The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (1997)

Everything since independence has been a sick joke. (p.206)

The Catastrophist slowly builds into a gripping novel on the strength of Bennett’s powerful evocation of its historical setting, the Belgian Congo in the fraught months leading up to and following its independence on 30 June 1960, and in particular what David van Reybrouck calls the Shakespearian tragedy surrounding the murder of its first elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, in January 1961.

However, front and centre of the novel is the story of the narrator’s doomed love affair with a passionately political woman 13 years his junior which gives rise to numerous passages of purple prose and florid digressions on the nature of love which I found almost impossible to read.

Let’s deal with some of the negatives first, before getting onto the muscular strength of the positives.

A novel about a novelist

There are a number of reasons to dislike this novel. For a start it’s a novel told in the first person about a novelist who’s struggling to write a novel (p.12) and spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about the special problems of being a writer, about being so concerned about finding the right words that he is too self conscious to really live, to give himself to the world, to commit… and so on and so on – a subject so hackneyed and tiresome that several times I nearly gave up reading the book.

My third eye, my writer’s eye, monitors every word and gesture. It makes me fearful of my own censure. I can only hold back. (p.108)

Because he is so obsessed with his status and role as a ‘writer’ he feels like an ‘outsider’, like a permanently alienated observer of everything going on around him, and makes sure we know it by continually repeating the fact:

  • I am surrounded – always – by my own distance. (p.10)
  • I am the trained observer…
  • I am not truly part of this…
  • I move away to stand alone, apart, removed from the people…
  • …my ever-evasive presence…
  • [I am] the habitual onlooker… (p.49)
  • I have spent too much time in the cheerless solitude of my own ego.
  • Is this all I have ever been? A selfish, egotistical watcher? (p.268)

It feels like a very lived-in, worn-out, stereotyped character and attitude for a writer, for a fiction.

And my words, what worth have they? From my youth I have lived with disguises and…I have forgotten what my real words are. I have lived disguised from myself, in permanent doubt of my emotional authenticity; and since I am never alone with myself, since I am always watching the character playing my part in the scene, there is no possibility of spontaneity. (p.129)

Accompanying this tremendously narcissistic self-consciousness goes a self-consciously ‘poetic’ style, but of a particularly ‘modern’ variety. During the 1980s the ever-more popular creative writing courses spread the gospel of cutting back on style, removing adjectives, keeping it simple, understating feeling and description in order to produce a taut, clear, plain prose which, however, gives the impression of being charged with suppressed feeling. Less is more. Or at least that’s the intention.

When it doesn’t work, however, it comes over as just plain and boring, particularly if the author turns out not to have much to say, or lacks a real feel for the language. I’m afraid this is how Bennett reads to me:

I go down to the crowd and find myself next to Madeleine. The water-skiers weave and circle, a pied kingfisher hovers twenty feet above the water. There are men in military uniform on the far bank. (p.41)

I wake when she gets up to the bathroom. She urinates, then pads sleepily flat-footed back to bed. She yawns and lets out a small noise as she stretches. She breathes deeply, settling again under the sheet. (p.27)

There is a woman in London. Her name is Margaret. I am not proud of this. (p.49)

I pull out a chair for Madeleine. She takes up her things and comes over. She orders orange juice, coffee, toast and scrambled eggs. She leans back in her chair and crosses her tanned legs. She is wearing a black one-piece swimsuit under her robe. She draws on her cigarette and exhales a jet of smoke. I can’t see her eyes behind the shades. (p.77)

It’s not just that it’s pedestrian, it’s that it’s pedestrian with pretensions to be the kind of taut, understated, reined-in style which secretly conceals profound passion, which I described above as being the regulation, modern, creative-writing class style. It’s the pretentiousness of its deliberate flatness which I find irritating.

But just so we know he doesn’t always have to write this flatly, Bennett jazzes up his basic plain style with 1. occasional flashy metaphors and 2. with turns of phrase which are intended, I think, to come over as sensitive and perceptive, particularly when describing the ‘doomed’ love affair which is the central subject of the novel. 1. Here’s a few examples of his sudden flashes of metaphor:

The pitted sponge of jungle gives way to scrub and sand. The sun is red in the east. (p.9)

Jungle does not look like a sponge. Sponges are sandy colour. Jungle is a thousand shades of green. See what I mean by the deliberate understatement in fact concealing the wish to be taken as poetic.

I might have begun to resent my exclusion from the ribbons of her laughter had I not enjoyed seeing again her social display. (p.23)

‘Ribbons of her laughter’ feels like it is written to impress and it ought to impress but… I’m not impressed. In a way the numb, dumb, plain style is deployed precisely so as to be a background to occasional fireworks but I find Bennett’s fireworks too self-consciously presented for our admiration.

There was a piercing veer to the December wind… (p.72)

2. Here’s some examples of the turns of phrase which are meant to indicate what a sensitive, perceptive soul the writer is, how alert to the subtleties of human relationships, in other words a continuation of his self-pitying sense of his own specialness as a writer, an outsider, a ‘trained observer’.

She is not an early riser, but this morning is different. The air tastes of imminence, there are patterns to the clouds and she can see things. I sit on the bed, silent, feet on the floor. (p.29)

‘The air tastes of imminence.’ There are many phrases like this, rising from the numb, dumb, basic style to signpost the author’s sensitivity to mood and impression. Most of them occur around the subject of his doomed love for passionate, small, sensitive Inès.

Our disagreements are fundamental, our minds dispar, but I live in our differences: my blankness draws on her vitality. She exists me. (p.74)

This type of linguistic deformation wins prizes, literally and is clever and locally effective i.e it gives the reader a frisson of poetic pleasure. But I couldn’t help feeling it wouldn’t be necessary to use rare words or deform syntax like this if he had a more natural ability to express himself with words’ usual meanings and syntax. Instead, moments like this seem designed to show off his special sensitivity, the same sensitivity which condemns him to always be standing apart, at a distance from everyone else. ‘I am not truly part of this’. ‘I move away to stand alone, apart.’ Oh, the poor sweet sensitive soul!

Older man in love with passionate, idealistic, younger woman

It is 1959. James Gillespie is an Irishman living in London. He is a writer. He writes novels.

‘Zoubir tells me you’re a writer,’ de Scheut says. ‘What do you write?’
‘Novels,’ I say.

He has been having an affair with a passionate Italian journalist thirteen year his junior, Inès Sabiani (p.39). (When I was a schoolboy and student I ‘went out’ with girls. It was only at university that the public schoolgirls I met introduced me to the bourgeois domain where people ‘have affairs’, a phrase designed to make hoity-toity people’s lives sound so much more interesting and classy than yours or mine. The way Bennett describes James and Inès’s affair is a good example of the way people in novels often live on a more exalted plane than the humble likes of you and I. Indeed, part of the appeal of this kind of prize-winning novel for its Sunday supplement-reading audience is precisely the way it makes its readers’ lives feel more cosmopolitan, exciting, refined and sensitive.)

The daughter of a communist partisan (p.158), Inès is herself a communist, a passionate, fiery, committed idealist. (Of course she is. Why does this feel so tired and obvious and predictable?) James, her older lover, senses that he is losing her and pines like a puppy to restore their former intimacy. (Of course he does. It feels like I’ve read this tiresome story hundreds of times.)

Why did I react so acerbically? The answer is not hard to find. I am being squeezed out of her orbit. I have come a thousand miles to pin her down, but I see there is no chance of that in these crowded, coursing times. I am bitter. There is no place for me. (p.47)

Inès is a journalist and has been sent to the Belgian Congo to write magazine pieces about the countdown the growing political unrest and calls for independence. The main narrative opens as James flies in to Léopoldville airport, takes a taxi into town and is reunited with his passionate Italian lover. He immediately realises she has become passionately, idealistically committed to the cause of independence and, in particular, to the person of the charismatic Congolese politician, Patrice Lumumba. James is losing her to The Cause.

I look at her with the whole fetch of her story behind my eyes, but she will not yield, she will not soften. Why is she being like this? She used to love me. (p.91)

I wanted to give him a sharp smack and tell him to grow up.

James moves into Inès’s hotel room, they have sex, lie around naked, he watches her pee, they have baths, showers, get dressed, go to parties and receptions. But their former intimacy is somehow lacking and James is puzzled, hurt, frustrated and worries how to restore it. A wall separates them. But then, he realises they are completely different personality types. He is a realist, she is an idealist.

What is real to me is what can be seen; I understand above all else the evidence of the eyes. She is moved by things that cannot be described, that are only half-glimpsed, and when she writes… it is  not primarily to inform her audience, but to touch them. (p.47)

Inès is chronically late for everything, she has no sense of direction, she comically mangles English words and phrases (p.90). It’s almost as if Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus 🙂

His beloved is so special

Oh, but she is so special, this Inès, and inspires the narrator to special feelings about her specialness and his specialness.

She divides me. Her words divide me. Her language refuses the disciplines of the eye, of history, of the world as it is. Her imagination turns on symbol and myth. She lives in the rush of all-embracing sympathy, and sometimes, listening to her song, my lulled motions slip their noose and follow in the blind career of her allegiance… (p.45)

The prose does this, turns to mush, every time he thinks and writes about his beloved, turns into extended dithyrambs to Inès’ passion and intelligence and insight and way with words and commitment. She is small and fragile. She has small breasts. She has a ‘small, slight’ body (p.72), she is light as a feather (p.117), she has a little bottom (p.131). She is ‘small and trembling’ (p.224). She has a tiny hand (p.69), a tiny fist (p.116) just like Mimì in La bohème but her eyes are big and shining. Life is too hard for such a sensitive soul.

All this is contrasted with James’s stolid, pedestrian practicality. He is self consciously ‘older, wry and amused’ by her idealism, by her political passions (p.70). They first met in Ireland where she had come to do interviews and become passionately, naively excited about the IRA and their campaign for  Irish unification. James tells us he will bide his time before filling her in about the complicated realities of a divided Ireland. He thinks she lives in a simplistic world of good and bad, and feels his lack of commitment, his wry amusement at all types of political passion, is sadly superior.

This is the binary opposition they present in Congo: she young, idealistic and passionate about the cause of independence, increasingly and dangerously involved with the key people; he, older, disillusioned, sardonically superior to political engagement, incapable of any commitment, permanently standing to one side.

James’s sentimental worship of Inès, the committed journalist and passionate woman of the people, closely resembles the sentimental worship of his caring, altruistic wife, Tessa, by the older, jaded protagonist of John le Carré’s novel, The Constant Gardener. In both novels the attitude seems to me sentimental, maudlin, patronising and, arguably, sexist.

The Graham Greene paradigm

As to the setting, well, that is genuinely interesting. Not many anglophone novelists have written about the Congo except, of course, Graham Greene, in his gloomy 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case. About ten of the many fulsome blurbs on The Catastrophist‘s cover compare Bennett to Greene. He must have gotten heartily sick of the comparison.

But what I find most Greeneian about The Catastrophist is not the ‘exotic’ setting but the extreme predictability about almost every aspect of the story. Jaded older man in love is with vivacious younger woman. Frank descriptions of love making undermined by sadness that he is losing her. These are straight out of Greene’s book-length account of a doomed romance in The End of The Affair (1951) and of the doomed romance in The Quiet American (1955).

A few chapters into the narrative Inès takes James to a swanky reception/garden party hosted by one of the most influential local Europeans, Bernard Houthhoofd (p.35). Here James meets a selection of European colonialists, colons to use the French word, who are straight out of central casting, the kind of chorus of secondary characters which seem super-familiar from Graham Greene’s later works, and from all novels of this type.

  • There is the rich host himself, sleek and unperturbed.
  • There is the snobby or arrogant or ignorant middle-class white woman, Madeleine, who thinks all natives or indigènes (as the French-speaking Belgians call them) are ghastly, they are children, they need a strong leader, they are nowhere near ready for independence etc (p.79).
  • There is the decent businessman, de Scheut, who is worried for the safety of his children in these dangerous times.
  • There is Zoubir Smail, a Lebanese-born diamond merchant (p.268).
  • There’s Roger who is, alas, not the lodger but the thoroughly decent English doctor.
  • There’s a journalist, Grant, the epitome of the English public schoolboy with his height, condescension and floppy haircut (p.113).
  • And there is the crop-haired, big-headed American, Mark Stipe (p.39) who may or may not be working for the CIA.

Could it possibly be more like a Graham Greene novel with a cast almost as stereotyped as an Agatha Christie novel? Or like his heir, John le Carré, with his descriptions of privileged ex-pat communities in places like Hong Kong (The Honourable Schoolboy) and Nigeria (The Constant Gardener).

The whole thing feels programmatic and predictable.

Symbolism

The garden party is a good example of another aspect of the novel which is that, although completely realist in style and conception, Bennett is careful to give his scenes symbolic resonance. Thus the garden party at Houthhoofd’s place doesn’t take place in Léopoldville, capital of the Congo (the city which, six years later, Mobutu would rename Kinshasa) but on the other side of the river, in the French colony of Congo (south of the river was the Belgian Congo, north of the river was the French Congo).

The point being that when all the guests become aware of a disturbance back on the Belgian side, some kind of protest which turns into a riot and then the police opening fire on the crowd, they observe all this at a great distance, only barely perceivable through a pair of binoculars one guest happens to have on him. It is a symbol, you see, of the great distance which separated the pampered lives of the European colons from the harsh lives of the locals.

This and various other moments in or aspects of the book feel as if they’ve been written with the Brodie’s Notes summary in mind, with events and characters written to order to fit into sections called Themes, Character, Symbolism, Treatment and so on, ready for classrooms full of bored GCSE students to copy out. All the way through, I had the sensation that I’d read this book before, because the plot, incidental events and many of its perceptions about love and politics feel not only familiar, but so schematic.

In its final quarter The Catastrophist develops into quite a gripping narrative but never shakes the feeling that it has been painted by numbers, written to order, according to a checklist of themes and ideas and insights which had to be included and checked off.

(The riot isn’t a random occurrence. Bennett is describing the protest march which turned into a massacre which led the Belgian authorities to set up a commission of enquiry – which predictably exonerated the police – but was important because it led directly Lumumba’s arrest and imprisonment for alleged incitement in November 1959.)

Sex in the bourgeois novel

Sex is everywhere in the bourgeois novel. One of the main reasons for reading middle-class novels is the sensitive, caring way in which elaborate, imaginative sex between uninhibited and physically perfect partners routinely occurs. Which is all rather unlike ‘real life’ in which my own experience, the experience of everyone I’ve ever slept with or talked to about sex, everything I’ve heard from the women in my life, from feminists, from advice columns, and newspaper articles and surveys, suggest otherwise. In the real world people struggle in all kinds of ways with their sexuality, not least the fact that people are often too ill, sick, tired, drunk or physically incapacitated to feel horny. Most women have periods, some very painful, which preclude sex for a substantial percentage of the time. According to the most thorough research, about 1 in 5 people have some kind of sexually transmitted disease. In other words, sex in the real world is often physically, psychologically and emotionally difficult and messy.

Whereas the way the male protagonists of novels by Graham Greene or David Lodge or Howard Jacobson or Alan Furst (the most eminent literary shaggers I can think of) or, in this case, Ronan Bennett, can barely exchange a few words with a woman before they’re between the sheets having athletic, imaginative sex with women who are physically perfect and have deep, rewarding orgasms. It’s hard not to conclude that this is the wildest male fantasy but at the same time one of the central appeals of the modern novel. Respectable sex. Wonderful and caring sex. The kind of sex we’d all like to have but mostly don’t.

The narrator tells us that Inès climaxes quickly and easily (p.131). Well, that’s handy. And also that Inès prefers to slow love-making right down, hold her partner in position above her, and then rub her clitoris against his penis until she achieves orgasm with short quiet yelps. Once she has climaxed, penetrative lovemaking can continue until the man climaxes inside her (p.72). Well, I’m glad that’s settled, then.

Setting – the Belgian Congo at independence

Anyway, to focus on the actual setting for a moment: the novel is set in the Belgian Congo in late 1959 and covers the period of the runup to independence on 30 June 1960 and then the 6 months of political and social turmoil which followed and led up to the kidnap and murder of the country’s first Prime Minister, the fiery speechmaker and anti-colonial activist Patrice Lumumba.

Bennett deploys a series of scenes designed to capture the tense atmosphere of the time and place. It’s an early example of Bennett’s realist/symbolical approach when he’s barely touched down and is being driven into town, when the car is hit by a stone thrown by an unseen attacker. It is a first tiny warning of  the resentment felt by blacks to privileged whites, an indicator of the violence latent in the situation. Later he and other guests emerge from a restaurant and see a menacing crowd of blacks at the edge of the white, colonial part of town, who escalate from chanting to throwing stones and then into a full-blown attack on shops and cars. Then there is the garden party scene I’ve described, where the guests witness a riot across the river and some of them spy, through the binoculars, the police throwing bodies of the protesters they’ve shot into the river.

Back in their hotel room after the party/riot Inès punches out an angry impassioned description of the protest/massacre on her typewriter to send to her communist magazine, L’Unità.

The American CIA character, Mark Stipe, steadily grows in importance, until he is nearly as central as the  American character, Alden Pyle, in Greene’s Quiet American. Having him work for some, initially unnamed, US government agency means he can quickly brief the narrator on the Real Situation, or at least as the Americans see it. Stipe lets James read their files about the general economic situation (Congo relies entirely on the raw resources mined by the Union Minière) and the leading political figures – Patrice Lumumba head of the MNC political party; Joseph Kasavubu, head of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) and chief of the Bakongo people; Antoine Gizenga, leader of the Parti Solidiare Africain.

Early on Stipe bumps into James in a bar and surprises him by taking him to see Lumumba’s (boring, ordinary) suburban house, but then driving on to a dingier part of town, where he locates a safe house, owned by one Mungul, where it turns out that Lumumba is actually hiding. Stipe briefly introduces James to Lumumba, before disappearing into another room for a private convo.

In other words, Stipe plays the role of Exposition, feeding the narrator all the important facts about the political situation so that he (and the reader) can quickly get up to speed.

But he also plays another important role, that of binary opposite to idealistic Inès. Stipe is the slangy, cynical, seen-it-all realist. After talking to him, James feels he knows what is really going on, and this makes him feel superior when he goes back to the apartment and talks to Inès who is all fired up about Freedom and Justice. With our Brodie’s Notes hat on, we could say the novel asks the question: who is right? Cynical Stipe or idealistic Inès? Which side should jaded old James commit to?

(This points to another way in which the conventional modern novel flatters its readers: it makes us feel we understand what’s going on. It makes us feel clever, in the know, well-connected whereas, in my experience of political journalism, no-one knows what’s going on. As the subsequent history of the Congo amply demonstrates…Novels which present neat moral dilemmas like this are almost by definition unrealistic, because most of us live our entire lives without being faced with really stark choices.)

Stipe and Lumumba share a driver/fixer named Auguste Kilundu (p.252). He is one of the rare African voices in the novel. Through him Bennett displays a lot of background information, namely about the évolués, the tiny educated elite which emerged in the last decade of Belgian rule. In 1952 the colonial administration introduced the carte d’immatriculation which granted blacks who held it full legal equality with Europeans. It required a detailed assessment of the candidate’s level of ‘civilisation’ by an investigating commission who even visited their homes to make sure the toilet and the cutlery were clean.

Bennett makes this character, Auguste, the proud possessor of a carte d’immatriculation and another vehicle for factual exposition for he can explain to the all-unknowing narrator the tribal backgrounds and rivalries of the main Congolese politicians. Having handily given us all this exposition, Auguste is then depicted as an enthusiastic supporter of Lumumba’s MNC party which aims to supersede tribalism and create a post-tribal modern nation (pages 85 to 88).

The plot

Part one: Léopoldville, November 1959

Middle-aged, Northern Irish novelist James Gillespie flies into the Belgian Congo in November 1959 to be with his lover, Italian communist journalist, Inès Sabiani. He quickly finds himself drawn into the drama surrounding the run-up to Congo’s hurried independence, forced along by growing unrest and rivalry between native politicians, with a small cast of characters European and Congolese giving differing perspectives on the main events. Central to these is the American government agent Mark Stipe.

James witnesses riots. He sees little everyday scenes of racial antagonism, the daily contempt of the colons for the blacks they insultingly call macaques or ‘monkeys’. He writes articles for the British press about the growing calls for independence and, as a rersult, is spat on and punched in restaurants by infuriated colons. His little cohort of liberal Belgians and ex-pat British friends support him. He grows increasingly estranged from Inès who is out till all hours following up stories, befriending the locals, getting the lowdown and then punching out angry articles on her typewriter for L’Unità. They both watch Lumumba being arrested by the nervous colonial police in front of a crowd of angry blacks following the October riot.

The narrative then skips a few months to the opening of the Belgo-Congolese Round Table Conference which commenced on 20 January 1960. Then skips to 27 February, the date on which the conference announced that full independence would be granted on 30 June 1960. They go out to watch a black freedom march but Inès helps turn it into a riot by walking arm in arm with Lumumba’s évolué driver, Auguste. The sight of a white woman walking with a black man prompts bigoted colons to wade into the crowd and abuse her, and to drag Auguste off and give him a beating. James wades in to protect Inès and has a brief punch-up with a big whitey, before managing to take her out of the mob, though he can do nothing to save Auguste who is beaten to the ground by a furious white mob.

For a period following the riot, Inès is ill, confined to bed, vomiting and losing weight. James is quietly pleased about this as she is restricted to contact with him, ceases her political activities and gives him hope their love will be rekindled. They hadn’t been sleeping together but now, on one occasion, they have sensitive soulful sex of the kind found in sensitive novels about sensitive people designed to thrill sensitive readers.

James and Inès attend an MNC rally in the Matongé stadium in the build-up to the pre-independence elections (held in May 1960). Stipe invites James to go on a long road trip with him and Auguste to the province of Katanga in the south-east. On the journey Stipe shares a lot about his personal life (unhappily married) and motivation.

On the journey it also becomes clear that Auguste is changing and is no longer so sheepish and submissive. Inès has told James that Auguste has not only joined Lumumba’s MNC but been appointed to a senior position. James is surprised; he thought him an amiable simpleton. On the road trip Stipe loses his temper with Auguste because, he admits, he doesn’t want him cosying up to Lumumba and getting hurt. En route they come across abandoned burned villages. The Baluba and Lulua tribes are fighting, a foreshadowing of the huge tribal divisions and ethnic cleansing which were to bedevil the independent Congo.

They meet with Bernard Houthhoofd at his beautiful property in Katanga. Bennett gives us facts and figures about Katanga’s stupefying mineral wealth. Over dinner Stipe and Houthhoofd list Lumumba’s failings: he smokes dope, he screws around, but chief among them is that he is taking money from the Soviets. A senior official from the MNC, the vice-chairman Victor Nekanda, is at this dinner and promises to betray Lumumba and set up a rival party, a symbol of the kind of two-faced African politician, all-too-ready to sell out to Western, particularly, American backers.

On the long drive back from Katanga to the capital they come to a village where they had stopped on  the outward journey, and find it burned to the ground in tribal violence, every inhabitant killed, many chopped up. They discover that the kindly schoolteacher who had helped them has been not only murdered but his penis cut off (p.175). Premonitions of the future which independence will bring.

On his return to Léopoldville (abbreviated by all the colons to Leo) James has a blazing row with Inès, throwing all the accusations he heard about Lumumba in her face (dope fiend, adulterer, commie stooge). She replies accusing him of lacking heart, compassion and morality and being the dupe of the exploiting colonial regime and its American replacement.

She also accuses him of denying himself and his true nature and for the first time we learn that James’s real name is actually Seamus and he that he has taken an exaggeratedly English name and speaks with an exaggerated English accent because he is on the run from his own past in Ulster, particularly his violent father who beat his mother. Aha. This family background explains why James sees the worst in everyone. Explains why he can’t afford to hope – it’s too painful, he (and his mum) were let down by his violent father too many times.

This blazing row signals the final collapse of their relationship. Inès moves out and James descends into drunken, middle-aged man, psycho hell. He drinks, he loses weight. Stipe and de Scheut take him for meals, offer to have him come stay. Just before the elections in May 1960 he can’t bear to stay in the empty apartment, moves to a rented room, writes Inès a letter begging forgiveness. Grow up, man.

Part two: Ireland and England

Part two leaps back in time to be a brief memoir about James’s aka Seamus’s Irish family – his father, William, a good-looking English graduate who swept his optimistic Catholic mother, Nuala, off her feet, and slowly turned into a maudlin, wife-beating drunk. Seamus serves in the army in the Second World War, goes to university, moves to London to complete a PhD about 17th century England. The narrative dwells on the unhappiness of his parents’ own upbringings and then the humiliations and unhappiness they brought to their own marriage. It is grim, depressing reading, conveyed in Bennett’s plainest, starkest prose.

One day, budding academic James picks up a novel in a second hand shop in London, starts reading, can’t stop, reads more, buys more novels, reads obsessively and decides to become a writer, abandons his PhD, meets a young publisher who encourages him, blah blah.

A novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing about how he became a novelist. Could anything be more boring? All painfully earnest, serious, sensitive, not one bloody joke.

Obviously, the purpose of this brief digression is to shed light on the narrator’s psychology and why he fell so hard for Inès and why he was so devastated when she permanently dumped him after their big argument. Those with an interest in unhappy Irish childhoods will love this section, but I was relieved to find it mercifully short, pages 187 to 202.

Part three: Léopoldville, November 1960

I.e. the Irish digression allows the narrative to leap six months forwards from May 1960 when we left it. It is now five months after independence was achieved (on 30 June 1960), after five months of chaos, army mutinies, riots, regional secessions, ethnic cleansing, economic collapse, all of which have led up to the first of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s coups, on 14 September.

The narration resumes five weeks after Mobutu’s coup. (It is important to be aware that Mobutu had himself been appointed the new Congo Army’s chief of staff by Lumumba himself and, when the troops mutinied 4 days after independence, he had been charged with dealing with the mutiny and then the series of nationwide crises which followed in quick succession. So Lumumba put his friend and former secretary into the position which he then used to overthrow, imprison and, ultimately, murder his old boss.)

As the chaos unfolded everyone told James to flee the country, as 30,000 Belgians did after the army mutiny and riots of July, but he stayed on and heard Mobutu declare his coup in September and arrest Lumumba.

Now the narrative follows James as he dines with Stipe, the American ambassador and other furtive Yanks, presumably CIA, who now dismiss Lumumba as a commie bastard. The historical reason for this is that Lumumba asked the UN for help putting down the secessionist movements in Katanga and Kasai and, when they sent a few peacekeepers but said they wouldn’t directly intervene, a panic-stricken Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union which immediately gave him guns and lorries and planes i.e. he wasn’t himself a communist, he was taking help from whoever offered it.

The conflict came to a head on the 14 September when the new nation had the surreal experience of hearing President Kasavubu on the radio sacking Lumumba as Prime Minister, followed an hour later by Prime Mininster Lumumba sacking President Kasavubu. It was this absurd political stalemate which Mobutu found himself called on to resolve. Hence he stepped in himself to take control and then, under pressure from the Belgians but especially the Americans, to place his former friend and boss under house arrest.

Knowing his days were numbered, Lumumba begged for UN protection, so – in the present which the novel is describing – his house is now surrounded by blue helmets, themselves surrounded by Congo Army forces. If the UN leaves, everyone knows Lumumba will be murdered, in much the way his followers are now being rounded up and liquidated.

Because this kind of schematic novel always reflects political events in personal events, it is no great surprise, in fact it feels utterly inevitable, when Stipe tells James that his lady love, Inès, is now ‘having an affair with’ Auguste, Stipe’s former chauffeur and friend, who has apparently risen to heights in Lumumba’s MNC having spent a month being indoctrinated in communist Czechoslovakia.

Right from the start of the novel we’ve been aware of James’s attraction to the solid, big-breasted, bigoted colon Madeleine. Now we learn that, on the rebound from Inès, James is fucking her shamelessly, alone in her big house, regularly. ‘Fuck’ is the operative word because Madeline enjoys BDSM and eggs James on to be rougher, harder, swear, shout abuse, slap her. Obviously he enjoys it at the time but later broods, despises himself and wishes he had Inès back.

The difference between the cruel sex with Madeleine and the sensual sex with Inès is as schematic as everything else in the novel and obviously signals the transition from the pre-independence spirit of optimism and the post-independence spirit of cynicism and violence.

Something happens half way through this final long section: the novel begins to morph into a thriller. Out of the blue Inès makes James’s deepest wish come true and contacts him… but not to beg forgiveness and say how much she loves him, but to turn up on his doorstep, collapsing from malaria and begging him to go fetch Auguste from the village outside Léopoldville where he’s hiding and bring him back into town so he can catch a secret flight from the airport which has been arranged by Egypt’s President Nasser to evacuate all MNC members (p.225).

So in the final 40 or so pages the novel turns into a thriller very much in the John le Carré vein, with fat bumbling, self-absorbed novelist suddenly finding himself in serious trouble with the authorities and forced to demonstrate something like heroism.

The tension is racked up for all it’s worth. Calling bland, imperturbable English doctor Roger to come and tend to Inès, James drives out to the village and finds Auguste, alright. He is disgusted when Auguste asks him to help him pack up his and Inès’s belongings from the room in the shanty house which they have obviously been sharing, where Auguste has been screwing her. James stares at the bed, his head full of queasy imaginings.

James hides Auguste in the boot as he drives back into town. He stops at Leo’s main hotel to phone Roger the doctor who is tending to Inès. It is in the hotel immediately after the call, that James is confronted by Stipe who for the first time is not friendly. He asks James twice if he knows where Auguste and both times James lies. Stipe knows James is lying but can’t prove it. James knows Stipe knows and becomes painfully self-conscious about every reply, wondering if his smile is too fake, if Stipe can see the sweat trickling down his brow. Stipe tells him he is being a fool, he is in way over his head, then says a contemptuous goodbye.

James walks back out the hotel to his car realising it’s too dangerous to take Auguste to his own apartment, which is probably being watched. He has a brainwave – Madeline! No-one would suspect the bigoted colon Madeleine of having anything to do with MNC freedom fighters (so Madeleine serves two narrative functions; symbolic dirty sex, and owner of safe house).

So James drives Auguste to Madeleine’s nice town house and, from there, phones his own flat and asks Roger to bring Inès there too. No-one will think of looking for them there. They’ll be safe till the plane arrives. Roger arrives with Inès. Good. Everyone is safe.

So, promising to return and take them to the airport, James drives back to his own house. And sure enough is greeted by a platoon of soldiers. He’s barely begun to protest his innocence before the captain in charge simply borrows a rifle from one of his men and hits James very hard in the side of his head with the rifle butt, kicking him in the guts on the way down, punching and slapping him till he vomits and wets himself. Stipe was right. He’s in way over his head.

He is thrown into the back of an army lorry, kicked and punched more, then dragged into a prison courtyard, along corridors and thrown into a pitch black cell, where he passes out.

He is woken and dragged to an interrogation room where he is presented with the corpse of Zoubir Smail, the Lebanese-born diamond merchant he met at Houthhoofd’s garden party. Smail has been beaten so that every inch of his body is covered with bruises and his testicles swollen up like cricket balls where they have been battered.

James is still reeling from this when the door opens and in comes Stipe, smooth as silk, to interrogate him. There’s no rough stuff, but Stipe psychologically batters him by describing in detail how Auguste fucks Inès, what a big dick he has, how Auguste once confided in Stipe once that he likes sodomy. Stipe forces James to imagine the sounds Inès must make when Auguste takes her from behind. It works. James is overcome with fury and jealousy but he repeatedly refuses to admit he knows where Auguste is. Not for Auguste’s sake, not for the damn ’cause’ – because he thinks being tight-lipped it will help him keep Inès.

Then, as abruptly as he was arrested, they release him, black soldiers dragging him along another corridor to a door, opening it and pushing him out into the street. Simple as that.

James staggers out into the sunlight and there’s Stipe waiting in a swish American car, offering him a friendly lift home, bizarre, surreal. But also telling him, in a friendly way, that he has three days to pack his stuff and leave the country. He apologises for subjecting him to the ordeal, but he was just doing his job.

Then, in the final chapter of this section, the narrative cuts to the scene the novel opened with. We learn that James was able to drive back to Madeleine’s, collect Inès and Auguste and drive them to the airport where they meet up with Lumumba and his people. Except no plane arrived from Egypt. Nothing. So the little convoy of MNC officials go int a huddle and decide to drive east, into the heart of the country, towards Lumumba’s native region where he will be able to raise a population loyal to him.

So they drive and drive, Auguste, Inés, James, Lumumba in a different car with his wife Pauline and young son Roland. But James is appalled at the way they dilly-dally at every village they come to, stopping to chat to the village elders, Lumumba unable to pass by opportunities to press the flesh and spread his charisma.

With the result that, as they arrive at the ferry crossing of the river Sankuru, Mobutu’s pursuing forces catch up with them, a detachment of soldiers and a tracker plane. Lumumba had successfully crossed the river with key followers, including Auguste, but leaving Pauline and Roland to catch it after it returns. But now the soldiers have grabbed her and his son. Everyone watches the figure on the other side of the river, will he disappear into the jungle or… then they see him step back onto the ferry and bid the ferryman steer it back over towards the soldiers. His wife shouts at him not to do it, Inès is in floods of tears, James is appalled.

And sure enough, the moment he steps off the ferry he is surrounded by soldiers who start to beat and punch him. The reader knows this is the start of the calvary which will lead, eventually, to one of Africa’s brightest, most charismatic leaders being flown to the remote city of Elizabethville, taken out into some god-forsaken field, beaten, punched and then executed his body thrown into a well.

James and Inès are released and make it back to Leo, where they immediately pack their things and take the ferry across the river to the freedom and sanity of the French Congo. Here they set up house together and live happily for weeks. Inès even deigns to have sex with poor, pitiful James.

But then one day she gets an AP wire that Lumumba has been murdered (17 January 1961). Mobutu had sent him to Katanga, allegedly for his own safety, but well aware he’d be done in. The official story is that Lumumba was set upon and massacred by villagers in revenge for the killing of their people by Lumumba’s tribe. But everyone knows the murder was committed by the authorities.

The final Congo scene is of Lumumba’s widow leaving the Regina hotel where she had gone to ask for her husband’s body back and walking down a central Boulevard Albert I with her hair shorn and topless, the traditional Congolese garb of mourning, and slowly the city’s civilians stop their work to join her.

James finds himself and Inès caught up in the crowd and then Inès lets go his hand and is swept away. It is another totally realistic but heavily symbolic moment, for the crowd is chanting Freedom and Independence and so it is perfect that Inès the idealist is carried away with it, becomes one with it – while James finds himself confronted by Stipe, furious that he lied to him, who punches him, hard, knocking him to the ground, where various members of the crowd stumble over him and he is in danger of being trampled. Always the clumsy stumbling outsider.

Until at the last moment he is lifted to his feet and dusted off by Charles, the reticent black servant who tended the house he had been renting in Leo. And with his symbolic separation from the love of his life, his near trampling by the Forces of Freedom, his beating up by the forces of capitalist America, and his rescue by one act of unprompted black kindness, the main narrative of the novel ends.

Part four: Bardonnecchia, August 1969

There is a seven page coda. It is 8 years later. James lives in Italy. He spends summer in this remote village up near the French border. In the evenings he dines at the Gaucho restaurant. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is excellent. Of course it is. He knows the waiter and the owner and the pizza chef and the owner of the little bookshop on the other side of the railway line. Of course he does. Late in the evening he sits on chatting to some or all of them. In the absence of Inès his prose is back to its flat dulness.

This year Alan has come out to join me for a week. His reputation as a publisher has grown in tandem with mine as a writer. It is a moot point who has done more for whom. (p.306)

I help him aboard with his luggage and we shake hands. Alan has his ambitions, he can sometimes be pompous, but he is a good man. I am sad that he is going. (p.311)

Dead prose.

He tells us his most successful novel to date was the one about a middle-aged sex-mad novelist and his doomed affair for a passionately little Italian woman who climaxes easily. In other words, the one we’ve just read. A novel featuring a novelist describing how he wrote a novel describing the events he’s just described to us in his novel! How thrillingly post-modern! Or dull and obvious, depending on taste.

James is still obsessed by Inès. With wild improbability he hears her name mentioned by someone in the restaurant, asks about her and discovers she is now one of Italy’s premier foreign correspondents, writing angry despatches from Vietnam. People in novels like this are always eminent, successful, have passionate sex, know the right people, are at the heart of events.

Every morning he waits for the post but there has never been any letter from her. He is a sad sack. Why 1969? So Bennett can set this coda against the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland. His mother and sister have joined the marchers for civil rights. Young men are throwing bricks and bottles at British soldiers. We know now this was to lead to 29 years of bloodshed, strife, murders, bombings and lawlessness. The world is not as we want it to be. What we want to happen, doesn’t. Marches for independence, marches for freedom have a tendency to end not just in bloodshed, but decades of bloodshed.

The novel ends on a note for the sensitive. The sad narrator knows he will now never see Inès again. I know. Tragedy. Cataclysm. After waving Alan off on the train back to London he takes a walk up the hill to be soulful and solitary. Inèes told him she could always be found among the marchers for freedom and justice. But he is trapped in his own disbelief:

She encouraged me, beckoned me forward. She promised that was where I’d find her. But I could never join her there. I was always too much a watcher, too much l’homme-plume; I was divided, unbelieving. My preference is the writer’s preference, for the margins, for the avoidance of agglomerations and ranks. I failed to find her and I know this failure will mark the rest of my life. (p.312)

I can imagine some readers bursting into tears at this sad and sensitive conclusion, but as I’ve given ample evidence, I found this entire ‘sensitive writer’ schtick clichéd, tiresome, self-centred, hackneyed, old and boring.

Bennett has taken the extraordinary history of the Congo and turned it into a schematic matrix of binary characters and simplistic symbols. Active v passive; male v female; idealistic v cynical; radical v reactionary. The Catastrophist is a good example of why I struggle to read contemporary novels; not because they’re about contemporary society so much as because they tend to wear their sensitive, soulful credentials on their sleeves and humble-brag about their bien-pensant, liberal, woke attitude.

And in doing so miss the dirty, uncomfortable, messy complexities of actual life and politics which don’t fit into any categories, whose ironic reversals defy neat pigeon-holing and clever symbolism.

The catastrophist

is James. It’s another example of Inès’ shaky grasp of English. She says there’s an Italian word, catastrofista which perfectly suits James, and they agree that ‘catastrophist’ is probably the nearest translation into English. Anyway, a ‘catastrophist’ always sees the dark side and thinks nothing can be fixed and uses this pessimism as an excuse for never trying to improve the world, to achieve justice and equality. That’s what she thinks James is.

‘If you are catastrofista no problem is small. Nothing can be fixed, it is always the end.’ (p.131)

And maybe he is. Who cares.

Thoughts

The Catastrophist is a slick well-made production which wears its bien-pensant, sensitive heart on its sleeve. By dint of repetition we come to believe (sort of) in old, disillusioned James aka Seumus and his forlorn love for passionate little (the adjective is used again and again) Inès.

The issues surrounding Congo independence are skilfully woven into the narrative, the mounting sense of crisis is cleverly conveyed through the escalation of incidents which start with a stone being thrown at his car, mount through minor riots to the hefty peace rally massacre, on to the horrifying scene of tribal massacre in Kisai, a litany of violence which, I suppose, climaxes with James being beaten up in the interrogation room and being confronted with the tortured corpse of someone he actually knows (Smail).

The thematic or character structure of the novel is howlingly obvious: Inès is on the side of the angels, the optimists, the independence parties, the clamourers for freedom and justice. James is very obviously the half-hearted cynic who tags along with her for the sake of his forlorn passion.

But it is the steely, hard, disdainful colon Madeleine who won my sympathy. During an early attempt to seduce James, as part of their sparring dialogue, she says if the Congolese ever win independence it will be a catastrophe. And it was. Sometimes the right-wing, racist, colonial bigots who are caricatured and mocked in the liberal press, liberal novels and liberal arts world – sometimes they were actually right.

