Under Western Eyes


Title:                      Under Western Eyes

Author:                 Joseph Conrad

Conrad, Joseph (1911, 1025). Under Western Eyes. Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, Page & Co.

LCCN:    26026988

PZ3.C764 Un4

Subjects

Date Posted:      November 30, 2016

From a book review by Bob Trube[1]

Betrayal. It’s an ugly idea that someone you trust would behind your back act against you. What Dostoevsky does with the idea, act and subsequent guilt of murder in Crime and Punishment, Conrad explores here around the idea of betrayal.

Razumov, the main character, is an orphan sponsored silently by Prince K___, of the Russian nobility, as a student. Dark, quiet, studious, and a listener, he finds himself entrusted with the safety and escape plans of a fellow student, Victor Haldin, who has just assassinated a Russian official. He shares none of Haldin’s revolutionary presentiments, and sees his hope of a successful career vanishing to be replaced with a prison sentence in Siberia. Failing to arouse the peasant worker Ziemianitch to transport Haldin out of Russia, he decides to go to the authorities and betray the location where Ziemianitch was to pick up Haldin. Haldin is arrested, and executed. It would seem that Razumov can resume his life.

Conrad reveals how betrayal comes at a cost. For one thing, there is the “phantom” of Haldin that dogs Razumov’s steps throughout the story and the repeated effort to “step on” the phantom, to obliterate him. Then, because Razumov was never identified as the betrayer (and the remorseful death by hanging of Zemianitch suggests that it was he), Razumov is recruited to infiltrate the revolutionary circles abroad because he is assumed by them to be a friend and revolutionary associate of Haldin’s, indeed the last to see him living. He succeeds in insinuating himself into their circles, but as he does so he comes in contact with Haldin’s sister Nathalia under whose “gray, trustful eyes” he falls, and those of her mother, shattered by the loss of her son. He also comes under the eyes of the English (hence Western) narrator who is Nathalia’s English teacher.

The plot tension surrounds whether Razumov will be able to keep up the ruse, and betray yet more of these revolutionaries to the Russian authorities (betrayal leading to yet more betrayal) or whether the knowledge of what he is done and the duplicity he is practicing will become too great for him.

The device of the western observer who tells this story seems awkward and somewhat extraneous to the plot movement. Otherwise, this is a fascinating study of the psychology of betrayal. It also chronicles tsarist Russia’s corrosive abuses of power that led to the Marxist revolution. In the variety of characters in the revolutionary circle Conrad also gives us a portrait of the mix of the noble, venal and violent qualities of the regime that took its place.

Reviewed by Rachel Donadio[2]

At a recent conference on faith and reason organized by the PEN American Center, Martin Amis introduced a passage by Joseph Conrad about religious belief. “Or faith,” as Amis qualified it in his gravelly voice, “faith, recently and rather endearingly defined as ‘the desire for the approval of supernatural beings.’ Terribly sweet, that.” At this, the packed audience at Town Hall in Manhattan issued a knowing and slightly complicit laugh, as if to suggest there was a stark choice between faith or reason—and it would take reason.

A century ago, Conrad wrote about terrorism in The Secret Agent[3] and Under Western Eyes, novels that drew on European political turmoil to address deeper moral questions. Today, some of our most ambitious novelists are struggling to do the same thing—only a vast cultural and linguistic divide separates them from their chosen subjects, men like those who attacked the World Trade Center. In John Updike’s new novel, Terrorist[4], published this month, Ahmad Mulloy, an Irish-Egyptian high school student from New Jersey, falls under the sway of a radical imam who encourages him to become a suicide terrorist. In April, The New Yorker published an excerpt from Amis’s fictional reckoning with terrorism, which focused on Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian tactical leader of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The two accounts raise questions about how far the Western literary imagination can take us into the minds and motivations of Islamic terrorists. For a writer with no Arabic and a limited understanding of Islam, is literary skill enough? What kind of research is needed? What’s the best way in: focusing on the mind of the terrorist, or the society from which he emerges?

For his part, Updike approached the subject with an awareness of his limitations. “I thought that I could present a sympathetic view of a terrorist, or dramatize or animate the terrorist’s point of view,” he said in a recent telephone interview. But the character “had to be an American. . . . With so many journalists and other novelists on the job, there was no need to try to understand the Saudi or Syrian or Palestinian terrorist. Others can do that better.” To prepare, he consulted the Koran, The 9/11 Commission Report[5], a few books on suicide terrorism and Islam, and New Jersey Day Trips. (Ahmad becomes a truck driver there.) “I even bought something called ‘The Koran for Dummies,’” Updike said. “I tried to acquaint myself with Arabic and the Arabic of the Koran as it might be handled in lessons, probably not very realistically rendered lessons.” (Ahmad studies Arabic at his local mosque.)

