870.

The plot

Wayward young diplomat’s wife uncovers corporate misdoings in Africa, namely a pharmaceutical company recklessly trialling an experimental drug on Africa’s poorest. Big corporation bumps her off. Husband goes on quest to discover reason for her murder, uncovering conspiracy which includes FO staff and high-ups back in London. Just as he has satisfactorily dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s, he is himself murdered and everything he’s discovered rubbished in a corporate cover-up.

Father a judge, mother a contessa, sent to boarding schools and Cambridge, Tessa Quayle showed her spirit and independence by rebelling against her privileged upper-class background. (I think she is meant to be a great romantic heroine – the stern Lara is made to say Tessa was ‘very beautiful and very tragic’, p.435 – but her breath-takingly privileged background and 100% saintly character made me laugh more than once.) Tessa falls in love with dry-as-dust Justin Quayle, an Old Etonian, who reminds her of her father (natch) and accompanies him as a ‘diplomatic wife’ on his next posting to Nairobi, capital of Kenya.

Here her rebellion takes the form of feeling sorry for the miserably poor Africans around her and angry at the outrageous corruption of Kenya’s ruling class and disgusted by the pusillanimous failure of the British to highlight their failings or hold them to account.

She harangues Sandy for his cowardice while he can only think about her firm young breasts. She has a more respectful relationship with her husband Justin, who lets her go off doing her charity work all day then spend all night tapping feverishly away at her computer, denouncing corruption and wrong-doing. It is understood that he maintains a presence inside the system while she is free to do whatever she wants outside it.

Tessa gets pregnant and insists on showing her solidarity for Africa’s impoverished women by having the baby in a local hospital, where it is promptly stillborn. Such is her commitment that she suckles the baby of a Kenyan mother, Wanzi, so poor and malnourished that she can’t herself produce milk. It is the wasting away, death and disappearance of this mother under the treatment of sinister Europeans in white coats, and then her complete erasure from the hospital records, which sets Tessa suspecting the drug she was being treated with in fact poisoned her, and Tessa’s strong-willed determination to get to the bottom of it which triggers the fateful sequence of events described in the novel. Tessa (and loyal black doctor and aid worker, Arnold Bluhm) become convinced that the mother was maltreated, was given some kind of experimental treatment by the sinister pharmaceutical conglomerate, ThreeBees, who dominate Kenya’s economy and sell everything from petrol to pills.

After burying her stillborn son, Tessa returns from hospital with a new determination to name the guilty men, and so she sends countless letters to various bodies, and tries to personally buttonhole the fat CEO of ThreeBees, Sir Kenneth K. Curtis. (He is a baddy and a symbol of corrupt Westerners bleeding Africa dry, so he is ‘vastly overweight’, p.186.)

Before, during and after the stillbirth she is accompanied everywhere by the legendary Dr Bluhm, godlike African activist, hero of Médecins sans Frontières, who has himself suffered, having been arrested and tortured in Algeria. Their relationship is so close that idle tongues in the ex-pat community (is there any other type) speculate that they are lovers and even that the baby was his.

Part two – a thriller

Elba

But around page 250 the novel emerges from the stiflingly posh atmosphere of the High Commission and develops some real pace. The main protagonist is still an Old Etonian with a network of posh friends, his wife is still the daughter of an Italian contessa, but the novel acquires the speed and nerve-racking edginess of a genuine thriller, something le Carré’s previous half dozen novels have (for me, at any rate) mostly lacked.

Justin goes on the run. He is recalled by the Foreign Office to London where he has what is clearly intended as a satirical debriefing from a senior woman in Personnel, who offers counselling, a rest break and other support for the bereaved husband. But Justin has his own plans. He gets his posh lawyer friend, Ham, to validate a fake passport, name of Peter Atkinson. Then he catches a ferry to France, travels incognito down to Italy and across to the island of Elba, where Tessa’s family own several ‘estates’ (handy). Here he greets the loyal old retainer (how nice to have these old retainers to smooth your passage through life) who manages the estate and unpacks. Now he has time and space to go through the haul of Tessa’s files and letters, piecing together the story of her investigations and, in the process, sharing it with the reader, namely:

The experimental drug Dypraxa is effective against multi-drug-resistant (MDR) tuberculosis. The novel claims (with unfounded alarmism) that MDR TB will arrive in the West in the near future and that a handy treatment for it will make its owners a fortune. Dypraxa was discovered and developed by scientists in Canada working for a Swiss drug company, KVH (Karel Vita Hudson). Tessa’s documents identify the two women and man who worked on it. However, as it was rolled out for field trials in the developing world, reports began coming in of severe side effects, including blindness and death. Nonetheless large scale trials went ahead, although at least one of the drug’s inventors protested. KVH licensed the drug for distribution in Africa, and in Kenya, to the multinational, ThreeBees. Tess and Bluhm uncovered a trail of trials whose results have been systematically suppressed, patient deaths removed from the records, entire villages terrified into silence. Kenyan politicians were so corrupt they were happy to take the bribes from ThreeBees and ignore the deaths. KVH and ThreeBees insisted full and proper clinical trials had established the drug’s safety. Tessa and Bluhm had assembled an extremely detailed dossier of evidence and were travelling to northern Kenya to hand it over to Dr Richard Leakey, who they considered the only safe and independent voice in the country who could publicise their findings, when they were ambushed and murdered and all their documents disappeared.

The incorporation of different document types – magazine articles, newspaper reports, scientific papers, emails, letters, scribbled notes – though hardly a new device, gives the narrative a welcome sense of urgency and pace.

Holed up in one of the old buildings on the estate, Justin asks the 12-year-old son of the estate manager, Guido, to hack into Tessa’s computer. But when they open Tessa’s email program something has been sent to it which wipes the computer completely. Spooky.

Posh neighbours turn up unannounced with wine and commiserations, and peer over his shoulder, trying to see what old Justin is up to and old Justin is by now so spooked that he suspects they’ve been sent to spy on him. All good paranoid stuff.

In an interlude back at the High Commission we see Sandy Woodward struggling with his conscience, but not too hard, before delivering a speech to the assembled staff in which he has been ordered to lie for his country, and promote the official ‘line’, namely that the Kenyan police have issued an arrest warrant for Bluhm, who is obviously going to be made the scapegoat for Tessa’s murder, and going on to inform his staff that Justin has gone rogue, disappeared and, suffering from shock, appears to have concocted some cock and bull conspiracy theory. If he contacts anybody at the Commission, they must let him, Sandy, know immediately. Meanwhile part of him is sweating at the lies he knows he’s telling:

Who did this to me? he wondered while he talked. Who made me what I am? England? My father? My schools? My pathetic, terrified mother? Or seventeen years of lying for my country? (p.346)

Throughout the book the Foreign Office is depicted as populated by lickspittles, liars and corrupt politicians. It’s an amazing indictment from a man who once worked for it.

Bielefeld

Justin travels incognito to the little town of Bielefeld, near Hanover, in Germany. Here he arranges to meet someone mentioned in Tessa’s correspondence, Birgit, who works for a pharmaceutical-watching charity called Hippo. She tells Justin their charity was burgled a week before – the computer, all disks, and files of correspondence were taken, no money or valuables. More importantly she adds detail to the portrayal of Dypraxa and the scientists involved. First of all she explains the roles of its inventors, Dr Lara Emrich and Dr Kovacs overseen by a man named Markus Lorbeer, an odd character much given to quoting the Bible. Then she explains how big pharma companies bribe and seduce doctors with free trips and goodies, and other techniques of persuasion. But then she adds an important caveat:

Not all doctors can be seduced, not all pharmaceutical companies are careless and greedy. (p.370)

And more words to the effect that pharmaceutical companies contain many good and noble men and women researching the medicines that save all our lives. Maybe passages like this had to be put in at the insistence of lawyers, because the fictional indictment, the imaginative power of the novel, is so monumentally anti-pharma.

Convinced now that every passing car or pedestrian is spying on him, Justin makes it back to the hotel and walks into his room – only to be abruptly assaulted, have a hood slipped over his head, and be badly beaten up. A foreign voice warns him to lay off. His attackers eventually leave, allowing Justin to slowly recover and set about trying to untie his bonds…

Ghita’s quest

A junior member of the High Commission is Ghita Pearson, who Tessa had taken under her wing. Revolted by Sandy Woodward’s lecherous approaches, and then by his blatant lying about Tessa, Bluhm and Justin in the Big Speech he gives the Commission staff, she decides to find out what happened to them for herself. She makes an excuse to fly north to the same place Tessa visited, but under the pretext of having been asked by the WHO to check out a feminist support group. She flies to Lokichoggio, where she finds the aid camp where Tessa and Bluhm stayed. (Here – incidentally – there is lots of detail about what it’s like to be white people running this kind of place, designed to help African women be more independent, and the white women characters she meets, Sarah and Judith, are vividly described.) And Ghita is able to flesh out the Tess and Bluhm’s precise movements in their last days…

Switzerland

Justin just has the energy to stand, clean himself up, catch a cab to the station and a train to Zurich. It reminds him of childhood visits with his parents. He recuperates in a hotel with a trip to a medical clinic to be patched up. Then catches a train to Basel, home of many big pharmaceutical corporations. He struggles across town to the site of the huge gleaming KVH headquarters building.

Throughout this 250-page quest, Justin imagines that Tessa is with him. He jokes with her, shares his discoveries, asks her questions and, when he is dispirited, she spurs him on. His sections of the novel are marinated in her (fictional, hallucinated) presence. This is often very powerful and affecting.

Saskatchewan

Suddenly he is in Canada, in the town of Saskatchewan. This is one of the research centres of KVH pharmaceuticals (Canadian HQ in Vancouver) and he has come to meet one of the women involved in the original research, the fierce, humourless Dr Lara Emrich who, he discovers, has been hounded out of the university science department for criticising Dypraxa. KVH funds all kinds of research programs at the university, and so her out-spoken criticism a) jeopardises that b) leads quickly to her dismissal.

Emrich had done extensive research on the adverse side-effects of Dypraxa on 600 patients, submitted it to a learned journal where it was rejected, but the (supposedly independent) peer reviewers tipped off KVH and a) her contract was cancelled b) she received threatening notes in the post c) she started being followed. Emrich gives a summary of the situation:

  1. Dypraxa’s side effects are being concealed in the name of profit
  2. the world’s poorest communities are being used as guinea pigs by the world’s richest
  3. legitimate scientific debate is being stifled by threats and intimidation (p.429)

She and Justin are both so paranoid that they arrange to meet at neither her house nor his hotel but at the house of a third party, who turns out to be the fat, straight-talking Amy and her grumpy husband Ralph (p.423). As so often in a le Carré novel, it is this secondary character, a rumpled, foul-mouthed old geezer, who delivers the sweary ‘message’ of the book, that it’s time for all good men to speak out against corporate wickedness (see epigraph at the top of this review).

