Monday, August 26, 2013

Eye of the Needle

And we're back to crime . . . with a classic spy thriller that took me about three days of beach reading to roll through, Ken Follett's Eye of the Needle (1978; Harper reprint 2010).  Every once in a while I feel compelled to announce my presence by saying "Singvogel, hier ist die Nadel" which of course comes from the movie, and isn't even in the book, but it recently made me think that I wasn't sure I had ever actually read this, so here we are.

Here's the Amazon-esque summary:  a ruthless German spy winds up on a remote Scottish island, populated only by a resentful cripple, his sexually frustrated wife, and their child.  He must make contact with the U-boat sent for his rendezvous, and these folks have to stop him because (they don't know this but we do) he is carrying a big secret that if it gets into German hands, will lose the war for the Allies.

There is more to the book than that, of course, in fact, there is the whole other side of the story, that of the doughty MI5 operative and Scotland Yard detective who are assigned to the case.  At the beginning, Percival Godliman and Frederick Blogs know nothing of their eventual nemesis, Heinrich Faber.  They are generally assigned to follow, capture, and possibly turn German spies in England.  As the story develops, they discover an agent who has evaded detection well into 1944 (most other German agents were quickly discovered and executed, imprisoned, or turned early in the war).  What the British are most concerned about is the discovery of the sham force that they've set up in Southeastern England, to deceive the Germans into thinking that the attack on the continent will come at Calais rather than Normandy.  The success of Operation Overlord depends on the Germans being relatively weak at Normandy, at least, weak enough to permit the Allies to gain the beachhead.

There is a third story - the young and tragic couple on the remote Scottish island, and how they got that way.  This story is told simultaneously with the others, and while we know of Faber's deceptions, the revealing of them to the British, and the subsequent chase to get Faber before he reveals the deception to the Germans, is completely gripping.  The writing isn't distinguished, but it doesn't get in the way of the well-crafted story which is the important thing.

Plus which, there is a lot of tea, and driving rain, so plenty of Brit atmosphere, if you like that sort of thing.  I'll have to watch the movie again, which would also be an excellent vacation activity but right now we are watching Star Trek (the new old one, the creation narrative, if you will).  I've also started, another in the great tradition of vacation reading, The Day of the Jackal, which is not quite so emotionally engaging as Eye of the Needle  but certainly deeply-researched and fast-paced.  But for now, live long, and prosper.

The Long Exile

Veering a bit off-topic here with Melanie McGrath's The Long Exile (2008, Vintage) but if you read White Heat and enjoyed it, then it is worth reading this true story of how the Inuit ended up on Ellesmere Island.  McGrath is a journalist by trade, so knows a good story when she sees one.  And the circumstances of how the Inuit ended up moved thousands of miles from their ancestral lands is just a particularly shocking example of white people using native people for their own ends, with little regard for the human impact of their (bad) decisions.

McGrath sets up the trajectory particularly effectively by starting with the making of the hugely influential film Nanook of the North by Robert Flaherty, in Inukjuak, which is sort of southeast Hudson Bay.  The film, and some of Flaherty's subsequent work in other parts of the world, is considered among the best filmmaking of the 20th c., although only Nanook was a commercial success.  There are two reasons to start the story here.  First, the film set up the idea of the "happy Eskimo" in the public's mind, people who can survive anywhere with a smile.  This is of course false; the northlands and Arctic are as diverse in their landscape, flora, and fauna as any other landmass in the world.  It is ignorant to assume that people native to one place can then survive off the land in a place 2,000 miles north, within the Arctic Circle and basically one of the most northernmost landmasses on earth.  But this is what the Canadians - Canadians!  those nice people to the north! - do.

The second reason to start the story with Flaherty and Nanook is that while filming, Flaherty had a relationship with an Inuit woman, who had a son after he left town, never to return.  This son ends up in the second wave of Inuit to move to Ellesmere.  How did the first wave get there?  Well, in a nutshell Canadian authorities felt the need for human settlement in the arctic regions to maintain sovereignty there during the Cold War, and so they told the local constabulary to find some Inuit to move up there.  Because you know, the frozen north is all the same, right?  And those Inuit in Inukjuak aren't doing so well anyway, since the white people moved in, so it would be the humane thing to do to return them to their natural state of living off the land and stop their moral decline and dependency on white people. And sure, one Eskimo is the same as another right, so Inuit from the southern Hudson Bay can surely survive where it is completely dark four months a year, and there isn't much fresh water, or caribou to hunt or berries to pick or pretty much anything to live off of.  Through cajoling and misrepresentation and a bit of bullying a few families from Josephie Flaherty's settlement move there, terribly undersupplied and completely unsupported.  Amazingly, many survive, but when they ask to go home they are put off with excuses or flat-out denied.