For me, personally, reading this novel was useful because it repeated many of the key facts surrounding Congo independence from a different angle, and so amounted to a kind of revision, making key players and events that bit more memorable. For example, Bennett confirms David van Reybrouck’s comment about the sudden explosion of political parties in the run-up to the independence elections, their overnight emergence and febrile making and breaking of alliances. And echoes van Reybrouck’s list of the common people’s illusions about independence. He has a good scene where an MNC candidate addresses a remote village and promises that, at independence, they will all be given big houses and the wives of the whites; that they will find money growing in their fields instead of manioc; that their dead relatives will rise from their graves (p.164).

So I enjoyed everything about the background research and a lot of the way Bennett successfully dramatises events of the period. You really believe you’re there. That aspect is a great achievement. The love affair between self-consciously writerly older writer and passionate young idealistic woman bored me to death.

Since the events depicted in the book, Congo underwent the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu, more massacres and ethnic cleansing until the Rwandan genocide spilled out into the first and second Congo wars, the overthrow of Mobutu, the incompetent rule of Laurent Kabila and his assassination, followed by more years of chaos until recent elections promised some sort of stability. But the population of Congo at independence, when this novel was set, was 14 million. Today, 2021, it is 90 million and the median age is 19. The place and its people look condemned to crushing poverty for the foreseeable future.

The Catastrophist‘s imagining of the mood and events of the period it depicts are powerful and convincing. But in the larger perspective it seems like a white man’s fantasy about a period which is now ancient history to the majority of the country, and whose maudlin self-pitying narrator is almost an insult to the terrible tribulations the country’s population endured and continue to face.

Credit

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett was published by REVIEW in 1998. All references are to the 1999 paperback edition.


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The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 by Eric Hobsbawm (1975)

The astonishing world-wide expansion of capitalism in the third quarter of the [nineteenth] century…
(The Age of Capital, page 147)

Eric Hobsbawn (1917 to 2012) was one of Britain’s leading historians. A lifelong Marxist, his most famous books are the trilogy covering what he himself termed ‘the long 19th century’, i.e. from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Great War in 1914. These three books are:

  • The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848 (1962)
  • The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (1975)
  • The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (1987)

To which he later appended his account of the ‘short’ 20th century, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914 to 1991 (1994).

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 does what it says on the tin and provides a dazzlingly panoramic overview of the full economic, political and social events right across Europe and indeed around the world, from the famous year of revolutions (1848) through to his cutoff point 27 years later.

In his preface Hobsbawm says that the end of the era can be taken as 1873, which marked the start of what contemporaries came to call the Great Depression, a decades-long slump in trade and industry which is usually taken to have lasted from 1873 to 1896. Maybe he and the publishers chose the slightly later date of 1875 so as to end it precisely 100 years before the book’s publication date. Certainly nothing specifically important happened in 1875, it’s just a convenient marker.

General response

When I was a student in the 1980s I much preferred Hobsbawm’s rip-roaring and colourful trilogy to his dry economic volume, Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day (1968). Now the situation is reversed. I like the earlier book because it is more factual, which makes the central proposition of its first part – that the vital spur to the industrial revolution was Britain’s position at the centre of a complex global network of colonies which allowed it to import raw materials from some and export finished products to others at great profit – all the more powerful and persuasive.

By contrast, The Age of Capital is much more overtly a) Marxist and b) rhetorical and, after a while, both these aspects began to seriously detract from my enjoyment.

1. Very dated Marxism

Hobsbawm loses no opportunity to bang on about the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. These are both foreign words, French and German, respectively, and, for me, they began to really stick out from the text. I began to circle them in pencil, along with his other buzzwords, ‘capitalism’ and ‘revolution’, and this helped to visually confirm my sense that some passages of the book are entirely constructed from this dusty Marxist rhetoric. ‘The demands of the bourgeoisie…’, ‘The bourgeois market…’, ‘The business and domestic needs of the bourgeoisie…’, literally hundreds of times.

Back in the 1980s it didn’t stick out so much because a) as a humanities student I moved in an atmosphere permanently coloured with excitable student rhetoric about ‘the revolution’ and the overthrow of ‘capitalism’ and so on, and b) this reflected the rhetoric’s widespread use in the public domain, where you heard a lot more of this sort of terminology coming out of the 1980s Labour Party in the era of the Miners Strike and the Militant Tendency and so on.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, all the steam went out of international socialism. Up till then the rhetoric of revolution had a genuine sense of threat or menace – not that there was necessarily going to be a revolution tomorrow, but there had been, and there could be again, and so it felt like some kind of communist revolution was, at the very least, a real, conceptual possibility. And this sense of possibility and threat was reinforced by the number of genuinely communist governments around the world, all 15 Soviet states, all of China, half of Europe, much of south-east Asia, as well as the various Marxist guerrilla groups across Africa and Latin America. It was a rhetoric, a set of ideas and a mindset you couldn’t help engaging with every day if you watched the news or read newspapers.

File:Communist countries 1979-1983.png

Communist countries 1979 to 1983. Source: Wikipedia

These terms had real-world presence and possibilities because they were the official rhetoric of half the governments of the world. The Soviet Union, Chinese or Cuban governments routinely made pronouncements condemning the ‘capitalist countries’, attacking ‘bourgeois liberalism’, criticising ‘western imperialists’ and so on.

Now, decades later, all this has disappeared. Gross injustice there still is, and sporadic outbreaks of left-wing-sounding movements for fairness. But they lack the intellectual cohesion and above all the sense of confidence (and funding) and threat which ‘revolutionary’ movements were given in the 1960s, 70s and 80s by the vast presence and threat of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. John Le Carré’s thrillers had such an impact because behind the small number of spies battling it out there was the real sense that a war might break out, that espionage might play a role in the actual undermining of the West.

What I’m driving at is that Hobsbawm’s relentless focus on the political movements of the workers of his era, of the proletariat and radicals and socialists and so on of the 1860s and 1870s, now looks quaint and dated. Of course 1848 to 1875 was the era of the triumph of capitalism and the response of workers and workers parties and liberals and intellectuals all across Europe was often couched in terms of socialism and even communism, and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were alive and organising and writing, yes, of course.

But this book’s relentless focus on the plight of ‘the workers’ and the formation of ‘the proletariat’ is not only obviously biased and parti pris but now, in our post-communist era, comes over as dated and contrived. He was writing in the mid-1970s to a widespread acceptance of very left-wing politics which was common not only among academics but in trade unions and major political parties all across Europe and which has now… vanished.

And comes over as boring. I got bored of the way Hobsbawm casually labels the working classes or the populations of non-western countries as ‘victims’, as if absolutely everyone in 1860s China or Persia or Egypt or Africa were helpless children.

I’m just reading a passage where he lambasts the Victorian bourgeoisie for its ‘prejudices’ but his own worldview is just as riddled with prejudice, clichés and stereotypes – the ‘bourgeoisie’ is always 100% powerful exploiters; everyone else is always 100% helpless ‘victims’; only Karl Marx understood what was going on; the holy quest for ‘revolution’ went into abeyance during these years but was to revive and flourish in the 1880s, hurrah!

He repeats certain phrases, such as ‘bourgeois liberalism’, so many times that they eventually become empty of meaning, little more than slogans and boo words.

‘Here is the hypocrite bourgeois in the bosom of his smug family while the workers slave away in his factory’, BOO!

‘Here are the socialist intellectuals and more educated workers seeking to organise labour and planning for the revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois society and the seizure of the means of production by the workers’, HOORAY!

‘Here are the Great Thinkers of the period, Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, whose writings supported raw capitalism, racism and eugenics’, BOO!

‘Here are Karl Mark and Friedrich Engels, noble humanitarians who were the only ones to grasp the scale of the socio-economic changes the industrialised world was undergoing’, HOORAY!

2. Hobsbawm’s superficial treatment prevents understanding

This brings me to the other major flaw in the book which is that it reads to me, now, as so superficial on almost all the specific events it covers, as to be actively misleading.

As a starry-eyed and fairly uneducated student it came as a dazzling revelation to learn just how many huge and momentous events took place during this packed 25-year period. It was my first introduction to the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune, to the Taiping Rebellion and the American Civil War and so on, all of which stretched my historical understanding and broadened my perspectives on world history.

However, rereading it now, 30 years later, I think Hobsbawm’s presentation of many of these subjects is so brief and is so skewed by the way he forces everything into his Marxist worldview – everything is shoehorned into the same framework of capitalism and proletariat and bourgeoisie – as to be actively misleading.

Because every event he covers is described in terms of the triumph of the liberal-capitalist bourgeoisie over either their own proletariat or entire foreign nations (for example, China or India) everything ends up sounding very samey. He doesn’t distinguish between the enormous cultural, economic, legal and historical differences between nations – between, for example the ‘bourgeoisie’ of America, Britain and Germany, all very different things – he doesn’t pay attention to the complexities and unexpected turns and ironies which defy Marxism’s neat patterns and limited repertoire of concepts.

This generalising tendency makes a lot of the events of the era sound the same and this actively prevents a proper understanding of history’s complexities and strangeness. It was only when I read specific books on some of the events he describes that I came to really understand the complexity and specificity of events which Hobsbawm, for all his verve and rhetoric, often leaves badly unexplained.

For example, I’ve just read Hobsbawm’s description of the Paris Commune (pages 200 to 202) and am profoundly unimpressed. He skimps on the historical detail or the actual events of the Commune, preferring to give a shallow, teenage account of how much it scared the European bourgeoisie and how they took fright at the sight of workers running their own government etc.

Its [the Commune’s] actual history is overlaid by the enormously powerful myth it generated, both in France itself and (through Karl Marx) in the international socialist movement; a myth which reverberates to this day, notably in the Chinese People’s Republic… If it did not threaten the bourgeois order seriously, it frightened the wits out of it by its mere existence. Its life and death were surrounded by panic and hysteria, especially in the international press, which accused it of instituting communism, expropriating the rich and sharing their wives, terror, wholesale massacre, chaos, anarchy and whatever else haunted the nightmares of the respectable classes – all, needless to say, deliberately plotted by the International. (p.201)

See what I mean by rhetoric? Heavy on rhetoric and references to Marx, the International, communist China, revolution, bourgeois order and so on. But where are the facts in that passage? There aren’t any.

Hobsbawm fails to explain the context of the Franco-Prussian War or the complex sequence of events which led to the declaration of the Commune. He glosses over the way the workers’ government came into being, the disagreements among various factions, the executions of hostages which introduced a note of terror and violence into the situation, which was then amply repaid by the French government forces when they retook Paris arrondissement by arrondissement and the mass executions of communards which followed. I only came to properly appreciate the Commune’s grim complexity when, many decades later, I read The Fall of Paris by Alistair Horne (1965)

Same with the Crimean War, which Hobsbawm dismisses as a notorious fiasco and more or less leaves at that (p.96). It wasn’t until I read The Crimean War by Orlando Figes (2010) a few years ago that I for the first time understood the long-term geopolitical forces at work (namely the Ottoman Empire’s decay and the fierce ambition of Russia to seize the Straits and extend their territory all the way to Constantinople), the complicated sequence of events which led up to the outbreak of war, and the multiple ways in which it was, indeed, a mismanaged disaster.

Same with the American Civil War (pages 170 to 173). Hobsbawn gives a breath-takingly superficial sketch (‘For four years the civil war raged’) and, surprisingly for such a left-wing writer, doesn’t really give slavery its due weight. He is more interested in the way victory for the North was victory for American capitalism, which was the view of Marx himself.

Anyway, it wasn’t until I read James McPherson’s epic history of the American Civil War, decades later, that I really understood the long-term causes of the war, the huge conceptual frameworks within which it took place (I’m still awed at the ambition of some of the southern slavers to create a new and completely separate nation which would include all the Caribbean and most of Central America), the terrible, appalling, mind-searing horrors of slavery, the strong case made by the southern states for secession, and the technological reasons (development of better guns) why it went on so long and caused such immense casualties (620,000 dead).

Here are books on specific events or figures from the period, which I would strongly in preference to Hobsbawm if you really want to fully understand key events from the period:

Same on the domestic front. By limiting his description of British society to concepts of capital, capitalists, bourgeoisie and proletariat, Hobsbawm, in his concern with identifying the structural and economic parallels between all the capitalist nations of the West, loses most of the details which make history, and life, interesting.

I came to this book immediately after reading Richard Shannon’s book, The Crisis of Imperialism, 1865 to 1915 which is a long, sometimes rather turgid, but nonetheless fascinating and detailed analysis of the high politics of Britain during the period, which views them almost entirely in terms of the complicated challenges faced by successive British leaders in trying to keep the various factions in their parties onside while they negotiated the minefields of domestic and international politics. Among other things, Shannon’s book brilliantly conveys the matrix of intellectual and political traditions which politicians like Gladstone and Disraeli sought to harness, and how they both were trying to preserve visions of a past equilibrium or social balance which probably never existed, while the world hurried them relentlessly onwards.

By contrast, Hobsbawm’s account gives you no idea at all of the characters and worldviews of the leading politicians of the day; they are all just representatives of the ‘bourgeoisie’, taken as, for all intents and purposes, identical, whether in America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and so on. (The one possible exception is Bismarck, who emerges with a very clear political agenda, all of which he achieved, and so impresses Hobsbawm.)

The book’s strengths

Where the book does score, what made its reputation when it was published and has maintained it ever since, is the bravura confidence with which Hobsbawm leaps from one continent to another, mimicking in the structure of his text the phenomenal spread of the industrial revolution and the new capitalist ways of managing production, new social relations, a new economy, and new trading relations, new and unprecedented ways of doing things which spread like wildfire around the world. The first half of the book is crammed with raw facts and statistics about the West’s astonishing feats of industrialisation and engineering. Here are some highlights:

1848, the ‘springtime of peoples’

1848 saw political revolution across Europe. I have summarised these in a review of 1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport (2008). The revolutions of 1848 generated a huge amount of rhetoric, primarily by middle class nationalists and liberals, but also from ideologists for the new ideas of socialism and communism.

But the key thing about the 1848 revolutions and the so-called ‘springtime of peoples’ is that they failed. Within a year, year and a half at most, they had all been crushed. Some political gains were made, serfdom was abolished in Hungary, but broadly speaking, within two years the kings and emperors were back in control.

All except in the most politically unstable country of Europe, France, which overthrew its king, endured three years of unstable democracy and then elected a buffoon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, to become their emperor, Napoleon III (Napoleon counted his father as Napoleon II, hence the way he named himself the third Napoleon). The French replaced an inept king with a populist buffoon. The left was decisively crushed for nearly 40 years, only reviving in the harsher environment of the 1880s.

The labour movement [across Europe] had not so much been destroyed as decapitated by the failure of the 1848 revolutions and the subsequent decades of economic expansion. (p.133)

Boom years of the 1850s

The 1848 revolutions were bitterly fought, there was a lot of bloodshed which amounted to civil war in some parts of Europe, but apart from the fact that they all failed in their aims of establishing liberal republics, the other key thing about them that Hobsbawm brings out is they were the end of a process, not the beginning.

The 1840s are often referred to as the Hungry Forties because of the malign impact of industrialisation on many populations, combined with a run of bad harvests. BUT 1850 saw all this change, with a sudden industrial boom which lasted most of the rest of the 1850s and a run of good harvests.

With the result that the ‘working class militancy’ so beloved of a Marxist like Hobsbawm fizzled out. Chartism, which had at one point threatened the state in Britain, disappeared and the same with the other movements across Europe. All except for the nationalist movements in Germany and Italy, which were by no means socialist or for the workers. The unification of Germany was brought about by Bismarck, the opposite of a socialist.

1848 gold rush

Much more important for the global economy was the discovery, in the same year, 1848, of gold in California. This is the kind of thing Hobsbawm is good at, because he has the figures at his fingertips to show how dramatically the gold rush drew the Pacific world closer together. An unprecedented number of Chinese crossed the sea to find their fortunes in California, part of the huge influx of migrants who boosted San Francisco’s population from 812 in 1848 to 35,000 just 4 years later (p.79).

Crews of ships docking in San Francisco regularly absconded in their entirety, leaving the wooden ships to rot, many of them eventually being torn up and used as building materials. Such was the pull of gold and the mushroom wealth it created, that fleets and food were attracted up the coast from faraway Chile.

The gold rush also acted as a financial incentive for the completion of the transcontinental railways being built at the time (the line right across America was completed in 1869). Previously California had been cut off by the huge Rocky mountains. Now there was the incentive of gold to complete a transport link to it, allowing the traffic of food from the mid-West.

Globalisation

The gold rush in California (shortly followed by one in Australia) is a good example of one of the overall themes of the book, which is that this era saw the advent of Globalisation.

The interdependence of the world economy could hardly be better demonstrated. (p.79)

Due to the railway, the steamer and the telegraph…the geographical size of the capitalist economy could suddenly multiply as the intensity of its business transactions increased. The entire globe became part of this economy. This creation of a single expanded world is probably the most significant development of our period…for practical purposes an entirely new economic world was added to the old and integrated into it. (p.48)

In this industrial capitalism became a genuine world economy and the globe was therefore transformed from a geographical expression into a constant operational reality. History from now on became world history. (p.63)

No wonder that observers saw the economic world not merely as a single interlocking complex, but as one where each part was sensitive to what happened elsewhere, and through which money, goods and men moved smoothly and with increasing rapidity, according to the irresistible stimuli of supply and demand, gain and loss and with the help of modern technology. (p.82)

…the ever-tightening network of global communications, whose most tangible result was a vast increase in the flow of international exchanges of goods and men… (p.85)

For the historian the great boom of the 1850s marks the foundation of a global industrial economy and a single world history. (p.88)

… the extraordinary widening and deepening  of the world economy which forms the basic theme of world history at this period. (p.207)

Second industrial revolution

There are varying opinions about how many industrial revolutions there were. From Hobsbawm’s accounts here and in Industry and Empire it seems clear the first industrial revolution centred on cotton production, took place in Lancashire, and relied on British dominance of international trade, since 100% of the raw material was imported (from the American South) and a huge percentage was then exported (to Africa and India).

There was a slump in the textile economy in the 1830s and Hobsbawm briefly entertains the counter-factual possibility that the process of industrialisation, which had, after all, only touched a relatively tiny part of the world’s surface, might have sputtered out and died altogether.

But it was saved by a second wave of renewed industrial activity leading to phenomenal growth in production of coal and iron, with accompanying technical innovations, which were catalysed by the new technology connected with the railway (which Hobsbawm tells us Karl Marx thought of as capitalism’s ‘crowning achievement’, p.48).

Railway mania

Hobsbawm explains how the railway mania, at first in Britain, then in other industrialising nations, was driven by financial factors, namely the need for capitalists who had acquired large amounts of capital for something to invest in.

Hobsbawm has some lyrical passages, the kind of thing most readers of this book long remember, describing the astonishing feats of finance and engineering and labour which flung huge lengths of iron railroad across the continents of the world between the 1840s and the 1870s, connecting coasts with hinterlands, linking the world together as never before. Many readers remember Hobsbawm’s awed descriptions of the astonishing achievements of individual railway entrepreneurs such as Thomas Brassey, who at one point was employing 80,000 men on five continents (pages 70 to 73).

Such men thought in continents and oceans. For them the world was a single unit, bound together with rails of iron and steam engines, because the horizons of business were like their dreams, world-wide. (p.74)

He points out that Jules Verne’s famous novel of 1873, Around the World in Eighty Days, was fantastically topical to its time. In effect its protagonist, Phileas Fogg, was testing and showcasing the spread of the new railway technology which had girdled the earth (p.69).

Map of the trip

Map of Philea Fogg’s route in Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (Map created by Roke. Source: Wikipedia)

The electric telegraph

Even more dramatic than railways was the development of the electric telegraph which Hobsbawm describes in detail on pages 75 to 78. It was the telegraph which created the first and definitive communications revolution. In 1848 you had to wait months for letters to arrive from another continent. By 1875 news could be telegraphed from England to America in minutes. It was a transformation in human relations, perception and psychology.

Hobsbawm goes on to make the interesting point that this globalisation was still very limited and focused on high profit areas and routes. Only a hundred miles from the railway and telegraph, billions of people still lived with more or less feudal technology, the fastest vehicle being the ox-cart.

Right from the beginning the process of globalisation created an even bigger zone of unglobalisation, what is now often called the ‘left behind’. So Phileas Fogg’s famous journey has this additional interpretation, that it was a journey along the frontier between the newly globalised and the still untouched. In the novel Phileas travels a kind of borderline between the deep past and the ever-accelerating future.

Production figures

Britain produced 2.5 million tons of iron in 1850, in 1870 6 million tons, or about half the world’s total. Over the same period world production of coal increased by two and a half times, world output of iron four times. Global steam power increased from an estimated 4 million horsepower in 1850 to 18.5 million HP by 1870. In 1859 2,000 million barrels of oil were produced in the USA, in 1874, 11 million barrels. The book ends with a dozen pages of tables conveying these and many other examples of the explosion in productivity and output, and maps showing the spread of trade routes and emigration movements around the world.

The industrialisation of the German Federation between 1850 and 1870 had major geopolitical implications, creating the industrial might which helped Bismarck win three wars in succession and create a united Germany, which has been a decisive force in Europe ever since (p.56).

World fairs

As their economic system, businesses and military might spread around the world, what Hobsbawm calls the ‘liberal bourgeoisie’ celebrated in a series of world’s fairs, starting with the famous Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London at which no fewer than 14,000 firms exhibited (1851), followed by Paris 1855, London 1862, Paris 1867, Vienna 1873 and Philadelphia 1875 (p.47).

Mass migration

The third quarter of the nineteenth century saw the largest migrations in human history to that point. Between 1846 and 1875 more than 9 million people left Europe, mostly for America (p.228). Between 1851 and 1880 about 5.3 million people left the British Isles (3.5 million to the USA, 1 million to Australia, half a million to Canada).

More subtly, maybe, there was large scale inner migration from the countryside to the new mushroom towns and cities of the industrial revolution, creating vast acreages of appallingly squalid, over-crowded slums without any sanitation, water etc. These were to be the settings for the poverty literature and government reports of the 1880s and 1890s which brought about sweeping changes in town planning at the end of the century and into the 1900s.

The challenge to the developing world

The corollary of the notion that industrial ‘liberal capitalism’ spread its tentacles right around the world during this period, drawing all nations and peoples and places into its ravenous quest for profit, was the challenge this represented to all the non-Western nations and other cultures. Hobsbawn has sections describing the responses of the Ottoman Empire, the world of Islam, the Chinese Empire, the Persian Empire and the Japanese to the growing challenge from what he glibly calls ‘the West’.

His passages on these nations suffer from the same shortcomings I’ve listed above, namely that they are brief and superficial. To really understand what happened in China during this period, I would recommend The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present by Jonathan Fenby (2013). For an overview of why the non-Western empires and cultures proved incapable of matching the West’s dynamism, I recommend the outstanding After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 to 2000 by John Darwin. For descriptions of the internal crises the transformation sparked, generally leading to the overthrow of the old regimes, in the Ottoman Empire, China, Japan in a controlled way, I would recommend you to find books specifically about those countries.

Wars

It was an era of wars. Which era hasn’t been?

  • The Second Carlist War (1846 to 1849) was a minor Catalan uprising
  • The Taiping Rebellion aka the Taiping Civil War or the Taiping Revolution, 1850 to 1864
  • The Crimean War, October 1853 to February 1856
  • American Civil War, 12 April 1861 to 9 April 1865
  • The Unification of Germany involved:
    • The Second Schleswig War aka Prusso-Danish War Feb to October 1864
    • The Austro-Prussian War or Seven Weeks’ War, June to July 1866
    • The Franco-Prussian War War, 19 July 1870 to 28 January 1871
  • The Unification of Italy involved:
    • The Second Italian War of Independence aka the Austro-Sardinian War, April to 12 July 1859
      (2 months, 2 weeks and 2 days)
    • The Third Italian War of Independence between the Kingdom of Italy and the Austrian Empire, June and August 1866
  • The Paraguayan War aka the War of the Triple Alliance, 1864 to 1870
  • The Third Carlist War, in Spain, 1872 to 1876

Famines

Less newsworthy than wars, less painted, less celebrated, producing fewer statues and medals, but many times more people died in famines than conflicts. As Hobsbawm points out, one of the fundamental differences between the ‘civilised world’ and the rest is that the industrial world can (by and large) feed its populations, whereas the undeveloped world is susceptible to failures of harvest and distribution.

  • 1848: Java ravaged by famine
  • 1849: maybe 14 million died in the Chinese famine
  • 1854 to 1864 as many as 20 million died in prolonged famine in China
  • 1856: one in ten of the population of Orissa died in the famine
  • 1861 to 1872: a fifth the population of Algeria died of starvation
  • 1868 to 1870: up to a third the population of Rajputana
  • 3 and a half million perished in Madras
  • 1871 to 1873: up to 2 million, a third the population of Persia, died of starvation
  • 1876 to 1878: 1 million in Mysore

Hobsbawm tries to reclaim human dignity i.e. give these catastrophes some semblance of meaning, by blaming some of this on the colonial powers (especially the British in India; as a British Marxist he is duty bound to reserve most of his scorn and contempt for the British authorities). But the effect of this list is not to make me ‘blame’ anyone, it just overwhelms me with the misery and suffering most of humanity have experienced throughout most of human history.

American states

In the post-civil war era, America continued to grow, adding states to its roster, having now settled the central issue of the war, which was whether they would be slave states of free states. The North’s victory in 1865 meant they would all be ‘free’ states.

  • Wisconsin became a state in 1848
  • California 1850
  • Minnesota 1858
  • Oregon 1859
  • Kansas 1861
  • West Virginia 1863
  • Nevada 1864
  • Nebraska 1867
  • Russia sold America Alaska 1867
  • Colorado 1876

Colonies

The original European colonial powers were Portugal and Spain. Spain lost control of its colonies in Central and South America in the early 1800s. Portugal hung on longer to a handful of territories in Latin America, a few coastal strips in Africa and Goa in India (p.145). The Dutch created a sizeable foreign empire in the 17th and 18th centuries. The French had ambitions to control North America and India but lost out during the 18th century to the British. So that the nineteenth century belonged to Britain, which ruled the world’s oceans and developed an unprecedented web of international, ocean-carried trade and this, Hobsbawm argues, was the bedrock reason for Britain pioneering the industrial revolution.

In a nutshell, the idea is that a fully developed capitalist system must be continually looking for new markets in order to maintain its growth. Where markets don’t exist in its native country, the system creates needs and markets through advertising. Or it conquers new parts of the world and new populations which it can drag into its mesh of trade and sales, extracting its raw materials at the cheapest cost, and turning them into manufactured items which it sells back to colonial peoples at the maximum profit.

Although there continued to be expeditions and territorial claims during this period, it was really a prelude to the frenzy of imperial conquest which characterised the final quarter of the nineteenth century, and which is the subject of the third book in the trilogy, the sequel to this one, Age of Empire.

In a word

Hobsbawm’s book impressed when it was published, and still does now, with its sheer range and scope, with its blizzard of facts and data, with its rhetorical conjuring of a world for the first time embraced and joined together by new technologies (railway, steamship, telegraph).

But its strength is its weakness, for its breadth means it sacrifices subtlety and insight for dogma, and becomes increasingly bogged down in sweeping generalisations about the wicked bourgeoisie and hypocritical capitalists (‘In general capitalists of the first generation were philistines…’, p.334).

By the end of the book I was sick to death of the sight of the word ‘bourgeois’. Hobsbawm sounds like a fairground toy: put a penny in the slot and watch it jerk to life and start spouting endless slogans about the vicious, hypocritical, exploitative ‘bourgeoisie’, especially in the long and profoundly dim final  sections of the book in which, God forgive us, an ageing Marxist historian shares with us his banal and  predictable views about the intellectual and artistic achievements of the period. For example:

  • The novel can be considered the one genre which found it possible to adapt itself to that bourgeois society….p.326
  • When one considers the orgy of building into which a prosperous bourgeois society threw itself…326
  • Few societies have cherished the works of creative genius… more than that of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. p.327
  • The demands of the bourgeoisie were individually more modest, collectively far greater. (p.330)
  • The business and domestic needs of the bourgeoisie made the fortunes of plenty of architects… (p.330)
  • The bourgeois market was new only insofar as it was now unusually large and increasingly prosperous. (p.330)
  • We can certainly discover those who, for various reasons, resisted or tried to shock a bourgeois public… (p.332)
  • For bourgeois society [the artist] represented ‘genius’…
  • Bourgeois tourists could now hardly avoid that endless and footsore pilgrimage to the shrines of the arts which is still in progress along the hard floors of the Louvre, Uffizi and San Marco. (p.335)
  • [Artists] did not have to conform to the mores of the normal bourgeois… (p.335)
  • Here again Richard Wagner showed a faultless appreciation of the bourgeois artist. (p.335)
  • Did the bourgeois actually enjoy the arts? (p.335)
  • Aestheticism did not become a bourgeois fashion until the late 1870s and 1880s. (p.336)
  • The bourgeoisie of the mid-nineteenth century was torn by a dilemma which its triumph made even more acute. (p.340)
  • At best the bourgeois version of ‘realism’ was a socially suitable selection… (p.340)
  • [Naturalism] normally implied a conscious political critique of bourgeois society… (p.340)
  • The insatiable demands of the bourgeoisie, and especially the petty-bourgeoisie, for cheap portraits provided the basis of [photography]’s success. (p.341)
  • Torn between the idealism and the realism of the bourgeois world, the realists also rejected photography… (p.342)
  • The Impressionists are important not for their popular subject matter – Sunday outings, popular dances, the townscapes and city scenes of cities, the theatres, race-courses and brothels of the bourgeois society’s half world – but for their innovation of method. (p.344)
  • If science was one basic value of bourgeois society, individualism and competition were others. (p.345)
  • [The birth of the avant-garde] represents the collapse of the attempt to produce an art intellectually consistent with (though often critical of) bourgeois society… (p.346)
  • This breakdown affected the marginal strata of the bourgeois world more than its central core: students and young intellectuals, aspiring writers and artists, the general boheme of those who refused to accept (however temporarily) to adopt the ways of bourgeois respectability… (p.347)
  • [French artists] were united, like the Romantics before 1848, only by a common dislike of the bourgeoisie… (p.348)
  • Until 1848 these spiritual Latin Quarters of bourgeois society had hope of a republic and social revolution…. (p.348)
  • Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (1869) is that story of the hope in the hearts of the world-storming young men of the 1840s and its double disappointment, by the 1848 revolution itself and by the subsequent era in which the bourgeoisie triumphed… (p.348)
  • With the collapse of the dream of 1848 and the victory of the reality of Second Empire France, Bismarckian Germany, Palmerstonian and Gladstonian Britain and the Italy of Victor Emmanuel, the western bourgeois arts starting with painting and poetry therefore bifurcated into those appealing to the mass public and those appealing to a self-defined minority. They were not quite as outlawed by bourgeois society as the mythological history of the avant-garde arts has it… (p.349)
  • [Music] could oppose the bourgeois world only from within, an easy task, since the bourgeois himself was unlikely to recognise when he was being criticised. (p.350)
  • Richard Wagner succeeded…in convincing the most financially solvent cultural authorities and members of the bourgeois public that they themselves belonged to the spiritual elite… (p.350)
  • Prose literature, and especially that characteristic art form of the bourgeois era, the novel, flourished for exactly the opposite reason. (p.350)
  • It would be unfair to confine the discussion of the arts in the age of bourgeois triumph to masters and masterpieces… (p.351)

Eventually, by dint of endless relentless repetition, the word ‘bourgeois’ becomes almost entirely emptied of meaning, and the endless conflating of everything bad, vicious, exploitative, hypocritical and philistine under this one mindless label eventually obliterates all Hobsbawm’s attempts to analyse and shed light. It does the opposite.

He nowhere makes clear that, since it is a French word implies, this venomous hatred of the ‘bourgeoisie’ had special French origins and significances in a politically unstable country which had a revolution more or less every generation throughout the century, which just weren’t the same and couldn’t be applied in the same way in Germany, Britain let alone America. Tennyson didn’t hate the English ‘bourgeoisie’, Dickens didn’t despise the English ‘bourgeoisie’, as much as their French counterparts, Baudelaire and Flaubert hated the French ‘bourgeoisie’. The hatred, the concept and the cultural context are all French and have never made nearly as much sense in Britain, let alone in America, as Marx learned to his bitter disappointment.

The passages describing the astonishing achievements of entrepreneurs, inventors, engineers and industrial innovators during this period remain thrilling and eye-opening, but they make up a minority of the text. Struggling through the long, doctrinaire Marxist and tediously banal second half is like being trapped in a corner of a party by a slobbering bore who asks you to hang on while he just tells you 20 more reasons why the Victorian bourgeoisie were so despicable. ‘Yes, grandad. I get it.’

The Age of Capital is arguably, in its overall tendency and rigidly doctrinaire interpretations, more a relic of its own time, the right-on, Marxisant 1970s, than a reliable guide to the era it claims to describe.

Ad hominem

On one occasion only have I been in a traditional London gentleman’s club, when a TV producer invited me to lunch at his club, the Garrick. He pointed out a few famous members in the packed dining room, including the distinctive features of the agèd and lanky Hobsbawm over at one of the tables.

It struck me how very English it was that this fire-breathing, ‘radical’, ‘Marxist’ historian enjoyed all the benefits of the English Establishment, membership of top clubs, numerous honours (Companion of Honour, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Fellow of the British Academy and so on), enjoying a tasty lunch at the Garrick before strolling back to the library to pen another excoriating attack on the hypocrisy, philistinism, greed, ruthlessness and cruelty of the ancestors of the jolly chaps he’d just been sitting among, confident that his ‘bourgeois’ publishers would do a good job producing and promoting his next book, that the ‘bourgeois’ bookshops would display and sell it, that the ‘bourgeois’ press would give it glowing reviews, and he would be awarded another chestful of honours by a grateful monarch.

It’s not really even hypocrisy, it’s something odder: that academic communities across the Western world happily employed, paid and promoted humanities academics and writers who systematically castigated their employers, their nations and their histories, and cheerfully proclaimed their allegiance to foreign powers (the USSR, China) who made no secret of their intention to overthrow the West in violent revolution.

Well, history has had its revenge on the Marxist historians. As I slotted Age of Capital back onto my shelf I thought I heard the sound of distant laughter.


Credit

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback.

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City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin (1967)

This was Le Guin’s third novel and, at 170 pages, is nearly twice as long as her first two – something which often happen as writers find their feet, their voice, and understand better how to develop plots, characters and themes. (For no particular reason I’m reminded of John Le Carré, whose first two books are brisk murder mysteries of about 150 pages apiece, but whose third novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, was 250 pages long and a significant step up in terms of complexity and depth. Something similar happens here with Le Guin’s third book.)

Anyway, after the hectic feel of her first two science fantasy novels, in which incident follows incident at a breathless pace – in a way which feels carefully tailored for a pulp science fiction audience which expects a new alien around every corner – City of Illusions introduces the still colourful but slower and more thoughtful pace which was to characterize her work from then on.

In fact you can almost see the process happening before your eyes, since the novel falls into roughly two parts, the event-packed Journey and the more puzzling and thoughtful Arrival. If the Journey features a string of encounters with weird and wonderful folk and sometimes very violent – as in the previous narratives – it is really only a preface to the Arrival, when the hero has to find The Truth and struggle towards Self Knowledge – the kind of semi-mystical and psychologically searching theme which was to become more prominent in the later books.

Le Guin had already used the Journey as the structure of her first novel, Rocannon’s World (hero journeys south with loyal companions, encountering a variety of baddies and aliens who shed light on the strange new universe Le Guin has created) — and was to use it in arguably her two most famous novels:

  • The Left Hand of Darkness (hero undertakes epic journey across glaciers, snowstorms, blizzards, and gains greater self-knowledge)
  • The Dispossessed (hero journeys from his egalitarian communist society to a high-pressure, capitalist society and gains greater self-knowledge)

Zove’s House

A man struggles to regain consciousness in a dark forest. He staggers out into a clearing and is taken in by the hippy family living there, in the House of Zove the patriarch. He stays five years. They name him Falk. They teach him their language (a version of the common tongue, Galaktika) and their peaceful, farming ways. He falls in love with Parth, the pretty hippy who was fifteen when she first saw him emerge from the forest. She likes to sit and weave cloth at a solar-powered loom. The young men teach him to hunt, using a lasergun. Oh, and Falk isn’t human. He is marked out from other humans by virtue of his yellow eyes which have no whites to them, like a cat’s eyes, a lynx’s eyes.

The pupil was large; the iris, of a grayed amber color, was oval lengthwise so that the white of the eye did not show at all. ‘Like a cat,’ said Garra.

Slowly, from various cunningly scattered details, we realise that:

  1. We are on earth
  2. Two or three thousand years in the future.
  3. What we think of as civilization is dead and gone. From a few casual references later in the book it is confirmed that we are in America (Falk meets the Lord of Kansas and there are two references to California, most of which is now a lake, the Great Earthquake having, apparently, sunk most of it into the sea).

Zove’s House is in the great Eastern Forest and that’s about all its inhabitants know. There are no roads. There are no villages or towns. There is no trade. They live in isolation on their farm carved out of the vast endless forest and nobody ever comes to see them and nobody ever leaves.

Zove’s House was a rambling, towering, intermitted chalet-castle-farmhouse of stone and timber; some parts of it had stood a century or so, some longer. There was a primitiveness to its aspect: dark staircases, stone hearths and cellars, bare floors of tile or wood. But nothing in it was unfinished; it was perfectly fireproof and weatherproof; and certain elements of its fabric and function were highly sophisticated devices or machines—the pleasant, yellowish fusion-lights, the libraries of music, words and images, various automatic tools or devices used in house-cleaning, cooking, washing, and farmwork, and some subtler and more specialized instruments kept in workrooms in the East Wing. All these things were part of the House, built into it or along with it, made in it or in another of the Forest Houses. The machinery was heavy and simple, easy to repair; only the knowledge behind its power-source was delicate and irreplaceable

We learn that the thin population and absence of towns or even villages is supposed to have come about due to THE SHING. At some point in the past, after earth had joined the interplanetary League of all the Worlds (which was mentioned in the previous two novels) there was a great catastrophe: the SHING invaded and conquered. The Shing look like humans, identical to humans, but they overthrew human civilization, bred humans to become docile and quiescent, oversaw the collapse of human culture, reduced humanity to scattered communities, prevented them from meeting, uniting, becoming a force. Instead the survivors live among the wreck of the old civilization, using only the limited smart tech permitted to them (like small scale laser guns and sun-powered looms) only occasionally glimpsing on the Shing’s aircars passing overhead, far up in the sky.

At least – and here’s the distinctive thing about the book – at least that’s what the hero is told. These are the ancient legends the inhabitants of Zove’s House tell him, and the people he meets on his journey tell him lots of other legends and rumours, with the result that he and the reader become pretty confused, Le Guin trying to create in the reader’s mind the sense of confusion and uncertainty which characterises her characters.

The Journey

After five years learning the language and ways of the peaceable Zove household, Falk’s difference becomes unbearable to him:

‘While I was studying with Ranya this past summer, she showed me how I differ from the human genetic norm. It’s only a twist or two of a helix… a very small difference. Like the difference between wei and o.’ Zove looked up with a smile at the reference to the Canon which fascinated Falk, but the younger man was not smiling. “However, I am unmistakably not human. So I may be a freak; or a mutant, accidental or intentionally produced; or an alien. I suppose most likely I am an unsuccessful genetic experiment, discarded by the experimenters… There’s no telling. I’d prefer to think I’m an alien, from some other world. It would mean that at least I’m not the only creature of my kind in the universe.’

Maybe he is a Raze, a human whose mind has been erased. Plagued by these endless doubts, Falk decides it is time to find out who he is. He will set out to the fabled city of Es Toch, supposed capital of the Shing. He has a scene with Zove, the patriarch of the house, who wisely tells him ‘it is time to move on’.

His friends Metock and Thurro pack a bag of provisions and give him a copy of the Canons (these – as in so many dystopias – are texts of the half-understood remnants of ancient religions: some have an Eastern mystical feel but there is also a Canon of Yahweh, which is clearly meant to be a relic of the Bible, since it references Adam and, much later, ‘through a glass darkly’, St Paul).

