Veni, vidi, video

D.A.N. Jones

  • Dangerous Pursuits by Nicholas Salaman
    Secker, 192 pp, £7.50, June 1983, ISBN 0 436 44086 5
  • Monimbo by Robert Moss
    Weidenfeld, 384 pp, £7.95, August 1983, ISBN 0 297 78166 9
  • The Last Supper by Charles McCarry
    Hutchinson, 427 pp, £8.96, May 1983, ISBN 0 09 151420 7
  • Heartburn by Nora Ephron
    Heinemann, 179 pp, £7.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 434 23700 0
  • August 1988 by David Fraser
    Collins, 235 pp, £8.50, July 1983, ISBN 0 00 222725 8
  • The Cure by Peter Kocan
    Angus and Robertson, 137 pp, £5.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 207 14589 X

It would be easy to overpraise Dangerous Pursuits. This is a comedy of surveillance, dealing with in-store video monitors, hardware and software, amateur and professional police espionage, counter-terrorism, peeping toms and voyeurs. Everyone is bugged. Nicholas Salaman has plotted his book so deftly, with almost plausible pranks and conspiracies, surprises and reversals, sexual depravities and savage cruelties, that it sometimes resembles a first-rate spy thriller. But, despite the melancholy conclusion, Dangerous Pursuits is truly comic, dipping easily into absurdity when events become too nauseous to be taken seriously. There are passages that read like a parody of such long, morbid, humourless para-political thrillers of espionage as Monimbo (copyright Mossgrave Partnership) or Charles McCarry’s The Last Supper – so ambitiously titled but with all the human interest of a computer or a ventriloquist’s dummy. Charles McCarry must not be confused with Edgar Bergen’s famous doll, Charlie McCarthy, since he is never intentionally funny: but his narrative and dialogue benefit by being read aloud, in a quacking, inhuman voice, without movement of the lips.

Nicholas Salaman, by contrast, offers dialogue that an actor might roll about his tongue. The principal narrator is Roy Croucher, an unreasonably self-satisfied Londoner, in his fifties, with experience of jungle warfare in Malaya and a subversively conservative attitude towards anything that smacks of modernisation. Croucher spies on lovers, dyes his enemies’ milk green, stuffs potatoes up their exhaust pipes: he disguises himself as a pest officer, a Greek Orthodox priest, a knapsacked botanist, a video librarian (who can transform enthusiastic commercials into Buñuel-like fantasies of gluttony and nausea). Croucher recounts his exploits with the unctuous self-righteousness of a ponce in court, a madam dictating her memoirs or a contributor to the Daily Telegraph correspondence column:

As I sipped the nut-brown brew I reflected that there are still some things that we do incomparably better than other nations if only we could stop this Gadarene rush down the slope of trans-Atlantic replication ... I actually saw her embracing her friend Margaret in a manner that I can only describe as fulsome. I was observing through a chink in the french window draperies. They appeared to be scantily clad. It was not a sight calculated to refresh the spirit. I had difficulty restraining myself from rapping on the window.

Croucher’s bloody-mindedness is gradually revealed as he tells us with disgust about an American marketing executive with a Robert Redford moustache who is ordering Pimm’s in an irritating manner, spoiling the atmosphere of a pub which Croucher favours. This bounder is called Tony (Croucher’s least favourite name) and kisses a British girl ‘full on the lips’. This is ‘not the English way. To see such a respectable-seeming and well-brought-up girl embracing a foreigner, one of a nation that has contributed so signally to our present abasement, brings me out in a cold rage which frightens even myself.’ Croucher decides to investigate Tony and his English rose. When he finds that Tony is in the business of video-monitoring and security-surveillance, Croucher surveys and monitors him almost to death, with good old British bushcraft. This leads Croucher into some pretty tight corners, with Irish commercial terrorists and a Lebanese millionaire, until practically the whole cast is assembled in the woodland around Tony’s cottage, armed to the teeth, only to be thwarted by an announcement:

This is the police. You are in a protected wood. There is a Berks, Bucks and Oxon Naturalists’ Trust birdsong project being conducted here. You have been recorded. Unload your weapons.

Jacobean English is a delight to Croucher: he likes to quote Shakespeare and compare himself with Puck. He more resembles a crafty, sententious trickster from one of Middleton’s comedies, like A Trick to Catch the Old One, or even The Revenger’s Tragedy. An odd thing about the book is that the ‘straight’ narrative has a touch of Croucher’s self-righteousness, his low-Tory snobbishness and John Bull bloodiness. Tony, declares the author (unashamedly the God’s-eye narrator), ‘had been an archetypal shit, but the affair with Chloe had discovered in him dangerous virtues. Thoughtfulness, a degree of constancy, even patience itself.’ Salaman moralises further:

A little good in a really bad person puts him just about on the same level as everybody else. The totally evil man is closed, self-contained, psychopathic, cannot be breached with normal appeals to decency, love, duty, honour, or any of that insidious armoury of social guilt-inducers. But Tony was now at risk. While he attended to his unsavoury job, while he busied himself building up an empire from which he alone would profit, he was also studying ways to please his mistress and learning the unsettling disciplines of consideration.

