Smiley’s People


Title:                      Smiley’s People

Author:                John le Carré

Le Carré, John (1980). Smiley’s People. New York: Knopf

LCCN:    79002299

PZ4.L4526 Sn 1980

Subjects

Date Posted:      December 30, 2016

Review by Michael Wood[1]

For anyone who is tired of life,” wrote Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scout Movement, “the thrilling life of a spy should be the very finest recuperator.” It seems unlikely that much actual recruiting takes place along these breezy lines, but certainly most fictional spies confirm the drift of the prescription. James Bond thrives on his license to kill, and in John Buchan as in Len Deighton we meet world-weary fellows who need danger and conspiracy to keep their nerves in working order. John le Carré, alias David Cornwell, sometime master at Eton and member of the British Foreign Service, set out a while ago to correct the picture. His glum, deceived heroes are not tired of life, they are tired of spying. They are actors who cannot leave their play, prisoners of a world without coincidence, and the cold they want to come in from is their own studied inhumanity.

Even so, there are plenty of thrills in le Carré’s books. Smiley’s People, his ninth novel and one in which all his considerable skills are in evidence, opens in Paris, where a dumpy Russian woman is approached by a sleazy Soviet official. Her abandoned daughter can now join her in exile. But when she looks at the girl’s photographs sent from Moscow, she can’t shake off her sense of the lifelessness of the face. “If they had photographed a corpse to get that picture,” she thinks, “I would not be surprised.” Perhaps they have. At any rate, it becomes clear that the girl they wish to send to France with her daughter’s name is not her daughter. Soon after, in London, an old man is found on Hampstead Heath with his face blown away. George Smiley arrives to view the corpse and pick up the pieces of the puzzle.

Smiley, a plump, myopic, worried and lonely officer of British Intelligence, is a calculated answer to James Bond. He drives badly, doesn’t fight, has scarcely any gadgets and, far from collecting beautiful women, has a remorselessly unfaithful wife. He is a donnish type, a man who gave up Oxford for his clandestine career. Le Carré compares him to an archeologist, and says that, for Smiley’s part at least, “the file was the truth, and all the rest a mere extravagance until it was matched and fitted to the record.” No other agent in fiction spends a tenth of Smiley’s time at his desk, where he riffles through dossiers and reports, “deep in his reading,” as le Carré puts it, looking for the telltale discrepancy buried in those reams of paper. Smiley is the spy as detective and scholar, and made his first appearances in le Carré’s first two novels, which were both murder mysteries: He was glimpsed on the fringes of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold[2] and The Looking Glass War[3], was fished out of retirement for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy[4], became caretaker head of the crippled British Secret Service in The Honourable Schoolboy[5], and now, in Smiley’s People, is off the shelf again.

Le Carré’s recent novels have portrayed, with a great deal of detail and diligently evoked atmosphere, two distinct worlds of espionage: Smileys world in London, a domain of desks and files and intrigues and research, an awkward corner in the corridors of Anglo-American power; and the world of the active agent, the field, the exposed and haunted spot that might be anywhere from Phnom Penh to Prague to a hideout in rural England. “A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world,” le Carré says, but he means it’s a place that invites dangerous mistakes; the material dangers are usually elsewhere. Yet Smiley is not always behind his desk. He knows the field too, has lived his hunted days in enemy territory, and he knows that files and records can be rigged and that the truth, incomplete, unsatisfactory but substantial, is often to be found only in the world away from Whitehall.

In Smiley’s People, Smiley works both worlds, is both detective and agent at risk. I won’t disclose the oblique, slow-moving plot, except to say that a trail of murder and camouflage leads Smiley to Hamburg and Paris and Berne, and that the stakes are especially high for him, since his old archenemy, the daunting mastermind in charge of the Thirteenth Directorate of Russian Intelligence, appears to have made an uncharacteristic slip. Smiley’s boss in London jokingly refers to Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls, but even Smiley himself hears “the drum-beat of his own past, summoning him to one last effort to externalise and resolve the conflict he had lived by.” That’s a touch too literary, sounding more like le Carré’s problem than Smiley’s, and Smiley’s next image catches a little more of the case: “It was just possible, against all the odds, that he had been given, in late age, a chance to return to the rained-out contests of his life and play them after all.” He hides a crucial piece of evidence in his Oxford English Dictionary under Y for Yesterday.