When we get to read snippets of any the ‘Canons’, they appear to be standard Eastern-style mysticism, designed to capture absence, to move the mind beyond striving and agency, into the quiet place beyond. The same Taoist vibe, a feel for alternative ways of – not even thinking, that is too instrumental – alternative ways of being a consciousness:

The way that can be gone
is not the eternal Way.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

Then off Falk sets, walking west, and proceeds to have two kinds of experience: one is a series of Nature experiences which give Le Guin the opportunity of writing vivid descriptions of the unspoiled natural landscape – camping out under the stars, wandering through the dense virgin forest, fording streams or river, which are often very beautiful. She’s a country girl at heart and her love of nature, virgin untamed nature, comes over very strongly in many passages.

His days were all the same. Gray winter light; a wind blowing; forest-clad hills and valleys, long slopes, brush-hidden streams, swampy lowlands. Though badly overgrown the Hirand Road was easy to follow, for it led in long straight shafts or long easy curves, avoiding the bogs and the heights. In the hills Falk realized it followed the course of some great ancient highway, for its way had been cut right through the hills, and two thousand years had not effaced it wholly. But the trees grew on it and beside it and all about it, pine and hemlock, vast holly-thickets on the slopes, endless stands of beech, oak, hickory, alder, ash, elm, all overtopped and crowned by the lordly chestnuts only now losing their last dark-yellow leaves, dropping their fat brown burrs along the path. At night he cooked the squirrel or rabbit or wild hen he had bagged from among the infinity of little game that scurried and flitted here in the kingdom of the trees; he gathered beechnuts and walnuts, roasted the chestnuts on his campfire coals.

The other type of experience is the steady stream of Encounters Falk has with representative examples of Fallen Humanity, of the weirdness and sometimes terrifying violence, the resentment and suspicion and paranoia of the isolated communities he stumbles across.

EVERYBODY is convinced The Shing are out there, the Shing are the Fathers of Lies, nobody can trust anyone else – ‘Are you Shing?’ ‘No, are you Shing?’ – because the Shing move among us in human form, are indistinguishable from us, How do we know you’re not Shing? At some moments Falk even wonders if he himself is one of the Shing, let loose in some experiment which has gone wrong. He discusses it with Zove:

Thus Falk discovers how the Shing, although supposedly few in number, have sown suspicion and discord among all mankind (well, here in America at any rate), and this explains the extremely paranoid and sometimes super-violent reception he gets at various settlements scattered through the great Forest.

Encounters

Ransifel Metok and Thurro accompany him a few days in the direction of Ransifel, supposedly another house-commune like their a few days west. But Falk decides to strike off directly west.

Hirand After eleven days travelling through wilderness he comes to the abandoned ruins of a great house. The Forest really is more abandoned, humanity more sparse and scattered than he or we had realised.

Argerd’s house / The house of Fear Days later he comes to a pretty house in a loop of the river with lights in the windows and is approaching when he is shot. He comes to tied to a chair in a basement where he is beaten and interrogated, having been injected by truth serum, by two violent paranoid men, Argerd and Drehnem. They throw him in  pitch-black cellar where he becomes aware of mice scuttling around, mice which appear to be able to speak little tiny mice words. After a rough night sleeping on the dirt, he’s hauled out of the cellar and pushed on his way at laser-point by men who are, quite clearly, beside themselves with fear and paranoia.

Animals can speak Why? How? We’re never told. But Falk encounters a boar which stutters human speech to him. The mice in the House of Fear whisper to him. And he shoots a chicken which squawks the Law to him, Thou shalt not take life. This is weird and extra. It’s one of the class of details which I find unsettling all through Le Guin’s fiction.

The Listener After more miserable days travelling through unspoilt nature in wind and sleet, Falk comes to another isolated cabin. Turns out to be the isolated cabin of an old-timer who is a Listener, a mindhearer, an empath i.e. he can hear other people’s thoughts but can’t actively send thoughts. Various characters have the ability of mindspeech. They ‘bespeak’ one another. This had occurred in the earlier books and is a recurring feature of the stories set in the Hainish universe.

The old-timer is wise in an Old West kind of way, takes Falk in, dries and feeds him and discusses his quest, in an oblique, worldly-wise kind of way.

The slider The old timer gives Falk his slider, a kind of hover-scooter.

Falk knelt on the slider, an elegant little machine, black paristolis inlaid with a three-dimensional arabesque of platinum wire. The ornamentation all but concealed the controls, but he had played with a slider at Zove’s House, and after studying the control-arcs a minute he touched the left arc, moved his finger along it till the slider had silently risen about two feet, and then with the right arc sent the little craft slipping over the yard and the river-bank till it hovered above the scummy ice of the backwater below the cabin. He looked back then to call goodbye, but the old man had already gone into the cabin and shut the door. And as Falk steered his noiseless craft down the broad dark avenue of the river, the enormous silence closed in around him again.

Falk flies for days along the great river which seems to be heading West to Es Toch. At one point he flies past a yacht, a surreal encounter, crewed by a handful of happy singing people, utterly incongruous with the previous people we’d met, rough and violent settlers. They sing at him as he whizzes past that they are ‘men’ which sends a shiver through him, a shiver of fear. The odd way they use the phrase ‘men’… did it mean they were Shing? Le Guin is capable of great descriptive passages…

He liked the vast openness of sky and prairie, and found loneliness a pleasure with so immense a domain to be alone in. The weather was mild, a calm sunlit spell of late winter. Thinking back to the Forest he felt as if he had come out of stifling, secret darkness into light and air, as if the prairies were one enormous Clearing. Wild red cattle in herds of tens of thousands darkened the far plains like cloud-shadows. The ground was everywhere dark, but in places misted faintly with green where the first tiny double-leaved shoots of the hardiest grasses were opening; and above and below the ground was a constant scurrying and burrowing of little beasts, rabbits, badgers, coneys, mice, feral cats, moles, stripe-eyed arcturies, antelope, yellow yappers, the pests and pets of fallen civilizations. The huge sky whirred with wings. At dusk along the rivers flocks of white cranes settled, the water between the reeds and leafless cotton-woods mirroring their long legs and long uplifted wings.

But, personally, I find them nearly always undermined by an atmosphere of unease, nameless dread, fear and anxiety. Her books make me anxious. Two weeks of reading Ursula Le Guin has made me considerably more anxious and worried than I was before.

And, sure enough, one sunny day Falk is scooting happily along the river when out of nowhere some kind of guided missile appears as a thin sliver, then is upon him and BANG!

The Basnasska Falk wakes up in a teepee belonging to the Mzurra Society of the Basnasska, a tribe who live much like the old native Americans, only rougher and harsher. Somehow they’ve got their hands on a handful of pieces of tech including guided missiles which attack other new tech, hence them blowing up his slider with what we are later told is a bombird. Apart from that they are Stone Age savages. They give him a blood-christening, tattoo him and, at first, I thought they’d blinded him, that’s what the text says – but it eventually becomes clear that his eyes are only bandaged.

Strella

Falk is tended by a submissive woman names Strella and they forge a bond, despite her routinely being taken off to be ‘used’ by a different tribesman each night. After several disappointments they seize an opportunity to escape, Falk shooting a Basnasska dead with his laser gun, and they make off through blizzards in the depths of winter.

Le Guin has an affinity for winter, for intense, life-threatening journeys through blizzards – it’s just such a long gruelling trek that forms the core of The Left Hand of Darkness.

After stumbling through snowdrifts and nearly dying fording a freezing cold river, Strella brings them to a place she knows on the other bank, scooping down through the snow to find the hidden entrance to a vast underground cavern. Here in its mysterious depths, they light a fire and survive, huddling together for warmth and, inevitably, having sex. Falk is perplexed by Strella’s coldness and absence. She is utterly passive, secret, remote, self contained. She explains that she was travelling with a man who the Basnasska murdered, which sort of explains it. But for my part, it’s just another example of Le Guin’s characters’ fundamental coldness towards each other. There is no loving-kindness in Le Guin’s novels. I find them emotionally barren places to be.

Eventually, having rested & recovered, they re-emerge and set off on a huge trek across the Great Plains

The Bee-keepers They comes across this tribe – ‘literate and laser-armed, all clothed alike, men and women, in long shifts of yellow wintercloth marked with a brown cross on the breast, they were hospitable and uncommunicative’. But most people in Le Guin are profoundly uncommunicative.

They move on. They come across five or six settlements in three hundred miles. Sounds like North America is less populated than it was by the native Americans. Five days, six days, out into vast open plains. They comes across the detritus of long buried cities, pottery and plastic. Crossing a river Strella loses the little jade amulet she wore round her neck, and used to mutter prayers to all the time. Must have been fording the last river. She is inconsolable. She becomes sick and ill. In the barren plains there is no water. They both become weak then exhausted. She mutters in a language he does not know, briefly refers to him as Ramarren then Falk… Finally, in the last phases of exhaustion, they see the lights of a building.

The Master of the Kansas Enclave A classic post-apocalypse type, the big strong leader – Prince he calls himself – ‘an old, jetblack man seven feet tall with a face like a swordblade’ – of an isolated community.

‘This is the Kansas Enclave. I am its master. I am its lord, its Prince and God. I am in charge of what happens here. Here we play one of the great games. King of the Castle it’s called. The rules are very old, and are the only laws that bind me. I make the rest.’

He handles a patterning-frame.

All the top of the table, Falk now saw, was sunk several inches into a frame, and contained a network of gold and silver wires upon which beads were strung, so pierced that they could slip from wire to wire and, at certain points, from level to level. There were hundreds of beads, from the size of a baby’s fist to the size of an apple seed, made of clay and rock and wood and metal and bone and plastic and glass and amethyst, agate, topaz, turquoise, opal, amber, beryl, crystal, garnet, emerald, diamond.

Which sort of predicts the future. But nothing is ever clear in Le Guin, just as nothing is ever really clearly communicated, and nobody is ever really close, even when they’re making love. The Prince of Kansas strongly advises Falk to go on alone, to ditch Strella. When Fallk tells the Prince Strella is a Wanderer he bursts out laughing, ‘Yes and I am a fish!’ – but Falk thinks this stems from the misogyny and sexism of his colony (which of these isolated settlements does not treat its women like chattels? only Zove’s, right at the start.)

Besdio Days of walking, trekking. They arrive at Besdio a settlement of four houses. The people are reserved, distant, let them sleep in a cowshed. One of them has a replacement jade amulet he gives Strella to her delight. They lend them mules. They are in the foothills now of what are presumably the Rocky Mountains.


Falk and Strella arrive at Es Toch

Finally they arrive at foothills where there are more than scattered settlements, where there are rows of cabins, huts, paths which turns into tracks between dwellings, numbers of people passing to and fro. It is the outskirts of Es Toch, the City of Lies.

The City of the Lords of Earth was built on the two rims of a canyon, a tremendous cleft through the mountains, narrow, fantastic, its black walls striped with green plunging terrifically down half a mile to the silver tinsel strip of a river in the shadowy depths. On the very edges of the facing cliffs the towers of the city jutted up, hardly based on earth at all, linked across the chasm by delicate bridgespans. Towers, roadways and bridges ceased and the wall closed the city off again just before a vertiginous bend of the canyon. Helicopters with diaphanous vanes skimmed the abyss, and sliders flickered along the half-glimpsed streets and slender bridges. The sun, still not far above the massive peaks to eastward, seemed scarcely to cast shadows here; the great green towers shone as if translucent to the light.

Bewildered by number of people and sizes of buildings he has never seen before, Falk lets himself be guided towards a tall building and through its doors into a vast hall and then men are approaching from all sides and when he reaches for his laser he realises Strella has taken it, as the men close in and start beating him, the last thing he hears is something unprecedented… her mocking laugh!

When he regains consciousness (Le Guin characters are frequently regaining consciousness, puzzled and disorientated) he is hallucinating that he is a room made entirely of diaphanous, see-through surfaces in which invisible zips open and close to let people in or out. A short lordly man dressed in unisex clothes apparently named Kradgy and another who is… Strella! He overhears them discussing him as if he was an animal. The man asks Strella why it took her so long to bring him in. She describes how difficult it was to track him, how ‘they’ only dropped her a manfinder when she was deep in the Forest, how ‘he’ was already too close to the land of the Bansasska, how she had to join that tribe and pretend to be one of them… Falk hears how the jade amulet she muttered into was in fact some kind of radio which she used to keep in touch with her masters here.

She is, in other words, one of them, one of the Shing, an agent dropped to lure him and bring him to them.

Falk realises how stupid he’s been, how everyone from Zove to the Prince told him to travel alone and yet he was lured by her cause then by lust then by what he thought of as concern or love or some such. All the time he was being played.

In fact the True Lords as they call themselves treat Falk fantastically well. He has a luxury room to himself, servants bring him food and drink, he is up on the umpteenth floor of some skyscraper, when he is rested they take him to a tailor to be fitted with their type of clothes.

Then they introduce him to a youth of sixteen who introduces himself as Har Orry, son of Har Weden, and tells Falk that Falk’s real name is Agad Ramarren.

Agad Ramarren from Werel

If it was a shock to the reader to realise that Strella was a Shing agent all along, it genuinely turns the world on its head to learn that Falk is a ‘Kelshy’, a member of the Kelshak Nation from the planet Werel – the same planet Werel which is the setting for this book’s predecessor, Planet of Exile. So this book is linked with its predecessors! Is one of the Hainish cycle, part of the Hainish universe! The knowledge comes as a massive jolt to the reader’s sense of who, where and what.

Falk learns that Werel was settled by Terran colonists thousands of years ago, their knowledge level sank slowly, surrounded by the savage local tribes – until the great siege of the Gaal (the subject of Planet of Exile). But the two species interbred, led by the hero Alterra Agat – central character of Planet of Exile – and that began a slow rise again to civilisation and eventually the building of spaceships. And finally a crew of 12 or so were chosen to undertake the long space journey back to the home world of which so many millennia-old legends and myths were told – back to Terra, the home planet, aboard the spaceship Alterra.

One of the True Lords, Lord Abundibot, fills in the gaps in Orry’s story – on exiting near lightspeed warp drive as it approached earth, the entire crew blacked out and was attacked by Raiders, Bandits, who somehow patrol outer space. They had abducted a few of the ship’s crew when the Shing arrived, there was a firefight, the Bandits blew up the Alterra and one ship flew Ramarren down to the planet’s surface where his mind was razed, while another Bandit ship bearing Orry was captured.

Now he is kept docile and quiescent (as so many characters in Le Guin are) by means of a vape tube he sucks on and which contains some kind of tranquiliser, a parütha-tube. Falk learns that, ironically, he was the Navigator of the ship. Instead his mind was razed and he was abandoned in the deep forest to die, since even the Bandits cleave to the One Law, not to kill.

Slowly Falk/Ramarren is introduced to more of the lords and masters of Es Toch – Strella whose full name is Strella Siobelbel, Ken Kenyek. They are – as so many Le Guin characters – distant, cold and aloof, with no emotions: ‘they are like gods, cold and kind and wise – they hold themselves apart.’ They are natural telepaths, though Falk prefers to keep things at the spoken level. There aren’t many of them. They live widely scattered and confer in telepathic conferences, one of which Falk takes part in.

The lords now embark on a long campaign to persuade Falk/Ramarren that there was no Enemy. There was no war and no invasion of the League; what happened was natural organic disaffection and civil war among the planets of the League. They are not the Shing. There are no Shing.

‘We whom you know as Shing are men. We are Terrans, born on Earth of human stock, as was your ancestor Jacob Agat of the First Colony on Werel. Men have taught you what they believe about the history of Earth in the twelve centuries since the Colony on Werel was founded. Now we—men also —will teach you what we know:

‘No Enemy ever came from distant stars to attack the League of All Worlds. The League was destroyed by revolution, civil war, by its own corruption, militarism, despotism. On all the worlds there were revolts, rebellions, usurpations; from the Prime World came reprisals that scorched planets to black sand. No more lightspeed ships went out into so risky a future: only the FTLs, the missile-ships, the world-busters. Earth was not destroyed, but half its people were, its cities, its ships and ansibles, its records, its culture—all in two terrible years of civil war between the Loyalists and the Rebels, both armed with the unspeakable weapons developed by the League to fight an alien enemy.’

Can this be true? Is everything he ever learned at Zove’s House and everything everyone has told him on his long trek, is it all a lie? All rumour and paranoid fable? We’ve seen the low standard of the people he’s encountered, many little better than savages. Maybe they have got it all wrong.

Basically for the rest of the book, in conversations with Lord Abundibot and Orry, Falk – and the reader – are kept in a state of heightened confusion and uncertainty. Are they lying to him? Is young Orry telling the truth or is he a drugged pawn of the Shing? Are the lords really Terran humans or cunning Shing? (It’s only during lengthy conversations with Orry that Falk learns that Strella is not actually a Shing but one of the many human children sent to learn the ways of the City who become one of their servants.)

Mind restoration

Then they make the final mind-boggling revelation – that, despite his razing by the Rebels, Falk’s true Werel identity as Ramarren still exists in the deep basement of his brain. But that to revive it, the lords will have to remove, erase and obliterate the personality of Falk and everything he has experienced.

God, what a dilemma: should he submit to the operation in order to have his ‘true’ identity restored? Or is the entire thing a tissue of lies to get him agree to be razed and obliterated? A long chapter is devoted to Falks’ fears and counter-fears, arguments and counter-arguments. Eventually, with a heavy heart, he accedes. They have explained the procedure cannot be carried out unless he consents. He does consent. Falk is taken into the Operation Room with a bank of computers next to an operating table. Ken Kenyek starts applying electrodes to his head…

Then – he wakes up as Ramarren the Navigator from the planet Werel. The dramatic effect is striking. The reader awakens with Ramarren from a confused place. He is much more forceful and decisive than hesitating Falk. We see things through his eyes as he has explained to him what’s happened. From his perspective he remembers all the details of the spaceflight, he remembers all the preparations, the briefings, the goals of the expedition. Now he is puzzled as he awakes dazed and confused (as so many Le Guin characters awake dazed and confused) looking down to find his arms and hands not smooth and pale but thin, wasted, scarred and sunburnt from his long arduous trek.

A confusion not helped when the woman we know as Strella comes running into his room and tries to tell him he is Falk and is explaining what they experienced together when a lord strides in and mind blocks her with such ferocity that it makes Ramarren wince. The woman runs out weeping and Ramarren is now and permanently put on his guard. This is not the peaceful civilised home planet he had expected.

In two minds

As in the later books, what had been an external journey in part one now turns into a very densely and deeply imagined inner journey, as Ramarren falls prey to all kinds of doubts, despite the smooth blandishments of the lord and, late that night, in the wee small hours, undergoes a unique experience… he realises he is two persons!! The supposedly destroyed persona of Falk comes in waves back into his consciousness and he undergoes the sheer mortal terror of being two people at once!

As in The Left Hand of Darkness the external events and adventures are really a kind of hors d’oeuvre, designed to manoeuvre your mind into position, into such a weird alien place, that you will accept this mind-bending possibility – the possibility that a man may be two people at the same time. We experience the terror and vertigo that Falk/Ramarren experiences as he struggles through the night to manage the presence of two people inside his head.

The next day Ramarren spend pondering on the truth or falseness of the Shing. Lord Abundibot and Ken Kenyek both tell him there was no Enemy and they are humans in mindspeech and in mindspeech no-one is supposed to be able to lie. And yet Ramarren draws on Falk’s memories and all the things all the people he met told him, including that the Shing came from far away, from a start system beyond the Hyades, not many of them travelled that far, it didn’t take many to totally dominate mankind, to sow dissension, to breed out the winners and create a new breed of docile and fearful peasants scattered across the former populous continents.

If they are Shing, why are they being so fantastically considerate to him? Slowly it dawns on Ramarren that they don’t know where Werel is and they want to find out. They want to send Shing to Werel and destroy and enslave its population in turn. Probably. He speculates. At all costs he must not tell them.

And here the narrative uses a little gimmick which is the notion that some Code of Werel means that Ramarren himself cannot consciously admit Werel’s coordinates in space to anyone. That’s why they didn’t find it out when they had him unconscious on the operating table – they tried and failed and had to let him regain consciousness and find some other way to make him tell.

Another day of polite fencing ensue, with lord Abundibot and Kradgy and Ken Kenyek gently probing Ramarren in polite conversation. They tell him a spaceship is awaiting him at the spaceport to take him and Orry back to Werel. All they need is the co-ordinates, if he would be so kind as too… But he surprises them by telling them he can’t; his own programming forbids him from revealing the co-ordinates.

The following day the lords graciously take Orry and Ramarren on a guided tour of the grand city, in a flying aircar. This gives Le Guin the opportunity to invent all kinds of space age aspects of this dream city, while also giving us prolonged sequences of Ramarren’s ongoing agonising: is he right? Are they Shing? Or is the whole Shing thing a stone-age myth? I think we are meant to agree with him that they are Shing and have reduced and controlled humanity, because on several occasions we catch them lying, their interest in Werel’s location seems to confirm his paranoia, the way they treated Strella when she tried to get through to him, the way they are obviously keeping young Orry doped to the eyeballs…

Falk makes his escape

The novel ends very suddenly and abruptly. The day’s sightseeing is coming to a charming end after a day spent in a flying car which took them to see inhabitants of some islands off the coast who live a life of luxury and ease, sun, sand and sex. On the way back Ramarren feels a sudden shift or dislocation and realises that his guide, Ken Kenyek, has, after much patient probing, achieved complete mindgrip and mindlock with him. Everything is sweet and polite – ‘Isn’t that nice and comfortable now?’ – and Ken is settling in to carry out more questioning about the location of Werel, in fact Ken has narrowed the probable location down correctly to the sun Eltanin, in the Dragon constellation, but…

The Shing – if he is a Shing – doesn’t realise there are two people in Ramarren’s head – and while his entire mind is in phase with Ramarren’s, Falk appears, a complete stunning surprise, and staggers Ken’s mind. For that brief moment of helplessness, Ramarren strikes and counter-seizes Ken. Now he is a puppet.

Quickly Ramarren interrogates the powerless Shing and establishes there is a spaceport a few miles north of the city, with ships fuelled and waiting including the one scheduled to take him to Werel. Ramarren gets Orry to fly them there. The port and spaceships are hidden by a kind of screening device which hides everything but their shimmering outlines. These, Ramarren thinks, are the interstellar spaceships of the Shing (is he right?)

Ramarren gets Kenyek to explain the layout of the port (the control rooms are underground) and to lead him and the confused, dopy, dazed Orry to the underground control room where Ramarren a) stuns Kenyek using his own stun gun, and b) sets the co-ordinates of Werel (destroying the computer record afterwards). Here he – and the reader – receive final confirmation that the lords are indeed the Shing, because as he struggles to program the computer he discovers that:

Some of the processes the Shing used and built into their computers were entirely alien to Cetian mathematical process and logic; and nothing else could have so firmly persuaded Ramarren that the Shing were, indeed, alien to Earth, alien to all the old League worlds, conquerors from some very distant world. He had never been quite sure that Earth’s old histories and tales were correct on that point, but now he was convinced, and then up and into the spaceship assigned to fly to Werel. It is of course, ready and full of fuel and provisions.

It takes hours to run the program during which Falk’s part of his mind has time to reflect on his adventures, his encounters, all the things people told him, to wonder where Strella is now, and what she really is. Above all to reflect on the strange fate of the Shing.

He thought about Estrel, wondering where she was now and what she was now. Had they retrained her, razed her mind, killed her? No, they did not kill. They were afraid to kill and afraid to die, and called their fear Reverence for Life. The Shing, the Enemy, the Liars… Did they in truth lie? Perhaps that was not quite the way of it; perhaps the essence of their lying was a profound, irremediable lack of understanding. They could not get into touch with men. They had used that and profited by it, making it into a great weapon, the mindlie; but had it been worth their while, after all? Twelve centuries of lying, ever since they had first come here, exiles or pirates or empire-builders from some distant star, determined to rule over these races whose minds made no sense to them and whose flesh was to them forever sterile. Alone, isolated, deafmutes ruling deafmutes in a world of delusions…

Finally the computer spits out a little sliver of iridium which contains the programming information. With that safely in his hand he wipes all record of what he’s done and carries the paralysed Ken Kenyek, pulling dopy Ory along with him and up into the spaceship, slips the iridium into the onboard computer, straps Ken and himself in, assures Orry they are going home and presses the controls.

In a few years of their time they will cover the 140 light years distance to Werel and then he, Orry and Ken Kenyek will get to tell their story to the Werelites, and the truth, one way or the other, will out.


Thoughts

1. Altered states

From start to finish it’s a novel about fragmented and lost identities, about psychological damage and the nature of reality – so it reminded me all the way through of the novels of Philip K Dick and his abiding fascination with reality and dreams and alternate states of mind. Maybe it was something in the air or the water or the Kool-Aid of the 1960s which, after all, saw widespread experimenting with consciousness altering drugs, which many enthusiasts thought would provide a panacea to all human ills.

I wonder whether Le Guin ever experimented with mind-altering drugs, or was it a purely imaginative interest in alternative psychological states – it’s certainly a mighty strong theme and recurring subject matter in her fiction. Subsequent novels like The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Lathe of Heaven (1971) testify to her enduring interest in really weird alternative modes of thinking and perceiving.

Commentators dwell on her interest in Eastern mysticism and the kind of Zen, detached mindsets it encourages – but from one angle that entire subject is really a sub-set of her much bigger, all-encompassing interest in alternative states of mind – for example, the importance of dreams and dreaming which is the (spooky) central subject of The Lathe of Heaven.

2. Harshness

There’s something harsh and unforgiving about Le Guin’s fiction.

On the face of it her environmentalism and her mysticism and her sympathy with underdog species (which she’s invented) ought to create a warm and sympathetic vibe. But it doesn’t.

It’s not just the way this story has no real resolution which makes it dissatisfying – it’s the whole series of hard-faced, sometimes brutal, sometimes just cold characters and incidents which feature all through the novel which put my hackles up, which created a barrier between her and me.

Take the relationship between Ramarran and the orphaned Har Orry. In another author’s hands this might have become a warm, avuncular relationship. They might have helped each other or comforted each other. But there is generally little comfort in Le Guin and so right to the last pages Orry is just a burden, possibly a trap, a drugged puppet telling lies.

People are killed off very casually. There’s something upsetting about the way Ramarren knows he’ll never see again beautiful Parth, his partner at the House of Zove, or is so totally betrayed by Strella whose life he helped to save. And I am still reeling from the way Estraven, the character we had spent so much time and effort getting to know, is simply shot dead at the end of The Left Hand of Darkness.

Plenty of American fiction is cold and brutal, like the entire genre of the detective story. But at least those kinds of stories have a glamour and a mystique. There is no glamour here. Everyone betrays everyone else. Humanity is humiliated. I finish each of these Le Guin novels feeling progressively more battered and hurt. Something genuinely strange happens while reading her fiction. But it’s not a pleasant experience.


Related links

Reviews of Ursula Le Guin novels

1966 Rocannon’s World
1966 Planet of Exile
1967 City of Illusions
1968 A Wizard of Earthsea
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness
1971 The Lathe of Heaven
1972 The Word for World Is Forest
1974 The Dispossessed

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
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
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 future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
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 – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel 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 comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings 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 Kent, gets caught up in 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

1910s
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

1920s
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, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
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

1950s
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 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 narrative involving 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
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard man Gulliver Foyle is looking for vengeance
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

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke 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
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 space travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undergo a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve read
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything

1980s
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, basically the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero, while the daughter of a Japanese ganster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population under control

The Good Soldier Švejk, Part Two: At The Front by Jaroslav Hašek (1922)

In Volume One of The Good Soldier Švejk we were introduced to the implacably calm, unflappable anti-hero Josef Švejk, placid and middle-aged denizen of Prague under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a former soldier discharged on the grounds of incurable idiocy.

Volume One chronicles Švejk’s various difficulties with the authorities until, towards the end, he is called up to rejoin the army at the outbreak World War One, is assigned to one Lieutenant Lukáš of the 91st Imperial and Royal Infantry Regiment as his batman and, right at the end of Volume One, they are both ordered off to the Eastern Front to fight against the Russians.

In other words, if you only want to read about Švejk’s adventures in the actual war, you could easily skip Volume One.

The plot

Chapter 1 Švejk’s misadventures on the train

The story resumes with the Good Soldier Švejk already in trouble with his boss, because he’s mislaid some of his luggage as they entrain for the Front. In a gesture of typical dimness, Švejk was left to guard it but got bored and went to tell Lieutenant Lukáš it was all safe and sound but when he’d got back discovered someone had nicked one of the cases.

Once aboard the train, Švejk gets into trouble again. He speaks very freely back to Lieutenant Lukáš, and then makes some rude comments about the bald-headed old man who’s sharing their train compartment… until the old man erupts in a fury and reveals that he is Major-General von Schwarzburg and proceeds to give Lukáš a rocket. Trembling, Lukáš tells Švejk to get lost so the harmless dimwit wanders down the corridor to the guards van, where he gets chatting to the railwayman about the alarm signal and next thing they know, they have pulled it and the whole train comes to a thundering halt.

Švejk and the railwayman pull the emergency chain

Švejk is identified as the culprit, and at the next station is taken off the train to report to the station master and be fined. While this is taking place, the train puffs off and Švejk is left on his own, with no luggage and – crucially – no documentation, pass and identification, as it’s all with the Lieutenant.

A sympathetic crowd gathers round Švejk and one offers to pay his 20 crown fine and gives him the name of some useful contacts if he ever finds himself captured by the Russians. When he discovers that Švejk doesn’t even have a train ticket to catch up with his regiment, he gives him ten crowns to buy another.

A lot of the power of the novel comes from the circumstantial details: thus in this fairly simple little scene

  1. we are shown civilians sympathising with soldiers who they think are being harassed and bullied (from which we deduce that soldiers being bullied was a common sight)
  2. but at the same time a gendarmerie sergeant descends on the crowd and arrests someone (a master butcher, it turns out) who he claims was traducing the emperor (a typical example of the heavy-handed and over-officious attitude of the authorities which Hašek documents throughout the book)
  3. and in another detail, although none of the customers in the third-class bar where Švejk goes for a drink, saw the scene of his fine they have all made up far-fetched stories about how a spy had just been arrested or a soldier had a duel with someone about his lady love – in other words typical wartime paranoia and scaremongering

My point is that many of the scenes involving Švejk also feature bystanders, customers in pubs, other people in the police station or his cell, cops who take him back and forward, and then the numerous other soldiers he meets. It is a very sociable book, it has many walk-on parts for all kinds of men and women and this slowly builds up the impression of a whole world, a world in which people make up rumours, get arbitrarily arrested, help each other out or get shouted at by angry stationmasters.

Lots of the scenes involve or end with one of the central themes, which is Booze. More or less everyone drinks, often to excess. Švejk is continually ducking into pubs for a quick one, continually making friends with complete strangers over a jar. And thus it is that this scene ends with Švejk blithely drinking away the ten crowns the nice man gave him to buy a train ticket with, in the company of another war-weary fellow soldier, a Hungarian who doesn’t speak Czech or German, but conveys his unhappiness at having to abandon his three children with no income and nothing to eat.

Military Police turn up and drag Švejk before a young lieutenant at the nearby army barracks who is in a bad mood because he’s chatting up the girl in the telegraphy office who keeps turning him down (p.235).

Švejk recounts his story to date with such blank idiocy that the lieutenant (as so often happens) is disarmed enough not to charge him with anything, but has him taken back to the station and put on the next train to rejoin his regiment at České Budějovice (the capital city of South Bohemia) where the 91st regiment and Lieutenant Lukáš were heading.

But the escort and Švejk are back ten minutes later because the stationmaster won’t sell him a ticket because he’s a menace and so – the lieutenant tells him he’ll just have to walk to České Budějovice to catch up with his regiment.

Chapter 2 Švejk’s Budějovice anabasis

An ancient device of satire is to compare small and trivial things with mighty and venerable things, to create a comic disproportion. Švejk’ predictably enough, gets completely lost in his attempts to reach České Budějovice and so, for comic effect, Hašek compares Švejk’s chapter-length adventure to the anabasis of Xenophon, one of the most famous, and heroic, journeys of the ancient world.

The seven-volume Anabasis was composed around the year 370 BC, is Xenophon’s best known work, and ‘one of the great adventures in human history’ (Wikipedia)

České Budějovice is due south from the train station where Švejk was detained but, characteristically, he sets off with a brave and determined stride to the west and gets utterly lost in the wintry countryside of south Bohemia for several days. In the course of his peregrination he meets a sequence of characters, mostly poor villagers and peasants, who help him out, spare a drink or their food with him, recommend friends or relatives at towns along the way for him to call in on and generally provide a lot of human solidarity.

The reader remembers that Hašek himself was a notorious vagabond and long distance hiker who had plenty of experience of the kindness, or hostility, of strangers. Švejk’s jollily titled anabasis allows Hašek to depict the kindness which exists among the poor and downtrodden and outsiders:

  • the kindly old lady who gives him potato soup and bacon and guidance to find her brother who’ll help him
  • an accordion player from Malčín who advises him to look up his married daughter whose husband is a deserter
  • in Radomyšl the old lady’s brother, Father Melichárek, who also thinks Švejk is a deserter
  • near Putim a trio of deserters taking refuge in a haystack who tell him that a month earlier the entire 35th regiment deserted
  • one of them has an aunt in Strakonice who has a sister in the mountains they can go and stay with – give him a slice of bread for the journey
  • near Stekno he meets a tramp who shares a nip of brandy and gives him advice about evading the authorities, and takes him into town to meet a friend, even older than the tramp, and the three sit round a stove in the old gaffer’s cabin telling stories (p.277)

The Good Soldier Švejk with the two tramps

The adventure ends when Švejk finds himself circling back and re-entering the village of Putim where he is arrested and interrogated by a very clever gendarmerie sergeant Flanderka who lectures his subordinates at length about the correct and wise way to interview suspects and who thinks he can get Švejk into confessing that he’s a spy.

The thing about Švejk is that he is absolutely honest. He literally tells the truth, that he got detained by a stationmaster after pulling the emergency, cord, drank away the money he was given to buy a ticket, then they wouldn’t give him a ticket anyway, then set off on a long rambling walk all round the region – until the sergeant becomes convinced that no-one could be this ingenuous, wide-eyed and innocent – and therefore that he must be a most dangerous spy!

They keep a paranoid close guard on our hero, accompany him to the outside toilet, order a fine dinner from the local pub. Oblivious of the sergeant’s ludicrous paranoias, Švejk has a whale of a time and the sergeant and the lance-corporal he’s bullying get so drunk they pass out.

Next morning, badly hungover, the sergeant writes a preposterous report about Švejk, for example arguing that his lack of a camera just shows how dangerous he would be if he had one, and sends him off under armed guard to the District Command in Písek. As always happens, it doesn’t take much persuasion to get the lance-corporal accompanying Švejk to pop into a roadside pub along the way, and they proceed to get plastered, telling the landlord to keep them company drink for drink (p.277)

They set off again completely trashed, way after dark and, as the corporal keeps slipping off the icy road and down the slopes either side, decide to handcuff themselves together. In this state they arrive at the gendarmerie headquarters at Pisek where Captain König takes one look at them and is disgusted. He is fed up with being bombarded by useless bureaucratic edicts and now the moronic sergeant from Putim is chipping with crazy accusations like this one, that the drunk soldier in front of him is a master spy when he’s obviously a common or garden deserter.

König briskly orders Švejk put on the next train to České Budějovice and supervised by a gendarme who is to accompany him at the other end, all the way through the streets of the town to the Marianske Barracks. This he does, so that Švejk calmly walks through the door of the barracks main office just as Lieutenant Lukáš is settling into another shift. At the sight of Švejk rises to his feet and faints backwards (onto a junior soldier).

When he recovers the lieutenant informs Švejk an arrest warrant has been made in his name for desertion and he must report to the barracks prison. So off he goes, under guard, innocent and docile as usual.

In his cell he meets a fat one-year volunteer – whoe name we learn is Marek – who is more educated than most of Hašek’s characters and has a fund of stories to tell about soldiers being bullied, mistried and massacred, as well as scathing criticism of the authorities and of Austro-Hungarian authority which he sees as doomed to collapse (p.293).

All along the line, everything in the army stinks of rottenness.

Maybe he is a self-portrait of the rather tubby author (confirmed when he says that he was at one state the editor of a magazine named The Animal  World – as was Hašek).

He and Švejk get on like a house on fire and end up singing various bawdy ballads at the tops of their voices and keeping the other prisoners awake. In the morning they are both interrogated by a pompous officer named Colonel Schröder, an episode which satirises military incompetence and prejudice, before Schröder sentences the volunteer to the kitchens peeling potatoes and Švejk to three days ‘hard’. Schröder then drops by the office of Lieutenant Lukáš to tell him he’s given his batman three days hard but don’t worry, after that Švejk will be sent back to him.

Lieutenant Lukáš drops to his knees in despair. One of the funniest things about the book is Lukáš’s complete inability to shake off Švejk who, without consciously trying, makes his life a misery and destroys every one of his plans.

One element of comedy is predictability, generated by the audience becoming familiar with the way certain characters always behave, coming to expect it, and being delighted when they behave that way, or say that ting, again. Hence the joy of catchphrases, of hearing Corporal Jones cry ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic’. In this way, the ever-deepening chagrin of Lieutenant Lukáš becomes a core comic theme from this point onwards.

Chapter 3 Švejk’s adventures in Királyhida

Švejk and the one-year volunteer are marched along with the rest of the 91st Regiment to the České Budějovice railway station. Here things are chaotic and they get mixed up with Father Lacina, a chaplain, who has been roaming among various regimental messes the night before gorging himself and drinking himself insensible. Lacina hitches a lift into Švejk and the one-year volunteer’s train carriage, where he promptly passes out.

Švejk and the one-year volunteer had been accompanied and guarded by a timid lance-corporal and they now set about remorselessly teasing him, bombarding him with rules and regulations about the protection of prisoners which he has broken without realising it, including letting an unauthorised person (the drunk chaplain) into the prisoners’ van, and so on.

They also tell a wealth of stories covering a range of experiences and people: how a black entertainer slept with a posh white Czech lady who had a little black baby; about miscegenation between races, and how the war is leading to rapes of civilian women by occupying armies.

It is here that the one-year volunteer tells us at length about his spell as editor of the magazine The Animal World and how he got into trouble for writing articles about fictitious animals (pp.323-328).

The train draws into the outskirts of Vienna (p.347), where it is greeted by a tired welcoming committee patriotic old ladies (p.348). Hašek describes how the initial enthusiasm for the war, which saw huge crowds cheer the trains full of soldiers off to the Front, has long since waned.

Švejk and the volunteer are ordered along with all the other soldiers to report to the mess kitchens. Here Svejk, in the course of nicking a coatful of grub, bumps into Lieutenant Lukáš and tells him he was bringing it to him.

The narrative cuts rather abruptly to night over the army barracks at Bruck (p.350). It does this quite often. I found myself having to go back and figure out where we were in many of the scenes, and work out where the travel from one place to another took part. Maybe a function of the text having originally consisted of discreet short stories.

Bruck an der Leitha is also known as Királyhida, and hereby hangs a tale. The River Leitha formed the border between what was then Austria and Hungary. The town on the Austrian side was called Bruck an der Leitha, the town on the Hungarian side was called Királyhida. The Austrians referred to the land their side as Cisleithiana, the territory the other side as Transleithiana. And the Czechs were alien to both countries.

The central incident of this chapter is based on the simmering ethnic tensions and resentments between these groups. Švejk has now been released from the prisoners van (he was only sentenced to three days’ detention, if you remember) and has been restored to Lieutenant Lukáš as his batman. That evening Švejk is having a fag with the pock-marked batman of another officer from down the corridor of their temporary barracks, when Lieutenant Lukáš stumbles back from a drunken evening out.

He and a bunch of other officers went to a cabaret where the Hungarian dancers were doing high kicks and wearing no stockings or knickers, and had ‘shaved themselves underneath like Tatar women’ (p.356). Lukáš didn’t really like it and on the way out the theatre saw a high-minded woman dragging her husband away. They exchanged a meaningful look. Lukáš asked the cloakroom attendant who she was and finds out she’s the wife of a well-known ironmonger and her address. He goes onto a nightclub where he writes an elaborate and fancy letter basically asking if he can come round and have sex with her the following day. He drunkenly hand the letter to Švejk, goes into his room, and passes out.

Next morning Švejk wakes the Lieutenant to check he still wants the letter delivered, gets a sleepy Yes, and sets off to the ironmonger’s address. Unfortunately, he makes the mistake of letting a fellow soldier, Sapper Vodička, accompany him. The whole way Vodička informs Švejk how much he hates Hungarians, what cowards they are, and bullies, and how easy it is to shag their disreputable woman.