We rarely find a modern novelist passing judgment on his characters with such solemn self-assurance, as from a Jacobean pulpit. It may be that the vengeful, conceited, ludicrous monologues of the appalling Croucher represent a form of self-parody.

In our next three novels, all candidates for the bestseller list, the wacky, wonderful world of Washington DC and its heroic Press Corps is laid out like a movie-set. That faction-ridden city has enticed many a journalist: once he has entered the Washington Press Corps, even an ordinary British wally may fancy himself a mighty Walter (Cronkite, Lippmann, Mitty, Winchell ...), instructing the populace from on high, well above the worthless politicians and civil servants to be manipulated or exposed. It’s a dangerous world. The hotels may be security-controlled and thoroughly bugged (‘I checked all the crappers, we’re alone here’) for the protection of Press Corps heroes in conference with Washington hostesses and maîtres d’. But outside in the streets is the American working class, that seething mob of muggers and minorities, locked in combat with cops, hard-hats, blue-collars, rednecks and even hillbillies, sinister as Salem witches. Of course, it’s only a motion-picture scenario: but Monimbo and The Last Supper do try to make it all real for us.

The Press Corps hero of Monimbo helps thwart a fiendish Cuban plot to stir up the mob of muggers outside the grand hotels into a national revolutionary force: our understanding of the power-centres within those exclusive walls is enhanced by a Mossgrave guide to the city:

In Washington, a city obsessed by pecking order, there are many ways of assessing status. Perhaps the most reliable is the treatment afforded to guests by the maîtres d’hotel of the capital’s more fashionable watering-holes, which vary with the political season. The Maison Blanche was patronised by Washington’s other government: editors, columnists, TV reporters, network producers. The regulars at the MB deferred to no one, with the possible exception of Georges, the establishment’s silkily professional maître d’.

The Mossgrave partnership seems to take the media-men’s power and arrogance for granted, as does Charles McCarry in The Last Supper: although he takes us through 20 long years of world-travel and horror-movie atrocities committed by or against members of the CIA, the climax is in Washington with a Press Corps hero pursuing a CIA veteran through the streets, determined to get his story. The CIA man naturally wants to turn the tables on his pursuer, to bug his home and get ‘feelthy pictures’ of him with an unsuitable sex-partner. But a virtuous-seeming CIA colleague dissuades him: ‘Not in this country. Not to American citizens.’ The frustrated victim moans: ‘Not to reporters, you mean. You’re afraid of the bastards.’

The narrator of Heartburn (a much better novel, never unintentionally funny) is Rachel Samstat Feldman, a Washington hostess married to a Press Corps hero. While Mrs Feldman is expecting their baby, Mr Feldman leaves her, in order to steal a wife from some cowed diplomat. This example of Washington’s other government depresses Mrs Feldman, who has problems enough already. Like, should she invite the Kissingers or have they become ‘simply what Walter Winchell used to call a Dontinvitem’? Or, why isn’t she getting more TV work, despite her fame as a cookbook writer? (The novel contains tasty-sounding recipes, to add verisimilitude.) To say she is ‘too New York’ is just ‘a cute way of being anti-semitic’ – but then, in Washington, even the Jews behave like gentiles. Mrs Feldman goes for comfort to her group therapy session, with the other Washington hostesses, but a mugger follows her and strips all the ladies of their jewellery. So there she is, ‘seven months gone, swaybacked, awkward, bloated, logy, with a belly button that looked like a pumpkin stem and feet that felt like old cucumbers’, while her faithless Press Corps husband is out showing off his new conquest to some silky maître d’ in one of those fashionable watering-holes.

The sorrows of Mrs Feldman are more touching than any of the grotesque atrocities in The Last Supper (where Asians under a British officer are encouraged to eat the livers of their Japanese prisoners) and she introduces real-life people into her fiction more naturally than Monimbo manages with, for instance, Castro and Norman Mailer. Her good American English is laced with wisecracks, sad-funny like Woody Allen’s, clever-naive like Salinger’s. The English dialogue of Monimbo is very poor, by comparison. At one point, the Mossgrave Partnership attempts to create a sympathetic character, an old black clergyman trying to bring peace to the streets. He reads a text from his Bible and says this: ‘That’s the kind of passage that white Southern fundamentalists, the ones who made out segregation was God’s law and that it was right to kill your enemies, loved to quote.’ Any actor asked to speak such a humpbacked sentence would either rephrase it himself or call for a writer. But such is the Mossgrave conception of dialogue. The Last Supper is perhaps more competent, but only in a mechanical way: sex-triggers, atrocities and moral-sounding sonorities pop out as regular as clockwork. Page 33 is typical. (We are in decadent pre-War Berlin, with Nazis fighting Communists.) It begins: ‘The skirt had been thrown up so that her lacy black drawers were exposed. “Look, black underwear, the flag of free love.” ’ The moral sonority comes halfway down the page: ‘Those people, one side or the other, are going to kill any child I have. I know it.’ The page concludes with another sex-trigger: ‘A very tall Negro with a painted face sang in English; he was naked except for a woman’s fur coat. When he lifted his arms at the end of a song, the coat opened and a slender erect penis emerged like an inquisitive brown snake.’ To consider Monimbo and The Last Supper in political terms is to reflect that, though they attempt to be passionately anti-Communist, they foster the notion that ordinary life in American cities is as horrible as anything the Soviets could offer, and that American government policy and its executants are as barbaric as the KGB.