As in Hanif Kureishi’s prescient short story from the mid-90’s, My Son the Fanatic, Updike’s Ahmad sees Islam as an alternative to a sex-crazed culture. Other characters sympathize with him, albeit in complicated ways. “The crazy Arabs are right,” Ahmad’s high school guidance counselor says while in bed with Ahmad’s mother, with whom he’s having an affair. “Hedonism, nihilism, that’s all we offer. Listen to the lyrics of these rock and rap stars.”

The suburban adulterers in the bedroom are characteristic Updike, just as Amis’s fictional portrait of Mohamed Atta comes off as pure Amis. The New Yorker excerpt opens with a quotation from The 9/11 Commission Report: “No physical, documentary or analytical evidence provides a convincing explanation of why Atta and [Abdulaziz] Omari drove to Portland, Me., from Boston on the morning of Sept. 10, only to return to Logan on Flight 5930 on the morning of Sept. 11.” Amis finds the explanation in the repression of various appetites. He imagines Atta as constipated, his digestive system a stand-in for a deeper existential blockage. “Atta was not religious; he was not even especially political. He had allied himself with the militants because jihad was, by many magnitudes, the most charismatic idea of his generation. To unite ferocity and rectitude in a single word: nothing could compete with that,” Amis writes. “If you took away all the rubbish about faith, then fundamentalism suited his character, and with an almost sinister precision. For example, the attitude toward women: the blend of extreme hostility and extreme wariness he found highly congenial.”

Some writers in the Islamic world say they’re wary of Western fictional treatments of Islamic terrorism. “I find them speculative, sometimes dangerous,” the Algerian novelist Yasmina Khadra wrote in an e-mail message. “It’s hard for a Westerner to get to the bottom of things. He’s forced to dwell on the networks, the operations and motivations of terrorist organizations and to ignore the essential: the mentality, the fundamentalist philosophy.” Khadra’s new novel, The Attack, is the story of an Israeli-Arab doctor trying to understand how his wife became a suicide terrorist. Khadra is the nom de plume of Mohammed Moulesshoul, a former Algerian Army officer. He said he spent eight years fighting against Algeria’s Islamist opposition and sees fundamentalism as “an extremely violent way of expressing one’s identity, one’s ferocious need to exist. Hatred against the West is only a catalyzing pretext, a way of rallying the kamikazes around a utopian ideal”—establishing a caliphate from Indonesia to Morocco.

Islamism can feed on a broader malaise. “It’s more a general oppressiveness of the culture,” the Iranian-American novelist Nahid Rachlin said in a recent interview. Angry young men in Islamic countries are contending not just with sexual repression, she said, but with oppressive governments, a bleak economy, “the general frustrations of daily life.” In her novels Foreigner (1979) and the just published Jumping Over Fire, Rachlin, who has lived in the United States since the 70s, writes about people caught between two cultures. In Foreigner, set in Iran on the brink of the Islamic revolution, an Iranian woman who has been living somewhat joylessly in Boston with her American husband returns to Tehran for a visit and decides to stay. In spare prose, Rachlin explores the unresolved tensions between the familiar cultural and religious restrictions of Iran and the anxious-making freedom of the West.

For the most part, “Arab writers are dealing with the conditions and situations that lead young people to consider violent reactions,” according to Marilyn Booth, a translator of Arabic and professor of comparative literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She cited the Lebanese writer Hoda Barakat’s Disciples of Passion (1993), a novel about the Lebanese Civil War, in which a brief cameo of a suicide bomber “helps to fill in the alienation and utter craziness of the war,” and the Iraqi novelist Muhsin al-Ramli’s Scattered Crumbs (2000), set in an Iraqi village during the Iran-Iraq war. Such novels “are not so likely to focus on the end result”—a terrorist attack—“that is perhaps more of interest to Western audiences,” Booth said. “Arab authors (and audiences) are more likely to focus on process, and the resulting picture isn’t going to resemble a front-page news story in an American newspaper.”

Newspaper reporting, however, forms the basis for a notable recent American novel about Islamic terrorism, Lorraine Adams’s Harbor (2004), about a group of Algerian illegal immigrants in Boston who become somewhat unwittingly enmeshed in a possible terrorist plot. A former investigative reporter for The Washington Post, Adams covered the federal investigation into a group of Algerians accused of plotting to blow up the Los Angeles airport in 1999, and had access to hours of phone calls recorded by the F.B.I. “I got to hear the conversations that these men had with one another when no one’s listening, when they’re not talking to infidel white woman Lorraine Adams,” she said. In Harbor, the main factor in the young men’s lives is economic hardship and hopelessness, not religion. Adams conducted extensive interviews with a jailed suspect. “He was a believer in certain ways,” she said, but his beliefs “started to waver” when she questioned him.

It may take some time for the novelistic accounts to eclipse the journalistic ones. “We’re all a little slow maybe to wrap our minds around this fundamental new factor in American life, and in Western life really,” Updike said. “These are deep waters that have us all kind of puzzling.”