There is a lot of nostalgia among le Carré’s spies. They hark back to World War II, or even the Cold War, when people at least thought they know who their enemies were. But, of course, the nostalgia serves to underline the pain and near-pointlessness of the peacetime trade. The British blackmail a bank official, who is then tortured and killed by the opposition for talking. What is gained, what information is worth that man’s life or his agony? Smiley is fond of talking about service and gratitude and the opportunity to pay. “Trouble is, sport,” a battered field agent thinks, “the paying is actually done by the other poor sods.” At odd moments, le Carré drops into simplicity or cynicism on this score. The Russians are monsters after all, because they don’t care about killing and we do. Or: there is nothing to choose between us, “we are the no-men of this no-man’s land.” More often he depicts, with subtle and complicated sympathy, the moral murkiness of the whole business. Smiley and his people are fighting for decency, but there is more blood on their hands than they or anyone else care to contemplate. They are beleaguered, outdated professionals, the last cowboys of secrecy. They have lost their purpose, and are left only with a job.

In some ways, no doubt, this picture of the spy is as unreal as Baden-Powell’s, but the dilemma it points to is real enough, and when a popular novelist is as good as le Carré we need to ask, perhaps, not what he knows but what it is we go to him for. Le Carré’s spies are certainly plausible in their behavior, and no one else has suggested so convincingly what spying might be like as a job. A cover, for example, is not a disguise, but a reality: It is not a matter of a false mustache and a phony passport. When Alec Leamas, in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, is supposed to be drunk and disreputable, he is drunk and disreputable, nothing less will do, nothing less will deceive the watchful eyes of the enemy. “Smiley was acting himself,” we read in a later book, “but more so.” But then, this already lifts us into fiction. The spy represents one of the stories we might tell about ourselves: true, but tangled in lies.

This is le Carré’s special turf. We need him less for his know-how about espionage, I think, than for his skill in orchestrating the many varieties of betrayal. Defectors, false defectors, faithless friends, perfidious enemies, deceivers who are themselves deceived all these figures appear in le Carré and converge on the double agent, who brings betrayal to a final pitch of perfection. Christ had only 12 disciples, a character remarks in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, “and one of them was a double.” In the same novel, a senior officer of British Intelligence turns out, like Kim Philby, to be a Russian agent, and Smiley thinks, “It would be beautiful in another context.” “I used to love those double-double games,” an old researcher says in Smiley’s People. “All human life was there.”

“Do you know what love is?” a man asks in The Looking Glass War. “I’ll tell you: it is whatever you can still betray.” In this sense, Smiley’s wife loves him a lot. “There is no loyalty without betrayal,” she says rather glibly, for one in her situation. Smiley is always betrayable, and there is a grim joke here, since his task in life is to uncover betrayals at home and encourage betrayals abroad. Smiley’s wife is supposed to be his flaw and his wound, a mark of his humanity. This intimation is not entirely persuasive, since neither Smiley nor any of le Carre’s other characters can quite breathe outside the air of the thriller. No reason why they should, of course: even Sherlock Holmes would look uncomfortable in The Forsyte Saga. What Smiley and his wife suggest is not humanity and weakness, but a familiar ramification of deceit. We don’t have to be spies to betray and be betrayed, and we are all double agents of a sort. Smiley wonders whether a good double agent is not in some way true to both his loves. This strikes me as an extremely unlikely proposition about espionage, but it surely holds good for all kinds of other human relations.