By the time Švejk politely knocks on the door of the house, and politely hands the little girl who answers a letter for her mummy, Vodička has worked himself into a fury and when they hear a rumpus from the living room and the woman’s husband emerges in a froth of indignation, the scene is set for a massive fight, which spills out onto the street, and which passersby and other soldiers all get caught up (p.355).

The fight over the ironmonger’s wife

Chapter 4 New sufferings

It is very funny when, as a result of this, Lieutenant Lukáš finds himself woken up and summoned to the office of Colonel Schröder who reads him out a series of reports of this riot in all the Hungarian newspapers. Not only that but the papers have taken it as an opportunity to complain about the hordes of rampaging Czechs infesting their streets and to castigate Czech character generally.

The Colonel makes Lukáš read out every word of every report, and we are wondering whether he, Lukáš, will be cashiered before the whole tone shifts and we discover the Colonel secretly sympathises. He says the incriminating letter was found on Vodička, so everyone knows about his proposition to the ironmonger’s wife. Had he slept with her yet, the Colonel asks, only increasing the Lieutenant’s discomfiture. The Colonel tells him he was once sent on a three-week geometry course in Hungary and slept with a different Hungarian woman every day. The Colonel pats him on the shoulder and says All Hungarians are bastards, we’re not going to let them get you.

And then he sets off on a new tack saying how admirably the good soldier Švejk defended him. When the police showed him the incriminating letter he first of all claimed to have written it himself, and then ate it. Good man, that, says the Colonel. And to Lieutenant Lukáš’s unmitigated horror, the Colonel proceeds to assign Švejk to him as the new Company Orderly! (p.378)

But first Švejk and Vodička are temporarily thrown in the clink where they bump into their old friend, the one-year volunteer. As usual there is a huge amount of yarning and story-telling before they are hauled up before Judge Advocate Ruller. He is another stern disciplinarian but, on the recommendation of Colonel Schröder, lets them go.

In a parody of farewell scenes from umpteen romantic novels, Švejk and Vodička now go their separate way, calling out across the ever-widening distance between them. Švejk tells him to come to The Chalice pub any evening at 6pm after the war’s ended.

Chapter 5 From Bruck an der Leitha to Sokal

To replace Švejk as batman, Lieutenant Lukáš has been given a big fat heavily bearded soldier named Baroun. He turns out to have an insatiable appetite and repetition comedy results from his inability not to eat everything in sight, including all of Lieutenant Lukáš’s rations and treats.

the first time this happens, Lieutenant Lukáš orders Baloun to be taken to the barracks kitchen and tied to a post just by the ovens so he can smell all the food for hours and not be able to move. Cruel, eh? (p.398)

Quartermaster sergeant Vanek expects to be able to lord it over Švejk  so it surprised when the latter announces he is now regimental orderly, clearly a post of some authority and respect.

There follows a prolonged (20+ pages) comic sequence based on the idea that Švejk now has access to the company telephone, and that the barracks operates an early primitive phone system on which he can overhear the conversations of everyone in the barracks. He is given orders to send ten troops to the barracks store to get tines of meat for the upcoming train journey but, as you might expect, this quickly turns into chaos and confusion.

Švejk having 40 winks between causing mayhem on the regimental phone line

Meanwhile Lieutenant Lukáš is absent at a prolonged meeting convened by Colonel Schröder at which he is holding forth at great length a series of military theories and ideas which have all been completely outdated by the war (‘He spoke without rhyme or reason…’ p.421). In his absence Švejk and some of the other soldiers, notably the Quatermaster, chew the fat, telling stories at great length, getting tipsy and falling asleep.

In fact it’s a characteristic of volume two that as Švejk gets drawn more into the army bureaucracy we encounter an ever-expanding roster of military characters, who come and go in the various offices, stopping to have long conversations, swap stories, moan about Hungarians or women or the senior officers. Quite often it’s difficult to remember where in the ‘story’ you are, after pages and pages of reminiscences about the old days, or about characters back home, or about something they once read in the paper or heard, told by one or other of the numerous soldiers.

It’s a new morning but the never-ending meeting convened by Colonel Schröder resumes. On the table is a big map of the front with little wooden figures and flags for troop dispositions. Overnight a cat kept by the clerks has gotten into the meeting room and not only knocked all the markers out of alignment, but also done a few cat poops on the map. Now Colonel Schröder is very short-sighted so the assembled officers watch with bated breath as he moves his hand airily over the map, getting closer and closer and then… yes! poking his finger into a pile of fresh cat poo! And goes charging into the clerks’ room to give them hell (p.437).

In this last section there’s a humorous grace note about the regimental cook who was, in civilian life, an author of books about the Occult and takes a supernatural approach to cooking.

Everyone is in a state of suspense. Are they going to move out to the Front, and when? Marek, the one-year volunteer appears, still in detention and awaiting some kind of sentence from the authorities. On the last page of volume two, while Švejk is telling yet another long story to Quartermaster Sergeant-Major Vaněk, Lieutenant Lukáš is in his office painfully decoding a ciphered message he’s received. The regiment will be proceeding to Mošon, Raab, Komárno and so to Budapest.

Here ends Volume Two of The Good Soldier Švejk.


Themes

Anti-war bitterness

Volume one tends to focus on the arrogance, aggressive behaviour and stupidity of a wide range of officials encountered in everyday life. As you might expect, once he’s re-enlisted in the army, Volume two focuses on all aspects of the stupidity and futility of war.

The young soldier gave a heartfelt sight. He was sorry for his young life. Why was he born in such a stupid century to be butchered like an ox in a slaughterhouse? (p.153)

And contains some really effective passages, visions of the desolation and deathliness of war.

Before the arrival of the passenger train the third-class restaurant filled up with soldiers and civilians. They were predominantly soldiers of various regiments and formations and the most diverse nationalities whom the whirlwinds of war had swept into the Tábor hospitals. they were now going back to the front to get new wounds, mutilations and pains and to earn the reward of a simple wooden cross over their graves. Years after on the mournful plains of East Galicia a faded Austrian soldier’s cap with a rusty imperial badge would flutter over it in wind and rain. From time to time a miserable old carrion crow would perch on it, recalling fat feasts of bygone days when there used to be spread for him an unending table of human corpses and horse carcasses, when just under the cap on which he perched there lay the daintiest morsels of all – human eyes. (p.230)

There’s more where that came from. Not particularly intellectual or stylish. But all the more effective for its blunt simplicity.

Casual brutality

The book is permeated by casual violence. All the officers take it for granted that they can slap, punch, hit in the mouth or round the ears, order to be tied up and even flogged whichever soldiers they wish. And the soldiers accept it too.

The old beggar tells Švejk about begging round the town of Lipnice and stumbling into the gendarmerie station by accident, because it was in an ordinary looking house. And the police sergeant leaping up from behind his desk, striding across the room, and punching the tramp so hard in the face that he is propelled back through the door and down the wooden steps. (p.251)

The same old man remembers stories his grandfather told about the army in his day, how a deserter was flogged so hard that strips of skin flew off him. How another was shot for desertion on the barrack ramparts. but not before he’d run the gauntlet of 600 soldiers who all beat and hit and whipped him as he ran through the human tunnel they’d formed. (p.247)

In the prisoners’ van Švejk watches the escorts playing what appears to be a popular game in the Austrian army. Called simply ‘Flesh’, where one soldier takes down his trousers, bares his bottom, and the other soldiers belt him as hard as they can on his bare buttocks, and the soldier has to guess which of his companions it was who hit him. If he guesses right, that colleague has to take his place. That’s the game. (pp.322-3)

There’s satire on military stupidity, like the story of a certain earnest Lieutenant Berger who hid up a pine tree during an enemy attack, and refused to reveal himself or come down till his own side counter-attacked. Unfortunately that took fourteen days, so he starved to death (p.256)

There are many stories like that, of ‘heroes’ who get awarded medals after they’ve been blown to bits or cut in half by a shell or blinded or maimed, and they come under the heading of Stupid propaganda with Švejk ending up in various offices where he sees posters proclaiming the bravery of our proud Austrian boys, and so on, or is handed leaflets describing glorious deeds of valour, or reads articles about gallant officers rescuing entire regiments.

Like most of his mates, he ends up using these handouts as toilet paper.

But they also form part of the vast, unending continuum of stories, of the stories working class men tell each other in pubs and bars and police stations and cells and barracks and trains, and they all evince the same bloody-minded, hardened attitude of the common soldier, squaddie or grunt who carries on living his heedless working class life despite all efforts of shouting sergeants and poncy officers to reform him – a life which tends to revolve around food and fags, booze and sex.

Drink

Thus all the characters are fond of not only drinking but getting drunk, obviously Hašek and his working class pals, but also a high proportion of the officers and even generals, starting with Lieutenant Lukáš who a) wins Švejk at a game of cards b) is an inveterate womaniser c) routinely gets plastered.

Almost every escort charged with escorting prisoner Švejk anywhere lets itself get talked into nipping into the first pub they pass and proceeding to get legless.

And there’s a special satirical edge to portraying the scions of morality, the army chaplains Katz and Lacina as hopeless drunks, Lacina no sooner being introduced than he passes out.

But booze is seen as the universal solvent of society, having a drink a bombproof way of getting to know your companion or settling differences.

Sex

Actually there’s less sex than you might expect. There are far far more stories about the brutal fates and mishaps of characters in the stories the lads tell each other, than sexual escapades. the cabaret where the girls do high kicks without knickers is a rare occurrence of sexy sexiness, and the Lieutenant’s attempt to seduce the ironmonger’s wife ends in farce, as we’ve seen.

One soldier tells an admiring story about a captain who knows three sisters who he’s trained to bring round to the officers mess and dance on the tables before presenting themselves on the sofa (presumably for the officers’ use and in what posture is left to the imagination).

And Colonel Schröder shows off to Lieutenant Lukáš about the time he went for training in Hungary and boffed a different woman every day for three weeks.

But these are a handful of sexy stories amid a vast sea of hundreds and hundreds of other stories about numerous other subjects. If sex is present it’s more as a steady hum of prostitutes in the background, and at random moments soldiers are discovered bargaining with the whores who hang around the railways stations where the troop trains stopped.

Bureaucracy

An army is, almost by definition, a kind of quintessence of bureaucracy and the satire on incompetence of Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy is now applied to the army, in spaces. At various moments harassed officers are shown drowning in bombardments of new regulations and memos, all of which are incomprehensible or irrelevant.

The text gives a list of the orders sent to Sergeant Flanderka, the pompous gendarme at Putim, which includes orders, directives, questionnaires, instructions and directives, including an index of grades of loyalty to the Emperor, according to which citizens who are interrogated must be classified as either Ia, Ib, Ic, IIa, IIb, IIc, IIIa, IIIb, IIIc, and so on. (p.259) which leads into how Sergeant Flanderka tried to recruit the village idiot Pepek as a spy on the local population and, when that fails, simply invents an informer, makes up reports he attributes to this invention, and claims an extra fifty crowns a month pay to fund him, which the sergeant pockets himself. (The same kind of problem – operatives who invent informers or spies so they can claim extra money – crops up in Somerset Maugham’s brilliant fictionalisation of his spying days during the Great War, Ashenden, and in John le Carré. Obviously, an occupational hazard.)

(Incidentally, the village idiot Pepek can barely speak and when, on his first report back, he simply parrots back all the incriminating phrases Sergeant Flanderka told him to listen out for, Sergeant Flanderka promptly has Pepek arrested as a traitor, tried and convicted to twelve years hard labour. That’s very much the helpless, heartless tone of the countless stories and anecdotes which make up the actual text of Švejk.)

The captain of the gendarmerie at Pisek was a very officious man, very thorough at prosecuting his subordinates and outstanding in bureaucratic manners. In the gendarmerie stations in his district no one could ever say that the storm had passed. it came back with every communication signed by the captain, who spent the whole day issuing reprimands, admonitions and warnings to the whole district. Ever since the outbreak of war heavy black clouds had loured over the gendarmerie stations in the Písek district. It was a truly ghostly atmosphere. The thunderbolts of bureaucracy rumbled and struck the gendarmerie sergeants, lance-corporals, men and employees. (p.279)

One moment in particular stood out for me as a sudden bit of Kafka embedded in Hašek, where Švejk is listening to yet another rodomontade from the furiously angry Sapper Vodička, who is wondering when the pair will finally be brought to court for their involvement in the riot with the Hungarian ironmonger.

‘It’s always nothing but interrogation’, said Vodička, whipping himself up into a fury. ‘If only something would come out of it at last. They waste heaps of paper and a chap doesn’t even see the court.’ (p.387)

The nationalities question

It is a crucial element of the situation in the Austro-Hungarian Empire that its constituent nationalities cordially dislike each other. Švejk buys the poor Hungarian soldier a drink but happily calls him a Hungarian bastard; the Hungarians slag off the Czechs for surrendering en masse as soon as the fighting starts (apparently this actually happened); the Czechs resent the Hungarians for being better soldiers; and everyone hates the stereotype of the furiously angry German-speaking Austrian officer.

This is broadly comic in the sense that all mechanical national stereotypes are comic. One aspect of it is language and here there is a Great Tragedy: the book’s translator into English, Cecil Parrott, makes clear in his wonderful introduction that a great part of the pleasure of the text in its original version is the interplay of languages of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Different characters may speak Czech, Hungarian, German or even Polish, and within those languages they may use polite and formal registers, or common and demotic registers, or may be non-native speakers mangling the language.

Almost none of this art and pleasure comes over in translation. Damn! Only at a handful of moments does the multicultural nature of the society being depicted, and of the most ordinary human interactions, become prominent. For example when Švejk and Vodička arrive at the house of the Hungarian ironmonger to hand over Lieutenant Lukáš’s letter. Bear in mind that they are in Királyhida, just across the border into Hungary proper.

The door opened, a maid appeared and asked in Hungarian what they wanted.
Nem tudom?’ said Vodička scornfully. ‘Learn to speak Czech, my good girl.’
‘Do you understand German?’ Švejk asked in broken German.
‘A leetle,’ the girl replied equally brokenly.
‘Then tell lady I want to speak lady. Tell lady there is letter from gentleman.’ (p.366)

If only Parrott had tried to capture the mix of languages and mishmash of registers which are obviously omnipresent in Hašek’s original, it would have made for a very different reading experience because, in the handful of places where he tries it, it really adds to the texture of the book, and is often funny.

Communism

The Good Soldier Švejk was written in the very early 1920s, so with full knowledge of the Bolshevik Revolution, of the end of the Great War, the complete defeat of the Alliance powers, Germany and Austria, and the collapse of their Empires – the German Kaiser going into exile and the Reich declared a republic, and more dramatically the farflung Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsing overnight into a collection of independent states.

Opposition to, or at the very least strong scepticism about, the Empire and the rule of the Hapsburg Dynasty, are expressed in different ways, at different levels of literacy, by numerous characters across the sprawling novel — but one moment stood out for me, a suddenly resonant moment when Hašek has the old shepherd Švejk encounters on his anabasis, prophesy the future:

The water in which the potatoes were cooking on the stove began to bubble and after a short silence the old shepherd said in prophetic tones: ‘And his Imperial Majesty won’t win this war. There’s no enthusiasm for it at all… Nobody cares a hell about it any more, lad… You ought to be there when the neighbours get together down in Skočice. Everyone has a friend at the front and you should hear how they talk. After this war they say there’ll be freedom and there won’t be any noblemen’s palaces or emperors and the princes’ll all have their estates taken away.’ (p.248)


Related links

The Good Soldier Švejk

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

Like The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, this novel is sharply divided into seven distinct parts. Unlike that book it retreats a little from being a collection of fragmented stand-alone narratives, heavily interspersed with philosophical digressions, back towards something a bit more like a conventional novel, in that the same characters recur in every part.

That said, it is still not at all like a conventional novel. Conventional novels set scenes, paint locations, introduce characters, and explore them slowly by taking them through events, described in full, with plenty of dialogue.

Kundera’s novels feature characters, but they are more often than not presented through the author’s ideas about them. The ideas come first, and then the characters exist – or are invented – to flesh them out.

Thus the first two short sections of part one of this book present no characters or settings at all, but consist of a meditation on Nietzsche’s puzzling idea of Eternal Recurrence, an idea Nietzsche proposed in his last works before going mad. Kundera interprets to it to mean the notion that anything which happens only once barely happens at all. He quotes the German proverb: Einmal ist Keinmal: ‘once is nothing’. Only recurrence nails something down with weight and meaning. What occurs only once, has no weight, no meaning. Its lightness is unbearable.

And this dichotomy between lightness and weight will underpin much of the discussion which follows.

Part One – Lightness and Weight

Tomas is a surgeon. Since Tomas divorced his wife and abandoned his son (she was a rabid communist who gave him only very restricted access, and even then kept cancelling his dates to see his son – so Tomas eventually gave up trying), he’s had numerous lovers which he runs on a rule of three: Either three quick sex sessions, then never see them again; or a longer term relationship but scheduled at three-weekly intervals. (Putting it like this makes you realise how, well, crass a lot of Kundera’s male characters and their supposed sexual wisdom, can easily appear.)

And I’m afraid that the effect of reading five of his books in quick succession began to make me see through his plausible sounding words of wisdom.

Tomas came to this conclusion: Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman). (p.15)

Tomas is sent to a sleepy provincial town by his hospital to perform a tricky operation on a patient who can’t be moved. Here, in a sleepy local restaurant, he meets Tereza who is a waitress. They have sex. Weeks later, she turns up on his doorstep. He takes her in, they sleep together, he gets her suitcase from the station. All this goes against his principles, such as hating having women sleep over, preferring to drive them home after sex. Anyway, Tereza comes down with flu and Tomas is forced to look after her and, as he does so, has the peculiar sensation that she is like Moses in the cradle and he is the pharaoh’s daughter. Some higher power has decreed he must protect her. And so he finds himself falling in love with her. He gets his mistress, Sabina, to wangle her a job as a dark room assistant with a magazine.

And so they settle in to living together. But then Tereza discovers that Tomas has lots of other lovers. She comes across a stash of letters. She begins to have panic dreams, which Kundera vividly describes, one in which Tereza is one among a group of naked women who walk around a swimming pool performing kneed bends and exercises and if any of them hesitates or stumbles, Tomas, who is in a basket suspended from the roof, shoots them dead with the gun in his hand. Those kinds of dreams. Anxiety dreams.

He loves her and wishes to calm her feverish dreams, but can’t stop seeing his lovers, but then can’t make love to them without feeling guilty, so needs to drink to mask the guilt, but then Tereza smells the booze on his breath when he gets home, and has another one of her anxiety attacks. In fact she tries to kill herself.

Then, in his anxiety, Tomas’s longest-term mistress, the artist Sabina, catches him looking at his watch while making love, and takes her revenge on him. Oh dear. Can the poor man do nothing right?

Years go by. Tomas marries Tereza. He buys her a mongrel puppy, they name Karenin after the hero of the Tolstoy novel.

Then the Russians invade Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Tereza is by now a staff photographer on the magazine and spends the days after the invasion roaming the streets taking photographs of the occupying army, then handing the film over to foreign journalists.

Sabina has left for Geneva, Switzerland. A hospital manager from Zurich Tomas knows phones up and offers him a job. After hesitation he takes it and they drive to Switzerland. For some months she is happy and confident. Taking photos during the occupation gave her confidence. Then he gets home one day and finds a farewell letter from her. She can’t hack life in the West. She’s gone back to Czechoslovakia and taken the dog.

Initially Tomas feels liberated. Seven years with her were, in the end, a burden. But it only takes a day or two and then the terrible power of compassion kicks in – Kundera gives us a disquisition on the etymology and meaning of ‘com’ [meaning with] ‘passion’ [from the Latin word meaning ‘suffering’] – and he imagines Tereza alone in their flat in Prague. So, with a heavy heart, he resigns from the Zurich hospital, quoting the motif from a late Beethoven string quartet – Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein. And drives back across the border to Prague, finding Teresa asleep in their old flat, and wondering if he’s just made the worst mistake of his life.

On this recording of Beethoven’s string quartet number 16, click to the final movement at 17:39. It’s here that Beethoven wrote the words Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein before the music itself begins, indicating that the rhythm of the words was the basis of the musical motifs from which he then created the music. What do the words mean: ‘Must it be?’ ‘Yes. It must be.’ It seems like it should be a meditation on man’s fate, on whether we make real decisions or go along with a pre-determined fate. Except that the music itself is surprisingly light and airy.

Puzzling and teasing. And, in this, similar to Kundera’s texts which invoke all kinds of serious political and philosophical ideas, and reference well-known writers and musicians in order… to muse on the different types of philanderer (the epic or the lyric), or the four types of ‘look’, or why one character close their eyes during sex while another keeps them open, or to give a mock academic definition of the art of flirtation. Is the entire book a deliberate playing and toying with ideas of seriousness and triviality?

Part Two – Soul and Body

In which we learn a lot more about Tereza, namely her family background. Her mother married the least eligible of her nine suitors because he got her pregnant. After a few years of boring marriage, she ran off with another man, who turned out to be a loser. She took all this out on young Tereza, in the form of nudity. Tereza’s mother walks round the house naked, she refuses to have a lock on the lavatory, she parades her friends round the house and into Tereza’s room when she’s half dressed. For Tereza, nudity represents a concentration camp-style enforcement of loss of privacy.

Meeting Tomas was an escape. He had a book on the table of the restaurant where she served him on the occasion of him coming to the town to perform an operation. Books are symbolic of escape from narrow provincial life into a higher realm. (In this respect she reminds me of Kristyna the butcher’s wife who is enchanted with the higher learning and big city sophistication of ‘the student’ in part five of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, or of nurse Ruzena who longs to escape the narrow confines of her boring provincial town in The Farewell Party. The uneducated young woman trapped in a provincial town until rescued by a much more educated, big city-dweller, is a recurring trope.)

We re-see the birth and development of her love affair with Tomas through her eyes, including the night she danced with another man and made him jealous, then her discovery at discovering all his letters from his lovers, particularly Sabina.

She has a brainwave to control her jealousy which is to try and co-opt his lovers into their sex life. She has the idea to visit Sabina the painter and take photos of her (by this time she is a staff photographer on the weekly magazine). Which progresses to suggesting she photograph Sabina nude. As a heterosexual man I found this couple of pages stimulating, as I think they’re intended, but as wildly improbable as a porn film. It doesn’t come off, there isn’t a lesbian scene, the two women collapse in laughter.

We see how her exile in Geneva comes to a head when she takes her best photos of the Russian occupation of Prague to a magazine editor, who says, ‘Yes, they’re wonderful, but things have moved on, Is she any good at photographing plants, cacti, for example? Very fashionable at the moment.’

She protests that the Russian tanks are still on the streets of Prague, Czechs are still being sent to prison by the thousand. The editor gets a woman staff photographer to take her to lunch and explain the facts of life in the capitalist West to her, but the more she does so, the more Tereza feels patronised and disgusted.

In both these sections Kundera describes the fate of Alexander Dubček, the Czech leader who allowed the widespread liberalisation of communism which became known as the Prague Spring, and who was arrested and flown to prison in Russia after the Russians invaded in August 1968.

Initially, Dubček was told he was going to be executed, like Imre Nagy, leader of rebel Hungary, had been in 1956. But then he was reprieved, bathed and shaved and given a new suit and taken to a meeting with Leonid Brezhnev, where he was offered his life if he agreed to roll back all his reforms. Within days he was flown back to Prague and forced to make a nationwide address on the radio explaining his change of strategy.

For Kundera, the significant thing was Dubček’s pitiful performance, his long pauses, his gasps for breath. During those pauses, he says, the entire nation heard their humiliation. And both Tomas and Tereza revert to this example of humiliation as they consider their own lives.

And it occurs to me that whereas traditional novelists use symbolism with a kind of subtlety, burying it in the narrative and descriptions, Kundera’s distinguishing feature is that he makes his ‘symbols’ front and foreground of the text. They are not subtly worked into the text but very visibly added into it and then commented on at length. Each time they recur Kundera himself does all the commentary and critique, explaining how Dubček’s silences became symbolic of all kinds of other silences, in apartments bugged by the secret police, or between lovers who can no longer talk to each other.

Tereza realises she is utterly alone in the West. She packs her bags, takes Karenin, and catches a train back to the Czech border. Five days later Tomas joins her.

Who is strong here, who is weak? Is weakness bad? Was Dubček weak? No. Anybody is weak when they are set against vastly stronger forces. Weakness has no intrinsic meaning.

Part Three – Words Misunderstood

Part three introduces us to Franz, who is happily set up with his docile wife, Marie-Claude, who runs a private art gallery, and (somewhat inevitably) enjoys the favours of his artist-mistress. Artist? Like Sabina? Her name is deliberately suppressed but as soon as the narrator mentions a bowler hat we know that it is Sabina, Tomas’s mistress Sabina, since the bowler is a prop she used to wear (with little else) for her erotic encounters with Tomas in Part One. In fact Kundera treats us to an entire digression about the bowler hat, which used to belong to her grandfather, the small-town mayor, and how her bringing it into exile in the West has now loaded it with multiple layers of symbolism.

But the real purpose of this section is to form an extended example of one of the central themes of Kundera’s fiction – which is the profound mutual misunderstandings which can occur between two people, even if they are lovers, especially if they are lovers.

And for the first time this is given a formal structure, in that Kundera shepherds the completely opposite ideas and principles of West-born Franz and Eastern émigré Sabina into a humorous format, a Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words. This dictionary occurs in more than one of the sections and includes such subjects as: Woman, Fidelity & Betrayal, Music, Light & Darkness, the beauty of New York, Strength, Living In Truth, and so on – all areas where Kundera humorously shows us Franz thinking one thing and Sabina thinking the diametric opposite.

Take music. Franz would like to disappear inside a great orgasm of totally obliterating music. Whereas Sabina thought only under communism did musical barbarism reign until she came to the West and discovered the crudest pop music blaring and thumping from every public orifice. She hates its stifling omnipresence.

This is a clever, witty and funny idea – and another example of how Kundera pushes old fashioned ideas about ‘the novel’ to the limit. In your traditional novel these themes might have been embedded in fictional events, or maybe in dialogue, but to some extent dramatised. In Kundera, the narrative comes to a dead stop and the text comes close to becoming a Powerpoint presentation. At moments like this it comes close to being a collection of bullet points more than a narrative. The interesting thing is just how far Kundera can push all these tricks and experiments – and the book still feel like a novel, with a story and characters.

Parades For Franz, raised in the West, political parades are a release and a protest (and also, on a personal level, a relief to get out from the libraries and lecture halls where he spends his professional life). But Sabina was brought up in the communist East where, from earliest youth, she was forced to go on political marches and rallies, forced to march in rank with other Young Pioneers, forced to chant political slogans. Thus, he loves parades but she loathes them.

Lightness Franz feels that everything that happens in the West, and to him, is too boring trivial and easy. Too light. He was resigned to dissolving into the never-ending sea of words which is academic discourse. Which is why Sabina excites him so much as a mistress. In her country even the slightest phrase can be charged with superhuman weight, can consign one or more people to prison or execution. Now there’s meaning for you, drama and revolution and human adventure! Whereas for Sabina, of course, words like ‘revolution’, ‘struggle’ and ‘comrade’ are dirty, sordid, horrible reminders of the crushing of the human spirit.

Franz is worn out, psychologically and philosophically exhausted, by the West’s sheer profusion.

The endless vanity of speeches and words, the vanity of culture, the vanity of art. (p.110)

including the vanity of the endless pontificating about art which he hears on all sides at his wife’s press days and exhibition launches, and the insufferable loquacity of his cocktail-party-superficial daughter.

Franz finally plucks up the guts to tell his wife of 23 years that he has been seeing a mistress for nine months. He is horrified when Marie-Claude doesn’t buckle into tears (it turns out he had completely the wrong idea about her for this entire time – see the discussion in the Short Dictionary of his concept of ‘Woman’) but becomes very hard-faced. Becoming scared, Franz goes on to tell her the mistress is Sabina.

Next day he is on a flight to Amsterdam and feels wonderful light and airy and released from all guilt. He is living in truth. He has told Sabina, sitting beside him, that he’s told his wife everything about them, and so he feels light and breezy. But Sabina now is wracked with anxiety. No longer is she the free-spirited artist Sabina. Now she is ‘that painter who’s involved in the Franz and Marie-Claude divorce’. Now she’s going to have to decide how to play the role of ‘the mistress’. She feels weighted down.

This is just one of the many many ways the theme of ‘lightness’ is played out and dramatised throughout the book.

In fact during this trip to Amsterdam, while Franz feels lighter and lighter, Sabina feels so weighted down that she realises she can never see him again. They have a night of unbridled passion in Amsterdam, she giving herself up to physical ecstasy as never before. He thinks it’s because she is excited by their new life together and by the prospect of living in truth. But it is nothing of the sort. It is because she knows it is the last time. She knows she has to leave him. Thus they have completely opposed understandings and motivations. Complete misunderstanding, which is really Kundera’s central subject.

Back in Geneva, Franz shamefacedly packs a few things in front of his wife, then goes round to Sabina’s flat. The door is locked. There’s no-one home. He keeps going back like a lost puppy, no answer. After a few days removal men appear and empty it. She’s gone, and left no forwarding address. Initially he is devastated. When he goes back to his wife, she says ‘Don’t let me stop you moving out.’ On the face of it he’s lost everything. But in the event he takes a small flat in the old part of town. Moves in furniture which he, not his wife has chosen. Stuffs it full of books and becomes happy. One of his students falls in love with him and they start an affair. Deep in his heart he is grateful to Sabina for freeing him from the staleness of a 23-year marriage. Life is sweet. He is living in truth.

Meanwhile Sabina moves to Paris. She had hoped that the successive affairs and liaisons would weight her down and give her life significance. But she finds herself floating free and rootless in Paris. It is here that for the first time we read the title phrase of the book. She seems doomed to experience ‘the unbearable lightness of being’ (p.122).

One day she gets a letter telling her that Tomas and Tereza have died in a car crash in some remote mountain town in Czechoslovakia.

By this point I’m thinking that the way this novel has followed just a handful of characters through quite extensive twists and turns makes it unlike his previous works. It’s still stuffed full of soft philosophising about life, but… feels deeper, more deeply felt, simply from the old-fashioned device of letting us get to know the characters via a reasonably chronological narrative.

Part Four – Soul and Body

Part four picks up with Tomas and Tereza back in Czechoslovakia, after she fled from Geneva and the West, and he reluctantly followed her.

Tereza gets a job in a hotel bar. The receptionist is a former ambassador, who criticised the Soviet invasion. All the intelligentsia has been kicked out of their jobs. Tereza gets chatted up by various male customers, which prompts Kundera to give a typically pithy and pseudo-academic definition of the activity of ‘flirting’:

What is flirtation? One might say that it is behaviour leading another to believe that sexual intimacy is possible, while preventing that possibility from becoming a certainty. In other words, flirting is a promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee. (p.142)

The men at the bar hit on her. One is a fat secret policeman who gets drunk and tries to blackmail her. He is being particularly obnoxious, when a tall stranger intervenes and tells him to shut his trap, she is immensely grateful. But with a kind of sinking inevitability this man then begins chatting her up in a friendly way.

Now a key thing to realise is that at the start of this section, Tomas had come back from window-cleaning and fallen into bed dog-tired just as Tereza was waking for her evening job but not before she smells… can it be… is it really?… yes, the smell of women’s privates in his hair. My God! What has he been up to? But alas, she knows only too well what he’s been up to.

And so her jealousy-anxiety dreams start to recur, especially a new one in which Tomas smilingly tells her to go up Petrin Hill, the big hill in the centre of Prague. She does so, finding it eerily empty. At the top are a few other lost souls like herself, and a suave gentleman with a rifle and several assistants. He politely informs her that he is there to execute them. But only of their own free will, if they want to. And she is so miserable at Tomas’s infidelities, that she lets herself be led to a tree by the assistants and the rifleman is lifting his gun to execute her, and she tries to steel herself but, at the last minute, she bursts out No No, she didn’t come of her own free will, and the rifleman sadly lowers his gun, and she turns to the tree and bursts into inconsolable tears (p.151).

This, like the dream of the naked woman walking round the swimming pool, has the eerie uncanniness of literary dreams (I dream a lot and remember my dreams and none of them are this well-rounded and pregnant with symbolism). And they add to the sense that this book somehow goes deeper than its predecessors. It includes just as much learnèd digression, but by portraying Tomas and Tereza and Sabina at such length, we feel like we’re ‘getting to know them’ much more than previous creations.

So Tereza lets the tall man, an engineer it turns out, invite her to his small apartment where, after the minimum of preamble, he begins unbuttoning her and then having sex with her.

All the way through the book Tereza is afflicted by a dichotomy between her body and her soul (hence the title of this part, Body and Soul) caused by her early experiences with her shameless mother. In many ways she wants to escape her body. She certainly has an ambivalent attitude towards it. Now, she lets herself be stripped bare and penetrated (‘penetrate’ is a verb which crops up regularly in Kundera’s descriptions of sex) but, like so many of his female protagonists, feels far distant from what is going on.

She becomes more disgusted the more he roots around in her body, eventually spitting in his face. Later she uses his horrible toilet with no toilet seat, perching precariously on the crude bit of cold plumbing. Tereza longs to escape from the crudity of bodies, the way Tomas seems able to have casual sex with more or less any woman. But it kills her.

Later, when the supposed engineer doesn’t get back in touch, she becomes paranoid. What if it was a set-up? What if she was somehow filmed or recorded having sex, compromising herself?

And her mind goes back to how, in the months following the Prague Spring, the new hardline communist authorities broadcast secret recordings made of émigrés and dissidents, obviously only the most shameful bits when, after a bottle of wine or so they were persuaded to turn on their colleagues or admit what a crappy country Czechoslovakia is, or admit to being wife-beaters or closet paedophiles or anything – anything the agents provocateurs could wheedle out of them which could then be carefully edited and broadcast on Radio Communism to destroy the images of all the would-be leaders of the people and cow the populace into even deeper passive stupor.

One of these was the well-known author Jan Prochazka, recorded slagging off his colleagues and then broadcast all over the airwaves. Tereza is horrified by this and all other examples of the complete lack of privacy under communism. For her it is tied to her mother’s insistence on going around naked and on parading her, Tereza, naked to her friends. The horror of it!

And the time when she was 14 and her mother found her secret diaries, recording her innermost adolescent secrets… and brought them out when friends were round for tea and insisted on reading out whole entries at which all the raddled middle-aged women cackled with hilarity and Tereza wanted to die.

For Tereza, the definition of a concentration camp is a place of absolutely no privacy, where privacy is abolished (p.137)

That’s why Tomas’s infidelity makes her want to die, and dream about ways of dying: because she thought with him, she had found something utterly private and safe and secure. She gives their love tremendous weight. And yet Tomas finds sex light and easy, no consequences, no angst. She cannot relate to the lightness of his attitude. His lightness is unbearable to her.

Part Five – Lightness and Weight

And now, Tomas’s experience of returning to occupied Czechoslovakia.

At first he is welcomed back to the hospital. He is the leading surgeon of his generation. But now we are told about an article he wrote a few years previously, during the general relaxing of censorship leading up to the Prague Spring. It took as its subject the Oedipus of Sophocles. When Oedipus realises what a terrible thing he has done, even though he did it in complete innocence, he blinds himself. Tomas writes a long essay accusing the Communist Party of having betrayed Czechoslovakia and, although many of them did it with good intentions, he compares their pleas for forgiveness and understanding, with Oedipus’s intensely tragic self-punishment. The article is accepted by an intellectual magazine, though Tomas is irritated that they severely cut it, making it seem much more harsh and aggressive than he’d intended.

Then came the Russian invasion. A year later the director of the hospital calls him in and says the communist authorities want him to write a note disclaiming the article and its criticism. This gives rise to some intense analysis by Kundera. He foresees his colleagues reacting in two ways: first the nods from all the others who have given in and signed; then the smug sneers of everyone who was too young to be implicated and so can take a moral high line with no risk. Tomas realises he will hate being the recipient of either kind of smile. He refuses to sign and is sacked.

He gets a job as a GP in a practice 50 k from Prague. One day the last patient is a smooth-talking and charming secret policeman. He takes Tomas for a glass of wine and sympathises with his plight, he never meant to write that article, the editors butchered it, of course the authorities want one of their leading surgeons to return to his métier. And he holds out another document for Tomas to sign, his one much harsher than the hospital one, this one declaring how much Tomas loves the Soviet Union and the Communist party.

I found this sequence fascinating, it has a John le Carré sense of the insinuating ways of power and corruption, for it took a while for innocent Tomas to realise he is being tempted. He refuses. More than that, he quits his job as a GP and finds work as a window cleaner. The authorities only make people of significance sign these disclaimers. Once you’ve reached rock bottom they lose interest. Tomas wants to reach rock bottom. He wants to be free (p.192).

The ensuing passages describe Tomas’s adventures as a window-cleaner in Prague. The underground grapevine goes before him and he often finds himself offered a glass of wine and assured he doesn’t have to do any work by former patients who happily sign the chit saying he’s done the work.

But, this being Kundera, there is of course sex. Quite a bit of sex. Because handsome saturnine Tomas is calling during the day on plenty of bored middle-aged, middle-class housewives. Kundera describes his sexual escapades, the one which drive Tereza to paroxysms of despair, as casual couplings which Tomas can barely remember by the weekend. And, being Kundera, there is a great deal of theorising about sex. Again.

Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories.  Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world. (p.201)

and he goes on to call the obsession of the former lyrical, and of the latter, epical, and spends a couple of pages of entertaining theorising expanding on this premise. The lyricists seek an Ideal and are always disappointed. Some sentimental women are touched by their idealism. Epic womanisers garner no sympathy. They are interested in quantity not quality. And eventually they get bored and become interested in ever more specific quirks. They become collectors.

Kundera describes Tomas’s collector habits, and several encounters of great erotic intensity. However, after a few years the women begin to blur into one, he starts forgetting names. But the real purpose of all this is to make the distinction (and Kundera’s type of intellectuality is about making endless numbers of distinctions – heaviness and lightness, lyrical and epical, demonic and angelic laughter, and so on) between Tomas’s collector instinct when he’s out there, in the world, and his love for Teresa.

He doesn’t need to collect Teresa. She came to him. And her falling ill within an hour or so of arriving was a key moment, which is referred to again and again in the novel. It made her completely vulnerable and reliant on him, in a way none of his conquests are, in a way he’s careful to make sure they never are. Which is what makes her the Great Exception.

Anyway, all this merry philosophising about sex is bookended with another encounter with people who want him to sign something. One of the editors of the magazine where he sent his ill-fated article about Oedipus calls him to a surreptitious meeting at a borrowed flat where Tomas is unnerved to encounter his own son, the one he rejected and walked away from after his divorce nearly 20 years earlier,

Over the space of several pages they try to persuade him to sign a petition they’re getting up among intellectuals to protest against the maltreatment of prisoners in prison. Again we are in the world of politics and coercion, as when the secret policeman met him. Only now there is this weird personal element of his son coercing him. Initially Tomas is minded to sign, but when they remind him of the Oedipus article which screwed up his life, he is reminded of what prompted him to write it. It was looking down in Tereza, as she lay in bed with a fever from the flu that kicked in within hours of her arriving at his flat, and made him think of pharaoh’s daughter looking down on Moses in the basket made of bullrushes. And so he went to his book of ancient legends and came across Oedipus, another abandoned child who is rescued… and one thing led to another.

And in a moment of insight Tomas realises she is still the defenceless babe in the basket and he must do nothing to endanger her. And he looks at the two men facing him and realises that nothing he signs or says or does will make the slightest difference to political prisoners in Czechoslovakia – but it might endanger his beloved. And so Tomas tells them he will not sign. He knows they won’t understand. He gets up and returns to the only woman he cares for… But, at the same time, unbeknown to him, the one who he is torturing to death with his ceaseless infidelities…

The petition is duly published. The signers are rounded up. The communist press denounces them as wreckers and saboteurs. On it goes, the endless cycle of repression. Tomas reflects on the history of the Czechs, their apparently bottomless ability to screw up their lives and politics. He ponders how one decision (to stand up for themselves) led to total defeat in the Thirty Years War (1618-48) while the opposite decision (to be compliant to stronger powers, at Munich) led to total defeat by the Nazis. What is right? What is best to do? All alternatives seem to lead down to defeat.