As they walk to Justin’s car, they see its wheels have been slashed. Two prowling cars approach, then one accelerates and tries to run them over. They jump into the car and drive off, the two flat tyres flumping against the road, just managing to evade the pursuing men long enough to make it to the ambulance station at the hospital. Here Emrich introduces Justin to an old Russian ambulance driver who has a soft spot for her, as a fellow Eastern émigré. This old man agrees to drive them back to Emrich’s house, where they are safe for the night and Justin sleeps.

Donohue and Curtiss

A creepy character who has appeared at the edges of various scenes is the tall, gaunt, childless Tim Donohue who is what the diplomats refer to as one of the ‘Friends’ ie works for British Intelligence. In a central scene we witness the head of ThreeBees, the obese very sweary Sir Kenny Curtiss yelling at Donohue, and the nature of their relationship is laid bare. Donohue of British Intelligence helps ThreeBees. This is made very explicit: Curtiss supplies good intelligence about dodgy arms deals or drug trading or other wrong-doing, and in exchange expects protection and support from the Commission and Donohue. He is, therefore, from his point of view, justified in being furious to discover that the High Commissioner, Porter Coleridge, has gone back to London to in person, to deliver a folder of Tessa’s evidence and demand a parliamentary enquiry into Dypraxa and ThreeBees. This scene would be a lot more plausible if Curtiss hadn’t been made into an obese monster who says ‘fuck’ in every sentence. The CEOs of big pharma companies are slender, well groomed and very clever men, to judge from their pics in the FT.

Leaving Curtiss with his threats to stop helping MI6 ringing in his ears, Donohue encounters his side-kick, Crick, a scary ex-soldier who says he has a friend who has a friend who heard a little something about a contract being put out on Tess and Bluhm. Donohue has a bad feeling that Crick might have been directly involved himself.

Part three – death and cover-up

With a hundred pages still to go the reader has now got a very good sense of the story. Tess and Bluhm were murdered by contract killers hired at a remote distance by ThreeBees and/or KVH because they had created a detailed dossier proving that Dypraxa, although a potentially good drug, was being trialled irresponsibly which was leading to unreported deaths among its African patients. And the generally ominous, tragic atmosphere of the book (when it is not being laughably posh and legendary) strongly suggests that Justin himself will come to no good. Therefore, the book has little sense of the unexpected or of suspense.

Kenya

In the final hundred pages Justin returns to Kenya under a false passport for the last part of the tragedy.

Dismayingly, this section returns to the point of view of the sweatily lecherous and duplicitous Sandy Woodward as he hosts a gala party organised by his wife, part of his bid to replace the High Commissioner who – as far as he and the staff know – is on an extended trip to London (only we know, because of the previous scene, that he is arguing with the people at the top about the enquiry into ThreeBees and Tessa’s murder.)

Sandy is busy eyeing up Tessa’s young Asian assistant, Ghita, who has returned from her trip up north with information about Bluhm and Tessa’s last movement – when Tessa and Justin’s loyal servant, Mustafa, hands him a note asking him to come to the gate. Here he is hussled into a car containing the well-disguised Justin, who proceeds to make it clear that he knows all about the conspiracy, all about Dypraxa. Devastatingly, he knows that Tessa entrusted a copy of her findings to Sandy to give to someone trustworthy to publicise, but that instead Sandy simply handed them over to his boss, Coleridge. Justin takes Woodward to an empty house and gets him to confess everything, blubbering like the cowardly reptile he is. Above all, he confirms that the evidence Tessa and Bluhm had collected was ‘massive’ – interviews, dates, places, scope of trials, secret documents, and then full documentation of the cover-up, dead bodies disappearing, whole villages intimidated into silence.

These pages confirm the corrupt intertwining between the ThreeBees corporation, British officials in the High Commission, the corrupt Kenyan government and powerful forces back in London. All of them have a vested interest in hushing up the story and thus are, to some extent or other, complicit in Tessa’s murder.

Immediately following this Justin has a final interview with Donohue, who fills in the rest of the picture. At some risk to his own career, Donohue fills in the gaps about the links between Curtiss, Crick and the murderers. But he also emphasises that Curtiss is himself in big financial trouble. The City has got wind of bad news about Dypraxa, ThreeBees shares are falling, Curtiss is in financial meltdown.

Lokichoggio

In the last act of the novel Justin takes a plane up to the northern outpost from which where Tessa and Bluhm had gone on their ill-fated drive, Lokichoggio, where Ghita had earlier visited. He meets the tubby man Brandt – ‘everyone loves him, everyone knows Brandt’ – who manages the arrival of food aid and its distribution. But Justin confronts him because now he knows that Brandt is also the villainous Lorbeer, who oversaw the development of Dypraxa, who is in cahoots with KVH. In fact, now Justin recognises him as the furtive figure in a white coat who sometimes attended on the dying African mother Wanzi, when Justin was visiting Tessa in the maternity hospital

In a hot sweaty African tent Justin confronts him with all the evidence and Lorbeer collapses in tears, weeping and wailing and calling on God to forgive his sins etc. Along with Ghita’s earlier visit to the Women’s Refuge, this long section gives the reader a good feel for the nitty gritty, for the dusty outhouses and drops of food aid from twin-prop airplanes, for the pride of local tribesmen and the appallingness of the never-ending feuds and tribal wars which underpin African poverty, and for the pressures such aid officials are under. But its main purpose is for the chivalrous Etonian Justin to confront the wicked Germanic baddy. Buried beneath the modern trappings, is the spirit of John Buchan.

In the final sequence Justin flies in the little propellor plane further north and is dropped at a remote outpost, from which he charters a peasant fishing boat to take him across the lake, the only way of getting to the very remote location of Tess and Bluhm’s murder – where Tessa’s car was ambushed, where she was raped and murdered, and the driver killed and Bluhm dragged off into the desert to be tortured and killed.

While sitting there he hears, first the little fishing boat tactfully putting back across the lake, abandoning him – and then the sound of vehicles drawing up. He knows it is the same collection of mercenaries. He hears them scrabbling towards him over the loose sand and rock and knows he is going to die.

The cover-up

In a nifty bit of structuring le Carré has actually described the aftermath of Justin’s death before it happens. He gives a dismaying account of how, following his death, Justin is systematically rubbished by the system, how the press & PR ‘machine’ makes sure a consistent message is broadcast from the High Commission, the Foreign Office back in London and by ThreeBees, carefully co-ordinated to portray Justin as an irresponsible loner, sadly unhinged by the murder of his wife, who had rejected help from the FO, shown signs of mental disturbance, disappeared on a faked passport to visit a number of discredited ex-employees with a grudge, before making a raft of wild and unfounded accusations against ThreeBees etc. Porter Coleridge – who, we are told, tried to present Tessa’s case – is ‘retired’ early. Bernard Pellegrin, the Foreign Office’s Head of Africa, takes early retirement and slips very neatly into a place on the Board of ThreeBees.

A court case is launched using the documents Justin had, throughout his investigation, been posting to a safe house in Italy, where his lawyer friend Ham could access them. But it is quickly silenced by powerful lawyers acting for ThreeBees which will ensure the case drags on forever. Nobody escapes the corporate ‘monstering’, or uncrushed by the courts or discredited by paid-for journalists and corporate spokespersons. Or murdered. Evil wins.

The novel is designed to leave you terrified at the power of Big Pharma, at the scale of the links between big business and government, at the ease with which they can repress the truth.


Issues raised by the novel

1. Third World corruption Nobody reading the novel can be unaware that corruption is endemic throughout the developing world. It comes as no news that some African rulers are corrupt, that a lot of the foreign aid given to Third World countries is siphoned off by corrupt officials, that white ex-pats in Africa live like kings while the majority of Africans around them subsist in squalid shanties and die like flies. And, a little closer to the content of this novel, no surprise that multinational corporations screw profits out of the poorest of the poor, that drug companies have not always behaved charitably in Third World companies, nor that Britain’s embassies and high commissions are stuffed with upper class twits.

2. Neo-imperialism Throughout the book JLC’s white, upper-class characters routinely look back at the folly of their Victorian forebears, with their arrogant assumption that they could run African countries. Yet they just as routinely deplore the corruption and inefficiency of the current regime, reflecting, by implication or overtly, on how much better they would run the damn place. Tessa is on a one-woman mission to save Africa, especially all African women. If only African women could be empowered to run the place, what a better job they’d make of it than the men (a sentiment powerfully echoed by Lorbeer in his isolated aid station).

Doesn’t she realise she is the latest in a long line of do-gooding Imperial wives, from the same kind of lofty background (the contessa mother, boarding school, Cambridge), with the same exuberant idealism and with the same burning conviction that something must be done which, in the end, doesn’t change anything.

3. Big pharma, bad pharma The most controversial aspect of the novel must be the central claim that one or some pharmaceutical companies unscrupulously trial new drugs in developing countries, happy to use poor Africans (who were going to die anyway, as Sir Kenneth Curtiss angrily points out) as guinea pigs to establish safe dosages which will then be used back in the Western world. Could such things happen? I know various scandals about pharma behaviour in Third World countries have been documented, especially around the pricing of life-saving drugs (particularly for AIDS). The second accusation is that these companies, or high-up people associated with them, could have a word with someone who has a word with someone who puts the word out that so-and-so public critics of said company should meet with an unfortunate accident. Could such things happen? No doubt. Have I ever read of such a thing? No, but then I haven’t spent a career following the behaviour of large pharmaceutical companies.

British physician and academic Ben Goldacre has made such a study, resulting in his book Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients. That would be one place to begin an exploration of the subject, and I don’t doubt it’s full of hair-raising stories. But it was published. And he’s still alive.

Unlike in this novel, where the central whistleblowers die horrible deaths.

Issues in the novel

The novel, with its baggy definition as a long piece of prose fiction, can include any amount of fact, history, politics, denunciation and journalism. The question is – or a question is – do these accusations work in the context of this novel? For a young person who is new to these issues I can imagine this book might be a devastating wake-up call. As a grown-up who’s spent thirty years reading about the wickedness of multinational corporations and the hopeless plight of the Third World I don’t think I read anything I hadn’t read before. In fact the one thought which I hadn’t seen expressed so well, is where one of the High Commission officials angrily tells the idealistic Tessa that it is not the job of the Foreign Office to save the world, it is not the job of the High Commission to set itself up as judge and jury over its host government and spend all its time carping and criticising. Their job is to protect the persons of the 30,000 or so British citizens living in Kenya and their business interests. What else would you expect? What else would she expect?