[1] Bob Trube Book Review: “Under Western Eyes” (Jul 8, 2014), downloaded April 30, 2015

[2] Rachel Donadio, in The New York Times Sunday Book Review (June 11, 2006). Downloaded November 30, 2016. Rachel Donadio is a writer and editor at the Book Review.

[3] Conrad, Joseph (1907, 2007). The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale. New York: New American Library

[4] Updike, John (2006). Terrorist. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

[5] Kean, Thomas H. (2004) and Lee Hamilton, compliers. The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks. Also includes recommendations designed to guard against future attacks. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office

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Terrorist


Title:                      Terrorist

Author:                  John Updike

Updike, John (2006). Terrorist. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

LCCN:    2005057985

PS3571.P4 T44 2006

Subjects

Date Posted:      November 30, 2016

Reviewed by Robert Stone[1]

For some 50 years John Updike has been examining America in his fiction and essays, reflecting upon its art and history, documenting its volatile progressions. In their longings, in their occasional self-discoveries and more usually in their self-deceptions, the characters in his novels and stories have demonstrated the desperation with which people in America have sought to find some equilibrium against the background of headlong change. To ponder Updike’s work in now old-fashioned sociopolitical terms, it might be said that he examines our struggle to maintain a viable center for our inner life while enduring the most revolutionary force in history—American capitalism. According to some accounts, the term “Americanization” was coined in France during the 19th century, and even then there seemed to hover about it a wariness, a prescient caution. Today, nobody abroad and very few people in the United States who invoke “Americanization” mean anything good by it. The word “globalization,” used negatively, has come to serve as a virtual synonym.

How distinctly American “Americanization” actually was, and how American it remains, are open questions. Certainly the United States was the first country to undergo the processes that now go by that name. Probably they came out of the Civil War and its aftermath. In dystopic usage the suggestion was of quick greenbacks primitively acquired by new money, the ruthless subjection of the land and the aboriginal people, and all the confusion and suffering and mess wrought by mines, railroads and factories. The term invokes the transformation of the landscape into unnatural mechanical shapes, of night into day, of speed for its own sake, an irrational passion for novelty at the expense of quality, a worship of gimmickry. Most threateningly for many, “Americanization” also meant a setting aside of the social order in ruthless pursuit of profit, a jury-rigged class system based on money, a rootless and dislocated population, a random disordering of priorities. In fact there are older people who can testify, on the word of their aged forebears, that a great many Americans didn’t much care for what is now known as “Americanization” either and some of them, ironically enough, blamed it on foreign influences.

This pondering of truisms is more germane to an appreciation of John Updike’s new novel, Terrorist, than one might first think. One of the most interesting things about this book is its convergence of imagined views about the way this country is and the way it appears. The views are, variously, those of an American high school boy, half-Irish, half-Egyptian by background, who is intoxicated by Islam; an elderly Lebanese immigrant; that immigrant’s American-born son; and a rather ambiguous Yemeni imam who is the high school boy’s religious teacher.

In one scene, the newly graduated boy and his Lebanese-American boss are talking about American history as they drive past some of the battlefields of the American Revolution. The youth, Ahmad Mulloy, expresses a plaintive regret that the Americans won. If the colonies had been restored to their British obedience, he says, the place might have evolved into “a kind of Canada, a peaceable and sensible country, though infidel.”

“Dream on,” says the boss, who is himself a figure of conflict and intrigue. “There’s too much energy here for peace and sensible.”

The setting on which this parable of our 21st-century condition unfolds is northern New Jersey, that familiar landscape of marshland and industrial slough, supporting the decaying remnants of once prospering immigrant-energized towns. Though it marks the opposite approach to the proud towers of Manhattan, much of it might have served F. Scott Fitzgerald as a model for the valley of ashes in The Great Gatsby, where from a billboard on the eastern margin of the city the unseeing eyes of the optician Dr. T. J. Eckleburg overlooked the desperate comings and goings of deluded America 80 years ago. But the great informing image in the sky over Jersey, still so conjurable in memory as to serve as a totem, is the tower of smoke twisting skyward, replacing the elongated dominoes that had lorded like idols over the plain. Sept. 11, 2001, was the day all eyes turned heavenward there, and hundreds of the sons and daughters of New Jersey died. New York, like the city of Ad in the Koran, was struck for its wealth and pride, and it was as though the dark and hateful underside of our own religious traditions had come for us, to the satisfaction of Osama bin Laden and Jerry Falwell.

