Monday, February 11, 2008

Robert Harris's Fatherland is one of the books I consider in a forthcoming Common Review piece on alternative history. I am not sure this one is alternative history.

Ghastly Times

Robert Harris "Ghost" Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Ian Williams for the Catskill Review of Books

There are times when fiction is “essentially” true, when we get more insight about the motivations and characters of real historical figures from a novel than from any amount of breathless prose based on privileged access interviews.

Primary Colors certainly evoked the essence of the Clintons' and inadvertently and tangentially said much about the appalling state of media and publishing when bitchy editorialists spent more time lamenting the originally anonymous author Joe Klein’s refusal to ‘fess up when the suspicious fingers pointed his way than they did considering the accuracy of his artistry.
Robert Harris’s “Ghost” explores what many would consider to be the essence of Tony Blair – which plausibly explores how a lightweight but charismatic politician vaulted to become leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom despite an almost complete lack of political pedigree, or indeed of visible ideology. It provides an answer to the mystery of how someone who was apparently sincere and well- wishing in a sort of nondescript "nice" way should have become such a complete helot to the worst kind of American conservatism.

From a writer's point of view, Robert Harris also explores the sad and lonely world of the Ghostwriter – hence, at least in part, the title. For the other part of the explanation you will have to read to the end, but he heads the chapters with apposite quotes from a real "how-to" book on ghostwriting.

The book is told from the viewpoint of a craftsman-like hack, a competent, hard working and cynical drudge who earns his crust form ghosting the memoirs of fading rock starts, soccer plays and celebrity bimbos. He gets an offer he can't refuse. Lang's previous ghost has, ironically, joined the heavenly choir in his own right in mysterious circumstances on the ferry to Martha's Vineyard where the recently resigned Prime Minister of Britain is holed up in a borrowed mansion striving to meet the deadline for his vastly over-advanced memoirs.

The other reason he is holed up is that the International Criminal Court is on his case. He had ordered British forces to kidnap alleged Al Qaeda operatives from Pakistan and hand them to the CIA for rendition to obliging allies with scant regard for international conventions against torture. Britain is a signatory to the ICC treaty and of course, the US is not.

"Ghost" works as a taut and well-written thriller so I would hate to spoil it for readers, but I think it would not spoil it too much to say that Adam Lang (an old Scottish name, like Blair) had fallen under undue influence from the CIA. This is not as far-fetched or paranoid as it seems. During the Cold War, many aspirant Labour politicians were courted by a variety of Atlanticist bodies, many of them funded by the CIA.

Some were genuinely democratic socialists in opposition to Communism and totalitarianism. In that sense taking the American dime was less reprehensible than the likes of Philby taking the Soviet kopek. After all, in general, Washington did not directly interfere with post-War Labour's establishment of the trappings of a West European Social Democracy in Britain. Indeed, the Conservative Party before Thatcher did not try to dismantle the National Health Service or the opening up of educational opportunities.

Nevertheless, the American influence was visible in what was generally regarded as Labour's right wing which in conjunction with the communist influenced members, led to a false dualism that stereotyped those who opposed Soviet-style communism as "right wing, and pro-American. It made life hard for those like Harold Wilson whose desperate attempts as Prime Minister to forge an independent role for Britain and Europe between the two extremes certainly helped provoke the persistent and weird British establishment rumours that he was a KGB agent.

Anyone who has had contacts with the interface between New and Old Labour will recognize the types, and occasionally even the characters in Harris's depiction. This gripping and rewarding novel displays all the skills he has used previously in historical contexts in a contemporary scenario.

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