If these issues were new to you, maybe you would be drawn into the sense of horrible dark revelations and the ominous atmosphere the novel is, presumably, setting out to create. But for me:

  • I’d heard a lot of the ‘big issues’ before
  • in a sense the plot was given away early on – Tessa is dead and I felt we learned that she was bumped off by someone acting in the pharma company’s interests also very early, and so it didn’t come as any surprise that Justin himself ends up being bumped off – it didn’t create the frisson of fear which, I think, was intended
  • the style – the upper class cant of most of the characters – kept me repelled, or amused, or distracted so continuously that I never had any real sympathy for them

Is the thriller a suitable vehicle to make serious political points?

No, is the short answer. The thriller genre takes for granted scheming baddies, evil drug dealers or arms dealers, Blofeld or the KGB. The idea that the good guys themselves turn out to be penetrated by corruption and evil goes back at least as far as the 1970s and the outburst of conspiracy thrillers following Watergate, in fact probably back to the Kennedy assassination in the 1960s, maybe to the McCarthyite paranoia of the 1950s, or possibly to John Buchanite concerns about communists and Jews in the government of dear old Blighty. In a thriller, you expect there to be assassins in doorways and mystery cars trying to run over our hero, and all the computers to be hacked, and the government to deny any knowledge of your devastating findings because they’re in fact part of the dreadful conspiracy.

In other words, le Carré is writing his serious indictments of great social evils (the arms trade in The Night Manager, bad pharma here, American hyper-power in Absolute Friends) in a genre which teaches you not to take its grandiose conspiracies seriously; which is based on the idea that you thrill to the scale of some absurd conspiracy (like the computerised plan to invade and conquer Russia in Len Deighton’s Billion Dollar Brain), then put the book down and completely forget about it.


Thoughts about style

Legends

As usual, the characters are all legends in each other’s minds, routinely hyped up and overegged by the myth-making narrator. Sandy’s wife, Gloria, is ‘famously loquacious’ (famous to who?), Tessa’s aristocratic mother and sister were ‘fabled beauties’ (p.198), Justin visits ‘that fabled valley of the upper Rhine where pharma-giants have their castles’ (p.412), the repellent Kenny Curtiss turns on ‘the fabled charm’ (p.461), when Donohue refers to Tessa’s killers, he offensively calls them ‘the celebrated Marsabit Two’ (p.510), we read of Foreign Office mandarin Bernard Pellegrin’s ‘fabled skills at networking’ (p.549). And Tessa’s co-conspirator, Bluhm, is not just a doctor, he is:

Bluhm the Westerner’s African, bearded Apollo of the Nairobi cocktail round, charismatic, witty, beautiful. (p.35)

His colleague in an aid camp in the north of the country is ‘Reuben the legendary camp organiser’ (p.392). And so on.

Tessa, who the plot rotates around is – as you are continually reminded – the daughter of a High Court judge and an Italian contessa! She has a ‘teasing, foxing, classy voice’ (p.57). She comes from the same ‘thoroughbred stable’ as her husband, Justin. She isn’t, in other words, any old totty. She is phenomenally posh totty. She is a legend to everyone who’s met her.

God forbid le Carré’s stories should happen to ‘ordinary’ people. His characters come from Britain’s social élite and are gods and legends in their own minds. If you like this exalted atmosphere of privilege and entitlement, if you like characters talking like they are still at Eton and Harrow and Winchester and convinced they are the only people in the world who matter, then you will enjoy this book, old boy.

Lechery

Sandy Woodward is a middle-aged man with wife and children, but the opening of the novel is drenched in his unrequited leching after Tessa.

I tried not to notice her naked silhouette… trying to wrest the lower half of his gaze from the shadow of her breasts through the puff of her dress… shoulders back, dress stretched across her breasts… her naked silhouette still taunting his memory… (pp.58-63)

She is cradling the child to her left breast, her right breast free and waiting. Her upper body is slender and translucent. Her breasts, even in the aftermath of childbirth, are as light and flawless as he has so often imagined them. (p.83)

Bit of a boob man, old Sandy.

This is before we get on to Justin’s memories of meeting Tessa. How it happened is he was called up at the last minute by a chap in the FO who he knew at Eton, asking if he could deliver a lecture at Cambridge at short notice. Tessa is there, half his age, asks feisty questions, they go for a stroll by the Cam, then a spot of punting, then she takes him back to her little apartment for heady ‘sexual delights’ (p.164). She is sick of boys her own age and looking for a kindly father figure; and he, a confirmed bachelor (although with an impressive track record of affairs, of course) is blown away by her life and enthusiasm. And body. They make a pact that Justin will carry on being Mr Dull and Conventional on the inside of the diplomatic service, giving Tessa a free hand to do her thing.

Fuck

All the characters say ‘fuck’. The High Commissioner, Head of Chancery, Foreign Office Personnel, Permanent Secretary, the police, all say fuck and shit a lot.

‘You try,’ Amy said. ‘If you don’t try, you’re fucked.’
‘Fucked if you try, fucked if you don’t.’ (p.424)

As far as I can remember this is the first le Carré novel to use the word ‘fart’ (the Permanent Secretary at the FO takes Justin for lunch at his club and explains that the fish makes him fart). The opening words of the first scene in which we finally meet Sir Kenny Curtiss, head of the villainous ThreeBees pharma company, are:

‘What the fuck does your man Quayle think he’s playing at, Tim?’ (p.451)

What made George Smiley a totemic character was his quiet dignity, his restraint, his subtle intelligence. In these later novels all the characters roar:

‘This is Turkana we’re talking about, not fucking Surrey.’ (p.452) ‘I’m Sir fucking Kenneth Curtiss! I have subscribed – last year alone – half a fucking million quid to party funds. I have provided you – British fucking Intelligence – with nuggets of pure gold.’ (p.457)

Italics

This loss of self-restraint (either in the characters or by the author) is mirrored by another, which is the eruption of italics throughout the text. For some reason everyone starts emphasising every third or fourth word they say in order to really ram home the importance of what they’re saying. Get it?

‘I’m sure Justin would like me to write to him… I mean I wouldn’t tell him anything that was going to hurt him… I mean Justin knows that Tessa and Arnold were travelling together… Whatever was between them, he’s reconciled to that… There must be something you remember that she did or said… Well, I won’t say she did contribute to that discussion…

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper le Carré spoke about how angry he’s become as he grows older. It’s unfortunate that this wrath and frustration at the wicked world spill over into continual emphasis of almost everything that everybody says.

‘I just don’t see how you could survive like that… Would that be your feeling, basically?… You negotiate with other countries, don’t you? You cut deals with them. You legitimise them through trading partnerships… We really like Bluhm… Bluhm’s as close as you’ll ever get to a good man… With those big fireplaces she always had an eye for soot! And no, Mr Justin, the chimney sweep certainly didn’t have a key… Don’t tell me you’ve abandoned your computer, Guido!… But that’s awful, Guido!… You cover this bit up, then out pops another bit. So you cover that bit up… I am quite sure there was nothing of the kind on either side… What were the side effects?…

The excessive use of italics throughout the text becomes quite wearing quite quickly, but is also indicative of characters – and a narrative – which are increasingly shouting to get your attention.

‘But why did you sign the wretched contract in the first place?’…
‘Because I trusted them. I was a fool.’ (p.426)

Timeframes

If we accept that the main characters are off-puttingly posh and privileged, and that the love triangle at the heart of the novel is described with a lachrymose sentimentality that would make Mills and Boon blush, that the ‘political’ insights about the book are the kind of thing my son learns in school (Africa poor & corrupt, big business bad etc), then the most interesting thing left about the book is its structure.

In a way which reminds me of his major influence, Graham Greene, le Carré is very canny, very clever about the way the narrative of his novels are constructed from multiple timeframes. The ‘present’ of the book is the High Commission as news of Tessa’s murder comes in, followed in forward chronological order by Justin coming to stay with Sandy, both being questioned by the cops, then flying back to London.

From the vantage point of this stretch of ‘present’ narrative, both Justin and Sandy scan back over the past, remembering key moments in their lusting after or marriage to, Tessa. The plot, what happened, is relatively straightforward – but the sophisticated flashback structure allows le Carré to move at will between different key moments, building up their emotional resonance by repetition of scenes or phrases, or to suddenly reveal a previously unsuspected past of the puzzle, taking the reader by surprise with a new twist.

Interview

The interview or interrogation is a key location for this kind of timeshift and for a long stretch at the start of this novel, both Sandy and Justin are questioned at length by the two police officers who’ve flown out from London to investigate Tessa’s death. The official interview is such a handy device for an author because it allows him or her to insert long sections of narrative and plot dressed up as reminiscence, memory or just answers to the interviewers’ questions. Thus Justin replies to the cops’ persistent questions about Tessa, but also drifts off into reveries, remembering their meeting and courtship etc. Very handy, very effective.

The way a beautiful, wilful young woman falls into bed with a dowdy old diplomat I found laughably like middle-aged male wish-fulfilment, as I found the revelation that Big Pharma employs dodgy business practices in the Third World tiresomely familiar – but the structure of the narrative, the way moments and scenes from multiple moments in the past are juggled and ordered to create a multi-layered timeframe, I found immensely skillful and rewarding.


The movie

If only there was some way to enjoy the structure and pacing of this well-thought out and dramatic story without having to wade through le Carres’ highly mannered and irritating prose, without having to endure the smug self-satisfaction of his intolerably posh characters… How about – making it into a movie?

Released in 2005, the film at a stroke removes the pukka prose style and upper-class twit dialogue (what a relief, darling) to make it acceptable to an audience which was not lucky enough to attend one of England’s top public schools. It converts the long-winded, multi-levelled and circuitous text into a fast-moving action thriller with a heart-stopping soundtrack à la Bourne Identity.

It was directed by Fernando Meirelles and the timid, old bachelor Justin Quayle is transformed by the magic of the movies into the impossibly handsome Ralph Fiennes, while Rachel Weisz perfectly recreates the gorgeous, headstrong heroine, a performance which won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and a Golden Globe award.


My little pony

Rummaging in the dead woman’s room, Sandy finds a photo of Tessa as a ten-year-old riding her first pony (p.69). In his previous two novels key characters have shared memories of their first ponies and gymkhana (Oliver in Single & Single, posh totty Francesca in The Tailor of Panama). I am winning a bet with my son that all le Carré’s later novels will turn out to have a my-first-pony moment.