The invisible but somehow immanent presence of Sept. 11’s inferno over New Jersey serves to remind us that Updike, whose work has never departed too far from his religious concerns, has written about apocalypse before. In his haunting but unresolved novel Toward the End of Time (1997), he presents a war-and crime-ravaged terminal America, its sky blighted by a monstrous second moon—he calls it a torus—that looms over the land as a mockery of grace. The America in which this new story unfolds is not so freakish or surreal, but its moral exhaustion and reprobation are nearly as intense. Come to preside in judgment are not metaphysical forces but an assembly of religiously driven immigrants, certain in their own convictions, which they are convinced equip them to see through the pretensions of their adopted country and set it to rights by slaughter. Terrorist is not mixed with symbolist-surrealism as Toward the End of Time was. Its characters inhabit a real New Jersey, for the most part, and they are credible individuals.

Ahmad’s mother, Terry, is a would-be artist, abandoned by her Egyptian husband and employed as a nurse’s aide in a local hospital. Overworked, unhappy in love and her métier, she has had little time for her highly intelligent, sensitive son who, in the throes of teendom, rejects her. The one person who takes an interest in young Ahmad is his high school counselor, Jack Levy, who visits Ahmad’s house after hours with a stack of college catalogs. Maybe it’s a little hard to believe that weary, burned-out Jack, on the edge of retirement, would put so much effort into the fortunes of this prickly adolescent. Maybe he’s a mite too dedicated to guidance counseling to be true—but nonetheless Updike makes him believable at the outset. Before too long a romance develops between the unhappily married Levy and Terry Mulloy. For Jack it’s an unexpected late-life comfort; for wary, cynical Terry it’s a limited engagement.

Meanwhile, the somewhat ferret-like imam, Shaikh Rashid, has been directing Ahmad’s vocational path toward, of all things, truck driving. He also answers the boy’s questions about faith in a casuistic fashion that bothers young Ahmad, a religiously gifted person whose own faith partakes of an almost Sufi-like mysticism. Ahmad’s religious instruction provides the opportunity for some long discourses on Islam in the modern world, one of the didactic areas of the novel that some readers may not have much patience for. But these dialogues, along with the reflections they provoke in Ahmad, serve Updike’s intentions—the examination of contemporary America exposed to the passions in the non-American world. Updike can clearly imagine his way into the moralizing resentments this country brings forth in the hearts of those who are at once underprivileged and confidently traditional. On the other hand, this story is no supine catalog of self-recrimination. Its tensions are well calibrated and the points of view clearly and at times ironically presented.

Through the imam, Ahmad finds a job with a furniture company owned by Lebanese immigrants. One of their trips to pick up furniture is the scene of the conversation referred to earlier, in the course of which the Lebanese-American proprietor’s son, Charlie, treats Ahmad to further instruction about the American condition and Islam’s alternatives, in the course of which he summarizes George Washington’s campaigns of 1776-77 in so much anecdotal detail that enthusiasts of David McCullough’s recent 1776 will feel Charlie’s read it too. To imagine that he has takes nothing away from the characterization; in fact, it seems right. It also furthers the didactic purposes of Terrorist, which seem to be its primary concern.

The last part of the novel is suspenseful. It brings together a serviceable plot, which leans a little heavily on coincidental connections, a questionable provocation and some broadly motivated acts of heroism. It seems meant as a fable, and any good fable requires some derring-do. The most satisfactory elements in Terrorist are those that remind us that no amount of special pleading can set us free of history, no matter how oblivious and unresponsive to it we may be. And that history, in disposing of empires, admits of no innocents and spares no one.

Reviewed by Rachel Donadio[2]

At a recent conference on faith and reason organized by the PEN American Center, Martin Amis introduced a passage by Joseph Conrad about religious belief. “Or faith,” as Amis qualified it in his gravelly voice, “faith, recently and rather endearingly defined as ‘the desire for the approval of supernatural beings.’ Terribly sweet, that.” At this, the packed audience at Town Hall in Manhattan issued a knowing and slightly complicit laugh, as if to suggest there was a stark choice between faith or reason—and it would take reason.

A century ago, Conrad wrote about terrorism in The Secret Agent[3] and Under Western Eyes[4], novels that drew on European political turmoil to address deeper moral questions. Today, some of our most ambitious novelists are struggling to do the same thing—only a vast cultural and linguistic divide separates them from their chosen subjects, men like those who attacked the World Trade Center. In John Updike’s new novel, Terrorist[5], published this month, Ahmad Mulloy, an Irish-Egyptian high school student from New Jersey, falls under the sway of a radical imam who encourages him to become a suicide terrorist. In April, The New Yorker published an excerpt from Amis’s fictional reckoning with terrorism, which focused on Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian tactical leader of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The two accounts raise questions about how far the Western literary imagination can take us into the minds and motivations of Islamic terrorists. For a writer with no Arabic and a limited understanding of Islam, is literary skill enough? What kind of research is needed? What’s the best way in: focusing on the mind of the terrorist, or the society from which he emerges?