It actually ends spectacularly well, with the establishment of an Inuit state in Canada, Nunavut, some reparations, and finally a governmental apology in 2010.  But all of that only comes decades after starvation, madness, profound alcoholism, and a whole lot of general misery.  And it only comes after Josephie Flaherty's daughter, an incredibly strong woman who overcomes extraordinary odds to get herself off of Ellesmere, spends years talking about the island's Inuit population and its problems to anyone who will listen.  She and others finally make a big enough issue of it that official enquiries and hearings are held and the Canadian government is formally taken to task.  The officials - top to bottom, comfy govt. types to the local constabulary who had to carry out the effort - who thought they were doing the right thing for Canada are shown to have been ignorant, racist, and in some cases criminal in their proceedings.  The road to hell, you know.

And you thought Canadians were so nice.

McGrath's research is deep, broad, and generally excellent.  While the proceedings of the hearings are obviously recent public record, she clearly went far into archives and oral history to put together this compelling portrait of Inuit life, survival, and as she puts it, betrayal.  I did want to see footnotes, and a complete bibliography because I think there is more there and I'll bet one could do all sorts of research off of that.  You can easily find materials about this online, if you want to read more.  There is a thin Wikipedia article here, and you can start with the media coverage here.

I didn't need the late-in-the-book chapter on the rest of Robert Flaherty's life and work.  It is interesting, but it is pretty clear that McGrath found the quote about how the protagonist in all of his post-Nanook films represented "son he never had" and wanted to use it but couldn't figure out how to do that without a whole chapter for preface.  The starting of the story with Nanook makes a lot of sense, but it is a distraction from the narrative flow to go back to Flaherty late in the game.  Yes, he started it, but he didn't finish it.  

This is a great, extraordinary, story that is over-written at times, and one wonders about the editing given the glaring error on the back cover (the exile happens in the 1950s, not the 1930s!).  I found the prose occasionally weirdly passive, and hard to get into.  The exile itself doesn't happen until about two-thirds of the way into the book, which is all about setting context, but I wonder if a little less Flaherty would have streamlined that lead, because the exile is when the narrative really gets going.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Holy Thief

Anything would have been a let-down after JlC's A Delicate Truth.  But I'm glad I didn't let my irritation with the workmanlike prose of William Ryan's The Holy Thief get the better of me.  This book ended up being a reasonably compelling read, mostly for the detailed portrayal of life in Moscow, ca. 1936.

The story is not complex, although it requires a bit of focus to keep the names and relationships straight, esp. when switching back and forth between first names and patronymics, last names, and a whole lot of ranks - captain, colonel, general, etc.  There are some ghastly murders, a couple discussed from the perp's point of view.  Our Hero, Alexei Dimitriyevich Korolev, is an earnest comrade who likes being a cop (confusingly called the Militia) because he understands that justice must be served, but who also believes wholeheartedly in the glorious future of the Soviet state, and the sacrifices that must be made to get there.  In other words, he's a good Bolshevik.  Who gets caught up in a mystery involving the lucrative market for Russian Orthodox icons, and a variety of less-than-savory characters who will do anything to get their hands on the icons, or the money they represent.  Not surprisingly, Korolev gets a little too close to the truth, which involves politically sensitive individuals, is pulled off the case, but still manages to solve it all in a dramatic denouement that almost costs him his life but of course does not because I think there are more in this series.

Our Hero is your pretty standard good-guy-in-a-not-so-good-world, but unlike, say, Dr. Siri, he remains quite devoted to the Collective, and has not quite developed the gentle cynicism of that venerable gentleman, nor the barely-toeing-the-line approach of Bernie Gunther.  He's not, at the end of they day, that interesting.  But what is interesting, fascinating in fact, is the evocation of his world.  Moscow in 1936, just nineteen years after the Revolution, is not a garden spot.  Life there is hard, uncomfortable, and dangerous - you could be denounced for just muttering the wrong oath in front of the wrong person, and Korolev, who still prays privately every morning, has to watch himself.  There are a lot of bare bulbs in bare, cold, sparsely furnished rooms, and (very few) old cars, and threadbare clothing even for devoted servants of the State like Our Hero.  The Metropol Hotel, where foreigners stay and bigwigs hang out, stands in stark contrast to the de-consecrated churches, barren police stations, shared apartments, empty shops, endless lines and grime-and-gray, in which much of the action takes place.  One particularly well-done element is organized sport:  several scenes take place around a soccer stadium and at a match, and at the hippodrome.  Ryan has clearly spent a lot of time researching early Soviet-era sports, and the scenes set here provide a marvelous sense of detail and nuance.  Yes, it sucks to live in Stalinist Moscow, but if your team is playing, well, that takes priority for just a few hours.  The scene at the Moscow Hippodrome, while mostly a meeting between Korolev and another key character, effectively conveys the faded grandeur of that home to the sport of kings, combined with the desperation of small bettors with not much else to lose.  Ryan's small but recent list of books at the end suggests a careful research methodology, and it really pays off for the reader

The Holy Thief is a nice addition to the Totalitarians, and the more I think about it, the more I look forward to the next in this series.  (I've clearly gotten over my JlC-induced prose hangup.)  I haven't read anything set this early in the Soviet era, in fact I've read nothing but Martin Cruz Smith's much much later works.  It's worth visiting, from the comfort of the 21st c. anyway.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Delicate Truth

