This is a new medium for me, and I’m not entirely sure of its protocols. How much plot is it acceptable to give away, especially when discussing books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy for their plots? In general, I believe that ruining books by revealing their endings is not only one of the privileges of criticism, but one of its moral responsibilities. What good are we if we can’t spare our readers the time and expense of struggling through books we read only because someone paid us to? But if you have a qualm about giving away too much, I’ll respect it and keep mum about Joseph Stalin’s unknown son and Oliver Single’s daring rescue of his dad.
As I was reading these two dreary, labored books, some lines from Wallace Stevens’s “Esthetique de Mal” kept coming to mind: “The death of Satan was a tragedy/ For the imagination.” Cardinal Ratzinger, in affirming the rite of exorcism, assures us that Satan is alive and well, but it’s clear that the death of the Soviet Union was a tragedy for the already attenuated imaginations of spy-novel writers. To their credit, both Robert Harris and John le Carré have worked hard to come up with historical conflicts to replace the Cold War–harder than the film-makers who try to finesse the absence of a worthy enemy by imagining that renegade Serbs, IRA splinter-groups, Moslem fundamentalists, or Gary Oldman can threaten all we hold dear. (Even the usually sensible Secretary of Defense recently showed himself susceptible to this type of fantasy, conveniently for the defense industry, our nation’s most durable contribution to socialism.) The problem is that no such conflict–no grand antagonism between rival civilizations, no epic drama mingling ideology with state power–exists at present.
“How cold the vacancy,” to continue with Stevens, “when the phantoms are gone and the shaken realist/ First sees reality.” Both Harris and Le Carré scramble to fill this vacancy: Le Carré by replacing the struggle between capitalism and communism with the struggle between one group of capitalists and another, Harris by pretending that the specter of Stalinism still haunts Russia. While these premises are, broadly speaking, true, they aren’t very adaptable to the narrative conventions of the upper-middlebrow thriller.
Single and Single is the story of two sets of crooked businessmen trying to get the better of each other, and for all its exotic locations (Istanbul, Zurich, London, Tblisi) and Big Themes (honor and betrayal, fathers and sons, love and deception) it might as well be the story of a Manhattan real estate transaction. Reading Le Carré’s great spy books (Smiley’s People, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), you have the sense that he knows what he’s talking about, and that he’s giving you an inside glimpse of a shadowy world adjacent to your own but inaccessible to it. Here, in spite of a lot of boilerplate about “offshore operations” and “dummy holding companies,” I get the impression that he has no idea how international finance, legal or otherwise, works. Nor that he cares much. And he compensate by overwriting, overplotting, and overpsychologizing.
Harris’s book, while it features some brilliant evocations of life in both the miserable old USSR and the miserable new Russia, goes disastrously off the rails when it swerves into high-voltage-thriller mode. At first, when the grotesquely named Fluke Kelso, a dissolute historian attending a conference in Moscow, hears about a secret journal of Stalin’s last days, I thought Archangel was going to be an archival detective story–A.S. Byatt’s Possession crossed with the VENONA transcripts. But we never get to read much of the notebook, and Kelso turns out to be the unwitting puppet of an evil ex-KGB man intent on restoring Russia to its former Soviet glory. The plot is a variation on The Boys From Brazil crossed with Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park (Feliks Suvorin, the cynical, decent Moscow cop, owes a lot to Smith’s Arkady Renko–but then again he also rather resembles Nat Brock, the cynical, decent British Customs agent in Single and Single.) I don’t mind the nonsense about Stalin junior being raised in the wastes of Siberia by a cadre of loyalists. What bothers me as that an absurd and mishandled plot is presented so pretentiously, as though it were a serious meditation on the political realities of post-Soviet Russia. This is a point I wouldn’t mind arguing further, since you might respond that there is indeed a danger of Communist restoration in Russia, and that Harris has done the world a service by calling attention to it, albeit through the exaggerations and foreshortenings his chosen genre requires. But I won’t put words in your mouth.