If history were repeated multiple times we could try alternative answers and find out. But we can’t. Using these (not totally convincing arguments) Tomas concludes that History isn’t unbearable because of its crushing weight, but the opposite.

The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind’s fateful inexperience. History is as light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow. (p.223)

He’s been a windowcleaner for nearly three years, now. It’s gotten boring. The former patients no longer greet him with champagne and toasts. They just want their windows cleaned. The sight of intellectuals doing manual labour has become passé, and then embarrassing. And he is growing psychologically tired of all the sex. He can’t stop it, but it is wearing him out.

Tereza suggests they move to the countryside, get new jobs. She is obviously unhappy. He asks her why and she finally reveals that every day when he gets back from work she can smell other women’s private parts on his hair. Appalled, he makes to go and shower immediately but she says, It’s alright, she’s used to it and he is stricken with grief.

That night he wakes from a strange dream (lots of dreams in this book) about (alas) sex and the ideal woman, and wakens to find Tereza holding his hand, and vows to change.

Part Six – The Grand March

This is the shortest and the silliest part of the novel, in fact one of the worst things Kundera ever wrote. Although it is packed with serious themes it feels somehow the most superficial.

In a great hurry Kundera progresses through an anecdote about how Stalin’s son died, in a Second World War prisoner of war camp, arguing with British prisoners about his messy defecating habits. Then Kundera picks up this idea of human faeces and runs with it via references to various theologians and their ideas of the relation between the human body and its creator, the way they force a binary choice on us: that either man’s body is made in the image of God’s – in which case God has intestines, guts, and defecates – or it isn’t, in which case it isn’t perfect and godlike, and neither is creation.

This leads him on to a meditation on the meaning of kitsch, which he takes to be the belief that the world is perfect, that it is a world without shit. (The general drift of this definition reminds me of his definition of angelic laughter in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting i.e. that it is creepily unrealistic.)

Kundera then hurries on to rope in thoughts about ‘sentimentality’, defining sentimentality as The awareness of how much one is moved by the notion that the world is a perfect and beautiful world.

And then moves on to claim that this kitsch is universal among all politicians. All politicians want to be seen with babies because they identify with the kitsch notion that human life is an unmitigated blessing. This is demonstrated by the time when Sabina, by now a famous artist and living in America, is driven by a US senator to an ice rink, where kids are frolicking and makes an expansive gesture with his arm as if to incorporate everything that is Good In Life. But Sabina has had a tough life and sees in his rinky-dink smile exactly the cheesy smiles of the Communist Parties smiling down at the smiling masses of the Communist Faithful as they march past on a May Day Parade. Totalitarian kitsch is a world in which everyone is smiling all the time because everything is so perfect. Anyone who asks a question or expresses a doubt must immediately be shipped off to the gulag because kitsch admits of no imperfections.

Which brings us to Franz and his need to be seen. Which prompts Kundera to explain the four categories of ways we need to be seen.

  1. People who long for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes. Actors.
  2. People who have a need to be seen by many known eyes. Cocktail party hosts.
  3. People who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love.
  4. People who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present.

Franz is of this latter type and he undertakes the escapade which ends his life because of a futile sense that somehow, somewhere, Sabina the great love of his life is watching him.

This is a Mercy Mission to Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge ran Cambodia from 1975 to 1978 during which they managed to murder around a million of their fellow citizens, about a quarter of the population, in order to create their peasant-Marxist utopia. Communist Vietnam invaded in 1978 and expelled the Khmer Rouge, setting up their own puppet government.

In the novel a group of French doctors decide to mount a mercy mission by going to Thailand and marching to the Cambodian border and demanding admission. Soon the mission snowballs as a load of American intellectuals and actresses get involved. The French fall out with the Americans, the Americans are offended, can’t everyone see their motives are pure.

I think this entire episode is a rare example of Kundera striking a false note. The entire thing is meant to satirise the sentimentality of the liberal West and its obsession with Grand Marches and Noble Gestures, but… the horror of the Khmer Rouge seems, to me, too serious a setting for Kundera’s satire. It’s as if he was making facile or footling nit-picking pseudo-philosophical points in Auschwitz or Katyn. Don’t get me wrong. I believe you can laugh at more or less anything, I have no politically correct objection to universal mockery. But some things you can only laugh at if it’s a really, really, really good joke, sufficiently funny to outweigh your knowledge of the horror – and Kundera tying together the superficial narcissism of western protests, silly Hollywood actresses and snotty French intellectuals with…. the horrors of the Pol Pot regime – this strikes me as the first wrong step he’s taken in the five books of his I’ve read.

Kundera tries to redeem what even he may have suspected was forced material by piling in ‘tragic’ material about his characters. In particular we now learn that the son, Simon, who Tomas abandoned early on in the novel is now all grown up and is also working as a farm labourer. He starts writing letters to Tomas in which he explains that, in protest at the regime, he left an academic career and married a devout wife and became a Christian. Simon and Tomas exchange a few letters but remain (as all Kundera characters do) at cross-purposes. When he receives a letter that Tomas and Tereza have been killed in a car accident, crushed by a truck which rolled onto their car, Simon hurries to the funeral.

Hmm. I don’t mind Tomas and Tereza’s deaths being reported at one remove like this, and by a fairly new character, but… this ‘Simon’ feels like he’s been introduced too quickly to properly perform the task. We barely know him before he is carrying the freight of having the deaths of our two beloved central characters die.

Similarly, the Grand March of the French doctors and American celebrities to the Cambodian border descends into farce, that much was predictable. But there’s another oddly false note, when one of the hundreds of photographers accompanying the self-important marchers, steps off the road and onto a land mine and is blown to pieces, his body parts spattering all over one of the banners the Grand Marchers are carrying. Initially dazed, they look up and then… feel a surge of pride.

Then they timidly ventured a few more looks upwards and began to smile slightly. They were filled with a strange pride, a pride they had never known before: the flag they were carrying had been consecrated by blood. Once more they joined the march. (p.265)

That feels to me like bollocks. Satire has to have an element of truth to work, and this just feels to me like pure fantasy. Can you imagine a Hollywood actress being spattered by the blown-up body parts of a press photographer, then slowly breaking into a smile? It felt like Kundera was forcing his characters to fit his thesis and they snap.

Same with Franz. The Grand Marchers finally arrive at the border, and stand at one end of the slim bridge over the river which forms the border, staring across it into Cambodia. Everyone knows snipers are watching on the other side, and will shoot at the slightest provocation.

The interpreter calls out three times (as in a fairly tale) for the other side to let the doctors in, but each time there is only an ominous silence. Then the Marchers pack up and march back to their jumping off point, catch the bus back to Bangkok, and go off to restaurants or brothels as their tastes dictate.

It was a fiasco. But for me it doesn’t work as satire because it doesn’t contain any kernel of truth, it feels like contrived fantasy from start to finish. And then Franz is walking along a side street when he is mugged, smacked on the head and thrown into a deep hole where he breaks his back and blacks out. When he comes to, he is in hospital in Geneva unable to move his body or head and staring up into the benevolent eyes of the wife he abandoned. She is thrilled, because she is having her revenge, because

a husband’s funeral is a wife’s true wedding! The climax of her life’s work! The reward for her suffering! (p.275)

Maybe he’s just dramatising Marie-Claude’s feelings, here, but this still feels like utter bollocks. Contrived and glib. Franz wastes away and dies, full of hatred for his wife, and to her great delight.

It feels like this entire section was written by someone else, by someone parodying Kundera’s approach of throwing together historical, social cultural, psychological and philosophical elements and threading them together with fictional characters and who…. has somehow got it profoundly wrong.

Part Seven – Karenin’s Smile

Which is why the final part is a relief. It follows Tomas and Tereza’s life once they move out of Prague and become agricultural labourers. Admittedly communism has destroyed the old rural ties, closing the village hall, and banning church attendance and cancelling the traditional holidays. But Tomas and Tereza don’t mind and he takes to driving a tractor with gusto and she tends the cows and heifers with real affection.

At moments it’s almost like Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

This last section is very beautiful, quite sentimental and made me cry. Which is odd because it’s still packed to the gill with references to philosophers (we learn about Descartes’ theory that animals have no souls and no feelings, and are merely machines; and this view is compared with Nietzsche, who had his final nervous breakdown and collapse into madness, after he saw a man whipping a broken-down horse in the streets of Turin) along with plenty more philosophising on his own account:

We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotions – love, antipathy, charity, or malice – and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals. (p.289)

Comparing Adam and Karenin leads me to the thought that in Paradise man was not man, Or to be more precise, man had not yet been cast out on man’s path. Now we are long-time outcasts, flying through the emptiness of time in a straight line. Yet somewhere deep down a thin thread still ties us to that far-off misty Paradise, where Adam leans over a well and, unlike Narcissus, never even suspects that the pale yellow blotch appearing in it is he himself. The longing for Paradise is man’s longing not to be man. (p.296)

And much more in the same vein.

In among all these lugubrious lucubrations, some stuff actually happens, mainly that their beloved dog of ten years, Karenin, falls ill of cancer, and wastes away until Tomas -being a doctor – is forced to put him out of his misery with a lethal injection.

This event prompts a series of reflections about humanity and animals: that the measure of humanity is how it treats the absolutely helpless i.e. animals, and that in this respect humankind has undergone an absolutely catastrophic debacle. Our contact with animals was the last thread attaching us to Paradise, and look how we treat them. Factory chickens. Veal calves. Hormone-pumped cattle. Vivisection. How many rabbits have been blinded by mascara or beagles forced to smoke themselves to death?

So it’s no surprise how we treat each other. Kundera emerges from this final section as a vehement Animal Liberationist (reminding me of the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee).

This last section, about Karenin wasting away and dying, and how they eventually, finally, have to put him down and then jointly bury the little doggy corpse, is pretty obviously designed to be tear-jerking, the dog’s final hours and last whimpers, and then how they bury him in the garden in a plot chosen by Tereza, designed to wring the last drop of feeling from the sensitive reader.

But what made me cry was how, at long, long last, Tereza was finally reconciled with Tomas. She comes across him hiding letters and once again the old gnawing doubts bite into her. But then, one day, he reveals that they’re letters from his son who has become a Christian and works on the land not far away. Inevitably, they discuss his son more as an intellectual example of conversion to faith (given his mother was a rabid communist), than as a person – but the point is that Tereza finally realises that Tomas’s days of unfaithfulness are over. Finally, they are completely together. Finally her years of anxiety-jealousy nightmares can end.

And the book ends with them accompanying the jovial old director of the collective farm, and a young farm hand whose dislocated shoulder Tomas has fixed, to the nearest town where they get drunk and dance to the ludicrous accompaniment of an ageing pianist and equally old violinist, till they fall into bed together, finally, at last, HAPPY.

Thoughts

To read a Milan Kundera novel is to be bombarded with so many ideas about love and sex and marriage and fidelity and psychology and religion and politics that it’s difficult to keep them all in your head. Some will stick, some will go in one ear and out the other. Some kind of diagram would be needed to store them all and work out their web of interrelations.

They are dazzling, awesome intellectual feats of thinking, imagination and writing. But the downside is it can sometimes feel like you’re reading an encyclopedia; or a highly erudite author’s commonplace book where they’ve jotted down every thought and notion that’s ever occurred to them – and the concocted characters and a narrative which allows him to insert them at regular intervals.

I found it ultimately a very moving book, as mentioned above for the simple reason that we follow Tomas and Tereza’s story for longer, in more depth, and with more sympathy, than any of his previous characters. And because it ends with emotional closure, with them going to bed happy and contented so the reader can close the book with a big smile on their face.

But I also regularly experienced Idea Fatigue at quite a few places, where I just felt overwhelmed by yet another page of graceful and witty fancies and hypotheses, theories and thoughts, opinions and asides. It is possible to have too many postulates and paradoxes per page, in fact:

Questionable wisdom

Saul Bellow coined the term ‘reality instructor’ for people who take it upon themselves to explain what life is really like, what it really means. This kind of lecturing is a quintessential part of Kundera’s style. I think in small doses it can be very illuminating, but the more you read, the more you have the sense of being harassed.

An author can discuss philosophy without being a philosopher, psychology without being a psychologist. On the one hand it gives them the freedom to play with ideas and spin amusing and unusual insights. On the other hand, their little lessons risk lacking depth or evidence – of resting, ultimately, on assertion, often on rhetorical tricks, on paradox and wit, more than evidence. Here are some examples:

Dreaming is not merely an act of communication (or coded communication, if you like); it is also an aesthetic activity, a game of the imagination, a game that has a value in itself. Our dreams prove that to imagine – to dream about things that have not happened – is among mankind’s deepest needs. (p.59)

Is that true? Or does it just sound like it’s true?

The only serious questions are the ones that a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions  are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence. (p.139)

Is this deep? Or does it just sound deep?

An important point to make about all this intellectualising and philosophising is that… none of it is difficult. It’s clever… but none of it is hard to understand, if you pay attention.

If you think of the tradition of learnèd wit, epitomised by Tristram Shandy, in which the narrative is buried in spoof footnotes and fake academic papers and sermons and all sorts of other texts interrupting the story… Kundera is not like that. By intellectual, we don’t mean he literally references academic papers or abstruse findings. The opposite. Most of his reflections are very middle brow. Referencing the Garden of Eden or quoting Descartes’ opinion that animals are just machines, these are either part of common lore or only a little beyond it. Intelligent A-Level standard. An A-Level student should have heard of Don Juan. Or Beethoven. Or Adam. These are not really obscure intellectual references.

And his core subject – sexuality, love, fidelity and betrayal, affairs and mistresses – hardly high-brow, is it? Not difficult to grasp. The opposite, in many ways all-too-easy to grasp.

Similarly, he’s surprisingly un-hypertextual. His texts aren’t clever constructions pieced together from diaries and journals and letters and newspaper reports and eye-witness accounts and so on. They are just meandering musings, all spoken in the same voice, his characters all speak in much the same way, and they certainly stop and reflect about the meaning of fidelity or political marches or nudity or art or music in the identical, same manner as each other and as the narrator.

For long stretches they seem like extended essays with characters thrown in. At other moments the characters get the upper hand and for a moment you forget the ideas in reading about them sympathetically.

God, it’s just so full, so rich, like a Christmas pudding, so full of so many ingredients it’s difficult to get a real grasp of, or give an adequate review of, because it’s impossible to hold so many ideas, incidents and events in your head at once. Inevitably, some bits will appeal more to some readers than others – the politics or the philosophy.

Wisdom about men and woman

Sames goes, but that much more, for his sweeping generalisations about love and sex, men and women. Why that much more? Because the past forty years have seen a transformation in relationships between the sexes, and a massive shift in what is considered acceptable behaviour, especially around men and their speech and behaviour towards women. Sometimes, reading one of his countless reflections about ‘women’, it feels like a massive tide has gone a long way out and left a lot of what Kundera wrote about relations between the sexes seeming very dated.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson (1994)

‘Many tricky dicks walk the trail.’ (Jean-Baptiste Porteur, p.88)

I saw this book in several second-hand bookshops before I picked it up for a pound imagining, from the stylish cover, that Davidson was one of the new young generation of thriller writers.

How wrong I was. Davidson was born in 1922 and published his first novel, The Night of Wenceslas, in 1960, the year before John le Carré made his debut – i.e. he is very much one of the old generation of thriller writers.

After Wenceslas Davidson published a novel every couple of years throughout the 1960s and early 70s until 1978 when he disappeared from view. After a gap of 16 years he returned with Kolymsky Heights, his last novel, which gained rave reviews.

Is it any good? What’s it about? Does it make me want to go in search of his other seven thrillers?

Kolymsky Heights

Kolymsky Heights is relatively long at 478 pages and quite quickly you realise this is because Davidson’s defining quality is a long, drawn-out and frustrating, round-the-houses approach.

We are introduced to a fusty old don in Oxford, Professor Lazenby. His secretary, Miss Sonntag, opens a letter from Sweden which turns out to be empty. Until the prof roots around in the bottom of it and finds some cigarette papers. These contain indentations. He calls in a pupil of his who now works in ‘Scientific Services’ and who, a few years earlier, had called on the Prof and asked him to do a little gentle spying – in fact more like ‘alert observation’ – when he was attending a conference in the Eastern Bloc.

Lazenby calls up this man, Philpott, to come and interpret the cigarette papers. They realise the bumps on the surface contain a message coded as a set of numbers. These turn out to relate to books of the Bible, giving chapter and verse numbers. By piecing together the fragmented quotes they arrive at a message which, in an elliptical way, refers to a dark-haired man from the north who can speak tongues and who the writer wants to visit him.

If you like crosswords, I think you’d like this book. Or if you’re partial to railway timetables. Precise hours and timings are given for everything, and become vitally important in the later stages of the book.

Philpott passes the message up to a level of the British security services where it is shared with the Americans. They have spy satellites patrolling the earth and photographing every inch of Russia, especially secret installations. Recent satellite photos indicate that a well-established camp in the heart of Siberia has had an explosion and fire, and shows figures tramping amidst the ruins. The guy in charge of monitoring this, W. Murray Hendricks, calls in a second opinion, a naturalist who confirms that… the figures walking around appear to be… ape-men! They have the stance of men but… their arms and legs are the wrong shape!

This chimes with the opening section of prose right at the start of the book, a (characteristically unexplained) preface which appears to be a message written from someone working at a Russian security base, writing to a colleague who is about to join him. It describes the way a baby mammoth was found deeply embedded in ice, was chipped out and transported back to the base, where it turned out not to be a mammoth at all but a human, a woman lying on her side, who had fallen into a crevasse along with some bags and a tusk, and was heavily pregnant (big and bulky with tusks – that’s what caused the initial mistaken diagnosis).

So we have learned that: a 40,000-year-old frozen pregnant woman is brought to a top secret Russian research base. Some time later, American satellite photos show ape-like men at a top secret Russian research base. Are we dealing with a 1990s version of The Island of Dr Moreau?

If we are, it takes a bloody long time to get there, because we are still with Philpott and Lazenby trying to interpret the coded and elliptical cigarette-paper message. Eventually it dawns on the Prof that the reference is to a dark-haired, native American from British Columbia, a man known by his clan name of ‘Raven’, a man he met at a scientific conference in Oxford some 15 years back, which had also been attended by some Russians.

About the Raven

The novel then switches to give us Raven’s complicated biography. Christened Jean-Baptiste Porteur, he was brought up in the matrilinear society of the Gitksan people in the Skeena river region of British Columbia, north-west Canada, before being dumped into the care of a local missionary. Porteur was taught English enough to excel in his studies but then ran away to sea for a few years. Eventually he returned to settled society and took up serious studies, becoming known as Johnny Porter.

Porter is a super-gifted linguist, one of the few people to be in a position to make academic studies of the families of languages spoken by the natives of the Pacific North-West from the inside. He publishes work on the subject, is awarded a PhD and academic prizes, but remains, nonetheless, a surly non-player of the academic game.

Now he comes to think about it, Prof Lazenby remembers getting really drunk with Raven and another man, a Russian research scientist named Rogachev, at a conference in Oxford years ago. This Russian, Rogachev, then disappeared off the grid some 15 years ago, rumoured to have joined some secret research facility. They have (through a series of deductions which I found too obscure to follow) decided that the man sending the cigarette messages must be Rogachev. And that he wants to talk to Raven.

So then the CIA are tasked with tracking down Johnny Porter and find him in a remote fishing village in British Columbia. Lazenby flies out there accompanied by Philpott who hands him over to a fresh-faced young CIA man  named Walters. The CIA are now heavily involved. At least I think it’s the CIA. Langley is referred to (the world-famous headquarters of the CIA) but the agency itself is not mentioned explicitly. Davidson prefers to keep things shadowy and instead refers to ‘the plan’ which appears to be shared by the Brits and the Yanks.

They finally track down Porter to a backwoods cabin, and present him with all the evidence that Rogachev wants him to travel to a top secret Russian research base in deepest Siberia. In fact, its precise location is still unknown (I found this a little too obscure to understand: I thought they had satellite photos. Like most of the novel, these early passages required rereading to try and figure out what was going on, and even then I often gave up trying to understand the minutiae and just read on regardless.)

Raven becomes a Korean seaman

A vast amount of effort then goes in to describing Johnny’s trip by tramp steamer from Japan up into the Arctic Ocean.

As soon as he said yes to the mission, Raven (shall I call him Raven or Porter? Raven has more mystique) was taken to some kind of camp where he was trained in spying and spycraft.

This experience, which took several months, is not actually described in the book, simply referred back to as and when necessary. During his time in ‘the camp’, the surly, secretive multilingual academic Raven has been rather magically transformed into a kind of superspy, a man who will turn out to be capable of carrying out secret rendezvous with other agents, of picking up new outfits and passports and changing identities and carrying himself off as a whole range of different people, fluent in an impressive array of languages (English, Japanese, Korean, half a dozen tribal languages and Russian) which I found increasingly unbelievable.

Thus the next chapter skips over the training camp episode to give us Raven flying into Tokyo where, with typical stubbornness, he promptly refuses to do what the Japanese CIA agent, Yoshi, tells him.

The CIA plan is for Raven to masquerade as a Korean merchant seaman aboard a Japanese tramp steamer, Suzaku Maru, which is scheduled to puff up along the northern, Arctic coast of Siberia, till it gets to the nearest port to the fabled research base.

I still didn’t understand how they know where the base is, or how Johnny will know that, or how they know the ship will stop there, or anywhere nearby. Probably I should have reread the first hundred pages again, to try and piece together the highly elliptical clues. Davidson keeps his cards very close to his chest and only tells the reader the relevant bits of the plan, just before they fall due, and are about to kick in, sometimes only after they’ve happened. The result is a permanent sense of confusion.

Thus it was only a hundred pages later that the reader learns that ‘they’ (presumably the CIA) had approached one of the crew of this tramp steamer, Ushiba, and bribed him with a lot of money to take a pill which mimics the symptoms of yellow fever. He becomes extremely ill just as they dock in Japan. The captain transfers the sick sailor to an ambulance, and Raven just happens to be hanging round and have contacted the ship’s manpower agencies, as it arrives. So he is quickly hired, masquerading as a rough Korean merchant seaman, Sun Wong Chu, complete with pigtail, speaking the language with a slight speech impediment to the Japanese crew, who despise and ignore Koreans anyway.

There’s some tough sailor stuff, in particular a brutal fight with the bosun, who breaks his nose, but Raven works his passage and is gruffly accepted by the others. The ‘plan’ is for he himself to take a yellow fever pill so that, as the ship approaches Green Cape on the Arctic coast of Siberia, it is forced to put in to port and unload him. This he does, and the captain and bosun think he has somehow picked up the earlier sailor’s disease, maybe from infected sheets, mattress etc.

He is treated at Green Cape hospital by several doctors including a woman, Dr Komarova. Then, in a move which bewildered me, Dr Komarova hands him over to the Russian militia who put him on a flight to Yakutsk, where he is transferred to an Aeroflot flight to Murmansk – because that is where the steamer Suzaku Maru, was heading and where, they assume, he will want to rejoin his ship once he is well.

Except that, after recovering for a day or two at a seaman’s mission, Raven goes to a rendezvous with an agent, picks up from him a suitcase containing new clothes and identity papers, goes to the gents loos and shaves off all his hair and Korean pigtail, and emerges with a new identity as Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan, a member of the Chukchee people from the Siberian east, and catches a plane to Irkutsk, changes to one to Yakutsk, then another local flight on to Tchersky, the nearest airport to Green Cape.

Hang on. If it was so easy to get there, to fly there – what was the point of the scam about him pretending to be a Korean sailor? Why the enormous complication of bribing the seaman he replace to take a pill giving him fever (and trusting that the feverish sailor wouldn’t give away the plan) – and then making Raven grow a ponytail and pretend to be Korean for weeks, and get beaten up by the bosun and nearly crushed by dangerous equipment and then take the same damn pill and seriously endanger his health when… he could have just flown there in the first place?

I read all this carefully, but remained completely puzzled. I am obviously missing something and I would say that that sense – the nagging sense of missing some vital piece of the jigsaw – is the permanent and frustrating feeling given by reading this book.

So Raven is now Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan. As planned, he proceeds to the vacant apartment of one Alexei Mikhailovitch Ponomarenko. It turns out that this man was on holiday in the Black Sea when he was approached by the CIA who knew he was a drug smuggler. They threatened to tell the authorities unless he extended his stay on the Black Sea and let his apartment in Tchersky be used by their man Raven. More, it turns out that Khodyan is a friend of Ponomarenko’s, whose identity they have borrowed to create a ‘legend’ (fake identity) for Raven.

Raven discovers Ponomarenko had a gossipy old housekeeper, Anna, and a big brassy girlfriend, Lydia Yakovlevna, both of whom we are introduced to, and both need careful (though very different) handling. Our suave superspy is up to both challenges.

Once unpacked and settled in, Raven goes straight to the Tchersky Transport Company and get a job as a long-distance lorry driver. A great deal of description goes into detailing the work of truck companies in the frozen north of Siberia, and the organisation of this particular company, and the shouty director, Bukarovksy, and various foremen who Raven has to sweet-talk into getting a job – and then we learn a great deal about the different types of trucks.

Davidson very powerfully transports us to a completely strange world, with its language, customs, slang, prejudices and the sheer, backbreaking nature of the work. In summer everything melts, the ships can bring in goods but they can’t be distributed because the countryside is a bog. In winter the ocean freezes over – no more ships – but so does the landscape and so trucks can now drive across it. Especially, it turns out, along the rivers, whose flat, deep-frozen-ice surfaces make perfect highways.

(Davidson gives historical background to the economy of the area, which began as appalling forced labour camps in the 1930s and 40s, but was transformed by the discovery of gold and other minerals in the 1960s to something like a viable, if gruelling, mining economy, pp.188-189)

Raven of course knows how to drive all the trucks (including the small, all-purpose ‘bobik’). He has – by impersonating a Korean seaman, surviving a brutal fight with the bosun, surviving a bout of yellow fever, carrying out a secret rendezvous in an airport and completely transforming his appearance and emerging a fluent Chukchee-speaking truck driver – established himself as a kind of spy superman, speaking as many oriental languages as required and capable of blending in anywhere as a member of the minority Siberian native peoples.

Raven is signed up as a driver and does the work well, earning respect and friendship among the rough crews. At a party of truck drivers Raven is horrified to notice the woman doctor Komarova, who treated him as the sick Korean seaman a few weeks earlier, taking an inordinate interest in him. (Didn’t anyone writing this grand plan foresee that he would meet one set of people as sick Korean and then, returning in a completely different guise, risked bumping into the same people again?)

She comes over and talks. She is interested that he is a Chukchee. She invites him to come and meet her mother who lives in a community of Chukchee. Raven goes and we meet the little old lady and her Chukchee friend who, it turns out (the Chukchee community being so small) was present at his birth!!

Luckily, Raven has memorised the ‘legend’ prepared for him so immaculately that he is able to talk to this old lady about his numerous relatives and their mutual acquaintances (all the time, obviously, speaking in Chukchee). I found this wildly improbable.

On the way back from the little tea party, Raven determines to kill the doctor who has been asking more and more suspicious questions about his background. He gets as far as putting his arm round her neck and is on the verge of snapping it (he is a big, strong lad) when she squeals that she is in on The Plan, she is part of The Plan, she is his contact with Rogachev!

After that they go back to her place, she explains some of the background (her father and Rogachev were in the same labour camp together; she knew him as a kindly uncle when she was a girl), and the big revelation that it was she who bribed a merchant seaman who she was treating to take the coded cigarette papers which Rogachev had smuggled out to her, placed in a letter and addressed to Prof Lazenby, the fateful letter which was opened by his secretary in her calm Oxford office all those months earlier.

Then they have sex. Obviously. Most women I know like to shag a man who’s just tried to murder them.

She was not as well found as Lydia Yakovlevna; lankier, less yielding. But she was lithe, controlled, and quite used, as she said, to getting what she wanted. She was also very much more genuine, arching without histrionics when her moment came, and he arched at the same time, and afterwards she kissed his face and stroked it. (p.247)

Now they work together to smuggle Raven into the research base. This new plan stretched credibility to breaking point and beyond. It turns out the research base is very heavily patrolled and guarded (of course), but is serviced by a rotating squad of native Evenk people, selected from the large Evenk tribe which makes a living herding reindeer nearby. The Evenk are honest and reliable and deeply clannish i.e. don’t talk to outsiders, and, anyway, don’t do anything more secret than laundry, cooking, humping heavy equipment about. None of them has any idea what the research going on at the base is about.

Dr Komarova will smuggle Raven in by using a ruse. The ruse is this:

Rogachev, head of the research station, is attended by one of the Evenk tribe, Stepan Maximovich. Stepan inherited the job from his father. He never leaves the base. Raven will be taken to meet the clan leader of the tribe, Innokenty, and pretend to be one of them, an Evenk, but who moved as a boy to Novosibirsk in the distant south (to explain his rickety accent). He will then give a long complicated story about how he met down in the south some members of a white (Russian) family, worked for them, got to know and admire them, but how the father, some kind of scientist, was sent by the state off to some kind of ‘weather station’ in the north 15 or 16 years earlier. Money was sent the family, but no letters, Then the mother of the family died young, but the daughter survived, grew up, got married and is now pregnant. But she herself is now ill. A few months ago he got a letter from the daughter begging to see him. Raven goes sees her and she begs him to track down her father for her, name of Rogachev. He poked around in local offices and got a hint that M. Rogachev was posted somewhere in the Kolyma region. This woman begged Raven to travel to the north to find her father, and ask him to give her unborn child a name, it being the role of parents to name new babies.

This sob story will persuade the Evenk to smuggle Raven into the top secret research facility, hand him on to the personal assistant Stepan, who is the only one who can gain him admittance to the presence of the legendary scientist, Rogachev – so that Raven can hand deliver to him the letter written by his daughter.

And this is what happens. Dr Komarov takes Raven to a meeting with Innokenty and the tribe (flying there by helicopter on the pretext of making a routine medical visit). The Evenk elders completely accept Raven’s long cock-and-bull story (pp.262-268). They offer to give him all the help he needs (incidentally, also accepting his use of the Evenk language, which is different from the Chukchee Raven has been using in his persona as Kolya. He is, it will be remembered, a super-linguist).

There then follows the cloak and dagger business of smuggling Raven into the site. Raven poses as the driver of a lorry full of parts and goods which Dr Komarova is taking to the base. They pass through the security barrier, the guards checking her and her Chukchee driver (Raven)’s passes and wave through. Then, as is usual, some of the Evenk porters come out into the snow to help unpack the truck in the sub-zero conditions.

Komarova chooses a moment when the guards’ backs are turned and Raven swaps clothes with one of the Evenk tribesmen. This Evenk dresses as Raven, then accompanies Pomarova back to the truck, heavily swathed in scarves and muffles and is signed back out of the complex, while Raven, also heavily muffled, is accepted on the inside by the cohort of Evenk tribesmen currently working there – because they are all in on the conspiracy of him smuggling the letter from the pregnant woman to Rogachev, as agreed off by headman Innokenty. In fact they are almost too much in on the conspiracy as they all smile and grin and wink at the doctor and Raven so much they become tensely afraid the Russian guards will notice something is wrong. But they don’t. They think the native peoples are nuts, anyway.

There follows yet more cloak and dagger as, late that night, when the Evenk have gone to bed in their dormitory, Stepan the personal assistant comes and smuggles Raven out of the Evenk dormitory, through secret passages in the research base, and finally into an enormous luxury underground library, with a gallery running round the bookshelves dotted with masterpiece paintings by Picasso, Rembrandt and so on, and leaves him there.

There’s a whirring of motors and Rogachev, the man who started this whole preposterous series of events, whirs into the library in his wheelchair. Wheelchair. That explains why he couldn’t have gone anywhere to meet a western representative.

First Raven explains the subterfuge which has got him this far, i.e. that he’s delivering a letter to Stepan from his pregnant but ill grand-daughter, and they get an envelope and scribble on a blank sheet which Raven can show to the Evenks as the grateful father’s reply.

That out of the way, Rogachev can at last explain to Raven, and to the impatient reader, what the devil the whole thing is about. What it’s about is this:

The mystery at the heart of Kolymsky Heights

Rogachev tells Raven that the Russians have been experimenting for generations to try and breed a type of intelligent but hardy ape who can function as labour in this bleak, sub-freezing terrain.

(I blinked in disbelief at this point. We know that during the 1930s, 40s and 50s they used slave labour to work these areas. If Russians don’t want to do it nowadays, why not pay the local tribespeople, or do what the rest of the West does and import cheap immigrant labour? Breeding an entire new species seems a rather costly and unpredictable way of solving your labour problem, the kind of fantasy idea which only exists in science fiction novels.)

Rogachev tells a cock-and-bull story (this novel is full of them) about his predecessor, Zhelikov, being in a labour camp, but being plucked out and flown to Moscow after the war to meet the great Stalin because the dictator had read a scientific paper about hibernation. This planted the seed in Stalin’s mind that he might not die but be preserved alive. Zhelikov listened to Stalin’s musings and realised they were his passport out of the labour camp, and so nodded wisely, and agreed to set up a research base to bring suspended animation / hibernation/ cryogenics to the peak of perfection which would be required before they could try it on the Great Leader. Stalin rang up Beria and told him to make it so.

Zhelikov asked that the existing weather research base at Tcherny Vodi, near the labour camp of Tchersky, be greatly expanded. They’d have to dig down into the small mountain it was built on, to build multiple levels below the surface, levels for scientists, for ancillary workers, all the laboratories and so on. Stalin said, Make it so.

With the result that the best of Soviet engineering built the James Bond-style secret underground base which Raven now finds himself in, quaffing sherry amid the bookshelves, surrounded by masterpieces by Mondrian and Matisse. All quite bizarre. I didn’t know if I was meant to take this as a parody of a James Bond movie, where the mad scientist reveals his plan for world domination amid symbols of uber-wealth and corruption. All it needed was for Rogachev to be stroking a white cat. Are we meant to take it seriously?

Once the base was established Zhelikov wrote to Rogachev describing the work they were doing and inviting him to join. So he came and had been there ever since.

Now the mad scientist in the wheelchair introduces Raven to his star patient. It is an ape named Ludmilla, lying in bed in a dress, wearing lipstick and glasses and reading. She says hello to Raven. Raven says hello to Ludmilla. The reader wonders if he is hallucinating.

Rogachev explains that the research program to breed intelligent apes made great advances but suffered a fatal flaw: they found they could produce either intelligent apes, or hardy apes, but never the two together. They had been exploring all aspects of the problem including brain circuitry. The discovery of the pregnant neolithic woman and her foetus led to a breakthrough, but not the one they were expecting.

By a series of accidents the research stumbled across discoveries to do with eyesight. Davidson goes into mind-numbing but incomprehensible detail as Rogachev describes the step-by-step progress made, first with rats, then with experimental apes, by which they blinded the subjects – but then used a ‘harmonic wave’ which they had accidentally stumbled across, and which turned out to ‘restore eyesight’ (explained from page 315 onwards).

This ‘harmonic wave’ had several practical applications and Rogachev shows Raven one of them. Turns out Ludmilla the talking ape had been badly injured in the explosion at the research lab which had been detected by American satellites all those months earlier. Her eyes had been damaged and infected (the explosion released some kind of contamination, we aren’t told what).

The point is that Russian grasp of this harmonic wave technology is so advanced that they were able to build a) glasses which convert light into digital information which is then b) transported along wires in the wings of the glasses to electrical contacts which c) interact with contacts embedded behind the subjects’ ears, contacts which they have wired up to the optical regions of the subject’s brain so that d) the blind can see through their glasses!

All this is taking us a long, long way from the initial idea of ape-men and H.G. Wells. Now we are curing the blind. But even this turns out not to be the secret at the book’s core.

Because tests of the harmonic band wave had another unforeseen consequence: it completely disrupts the electrical signals which are used to direct guided and intercontinental missiles. By accident, the base has stumbled over a perfect defence system against all kinds of missile attack!

Rogachev now hands Raven two of the shiny square plates which we used to call computer floppy disks, back in the early 90s (p.326). These floppy disks contain all the information needed to recreate the Russian experiments and build harmonic wave machines and so develop their own anti-missile defences. But they must be opened in laboratory conditions, at lower than 240 degrees below freezing, or they will self-destruct.

I will die soon, Rogachev says (he, too, was infected in the explosion and fire). These will be my legacy. Goodbye. And he turns and whirs out of the room in his wheelchair. Raven goes back to the main door and a few minutes later Stepan opens it and lets him out, they retrace their steps to the Evenk dormitory and smuggle him in. In the morning Raven tells the Evenk that the grateful father has given him a letter and a ring to hand on to his beloved daughter. the Evenk think he is a hero and grin at their own involvement in the kind-hearted plot. A few days later Dr Komarova returns for more medical treatment and Raven is again swapped for the Evenk driver, this time the other way round, the Evenk returning to the dormitory, Raven reverting to his role as driver, driving Dr Komarova out of the complex and away, back to Tchersky. Mission accomplished. Well, first part anyway.

Complications

Unfortunately, there are two complications. One, at a literally very high level, is that the Chinese launch two test rockets during this period, designed to fly the length of China. Both fail due to direction mechanism failure. Davidson takes us into the nitty gritty of the designs and the failures but the upshot is they’re being interfered with by Russian satellites which hover in fixed position way up over the Asian landmass. Is this going to become important? Are the Chinese going to interfere in the story somewhere?

Closer to home, the drug dealer Ponomarenko, unhappy by the rainy Black Sea, hears on the radio that the state is announcing an amnesty for drug dealers. He checks with a lawyer and the cops and then comes forward to report that he has been blackmailed into lending his flat in Tchersky to some dodgy operators, who also wanted to know all about his friend Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan.

The Black sea cops contact the small police office in Tchersky. They put out a warrant for Kolya/Raven. Dr Komorova hears about it in her capacity as a senior government official in the region. She warns Raven. One escape plan had been for Raven to fly out of the region. Or maybe take another ship. Both now impossible with the authorities checking all papers. Good job he had made a back-up plan.

The bobik

The whole Siberian section of the story has taken several months, during which Raven has wormed his way into the good books of the Tchersky Transport Company, undertaking long distance and countless short distance drives for them. The ‘plan’ had made provision for ‘extracting’ him from the location once the mission was accomplished. But Raven is stroppy and contrary by nature and had begun to make an independent escape plan. Just as well.

This plan is to a) cosy up to the chief engineer at the Tchersky Transport Company and b) persuade him to let him have all the component which make up a bobik light truck so he can build one himself from scratch.

On one of his many delivery trips around the region Raven has discovered a big cave, hidden by frozen bushes, big enough to turn into a workshop where he can secure a block and tackle to the ceiling, instal lamps around the place, store food, a sleeping bag and blankets – and then, slowly steadily, week after week, persuade the head engineer at Tchersky, to let him have more and more pieces of bobik and drop them off at the cave, and build a truck from scratch, by himself!

Implausible doesn’t seem an adequate word to describe how wildly improbable and unnecessary I found this. Why not just pile Dr Pomarova and a load of food into one of the existing bobiks he gets to use perfectly legally, set off on a long, perfectly legal trip, and just keep going? No. In Davidson’s story, he has to build his own!

The Tchersky militia led by Major Militsky become more officious and search every house. Raven hides in Dr Komarova’s cellar. Then she drives him out to the cave with food and he does back-breaking work constructing the bobik. She is due to come next night at midnight. Is hours late. He goes out to watch. Tension, stress.

She turns up with food and the battery, the last component needed to complete the bobik, and news that the hunt is getting serious. In fact it has become a region-wide hunt and a general from Irkutsk has flown in to take charge of it. Pomorova tells Raven how much she loves him. Oh darling. Oh sweet man. Yes, yes, says Raven, but realises that she is the only official allowed into Tcherny Vodi. They will interrogate her. They go over her story, trying to plant red herrings. Then kiss goodbye. ‘I will see you again, won’t I, my love?’ She asks. ‘Of course,’ he replies, lying.

She leaves. He tries to sleep. He can’t. He gets up and starts the bobik and inches out onto the frozen river. Half an hour later a military patrol passes by. He has got out just in time.