It is hard to write a review of a very, very good book that you really really liked because it is easy to just end up with, I liked this and I loved that.  And really, who, outside of you, actually cares what you liked unless you get deeply into the why?  For a couple of weeks now after finishing John le Carré's latest novel, A Delicate Truth (Viking, 2013), I find myself desperately wishing that I could write like that.  That British-ly elegant structure, that economy of words, that CHOICE of words, that somehow manages to convey a setting, a scene, and sensibility in far less but far more interesting verbiage than pretty much anyone else out there writing crime or espionage or whatever-the-heck-you-call-this fiction - this is my goal, and one that I fear is unattainable.  Consider this chapter opener:

"On a sunny Sunday early in that same spring, a thirty-one-year-old British foreign servant earmarked for great things sat alone at the pavement table of a humble Italian cafe in London's Soho, steeling himself to perform an act of espionage to outrageous that, if detected, it would cost him his career and his freedom:  namely, recovering a tape recording, illicitly made by himself, from the Private Office of a Minister of the Crown whom it was his duty to serve and advise to the best of his considerable ability."  (47)

You don't realize, when reading it, that it is all one sentence; I didn't until I typed it just now!  And run-on sentences are usually one of my irritants.  But in this one that I didn't even notice, we get both the subject's view of himself (committing an outrageous act, the responsibility of his job), and how he's viewed by Society (earmarked for great things).   There is a certain keep-calm-and-carry-on tone when the old Foreign Office types speak.  You realize that for a British foreign servant, these two views are ingrained - he represents the Crown (caps usage brilliant, required by protocol I'm sure but really Makes the Point)  and that's who he is when he's at home, so to speak.  This sensibility, of doing the Right Thing because we are British and that's how we roll, is a central theme of the story.  Which is, in standard JlC mode, pretty complex, jumping around in time and place and subject so that you have to Pay Attention, lest you get hopelessly lost.

Loosely, this particularly story involves an illicit operation that may or may not have gone bad, some shady American defense contractors from a company hilariously named "Ethical Outcomes," and a couple of Foreign Office (we call it Service, the Brits call it an Office) Don Quixotes who will tilt at the windmills that claim to protect the Crown in our modern era.

All of this said, this is not as complex a plot as one might find in, say, The Honorable Schoolboy, which was the hardest of the Karla trilogy for me to follow.  Generally speaking, JlC's more recent novels are more straightforward than his Cold War classics:  black and white hats are stark in their contrast, and a bit obvious.  If you follow his work, you'll know that JlC's more recent books have really been about the failings of our great and glorious free and democratic governments, and the institutions that protect them.  Big government and its covert strategies, esp. when farmed out to third parties to protect the reputation of said govt. are bad, as is naked capitalism more generally.  Le Carré's very public condemnation of the US and friends' involvement in Iraq is well-documented, and stories like The Constant Gardner, The Mission Song, A Most Wanted Man and A Delicate Truth are unambiguous challenges to the US-led new world order.  It's funny because of course the old JlC books were set in a world of clear good and bad - West v. East, with all of its Cold War weight - and the characters really wrestled with means vs. ends.  And, in more recent works, there is still an individual or two who rails not entirely helplessly against the trend.  But I don't know that we have the subtle build-up to the moral dilemma of Smiley or Magnus Pym for example.  For Our Heroes (and heroes they are) Kit Probyn and Toby Bell, the moral path is clear, if fraught.  Castlekeep is a perfect fantasy of the evil defense subcontractor's headquarters, as is Jay Crispin, and yes, we should despise them.  It is clear that in JlC's worldview, most of us have lost even the ability to think about some sense of personal decency, dare I say honor?  (How I hate that word, charged as it is with all kinds of meanings and misuses for all kinds of people).  Maybe I just know what to expect from a JlC story these days:  rage against the machine.

A couple of minor quibbles.  It's pretty clear that JlC has it in for the Yanks - they are the source of Ethical Outcomes after all, but he might employ a little more subtlety (see Castlekeep, above).   Miss Maisie, the money behind EO, i pretty derivative of Julia Roberts' character in "Charlie Wilson's War."  And small note to editors:  fact check, please!  There is no such Harvard degree as a Masters in Business Studies.

Reading back, this sounds vaguely critical, and it is not.  It is more an attempt to wrap my mind around a great - great- writer's oeuvre.  Reading this, I found myself thinking about other JlC books constantly.  The idea of a little person as a mentor (Oakley) reminded me of George Smiley, and who can read the name Toby and not think of Toby Esterhaze and his lamplighters?  But, I'm drawn back to the writing, as always.  In chapter 3, which overall exudes that hale-fellow-well-met Britishness that JlC always captures so well, there is an absolutely brilliantly executed recognition scene that stopped me in tracks, and made me read it again.  The reader is unwittingly recognizing one character as he is reluctantly - so very reluctantly - recognizing another.  To say more would spoil the story, but suffice it to say that you should drop pretty much whatever else you are reading right now and enjoy this.  And then wish, as I do every time I sit down to type, that you had a piece of that.