Credit

The Constant Gardener by John le Carré was published in 2001 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes are from the 2005 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar, downbeat and depressing spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990) A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
  • The Night Manager (1993) Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
  • Our Game (1995) Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia, and that Larry has also seduced his girlfriend, Emma, in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but dislikeable upper-class twits. (414 pages)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996) Andrew Osnard, old Etonian conman, flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based within an entirely fictional underground revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced at a sick and jaundiced world. (458 pages)
  • Single & Single (1999) Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically the Orlov brothers from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father before he, too, is killed.
  • The Constant Gardener (2001) Posh young free-spirited diplomat’s wife Tessa Quayle discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results for the poor patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining events leading up to her murder, with her husband’s long quest to discover the truth about her death.
  • Absolute Friends (2003) Head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage, which comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha unwittingly lures Ted into a Machiavellian American sting whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’ climaxing with them being shot down like dogs.
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

The Veteran by Frederick Forsyth (2001)

He was carrying his preferred weapon of choice, the M-16 carbine: short-barrelled, light and utterly dependable. His right thumb slipped the catch silently to ‘automatic’ mode and then he fired. (p.442)

The Veteran is a collection of five short stories:

1. The Veteran (98 pages)

An old man with a limp is mugged in Tottenham, foolishly puts up a fight, is knocked to the floor and kicked about the body and head with steel-capped boots, all witnessed by an Asian shopkeeper. For the next hundred pages Forsyth gives a super-detailed account of the police investigation and of the processes and procedures which the medical services, police, Crown Prosecution Service, the magistrate, the solicitor and the barrister go through in order to investigate this crime, any crime.

During the weeks that this all takes the patient’s condition worsens and he finally dies still, despite the police’s best efforts, unidentified. Throughout this period his medical status and treatment are also described in typically Forsythian detail.

The villains are quickly identified, tracked down and arrested. After a tremendous amount of work to get them into court, the copper leading the case, Detective Inspector Burns, watches as the smarmy barrister who’s doing his one Legal Aid case of the year, effortlessly destroys the prosecution argument and gets the guilty men off. We share Burns’s outrage and despair as they walk free and then laugh and give him the finger outside the courthouse.

‘Hope you’re proud of yourself’, Burns snarls at the perfumed QC. ‘It has to do with the triumph of justice,’ the QC murmurs in reply. It is now at the end of the process that the police have a breakthrough in identifying the victim, hitherto anonymous, when someone comes forward in answer to a newspaper appeal, and Burns finally gets the man’s full name and address.

Going to the dead man’s flat Burns finds it full of Army memorabilia and books. There is a photo of the dead man with a small group of fellow soldiers and Burns a) learns that he was a member of the SAS b) realises with a jolt that the officer in the photo is the same man who went on to become the smarmy QC who got the villains off and who he was so rude to earlier that day ie he worked with and knew the murder victim very closely.

Suddenly Burns (and the reader) realises that the QC’s whispered words about justice can be taken in a completely different sense, not as supercilious indifference to the savage kicking of the old veteran but as the very opposite, an ominous threat. That night the bodies of two men are found in Hackney Marshes and the coroner reports they had been murdered in an unusual way – strangled with piano wire. They are, of course, the two murderers we saw walking free from the courtroom…

a) I don’t think I’ve ever read such a thorough and complete account of police and medical and court procedure surrounding a crime. Usually in a work of fiction the interest is in the experiences of one or two of the characters: here there is no exploration of human personality, instead a meticulous fascination with the ‘machinery’ of justice.

b) After accompanying the good and honest copper DI Burns on his long quest to make sure all the paperwork is correct, all the processes are strictly adhered to and all the civil rights are respected, we too share DI Burns’s bitter disgust at the ease with which two obvious criminals are let off the hook by the system.

c) Which makes the twists in the last few pages – the revelation of the victim’s heroism (making his murder all the more bitter and unjust), and then the final twist in which the QC, by implication, dishes out his own kind of justice to the two murderers, all the more emotionally fulfilling. Yes! We cheer, justice is done.

I put down the story in a daze realising I had just read a long, powerful and convincing apology for extra-judicial revenge.

2. The Art of the Matter (88 pages)

A talented young state-educated art expert working for one of London’s leading auctioneers points out to his boss that a grimy old painting handed in by an actor down on his luck is in fact a rare Renaissance masterpiece. His boss unscrupulously pays the original owner a pittance then sells the piece on to another gallery for a nominal price, where it is a) revealed in all its glory with much press & publicity b) sold for a fortune, which the unscrupulous dealer splits with the second gallery. The first art house holds an enquiry into why such a valuable piece was allowed to slip through their fingers, in which the smarmy public school management band together and blame it all on the innocent young expert (‘not one of us, old boy’), who is fired.

Now, the sacked employee’s girlfriend just happens to be a peroxided, tattooed computer expert. They track down the original owner of the painting and explain that he was diddled out of hundreds of thousands of pounds, at which point the three of them decide to go into business as a group of con artists.

In the rest of the story they take elaborate revenge on the unscrupulous managers at the auctioneers by faking another work of art and hacking into business computers to create fake authentication papers. They persuade the smarmy gallery manager that he’s stumbled upon another masterpiece and encourage him into a plan whereby he once again tries to stitch up his bosses by acquiring the (fake) picture he thinks is worth millions.

He instructs one of the ‘house’ employees to make tame bids for it, imagining the house will pick it up for 5 or 10 grand, get it restored, and then sell it for millions. Unfortunately, the scammers have a counter-plan which is for the actor to pretend to be a toff who, inexplicably to the to smarmy manager, insists on counter-bidding what looks to everyone else like a grimy piece of tat. Having set the ball rolling the smarmy manager is forced to go with his scam even as the actor/bidder pushes the price up to quarter of a million pounds.

He stops there and makes a smart exit and the smarmy manager has to explain to a furious head of the auction house that the grimy old painting is really worth a fortune – Look, he has the authentication documents from one of London’s leading experts. But he doesn’t know that authentication is a fake. And so when the house pay a leading art restorer to wipe away the grime of centuries he reveals — a Madonna and Child with a nice shiny Mercedes Benz in the background. Ha ha ha. You’ve been conned! The smarmy boss is sacked. The good guys walk off with the money. Justice, as always in Forsyth – though not necessarily always according to the Law – is done.

As usual in Forsyth, the procedures whereby auction houses value ‘hand-in’ art works, the mechanics of a major auction, the way computers can be hacked into and fake letters and transactions created, all this and much more is described by Forsyth in meticulous detail, whereas the characters are the thinnest of cogs necessary to drive the plot forwards. It reminded me a little of an Ealing comedy, even more of a Terry Thomas comedy from the late 1950s, something like Make Mine Mink, a world where crooks are decent chaps and the smarmy posh boy in the top hat gets his richly deserved come-uppance.

3. The Miracle (42 pages)

An American tourist and his wife are visiting Siena in Italy. She trips and sprains her ankle and they take shelter in a nearby courtyard. Here they meet a tall leathery stranger who spins them an incredible story about how every year he comes back to this courtyard to celebrate the ‘miracle’ of the title.

He explains that he was a young German Army doctor during the retreat up Italy in 1944 and that here, in this courtyard, he was given charge of looking after hundreds of injured and wounded Germans, Allies and other nationalities. He had no painkillers and soon ran out of bandages and everything needed to treat men in terrible pain, but then a strange shadowy woman appeared, swabbing their wounds and stroking their brows. Amazingly, none of the mortally injured servicemen died. This inexplicable behaviour, this ‘miracle’, continued for four nights until the Germans evacuated their wounded and the Allies arrived.

Years later the German was revisiting the place and got into conversation with a German priest who told him the story about a young woman who lived in Siena during the Renaissance and who disobeyed her family to set up a convent of nuns caring for the sick. Eventually her disobedience provoked her family to hire mercenaries to seize her back, who overstepped the mark and and beat and killed her, plunging her family into mourning and regret.

Could it have been the ghost of this nun, herself martyred for her compassion, who had returned to tend and save the German doctor’s injured troops during those four intense days in 1944?

The American (along with the reader) has been completely entranced by this long powerful narrative and, at the end of the story, on an impulse, crams hundreds of dollars into the offertory box for the convent next door, before helping his wife off towards their hotel saying that was the most amazing story he’d ever heard.

Out of the shadows steps the German doctor’s partner, a hippy chick. ‘That story works every time,’ she jokes, as they both open the offertory box and remove the American dollars. The entire mind-bogglingly detailed narrative turns out to have been an elaborate scam.

a) The story is told with complete deadpan conviction. As usual Forsyth provides a 100% plausible account of the horrors of the Italian campaign, the bloodiness of the soldiers’ wounds as inflicted by various types of bullet, shell, flak and shrapnel, with lots of high level explanation of the strategies of the US general attacking, and German general defending, Siena. When the narrator switches to telling the story of the young Italian nun-saint, the Renaissance period details are equally thorough and convincing.

b) In addition the whole story is set against the backdrop of the famous pageant, the procession of the medieval guilds of Siena which climaxes in the Palio, the horse race around the main square. As you would expect, this is not so much described as explained, as if in an encyclopedia. Forsyth doesn’t describe the horse slipping; he explains that only a little layer of sand separates their hooves from the rounded cobbles beneath, which makes slipping inevitable, so that there is almost always an equine casualty every year. Not description; factual explanation.

c) Is the twist in the tail, where the whole thing is revealed to be an outrageous fiction, a shallow ‘boom boom’ joke, or a clever post-modern disruption of readerly expectation? Or both.

4. The Citizen (44 pages)

Another fantastically detailed account of the processes and procedures of highly qualified professionals, in this case pilots flying a British Airways plane from Bangkok to London, and the Customs official who is alerted by a phone call that drugs are being smuggled on the flight.

A family man with a naggy wife and a querulous little daughter spots a scruffy hippy and a very smooth businessman having an improbable conversation by the loos half way through the long haul flight. He writes an anonymous tip-off to the pilots, who radio ahead to Customs at Heathrow who stop and search both suspects – and find nothing.

In the final scene the head Customs officer leads a raid on a suburban house where they’d followed one of the men, to find the drug smuggling gang dividing up the proceeds and the twist is —- their boss turns out to be the harassed family man who wrote the note to throw the officials off the track. Ah ha.

In a final double twist it turns out that the hippy he implicated in the note, and who is seized in the raid on the house, is himself an undercover agent for Her Majesty’s Customs, which we only learn from a hurried aside between him and the Customs man. Double ah ha.

But the real weight of the story consists of the tremendous detail it goes into about the processes and procedures involved in flying a massive 747 jet, in securing departure and arrival times at international airports, showing us how windspeed affects flying time, introducing us to the hierarchy of staff on a plane like this, and then to the home life, the long hours and the devotion to duty of the drug fighting Customs officer.

There is a plot, of course, but Forsyth’s admiration of the professionalism of the lead pilot and the Customs officer is so burnished and unstinting as to almost amount to an advert for a career in those professions.

5. Whispering Wind (180 pages)

The longest story in the collection it is in two parts, the first believable, the second preposterous.