Raven on the run

Raven drives east. On the map there is a tributary of the main river-highroad which the map says is impassible. It is certainly strewn with rocks embedded in the ice, but he drives slowly and carefully and the bobik is designed to be indestructible. After several hours Raven comes to a hump-backed bridge which carries the highway from Tchersky to Bilibino (p.377). At a succession of Road Stations, Raven cruises in silently with his lights doused, parks and siphons petrol from the tanks of other bobiks in the car parks, the drivers tucked up inside the warm lodges. Not weather to be outside. He is heading east into a big range of mountains known as the Kolymsky Heights. Aha.

In parallel, a security forces general flies into Tchersky from Irkutsk and takes charge of the search. Having interrogated Ponomarenko, he realises this is a sophisticated spying project mounted by foreign powers. He realises the agent will have left the area. He orders all transport within a 500 mile radius to be frozen and checked.

Basically these last 100 pages turn into quite a nailbiting chase, Raven a clever resourceful fugitive, pitted against the General who is also a very intelligent and thorough investigator. While Raven drives East in a bobik the General is misled by several false clues into telling his forces to search to the south for a missing rubbish truck. But when that avenue runs dry, follows other clues, until he is right on the tail of our man.

The cold calculation of the fugitive, and the clever deductions of the general (I don’t think we’re ever given his name) reminded me strongly of the similar set-up in Frederick Forsyth’s classic thriller The Day of the Jackal. A chase.

Raven drives on on on through the snow, hiding under bridges for snatched sleep, surviving on bread and salami, driving over a thousand kilometers, with a number of close shaves, and just squeezing past security barriers along the way, until he arrives at a tiny settlement named Baranikha which has an airport sure enough, but no flights in our out due to a fierce blizzard.

Raven hooks up with a drunk Inuit who he lets drink all his vodka till he passes out, whereupon Raven takes his coat and boots and backpack and skis and identity papers and hustles himself onto the first plane which is now leaving the airport as the snow lifts, to a tiny place out east, towards the Bering Strait, named Mitlakino.

Here he signs in with a jostling noisy scrum of other workers but in the dead of night retrieves his papers, backpack and steals a snowplough. The geography now becomes crucial. Baranikha and Mitlakino are way out at the easternmost tip of Siberia, on the blocky peninsula which sticks out into the Bering Strait and faces on to Alaska. Raven hadn’t planned it this way, it was pure fluke that the only plane flying from the airport was heading here. But now he’s here he conceives the plan of crossing the Bering Strait from the Russian side to the American side, and freedom. (Although Davidson nowhere explicitly explains this, the reader eventually deduces that at this time of year – the winter solstice – the Bering Strait is completely frozen over. Since it is only 50 miles wide, a man could walk it, admittedly hampered by the fog, snow and frequent blizzards.)

To cut a long story short, the security general has caught up with Raven’s trail, they’ve found the drunk Inuit at the airport as he sobers up and complains that someone’s stolen his papers, they’ve followed the trail to the workers dormitory at Mitlakino, the general yells down the phone to the dopy head of the Mitlakino settlement who does a search and discovers a snowplough is missing. They deduce Raven must be heading to the coast and the general dispatches helicopters from a nearby military base.

The border between America and Russia runs down the middle of the Bering Strait. There are two islands there, the Greater Diomede Island is on the Russian side of the sea border, the Lesser Diomede Island is on the American side.

Raven drives his snowplough through a blizzard along the coast till he gets to a settlement called Veyemik. He hides the plough and knocks on the door of the biggest house, waking the headman of the local tribe of native peoples, Inuit. Here he pretends to be an Inuit on the run from the authorities. The people take him in. Next morning they all go out fishing to iceholes they cut in the deep frost covering the sea. Raven asks to go with them. They take him in a motorised ski-bus out to the hole where the Inuits split up to fish different holes. Raven has asked a series of questions establishing that they are almost within sight of Greater Diomede Island. He slips away from the Indians and sets out on skis.

But there is unusual helicopter activity overhead. The general has figured out where he is, and even has men at Veyemik interrogating the inhabitants, and now knows the fugitive is out on the ice. The general mobilises the defence forces on Greater Diomede who turn out in ski busses, little ski scooters and on skis. Plus the helicopters overhead.

After some complicated hide and seek, during which Raven, in the ongoing blizzard fog, isolates and knocks out a security soldier and steals all his equipment, he eventually realises the general has created a solid wall of trucks and soldiers with headlights and torches on, 250m from the border. Raven climbs up a cliff on the eastern side of Greater Diomede and hides in a cave, but then a helicopter flies slowly low along the cliff, guiding a truck of soldiers which uses a mortar to fire gas mortars into every cave. Raven tucks himself back against the wall but the mortar which shoots into his cave bounces on to his chest and explodes leaving him deaf and half blind. Only a little later do we discover it blew out one of his eyes.

Half-blinded he crawls to the cave entrance and shoots down the militia in the jeep, then half climbs half falls to the ground, crawls to the jeep, and half drives it. The chase becomes horrible now, as the militia close in and shoot out the tyres and lob mortars at the engine (the general has shouted down the phone to the local commander that the fugitive must be taken alive). A mortar detonates on the bonnet which blows shards of metal into Raven’s body. He cannot hear and barely drive or think. The wrecked jeep slews in circles but…

Once again and for the final time I was confused by Davidson’s elliptical descriptions and by the way he intrudes into this vivid description, parallel accounts of the aftermath and what the Russian authorities discovered in the cave and along Raven’s trail. All of this fooled me into thinking he made it just to the edge of the international border but was captured by the Russkies.

Which turns out to be wrong. The first the reader realises of this is when we are told that Raven is being rushed to hospital in Anchorage. I.e., although it is nowhere explicitly stated that he crossed the border, and there is no description of anything the American troops did on their side or how his body was recovered or anything – next we know we have entered a different type of register as the book becomes like an official record of events, describing at high-level the transport of the body. Then we are told that Raven’s severely injured body packs up and he dies. Lost one eye, blinded in the other, shot through one knee, chest cluttered with shrapnel, lost one lung, it packs up and Raven dies. His funeral is attended by officials from Russia, who apologise for this sorry incident and for how a confused native must have wandered by accident into a military exercise. And who, naturally, make a note of everyone who attends the funeral.

Which is why none of the CIA officials attend, obviously. In fact no-one attends except the mortician and coroner.

But another reason no-one attends is that Raven isn’t dead. Davidson’s last trick in this very tricksy narrative is the not-altogether-unexpected revelation that the agency spirited the heavily-wounded Raven away to a super-advanced hospital, and swapped his boy with that of an unknown vagrant who had been – very conveniently – run over and trashed. That’s the heavily-bandaged body which is placed in a coffin and whose funeral the Russkies attend and who is cremated.

Meanwhile, Raven recuperates, given the best medical treatment the agency can provide.

And, in the final pages, there is the ring. You may recall that Rogachev gave Raven a ring, supposedly a blessing to his ‘daughter’, part of the cover story which got Raven into the compound. The ring was in fact Rogachev’s weeding ring which, knowing he is soon to die, he gives to Rogachev. Inside is engraved the motto As our love the circle has no end. After he’d been extracted from the base, among many other things Raven showed the ring to Dr Komarova, who has fallen deeply in love with him. Later, after he has fled the tightening net, Komarova goes to check out the cave where Raven had built the bobik. He has very professionally completely emptied it of every trace of his presence (loading it into the bobik and disposing of most of it in faraway ravines on his escape drive east). But she finds a small scrap of paper scrunged up. Inside is the ring with its motto.

Now, on the last page of the book, Dr Komarova has quit her job in Kolymsk and moved west to Petersburg (despite a shrewd interrogation by the general, she managed to throw the investigators off her trail and survived the whole episode without reproach). And three months later she receives a letter, containing an open-ended air ticket to Montreal, an immigration department slip bearing her correct name and passport number. And tucked away at the bottom of the envelope a tiny slip of cigarette paper bearing a single line of writing: As our love the circle has no end.

As love stories go, it has to be one of the weirdest I’ve ever read, but then the entire novel is meticulously detailed, powerfully atmospheric, often completely preposterous, sometimes incomprehensible but despite everything, exerted a very powerful tug on my imagination and memory.


Maps

There are four maps in the novel (more than you sometimes get in history books). Good quality ones, too, showing

  1. the whole of northern Asia (pp.32-33)
  2. the coast of British Columbia, where Lazenby and the CIA man go to find Raven (p.76)
  3. Cape Dezhnev and Bering Strait region (p.158)
  4. the Kolymsky Region (p.417)

But there is the same sense of oddity or something wrong about these as theres is over the whole book. Very simply, the two latter maps should be reversed.

The central section of the novel is set in the Kolymsky region, so the detailed map of the area – which shows Cape Green where the ship docks, Tchersky where the doctor lives and Raven gets his job on the lorries, the location of the research centre and even of the cave he discovers and uses to build his bobik – quite obviously this map should go at the beginning of that section instead of where it is actually positioned, well after that whole section has finished (?)

Whereas it is only on page 410 that we first hear of the small settlement of Mitlakino and Raven decides to take the plane there. At which point the precise geography of the area becomes vital to his plans for escape, and for the final nailbiting descriptions of his escape across the ice – and so this is where the map of Cape Dezhnev and Bering Strait should go – not 250 pages earlier, where it was completely irrelevant and didn’t register as important. It wasn’t important, yet.

Is this an editorial mistake, a mistake in the printing of the book? Or yet another subtle way of blindsiding the reader and keeping us puzzled, as the suppression of so many other key facts in the narrative succeeded in puzzling me all the way through.

Style

Flat descriptions Although the book is set in some dazzling and awe-inspiring landscapes (the seascapes and frozen landscapes of Siberia) Davidson is not that at descriptions. He gives the facts, but they rarely come to life. Here’s an example of his prose.

He got up and walked about the room. In a recess beside the stove an icon was on the wall. The stove was cold, the house now electrically heated, very stuffy, very warm. Books were everywhere, on shelves, tables. He couldn’t make out the titles in the dark. (p.243)

You can see the bit of effort Davidson has made to create something more than flat factual description in the use of the verbless phrases ‘very stuffy, very warm’. Not very inspiring, though, is it?

Martin Cruz Smith’s sequel to Gorky ParkPolar Star, finds his Moscow detective, Arkady Renko way off his beat, working on a factory ship in the Bering Sea. It’s the same location as the coastal scenes of Kolymsky Heights, at about the same time (Polar Star 1989, Kolymsky Heights 1994). Smith’s book is sensationally vivid in description and atmosphere. I think it’s the best of the eight Renko novels because you can feel the icy temperature, the salt spray in your face, the harshness of frozen metal.

None of that is captured by Davidson’s prose. It is flat and functional. Eventually, by dint of repetition of the facts, you get the powerful sense of brain-numbing cold, of ice and snow and blizzards. But it is done rationally, by repetition of factual information, not by the style.

Instead of jazzy and vivid description, Davidson has a few mannerisms of his own.

Echoing One is a kind of dumb, blank repetition of events. Very often he’ll end a paragraph saying so-and-so plans to do x, y or z. And then the next paragraph begins with ‘And so-and-so did x, y, or z.’

‘I have thought how this could be managed’.
He explained how this could be managed. (p.306)

He was contacting them himself immediately.
Which, immediately, he did. (p.443)

It’s a kind of rhetorical echolalia. It doesn’t add to atmosphere or even tension. The opposite. I found it helped harden the colourless carapace of Davidson’s prose, often making it even harder to work out what was happening and, in particular, why.

I suppose, it also creates an effect of inevitability. Someone says something is going to happen. And that’s what happens. Maybe the effect is to create a subtle sense of fatefulness and predestination, to give the narrative a very slightly mythic quality.

‘Sure, Kolya. You’ll take the job – just when we get the call.’
And they got the call, and he got the job. (p.197)

It all falls into place, more as if it’s a myth or legend or fairy tale, than an ordinary sequence of contingent human events.

Phrase reversal Another tic is reversing the usual structure of an English sentence, from subject-verb-object to object-subject-verb.

His present job he greatly disliked. (p.281)

With his security chief Beria he had discussed this idea. (p.299)

This idea he suddenly found himself discussing in the most bizarre circumstances… (p.300)

The route to Anyuysk she knew, and he stayed under a blanket in the back while she drove. (p.348)

This ridiculous situation he had promptly ordered Irkutsk to deal with… (p.385)

It’s a stylistic mannerism, a not very successful attempt to jazz up Davidson’s generally flat prose.

I suppose it might be argued that playing with the word order of conventional English like this goes a little way towards mimicking the various foreign languages that are spoken in the book, and maybe creating a sense of the ‘otherness’ of Russia and the Russian-speakers who the second half is set amongst. Maybe.

Her intense nervousness she covered with an air of impatience. (p.386)

To Zirianka a long-distance helicopter was required… (p.404)

Italics In the extended account of Raven’s meeting with Innokenty and the Evenks, Davidson used an excessive amount of italics to make his points, often rather unnecessarily. This reminded me of John le Carré’s nugatory use of italics to try and make his dialogue more dramatic.

Since they started their careers at almost the same time, this made me wonder if it’s a feature of the fiction of the time: was there something about emphasis in the late 1950s, a historic idiolect from that period which lingered on in their prose styles.

If they merely hovered over his route, they would catch him now. How far, in three or four minutes, could he have gone? (p.444)

For me, the random use of italics didn’t intensify the reading experience but created a rather annoying distraction.

Gaps and absences

I read the book with a permanent sense that I kept missing key bits of information about who was going where, and why.

Unless this is simply part of Davidson’s technique: to leave key bits of information and motivation out of the novel so as to leave the reader permanently off-balance.

Possibly, a second reading of the book, knowing in advance information which is only revealed later on in the text, would help you make sense of all the hints and obliquities early on in the narrative. Maybe the pattern only fully emerges after several readings. Maybe this is why Philip Pullman is liberally quoted on the front, the back and in the short introduction he provides for the book, describing it as ‘the best thriller he’s ever read’. In the introduction he says he’s arrived at this opinion after reading the book four times. Maybe that’s the amount of effort required to see the full pattern. But certain inexplicabilities would still remain: why did Raven undertake the long sea voyage if he could just have flown to Tchersky any day of the week? And nothing can eliminate the truly bizarre scene where Raven shakes hands with an ape in a dress named Ludmilla. The final hundred pages of fast-paced chase revert to something like conventional thriller style. But shaking hands with a talking ape? I still have to shake my head to be sure I actually read that. Did someone spike my drink?


Related links

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut (1962)

‘People should be changed by world wars,’ I said, ‘else, what are world wars for?’ (p.86)

Mother Night purports to be the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr., born 1912 (p.17) who goes to Germany in 1923, along with his family when his dad gets a job with the Berlin branch of General Electric (p.18) and so grows up fluent in German.

The three-page introduction by Vonnegut uses the hokey old strategy of claiming that the author is merely presenting the authentic papers of a genuine historical figure, which he has edited and corrected in various detail. This is both designed to give hokey plausibility to the narrative’s provenance while drawing attention to its artificiality. Just one of the numerous meta-fictional devices Vonnegut uses here and throughout his career.

Howard W. Campbell Jnr

The main text starts bluntly enough and very much in the tradition of much 19th century fiction:

My name is Howard W. Campbell Jnr. I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination. (p.3)

As he came of age in Nazi Germany (he turns 21 in 1933, the year Hitler comes to power) Campbell set out to make a living as a writer, producing so-so plays and poems throughout the 1930s and marrying a German wife, the actress Helga Noth, daughter of Berlin’s Chief of Police. The glamorous young couple find themselves invited to society parties and so meeting, among others, many of the leaders of the Nazi Party, notably Joseph Goebbels.

The text purports to be a memoir written in 1961 in prison in Israel where Campbell has recently been brought after living quietly in Greenwich Village, New York since the end of the war, because Howard W. Campbell Jr.’s main achievement in life was to become a traitor to his country and a war criminal by broadcasting hard core, anti-Semitic, anti-American Nazi propaganda from Berlin right till the end of the war. Although we are not told till the end of the book how he ended up there, he is now in the custody of the Israeli authorities who are about to put him on trial for war crimes.

The memoir uses Vonnegut’s familiar approach of not giving a chronological approach to Campbell’s life, but ranging far and wide over his former life, to pick out key moments and scenes. Thus, in what is effectively a series of fragments, we learn that:

In Israel

  • Campbell is writing the memoir for Mr Tuvia Friedmann, Director of the Haifa Institute for the Documentation of War Criminals.
  • He describes the characters of the four very different Israeli guards who do the different shifts of guarding him – Andor Gutman who spent two years in Auschwitz, Arpad Kovacs who survived the war by pretending to be a good Aryan and joining the SS.

In Nazi Germany

  • It was Campbell who introduced Goebbels – and through him, Hitler – to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
  • Half way through the war Helga was entertaining the German troops in the Crimea when the Crimea is overrun by the Russians. She was never heard from again, presumed dead.
  • Towards the end of the war Campbell borrowed the beloved motorbike of his best friend Heinz Schildknecht and went to visit his father-in-law, Werner Noth, in his big house on the outskirts of Berlin. Werner was having all the contents loaded on a cart and sent with his wife and other daughter, 10-year-old Resi, to Cologne. Werner asks Campbell to shoot the family dog, which Campbell did. 10-year-old Resi says she loves him (Campbell). Fine. He gets on his motorbike and tries to escape the advancing Russians.
  • In 1945 Campbell was captured by Lieutenant Bernard B. O’Hare of the American Third Army who drives him to the nearby and newly-liberated concentration camp of Ohrdruf, where he is photographed in front of the camp gallows (now full of former camp guards), a photo which makes the front cover of Life magazine and makes Campbell notorious.

In New York

  • Campbell is released by the American authorities and goes to live in New York. His mother and father had gone back to America just before war broke out, but they both die within 24 hours of each other of heart disease before the end of the war, and Howard has inherited their fortune.
  • Campbell’s downstairs neighbour in Greenwich Village is a young doctor named Abraham Epstein; he doesn’t care about the war, but his mother was in Auschwitz and recognises Campbell, who plays dumb.
  • In his loneliness, Campbell gets to know another neighbour, George Kraft, by playing chess with him. Little does he know that Kraft is in fact a Russian spy, real name Colonel Iona Potapov.
  • The beginning of the end comes when Campbell finds his mailbox stuffed with neo-Nazi literature, namely The White Christian Minuteman edited by the reverend Lionel L.D. Jones, D.D.S.
  • There’s also a letter from the American soldier who arrested him 16 years earlier, Bernard B. O’Hare, who threatens to pay him a visit and administer the punishment he so richly deserves.
  • How did they track him down? Kraft, the Russian spy. Over the months Campbell got to trust him and spill parts of his story. It was Kraft who contacted the neo-Nazis and O’Hare. Why? In order to force him to flee, so that he can be kidnapped by Russian security forces (see below).
  • Dr Jones comes to visit along with a couple of other American Nazis and… to Campbell’s amazement, his long-lost wife Helga. He gets rid of the others and he and Helga have riotous sex, just like back in the good times in Berlin. It’s only when he takes Helga shopping for a king-sized double bed like the one they used to have, that she drops the bombshell that she is not Helga – she is the kid sister, Resi, all grown up 🙂

Throughout the memoir Campbell claims he is innocent. He claims he was recruited for American intelligence by a Major Frank Wirtanen, who taught him how to leave pauses, gaps, coughs etc during his radio broadcasts, which conveyed valuable information to the American intelligence.

Trouble is the American government now (1961) refuses to confirm or deny Campbell’s story, and there are no records anywhere of this Major Wirtanen.

The deeper trouble is that Campbell himself is torn by his schizophrenia. Although he may have been an American agent he did, nonetheless, say those things over the radio. In his memoir he damns himself even more by pointing out various anti-Semitic ideas and pictures which he also contributed to the Nazi cause. He has no doubt that he was guilty of doing those things. Although he is also certain he was working for the Americans.

A book of two halves

Mother Night represents a drastic change from the mind-bending science fiction of The Sirens of Titan, coming freighted, as it does, with a lot of historical research, and a feel for the German language and German society (presumably drawing on the fact that Vonnegut himself was of German stock).

When the story is close to the Nazis and wartime Europe it is interesting. When it is more about the eccentric neo-Nazis in modern New York it feels like bubblegum comedy, like an early draft for Mel Brooks’s gross-out comedy, The Producers (‘Springtime for Hitler and Germany’).

The tone changes significantly and, in my opinion, for the worse, after Campbell is confronted and beaten up by an American soldier as he returns to his apartment building from that bed shopping trip with Resi, now that his identity is out. He is beaten to the ground and kicked in the head and loses consciousness.

When he wakes up it is in the house of Dr Jones, in the company of Kraft the Russian spy, along with some other grotesques, Father Keeley, a Catholic priest and Fascist, and the improbable figure of the ‘black Führer of Harlem’.

Somehow the book has turned into something like an episode of the Man from U.N.C.L.E., utterly implausible and unserious. When he was describing Campbell’s brief meeting with Dr Goebbels he was, I think, on his best behaviour. It is slyly satirical (the idea that Hitler would actually admire the Gettysburg Address) but at bottom serious.

Now it feels like an episode of Scooby-Doo with brightly coloured cartoon characters running round abandoned buildings.

Jones and Kraft tell him they’ve got a plan which is to abandon America completely and all fly to Mexico City.

In a farcical scene they invite Campbell to address a cohort of six-foot blonde American boys who have formed ‘the Iron Guard of the White Sons of the American Constitution’.

Campbell is giving a little speech from the stage in the basement of the building when the lights go down and he is disconcerted to hear one of his own wartime broadcasts being played (which gives us, the readers, an opportunity to savour his anti-Semitic Nazi rhetoric in full).

While the lights are down someone slips a message into Campbell’s pocket. Later he sneaks a look and it is a message from the elusive Major Frank Wirtanen to come meet him in a shop opposite.

Campbell makes his excuses for going for a stroll and suspiciously approaches the shutdown shop opposite but Wirtanen is waiting for him, alone and unarmed.

Here Wirtanen informs him the Kraft is a Russian spy and so is Resi. They will all fly to Mexico City where Campbell will immediately be kidnapped and flown to Moscow. Why? So the Soviets can try a high-profile war criminal and show how such criminals are allowed to live freely in the West.

Wirtanen warns Campbell that the safe house they’re all in is about to be raided. Back on the street, Campbell realises he has nowhere else to go and so walks back to the house. Here he confronts Resi and Kraft with their plan which they immediately admit – at which point American FBI agents burst in.

Now, John le Carré’s novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was published just a year after Mother Night and even a moment’s mental comparison shows you that Vonnegut is not really interested in being serious. He is not interested in plot or suspense or dramatic climaxes.

If you call to mind the fiendish elaborateness of Le Carré’s plot and the depth of psychological duelling which it describes, and behind it all the sense of something really important at stake i.e. the survival of a high-level Western spy in the East German security machine – it throws Vonnegut’s bubble gum cartoon into vivid relief.

There is nothing remotely like that here.

The entire idea that Campbell was somehow transmitting secrets in his Nazi broadcasts is nonsense. Via a set of coughs and pauses? Rubbish. Vonnegut makes a half-arsed attempt to clarify it by having Wirtanen say that no fewer than seven women agents died getting him the information, but we never understand how that information reached Campbell or how it was codified into this nonsensical idea of coughs and pauses. He himself never explains how it was done, how he met these ‘agents’, how he turned their messages into code, the difficulty of staging the alleged coughs and pauses. It’s rubbish, a flimsy pretext.

When Campbell tells Resi that he knows she is a Russian spy she makes a rubbish speech about how she really, genuinely loves him and had asked Kraft to change the plan to protect him. But now she sees his love is dead she has no reason to go on living. So she takes a cyanide pill and collapses dead in his arms.

This isn’t serious. It is The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The novel dissolves into fragments. While the others are arrested and taken away, Campbell, on Wirtanen’s permission is released.

He doesn’t know where to go and only a cop asking him to move along prompts him to drift back to his old apartment building. This has been trashed by various American patriots.

Campbell has a disconnected conversation with another cop, who tells him his own father was killed at Iwo Jima and how he reckons it’s all to do with chemicals in the brain, which affect our moods, can make us feel up or down, and maybe explain the different behaviour of different cultures. It’s call chemicals (a subject to be developed at length in Vonnegut’s later novel, Breakfast of Champions).

Upstairs in the ruins of his apartment (comprehensively trashed by American patriots once news about who he was has spread) Campbell is confronted by Lieutenant Bernard B. O’Hare of the American Third Army. He is drink but has dressed very correctly in uniform as he thinks he is fulfilling the military duty of killing Campbell which he should have performed 15 years earlier.

Vonnegut gives a good little cameo to O’Hare, having him admit how disappointing post-war life has been with his wife producing baby after baby and all his business plans coming to nothing. Vonnegut makes us see how O’Hare hopes to redeem all his failures in life and business by beating up Campbell, maybe killing him. But O’Hare is out of shape and drunk. As he lunges towards Campbell, our man beats down hard with a pair of fire tongs and breaks his arm. After some ineffective dodging and weaving Campbell forces O’Hare out into the hall where the latter copiously throws up, then staggers back down the stairs.

Campbell stands there, his life reduced to ashes. No wife, no lover, no friends, no cause, no help, and the entire country against him.

He has a brainwave and goes and hands himself into his young neighbour Abraham Epstein. Except it’s by now quite late at night and Epstein doesn’t know what he’s talking about and doesn’t care. Campbell insists he wants to hand himself over to the Israeli authorities. Epstein replies, well go along to the embassy tomorrow. But Campbell wants something decisive to happen now.

I suppose this is farcical but it didn’t strike me as very funny. Eventually Epstein’s mother phones three Jewish men friends who turn up and keep ‘guard’ on Campbell till the morning. She understands his need to confess, to come clean and for someone else simply to take over his life.

Suicide

And so the final pages cut to Campbell in the Israeli prison. There is a comic recap of the various witnesses for and against him, plus his lawyer who, like all lawyers, is costing him a fortune. He wakes up and has got three letters, two of them farcical (one from a company called Creative Playthings wanting his financial support).

But the third is from the elusive Major Frank Wirtanen who says he does exist, he did work for the American army, Campbell really worked for him and is an American patriot, and he will say so in court under oath.

Campbell looks up from the letter.

So I am about to be a free man again, to wander where I please.
I find the prospect nauseating.

And so in the remaining seven pages of the book, he decides he will hang himself for crimes against himself. The book’s last words are:

Goodbye cruel world.
Auf wiedersehen?

By this stage I had completely stopped taking Campbell or his fate seriously.

Thoughts

1. Vonnegut’s wisdom

As the 1960s went on Vonnegut gave in more and more to the temptation to lard his books with insights and wisdom and sayings. In this, his third novel, this tendency is mostly reined in, though various morals and meanings and precepts and proverbs about life and the world still slip through:

Oh, God – the lives people try to lead.
Oh, God – what a world they try to lead them in!

In the preface he tells us that ‘the moral of the story’ is:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Although it might also be:

When you’re dead you’re dead.

And another one springs to mind:

Make love when you can. It’s good for you.

This tendency to buttonhole us with his folksy wisdom – and not to be able to stop – was to run riot through his books as the 1960s progressed.

2. The Nazis and leading a double life

As to any serious thoughts about the Nazis, or Eichmann, or the nature of evil, or patriotism, and the separate theme of living a double life, epitomised by the figure of ‘the spy’ – Mother Night prompts none. It is a kind of comic fantasia without thoughts or consequences.

There are serious books on these subjects and if you seriously want to understand them, you should read those.

Reviews of anti-Semitism and Holocaust literature

3. Eichmann

The main thing it left me thinking was this: at one stage Campbell says he is being kept in the same prison as Adolf Eichmann, and several times they have brief conversations, in which Eichmann comes over as calm and serene.

Now Eichmann had been kidnapped in Argentina by the Israeli secret service Mossad, and was brought back to Jerusalem to undergo a very high-profile trial, before being found guilty and hanged in 1 June 1962.

The trial was widely followed in the media and was later the subject of several books, including Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe Eichmann. (Wikipedia)

Serious commentators around the world, politicians and philosophers, were writing long earnest articles about the Eichmann trial. I’d love to know how many of them even noticed this half-comic novel by a little-known American novelist, and what – given the seriousness of the issues being discussed – any of them thought of his rather shallow, comical treatment of them.

My opinion is: Mother Night starts promisingly but then disintegrates into cartoon capers larded with two-penny, ha’penny folk wisdom. In his later novels Vonnegut would find subjects and a form (more fragmented and studiedly meta-fictional, more open-ended and gossipy) which were much better suited to the kind of writer he is obviously, even in this early book, straining to be.

Credit

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut Jnr was published in 1962 by Fawcett Publications/Gold Medal Books. All references are to the Vintage paperback edition.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

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 future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall 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 – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel 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 comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings 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 Kent, gets caught up in 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
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 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 narrative involving 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

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke 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
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
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

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
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré (2013)

Conspiracy thrillers

I started reading grown-up books and watching movies in the mid-1970s, which happened, among other things, to be the golden age of conspiracy thrillers. After Watergate and the debacle in Vietnam, a wave of disillusioned American film-makers produced gripping and chilling movies based on the premise that wicked, money-grabbing corporations had fatally corrupted government, and that any naive young government operative who stumbled on these secrets would be eliminated by their own side.

Thus films like Three Days of the Condor (1975), The Conversation (1974), and The Parallax View (1974) still deliver a paranoid thrill today – and they have a legacy in the ongoing Bourne franchise, where yet another fresh-faced, young white man is shocked to discover that his worse enemies aren’t the Russkies or the terrorists – they’re his own superiors carrying out corrupt and covert operations which are sanctioned at the highest levels.

40 years later le Carré has, rather belatedly, woken up to idea that the same thing could happen in Britain. The plot of this novel – conscientious civil servants try to expose government-corporate cover-up – feels old, very old. And instead of the handsome Robert Redford (Condor) or Warren Beatty (Parallax), we have as ‘heroes’ the very British pairing of a timid young civil servant and a fogeyish retired diplomat.

Quite apart from the dusty plot, what’s really striking about the book is the garish prose style and stilted dialogue through which it’s told, a tortured style which comes from a strange parallel universe where Jason Bourne has been rewritten by P.G. Wodehouse.

The plot

British civil servant Toby Bell uncovers the evidence that his Minister, the bullying Fergus Quinn, helped arrange a hush-hush ‘mission’, Operation Wildlife, to be carried out by an American corporation – Ethical Outcomes – involving US mercenaries, four British soldiers, and a Foreign Office observer, supposedly to capture a high-value terrorist on Gibraltar.

But there was no terrorist: the apartment he was meant to be hiding in turned out to be empty, and instead a Muslim woman and her baby, probably illegal immigrants who were squatting there, were mistakenly shot to ribbons.

Three years later, retired British diplomat, Sir Christopher (‘Kit’) Probyn, is approached out of the blue by Jeb Owen, one of the British soldiers who took part in Wildife and has been haunted ever since by what he saw. Jeb has identified Kit as the FO man sent to witness the operation (Kit did so under an assumed name and was spirited away moments after it ended in confusion), and now Jeb has tracked Kit down to his genteel retirement in a manor house in Cornwall.

Kit was never sure exactly what happened that night, having observed it all from a distance in the squaddies’ ‘hide’, but Jeb now confirms his worst fears that something went badly wrong, and backs his story up with black-and-white photos of the dead woman and baby.

They make a date to meet again when Jeb will produce more evidence, but Jeb not only fails to keep this meeting with Sir Kit, he turns up dead in the back of his own van, in what the authorities claim is a ‘suicide’, though his wife knows this isn’t true. The evidence in hand, and Jeb’s dodgy demise, determine the honourable Sir Kit – backed by his charming lady wife Suzanne, and with the support of his feisty doctor daughter Emily – to inform the proper authorities.

So he goes up to London, to the Foreign Office, naively and stupidly to tell the very people who covered up the fiasco in the first place that he has evidence to prove there was a fiasco and a cover-up. To Kit’s amazement – and the utter unsurprise of anyone who’s ever seen or read a conspiracy thriller – the powers-that-be not only brush aside the incident, but end up blaming him for the deaths – seeing as he was the ‘responsible officer’ on the spot – and make it clear that if he breathes a word to anyone, he will be the first one to be prosecuted. Does he want that to happen? Does he want to put his wife – in remission from some unspecified illness – through that? Or his daughter? ‘Go home, Sir Kit.’

Meanwhile, in a separate thread, we flash back three years to the build-up to the botched mission, to the period when fresh-faced young civil servant, Toby Bell, was private secretary to New Labour bruiser and Foreign Office minister, Fergus Quinn.

Toby dutifully fetches and carries for Quinn but is puzzled by the bruiser’s secretiveness – a new safe is installed in the office, his door is always closed, secret phone calls abound. Toby’s concerns reach a peak when he is told to organise a hush-hush meeting in private rooms, and to ensure that even the CCTV on the side entrance into the building is turned off, so there’s no record of the attendees.

Intrigued, Toby digs up an antique reel-to-reel tape recorder which has been mouldering in his office, plants it in the meeting room and sets the timer to record the ‘secret’ meeting. Listening to it later, he hears Fergus conspiring with a renowned shady operator who floats on the periphery of Whitehall, a certain Jay Crispin, to organise the mission, and so first hears the words Operation Wildlife.

Aware that he’s breaking various protocols and possibly the Official Secrets Act, Toby transfers the tape recording of the meeting to a computer memory stick and seeks the help of his mentor within the service, Giles Oakley.

Lofty, insouciant Giles explains that Crispin is the smooth English front man for a US mercenary outfit known as Ethical Outcomes. In fact, Toby himself briefly meets Crispin and his partner and fundraiser, introduced in characteristic JLC ringmaster fashion as ‘the one and only Miss Maisie from Houston, Texas’. Quinn introduces them to Toby in his office for what might just have been an interview to be recruited into the mission – but Tobym with his Bertie Woosterish innocence, fails the audition. And just as well, as things turn out.

Toby discovers that the FO man referred to in the plans is Sir Kit, gets his address, and so travels down to the diplomat’s big house in Cornwall. Here the pair share their discoveries and, with the latter’s forceful GP daughter Emily, they form an alliance to ‘uncover the truth’. Tremble in your boots, oh baddies.

Toby travels on to Wales to meet Jeb in his crappy, post-industrial town, only to hear from his distraught wife that Jeb ‘committed suicide’ just a few days earlier – despite having just expressing new confidence that he’s finally exorcised his post-traumatic demons by meeting and talking to Sir Kit. Plus, Jeb shot himself with his left hand, which is odd because he was right-handed. Almost as if dark forces might have bumped him off and made it look like suicide. Crikey.

1. Kit takes the dossier of evidence he’s compiled up to London and, after some effort, forces his way into the Foreign Office and an interview with some creepy lawyers. These slick operators magically twist everything round to show him that the only person named for sure in the entire operation is himself, backed up by his own admission that he was senior man on the spot. Since all the others deny any involvement, this means that if his dossier is published, he, Sir Kit, would be the prime suspect and legally held responsible. A broken man, he catches the train back to Cornwall.

2. Jeb’s widow gives Toby the phone number of one of Jeb’s army colleagues who was involved in the mission. But when Toby meets this fellow, ‘Shorty’, in a North London café, instead of having a discreet chat he finds himself being briskly escorted to a car which then drives him to a very secure, guarded house in St John’s Wood, where he is received by the smooth, handsome, posh Jay Crispin he has heard so much about. Like all baddies in thrillers, Crispin is immensely urbane and polite – ‘more coffee, Mr Bond’ – before asking if he’d like to join Ethical Outcomes – sign a confidentiality agreement and immediately double his salary? No? Oh dear. That is unfortunate.

Toby walks out and walks home, opens the door to his Islington flat and is immediately gagged, hooded and given an extreme beating by professionals wearing knuckle dusters. As he lies vomiting on the floor, one of them mutters, ‘This is just for starters’ – such a cliché it made me laugh out loud. When Sir Kit’s daughter Emily phones, Toby groans into the receiver enough to make her come round and clean him up. Feeling slightly more human, he insists on getting dressed, finding his hidden memory stick and all the other evidence, and hobbling with her help to the nearest internet café, from where he emails all the evidence he has to the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 news, Guardian and so on.

At which point they hear sirens. Lots of sirens. Sirens coming from all directions and converging, with a screech of tyres, just outside the café. Almost as if his blackberry, phone and even the memory stick are tagged and monitored and that, by using them, he has drawn down on himself the forces of darkness!

Just because you’re paranoid…

This ‘powerful’ ending reminded me of the 1988 movie Defence of the Realm, in which investigative journalist Gabriel Byrne and the fragrant Greta Scacchi come together to reveal the massive official cover-up of a near-nuclear accident – which ends with them, also, posting all the documents they have to the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, the Guardian etc – before the forces of darkness ensure that they meet a very sticky end.

The sticky end, after all, the time-honoured ending of the paranoia thriller (cf Warren Beatty getting killed at the end of The Parallax View) – just the final thrill in a sequence of shocking revelations.

Moreover, the downbeat climax repeats the fatalistic endings of le Carré’s other late novels – the whistleblower ‘Salvo’ unjustly extradited in The Mission Song, the innocent refugee Issa brutally kidnapped by the CIA in A Most Wanted Man, the defecting Russian mafiosi (and his innocent Brit minder) blown to pieces by the forces of darkness at the end of Our Kind of Traitor.

The ‘clean-cut-heroes-against-the-corrupt-Establishment-cover-up’ plot is an old and venerable one, one I quite literally grew up with 40 years ago. So how is it handled here? What about its style and presentation?


Le Carré land

From the first pages we are in le Carré land, where posh, naive white men talk to each other in superannuated 1950s slang, are tyrannised by modern, go-getting types who show how up-to-date they are by saying ‘fuck’ a lot, who are in cahoots with dastardly foreigners – not Islamic terrorists or Russians, no, the worst foreigners of all – Americans! – and where all the characters and the omniscient narrator are indistinguishably soaked in the same heavy-handed, lumbering, facetious tone of voice.

Le Carré’s response to every aspect of the modern world, especially in its bureaucratic and organisational forms, is one of unremitting sarcasm. He has a particular bee in his bonnet about the way ‘Personnel’ departments have been renamed ‘Human Resources’ in big organisations, a bugbear which crops up in several books. Here is Sir Kit meeting the head of HR at the Foreign Office right at the start of the novel:

‘So how’s your poor dear wife?’ asks the not-quite-superannuated ice queen of Personnel Department, now grandly rechristened Human Resources for no reason known to man, having summoned him without a word of explanation to her lofty bower on a Friday afternoon when all good citizens are running home. The two are old adversaries. If they have anything at all in common, it is the feeling that there are so few of them left.
‘Thank you, Audrey, not poor at all, I am pleased to say,’ he replies, with the determined levity he affects for such life-threatening encounters. Dear but not poor. She remains in full remission. And you? In the pink of health, I trust?’
‘So she’s leavable,’ Audrey suggests, ignoring this kindly enquiry.
‘My hat no! In what sense?’ – determinedly keeping up the jolly banter. (p.4)

The whole book is written in this phoney, mock heroic voice. The passage contains examples of several JLC mannerisms:

  • The way public schoolboys use condescending tags and clichés to indicate their superiority over the great unwashed – ‘when all good citizens are running home’ – like the poor miserable rabbits that they are, presumably.
  • And is it really a ‘life-threatening encounter’, chatting to the head of HR? No. Then why make out that it is? Ironic hyperbole, old chap. All part of the ‘jolly banter’.
  • Antiquated slang. How many people, in Britain, in 2016, in a moment of surprise, exclaim, ‘my hat’? Anyone?

The HR thing gets le Carré’s goat so much he repeats it later:

‘Were the Personnel people – or Human Resources or whatever they call themselves these days…’ (p.172)

Yes, why do people keep bloody changing the words for things all the bloody time?

Jeb might be psychotic, he might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or any of the other big words we throw around so easily these days… (p.187)

As Colonel Blimp might have put it: ‘Bloody confusing big words: what’s wrong with the short words we used in the good old days – dago, darkie, pansy boy?’ To my surprise, Sir Kit does actually use the expression ‘pansy-boy’:

‘Said one of the Americans was a little fat bastard with effeminate mannerisms. Pansy-boy, according to Jeb. The pansy-boy was the worst.’ (p.213)

Well, who could possibly disagree? ‘Bloody Americans. Bloody fat Americans. Bloody fat American pansy-boys, they’re the worst, oh definitely the worst, old boy.’