The writing of Smiley’s People is a little tired, and the whole book a little bland. It is as if le Carré had crossed this ground once too often. But it is his ground; the novel has two or three splendid moments, and retains the intricate compassion that was evident even in le Carré’s first works. From the start he has been writing novels without villains, much as Thackeray wrote “a novel without a hero,” and all victories in le Carré have the dingy taste of defeat. If real spies felt that way, there wouldn’t be so much spying.

[1] Michael Wood, “Spy Fiction, Spy Fact,” The New York Times (January 6, 1980). Michael Wood is the author of Stendhal and America in the Movies. Downloaded December 30, 2016.

[2] Le Carré, John (1964). The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. New York, Coward-McCann

[3] Le Carré, John (1965). The Looking–Glass War. London, Heinemann

[4] Le Carré, John (1974). Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. London: Hodder and Stoughton

[5] Le Carré, John (1977). The Honourable Schoolboy. London: Hodder and Stoughton

The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo


Title:                      The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo

Author:                Stieg Larsson

Larsson, Stieg (2008). The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. London: MacLehose Press

LCCN:    2008411003

PT9876.22.A6933 M3613 2008b

Subjects

Notes

  • Originally published as: Män som hatar kvinnor. Stockholm : Norstedt, 2005.

Date Updated:  December 31, 2016

Reviewed by Alex Berenson[1]

A few years ago, Ake Daun, a professor of European ethnology, posted an article on Sweden’s official national Web site, Sweden.se, arguing that Swedes are not in fact gloomy or suicide prone. “Sweden is quite far down in the European suicide table, in 15th place,” Daun wrote, blaming a 1960 speech by Dwight Eisenhower for leaving outsiders with the impression that Swedes tended toward “sin, nudity, drunkenness and suicide.”

Maybe so. But The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson, a Swedish journalist who died of a heart attack in 2004, won’t help the country’s image any. The novel offers a thoroughly ugly view of human nature, especially when it comes to the way Swedish men treat Swedish women. In Larsson’s world, sadism, murder and suicide are commonplace — as is lots of casual sex. (Sweden isn’t all bad.)

“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” published in Sweden in 2005, became an international best seller. The book opens with an intriguing mystery. Henrik Vanger, an octogenarian industrialist, hires Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist who has just lost a libel case under murky circumstances, to investigate the disappearance of his great-niece, Harriet. Nearly 40 years earlier, Harriet vanished from a small island mostly owned by the Vanger family, and Henrik has never gotten over it.

Blomkvist takes on the case, despite serious misgivings, after Henrik promises him 2.4 million kronor (about $372,000 at the current exchange rate) for a year’s work. Henrik says he’s certain that someone in his family murdered Harriet. “I detest most of the members of my family,” he tells Blomkvist. “They are for the most part thieves, misers, bullies and incompetents”—a description that will prove to be, if anything, too kind.

The girl of the title isn’t Harriet but Lisbeth Salander, a 24-year-old computer hacker with a photographic memory, a violent temper and some serious intimacy issues. After a nasty plot detour involving a lawyer foolish enough to try to take advantage of her, Salander teams with Blomkvist to solve the mystery of Harriet’s disappearance.

The novel perks up as their investigation gains speed, though readers will need some time to sort through the various cousins and nephews and half-brothers and–sisters who populate the Vanger family. Harriet’s case turns out to be connected to a series of murders in the 1950s and ’60s. When a cat is killed and its tortured corpse is left outside the cottage where Blomkvist is living, he and Salander realize they may not be working on a cold case after all.

But if the middle section of Girl is a treat, the rest of the novel doesn’t quite measure up. The book’s original Swedish title was Men Who Hate Women, a label that just about captures the subtlety of the novel’s sexual politics. Except for Blomkvist, nearly every man in the book under age 70 is a violent misogynist.

Nor will Girl win any awards for characterization. While Blomkvist comes to life as he’s investigating the murder, his relationships with his daughter and with Erika Berger, a co-worker who is his occasional lover, seem half-formed and weak. Even after 460 pages, it’s not clear whether Blomkvist cares, whether he’s troubled by his lack of intimacy or simply resigned to it. Is he stoic or merely Swedish? Either way, he seems more a stock character than a real person.