For his part, Updike approached the subject with an awareness of his limitations. “I thought that I could present a sympathetic view of a terrorist, or dramatize or animate the terrorist’s point of view,” he said in a recent telephone interview. But the character “had to be an American. . . . With so many journalists and other novelists on the job, there was no need to try to understand the Saudi or Syrian or Palestinian terrorist. Others can do that better.” To prepare, he consulted the Koran, The 9/11 Commission Report[6], a few books on suicide terrorism and Islam, and New Jersey Day Trips. (Ahmad becomes a truck driver there.) “I even bought something called ‘The Koran for Dummies,’” Updike said. “I tried to acquaint myself with Arabic and the Arabic of the Koran as it might be handled in lessons, probably not very realistically rendered lessons.” (Ahmad studies Arabic at his local mosque.)

As in Hanif Kureishi’s prescient short story from the mid-90’s, My Son the Fanatic, Updike’s Ahmad sees Islam as an alternative to a sex-crazed culture. Other characters sympathize with him, albeit in complicated ways. “The crazy Arabs are right,” Ahmad’s high school guidance counselor says while in bed with Ahmad’s mother, with whom he’s having an affair. “Hedonism, nihilism, that’s all we offer. Listen to the lyrics of these rock and rap stars.”

The suburban adulterers in the bedroom are characteristic Updike, just as Amis’s fictional portrait of Mohamed Atta comes off as pure Amis. The New Yorker excerpt opens with a quotation from The 9/11 Commission Report: “No physical, documentary or analytical evidence provides a convincing explanation of why Atta and [Abdulaziz] Omari drove to Portland, Me., from Boston on the morning of Sept. 10, only to return to Logan on Flight 5930 on the morning of Sept. 11.” Amis finds the explanation in the repression of various appetites. He imagines Atta as constipated, his digestive system a stand-in for a deeper existential blockage. “Atta was not religious; he was not even especially political. He had allied himself with the militants because jihad was, by many magnitudes, the most charismatic idea of his generation. To unite ferocity and rectitude in a single word: nothing could compete with that,” Amis writes. “If you took away all the rubbish about faith, then fundamentalism suited his character, and with an almost sinister precision. For example, the attitude toward women: the blend of extreme hostility and extreme wariness he found highly congenial.”

Some writers in the Islamic world say they’re wary of Western fictional treatments of Islamic terrorism. “I find them speculative, sometimes dangerous,” the Algerian novelist Yasmina Khadra wrote in an e-mail message. “It’s hard for a Westerner to get to the bottom of things. He’s forced to dwell on the networks, the operations and motivations of terrorist organizations and to ignore the essential: the mentality, the fundamentalist philosophy.” Khadra’s new novel, The Attack, is the story of an Israeli-Arab doctor trying to understand how his wife became a suicide terrorist. Khadra is the nom de plume of Mohammed Moulesshoul, a former Algerian Army officer. He said he spent eight years fighting against Algeria’s Islamist opposition and sees fundamentalism as “an extremely violent way of expressing one’s identity, one’s ferocious need to exist. Hatred against the West is only a catalyzing pretext, a way of rallying the kamikazes around a utopian ideal”—establishing a caliphate from Indonesia to Morocco.

Islamism can feed on a broader malaise. “It’s more a general oppressiveness of the culture,” the Iranian-American novelist Nahid Rachlin said in a recent interview. Angry young men in Islamic countries are contending not just with sexual repression, she said, but with oppressive governments, a bleak economy, “the general frustrations of daily life.” In her novels Foreigner (1979) and the just published Jumping Over Fire, Rachlin, who has lived in the United States since the 70s, writes about people caught between two cultures. In Foreigner, set in Iran on the brink of the Islamic revolution, an Iranian woman who has been living somewhat joylessly in Boston with her American husband returns to Tehran for a visit and decides to stay. In spare prose, Rachlin explores the unresolved tensions between the familiar cultural and religious restrictions of Iran and the anxious-making freedom of the West.

For the most part, “Arab writers are dealing with the conditions and situations that lead young people to consider violent reactions,” according to Marilyn Booth, a translator of Arabic and professor of comparative literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She cited the Lebanese writer Hoda Barakat’s Disciples of Passion (1993), a novel about the Lebanese Civil War, in which a brief cameo of a suicide bomber “helps to fill in the alienation and utter craziness of the war,” and the Iraqi novelist Muhsin al-Ramli’s Scattered Crumbs (2000), set in an Iraqi village during the Iran-Iraq war. Such novels “are not so likely to focus on the end result”—a terrorist attack—“that is perhaps more of interest to Western audiences,” Booth said. “Arab authors (and audiences) are more likely to focus on process, and the resulting picture isn’t going to resemble a front-page news story in an American newspaper.”

Newspaper reporting, however, forms the basis for a notable recent American novel about Islamic terrorism, Lorraine Adams’s Harbor (2004), about a group of Algerian illegal immigrants in Boston who become somewhat unwittingly enmeshed in a possible terrorist plot. A former investigative reporter for The Washington Post, Adams covered the federal investigation into a group of Algerians accused of plotting to blow up the Los Angeles airport in 1999, and had access to hours of phone calls recorded by the F.B.I. “I got to hear the conversations that these men had with one another when no one’s listening, when they’re not talking to infidel white woman Lorraine Adams,” she said. In Harbor, the main factor in the young men’s lives is economic hardship and hopelessness, not religion. Adams conducted extensive interviews with a jailed suspect. “He was a believer in certain ways,” she said, but his beliefs “started to waver” when she questioned him.

