The Lady in the Back Seat

Thomas Jones

  • The Ghost by Robert Harris
    Hutchinson, 310 pp, £18.99, October 2007, ISBN 978 0 09 179626 6

Robert Harris’s first novel, Fatherland (1992), was a counterfactual historical thriller set in Nazi Germany in 1964. In the alternative reality of the book, Germany defeated the Soviet Union in the Caucasus in 1943, lured the Royal Navy to its destruction after learning that the British had cracked the Enigma code, and intimidated the United States into signing a peace treaty by successfully testing an atom bomb and launching an intercontinental V3 rocket across the Atlantic. Now Hitler’s 75th birthday is approaching, and a historic summit is planned between the Führer and President Joseph Kennedy, as nearly twenty years of Cold War between the world’s two superpowers look set to thaw.

And then the corpse of Josef Bühler, the one-time state secretary of the General Government, washes up in a lake on the outskirts of Berlin. Xavier March, a Sturmbannführer in the Kriminalpolizei – in his early forties, divorced, a bit of an outsider, superficially cynical but inclined to do the right thing when it comes to the crunch (you know the type) – is assigned to the case. With the help of a beautiful young New York Times journalist, March uncovers a vast conspiracy, reaching all the way to the highest echelons of power: the Gestapo, it seems, is quietly disposing of everyone who attended a secret Nazi conference that took place at Wannsee on 20 January 1942.

The unspeakable secret at the heart of this thriller is, unusually, something that every reader already knows. Fatherland’s revelation that the authorities have been covering up the destruction of the European Jews is in some ways disappointing; you have been expecting to be surprised, and aren’t. But then another reaction kicks in, a shame response to the disappointment: imagine what it would be like not to know; imagine discovering for the first time that six million people had been systematically murdered in a network of secret death camps – this is not a fact to be taken for granted.

And yet, however successfully it generates unease in the complacent reader, and for all its efficiency as a thriller, full of exciting chases, double-crosses, torture, escape and recapture, Fatherland is based on a flawed – and, despite the dystopian setting, unduly optimistic – premise: that the disclosure of the Final Solution by a worn-out cop and rookie journalist could threaten to destabilise a victorious world power and scupper the possibility of rapprochement between Germany and the United States. In the world Harris has created, the exposure of the Holocaust might provide a handy reason to back away from détente were America looking for such an excuse, but otherwise it would surely be tactfully ignored: governments, after all, have a knack for overlooking all kinds of human rights abuse, unless a cause for moral outrage happens to coincide with the national interest or the perpetrators have already been defeated and stripped of power.

The ways in which reality is tweaked in Enigma (1995), Harris’s second novel, are more modest. As in Fatherland, the Germans have somehow ascertained that the British are able to decipher the codes produced by their Enigma machines. The man recalled to Bletchley Park to enable the British to regain the upper hand in the cryptographic struggle is not Alan Turing, however, but a neurotic Cambridge mathematician who fancies girls: Tom Jericho’s heart has been broken by a cruel, icy blonde who has mysteriously gone missing from Bletchley. Investigating her disappearance, Jericho also finds time to solve the mystery of how the Germans got to know that the code had been cracked. That Harris manages, ingeniously, to provide the traitor with an unimpeachable motive for betraying Allied secrets to the Nazis is, if anything, even more impressive than his well-paced storytelling.

After Archangel (1998), based on the ludicrous premise that Stalin’s secret love child and doppelgänger has been holed up in Russia’s frozen north for half a century – why not just have the man himself cryogenically frozen, or transported into the future by a time-travelling demon from another dimension? – Harris turned his attention from the cataclysms of the 20th century to those of ancient Rome. Pompeii (2003) is concerned with corruption in the city shortly before its destruction; the novel ends with the eruption of Vesuvius. And Imperium (2006) is a fictionalised account of the life of Cicero narrated by his loyal amanuensis, the inventor of shorthand, Marcus Tullius Tiro.

That each of these novels took Harris at least three years to write is presumably in part down to the amount of research they required. His new book, produced in less than twelve months, clearly demanded less legwork. The in every way anonymous narrator of The Ghost – he has no name, and not much of a life – has been hired to write the autobiography of Britain’s recently retired former prime minister. The secretarial sidekick to the powerful, from Tiro to Bernard Ingham, is a role Harris has long been interested in; few people are better placed to ponder the question of how this particular man came to occupy that position of power: ‘Who was he,’ the narrator of The Ghost asks himself, ‘this happy-go-lucky, girl-chasing, politically allergic would-be actor? What suddenly turned him into a party activist?’ Harris was a political journalist before he took up writing bestsellers, working on both Newsnight and Panorama, and then from 1987 as political editor of the Observer. During the 1980s he wrote non-fiction books on such subjects as chemical and biological weapons (with Jeremy Paxman), the Falklands War, Neil Kinnock, the Hitler Diaries and Bernard Ingham. A good friend of Peter Mandelson’s, he has long been close to the inner circles of New Labour.