But the real disappointment in Girl comes in its final section, after the mystery of Harriet’s disappearance has been solved. Without any warning, “Girl” metamorphoses into a boring account of Blomkvist’s effort to take down the executive who originally won the libel lawsuit mentioned at the start of the novel. The story of his revenge is boring and implausible, relying heavily on lazy e-mail exchanges between characters. And so Girl ends blandly. Only Ake Daun and the Swedish tourist board can be happy about that.

[1] Alex Berenson, “Vanished,” in The New York Times (September 14, 2008). Alex Berenson is a reporter for The Times. His most recent novel is The Ghost War. A version of this review appears in print on , on Page BR27 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Vanished. Downloaded, December 30, 2016

The Fall of a Titan


Title:                      The Fall of a Titan

Author:                  Igor Gouzenko

Gouzenko, Igor (1954). The Fall of a Titan. New York, Norton

LCCN:    54010351

PZ4.G719 Fal

Date Posted:      December 30, 2016

KIRKUS REVIEW[1]

This has a double claim to special notice, the quality of the book, and the identity of the author, the “cipher clerk” who broke with the Soviet in 1945 and turned over the documentary evidence contributing to the breaking of Canada’s spy ring. Inevitably, one feels that in depicting Novikov, a scholar who molded himself into a “Soviet man”, he has tapped his own knowledge of the techniques used to break down a man’s resistance, to destroy his moral sense, to corrupt wholly. This figure is set in opposition to the “titan”, Mikhail Gorin, a giant literary figure (based, the publishers indicate, on Maxim Gorki), recalled by Stalin to add to the propaganda publishing of the state which he had helped, in earlier years, bring into being. It is a fascinating and horrifying story, with intricate subplots involving insatiable lust for power, petty jockeying for position, ruthless elimination of all who differ from authority, and elimination of any independence even in affairs of the heart. Novikov, really in love with Gorin’s daughter, Nina, is instructed to forget it and turn elsewhere; then when his marriage to Lida brings her momentary happiness, that too is negated by her father’s arrest as “enemy of the people”. The book builds up to an inevitable climax of disaster, as Gorin forcibly recognizes the position into which he has been tricked — and Novikov descends to the depths of infamy. But the final note is one of faint hope, that there is still the spark of faith in man. The story has the sweep and power of Russian classical literature, and despite its length, is a holding and moving reading experience from start to finish. Summer Book-of-the-Month.

[1] Kirkus, downloaded December 30, 2016

Agent in Place


Title:      Agent in Place

Author: Helen MacInnes

MacInnes, Helen (2013). Agent in Place. London: Titan Books

LCCN:    2014469887

PS3525.A24573 A74 2013

Date Posted: December 30, 2016

I have not previously used another blogger’s reviews. This review is from a serious blogger and it’s excellent. I am reposting here with full credit.[1] However, note the caveat.

MacInnes, who was born in the UK and later moved to the US with her husband in 1937, wrote a number of spy thrillers between 1941’s Above Suspicion and 1984’s Ride A Pale Horse. Her husband was an agent for MI6 apparently even after the move to the USA, and his work evidently influenced the subject matter of her books. The early novels have the Second World War as a background, whereas her later novels deal with the Cold War, and are set in the US and in Europe. I’ve read a few of her books, and have enjoyed them, particularly for the settings, though my favorite is Neither Five Nor Three, set in New York, and on reading which was the first time I had really appreciated why Communism was seen as such a threat to American life after the war.

Agent in Place is set in the US and in France. Chuck Kelso is an idealist working for a policy unit called Shandon House which has been given charge of a NATO memorandum: Kelso steals the memo, copies the first part, which he considers the American public need to know, and returns the original the next day. However, he has made friends with a man called Rick Nealey, a Soviet mole, an agent in place, who photographs the second and third parts of the memo, which are a good deal more damaging to US interests (and in which Kelso has no interest), and which he forwards on to his contact at the KGB. Kelso’s actions inadvertently implicate his elder brother Tom, a well-regarded reporter, in the leakage, though Tom’s friends Brad Gillon and British agent Tony Lawton are sure that the leakage came from Chuck.