1. Ben Craig was raised in the wilderness of Western United States after the Civil War, becoming a seasoned hunter and scout. He is hired by the troop of General George Custer on his ill-fated march into the Yellowstone area to track down and expel Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. On the way, he’s with a small platoon which raids an isolated camp of Indians, butchering the woman, old people and children. (The story makes you hate the US Army of this period and the US authorities with their continual breaking of treaties and murdering of Indians.)

Craig manages to save the life of an attractive young squaw who had escaped into the riverside reeds, though shot through the thigh. Later, in the General’s camp, when an Army captain tortures her a little to make her talk, then gives his men permission to rape her, Craig, undoes her bonds, sets her on a pony, and helps her escape. When this is discovered, he is beaten up and hog-tied to the back of a horse. Next morning, in this condition he is led along with Custer’s troop into the valley of the Little Big Horn and witnesses at first hand the massacre of Custer and his men. When his horse is shot from under him he falls, strikes his head and is rendered unconscious.

When he awakes the chief supervising the looting of the Army corpses orders him brought before the elders of the tribe where, of course, the squaw he saved – named Whispering Wind – tells her story. Because of his chivalry his life is spared, but he must remain with the tribe. He follows them as they split up and head to mountains to be safe from Army revenge.

After living with them for months he and Whispering Wind fall slowly in love. One night she wakes him and frees him from his teepee, takes him to the pony she’s prepared with supplies and they ride off for the inaccessible mountains. The Indians awaken to their escape and a Cheyenne party set off, determined to avenge their honour. This party is then spotted by a troop of US cavalry, who have also been ordered to capture Craig who, unknown to him, is now widely being accused of being a spy who led Custer into an Indian trap.

Craig keeps one step ahead of them right up into the remotest mountain fastness where they hole up in a cave. Here they see a vision of an ancient Indian spirit who tells them that Whispering Wind must return to her people: if they stay here together they will both die; if she returns to her tribe and people, they will one day be reunited.

The story itself having adopted a tone of guileless primitivism, they both accept this prophecy, she saddles up and rides sadly back down the mountain, Craig wraps himself in a blanket in his remote cave and falls asleep. And while he sleeps a strange darkness covers the sky and then a torrential snowfall falls from the sky covering everything.

— As you would expect, Forsyth’s account of the build up to the massacre of Little Big Horn is crisply factual and thoroughly researched, as is his account of the customs and culture of Cheyenne Indians, or Craig’s backwoods tracking, hunting and survivalist skills.

2. In part two Craig wakes up to find the snow gone, trots down the mountainside keeping an eye open for the Cheyenne party or US troops but we, the readers, are swiftly told that the year is no longer 1872, it is 1972! Goodness, it’s a Rip Van Winkle story! Wrapped in his snug blanket Craig has slept for a century.

To cut a long story short, he discovers a replica fort, a perfect copy from his era, which has been built as a tourist attraction and study centre for young students of the period. For a humorous 10 or 15 pages Craig thinks it is the real thing and they accept him as a rather smelly, oddly spoken volunteer. But then the penny drops and he is distraught, well, for a page or two. Any attempt at exploring the psychological impact of a devastating situation like this is briskly skipped over. Within a few pages Craig is reconciled to his lot but continues to believe the Prophecy of the Holy Man on the Mountain.

And so, as in all good fairy stories, one day among all of the teachers bringing a coachload of excited kids to explore the replica fort and the students all dressed in frontier outfits and playing at living the frontier lifestyle, appears the spitting image of Whispering Wind. Craig is thunderstruck and pretty quickly explains that she is his true love reincarnated. Her name is Linda Pickett and ‘she is a very beautiful and healthy young woman.’ (p.407) Initially puzzled and then irritated, Linda finds Craig’s open-eyed honesty somehow persuasive. It takes her a few visits to realise she is smitten.

3. Which is complicated because it turns out she is engaged to Kevin, the spoilt son of Big Bill Braddock, you know, the South Dakota Beef King, and he is not taking no for an answer. He threatens to ruin Linda’s father, owner of a small local bank, if she backs out of the wedding to his son. Seeing the impact it will have on her father, Linda reluctantly agrees to go ahead, like the princess in a fairy tale. But even as she is stepping up to the outdoors altar, in the sumptuously decorated lawn of the Bar T ranch, surrounded by a 1,000 local notables dressed to the nines, and as the preacher gets to the ‘If any man knows any just cause etc’ part, Craig rides forth on his horse, and says,

‘I so speak. She is betrothed to me.’ (p.410)

He gallops up the aisle, grabs Linda up onto his horse, kicks over a few security guards, leaps over the high table shattering the big champagne fountain, jumps a few fences and gallops off into the blue. The scene is vividly and humorously described, reminding me of one of the car pile-ups involving the hick southern sheriff (the tobacco-chewing Sheriff J.W. Pepper) in the Roger Moore-era James Bond movies.

Big Bill gets his private helicopter and all his security guards onto chasing the couple, while the State police, under the control of wise old sheriff Paul Lewis, also set off in pursuit. All eerily echoing events 100 years before…

The pursuit up into the mountains is long and eventful. Craig chops down some trees to block the only road up there (causing a crash in which some of Braddock’s men are injured). Then shoots several of the pursuers with a hand-made bow and arrow as they cross the creek. Then the most committed of Braddock’s men, a Special Forces man who saw action in ‘Nam, tracks Craig silently through the pine woods. But he too is tricked into an ambush and almost has his arm severed when Craig throws an Indian hatchet at him.

Finally, after his gruelling quest, Craig lifts the young woman, now wholly identifying as Whispering Wind, off his exhausted horse who lays down and dies. They roll themselves up in the same blanket as Craig had done 100 years before. The sheriff and his men have caught up with Braddock by this stage and disarmed them. ‘No more shooting, goddamit.’

In the morning he’ll go up the mountain with a white flag of truce. But now the sun has set, it has gotten too dark to continue the pursuit, and the cops make a base and light a fire. Suddenly through the gloom they hear a sharp piercing scream, a cry of ecstasy, as Craig finally takes, possesses and owns his squaw, after waiting a hundred years.

But the temperature keeps falling, down to zero and then lower. Now the men can’t sleep, can barely talk as the sky grows heavy with cloud. The cops retreat back to the forest line where it is a bit warmer, leaving an obstinate Braddock still camped up at the high point. The local ranger explains to Lewis that there is an ancient Indian tradition that sometimes the Everywhere Spirit comes to visit these mountains bringing with him the Cold of the Long Sleep. Aha. So that is what got Craig first time round.

In the early hours, just as 100 years before, steady snowfall gives rise to an avalanche which sweeps down the valley burying Braddock and his men. In the morning Lewis calls in a chopper which flies him up to the ledge where they had seen Craig’s distant fire the night before. They find Linda/Whispering Wind almost frozen to death, and she is choppered out to an ICU at Billings hospital. Next to her is a ragged pile of fibres, hair, the rusted relics of a gun and knife, next to that the bones of a horse long rotted and eaten by scavengers. It is the body of Craig and his horse, given a ghostly existence for these past few months, finally liberated and returned to ashes.

His spirit has returned to the ancestors. Whispering Wind was mated by a ghost, and the whole narrative now has the strangeness of a ghost story, a ghost story with M-16s and police helicopters. The sheriff bundles all these organic remains into a blanket and then gets himself choppered out.

Cut to the funeral for the unknown bones. Whispering Wind is there and, shucks, so is kindly Sheriff Paul. He throws a flower onto the coffin then offers her a lift home. Now Linda Pickett once more, she was visited in hospital by Big Braddock’s widow who liked her, forgave her dumping her good-for-nothing son, and offered her a cottage on the ranch and a job as secretary. As Linda turns her winter coat flaps open and reveals she is four months pregnant with the child of a hundred-year-old ghost! Spooky!

— This story is as free of adult emotion or feeling, but as deep and compelling, as a fairy tale. It doesn’t bother anyone that the three little pigs or the troll under the bridge can talk. In the same spirit, why get upset at the story of a Wild West frontiersman who falls asleep for a hundred years and is then reunited with the reincarnation of the love of his life? Looking for verisimilitude is looking for the wrong thing.

Then she smiled, for she loved him very much, and believed his promise, and was happy again. (p.426)

Or maybe the strangely ‘magical’ affect comes from the way the narrative taps into Jungian archetypes which, no matter how naive and simplistic the surface narrative, stir something deep in all of us. The improbability, in fact the ludicrous implausibility, of the story doesn’t matter at all because of the deeper psychological patterns and emotional needs which it addresses and fulfils, a sense of conflicts faced and reconciled, of mysteries evoked, dramatised and then overcome, which triumphs over the story’s surface corniness.

In fact this last tale, in particular, reminds me of Henry Rider Haggard’s ripping yarns, King Solomon’s Mines or She or the haunting Nada the Lily. It’s odd to think of Forsyth, whose stories are always studded with hi-tech info about guns and helicopters and radios, being in some sense the modern heir to the chaste, unsubtle, unpsychological, yet weirdly compelling yarns of the late Victorians. Kipling would have loved this story.


Humour

Jack Burns was a man of simple pleasures and one of them was his Sunday morning lie-in. That day he did not get it. The phone rang at seven fifteen. It was the desk sergeant at Dover nick. ‘There’s a man just come in here who takes his dog for a walk early in the morning,’ said the sergeant. Burns wondered blearily just how long, if he really put his mind to it, it would take to strangle the sergeant. (p.52)

In among all these facts, though, Forsyth has a suavely dry sense of humour. He understands the world and he finds its ways and people amusing. This humour comes more to the fore in the short stories because short stories often rely on a twist or sting in the tail and unexpected twists are, by definition, ironic, the opposite of what you had up to that moment expected. There are structural ironies or reversals in most of them, the revelation that the narrator has been fooling the reader all along, as in The Citizen, or describing a complicated confidence trick as in The Art of the Matter.

Forsyth’s prose is well turned out, brisk and factual, but he does allow himself the occasional humorous aside, and when they come they generally capture the blokey humour of hard-pressed, hard working police officers, customs officers, pilots and so on. Jokes from the professional classes.

The official view

Sheriff Paul Lewis was a good peace officer, unflappable, firm but kindly. He preferred to help people out rather than lock them up, but the law was the law and he had no hesitation in enforcing it. (p.416)

Forsyth is always squarely on the side of the authorities. His military adventure books (such as The Fist of God) describe in mind-boggling detail how all the relevant sections of the army, navy, air force, special forces and so on take part in Operation Desert Shield. Two of the stories here, about the murder and the drug smuggling, carry on that vein of thorough explanation of the processes and procedures of police, A&E doctors, magistrates, lawyers, of airline pilots and drugs officers. His protagonists may operate outside the letter of the law, but they are good guys with their hearts in the right place.