It may take some time for the novelistic accounts to eclipse the journalistic ones. “We’re all a little slow maybe to wrap our minds around this fundamental new factor in American life, and in Western life really,” Updike said. “These are deep waters that have us all kind of puzzling.”

[1] Robert Stone, “Updike’s Other America,” in The New York Times Sunday Book Review (June 18, 2006). Downloaded November 30, 2016. Robert Stone’s recent novel is Bay of Souls (2003). His book, a memoir titled Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, was published in 2007

 

[2] Rachel Donadio, in The New York Times Sunday Book Review (June 11, 2006). Downloaded November 30, 2016. Rachel Donadio is a writer and editor at the Book Review.

[3] Conrad, Joseph (1907, 2007). The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale. New York: New American Library

[4] Conrad, Joseph (1911, 1025). Under Western Eyes. Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, Page & Co.

[5] Updike, John (2006). Terrorist. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

[6] Kean, Thomas H. (2004) and Lee Hamilton, compliers. The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks. Also includes recommendations designed to guard against future attacks. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office

 

The Silent Man


Title:                      The Silent Man

Author:                 Alex Berenson

Berenson, Alex (2009). The Silent Man. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons

LCCN:    2008046363

PS3602.E75146 S55 2009

Subjects

Date Posted:      November 30, 2016

Reviewed by Richard Lourie[1]

A novel can, and should, do many things, but a thriller need do only one. If it thrills, it succeeds, and if it does not, no matter how well it does everything else, it fails. Alex Berenson’s third novel, The Silent Man, succeeds in seizing the attention from the start and never letting go until the end.

Like most thrillers, The Silent Man is more concerned with how and where than who or why. The tale involves the theft of Russian nuclear warheads to be detonated in Washington during the State of the Union address, in an effort to wipe out the government and possibly draw the United States into war with Medvedev’s Russia.

Berenson, a New York Times reporter, deftly describes the weapons heist, detailing with enjoyable precision the Russian security system and the ingenuity with which it is circumvented. His explanation of how the warheads will work has the feel of real science, simultaneously fascinating and mind-numbing.

As we know from James Bond and Jack Bauer—that icon of the Cheney era—a thriller hero can be over the top, but he can never be silly without endangering the story’s spell. Berenson’s hero, John Wells, isn’t quite silly, but he sometimes comes across as a media cliché instead of a character lifted from life or invented from whole cloth. As readers of Berenson’s earlier thrillers will remember, Wells spent nearly a decade infiltrating Al Qaeda, even converting to Islam; then, with the help of his C.I.A. colleague (and fiancée) Jennifer Exley, he stopped a Qaeda attack on New York. “More recently he and Exley had helped avert war between the United States and China,” Berenson writes in a bit of exposition that sounds like a “Previously on ‘24’ . . .” voice-over. “The missions had saved untold lives.”

Of course, Wells is seen by the C.I.A. director as “arrogant, untouchable, a loose cannon.” A loner and a rogue, he has the requisite cool scar but is “never more endearing” than when he’s “acting like a big kid.” He has responsibility issues with Exley, whose name leads to such unfortunate phrases as “Exley’s ex-husband.” The comic book quality of all this is emphasized by Berenson’s use of sound effects: “The pistol jerked twice in succession, crack-crack.

The baddies here are mostly Middle Eastern, and their leader, Yusuf (whose “fingers were as weightless as the devil’s”), has a touch of true evil about him. They are all motivated by a thirst to avenge various injustices perpetrated on their loved ones. One villain harbors doubts, however, creating a nice secondary level of suspense—will he betray his colleagues or himself?

One of the pleasures of thrillers is that they often take you to distant locales. Occasionally, Berenson evokes a sense of place quite well, as in this description of the Moscow Metro: “The subway cars were Soviet-era, made of blue corrugated steel with big windows, and they emerged from the tunnels with a pressurized whoosh as if they were powered by air and not electricity.” Too often, though, his descriptions are bland and featureless: “The city hall was a reminder of Hamburg’s prosperity, a broad building with a clock tower at its center.” And sometimes they shade into the unintentionally hilarious—the Black Sea is “a famously dank waterway”?

Yet none of these drawbacks do much to slow the locomotive of the plot, which keeps hurtling along until Wells brings it to a neat and violent end. At his best, Berenson puts the genre through its paces; at his worst, he’s just generic.