The second part of the book is set in the south of France, in Menton, where NATO’s agent in Moscow, Palladin, has escaped following publication of the memo, and is being kept safe. Tony Lawton, following up the transfer of Rick Nealey, in whom he’s become interested, to Shandon House’s French operation, becomes convinced that not is all as it seems.

The usual hallmarks of a MacInnes thriller are in place – civilians having to play their part alongside professional agents, double-crossings, the ruthlessness of Soviet agents, trade craft, and so on – and the whole thing is interesting in its subversion of the initial set-up. I enjoyed it, but I think the book suffers from being told from several different viewpoints, and, when one considers how well MacInnes usually portrays professional women in her novels, Dorothea Kelso, Tom’s wife, comes across as particularly wet. Maybe it’s because MacInnes was getting older, because I noticed that Karen, in Ride A Pale Horse (1984), was not a patch on some of the earlier heroines (such as Rona in Neither Five Nor Three of 1951) in terms of courage and resource, though unusually Karen is the main protagonist of her novel, and a highly respected journalist. It’s not just Thea, either, since Nicole, one of Tony Lawton’s colleagues, takes the revelation of the agent’s real activities much more emotionally and to heart than any of her male colleagues who were similarly duped. This leaves rather a sour taste to this reader, despite the excitement of the plot, which is revealed as something different from what was expected.

Because the novel’s seen from several different points of view, the characterization tends to be thin, quite apart from the problems with the women I’ve mentioned. The settings are excellently written, though, with the sense of place which MacInnes conveys very well. The plot really heats up in the second part of the book, once in Menton – the stealing of the memo almost a McGuffin to get the real plot started. So, not one of MacInnes’ best, but still an interesting slice of espionage, Cold War style.

 

[1] Ela’s Book Blog, posted March 5, 2014, downloaded December 11, 2016

The Ninth Man


Title:                      The Ninth Man

Author:                 John Lee

Lee, John (1976). The Ninth Man. Garden City, NY: Doubleday

LCCN:    75014989

PZ4.L4782 Ni

Subjects

Date Posted:      December 19, 2016

KIRKUS REVIEW[1]

A flashy story idea well done, loaded with big-movie bait—and why not? In the summer following Pearl Harbor, Hitler ordered a truly audacious undercover expedition against the U.S. Two U-boats dropped four saboteurs each, one team on the Florida coast, the other on Long Island. The Long Island team buried four crates of explosives in the sand off Amagansett—enough for two years of mind-blowing demolition. Unknown to these agents, a ninth man had also come along and landed separately. His mission: to assassinate Churchill and/or Roosevelt during the P.M.’s secret visit to Washington. The story follows the piecemeal capture of the saboteurs and of the FBI’s pigheaded refusal (J. Edgar Hoover is just an idiot) to believe in the “Ninth Man theory” advanced by an Army security officer attached to the White House. Dietrich, the assassin, shacks up with an affecting ninny of a secretary while working out his bomb plans against “that man in the wheelchair” (Churchill departed early). Naturally, nostalgia rings familiar bells—remember Charlie McCarthy and “Don’t Fence Me In”?—while the big scene displays Dietrich pushing Roosevelt’s head underwater in the White House swimming pool. A super-meller with fingertip immediacy.

[1] Kirkus, downloaded December 19, 2016

The Secret Road


Title:                      The Secret Road

Author:                  Bruce Lancaster

Lancaster, Bruce (1952). The Secret Road. Boston, Little, Brown

LCCN:    52006785

The Secret Road

Notes

  • “An Atlantic Monthly Press book.”