Acronyms and initialisms

The first story in particular contains a blizzard of acronyms and initialisms. I wondered whether, by listing them in the order they appear, you could piece together the story just from the acronyms. As in an experimental text, a story just from initialisms:

  • A&E – Accident and Emergency unit of a hospital
  • CID – Criminal Investigation Department
  • DI – Detective Inspector
  • POLSA – Police Search Adviser
  • DS – Detective Sergeant
  • ID – identity
  • ABCD – A&E process for securing an accident victim by checking Airway, Breathing, Circulation, Disability.
  • ICU – Intensive Care Unit.
  • UAM – Unidentified Adult Male
  • CRO Criminal Records Office
  • FMO – Force Medical Officer
  • DNA – Deoxyribonucleic acid
  • PC – Police Constable
  • RIP – Rest In Peace
  • WPC – Woman Police Officer
  • CPS – Crown Prosecution Service
  • GBH – Grievous Bodily Harm
  • SLR – Self Loading Rifle
  • NATO – North Atlantic Treaty Organisation
  • QC – Queen’s Counsel
  • DSS – Department of Social Security
  • BATT – British Army Training Team
  • SAS – Special Air Service

Not really. But the exercise gives a good flavour of the official processes and the bodies and titles into which Forsyth puts all his energy, making little or no attempt at psychology or depth of character. In the two procedural tales, especially, the characters are just cogs in the interplay of organisations, the slender wires which keep the big machinery ticking over.

Not bothering with emotion, motive or unnecessary colour gives the stories an absorbing, no-nonsense, ‘get on with the identification parade’ kind of briskness. In Forsyth, speed of action and detailed factual accuracy completely replace the traditional virtues of the novel. And very enjoyable too.


Credit

The Veteran by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2001. All quotes from the 2002 Corgi paperback edition.

Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

Thinks… by David Lodge (2001)

‘Imagine what the Richmonds’ dinner party would have been like, if everyone had had those bubbles over their heads that you get in kids’ comics, with “Thinks…” inside them.’…
‘I suppose that’s why people read novels,’ she says. ‘To find out what goes on in other peoples’ heads.’
‘But all they really find out is what has gone on in the writer’s head. It’s not real knowledge.’
‘Oh, what is real knowledge, then?’
‘Scientific knowledge.’ (p.42)

The plot

Self-doubting and recently bereaved lady novelist Helen Reed hesitantly takes up a position teaching creative writing at the (fictional) University of Gloucester. Along with the rest of the faculty she meets cognitive scientist and media star, Ralph Messenger, secure in the bosom of his rich American wife, four kids and big house in the country. He gives her (and the reader) a Brody’s Notes-level introduction to the newly fashionable sciences of artificial intelligence, evolutionary psychology and so on, touching on other topics which came to popular attention in the 1990s, such as chaos theory and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

Helen is not only a novelist but a lapsed Catholic and so, rather predictably, responds to Messenger’s confident scientism with her belief that you can’t reduce consciousness to algorithms, graphs and charts -surely there is some meaning to the universe, what about our feelings etc.

Via the stream-of-consciousness tape recordings Messenger is making to ‘capture’ his thoughts in flight, we learn the rather predictable fact that he is scheming to screw Helen. Via her sensitive diary, we learn that Helen is tempted but recoils, but is tempted again, but recoils etc. No but yes but no.

The text consists of Messenger’s tape recordings, Helen’s diary, and a third-person omniscient narrator, often covering the same incidents from different points of view. This is a fairly interesting idea, but in practice a little dull, since it is devoted entirely to the subject of middle-aged academics pondering at great length their adulterous affairs.

The text is also interspersed with essays and assignments by Helen’s creative writing students. These score ten on the clever-clogs-ometer for being done in the style of a range of bang-up-to-date 1990s authors, such as Martin Amis, Irvine Welsh, Salman Rushdie et al.

Halfway through the novel Helen discovers that her dead husband – an award-winning BBC radio documentary maker and hitherto a mournful memory – had been systematically unfaithful to her. This is cleverly (and amusingly?) done, because Helen reads an account of her husband’s sexual technique and peccadilloes in a piece of fiction written by one of her students. A bit of clandestine digging reveals that the said student was a ‘research assistant’ to her husband in the early 1990s. When she confronts her student, the latter confesses all and implies that her husband was notorious for seducing his research assistants and having it off whenever he was away on location.

All this comes as a devastating thunderbolt to Helen but made me laugh out loud. Because a) in terms of her character, it shows that being a sensitive lady novelist with two published books does not make you a lofty exception to the human race, does not mean you are especially intelligent or have special insight into other people. In fact, the opposite.

He must have been very, very careful. Or perhaps it was just me who was very stupid, very unobservant, very trusting. (p.202)

Quite. b) In terms of the plot, it very conveniently means that she is not only now ‘available’ for sex, but vows to make up for lost time. Messenger’s boat has come in.

Common themes in David Lodge’s fiction

This is David Lodge’s 11th novel and certain patterns in his fiction are very apparent:

  • there will be a lot of embarrassingly blunt sexual descriptions
  • one or more of the protagonists will be experts on an academic subject and not shy about lecturing the reader on it
  • one or more of the characters will be a Roman Catholic liable, at the drop of a chasuble, to conjure up memories of their cramped, traditional religious upbringing and how they heroically overcame it
  • there will be ‘formal’ tricksiness ie Sunday supplement experimentalism (eg the deployment of the clever literary pastiches mentioned above)
  • a male and female character will journey towards reconciliation and love

Sex

Oh dear. The male lead, cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger, is randy as a goat on heat. The novel opens with a transcript of him recording his secret, innermost thoughts, trying to catch the free association of ideas in action:

I recorded us in bed to test the range of the condenser mike, left it running on the chair with my clothes without her knowing… she made a lot of noise when she came I like that in a woman… What a lot of pubic hair she had, black and springy and densely woven, like a birdsnest, you wouldn’t have been surprised to find a little white egg warm inside her labia… (p.2)

Maybe I’m very prudish but I think the novelist has to earn the right to be this blunt about sex in general, and have the good manners to introduce us to the characters as human beings before giving us dreamy descriptions of their labia. D.H. Lawrence takes a long time setting the scene and ambience before the famous rude scenes in Lady Chatterley. By contrast, opening a Lodge novel is like turning on a TV to be instantly confronted by a big close up of penises shoving into vaginas amid howls and grunts. Maybe that is progress.

As the novel progresses Messenger gravitates from using a tape-recorder to a computer transcription program. When he’s wondering what to describe to test out the new transcription device, he was a brainwave – he’ll describe his ‘first fuck’ (p.73) – which leads him into a sequence of reminiscences about being in a strip joint, being discovered swimming naked when he was a teenager, and so on, complete with plenty of erections and ejaculations.

she laughed softly and came over and stood in front of me so I was staring straight at her crotch sparsely fleeced with ginger pubic hair veiling but not concealing the pinky-brown crease of her cunt… (p.78)

A little later, he ponders the plight (as he sees it) of being homosexual:

What a deprivation, not to find the bodies of women attractive, their curves and their cunts and all the other fascinating differences from women… (p.116)

The novel is divided broadly into three points of view: the prim and proper diary which Helen Reed is keeping; an objective 3rd-person narrator; and Messenger’s stream-of-consciousness passages. The heart sinks when you come to every new Messenger section, for we are never very far from pricks and cunts.

It is odd that Lodge’s later novels regularly include figures who worry about the high moral purpose of art, of the value of the soul, of the imagination etc, sometimes almost as if they mean it – but the texts themselves routinely return us to an unpleasantly male gaze, a coarse objectifying of women, the brutal use of the crudest possible language.

I had time for a quick appraisal as she shrugged off her robe and climbed into the tub.. the tits are a little low slung and wide apart, but shapely and firm… they bounced perceptibly – with their own elasticity, not the cotton latex, as she stepped into the tub… in fact only a tiny strip of material, not much more than an inch wide, prevented me from staring right up her fanny… (p.117)

Comments like that, if written or even spoken aloud, would get you sacked for gross misconduct in most modern work-places. Yet slip them into a cleverly-structured, large-format Penguin paperback and this kind of vulgar language and grossly objectifying attitude wins literary prizes.

I’d like to fuck Emily [his step-daughter]…. Helen Reed, yes, I’d like to fuck her too… (p.118)

Speaking of his teenage step-daughter:

That time I saw her naked about a year ago, when I walked into the family bathroom, looking for something, and she was having a bath… just glimpsed her taut adolescent breasts gleaming wet with big brown aureoles and pointed nipples before I turned on my heel and walked out… (p.117)

No doubt the defense is that the very point of the stream-of-consciousness is to reveal everything, no matter how embarrassing, about a character. OK. But it seems to me a failure of imagination to think that revelations, secrets and embarrassments have to and can only be sexual revelations, secrets and embarrassments. There is more to human beings than screwing. On top of which, it feels lame that this extremely limited view of human nature can itself only be expressed by the monotonous repetition of the crudest language.

my tumescent cock… given me a tremendous hard-on (78)… panting for breath and with an erection like a broomstick (118)… I had to stay behind in the tub till my hard-on subsided (148)… if it happened that he lost his erection it didn’t matter (177)… How eager the young men were, how impatient their quivering erections (178).. It isn’t easy to drive with an erection (p.256)…

Male and female

Changing Places was structured around the comparison between go-getting American academic Morris Zapp and shy, bumbling English lecturer Philip Swallow.

Nice Work was structured around the contrast between high-falutin’ literary expert Robyn Penrose and hard-headed industrialist Vic Wilcox.

Thinks… is another dichotomy built around the opposition of Dr Ralph Messenger (male, scientist, rational) and Helen Reed (woman, novelist, feeling). Ralph is all aggressive rationalism and long lectures about current thinking in Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence. Helen was already a deeply sensitive person, and is now prone to even more intense feelings due to the recent, unexpected death of her husband (which also, of course, makes her conveniently available for a love affair).

Woman meets man = Sex. Or 300 pages of well-mannered foreplay rotating round and round the subject of sex. Again and again, I thought: Just get on and fuck him, for God’s sake, and then progress to the next, equally predictable stage – reams of high-minded literary regret.

Cognitive science

In his 20s the novelist Aldous Huxley set out to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, all 30 volumes of it. Nancy Cunard said you could tell which letter he was up to by his conversation. If it was all about hormones, horses and hysteria, he was up to… H! Something similar can be applied to Lodge. What has he been reading up on to turn into the theme of his next novel?

In his previous novel, Therapy, Lodge had obviously been reading the work of Søren Kierkegård because the protagonist of that novel gives us frequent expositions of the Danish philosopher’s theories, ethics and religious beliefs, as well as his biography, and indeed ends up travelling to Copenhagen to visit the Kierkegård museum and the places where the Great Dane lived and loved. Lodge is nothing if not thorough.