The reader thinks: ‘Well, we better not tell the confused old buffer that we no longer use pounds, shillings and pence or that we’ve put a man on the moon. His head might explode.’

And this character – Sir Christopher ‘Kit’ Probyn – with his ailing wife, his devoted labrador and his manor house in good old Cornwall – this is one of the two ‘heroes’ of the book. He is held up as a gold standard of old-fashioned morals and conscience – but comes over as an ineffectually blundering buffoon.

Our

Le Carré’s use of the little word ‘our’ is symptomatic. He deploys it in a way which radiates public school, upper-class facetiousness; a pally-pally, knowing condescension:

‘our dear young queen… our stoical defenders… Mr Jay Crispin, our corporate warlord and intelligence provider… And the secret pulse of our great nation, Laura?… a reliable has-been from the ranks of our own dear Service… our intrepid friend… our selfless volunteers… [at his village fair Sir Kit enters the] roped-off enclosure of our Rustic Crafts section… [Sir Kit is referred to as the] leader of our gallant British detachment…’ and so on and so on

Far too intelligent to simply refer to people by their names or functions the narrator – and Le Carré’s characters (interchangeably) – use ‘our’ to indicate their mocking familiarity with the personage in question, advertising their lofty height above the great unwashed.

Your fine family

Similarly, family and loved ones or careers and places – especially funny foreign places – are routine targets for upper-class exaggeration and elaborate hyperbole, or for the public school habit of using religious tags and mock pomposity in a tone of permanent sneering:

‘should an unfortunate crisis afflict your fine family… given to him by his beloved wife… Manila, Singapore, Dubai: these are but a few of the fine cities where you have attended conferences… Paul, you are now and for evermore family… My beloved wife Hermione tells me… his beloved La Rochefoucauld… the fabled castle that is Prague’s pride… My beloved ex-partner…’ and so on and on.

Ye olde English

Toby’s mentor, Giles, tries to reassure him that everything’s been sorted out, but cannot say anything without using the same facetious upper-class banter, with the same mock Shakespearian rhetoric, that all the other characters use:

Just listen to me, dear, will you? The scandal at Defence is dead, and Jay Crispin is henceforth and forever banished from all ministerial and government premises on pain of death.’ (p.74)

Is he, though? Banished? On pain of death? No. That is deliberate hyperbole and exaggeration because posh Giles – imprisoned, like so many Le Carré characters, in the lofty tower of his expensive education – just can’t speak like ordinary people. He can’t say, ‘Listen, Crispin is finished, it’s official. No-one is allowed to contact or do business with him,’ because that is how ghastly oiks speak.

When Toby gets a new job as Private Secretary to Quinn, the narrator can’t state this as a simple fact, but has to describes him as ‘newly anointed’. In one of their long conversations, Giles goes into ecstasies of sarcasm about ‘Man of the People’ Quinn: I counted him using the ironic phrase ‘your nice new master’ five times in as many pages.

Almost all the character speak in this insufferably mannered upper-class style. There’s only so long you can listen to these smug wankers with their insufferable smugness and superiority before wanting to hit something.

Telegraphese

Too posh to say complete sentences? Bark them out like a retired colonel:

  • ‘Man’s a liar.’
  • ‘Hell are you doing with my daughter anyway?’

Music hall compère

I particularly relish the occasions in Le Carré novels where the narrator introduces his characters with the pomp and moustachioed bombast of an old-time, music hall compère:

And who is the guiding light in London who presides over this pragmatic trade in human destinies…. – None other than Giles Oakley, Foreign Office intelligence broker extraordinaire and mandarin at large. (p.61)

‘Tobe, kindly pay your respects to Mrs Spencer Hardy of Houston, Texas, better known to the world’s elite as the one and only Miss Maisie.’ (p.86)

The first quote is the narrator speaking. The second one is ‘Man of the People’ Fergus Quinn speaking. The mock heroic phraseology is identical in both. That’s why I say the narrator’s voice and the characters’ voices are interchangeable: they all radiate the same kind of condescending, mock heroic, upper-class grandiosity.

This inability to find any other voice than a pompous Old Etonian is particularly noticeable when le Carré tries to do colonials. Just as the Australian tennis coach in Our Kind of Traitor didn’t sound remotely Australian, so Elliot the allegedly South African character doesn’t sound remotely South African – he sounds just like all Le Carré’s other elaborately facetious characters – although in these two particular cases, rather more like an elaborately ironic butler than the lord of the manor:

‘Sir, I believe I have the singular honour of welcoming Mr Toby Bell of Her Majesty’s Foreign Office. Is that correct, sir?’ (p.316)

Really? Is that really how a tough bastard South African mercenary would talk?

1950s slang

Is there anyone of working age who routinely says ‘old sport’ and ‘old chap’ at the end of every sentence? Or ‘what?’ Or exclaims ‘My hat’? In a remarkable moment, the smooth-talking New Labour-era creep Jay Crispin, manipulator of American billionaires and Whitehall ministers, while trying to buy Toby off, tells him that Jeb, the soldier he was due to meet is a bit, you know,

Not quite himself, ‘twixt thee and me. (p.319)

‘Twixt thee and me’?

Sarcastic descriptions

Similarly, when le Carré wants to ridicule characters he does it with very heavy sarcasm, lumbering them with elaborately ironic adjectives and descriptions. In particular, in all these later novels, le Carré can barely contain his anger at the way Tony Blair’s New Labour betrayed all its promises, instigated the appalling ‘corporatisation’ of the state (in this case the civil service, with its outliers in the military and intelligence services – renaming perfectly good Personnel departments Human Resources, for chrissakes), and rubber-stamped America’s mad invasion of Iraq.

This anti-New Labour animus adds such malevolence that posh Giles can only bring himself to refer to Toby’s minister – ‘your nice new master’ Quinn – with arch facetiousness:

‘…your distinguished minister… appears determined to outdo the militarist zeal of his late great leader, Brother Blair…’ (p.97)

(I’ve never seen this formula – ‘brother X’ – with its air of smothering but simultaneously contemptuous familiarity, used in this way by any other author. It’s a le Carré trademark.)

The first half of the book amounts to a satirical caricature of a New Labour minister, Fergus Quinn, who bulks large in the first half of the novel as Toby’s bullying master, helping to arrange the ill-fated mission, presumably in expectation of some back-handers or a transition to a nice, corporate position when he leaves government. With characteristic New Labour emphasis on slick media presentation, Quinn hypocritically puts on a smile for the cameras and likes to present himself as a straight-talking Glaswegian. And so gets skewered with the same withering descriptors throughout:

‘Fergus Quinn, man of the people… Quinn the People’s Choice… the Champion of the Working Classes… Fergus Quinn, MP, white hope of the powers-that-be in Downing Street (p.191)

A politician who puts on a fake smile for the cameras but is really a hectoring bully in private? Golly. A politician who helps high-level business contacts while in office and then moves smoothly into a related directorships when he leaves? Crikey. This isn’t really new. It isn’t even New Labour new. Weren’t Trollope and other Victorians aware of the canting posturing of politicians. Isn’t 18th century literature awash with corrupt political figures? What is The Beggar’s Opera (1728) but a satire on the deep-dyed corruption of the Prime Minister?

Bluster instead of insight

As per usual, when key players in a le Carré novel try to get to the heart of the matter, they prove incapable of intelligent analysis – instead they bluff and bluster. The first meeting between the good guys, Sir Kit and Toby, has them discussing the situation and leads up to Sir Kit summarising for Toby his understanding of the military cock-up which is at the heart of the whole plot:

‘Operation Wildife,’ he barked. ‘Roaring success, we were told. Drinks all round. Knighthoods for me, promotion for you – what?’ (p.198)

Days later I am still reeling from the imbecility of this moment. The man is meant to be a seasoned diplomat. Toby, who he’s talking to, is meant to be a fast track civil servant.

When I worked at the Department for International Development, I had contact with some of the heads of directorates and once with the Secretary of State himself. What came over was their immense workload and the brisk, professional way they dealt with it. I was impressed by the speed and incisiveness of their fact-processing and decision-making. By contrast, almost all le Carré’s Whitehall characters come over as dim and slow – really slow, much, much slower than the reader, who is always streets ahead of them. By about half way through I was really hoping the entire crew of dim duffers would be arrested, extradited, or simply blown up, as the only fitting way to respond to such irreparable denseness.

Humour

Le Carré is probably the most humourless writer I know. But his narratives act as if they’re hugely funny. Take Elliot, the dodgy South African mercenary handling the British soldiers during the ill-fated mission. Here he is explaining to Sir Kit that the aim of the mission is to kidnap a terrorist, codenamed Aladdin.

‘Aladdin is basically a mixed-race Pole who has taken out Lebanese citizenship… Aladdin is the Pole I personally would not touch with a barge, to coin a witticism…’ (p.23)

Ha. Ha ha. Le Carré is so proud of this joke that he repeats it a few pages later. And to be fair, it is probably the funniest joke in the novel. There’s another cracker when Sir Kit asks one of the yokels in his village, Ben, the owner of Ben’s garage, if he can borrow some metal cutters, prompting this sparkling exchange:

‘You off to prison?’ Ben enquires.
‘Well, not just at the moment, Ben, thank you,’ replies the same Kit, with a raucous hah! of a laugh. (p.142)

Because, you see, Ben the yokel is making a humorous suggestion that Sir Kit might want metal cutters so he can break out of prison, and Sir Kit pretends to find this frightfully funny. Ha ha ha. Oh, my hat!

Italics

Why so many italics in the dialogue? Scattered so randomly? After as little as one page the reader begins to wonder whether the characters are mentally ill, afflicted with a version of Tourette’s Syndrome which makes them emphasise words with no logical reason, like a pub drunk jabbing you in the chest with his finger according to no discernable logic.

As a tiny example, when Sir Kit goes up to London to (naively and hopelessly) put his case to his former employers at the Foreign Office, he has to pass through several layers of security but then is gladdened to see a familiar face:

‘Molly, my God, of all people, I thought you’d retired aeons ago, what on earth are you doing here?’
‘Alumni, darling,’ she confided in a happy voice. ‘I get to meet all our old boys and girls whenever they need a helping hand or fall by the wayside, which isn’t you at all, you lucky man, you’re here on business, I know. Now then. What kind of business? You’ve got a document and you want to hand it personally to God. But you can’t because he’s on a swan to Africa – well deserved, I may add. A great pity because I’m sure he’ll be furious when he hears he’s missed you.’ (pp.282-283)

Partly it’s standard upper-middle-class class gush: ‘Oh Lavinia, how simply marvellous to see you’ etc. But it’s been turned up a notch, beyond the comprehensible, to become a mannerism, a compulsion.

The suspicion arises, not for the first time, that when le Carré tries to do clever dialogue between people who are assessing and probing each other – dialogue which ought to be subtle, measured and understated – he can’t. So he has his characters either swear a lot ‘for fuck’s sake’, or randomly emphasise every other word to make it sound somehow more forceful and intelligent.

Both of which tactics fail.

Conclusions

Whereas the outcomes of, say, a Robert Harris thriller are genuinely unexpected and sometimes terrifying, the outcomes – in fact most of the plots – of le Carré’s later novels are entirely predictable variations on the dominating obsession of his post-Cold War books, all emanating from the, to-him, shocking revelation that the modern world is corrupt.

The key text to understanding his attitude is his 2003 article ‘The United States of America has gone mad‘, which perfectly captures the way he can barely contain his white-hot anger at the American government’s stupid, blundering, imperialistic invasion of Iraq – so much so that the tone spills over into sarcasm, facetiousness and barely controlled hysteria.

(Note particularly the final section which abruptly switches from outraged journalistic diatribe to a spooky dialogue between an earnest lickle child asking innocent questions about the war and a reassuring Daddy telling him the it will all be over quickly and everything will be alright.)

The same runaway anger informs these later novels – anger that:

  • transnational corporations get away with murder (The Constant Gardener)
  • a rogue America can trample roughshod over individual and national rights in its obsessive ‘war on terror’ (Absolute Friends, A Most Wanted Man)
  • and worst of all, how Britain has also fallen into the mire [since some imaginary romantic past of chivalrous idealism] so that senior politicians, businessmen and even elements of ‘our dear Intelligence Service’, are in corrupt collusion with shady foreigners like the Russian mafia (Our Kind of Traitor), or are paid agents of dastardly international arms dealers (The Night Manager) or are helping to plan coups to impose corporate-friendly rulers on helpless Third World nations (The Mission Song)

Anger that is only barely contained beneath a simmering surface of withering sarcasm, of fake joviality and spurious bonhomie littered with the bizarre remnants of the almost-forgotten, upper-class banter of the 1950s.

The movie

If you dumped the entire bombastic narrative voice, changed the characters from 1950s throwbacks to make them 21st century people, rewrote the dialogue so it is intelligent and snappy rather than sweary public school chaffing, and trimmed down and focused the plot – in fact if you dropped everything about the book except the core idea – Foreign Office hero uncovers conspiracy to cover up UK involvement in US-led extraordinary rendition cock-up – then it would make a cracking movie or TV series, just like A Most Wanted Man or The Night Manager which, once they’d been extracted from le Carré land, and comprehensively rewritten, proved to be very successful.


Credit

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré was published in 2013 by Viking books. All quotes are from the 2014 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – 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.
1962 A Murder of Quality – 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.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – 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.
1965 The Looking Glass War – 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.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover – His one attempt at a ‘serious’ novel and, allegedly. his worst book.
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – 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.
1979 Smiley’s People – 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.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – 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.
1986 A Perfect Spy – 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.
1989 The Russia House – 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.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – 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.
1993 The Night Manager – 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.
1995 Our Game – Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – the legendary 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 eminently dislikeable upper-class twits.
1996 The Tailor of Panama – Old Etonian conman Andrew Osnard 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, the legendary Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based in a fictional 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 with a sick and jaundiced world.
1999 Single & Single – 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.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Astonishingly posh diplomat’s wife, Tessa Quayle, discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results among its poor and powerless patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining the events leading up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s prolonged quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – Former public school 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. This in turn comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha contacts Ted again and unwittingly lures him into a Machiavellian American sting operation, whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, a set-up which climaxes with them being shot down like dogs. First ‘historic’ part good – second part overblown anti-Americanism.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school boy Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, a half-Congolese translator, is invited by British intelligence to lend his knowledge of arcane African languages and dialects to an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions. These have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, ostensibly in the name of negotiating peace, but who are actually planning to engineer a coup and impose a compliant leader who will allow his Western backers to plunder the country’s mineral resources. When Salvo learns this he sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man – Posh Hamburg-based British banker Tommy Brue and posh refugee lawyer Annabel Richter find themselves involved in a conspiracy by German security services to frame an apparently innocent Muslim refugee and, along with him, the moderate organiser of Muslim charities, as ‘terrorists’. But this dubious German plan is itself trumped by the CIA who betray all the characters in the book, violently kidnap the two Muslims, and take them away for indefinite incarceration and torture.
2010 Our Kind of Traitor – An Oxford don and his barrister girlfriend on holiday in Antigua get involved with a Russian mafiosi who wants to ‘defect’ to the British, exposing ‘corruption in high places’ – and end up playing crucial roles in the mission to rescue him and his family which, however, does not go according to plan.
2013 A Delicate Truth – British civil servant Toby Bell uncovers evidence that his Minister helped arrange an extraordinary rendition, involving US mercenaries, British soldiers and a Foreign Office observer, supposedly to capture a high value terrorist on Gibraltar – but there was no terrorist: instead a Muslim woman and her baby were shot to ribbons. Three years later, the retired FO man, Sir Christopher (‘Kit’) Probyn is approached out of the blue by one of the British soldiers who’s been haunted by the debacle, and this triggers a joint attempt by him and Toby to present the evidence to their superiors, to confront the architect of the fiasco, and then to inform the Press – in all of which they miserably fail.

Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré (2010)

‘Well, fuck, said Hector happily.
‘Fuck indeed,’ Perry agreed, bemused. (p.88)

Plot

Perry and Gail

Thirty-something Oxford tutor, Peregrine ‘Perry’ Makepeace, and his girlfriend, the beautiful, rising star barrister, Gail (immediately reminiscent of the beautiful, rising star journalist, Penelope, in The Mission Song), are on holiday in Antigua.

Gail is a stunner (‘Men fell in love with her all the time’, p.181). Perry, we are told, rather adventurously, went to a State school – gosh – but seeing as he is a famous tennis player, and a famous mountain climber, who is also passionate about cricket, looks good in his Oxford bags, and says ‘chaps’ and ‘fellows’ a lot, he actually sounds like all le Carré’s other public school heroes. In fact, the characters’ lexicons quickly transport us back to the 1950s of the black-and-white St Trinians movies.

As a small example, there’s an Australian tennis coach at the resort who takes Perry under his wing but sounds like no Australian I’ve ever met, more like a diamond geezer from a 1950s crime caper.

‘Thank you, Perry, no doubles for Dima, I’m afraid,’ he interjected smartly. ‘Our friend here plays singles only, correct, sir? You’re a self-reliant man. You like to be responsible for your own errors, you told me once. Those were your very words to me not so long ago, and I’ve taken them to heart… Perry, I do not believe you should be reluctant to take this gentleman on,’ Mark insisted, ramming his case home. ‘If I was a betting man, I’d be pushed which of you to favour, and that’s a living fact.’ (p.9)

Australian? Similarly, the maitre d’ at the hotel is named Ambrose but since, in le Carré land, no character goes without a facetious nickname or adjective for very long, he swiftly becomes ‘the venerable Ambrose’ (p.48).

This habit of giving every character a larky adjective (‘the immaculate Gail’,  ‘Ace Operator Perry’ p.77) and then making them speak with improbably plumminess or butler-like servility, quickly makes the whole book feel like a P.G. Wodehouse novel with, admittedly, a lot of modern swear words thrown in. As if aware of this, JLC has the characters explicitly reference PGW on p.94:

Precisely, Bertie,’ Perry agreed in his best Wodehousian, and they found time for a quick laugh.

Dima

It is Perry’s demon tennis-playing which gets him introduced to a stocky, charismatic, over-friendly Russian named Dima. Perry and Dima have a sweaty singles match, with Dima effing and blinding all the way through, as he goes on to do throughout the rest of the novel.

Next day the couple find themselves invited to join Dima’s extended family on the beach, getting to know his reclusive, religious wife Tamara, the stroppy twin boys and the beautiful, pubescent Natasha. Ice cream and cricket on the beach are followed by an invitation to a party at Dima’s villa that evening.

Here Perry and Gail are surprised to find themselves ushered into a remote room up in the windy attic of the building and handed a piece of paper while Dima signs them not to speak and they realise he is worried about being bugged and recorded.

On the paper, Dima has written a long message claiming that he has invaluable information he wants to give to the British government in return for asylum in Britain for him and his family. Gail is taken aside by Tamara, leaving the men alone, and Dima gives Perry a small package which turns out to contain a tape cassette to give to ‘the right people’ back in England. Then they all go on to the party.

After the party, back at their holiday apartment, a bewildered Perry and Gail decide to cut short their holiday and return to Britain. Being a lecturer at Oxford, Perry has heard about a fellow tutor who, rumour says, makes ‘approaches’ to his undergraduates on behalf of the security services. Perry goes and tells him his story; the don listens, then gives Perry a phone number. Perry rings it and is put through to ‘Adam’ who instructs him to a) write his own account of the proceedings b) expect a taxi driven by ‘Ollie’ who will collect him and Gail and drive them to a basement flat in Bloomsbury.

Perry and Gail’s debriefing

Here the couple undergo an immensely detailed ‘debriefing’, in which their ‘handlers’, Luke and Yvonne, force them to relive every word, every inflection, every facial expression of every single exchange they had with Dima and with each other during the Antigua trip.

This is le Carré’s forté, the detailed presentation of the debriefing and recruitment process, a process we know from his biography that he actually carried out himself when he worked for the security service in the 1950s. But whereas in, say, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, the reader is only slowly and cannily allowed insights into the cunning conspiracy being carried out by the disgruntled spy, Leamas, and so is on tenterhooks throughout his interrogation by East German security – here, we don’t yet know how much, if anything, is at stake, and so these long opening pages contain no tension.

Lacking this, we are left with the characters of the posh young couple and quickly become irritated by their bickering and nerviness, especially Gail’s bitchiness. Her feminist unhappiness that Dima chose to speak to Perry alone, and that Perry then refused to reveal what was said at that private meeting, comes out in the sustained use of italicised emphases:

‘It’s true. I felt appointed by him. Over-promoted is more like it. Actually, I don’t know what I felt any more.’ (p.50)

In her leaden sarcasm:

‘You listening, Gail?’
What the fuck d’you think I’m doing? Singing ‘The Mikado’? (p.75)

And her improbable mimicking of the voices of everyone concerned – Dima, Tamara, Perry himself – so that she comes across as a rather demented Mike Yarwood. Not helped by her mannerism of ending almost every paragraph with the tag, ‘didn’t we, Perry?’ Gail is meant to be a rising star barrister but quickly comes across as a petulant, spoiled 14-year-old.

‘Perry! Stop! Come back! Stay here! I’m the fucking lawyer here, not you.’ (p.75)

Hector Meredith

At the end of these sessions, disgruntled Gail is told to go (again), leaving Perry with Luke and Yvonne. At this point they reveal that their boss has been listening, upstairs, to the couple’s debriefing. Now he pads downstairs to meet Perry in person.

The boss is called Hector Makepeace and he is an extraordinarily old-fashioned, 1950s type of fellow, who overwhelms the text with his blustering, hail-fellow-well-met manner, his bolshy, anti-modern Britain attitude, and his copious, ceaseless swearing.

‘Well, I’ll tell you what you are, Mr Perry Makepeace, sir,’ he asserted, as if he’d reached the conclusion they had both been waiting for. ‘You’re an absolute fucking hero, is what you are’ – seizing Perry’s hand in a flaccid double grip and giving it a limp shake – ‘and that’s not smoke up your arse.’ (p.87)

‘Smoke up your arse’? ‘And that’s a living fact’? On every page the prose is studded with heroically out-of-date slang. Although the narrative is set in the Noughties, the lexicon is a combination of Dixon of Dock Green livened up by The Sweeny. The monotonous, continuous use of ‘fuck’, many times on every page, quickly becomes wearing. Pages 75 to 77:

‘Jesus Perry. I’m fucking scared…I’m the fucking lawyer here…For fuck sake, it’s me, Gail…What the fuck is going on between you two…What the fuck d’you think I’m doing… what the fuck are you trying to tell me… Tamara didn’t speak, Perry. Not one solitary fucking word… absolutely fuck-all passed between Tamara and myself… either mind your own fucking business or tell me what Dima said to you.’

I laughed out loud when Hector is described as a ‘maverick’ (p.124). Just like the swearing, blustering ‘maverick’, Bachmann, in the previous novel, Hector is the ‘legendary’ subject of the same kind of ‘rumour mill’ (p.125) and ‘ground-floor gossips’ (p.145) and ‘office wits’ (p.163) that all JLC’s sweary mavericks inspire. He even has devoted ‘Hector-watchers’ (p.126), as there are ‘Bachmann-watchers’ and watchers of each of this character type in all the novels going back to Tinker, Tailor (and even turn out to be ‘Perry watchers’, on page 180). It’s as if every JLC character comes trailing a retinue of adoring followers, like a supermodel or film star.

Hector explains himself:

‘You’re on record as believing that our green and pleasant land is in dire need of saving from itself. I happen to share that opinion. I’ve studied the disease. I’ve lived in the swamp. It is my informed conclusion that we are suffering, as an ex-great nation, from top-down corporate rot. And that’s not just a judgement of an ailing old fart. A lot of people in my Service make a profession of not seeing things in black and white. Do not confuse me with them. I’m a late-onset, red-toothed radical with balls. Still with me?’ (p.119)

No, frankly. This is worthless as any kind of political analysis, and it just confirms your opinion of Hector – who is the lynchpin and centre of the plot – as, well, an ailing old fart. Is this how the author sees himself – a late-arriving radical, a maverick, the man who tells it like he sees it, damn the consequences and that’s not smoke up your arse?

There is a bit of sub-plot thrown in whereby Hector, a few years earlier, took leave from the Service to fight off the aggressive takeover of his family firm by dastardly corporate raiders. His battle made the press, in which he is described as ‘a doughty lone warrior’ fighting off ‘vulture capitalists’ (p.126), depicted as the kind of gentlemanly, paternalistic, tweedy business owner that went extinct in the 1950s. So the reader is not at all surprised to learn that the doughty warrior is ‘a stubborn technophobe’ (p.145).

A man, in other words, completely unsuitable for the 21st century world he finds himself in, who is not trusted or respected by his superiors and who, as we shall see, embarks on a ramshackle security mission which completely fails.

With Hector we get our first introduction to the office politics of the security services, insofar as this wild ‘maverick’ has trouble getting his superiors on-board for his projects (just as Bachmann had trouble with his bosses in the previous novel).

This is especially true of the Head of his Department, William J. Matlock. Since no le Carré character goes un-nicknamed (just like back at prep school), Matlock is immediately referred to as Billy Boy Matlock or plain ‘Bully Boy’ (p.130). From the start Hector conveys the sense that there are wheels within wheels at the security service, and that he is struggling against official scepticism, bureaucratic inertia, and worse, to get the Dima project signed off.

Dima’s career

Through all Hector’s bluster and swearing, it emerges that the security services know about Dima and have a good record of his career. For Dima is currently the finance officer for the seven brotherhoods which dominate the Russian crime underworld. As a youth he was imprisoned in the harshest possible labour camp in the Kolyma region of Siberia. He was sentenced to 15 years hard labour for murdering a military administrator who frequented his horrible state-built family apartment, and who ushered him and the other kids out of the apartment while he screwed their mother, very noisily, so that the rest of the floor could hear it all. Until teenage Dima snapped and stabbed him to death. (As with Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels, every reference to ordinary life in Russia makes it sound unbearably awful.)

In the Kolyma camp Dima got covered in underworld tattoos, and became a vor or member of a criminal brotherhood. Once released and back in Moscow, his natural aptitude for figures, and the contacts he made in prison, saw him rise through the ranks of his particular brotherhood, before becoming financial manager for the Big Seven, going on to create a vast international money-laundering operation of which he is now the lynchpin.

But now things are going wrong for Dima. A shadowy underworld figure referred to only as ‘the Prince’ (p.147) is taking over the brotherhoods and he wants to replace Dima with his own man. Dima is being forced to sign over his control of all the gangs’ finances, in two separate tranches which are coming up very soon, whereupon he knows he will be ‘whacked’.

The net is closing in very fast and violently. A protege of his, a vor he mentored named Misha, who had married Tamara’s sister (an ex-hooker) and so became family, was assassinated just a week before Perry and Gail met Dima. Hence the air of tension about the whole family which they both noticed, the bodyguards, the silent meeting in the attic of the villa. And why Misha’s newly orphaned children were among the large family group Gail, in particular, found herself entertaining on the beach.

All this explains Dima’s desperate approach to the first half-reputable Englishman he could find – the unfortunate Perry. And clarifies the whole following sequence of events – Perry approaching his fellow tutor, phoning Hector, writing his account and now, meeting Hector.

What Perry hadn’t told Gail – and part of the reason for her resentment at his secrecy – is that Dima insists that, when he meets representatives of British security, Perry and Gail are present as a guarantee for his safety. Hector now offers Perry his proposition: do he and Gail want to work for him, and British intelligence, on a dangerous mission, namely to help smuggle Dima and his family away from the Russian mafia, out of the Continent, to safety here in Blighty?

Perry returns to Gail’s flat and puts the proposition to her. She thinks of Dima’s girls. She thinks of the beautiful Natasha. She says yes.

Conspiracy at the highest levels

Dima has insisted that Gail and Perry rendezvous with him in a box to watch the French Open Tennis championship at the Roland-Garros stadium in Paris on June 7. So the team must be in place by then.

Hector meets with his boss, Matlock and plays him Dima’s tape, which contains hot information about the far-reaching criminal activities of the seven brotherhoods, some of which include British officials.

Then, a whole new arena in our understanding of the situation opens up, with the screening of video footage taken by British security agents of a party held aboard a luxury yacht given by ‘the Prince’ and featuring a rogues gallery of crooks AND a senior figure in the British Opposition (ie Labour) party, who happens to be charged with overseeing banking reform and regulation, AND Aubrey Longrigg, Matlock’s predecessor as senior executive in MI6 itself!

Once again in a le Carré late fiction, Britain’s darkest enemy seems to be inside the ranks of its own ‘Establishment’: as in The Night Manager where the evil arms smuggler was shown to have supporters within the security services, as in The Mission Song where an illegal African coup was mounted with the help of ‘elements’ of the British security services.

Same here. Hector is playing a ‘dangerous’ game by trying to secure Dima’s defection, since the Russian’s confession will implicate some very influential people indeed, people who will pull every string to make the mission fail or to silence Dima.

The plan

While these high-level machinations trundle on, Gail and Perry undergo a detailed preparation for their role in the great Dima defection, an abbreviated course in spy skills given by Ollie and Luke. (Throughout the book we hear more and more about Luke, about his unhappy marriage and his multiple affairs and indiscretions. He is quickly ‘little Luke’ and moves on to being described as ‘randy little Luke’, not least because he rather too overtly fancies Gail, another string in her bow of permanent irritation.)

Gail and Perry are flown to Paris, put up at a hotel and the next day, as arranged, accidentally-on-purpose, bump into Dima in one of the shopping malls outside the Roland-Garros stadium.

Dima is accompanied by a large group of Russian mafiosi, including the Prince himself, and a number of western courtiers, including the over-the-top ‘queen’, Bunny Popham, the sinister Italian fixer, Dell Oro, and a former Royal Navy officer, de Salis, now PR man for the Prince in the City of London.

Dima is being kept under the beady watch of sundry heavies but gaily invites Gail and Perry to join him in their luxury box for the big game featuring Roger Federer (since all the best Society events nowadays have special boxes for the Russian mafia).

Out of all these courtesies and invitations, it is somehow agreed that Dima and ‘the Professor’ will play a little amateur match (after everyone has enjoyed the big one with Federer) on one of the small, private courts. It is pouring down with rain, but they decide to proceed anyway and the group of criminal VIPs, their hookers and hangers-on, as well as the armed hoods watching his every move, don’t seem to find this suspicious.

But in fact this match is an elaborate excuse for Dima to go with Perry down to a subterranean ‘massage room’ where Hector is waiting – to introduce himself to Dima, and ask him vital questions about the timing of his signing over of his fiduciary powers, to explain how they’re planning to snatch him, to quiz him about his family who are still back in Switzerland and how they will be brought to safety.

Hector and Dima shake hands on the deal, then Dima and Perry sally out to play their rather silly game of tennis in the rain. Once it’s over, both players return to the ‘massage room’, where Hector and Dima make final arrangements – before both players return, showered and changed, to the hoods drinking champagne in their box.

The snatch

Next day our team are in place – as in an episode of Mission Impossible – at the Bellevue Palace Hotel, which is where the Russian contingent is staying.

Luke is in the lobby, posing as an innocent bystander tapping away on his laptop. When Dima comes downstairs with the Prince and other heavies he asks to go for a pee in what happens to be the downstairs toilet. Down he goes, followed by Luke, who none of the Russkies know or suspect. As they turn a corner and are hidden from view of the mafia, in one fell swoop Luke clobbers one of Dima’s two minders with his laptop, while Dima turns, punches and savagely kicks the other one to the ground.

They flee out the back door – carefully unlocked in advance – jump into the car stashed in a nearby car park, roar out onto the street and are well on their way to the remote Alpine village of Wenden, before the Russkies realise anything is wrong.

Collecting the family

Meanwhile, Gail and Perry have been driven by Ollie, in a horsebox as a disguise, to Berne, where Dima has told us his family are staying. Here they hurriedly load up Tamara, the boys et al. Except that the beautiful teen Natasha is not there! That morning she had asked her bodyguard, Igor, to drive her to the station. Gail – who had formed a close bond with Natasha on the beach and then carried on exchanging messages by text and phone – volunteers to track the teenager down and bring her to the safe house.

Reluctantly, Perry and Ollie leave her and drive the rest of the family direct to the house in Wenden. What Gail knows that none of the others do – because they’ve discussed it in text messages – is that Natasha is pregnant by her ski instructor, Max. Gail knows the ski resort where Max lives and has a shrewd idea that’s where Natasha has gone.

After taking the train there, Gail asks around and quickly finds the house of the dashing instructor, and there finds a miserable Natasha cowering on the sofa. She has discovered that her Alpine Adonis is in fact married with a child of his own and is being offered tea by his kindly wife, all unawares of the situation. Ah. Teenage love. Gail gently removes Natasha and transports her via a series of trains towards the safe house and to the rendezvous with the main party.

Tension

Now that the 250 pages of meetings and interviews are over, and that something is actually happening, these last forty pages of the novel become genuinely tense. For a start the various cars driven by Ollie et al – and Gail and Natasha on their train – seem to be stopped and asked for their tickets or their passes or their car permits, more than is strictly necessary.

They become convinced that some kind of alert is out for them, even though no law has been broken. The text powerfully conveys the strong suspicion that the Swiss authorities have been tipped off by – might even be collaborating with – the Russian mafia. At each stopping, as the police kick the tyres and ask for the boot to be opened and then stare at them for a long time as they drive off, JLC very effectively builds up the tension and the certainty in the reader’s mind that one or all of them will be arrested, assassinated, blown up – that something terrible is going to happen.

Delay

Gail, Perry, Luke, Ollie, Dima and his family are now all holed up in a remote Swiss chalet awaiting the signal for them to be shipped to England. And wait. And wait.

Because the running thread through the book describing Hector’s struggles with his superiors – with his boss Matlock, and the people above him, and also the baleful influence of Longrigg and other shadowy figures – now comes to the fore.

Hector phones the team from London, bitterly reporting delays, with the Home Office, passport, immigration, HMRC, all putting blockers in the way. Meanwhile, the hours turn into days, day after day, of tense waiting and diminishing hope for Dima, his family and the team.

In their conversations, JLC is at pains to bring out the theme of all his post-Cold War fiction, that the Enemy Within, the greed and corruption inside the so-called ‘Establishment’, which infects the higher reaches of British society – Parliament, the banks, corporate lawyers, multinational corporations – is at least as bad as the Enemy Outside, terrorism or international crime.

Thus it is strongly implied that a cohort of 40 or so MPs, a number of buyable Lords, the Financial Services Authority, parts of the Press guided by PR consultants, have all been bought and paid for by the Russian mafia. As one character puts it, at a period of crippling credit crunch, any money – even Russian mafia money – is good, especially if it comes in billions.

Eventually, Hector tells Luke and Perry that he’s got conditional approval to fly Dima to London and that, if Dima’s information satisfies the security services and other stakeholders, then the family can follow.

Perry accompanies Luke and Dima to the tiny private airport at Belp, near the safe house, and there are last hugs and handshakes. He notes that Dima seems a shrunk, lost man, having abandoned hope over these last soul-sapping days.

Fin

Dima and ‘randy little Luke’ board the plane and Perry watches it take off, bank and then blow up. BOOM. The flaming fragments falling to the snowy earth. That’s the end. There’s a page giving an impartial record of the ‘official enquiries’ held into the ‘incident’ which speculate about ‘instrument failure’ or ‘pilot error’. Oh well. Nothing at all about Perry or Gail or Ollie or Yvonne or the rest of Dima’s family or Hector.

Just a cold bleak end.


Reader response

So a high-level Russian mafiosi is murdered. Do I care? Nope. Will Gail and Perry go back to their normal lives, sadder and wiser? Yes. Will Hector the maverick’s career be damaged, maybe finished? Probably, but he is ‘an ailing old fart’, anyway. Is it sad to see ‘randy little Luke’ blown to pieces? Yes, but he was as tiresome as all the other characters.

In fact, the only people I felt anything for were the two unnamed pilots of the plane who were, presumably, totally innocent of any involvement in anything and are the most genuine victims of the whole book.

Am I scared or concerned that ‘senior figures’ in the Establishment are somehow ‘in cahoots’ with possibly criminal elements of the Russian mafia? Once I’ve put the book down and the sense of fear generated by the clever writing towards the end has faded away – No. I can well imagine MPs and Lords working as consultants for companies which are ‘fronts’ for dubious activities – they’ve done that for centuries.

All of us know that our banks have been involved in countless criminal activities, from selling us PPI to laundering drug money – so no surprises there. Do I believe that the British Security Services engage in illegal and criminal activities? Well, we know they bugged and burgled their way across London for decades, and Edward Snowden’s revelations proved the astonishing degree of their surveillance over us, and we’ve known about the US-UK policy of extraordinary rendition for some time.

So, although JLC is outraged at these travesties, he seems to have discovered them a long time after the rest of us. The one claim that stands out from these books, is that some elements of the British Security Services actively conspire against other elements in the same services, to collaborate with international criminals and to quash investigations into their activities. But again, since 9/11 and the decision to invade Iraq, it’s become common knowledge that different security organisations don’t talk to each other, withhold information, are poorly co-ordinated, and so on. That this sometimes crosses the line into actively criminal behaviour would require more proof than a novel.

No matter how serious, complicated and well-documented many of these issues are, in imaginative terms, I’d say these books fail to convince you because – whatever the facts of the matter – the style of these novels all too often makes the characters seem absurd.


Style

This is because every aspect of the style is overblown.

Legendary characters

From the get-go the characters are ‘legendary’, ‘fabled’, ‘famous’, much talked-about, the subject of the ubiquitous ‘gossips’ and ‘rumour mills’, with sets of ‘watchers’ devoted to monitoring their every move, as if they are film stars or celebrities.

Where are they legendary? In the world they move in? Or in the author’s mind, where he creates theatres of overacting?

  • … Perry says, parading his fabled powers of recall. (p.35)
  • Perry on guard over his celebrated memory. (p.47)
  • He was renowned for his ability to quote tracts of English literature on the strength of a single read. (p.58)
  • His surprise had been all the greater therefore when a month into his sentence he lifted the phone that hardly ever rang to hear himself being summoned by Hector Meredith to lunch with him forthwith at his famously dowdy London club (p.123). ‘Forthwith’?
  • Was it because Longrigg and Matlock had for years been famously at daggers drawn? (p.163)
  • Hector’s fabled nerve (p.152)
  • a view of the fabled Lauterbrunnen Valley (p.276)

The ringmaster presents!

The narrative introduces characters with the facetious over-ripeness of a circus ringmaster – the eminent this, the legendary that, introducing for your deelight and deelectation none other than the one and only, world famous Mr Mafia Himself!!!! Or, as Dima’s become by page 277:

The world’s number-one money-launderer.

The circus master idea is made explicit late in the novel, when the text refers to ‘Giles de Salis, ringmaster of the media circus’ (p.282). Is le Carré consciously parodying this bombastic manner? Why? It’s one of the many ways in which there is no subtlety or nuance in these late novels. Everyone is performing grand, larger-than-life roles.

Another aspect is the way all the characters accumulate a large number of descriptors:

Perry the English tutor (p. 35) Perry as capsule historian (p.109) Perry the puritan (p.48) Perry the climber of north face overhangs (p.54) Perry the devoted mountaineer (p.299)

Gail the actress’s daughter, Gail the barrister (p.184) the immaculate Gail (p.94)

Little Luke, randy little Luke, Luke the conciliator, adept little Luke, dapper Luke, little B-list Luke, Luke the habitual worrier (p.276), Luke the good man on a rope (p.304)

Mocking sobriquets

Giving all the characters facetious tags is very double-edged. Sometimes the tone is one of reckless over-promotion; but at least as often it smacks of public school mockery. The tags which attach themselves like limpets to the characters, are often mocking, knowing, superior, dismissive.