Date Posted:      December 16, 2016

KIRKUS REVIEW[1]

The story of a war within a war as Tories battled Rebels in the strategic area between Stamford and New London, and a “timid man” dared the impossible. The plot revolves around Grant Ledyard a prisoner who escaped to rejoin the Americans at Fairfield. There, under the leadership of Talmadge, he plays an important part in running down the mystery of “John Anderson”, (André) and his tragic involvement with the traitor Benedict Arnold at West Point, as well as fighting off a band of Tories at Redding Ridge beNt on the capture of French gold. A vigorous picture of a little known phase of the American Revolution.

[1] Kirkus, downloaded December 16, 2016

The Association of Small Bombs


Title:                      The Association of Small Bombs

Author:                 Karan Mahajan

Mahajan, Karan (2016). The Association of Small Bombs. New York, New York: Viking

LCCN:    2016479815

PS3613.A34925 A93 2016

Summary

  • After witnessing his two friends killed by a “small” bomb that detonated in a Delhi marketplace, Mansoor Ahmed becomes involved with a charismatic young activist, whose allegiances and beliefs are more changeable than he could have imagined.
  • When brothers Tushar and Nakul Khurana, two Delhi schoolboys, pick up their family’s television set at a repair shop with their friend Mansoor Ahmed one day in 1996, disaster strikes without warning. A bombone of the many “small” bombs that go off seemingly unheralded across the world detonates in the Delhi marketplace, instantly claiming the lives of the Khurana boys, to the devastation of their parents. Mansoor survives, bearing the physical and psychological effects of the bomb. After a brief stint at university in America, Mansoor returns to Delhi, where his life becomes entangled with the mysterious and charismatic Ayub, a fearless young activist whose own allegiances and beliefs are more malleable than Mansoor could imagine. Woven among the story of the Khuranas and the Ahmeds is the gripping tale of Shockie, a Kashmiri bomb maker who has forsaken his own life for the independence of his homeland. Karan Mahajan writes brilliantly about the effects of terrorism on victims and perpetrators, proving himself to be one of the most provocative and dynamic novelists of his generation. — Provided by publisher..

Subjects

Date Posted:      December 14, 2016

Reviewed by Fiona Maazel[1]

Allow me to skip the prelude to judgment that usually begins a book review, and just get right to it: Karan Mahajan’s second novel, The Association of Small Bombs, is wonderful. It is smart, devastating, unpredictable and enviably adept in its handling of tragedy and its fallout. If you enjoy novels that happily disrupt traditional narratives—about grief, death, violence, politics—I suggest you go out and buy this one. Post haste.

That done, let’s get to the why of this novel’s excellence, which starts with its brio. After the terrorist attacks in Paris last November [2015], several articles were published about the equally horrifying attacks in Beirut and why few in the West had seemed to care or even to notice. In Beirut, 43 civilians were killed and over 200 injured by ISIS suicide bombers, but the carnage barely registered with the Western press, governments or thousands of people posting on Facebook. Why? Probably because violence in the Middle East and South Asia seems de rigueur for us, the same way mass shootings in the United States are being met with less outrage—and more apathy—every day.

Another thing most of us don’t care about? The inner lives of the people who commit terrorism, though this seems less problematic. We don’t want to know about a suicide bomber’s diabetic parents and belittling ex-girlfriend. We don’t want to know about his dreams—his fear and hurt and longing—because he killed our families and friends. He is a mass murderer, and that’s that. But as part of its mission to agitate these patterns of thought, The Association of Small Bombs (a) forces us to care about just another terrorist attack in a market in Delhi and (b) insists that we consider—and possibly even like—the people for whom terrorism exerts its appeal.

This is, needless to say, a gutsy move, especially since the novel begins not with a terrorist but with Deepa and Vikas Khurana, whose boys—11 and 13 years old—are killed in a market while fetching their father’s TV from an electrician. Such a stupid reason to die, which is the point: Tragedies are senseless and random unless you are their perpetrator. So the boys die, but their friend Mansoor survives with injuries to his wrist and arm, which thrusts at least some of the novel’s narrative structure into view: It will follow the Khuranas and Mansoor as they slog through the welter of their feelings after the blast.