In the run-up to this novel Lodge has read intensively around the subjects of Cognitive Science, Artificial Intelligence and related fields. We know this because of the two-page acknowledgement at the back of the book which thanks various cognitive scientists for their help and encouragement, and includes an impressive reading list.

The novel is, therefore, an exercise in weaving Lodge’s characteristically clear, plain and forthright expositions of this branch of science into the more mundane love story between the randy science professor and the sensitive lady novelist.

Will there be misunderstandings and arguments? Will they squabble about the relative importance of science versus art, of evidence versus emotion? Will there be a lot of expository prose about cognitive science and artificial intelligence and qualia and affective modelling and genetic algorithms? Yes. Lots.

  • Genetic algorithms are computer programs designed to replicate themselves like biological life forms (p.45)
  • Affective modelling is computer simulation of the way emotions affect human behaviour (p.45)
  • qualia – the specific quality of our subjective experiences of the world – like the smell of coffee, or the taste of pineapple (p.36)
  • ‘Mentalese’ – some kind of preverbal medium of consciousness which at a certain point, for certain purposes, gets articulated by the particular parts of the brain that specialise in speech (p.37)
  • The Prisoner’s Dilemma (p.51)
  • Schrödinger’s Cat (p.54)
  • Locked-in syndrome (p.86)
  • Very small particles behave like waves, in random and unpredictable ways,’ says Douglas. ‘When we make a measurement, we cause the wave to collapse. It’s been suggested that the phenomenon of consciousness is a series of continuous collapses of the wave function.’ (p.127)
  • ‘Heisenberg demonstrated that you cannot accurately specify both the position and the speed of a particle. If you get one right, you get the other wrong.’ (p.128)
  • ‘Chaos theory deals with systems that are unusually sensitive to variations in their initial conditions or affected by a large number of independent variables. Like the weather, for instance.’ (p.128)
  • ‘TOM. Theory of Mind. Knowing that other people may interpret the world differently from yourself. The ability to lie depends on it. Most children acquire it at age three or four. Autistics never do.’ (p.134)

My son’s doing philosophy A-Level and I am surprised at the high standard of information and debate required for the subject. This novel is not pitched as high as A-Level. It raises various school debating society issues, but almost all in conversation, in dialogue, briefly, without going into depth: Is there a soul or are our minds just complex computers? Is life meaningful if there is no afterlife, or is it horribly pointless? —

When Lodge quotes from his sources (as above) the text is densely factual. But when he dramatises them into the mouths of his characters, especially the dim lady novelist, they are all too easily dumbed down into jokey dialogue. One of the characters has an autistic son: when Helen has one of the AI programs explained to her (it can process information but has no emotions) she quips that it is autistic. Having had chaos theory explained to her, she watches the annual rubber duck race on a nearby river, held for charity: and points out to the prof that what determines which duck gets into the lead is tiny variations in the initial conditions: Helen’s Chaos theory of Ducks! Boom boom. See how the novelist has dramatised these complex scientific theories for the benefit of us stupid people.

Is all this thorough learning integrated into the narrative of the novel? No. It would have been riveting if the plot had somehow turned on developments in AI, if one of the computer programs or experiments had somehow caused a crucial plot development. (Something like this in fact happens in Robert Harris’s thriller, The Fear Index, where an artificially intelligent algorithm designed to play the stock market starts to flex its muscles.) But here? No. The core of the novel is simply about a randy male academic who wants to sleep with an attractive female academic. The scientific elements appear from time to time as topics of conversation like any other, in among the hum of chat about the General Election or young people these days or the future of higher education or nice pubs in Gloucestershire.

Roman Catholicism

There’s always at least one Catholic character in a Lodge novel (some are entirely about Roman Catholic teaching and its recent history, such as The British Museum Is Falling Down or How Far Can You Go?).

The Catholic in this novel is the creative writing teacher, Helen Reed. She abandoned her faith decades ago, when a student, but her husband recently died of a brain haemorrhage and she now finds herself (very predictably) attracted to the campus chapel, nostalgically hankering for the religious certainties of her childhood faith. Yawn. When she visits her parents at Easter she is drawn back to the elaborate rituals of the weekend of special services. And when she discusses the mind, consciousness and fiction with her polar opposite, the alpha male scientist, Helen draws on convenient snippets of Christian belief to perform her allotted role in the novel’s scheme: as representative of the “lady novelist / emotions and empathy / but surely the universe has some meaning?” school of argument.

‘But aren’t there areas of human experience where scientific method doesn’t apply?’
‘Qualia, you mean?’
‘I suppose so,’ [Helen] said. ‘I was thinking of happiness, unhappiness. The sense of the sublime. Love.’ (p.229)

Dear oh dear. She is made out to be laugh-out-loud dim and – the point of her not realising her husband was unfaithful – completely unperceptive about other people. But like many dim people, she takes her own inability to follow an argument or to weigh the evidence systematically, as a virtue, as a proof that her own vague post-Christian vapourings about souls and spirits and the universe and feeling, are somehow more true, more authentic, more real than yukky science.

Bourgeois world

After Small World, Lodge appears to have made a conscious choice not to return to the cartoony, comic exuberance of that and its predecessor novels. Although comedic in structure (they have happy endings) and often funny in occasional details, Nice WorkParadise NewsTherapy and Thinks… address more ‘serious’ subjects and seem to be trying to treat them in a more adult style. Lacking the zany improbabilities of the comic novels, they become more ‘realistic’ in tone and approach.

1. I read the news today… One sign of this is the foregrounding of contemporary news and issues in the text. All these novels are set in very carefully defined time periods. Often (in Therapy and here) the majority of the text consists of journals or diaries where Lodge is able to tie the characters’ thoughts or events to specific dates in specific years, and to reference the political events, the economic background and the news stories to create a ‘realistic’ timeframe for the narrative (the Jamie Bulger case, Squidgygate, the bombing of Sarajevo etc in Therapy).

In this novel it is the build-up to the General Election in May 1997 which ended 18 years of Conservative government, and inaugurated 13 years of New Labour rule. (Typically, Messenger and Helen have sex on the momentous night itself. Sex overrides every other value in these novels.)

However, I’m not sure this tactic really works. I argued in my review of Therapy that just referring to contemporary events without somehow integrating them into the plot or narrative has the paradoxical effect of making the narratives appear shallower, as if the stories are themselves as trite and throwaway as the daily papers.

2. But the other noticeable trend in these post-comic novels is the increasing embourgeoisement of the characters. The clever grammar school boy swept up into National Service in Ginger, You’re Barmy or whose childhood and youth are sensitively described in Out Of The Shelter are exceptional, maybe, in their precocious intelligence, but act as windows onto a broader social scene, the working class squaddies in Ginger or American-dominated post-war Germany. The academic world of Changing Places and Small World is deliberately exaggerated to cartoon colourfulness for our amusement, and generally features comically poor, struggling, up-and-coming, frustrated, stymied and accident-prone academics.

But in these later novels the characters have made it. They are successful and they enjoy the conventional trappings of success. In Therapy the protagonist has a big house in the Midlands (with four loos), a flash car and a handy flat in central London. In Thinks… the lady novelist’s books have won prizes, she has a house in London, her parents have a nice retirement home in Southwold; the male protagonist, Ralph Messenger, has a house on the university campus and another fabulous house in the country, with a hot tub set on a slope with a commanding view, which the characters luxuriate in while discussing the nature of consciousness and the problem of point-of-view in fiction. (Or looking at the women’s tits, if you’re Messenger.)

There is lots of fine dining. More attention is paid than before to the brands of food and – maybe the most salient marker of English bourgeois life – of wine. Messenger likes his wines and, characteristically, uses them to try and get women drunk and into bed. In line with her role as the representative of Henry James and religious feeling and fine sensibility, it is the lady novelist through whose eyes we see the middle-class dinner parties and cocktail parties and birthday parties, the lovely house in the country, the charming town of Cheltenham with its lovely Regency architecture and charming curio shops which sell such lovely trinkets and the charming pubs in the lovely villages around Gloucester which serve such wonderful lunches.

After Helen has visited the wonderful church of Ledbury and communed with the soul of Henry James, who also visited it and left such an exquisite diary entry about it, she returns to a just adorable pub she spotted in the village.

Logs smouldered in the big open fireplace, and there were spring flowers on every table – solid, unpolished wooden tables, with comfortable Windsor armchairs. Blackboards over the long bar listed an enticing and adventurous menu. I ordered garlic and herb tagliatelle with chilli prawns and sun-dried tomatoes, reserving the possibility of an orange truffle pot with Grand Marnier sauce for dessert. A smiling motherly waitress took my order, to which I added a large glass of the house Chardonnay. The first course, when it came, was as mouth-watering as its description promised. I could hardly believe my good fortune. (p.233)

The scene, the prose are like something from Cotswolds tourist board, like an upmarket review on TripAdvisor.

But it is, with thumping inevitability, on this little pilgrimage to an out-of-the-way church, in this well-appointed pub with its wonderful cuisine that Helen spots Messenger’s wife and another man clearly having an illicit meeting, obviously carrying on an affair.

It is the inevitability of the way that, in middle-class novels, it is always the formal dinner party or the lovely meal with the Chardonnay (or was it that wonderful Pouilly-Fuissé, darling?) or the trip to the exquisite restaurant, where one or other married character makes a pass at another married character, or so-and-so’s affair is discovered and there is the most horrendous scene.

I find this world – real enough as it is, and as I’ve experienced it at numerous tense dinner parties – narrow, limited, sticky and thick with hypocrisy, full of successful bankers and lawyers and academics guffawing and pouring you some more Beaujolais and telling you why Tony just has to support George because there definitely are weapons of mass destruction, you know, a good friend in the FO told me it’s all true, and Saddam Hussein is just such a beastly man. A hermetically sealed world of People Like Us who never let the ugly, uncongenial facts of existence disturb their cosy groupthink.

It is a world and a class which are hard not to find repellent in its cosseted smugness. I preferred Norman the pig man in Ginger, You’re Barmy – his memory makes me smile because he represented something unsmooth and rebarbative, something which couldn’t be bought off with another glass of this rather fine Nuits-Saint-Georges, a working-class aggression which turned out to have an oddly endearing sweetness about it, something unexpected and which therefore stretched my imagination and human sympathies. A rude honesty which reaches back through Shakespeare to Chaucer and medieval gargoyles.