[1] Richard Lourie, “Threat Level Red,” in the New York Times (Feb 6, 2009). Downloaded November 30, 2016). Richard Lourie’s most recent novel, A Hatred for Tulips, has been issued in paperback as Joop: A Novel of Anne Frank. A version of this review appears in print on page BR19 of the New York Times Sunday Book Review with the headline: “Threat Level Red”.

Slow Burner


Title:                      Slow Burner

Author:                 William Haggard

Haggard, William [pseud. for Richard Henry Michael] (1958). Slow Burner. Boston: Little, Brown

LCCN:    58007860

PZ4.C6225 Sl2

Date Posted:      November 29, 2016

William Haggard (11 August 1907–27 October 1993) was the pseudonym of Richard Henry Michael Clayton, an English civil servant and writer of fictional spy thrillers. He was born in Croydon.[1]

His books were set in the 1960s through the 1980s. Like C. P. Snow, he was a quintessentially British establishment figure who had been a civil servant in India, and his books vigorously put forth his perhaps idiosyncratic points of view. The principal character in most of his novels was Colonel Charles Russell of the fictional Security Executive. During the years of the fictional spy mania, initially begun by the James Bond stories, Haggard was considered by most critics to be at the very top of the field.

KIRKUS REVIEW[2]

Slow Burner is a deadly form of nuclear energy, and the leakage of epsilon rays from a suburban villa suggests that it has been stolen—or duplicated—by an informer. Ex-commando Charlie Percival-Smith makes an entree into the house, via its attractive occupant, while a more dangerous game is played out between Sir Jeremy, Permanent Secretary, and William Nichol, physicist on the project, who does not suspect that his life is in jeopardy until it is almost taken. A mild adventure story, the rather meagre elements are disguised by the proprieties of the background and some niceties of style.

[1] From Wikipedia, downloaded November 29, 2016

[2] Kirkus, downloaded November 29, 2016

The Intercom Conspiracy


Title:                      The Intercom Conspiracy

Author:                  Eric Ambler

Ambler, Eric (1969, 1986) The Intercom Conspiracy. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux

LCCN:    86009935

PR6001.M48 I5 1986

Subjects

Date Posted:      November 28, 2016

Comments in Wikipedia[1]

Plot summary

The ageing heads of the intelligence services of two unnamed minor European countries hatch a money-making scheme. When the owner of an extreme right-wing weekly magazine, Intercom, based in Geneva, dies, they buy the company which publishes it. They start sending the surprised editor “articles”, which consist of highly sensitive information about the weapons systems of the USA, USSR, Britain and NATO. Before the fourth “article” has even been published the magazine’s lawyer is contacted by a potential buyer. The two intelligence heads have correctly calculated that the security services of all the nations they’re mentioning in their “articles”will pay handsomely to close the magazine down. To the magazine lawyer’s amazement, the buyer is prepared to pay $500,000. The sale is quickly carried through, the magazine closed down, and all its assets mysteriously removed. The intelligence heads divide their takings and start planning for a comfortable retirement.

Treatment

Simple though the basic plot is, the treatment is complicated. The text takes the form of notes for a book about the affair which a publisher has commissioned from the noted historian-turned-thriller writer, Charles Latimer. Latimer has mysteriously disappeared and the reader is left to read through the notes of his interviews with various people and officials involved in the affair, their telegrams and letters, as well as his imaginative ‘reconstructions’ of important scenes – an approach which has been described as “postmodern.”

The majority of the events are seen through the eyes of Intercom’s editor, Theodore Carter. As soon as the “articles” start to appear he receives mysterious phone calls, then an intimidating visit from two “journalists” who he thinks are from the CIA. He is then kidnapped, taken to an apartment and threatened by unknown agents, before being released. Returning to his office to retrieve the key documents, Carter disturbs burglars and is knocked out with some kind of nerve gas. When he regains consciousness, he leaves the office only to encounter the CIA agents coming up the stairs. He barges past them, jumps into his car and drives off in such a panic that he crashes and ends up in hospital. The authorities refuse to believe his account of events just long enough for the magazine sale to be completed and the two security chiefs to get their money.

In a final chapter, Carter–now recovered – visits the Majorca home of the missing Latimer and discovers that one of the intelligence chiefs had become his neighbor, living in a fine villa, driving a new sports car and accompanied by an attractive young woman. He pieces together what must have happened: over sociable dinks the chief let slip a little too much to Latimer who, with his scholarly and literary skills, began to piece together the true story of “the Intercom conspiracy”. The other intelligence chief, not yet retired and suffering from illness, decides to ‘eliminate’ Latimer. He is never seen again, leaving behind the folder of notes and texts which we have just read.

Context

One of the narrators points out that Switzerland is “infested” with intelligence agents, and is therefore highly sensitive about espionage activities within its borders. (With his characteristic interest in procedures and regulations, Ambler explains the Swiss law against spying and the punishments which breaking it entails.) This works to the conspirators’ advantage, since all levels of Swiss authority are only too keen to hush up the affair–thus ensuring their safe getaway.