August 1988 is a more serious political novel. General Sir David Fraser has held high posts, most recently as British Military Representative to Nato in Brussels and as Commandant of the Royal College of Defence Studies in London. His story is intended as an argument against the case for unilateral nuclear disarmament; he cogently presents a scenario wherein the United Kingdom, lacking a nuclear ‘deterrent’, is forced toward the subservient position of a Hungary or a Poland by a Soviet military threat. ‘People used to say,’ remarks one of the lifelike civil servants in the story, ‘blackmail with nuclear weapons is so unlikely ...’ Her friend replies: ‘We know better now.’ Sir David has worked hard and fair-mindedly, employing considerable literary skill, to make the horrible possibility seem more likely.

He has a talent for narrative, making good use (like John Buchan) of his knowledge of Scotland as well as of London power-centres: if the Russians were to land a task force in Shetland, he persuades us, this is how they would do it and this is how the police force would react. He has an ironic wit and a good ear for convincing dialogue – especially, perhaps, the way civil servants talk about their political masters. But he would, no doubt, prefer us to respond to the challenge of his warning rather than passively approve his style.

We must assume, first, that Britain has signed an economic and cultural agreement with Rumania: this provokes the Soviet Union into a military response, since the agreement encourages insubordination in Russia’s other satellites. But, surely, it would not need an invasion of Scotland and a nuclear threat to Scarborough to persuade us to drop such a counterproductive initiative in the Soviet ‘sphere of influence’?

Next, we must assume a very rash leadership in the Kremlin: they land troops in Scotland, withdraw them when faced by United States amphibious forces, but still feel confident that they can launch a nuclear assault on Scarborough (as a Hiroshima-style earnest of intent) without American or West European reprisal. They need local support in Britain, a positive invitation from their adherents (as in Afghanistan); Sir David supplies them with two treacherous civil servants and a cabinet minister who honestly believes that what’s good for the Soviets is good for Britain – but the only invitation he can dream up is from Rob McAndrew of the ‘Free Scotland’ movement, a statement issued to the press from his secret headquarters, ‘the apartment of his mother-in-law in a particularly seedy part of Lanark’. This Scottish joke relaxes the tension somewhat: we are not quite in the Afghan position, after all. To pick another hole in the skein – surely the traitors could have been nobbled? Early in the book, a well-informed journalist (quite credible, not a Press Corps hero) tips off a civil servant that the traitors’ pro-Soviet tendencies are known to other government departments and even in Fleet Street.

Readers will decide for themselves whether Sir David’s possibilities are likely enough to worry about, and to affect public policy. He offers plenty of material for commonsense argument, recognising that decisions about ‘deterrence’ should not be left only to experts. Despite the author’s strategy and his human insight, I still hold that ‘blackmail with nuclear weapons is so unlikely,’ even in this clever scenario – and that Britain’s possession of an independent nuclear ‘deterrent’ would not necessarily make it less likely.

Another bracing and apparently authoritative treatment of a grim theme is Peter Kocan’s The Cure. We are told that Kocan served ten years of a life sentence imposed for attempting to assassinate an Australian politician: he was released in 1976, when he was 29, and has since published two collections of poems and two novels, The Cure being the second. It deals with the transfer of a prisoner from ‘Max’ (‘maximum security’, with fierce guards) to ‘Rehab’ (the psychiatric world, with dangerous nurses, poised to administer electrical treatment). The prisoner is inclined to prefer the world of ‘Max’, but he must pass through ‘Rehab’ before reaching the outside world. ‘Most male screws,’ he remarks, ‘treat nursing as a bit of a joke, unless “security” is involved. You suppose that’s because protecting society from maniacs has some masculine style about it. Wiping bums hasn’t much style.’ The prisoner tells his story in the second person singular, as if talking to himself, effectively drawing the reader into identification and intensifying the sense of claustrophobia. We may recognise the most terrifying nurse as a version of the villainness in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and we may find it hard to believe in the homosexual prison visitor who talks as if he were writing an Australian sequel to Dorian Gray. But, for the most part, the characters are both extraordinary and credible. Kocan is an accomplished novelist who tells the painful story of his incarceration with remarkable coolness, freshness and wit.