  • Nine p.m. approx. Supper arrives, wheeled in not by any old room-service waiter, but the venerable Ambrose himself. (p.32)
  • ‘This very fine bottle of champagne comes to you folk courtesy of the one and only Mr Dima himself.’ (p.32)
  • the hallowed archives (p.140)
  • Yvonne, our Iron Maiden (p.138)

These larky adjectives don’t help the plot at all. Maybe they’re intended to add depth to the characters but they do the opposite, turning all of them into caricatures:

  • Deft little Luke papering over the gaps (p.38)
  • Genial Ollie the driver (p.40)
  • Little Luke ever the conciliator (p.49)
  • Perry the innocent (p.146)

Two of the Prince’s entourage are never named but Gail immediately makes up nicknames for them – Peter and the Wolf – which everyone agrees are jolly apt, and that’s how they’re referred to for the rest of the book. Similarly, one of Dima’s minders is a lean lanky man and Gail nicknames him ‘the cadaverous philosopher’, which is how he’s referred to for the rest of the book.

Everyone is infected with the same kind of facetious public school banter. For example, Hector is referred to as the team’s ‘supreme leader’ (p.85), the head of HR is referred to as ‘the queen of Human Resources’ (p.124).

Because Gail is not going to be available for work during ‘the mission’, she texts her chambers to get a colleague to cover for her. The colleague is named Helga, but these facts aren’t enough for the narrative, which immediately caricatures her:

Helga her bête noire? Man-eating Helga of the fishnet stockings who played the Chambers’ male silks like a lyre. (p.214)

JLC doesn’t just show his characters – he is continually poking you in the chest, nudging your elbow and crowding you into accepting his caricature estimation of them. And I intensely dislike being bullied by a book, instead of being allowed to judge and work out for myself. It is condescending. It insults the reader’s intelligence to be continually nudged and reminded that Luke is little or randy, that Yvonne is stern, that Gail is immaculate, and so on and on and on and on.

Italics

The overblown effect of the characters is reinforced by the liberal use of italics to emphasise random parts of the characters’ dialogue.

  • Perry wasn’t signing when he signed the form, he was joining. (p.34)
  • ‘After picking her way delicately over the sand for all eyes to see, she then settles herself languidly under the furthest sunshade of the row and begins her terribly serious reading. Right, Perry?’ (p.35)
  • ‘Her whole body was like a warning sign in black and red. Forget Dima, I thought. This is really something. And of course I was still wondering what her problem was. Because boy, did she have one.’ (p.57)

There are scads of italics on every page, which so often emphasise trivial and insignificant details that they not only become dreadfully wearing to read, but eventually teach the reader to ignore half the things the characters are saying.

Public school tags

Adding to the tone of heavy-handed public school facetiousness, the text is sprinkled with tags from the Bible or popular classics, knowing references to clichés from hymns or the Bible or Shakespeare.

  • The Lord is in his heaven (p.122)
  • in heaven or on earth (p.139)
  • ‘our green and pleasant land’ (p.119)

It is a recurrent habit for the most pompous characters to add ‘Amen’ to the end of any grand or definitive sentence.

Humour

Similarly, the text tries to bully you into thinking things are funny when they aren’t. Every one of these later novels has a scene where protagonists discourse in a restaurant or lecture room or bar to an audience which falls about ‘hooting’ with laughter, who interrupt the speech with gales of hysterical mirth, who explode with laughter – when nothing funny has actually been said.

  • [Dima] ‘You know Jack London? Number one English writer?’ [Perry] ‘Not personally.’ It was a joke. (p.23)
  • [Niki the driver] ‘To cut undergrowth you got to have big knife.’.. ‘I wish we had, Niki,’ Gail cries, still in her father’s skin. ‘I’m afraid we English never carry knives.’ What gibberish am I talking? Never mind. Talk it. ‘Well, some of us do, to be truthful, but not people like us. We’re the wrong social class. You’ve heard about our class system? Well, in England you only carry a knife if you’re lower-middle or below!’ And more hoots of laughter.. (p.74) Hoots.
  • ‘Is this the Men’s Singles Final or the Battle of Borodino?’ [Dima] shouts gaily, pointing at Napoleon’s troops. She makes him say it again, lets out a hoot of laughter, and squeezes his hand. (p.197) Hoot
  • ‘Do I sound like a scoutmaster?’ ‘I’ll say you do,’ said Perry… ‘Good,’ said Hector complacently to jolly laughter (p.209) I’ll say
  • Dell Oro was asking Bunny Popham whether it was too early for champagne and Bunny was saying it depended on the vintage. Everyone exploded with laughter (p.220) Exploded
  • Bunny Popham, queen of the roost, is addressing the unwashed. ‘Our brave gladiators have finally agreed to grace us with their presence. Let us all immediately adjourn to the Arena!’ A patter of knowing laughter for Arena. ‘There are no lions today, apart from Dima. No Christians either, unless the Professor is one, which I can’t vouch for.’ More laughter. (p.227)

Humour is difficult in a novel, but this novel’s consistent promising of humour and consistent failure to deliver it, adds to the sense of untrustworthy over-reaching, of a book which says it is a subtle indictment of corruption at the highest levels, but feels like a collection of posh caricatures swearing and doing funny voices.

Dated

The characters either sound like 1950s servants or 1950s debutantes.

  • [Gail] ‘And I mean honestly, try buying decent wrapping paper in St John’s, Antigua.’ (p.51)
  • If they had been looking for adventure, the Nature Path alone would have provided it. They must have been the first people to use if for simply years. (p.52) Simply years.

Dixon of Dock Green servility:

  • ‘All the same,’ said Luke, ‘If you don’t mind, sir.’ (p.58)
  • ‘And you an experienced lawyer, if I may say so.’ (p.60)

Posh

JLC emphasises that the two lead characters went to State school (golly, the daring). But in imaginative terms they are just the same upper-class, pukka characters as swan around all his late novels. Gail has a nice flat in Primrose Hill, her brother likes shooting pheasants in the country with his rich friends, she talks about her and Perry’s ‘Brideshead look’, how good he looks in flannels, and says ‘daahhling’ as liberally as Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. The text is more at home with Luke who went to Eton (are there any other schools, darling?) and his wife, the French aristocrat. She’s the one who gives the MI6 building at Vauxhall the terrifically funny nickname of La Lubyanka sur Tamise (p.141), the Lubyanka on the Thames. It’s so terrifically funny because it’s in French, you see.

The fact that Perry’s an Oxford don doesn’t shed much light on teaching English at Oxford, but it does mean that:

a) he is comfortable in JLC’s own posh, pukka, upper-class milieu, and so can confidently discuss Dima’s unrealistic request to get his children into Eton and Roedean schools
b) his supposedly ‘flawless’, academic memory is a naked authorly contrivance which enables him to repeat vast stretches of his initial conversations with Dima to Hector verbatim, allowing the scene to be told in the book’s long opening flashback
c) it allows all the characters to refer to him, in typical cartoon style, as ‘the Professor’, and for the narrative to make plays on his profession: thus Hector jokes that Perry’s written account of the meeting with Dima is an ‘alpha plus’ essay, Hector refers to his retelling of events as his ‘recitation’ and ‘lecture’, his interview is referred to as his ‘viva voce‘ and so – leadenly – on.

Conclusion

All these elements, taken together, amount to a tone of permanent overemphasis and exaggeration which can accurately be described as ‘bombast’ – defined as ‘speech or writing that is meant to sound important or impressive but is not sincere or meaningful’.

The sustained use of sarcasm and facetiousness, the shouty italics and the overselling of every character, the use of swearing and bluster where there should be thought or analysis, all give the impression that someone is shouting at you for hours on end. It becomes very wearing and dulls any interest in the storyline which – once abstracted from the bombastic style and improbable dialogue – is actually quite gripping.

You can see why a lot of these later novels have been successfully turned into TV dramatisations or movies. By changing medium you at a stroke remove the intolerably mannered style; all you have to do then is completely rewrite all the dialogue, as if it’s spoken by real people living in the 21st century – and the resulting storylines emerge as very compelling.

My little pony

Almost all John le Carré’s post-Cold War novels contain a my-little-pony moment, where a lead character reveals their ineluctably upper-class childhood with a sentimental reminiscence about the little pony their parents bought them. The reference in  this novel is shorter than usual, but still works as a marker, indicating the pukka nature of Gail’s character and – by extension – of the text as a whole.

Early on in the story Gail is on the beach with Dima’s extended family, supervised by an older man who Gail has, of course, given a nickname – in this case ‘Uncle Vanya’ after the Chekhov play:

Uncle Vanya from Perm is up his ladder with the family-sized pistol in his belt and Natasha – whose name is a challenge to Gail every time she approaches it; she has to gather herself together and make a clean jump of it like horse-riding at school – Natasha is lying the other end of the beach in splendid isolation. (p.41)

‘Like horse-riding at school’.

The subject matter of this novel is very 2010, with its vision of a crime-infested Russia whose money has reached out to corrupt western banks and politicians and even the security services.

But the style and the text itself keep reverting to a jolly hockeysticks mentality and prep school phraseology which are more reminiscent of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers novels, with added swearwords.


Credit

Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré was published in 2010 by Viking books. All quotes are from the 2011 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – 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.
1962 A Murder of Quality – 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.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – 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.
1965 The Looking Glass War – 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.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – 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.
1979 Smiley’s People – 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.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – 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.
1986 A Perfect Spy – 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.
1989 The Russia House – 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.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – 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.
1993 The Night Manager – 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.
1995 Our Game – Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – the legendary 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 eminently dislikeable upper-class twits.
1996 The Tailor of Panama – Old Etonian conman Andrew Osnard 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, the legendary Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based in a fictional 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 with a sick and jaundiced world.
1999 Single & Single – 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.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Astonishingly posh diplomat’s wife, Tessa Quayle, discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results among its poor and powerless patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining the events leading up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s prolonged quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – Former public school 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. This in turn comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha contacts Ted again and unwittingly lures him into a Machiavellian American sting operation, whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, a set-up which climaxes with them being shot down like dogs. First ‘historic’ part good – second part overblown anti-Americanism.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school boy Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, a half-Congolese translator, is invited by British intelligence to lend his knowledge of arcane African languages and dialects to an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions. These have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, ostensibly in the name of negotiating peace, but who are actually planning to engineer a coup and impose a compliant leader who will allow his Western backers to plunder the country’s mineral resources. When Salvo learns this he sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man – Posh Hamburg-based British banker Tommy Brue and posh refugee lawyer Annabel Richter find themselves involved in a conspiracy by German security services to frame an apparently innocent Muslim refugee and, along with him, the moderate organiser of Muslim charities, as ‘terrorists’. But this dubious German plan is itself trumped by the CIA who betray all the characters in the book, violently kidnap the two Muslims, and take them away for indefinite incarceration and torture.
2010 Our Kind of Traitor – An Oxford don and his barrister girlfriend on holiday in Antigua get involved with a Russian mafiosi who wants to ‘defect’ to the British, exposing ‘corruption in high places’ – and end up playing crucial roles in the mission to rescue him and his family which, however, does not go according to plan.
2013 A Delicate Truth –

A Most Wanted Man by John le Carré (2008)

Le Carré’s default prose setting is pompous, preening, self-dramatising grandiosity, heavy-handed jocosity, leaden jokes and facetious 1950s dialogue. These traits are to the fore in this novel the character of Tommy Brue, owner of Brue Frères, a private bank in Hamburg. Like other JLC leading men, Tommy is in thrall to the memory of his ‘legendary’ father, the bank’s founder, remembered via the old boy’s embarrassingly bad quotes and dimwit aperçus, which I assume we’re meant to take seriously.

‘Tommy, my son, arithmetic is the one part of our business that doesn’t lie.’ (p.27)

Really? In banking? Who knew?

‘Never trust a beautiful woman, Tommy. They’re a criminal class, the best there is.’ (p.42)

Rather than a suave banker, Brue père, like so many JLC characters, sounds like a 1950s spiv. And his lumpen, unfunny humour has, alas, rubbed off on his son.

It wasn’t bull markets, bear markets, hedge funds or derivatives. It was cock-up. It was the persistent, he would go so far as to say the permanent sound, not to put too fine an edge on it, of excrement hitting your proverbial fan. (p.30)

The text all too often presents this kind of elaborate facetiousness as howlingly funny, whereas it makes large stretches of le Carré’s later novels almost unreadable.

Another JLC technique / vice is to describe or build up a character by inventing an imaginary chorus of colleagues, fellow worker and associates to comment on him – the rumour mill, the office gossips, fans, devotees, the so-and-so-watchers – who are then made to comment and elaborate on the characters, as if they are pop stars or celebrities, topics of continual observation and amazement.

[Bachmann] cooled his heels after fathering a near-epic scandal of which only the sketchiest outlines had ever reached the gossip mill: excessive zeal, said the rumours… (p.58)

According to rumour they had given sex a try and declared it a disaster area. (p.67)

Related to the technique of making characters the centre of worlds of rumour, gossip and intrigue, is to describe characters, their qualities or rooms or possessions, as legendary, fabled and generally tremendously well-known.

The outsize mahogany bookcase that filled the whole of one wall was similarly the stuff of family legend… Had [Tommy’s father read all the books it contained?] Legend said not. (p.25)

Big Melik, as he was also known to his admiring neighbourhood… (p.1)

Edward Amadeus OBE had been a legend in his lifetime and was a legend still. (p.186)

What had happened to the rebel in her, to her fabled powers of argument and resistance so valued by her family? (p.244)

In the hands of a legendary woman researcher called Frau Zimmerman… ‘As with decoding, so with invisible transfers, the legendary Frau Zimmerman resumes in her schoolmarm’s South German. (pp.318, 320)

One of the saddest moments in his life had been standing before the bonfire in his garden in Vienna with his first wife Sue on one side of him and Georgie the other, watching the fabled Brue Frères card index go up in smoke. (p.401)

Günther Bachmann was a famous chancer and nothing was ever going to change that. (p.406)

‘A legend in his lifetime.’ Another element in the over-selling of the characters is when they or the narrator (interchangeably) use ‘our’ to refer to them – as if we’ve adopted them, as if we are all part of the same nice snug gang, as if the whole narrative is taking part among members of the sixth form of a pukka public school.

Nobody should be interested in Mr Findlay. Mr Findlay should be relegated to oblivion forthwith and forever, is what should happen to our Mr Findlay,’ she said, adopting a furious nursery-rhyme voice. (p.267)

… where Lisa and Maria, our in-house Arabists, were already sitting… (p.211)

As to our gallant president and managing director… (p.343)

… assigning his grandfather’s chair to Our Esteemed Interpreter… (p.387)

Even more minor characters, who don’t happen to be legends in their lifetimes, still often merit facetious adjectives, indicative of the knowing mockery of superior public school banter.

… followed by an hour talking to his revered solicitor in Glasgow… (p.335)

And yet another way in which the whole tone of these later novels is over the top – over-egging the characters and overselling the action – is its addiction to italics, just to ram home the vehemence of the characters’ feelings and the importance of what they’re saying.

This scattering of italics happens on every single page so that after a while you feel that you’re reading the ravings of a man with the italics version of Tourette’s Syndrome given to utterly random outbursts of inexplicable emphases.

‘I was extremely young,’ she reported, in a tone of unsparing self-diagnosis. ‘Younger than my years by far, remember. If I compare myself with modern youth, I was a total infant. I came of a poor family, and had no experience of the larger world whatever.’ (p.261)

Scores of times, on every page. Becomes very irritating.

The plot

Issa

Issa is a Chechen refugee: he has escaped from Russia to Turkey, getting beaten and tortured along the way, before being traded across Europe into Copenhagen, and then by container lorry to Hamburg where the novel is set.

Issa follows, then imposes himself on Big Melik, a Turkish weight-lifter, boxer, footballer, and his kindly mother, Leyla, who are both hoping to claim citizenship in Germany. Out of pure good Muslim kindness, they put him up and contact the refugee charity, Sanctuary North, and its attractive young refugee lawyer, Annabel Richter. Annabel visits to interview Issa, who is obscurely convinced that the British banker Tommy Brue, who runs a small private bank in Hamburg, can somehow help him.

It turns out that Issa’s father was a Russian Red Army colonel who commanded some of the forces which went on the rampage during that country’s wars with tiny Chechnya. Obviously the Russians raped and killed lots of Chechens – their standard modus operandi – but after the colonel raped Issa’s mother (aged just 15), he kept her round long enough for her to show that she was pregnant, and then to bear the colonel a baby boy.

Issa’s mother was then murdered by her own family, who infiltrated a brother into the enemy camp who killed her for shaming the family. Somehow the baby Issa survived all this and was brought back to Russia by the colonel. What I couldn’t figure out was how a baby brought up by a Red Army general turns into a fanatically devout Muslim, committed to saying his prayers five times a day, carrying a locket of the Koran on his wrist, and insisting nobody need help him because Allah will provide.

After the colonel’s death, Issa fell foul of the Russian authorities but escaped to Turkey, was again imprisoned and still bears the scars of his beatings and torture. But he was helped to escape by the colonel’s old fixer, Anatoly, ‘a fixer extraordinaire and straightener of everything’ (p.259), who gives him cash and also – crucially to the whole plot – a scrap of paper with details of the colonel’s German bank account.

The bank of Brue Frères

It is this which has brought Issa to Hamburg and prompts him to ask Annabel to find for him the banker Tommy Brue. For it was with Tommy’s legendary father that the legendary colonel made his legendary agreement. Back in the 1980s, Colonel Grigori Karpov (p.258) was recruited by British Intelligence and began passing secrets to our side. We paid him for his ‘product’, and put the money into a safe account with the discreet and obscure private bank of Brue Frères. Run by Brits. Trustworthy chaps.

So a Soviet colonel was an agent for MI6. We paid his fee into a private British bank. He had a natural child by a Chechen girl who somehow got brought up as a hyper-devout Muslim. Who has now travelled across Europe to claim his father’s fortune. OK.

Günter Bachmann

Günter Bachmann works for the Foreign Acquisitions Unit of Hamburg’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution i.e. their secret service, which is soon informed of Issa’s arrival and that he making interesting enquiries. (Right from the start it is made clear that Germany has a number of security forces which all compete with each other, squabbling and fighting for resources, with final decisions being taken by a senior committee of bureaucrats in Berlin.)

Bachmann is, of course, like so many JLC protagonists, a maverick. He is the subject of a busy ‘rumour mill’, the target of excitablee ‘gossip’, there are apparently countless Bachmann-watchers, he is a legend in the service. And so on.

In a really bizarre scene, we see Bachmann giving a speech to his staff about the history and function of German’s security services in the aftermath of 9/11. Puzzling,y, we are told he gives this speech to the staff so regularly that it has acquired a nickname: with characteristic leaden humour we are told that it is ‘inevitably’ known as Bachmann’s Cantata. Because Bachmann sounds like Bach, you see. Bach Cantata. Bachmann Cantata. Hilarious, no?

But why does he have to give the same speech at regular intervals to his staff? So frequently that it has acquired a nickname? Are they particularly forgetful secret agents?

Bachmann’s Cantata consists of him hopping from one leg to the other, mimicking the voices of idiot politicians or the press, running the length of the meeting room to pop up behind people, appearing in different parts of the room to carry on hopping and doing funny voices, as he mimics and enacts various conflicting points of view about post-9/11 security issues in Europe.

This extraordinary and bizarre scene is, I think, meant to depict Bachmann as somehow funny, a wit, a diamond geezer, a legend in his lifetime. But it actually makes him come over as a half-wit and, like so many other aspects of the novel’s style and dialogue, completely undermines its claims to seriousness.

‘Okay, we all know the bad joke: you can’t buy an Arab, but you can rent one. We couldn’t even rent one, for fuck’s sake! With a couple of noble exceptions I won’t bore you with, we had shit for live sources then. And we have shit for live sources now… Oh sure, we had any number of gallant German journalists and businessmen on our payroll.. But they’re not live sources. They’re not venal, disenchanted, radical imams, or Islamist kids halfway to the bomb belt. They’re not Osama’s sleepers, or his talent-spotters, or his couriers, or his quartermasters or paymasters, not even at fifty removes. They’re just nice dinner guests.’
He waited till the laughter had subsided. (p.71)

JLC assures us that this entire humourless rant is punctuated by howls of laughter from Bachmann’s adoring audience, as if he’s Lenny Henry Live at the Apollo. But JLC’s inability to judge what is genuinely funny and what he is merely telling us is funny, further undermines any authority the author has with us, further distances us from this peculiar, contrived text.

The majority of the later novels suffer from the further flaw that, at the key moment where there should be insightful analysis of the historical and geopolitical setting of the fiction, when you expect one or more of the less ludicrous characters to give a half-decent summary of the geopolitical issues which JLC obviously cares about so passionately – what you generally get is sweary ranting by a blustering buffoon. This novel is no exception. When I read ‘Bachmann’s Cantata’ to my son (18) he said it sounded like a talent contest in a lunatic asylum.

The general upshot is that Bachmann and his assistant Frey (now I would have laughed if she’d been called Robin) begin hatching a plan to keep tabs on Issa. Maybe they could ‘recruit’ him as a ‘source’ for the service, eyes and ears in Hamburg’s Muslim community.

Recap

To recap the characters so far: the German spymaster comes across as an imbecile, his assistant Erna Frey as a permanently sarcastic chorus, the English banker a pompous prat, the Chechen-Muslim hero as the Lost Child in a fairy tale, Big Melik a lumbering idiot, the narrator an orotund windbag.

It’s such an odd melange of contemporary setting with fairy tale plot and ludicrous characters that I shouldn’t have been surprised when the posh charity lawyer, Annabel, with wild improbability, decides to throw all her professional standards to the wind and fall in love with the skinny refugee man-child:

She must have known a moment would come – a client would come – that would cause her to abandon every professional and legal principle she had ever reluctantly embraced. (p.155)

Maybe this is meant to be serious and not as laughable as I, personally, found it.

The wider conspiracy

Meanwhile, the legendary maverick Bachmann is revealed to be even more of an idiot than he first appears, when he is paid a visit by the head of Hamburg Station, who reveals that the wider organisation has been keeping tabs on Issa for weeks, with informers at the local mosque, taped phone conversations, spotters watching his every move and so on.

In other words, the imbecile Bachmann – who works, remember, in the intelligence service – doesn’t even have a clue what’s happening in his own wider organisation. But still – very good at hopping from one leg to the other and doing funny voices to his staff who roll around the floor emitting hoots of laughter. That’s what counts.

MI6

But it’s not only Bachmann who finds himself outflanked. Brue is surprised to be visited by two dodgy Brits who identify themselves as Foreman and Lantern from the local branch of MI6. They knew his father; they know about Karpov; they’re here to question him about Issa.

Are these, finally, the reader hopes, going to be characters we can believe in? No. They are afflicted with the same facetious, lumbering style as all the other people in the book. For example, Foreman doesn’t refer to Lantern as his assistant or partner, but his ‘partner in crime’. Oh dear. The same jaunty banter that all the other characters us. Thus Lantern’s opening sentence is:

‘It’s a privilege to meet you, Tommy, and that’s a fact.’ (p.187)

Does anyone talk like that in 2016? These two jolly cards didn’t just know Tommy’s dad – they knew his ‘revered late father’ (p.191). They needed a quiet bank into which to pay the rewards to the old colonel, bless his cotton socks, which they started to do when Brue Frères was based in ‘dear old Vienna’.

‘I would have to consult my chief cashier. Lipizzaners are something of a world apart at Freres,’ he said. ‘That was how my father wished it to be.’
‘You’re telling me he did!’ Foreman exclaimed. ‘Your proverbial grave was a bloody chatterbox where E.A. was concerned! Exactly what I said to Ian here before you showed up. Didn’t I, Ian?’
‘His words, Tommy. Literally,’ said little Lantern with his pretty smile. (p.199)

They sound like they come from a starchy, British 1950s black-and-white crime movie. Much of the dialogue sounds like an Ealing comedy, with unnervingly random emphases dropped in along the way, all dished up with a liberal sprinkling of modern swearwords. Dixon of Dock Green might walk in at any moment, saying ‘Evening all, his words literally, Ian, that’s what he said to  me, and that’s a fact, me old matey.’

If Annabel – scion of a whole family of upper-class lawyers, father a judge, mother a judge and so on – falls in love with skinny, poverty-stricken wretch of the earth, Issa – then with equally gruesome inevitability, posh Tommy (unhappily married, a timid 60 year-old, but recipient of a jolly good public school education) falls hopelessly in love with lovely Annabel.

Presumably, for some readers, it is this ‘characterisation’ which lifts JLC out of the spy genre and makes his books contenders to be ‘serious fiction’. For me, though, it’s the exact opposite: Lthese grotesquely posh caricatures form the 1950s are precisely what undermines his later novels, makes them read like predictable cartoons.

Annabel’s flat

Annabel takes Issa to her flat to pack some stuff and then on to her other flat (it’s soo handy coming from a wealthy family) bought with a windfall from a recently dead relative. After all, the author has to park Issa somewhere and if he and Annabel shared the same flat that would create unwanted sexual frisson. For Issa is portrayed as so devout that he won’t touch, or even stand near, a woman.

This second hidden flat is down by the harbour and being done up by decorators. Here Issa hides out and Annabel comes to visit him daily and hear anecdotes about the different countries he’s been tortured in. She listens to him reciting heroic Chechen poetry and falls in love with him, like all wealthy civil liberties lawyers fall in love with all their poor sexist Muslim clients.

For his part, Issa confidently tells Annabel she will soon convert to Islam, at which point he will marry her and she will bear him many children. Some women dislike having the door held open for them because it’s patronising. Others appear to fall in love with beaten-up refugees who threateningly promise they will turn them into religiously indoctrinated baby machines. Each to their own.

German security intervenes

German agents visit Annabel at the refugee centre and question her hard in front of her boss, Ursula, though she’s tough enough to refuse to say where Issa is being hidden. She then goes to great lengths to get her beloved brother, Hugo the psychiatrist, to sign Issa into a private clinic in the country (her money will pay – wealthy family). But when she tells Issa this is what she’s arranged – to smuggle him out to this safe clinic – Issa refuses to go. With irritating rectitude, he tells her Allah will provide for his future. Cycling back from this last visit, she is kidnapped off the streets by German security.

Carried to a safe house, Annabel is slowly and steadily intimidated into playing along with German Intelligence, and forced to agree to their plan. It’s for his own good, they assure her. JLC describes the detail of her ‘interrogation’ in minute detail. This process, the process of how an interrogator slowly and carefully inveigles their way into the mind of the interviewee, has always been at the core of JLC’s novels, so it comes as no surprise to learn from his biography that it was in fact the function he himself performed when he worked for the security service in the 1950s.

The psychological to and fro of an interrogator trying to win over an informer, and the surprising revelations and confessions the informer can eventually be coaxed into making, obviously impress him 50 years later, and something of the fervour and precision and excitement of the experience comes over in these scenes.

Frau Ellenberger

Meanwhile, Bachmann goes and ‘interviews’ i.e. questions in depth, Tommy’s ancient secretary, Frau Ellenberger. He discovers

a) She had an affair with Tommy’s dad, although he was married – goodness, what a surprise – young impressionable secretary having an affair with much older, filthy rich employer, my word.
b) She disapproved of the Lipizzaner i.e. black, criminal accounts
c) She speaks in random italics like all the other characters in the book
d) Rather than retell the gist or summary of the conversations she’s recalling, she insists on impersonating the voices of all those involved, in wildly improbable detail, and thus comes across as nearly as much of an idiot as Bachmann, with the absurd impersonations and impressions of his legendary Cantata.

MI6 lean on Tommy

Then MI6’s man Lantern returns to visit Tommy Brue, making it clear that the service is very unhappy that Tommy wasn’t candid with them about the old colonel’s account or the presence of the colonel’s illegitimate son during their first conversation, and extra unhappy that he and Foreman had to learn about it from German security. ‘Embarrassing, old man.’

Lantern makes Tommy sign the Official Secrets Act with its various draconian clauses, accompanied by dire threats about what will happen to him, and his bank, for aiding and abetting terrorists. For everyone is now talking about Issa as if he is a certified terrorist, each of the security people accepting each others’ valuation of him as a dangerous radical, and tending to up the anti and increase their collective paranoia. Issa has even been given a codename, FELIX, and the conspiracy to incriminate and arrest him is now called Operation Felix.

Now they know where Annabel’s hidden him, Bachmann and his assistant Erna Frey set up base in the apartment below, and brief Annabel before and after every visit she makes about what to tell the boy. As in a lot of JLC novels – for example, the first hundred pages or so of Our Kind of Traitor – it becomes a question of her acting a part under the guidance of security service minders, who go on to analyse every word and inflection of every exchange she has with Issa, in mind-bogglingly minute detail. Either this is psychologically compelling – or very boring, depending on your taste.

Enter the CIA

At this point we are witness to a high-level conference of German security chiefs to discuss what they’re going to do with the man they have now all convinced themselves is a dangerous terrorist. To Bachmann’s dismay, a CIA agent he knows from his time in Beirut is also present. Mr CIA is introduced by the narrator as if by a circus ringmaster:

And sidling after Martha and so close on her heels that he could have been using her bulk for cover, none other than six-foot-something Newton, alias Newt, one-time deputy chief of operations at the US Embassy in Beirut. (p.306)

‘None other than…’ Are we meant to applaud?

Like all the other characters, Newt’s dialogue is sprinkled with random emphases and aggressive swearing.

‘Holy shit, Gunther, I last saw you stretched out in the bar of the Commodore! What the fuck are you doing in Hamburg, man!’ (p.306)

Probably designed to be a satire on a certain type of brash virile Yank, this characterisation is just tiresome.

Entrapping Dr Abdullah

At the meeting it becomes apparent that the assembled security agencies want Issa to a) cash in his legacy b) contact a certain Dr Abdullah, a pillar of the moderate Muslim community in Hamburg and organiser of many charities c) so that they can entrap Abdullah for receiving money from a ‘known terrorist’. So Issa and Abdullah are going to be entrapped.

Bachmann is assured by his bosses that he can then pick up Abdullah and take him to a safe house, there to recruit him as a uniquely well-placed source embedded in the Hamburg Muslim community. OK. He is mollified. He hardly does any hopping fro one leg to another. And hardly any funny voices.

As with all late JLC it is made very clear that the western security services are far more dangerous than any terrorists: it’s western security services who implicate innocent people, arrest them without cause, fly them round the world for torture and indefinite confinement, blackmail and intimidate anyone they feel like. They act above any laws or restraints.

In accordance with the plan, Annabel is tasked by her minders with persuading Issa to meet with Dr Abdullah (now codenamed SIGNPOST) and donate his legacy to the many good Muslim causes which Abdullah manages – while Tommy is sent to meet Abdullah in person and gently introduce him to the idea that a mystery-money-donating stranger wants to give him the biggest bequest of his career. The plummy banker and lawyer have become pawns in the wider intelligence plan. They are entrapping the two good Muslims.

At Abdullah’s institute, Tommy meets his minders and his worthy family, the daughter studying to be a doctor, the honourable and devoted son. Abdullah is a Good Man. When he is told how much he stands to gain – by now we’ve been told that Issa is set to inherit $12.5 million from his dead father’s investments – Dr Abdullah’s face lights up. Oh, all the good and noble charitable causes he will be able to endow!

Never had [Tommy] seen a more radiant picture of innocent rapture than the good doctor now. (p.346)

Still, Abdullah is no fool and Tommy has to work hard to persuade him to accept the tainted money. Abdullah is tentative and hesitant throughout the rest of the book. Issa for his part, explains to Annabel that he has some plausible ‘conditions’ before handing over all his legacy to Dr A. For a start Chechen charities must receive first tranches of the money – and he wants enough to fund his own training as a doctor so he can go back to his country and heal the sick – but the rest is Abdullah’s to dispose of as the wise and good man thinks best.

Brue had demanded of his MI6 minders a) a passport for Issa b) guarantee of no prosecution for Annabel. He meets her at the Atlantic restaurant to show them both and assure her of his good faith. He is hopelessly in love with her. She notices but can’t help. She is hopelessly in love with Issa. The reader notes with relief that there are only 50 or so pages left till the end of the book.

So Annabel goes off to collect the domineering, patriarchal Issa, still working away at converting her to the True Faith so she can start bearing his children. She persuades him – still pretty suspicious – down into the limousine which will take them to the bank. Unbeknown to the two saintly Muslims, the meeting between Abdullah and Issa at the Frères bank is incredibly staked out, with two competing factions of German security and British Intelligence taping it and watching from a van outside.

Big Melik and Leyla

We periodically revert to the characters we met right at the start of the book, the gentle giant Big Melik and his mother Leyla, the Turkish Muslims who were hoping to get German citizenship and were kind enough to take Issa into their home before introducing him to Annabel.

Half way through the book, we had seen Bachmann assure his assistant Erna that Melik and Leyla would be able to fly off to her niece’s wedding in Turkey and then return to Germany where their citizenship application would be supported. Now Bachmann embarrassedly admits that the powers-that-be above him have decreed that Melik and Leyla will be refused return to Germany on the grounds of harbouring a known ‘terrorist’, and in all likelihood imprisoned, and probably tortured, in Turkey.

Erna isn’t impressed. Bachmann’s team aren’t hooting with laughter now at his uproarious antics. His prattish ineptitude is coming home to roost.

Shocking climax

Now Bachmann is disguised as a grumpy taxi driver parked outside the bank. The plan is that Tommy will supervise the transfer of Issa’s funds down in the vault, then ring for a taxi and hey presto Bachmann will appear – fully prepared to whisk an unsuspecting Abdullah off to a safe house where he can set about interrogating him.

Over the closed circuit TV we watch Tommy take Abdullah and Issa and Annabel down into the bowels of the bank, there to open an ancient deposit box and extract the bonds which represent the colonel’s legacy and Issa’s fortune. With a few strokes of the pen the $12.5 million is legally signed over to Issa and Tommy has transferred it into an active account. He and Abdullah then pore over the list of Abdullah’s charities and systematically dispose of the fortune in batches of payments to worthy causes. Allah’s will is done.

Much shaking of hands and congratulatory laughter, as they get their coats and emerge into the gravel drive outside the bank smiling and happy. And here is Bachmann driving the taxi Brue ordered and ready to carry out his plan of whisking off Dr A to a safe house. Abdullah is at the door and about to get into the cab when — there is a screech of brakes and a huge van careers into the back of taxi, with two black Mercedes appearing out of nowhere to block it off at either end of the drive.

Out of the van leap half a dozen big men in balaclavas who seize Issa and Abdullah and throw them into the van, lock the doors and drive off. Bachmann is still dazed, having been thrown against the steering wheel, Annabel is holding the door handle of the van shrieking ‘let him go let him go’ till forced to let go herself, and the van has gone. Wow.

They were all betrayed. Bachmann’s tidy little scheme has been swamped by American heavy-handedness. He limps down the road and round the corner to where he knows his boss, Mohr, is waiting. Mohr, embarrassed, fakes receiving a call on his mobile leaving Bachmann to furiously confront six-foot-something Newt, the CIA man.

And here, on the penultimate page, le Carré lets rip, depicting the American as a brutal war-on-terror monster. (It would be interesting to hear something intelligent at this point but, as usual in these late novels, the key speeches, the vital analysis which underpins the entire plot, consists of blustering, shouting swearing.)

‘Where have you taken him?’ Bachmann asked.
‘Abdullah? Who gives a shit? Some hole in the desert, for all I know. Justice has been rendered, man. We can all go home.
He had spoken these last words in English, but Bachmann in his dazed state failed to get his mind round them.
Rendered?’ he repeated stupidly. ‘What’s rendered? What justice are you talking about?’
American justice, asshole. Whose do you think? Justice from the fucking hip, man. No-crap justice, that kind of justice! Justice with no fucking lawyers around to pervert the course. Have you never heard of extraordinary rendition? Time you Krauts had a word for it.’ (p.415)

So that’s that then. As near as we get to an explanation or analysis. ‘American justice, asshole.’

Thoughts

The Yanks are portrayed as doubly stupid: first for cruelly and unjustly ‘rendering’ two men who have been painted as totally innocent and harmless, but secondly for devastating Bachmann’s much cleverer and more practical plan to recruit Abdullah and have him work as an agent on the inside – giving us a potential lifetime of tip-offs and inside information from the heart of the Muslim community.

On another level, the Americans’ devastation of Bachmann’s plan is in effect a repudiation of the technique of slow, patient interrogation and recruitment, which we know le Carré himself carried out during his time as a security service employee, and which is at the core of so many of his books: think of the many long, patient questionings undertaken by the calm and thoughtful George Smiley. The violent abduction represents a kind of rape of everything JLC thought valuable and insightful about his own intelligence work.

(A tiny extra insult is the way that, standing in the lee of six-foot Newt as he delivers his tirade to the ‘liberal’ Kraut, Bachmann, stands the British Intelligence man, Ian Lantern, repeatedly described as ‘little’, short, and, in these final scenes, depicted as hanging round the tall, virile Yank like a lapdog, a poodle, a bully’s hanger-on. Much, one imagines, as JLC sees his pathetic country under the leadership of ‘Brother Blair’ sucking up to the bully boys of the USA.)

This final speech merely expresses more forcefully the various sarcasms and aspersions which JLC had cast on German and British security, on their supposed ‘standards’ and ‘integrity’, throughout the novel. His contempt for his old employer grows more tangible – and is expressed in fiercer terms – in each of these late novels.

There is, of course, a very strong case to make against America’s use of kidnapping and the illegal transport of prisoners, limitless imprisonment without trial and the use of terrible and illegal torture techniques. A case which is lucidly made by countless pressure groups, charities and journalists (some of which are referenced in the afterword to this book).

And, overall, in summary, the plot is a dramatisation of this kind of lawless abduction. But as well as its plot, a novel is also about its style, about its use of language. And, for me, le Carré’s laboured, heavy-handed, facetious, sarcastic and overblown tone make his later books almost unreadable. And this fatally undermines the undoubted passion and anger he feels for his ideas.

If causes were judged by the anger, passion and sarcasm they arouse, then social media would be an academy of geniuses. But they also carry weight according to the clarity and insight their proponents bring to them. And too often, alas, le Carré brings nothing but sweary bluster and schoolboy sarcasm to what are, undoubtedly, very serious issues which should concern us all.

P.S. My first pony

Early into JLC’s post-Cold War novels I began to notice that every one of them is so unwittingly posh and features such pukka upper-class characters, that they all contain a reference to the characters’ first little pony. Since I noticed this I’ve been on the lookout for each novel’s my-little-pony moment. This one comes when the privileged lawyer Annabel – the one ‘possessed of fabled powers or argument and resistance’ – is reflecting on her ‘relationship’ with Issa.

She was reminded of a pony she had once had. He was called Moritz, and Moritz was a delinquent. He was unbreakable and unrideable. Not a family in Baden-Wittemberg would have him – until Annabel heard about him and, to exert her power, overrode her parents and raised money among her schoolfriends to buy him. When Moritz was delivered, he kicked the groom, kicked a hole in his stall, and broke his way into the paddock. But next morning when Annabel in trepidation went out to him, he strolled towards her, lowered his head for the halter and became her love for ever more. (p.244)

Probably le Carré wants his books to move us with their deeply drawn characters and their passionate dramatisation of contemporary issues. But, although I am politically sympathetic to all his beliefs, I remember the books mainly for their bombastic style and the unwitting poshness of his helplessly upper-class characters.


Credit

A Most Wanted Man by John le Carré was published in 2008 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 2009 Hodder paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – 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.
1962 A Murder of Quality – 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.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – 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.
1965 The Looking Glass War – 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.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – 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.
1979 Smiley’s People – 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.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – 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.
1986 A Perfect Spy – 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.
1989 The Russia House – 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.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – 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.
1993 The Night Manager – 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.
1995 Our Game – 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)
1996 The Tailor of Panama – 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)
1999 Single & Single – 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.
2001 The Constant Gardener – 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 up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s long quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – 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. First part good, second part overblown.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school boy Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, a half-Congolese translator, gives a first-person narrative of an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions who have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, who are planning to engineer a coup and impose a ‘middle of the road’ leader, ostensibly to bring ‘peace’ to Salvo’s troubled homeland. Salvo learns that the real plan is to allow the leader’s Western backers to plunder the country’s mineral resources and sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man – Posh Hamburg-based British banker Tommy Brue and posh refugee lawyer Annabel Richter find themselves involved in a conspiracy by German security services to frame an apparently innocent Muslim refugee, and the moderate organiser of Muslim charities, as ‘terrorists’. But this dubious plan is itself brutally trumped by the Americans who, in the form of the CIA, betray all the characters in the book, and violently kidnap the two Muslims, taking them away for indefinite incarceration and torture.
2010 Our Kind of Traitor –
2013 A Delicate Truth –

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