More plot

But there’s more. Once she’s discovered her (now dead) husband was unfaithful to her, Helen – on the rebound – of course makes herself available to the nearest thrusting alpha male, Dr Messenger. She prepares carefully for a scene of touching and sensitive seduction, cleaning her small flat, changing the sheets, washing and putting on one of her nicest outfits. So far the female point of view. Messenger records it on his tape thus:

This afternoon I fucked one of England’s finest female novelists… She looked so attractive at Bourton-on-the-Water, in a close-fitting pair of white jeans that showed her shapely bum to advantage, and her breasts moving about interestingly under her sweater… I didn’t want to give her any time for second thoughts, and I soon discovered that there was no need for elaborate foreplay. In fact she came with astonishing rapidity, almost as soon as I entered her. (p.257)

(It helps for practical purposes that Messenger’s wife has been called to America to the bedside of her ailing father.)

Thus Helen allows Messenger to fuck her and, like millions of women before and since, wonders whether she is truly in love with him and just what her feelings are and whether she has somehow betrayed her loyalty to her dead husband and is there still some vestige of sin in adultery etc etc etc etc for page after page of her dim-witted self-absorbed journal — while Messenger just calculates all the different ways and places he can fuck her – in the jacuzzi, high on a sheep-covered hillside, in their country retreat quietly when the kids are asleep, in her flat, on top, from behind, ringing the changes and treating her like a hank of meat.

[Messenger] liked to get inside her quickly and copulate in various positions before he achieved his orgasm, bringing Helen to several in the meantime. He was immensely strong in the arms and shoulders, and flipped her effortlessly this way and that, over and under him, like a wrestler practising ‘holds’. (p.263)

All of which crude abuse we read Helen rationalising to herself as just a rather boisterous expression of his love for her, his emotions for her, of the deep spiritual bond they have forged together. Pathetic stupid self delusion.

Crescendo and climax

After a fairly leisurely 280 pages the last 60 pick up speed as a number of plot strands converge:

  • In chapter 23 Messenger had visited Prague, where his publisher had fixed him up with a slender beauty to show him round (and what do you think they do that night? Fuck? Correct.) Messenger vaguely promised her she could attend the summer conference at his university. Now she writes, taking him up on his promise and eventually threatening to reveal their affair (one fuck) to his wife.
  • More dramatically, Messenger is diagnosed with a lump on the liver which dominates the final chapters. It is eventually revealed to be benign, a cyst caused by a parasite picked up during a youthful holiday working on a sheep farm. But the fear that it is cancer casts a pall over everyone. With crashing inevitability, it brings him and his wife closer together. He realises what a fool he’s been (lol), screwing around with the Czech woman, and then this crazy affair with Helen. He completely disengages from her. For her part, Helen is beside herself with concern and can’t understand why Messenger is suddenly so stand-offish (being unable to imagine that she was, all along, a glorified sex doll for a middle-aged sex maniac).
  • On the night of the big conference a small plot strand explodes when the Child Pornography Unit of Gloucestershire Police arrive to announce that someone in his department has been downloading child pornography – an investigation which quickly takes them to Messenger’s number two, the angry, frustrated Professor Duggan, a perennial loser who never got over Messenger being appointed to the job he thought was his by rights and who – in a surprise move – hangs himself from shame.
  • All of these incidents rushing together make Messenger immediately and logically realise he wants to terminate the fling with Helen. Apart from anything else, it is his American wife who is the rich one – in a divorce she would probably keep all the money, the house and the children. Yes, but better break it to her gently, old chap. Helen, characteristically, takes a lot longer and invokes the soul, art and Henry James before reaching pretty much the same conclusion. Her heart says one thing, her head says another – ‘I fear I love this man!’ (and so on).

In the final scene Messenger goes to her flat to tell her it’s over. She is late back from work. At a loose end he opens her laptop, starts to read her journal and is thunderstruck to discover that his wife, Carrie, is herself having an affair (from the entry Helen made about seeing Carrie with the man at the pub in Ledbury). Turns out Messenger doesn’t know what’s going on in other people’s heads, either.

Or: it turns out that just about every superior middle-class person in the book is totally available for affairs and flings, adultery and betrayal. It is a dispiritingly shallow view of the world and human nature, that all this expensive education, all this knowledge and insight, is put almost exclusively to the service of furtive fucking.

Morality and irresponsibility

Helen, in her high-mindedly self-deceiving way, thinks that all her windy hand-wringing about whether to fuck Messenger is essentially a moral question and (God help us) what novels mostly are and should be about. After the biggest computer in the world replicates all human thought processes, she states,

‘The same moral problems of love and lust, fidelity and betrayal, will remain’ (p.299).

No doubt morality will remain, but I find the notion that morality is exclusively concerned with sexual behaviour – as this statement (and the whole novel) implies – to be constrictingly narrow and unattractive.

Freud, who knew a thing or two about human sexuality, says ‘morality is simple’. Are you going to betray your marriage vows, yes or no. If you think it will make you unhappy and is ‘wrong’, don’t do it.

This novel reminded me of Woody Allen’s films (not just because of the scene where he sexually fantasises about his step-daughter) but also because the characters can’t seem to behave like adults, can’t live by simple rules, can’t – and this is the point – deny themselves any pleasures they set their eyes on. It is a world where everyone wants to be happily married but also screw anyone they want to. Aaaaaaw mom, I wanna ice cream!!!

Like Allen’s films, this kind of novel teaches us nothing about ‘morality’, but a great deal about the self-centred, spoilt, childish kidults from the 80s and 90s who dress up their inability to act their age in fancy words and long-winded monologues about self-expression or life choices or qualia.

Morality is about respecting other people and helping and supporting them through a life which can often be difficult and painful, through bereavement and accident and disease and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, through the natural stages of loving and committing and parenting and caring for children, for your partner, for your parents when they become old and ill. It is about behaving with generosity and kindness, giving, helping, acting responsibly and rationally, overcoming difficulties and – through all of this – accepting that a large part of being an adult means self-denial.

Morality is not about having a well-paid job, a loving partner, living in a big house overflowing with food and over-educated friends – and agonising about who to fuck next. That is self-indulgence, indiscipline and decadence.

Satire?

The concluding question is: is this novel a satire? Does Lodge intend us to dislike and despise these characters as much as I do? The scientific gobbets are presented at face value. And so are the characters’ discussions of them. Helen’s upset at her husband’s death, and then of discovering his betrayal, seem serious. The child porn addict hanging himself – is that utterly serious, or does it smack a little of the savage farcical angle of a Tom Sharpe satire? Carrie’s father’s illness, Messenger’s own diagnosis with a liver condition – these are both presented ‘straight’, as if in a completely realistic novel where we are meant to sympathise with the characters’ plights and problems.

But surely Lodge cannot have created such a rapacious monster of egotism (Messenger) and such a self-absorbed, self-deceiving ninny as Helen, without realising it?

Lodge has been studying, teaching and writing novels for 50 years. Is he cannily creating space within the text for the reader to create the story they need? Some will warm to Helen’s tender-heartedness and read it as one woman’s journey to self-realisation; others might take from it the clever interweaving of up-to-date science with contemporary characters; randy men might warm to, or at least find hilarious, Messenger’s uninhibitedly frank sex talk.

Is a consistent take on the characters and the ‘story’ difficult because Lodge is deliberately deploying the material over a spectrum of ‘seriousness’, from the entirely heart-felt to the savagely ironic. The text very obviously consists of three main ‘voices’ (Messenger’s tape recordings, Helen’s diary entries, the omniscient narrator linking it all). Are there also different ‘registers of seriousness’ weaving across all three voices i.e. sometimes we’re meant to take their feelings and ideas seriously but at other times they are meant to be laughable and at other times… somewhere in between?

In the final page, looking back from some years later, the narrator records that Helen settles down with another writer and wins prizes for her novels, while Messenger is awarded the CBE for services to science. Is the novel serious in intention and satirical in outcome – both at the same time? Is official society’s recognition of this fine pair of boobies (prizes, honours) a parting gesture by Lodge which unmistakably marks the text as a satire on our values today, the way we live now? Or is the whole novel a sophisticated litmus test in which the reader’s response reveals more about him or her than about the author or his ‘intentions’?

Related links

Penguin paperback edition of Thinks...

Penguin paperback edition of Thinks…

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers – An ensemble piece following the lives of various characters in the fictional London suburb of Brickley, all linked by their attendance at their local cinema, the Palladium, as they fall in and out of love, practice various degrees of Catholicism and worry about sex.
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance. (A pilgrimage novel)
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic friendship.
1991 – Paradise News – Agnostic priest Bernard Walsh is rung up by his dying aunt Ursula who lives in Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to come visit her and bring his father (her brother). Thus begins a ‘holiday’ in ‘paradise’ in which old family secrets are disinterred, old wounds healed, and new life begins. (A pilgrimage novel)
1995 – Therapy – Successful TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore has it all – hit show, sexy wife, grown-up kids flown the nest, big house, flash car – but is still obscurely unhappy, a problem which turns into a plight when his wife abruptly sues for divorce and he seeks refuge in the past as his life falls apart. (A pilgrimage novel)
2001 – Thinks… – At the (fictional) University of Gloucester, clever, lecherous cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger fancies fucking bereaved novelist Helen Reed, amid numerous lectures on artificial intelligence, cut & pasted from the popular science books of the 1990s.
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

Forgotten Victory: the First World War Myths and Realities by Gary Sheffield (2001)

Forgotten Victory: the First World War Myths and Realities (2001) by military historian Gary Sheffield is part of a new-ish revisionist school, setting out to overturn all the clichés about WW1 e.g. it was a pointless war, lions led by donkeys, carnage battles etc.

In a succession of snappy chapters Sheffield shows how:

  • The image of the Great War was created by a tiny handful of junior officer poets and memoirists and handed down by generally left-wing, pacifist types in charge of English culture from the nancy poets of the 1930s to Joan Littlewood’s ‘O What A Lovely War’ in the 1960s, to Blackadder in the 1980s, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong (1993) and plenty of others.
  • How Britain had to enter the war and, if it was to do so, did best to enter early. If we let Germany defeat France, Germany would have dominated Europe with various bad consequences, for example taking its time to prepare an invasion of Britain. If we were going to intervene at all, it had to be immediately.
  • Despite their manifold shortcomings the general staff did systematically learn lessons that made the British Army, by 1918, the best fighting force in the world, the force that turned the tide and, in fact, won the war in the West.
  • And how – as his title suggests – although we Brits tend to obsess about the great disasters of the war – the first day of the Somme, Passchendaele and so on – we did, actually, comprehensively and completely win the damn war.

N.B. This is the second or third book I’ve read which emphasises that the Australians were the toughest fighters of the war, followed by the Canadians. The Aussies sound amazingly brave and tough. And that also criticises General Pershing, the American commander who, refusing to listen to British generals, insisted on doing things his own way, repeated the mistakes of 1915 and ’16 and unnecessarily lost thousands of American troops in the process.

Related links

%d bloggers like this: