Early on in his new novel, James Buchan employs an image of which he is evidently fond: that of two mirrors placed face to face, and the unique and disconcerting effect which they produce, of reflections endlessly reflected in reflections. The same mirrors turned up in Frozen Desire, Buchan’s autobiographical meditation on the meaning of money, where they served as a symbol of financial investment and the silent accumulation of compound interest. In A Good Place to Die, they describe the state of mind of its narrator, a young Englishman named John Pitt, as he stares into an antique photograph, straining to make out words contained in a frame depicted within it. ‘I am drawn into that silver frame within a frame,’ John reports, ‘am cast back and forth between them and between the centuries, in an infinite and darkling enfilade as when two mirrors are placed to face one another. In my vertigo, the writing is forever trembling on the lip of sense. I feel it struggle to take form ... and fly at me; and yet there is something hopeless about the writing, left-handed, disconsolate, dead, forgotten.’
Such sensations – of fascination and frustration, of struggling for sense and wholeness, and of meaning glimpsed only to dip out of sight – will be familiar to all readers of Buchan’s fiction, whether or not they count themselves among his admirers. His five previous novels have received superlative praise and literary prizes; he has been ranked among the very best novelists of his time and place. By and large, his detractors express bafflement rather than outright dismissiveness, but all agree that Buchan is, by the prevailing standards of literary fiction, a demanding and unconventional novelist – evasive, elliptical, simultaneously garrulous and laconic, explicit and vague. He writes the kind of books which are impossible to summarise in a jacket blurb; the terms his publishers tend to use (political spy thriller; ‘tender’ love story) must have enticed and confounded a good number of casual readers. To admirers he ‘makes the reader work’; the rest simply regard him as hard work. Buchan’s difficulty is the key to any judgment about his writing, and it is characteristically displayed in A Good Place to Die.
This isn’t immediately obvious and, for the first half of the book, the blurb writer appears to have got it more or less right. It is 1974 and John Pitt, the narrator, is an 18-year-old on his first journey out of Britain. After hitch-hiking through Europe and Turkey, he finds himself in pre-revolutionary Iran, a country of ‘light, sweets, roasting kebabs, portraits of the Shah in splendour, wolf-whistles and long-winded jokes’. A haircut and a forged degree certificate are all he needs to find a job as an English teacher in the city of Isfahan. John is bright, cocky, lonely and broke and, like many teenagers on their first encounter with Abroad, he is pre-emptively nostalgic, consciously harvesting experiences for future enjoyment. ‘I sensed that I was a tough guy,’ he says, ‘and that the sights and sounds and tastes and smells of Isfahan, that now meant nothing to me, would years from now convey the most intense sensations ... it would gain its meaning for me only in its telling, back home, in my house, when I had one, before an audience of imaginary Britishers.’
At such moments, John is convincingly adolescent, a version of the young James Buchan described in the introduction to Frozen Desire, possessed of ‘an education, which included some ancient and foreign languages, an acquaintance with classical literature, an uninstructed innocence, an unfathomable conceit’. But apart from a few moments of authentic callowness, he comes over as an implausibly accomplished 18-year-old. With his fluent Persian, he befriends the alcoholic owner of an antique shop and quickly becomes a connoisseur of his artefacts. He meets the mysterious Mr Ryazanov, Soviet Consul in Isfahan, and engages in a banteringly learned debate about the virtues of the new and old schools of Persian poetry (‘I felt,’ Mr Ryazanov complains about one of his young friend’s favourite sonnets, ‘that the image of the penis as a fish lacked both propriety and precision’). The imagery, personalities and translated words of Persian literature permeate the narrative and never more than when the usual happens and John falls in love.
This he does as only adolescents and fictional characters can – blindly, absolutely and at a stroke. Concealed by the chador, his Beloved’s only attributes are literary ones, as John explains to his Russian friend: ‘Her lips are rubies, her teeth are pearls, her eyelashes are like the spears of the enemy in battle, her waist is like a hair. I haven’t seen her face.’ Luckily for John, she does turn out to be a beauty, and a poetically unattainable one: not only is her father a brutal general in the Shah’s Air Force, he has already promised his daughter, Shirin, to one of his officers. John’s fevered description of their snatched courtship, like his account of himself, wobbles between success and failure. Is his boyish excitability psychologically realistic? During their first kiss, the Beloved – whose name means ‘sweet’ – smells to John like ‘the rosebeds of the Public Garden after a rain shower’. At their second meeting her aroma has inexplicably altered to that of ‘geraniums in sunshine’. ‘I felt as if I were drinking from some unfathomable well of happiness,’ a typical passage burbles, ‘and also of security, as if in some other world than this one, which had preceded it and would succeed it, we had been used to kiss like this and been separated. My vertigo receded, and with it the impulse to suicide in my waist and groin.’
The book is saved from writing like this by the unfolding of events, which soon begin to move very fast indeed. One moment, John is cautiously visiting Shirin’s home; a few pages later – in a characteristically Buchanesque acceleration of pace – the lovers’ secret is out and the two are fleeing Isfahan for their lives. They hole up in the Gulf city of Bushehr, in a house secretly owned by Mr Ryazanov. As they are planning their escape by boat, Shirin finds herself pregnant, and refuses to leave. The enforced honeymoon lasts for a year; at last a girl, Layly, is born, and as the three prepare for their hazardous escape, we feel ourselves launched on a pleasurably familiar trajectory. Danger lurks; John and Shirin’s love, one can sense, is to be put to the test by violence and separation, but after heroic tribulations, reunion will follow and a return to the safety of home. ‘We will not be separated, for our will to be together is stronger than the will of our enemies to separate us and we will obliterate them,’ John vows, in the conventional manner of the hero of Romance. ‘It is time to leave the garden of union, my husband,’ Shirin says, in the stiffly translated Persian in which they address one another. ‘It is time to confront these wicked men.’ By the end of the book, scarcely one of these expectations has been met.
Partly this is due to the presence of another genre, the modern spy thriller, which imparts much of what is most baffling to Buchan’s books. His first novel, A Parish of Rich Women, is the story of a lost young man who escapes the nullness of life in posh London to become a scared, amateur spook in Beirut. Richard, the hero of Heart’s journey in Winter, is another ambiguous journalist-spy, this time in Cold War Germany. John Pitt’s historical moment – Iran during the Revolution – is the most dramatic of all, and his relationship with the British intelligence services the most murky and mysterious. It emerges in hints, allusions and fragments, dispersed across hundreds of pages – in tantalising and seemingly chance remarks, in curious absences and unreliable confessions. The practice of withholding vital information and of leaving unmade connections which the reader must complete is, of course, a staple of spy and crime writing, but few writers go to such lengths as Buchan to fox their readers and to conceal what is going on.
His methods can be illustrated, without giving too much away, in his treatment of John’s origins, seemingly a matter of marginal concern which turns out to be of central significance. The narrator, by his own account, is an orphan, the child of modest foster parents in Hull, who has abandoned his education for no better reason than an urge to escape. Then, early on in their flight from Isfahan, John and Shirin’s lives are spared by a nomadic leader who, out of the blue, asks John to ‘present my compliments to Miss Dot’. The latter is identified, without elaboration, as ‘Dr J.K.D. Spencer, professor emerita of Persian at the School of Oriental and African Studies’, and she flits like a ghost in and out of me plot. It slowly becomes clear that the aristocratic Dr Spencer is a master spy and manipulator, with a mysterious relationship to John, whose real mother worked under her as a junior spy in the British Embassy in Tehran. Her son was conceived out of her traitorous relationship with a Russian diplomat, who may or may not have been Mr Ryazanov. Since his mother’s death Dr Spencer has taken a protective interest in the boy, inspiring his study of Persian and perhaps more. John, it becomes clear, came to Iran not as a hippy, but as an orphan in search of his father, with the encouragement, at the very least, of the sinister Miss Dot.
Similar mysteries surround Shirin’s parentage and identity, and the circumstances of her separation from John. Pieced together and pondered over, they eventually resolve themselves, but it would be impossible, even for the most vigilant reader, to decode all of them on first, or even second, reading. The job is made all the harder by the violent pace of the second half of the book. The idyllic year between the lovers’ elopement and their flight from Bushehr occupies one third of the novel’s length; after the aborted escape, John sets out to find his lost wife and child, and events lurch forward as Khomeni’s revolution transforms Iran. On page 223, John witnesses executions in Tehran’s Evin prison in September 1981; 21 pages later, he imagines his lost daughter as being 13, which means that it is suddenly 1988. The events of the Revolution and its aftermath intrude glancingly, but they are secondary to John’s search for his family, and the staggering tribulations which he undergoes.
Most modern writers of literary adventure pace the adventures of their protagonists, and build up through lesser sufferings to a single climax. The heroes of Conrad or Greene might live through one intense ordeal – a firing squad, for instance, or torture and imprisonment, or a gunfight. John survives all of these, as well as a tank battle, an amputation, a walk through a minefield, a direct hit by a drug smuggler’s bullet and a bout of alcoholism.
These episodes are, it’s true, written with unfaltering authority and conviction. Parts of A Good Place to Die, which describe John’s visit to Kashmir, are lifted directly from a non-fiction account published by Buchan in Granta; even the most obviously imaginary scenes, like John’s long incarceration, are written with die eye-witness authority and command of detail Buchan brings to his journalism. The book’s grimmest and most intense moment occurs in front of the firing squad, where John’s cellmates die while he is inexplicably spared.
I swear I saw the smoke; and heard the crackle of cold gunfire; and felt the splash of hot blood and shit on my face; and the lives punched out of them and the thump of empty bodies bouncing on the stake; and the creaking of cords and the reverberation around the mountains stopped dead in full career.
Individually brilliant, John’s adventures are cumulatively absurd. He escapes from prison by volunteering for the Iranian Army in its war against Iraq. Within hours of release he has been dispatched to the front, and is performing acts of valour with a silver-plated AK-47. Previously, he has shown himself to be a skilled code-breaker and disarmer of booby traps. Now, in the desert, he repairs a defective Chieftain tank. Driving towards another part of the battlefield, he alone realises that the bus is about to be hit by an Iraqi missile, and leaps to safety. In Kashmir, he becomes a school teacher and ends up spying on his Muslim pupils for the Indian military. In Afghanistan in 1996 he witnesses the fall of Kabul to the Taliban and happens on vital clues to Shirin’s fate in the abandoned British Embassy. The effect of so much extremity and coincidence is deadening, as character, plot and motivation fall away, and the book becomes a series of arresting yarns.
The closest thing to a consistent theme is announced in Buchan’s title, and returned to again and again. Death and decay haunt John, whose gift for survival brings him no hope or comfort. Even during his elopement with Shirin, ‘it seemed to me that the condition of the world at rest was ruin.’ After his mock execution, John detects that ‘in the back of my head, something had gone dead beyond all resurrection.’ Later in Kabul, ‘what I knew was that I was not going to any other place and would leave my bones here under the snow.’ But he is wrong again. The note of doom is sounded repeatedly but without any variation or development. ‘The problem in facing up to death,’ John observes at one point, ‘is that a person cannot maintain his spirit indefinitely.’ The problem in writing so repetitively about it is that after a while the reader feels the same.
The nature of John’s anguish is never analysed or explained, nor is the reason for his remarkable endurance. After their intense presence in the first part of the book, Shirin and Layly appear only once in its second half, in an ambiguous, dreamlike moment of reunion at the very end which seems to acknowledge what has been obvious for many pages: that John’s passion for his wife and daughter has become an abstraction detached from the life around it. In Afghanistan, meanwhile, he has had a perfunctory affair with a French doctor, prompting more gloomy reflections and some insipid writing (‘What had survived a prison and a battlefield could not resist a French woman’s yellow hair and alabaster shoulders’). But, inspired by contradictory news of Shirin and Layly (perhaps they are in prison in Iran; perhaps they escaped the country altogether), he returns to Isfahan, where the novel began and where it now gently unwinds.
Maimed and dying, purged of the need to search out his family, John waits for them to find him and fulfils the promise of nostalgia which he made to himself as a teenager. It ‘was an illusion’, he concludes about his past. ‘The Isfahan of 1974 was in itself the last phase of a world that was dying, of a precious architecture, the shreds of British and Russian intrigue, of a cult of love and gardens.’ But the obvious conclusion – that John’s love itself shared in this illusion – is not explicitly drawn. The novel ends in a blaze of giddy emotion with a family reunion which might be fantasy or might be real. It is sentimental, impressionistic and moving, but it cannot obliterate the frustrating sense that, after 343 pages, twenty-five years, and thousands of weary miles, the travels of John Pitt have taken him almost nowhere.