Permutations of grief dominate a good part of the sections devoted to the Khuranas. We watch them grope for each other; repel each other; fight, make love and then decamp from whatever solaces each has to afford the other. Theirs are the most thrilling, tender and tragic parts of the novel, which are also periodically funny. It’s hard to know what to make of the novel’s flirtation with drollery, since it really is just a flirtation; no one would call this a tragicomic narrative. In some way, these moments of levity feel almost grossly misplaced, which has the strange effect of also making them feel just right. Drollery is exceedingly difficult to quote out of context, so you’ll have to trust me that when Deepa—the boys’ mother—thinks about her future with her husband but is “in denial too, convinced they would kill themselves,” it’s almost a laugh-out-loud moment. Or that when Mansoor’s mother, Afsheen, thinks about his future, becoming “sentimental and hysterical,” one gets the feeling the narrator is gently and lovingly mocking her for her outsize passion.

Notably, such moments are confined to the novel’s first 100 pages or so, as if to perch us atop its slide toward fatalism. As the narrative suggests, nothing recovers from a bomb—not our humanity, our politics or even our faith. Not entirely, in any case, which is best borne out by Mansoor, whose injuries appear relatively cosmetic but come to traumatize his life for the next six years in the form of debilitating carpal tunnel syndrome. He wants to be a computer programmer; you can imagine how good his chances are.

Of course, the most insidious effects of violence are psychological, and certainly Mansoor, who was only 12 when the blast went off, has not escaped them. His pain is physical and mental and unrelenting—the very sort of thing that makes a man vulnerable to persuasion. But not in the way I expected, which is another of the novel’s pleasures: It continued to surprise me. Mansoor adopts a way of life that seems perilously close to what we Westerners—what this Westerner—associate with a radicalized form of Islam that will not coexist with competing ideologies. But Mahajan’s take on what it means and how it feels to be a practicing Muslim is entirely more sophisticated and nuanced, which is what keeps Mansoor’s story riveting and sad.

Case in point: None of the terrorists in the novel are radicalized Muslims. None of them murder in the misappropriated name of Allah. Instead, they are political activists, some more disaffected than others, in pursuit of independence for Kashmir in one instance and an end to the persecution of Muslims in another (though this is a reductive summary). The violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002—what many call a pogrom orchestrated by then Chief Minister Narendra Modi—is a motivating force in the novel for several Muslims seeking justice, or even just peaceful coexistence. But both seem unattainable, the one because mistrust and rancor between Hindus and Muslims are not easily dispatched, and the other because justice doesn’t serve at the pleasure of the bomb. “A bomb was a child,” one terrorist thinks. “A tantrum directed at all things.” And since when does a child get its way?

At some point, in thrall to her grief, Deepa begins moaning at night, “a steady sob, like that of a dog.” Vikas, concerned, asks what’s wrong. And what follows is just one of several lovely passages that tell me Mahajan is the real deal:

“The house, closed in by the multiple cells of the relatives’ flats, was scary, lonely, dark. He shook her. Her eyes were open. She was not asleep. The sound was conscious. He was overcome, at that moment, by a panic he had never experienced before—the panic of a man alone in the world—and he put his hands on her small shoulders and shook her again. She wrapped her legs around his, still looking at the ceiling. Vikas pulled up her kurta and undid the drawstrings of her pajamas.

“Soon, they were making love.”

If The Association of Small Bombs has any weakness, it’s in the way it shuts down at the end, with haste and a somewhat perfunctory nod to its own fatalism. But this doesn’t make the ending any less tragic for all parties—victims and perpetrators both. This novel is generous without prejudice, which feels at once subversive and refreshing. It also contributes to its sadness. There are no heroes here. Just an association of small bombs ticking away in the guise of average people who feel intensely.

[1] Fiona Maazel, book review in The New York Times (March 15, 2016). Downloaded December 13, 2016. Fiona Maazel’s third novel, “A Little More Human,” will be published next year. A version of this review appears in print on March 20, 2016, on page BR10 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: “Road to Detonation”.