[1] Wikipedia, downloaded November 26, 2016

Greenmantle


Title:                      Greenmantle

Author:                 John Buchan

Buchan, John (1915, 2008). Greenmantle. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press

LCCN:    2009290487

PR6003.U13 G68 2008

Subjects

Date Posted:      November 28, 2016

Reviewed by Kevin Sampson[1]

I suffered from acute asthma as a child. Until I was 11 or so, there was no effective medication for the ailment, so I spent a fair bit of time off school. Adventure stories, read propped up in bed, provided my escape from tedium, and the spoonfuls of sticky malt I had to swallow to “build me up”. I read everthing from The Eagle of the Ninth[2] to The Silver Sword[3] to John Buchan’s The 39 Steps[4]–but it was another Buchan novel, Greenmantle, that sent me on a lifetime’s flight of fantasy.

A ripping yarn by any standards, Greenmantle is set across two action-packed months during the First World War. At the outset, the suave soldier-spy Richard Hannay–a kind of Edwardian James Bond figure —is convalescing after a typically heroic stint on the Western Front. Hannay and his admirable sidekick Sandy Arbuthnot are summoned by the Foreign Office’s senior intelligence commander, Sir Walter Bullivant. Buchan’s nomenclature, incidentally, is peerless; from maverick Boer guerillas (Piet Pienaar) to icily sinister Prussian overlords (General Ulrich von Stumm) and femmes fatales (Hilda von Einem), he names his characters as pertly as he draws them.

Bullivant briefs Hannay that Turkish seditionaries are planning to whip up discontent among Muslim nations across Asia Minor and into North Africa. An Islamic uprising will create a major headache for Britain, and a diversion the Turks’ German allies can exploit. Our dapper hero has only weeks to foil this dastardly plot. What ensues is a wholly absurd and phenomenally enjoyable romp across half the world as Hannay, Sandy and Pienaar split up and use their ingenuity to get behind enemy lines and defy the Young Turks’ rebellion.

Greenmantle is the first book I read with both an atlas and an encyclopedia to hand, as Hannay gives a succession of shady ne’er-do-wells the slip on foot, by sea, on a wild mustang–even by barge. The book gave me a taste for high-energy crime and action thrillers but, in doing so, it brought a secret and seductive world to life, too.

With ripe evocations of Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade as Hannay takes a slow boat down the Danube to Constantinople, Greenmantle remains one of the most exotic novels I’ve ever read. As a convalescing 11-year-old, I could envisage the smells and sights and sounds of those mysterious cities, and I was desperate to visit every one. It’s a special sort of book that can fire your imagination and transport you to worlds you’ve never known, but Greenmantle continues to take me on a trip, every time I read it.

[1] Kevin Sampson, “Book of a Lifetime: Greenmantle, by John Buchan,” Independent (April 5, 2013). Kevin Sampson’s The Killing Pool is published by Jonathan Cape

[2] Sutcliff, Rosemary (1954, 2015). The Eagle of the Ninth. New York: Alfred A. Knopf [LCCN: 2015019780]. The Eagle of the Ninth. Set in Roman Britain this story is of a young Roman officer who sets out to discover the truth behind the mysterious disappearance of the Ninth Legion, who marched into the mists of Northern Britain and never returned.

[3] Serraillier, Ian (1959). The Silver Sword. New York: Criterion Books [LCCN: 59006556]. In 1942 Warsaw, World War II is raging, and people live in fear from day to day. Ruth, Bronia, and Edek have to fend for themselves when both of their parents are taken by the Nazis. Can they survive? A gripping story based on true accounts.

[4] Buchan, John (1915, 1935). The Thirty-Nine Steps. London: W. Blackwood & Sons. Richard Hannay’s boredom with London society is soon relieved when the resourceful engineer from South Africa is caught up in a web of secret codes, spies, and murder on the eve of WWI. When a neighbor is killed in his flat, Richard, suspected, decodes the journal, runs to the wilds of his native Scotland in disguises and local dialects, evades Germans and officials.

Special Relationship


Title:                Special Relationship

Author:            William Clark

Clark, William (1968, 1969). Special Relationship. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

LCCN:  69015007

PZ4.C5967 Sp3

Date Posted:    November 28, 2016

This book is listed in Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[1] but almost unknown on the internet, other than sites that offer it for sale. The topic is a worthy one, “The Special Relationship” that exists since WWII between Great Britain and the United States. I have posted comments on the Special Relationship (owing to Nigel West).[2]

A novel dealing with this special relationship written in 1969 would have a much more positive view of the relationship than is true in 2016. No doubt the U.S., while frequently at odds on policy, would bond together in the event of major threats to security of either. This took place between Tony Blair and George W. Bush after 9/11.

[1] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., p. 173

[2] Aldrich, Richard (2002). The Hidden Hand: Britain, America, And Cold War Secret Intelligence. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press