As well as there having been no pesky research to slow down the writing of the novel, there was also a strong imperative to publish it as soon as possible: Tony Blair’s topicality is on the wane. The Ghost is self-consciously concerned with the logic of publicity and sales, the pressure to get the former prime minister’s memoirs out there as soon as possible. It also acknowledges the short shelf-life of most satire. Discussing an old Cambridge Footlights comic song, one of the characters says: ‘They wrote it to send the place up . . . But now it sounds nostalgic.’ ‘That’s satire for you,’ the narrator replies.

In the alternative reality of the book, the man who commanded the British auxiliary front in America’s war on terror was not Tony Blair, but someone called Adam Lang. Blair and Lang are not entirely unalike: their names scan the same way; Lang, like Blair, has a Scottish family background; he was born in the mid-1950s; he’s a Christian. ‘I want you to understand,’ he says, ‘that everything I did, both as party leader and as prime minister – everything – I did out of conviction, because I believed it was right.’ Lang, like Blair, is married to a woman with short dark hair. His mother died of cancer when he was a student. Good-looking, for a politician, he oozes charisma. He is a formidable political performer, though possibly he grins too much. He is in thrall to power of every kind: his own, America’s, that of celebrities. He transformed his party and swept to power on a landslide: ‘You voted for him, didn’t you?’ a literary agent asks the narrator. ‘Of course I did,’ he replies. ‘Everybody voted for him. He wasn’t a politician; he was a craze.’ But the craze is long over: the people who once voted for him in droves now casually denounce him as a war criminal; the hack who ten years ago wrote Adam Lang: Statesman for Our Time has more recently turned out Would You Adam and Eve It? The Collected Lies of Adam Lang.

There are significant differences between Blair and Lang, of course. The copyright page carries one of those meaningless disclaimers about how ‘this is a work of fiction’ etc (in bold, as if that made a difference). Lang didn’t go to Fettes and Oxford, but to a grammar school in Leicester and then to Cambridge. He wanted to be an actor rather than a rock star. Before going into politics he was a banker, not a lawyer. Since leaving office he has not become the Quartet’s special envoy to the Middle East, but has set up a foundation dedicated to solving not only the Israel-Palestine conflict, but climate change, Aids and all the other bad stuff in the world. He’s possibly having an affair with one of his aides.

The world of the novel is different from ours in other ways, too, with certain aspects of it exaggerated for satirical effect. Suicide attacks on London Underground are frequent enough to qualify merely as an inconvenience. ‘It was obvious the moment I got outside that another bomb had gone off . . . It took me two full hours to walk home . . . As usual the entire tube system had been shut down to check for further bombs.’ And Lang’s cabinets – both the official and the kitchen kind – are composed of very different people from Blair’s. The first ghostwriter of Lang’s memoirs, whom the narrator has been called in to replace, was the former prime minister’s press secretary. Michael McAra is in pretty much every way the opposite of Alastair Campbell, for all that they both have Scottish names.

For a start, McAra is dead. He apparently fell off the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard in the middle of January, having had a few drinks in the bar (Campbell, remember, is teetotal). His corpse was discovered washed up on a beach the next day. McAra lived in Balham; his mother was named as next of kin in his passport. In the chunkiest biography of Lang that the narrator consults, McAra has only five or six entries in the index: there’s ‘no reason in other words why anyone outside the party or the government need ever have heard of him’.

Ruth Lang isn’t exactly Cherie Blair, either. She’s one part Cherie, two parts Lady Macbeth (a character Lang once played in a student production), three parts Eve (why Lang is called Adam, presumably). The narrator easily falls for her sophisticated wiles: intelligent, witty, genuinely attractive (in contrast to her husband’s vacuous charm), politically committed, exasperated by Lang’s blunders, she’s much the most sympathetic character in the book. Intelligent, witty, attractive, confident, female – hang on; of course she’s evil. Lang’s biggest failing, it turns out, isn’t a fatal and pusillanimous crush on power in all its guises, or a misplaced and unflinching faith in his own righteousness, but to trust his wife.

Then there’s Richard Rycart, a former foreign secretary, sacked for opposing the war in Iraq, who now works for the UN. He’s more Dominique de Villepin than Robin Cook, with his handsome mane of grey hair and aquiline nose. Rycart is causing considerable trouble for Lang, as Cook sadly cannot for Blair, by doing his best to get him tried for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The particular charge, for which Rycart is able to produce documentary evidence, is that Lang personally ordered the SAS to kidnap four British citizens in Pakistan and hand them over to the CIA for torturing, in the course of which one of them died.

Lang never directly refutes or accepts the charges. In public, he vaguely insists that he believes he has never done anything wrong. In private, he defends his actions with remarkable casuistry:

I don’t condone torture, but let me just say this to you. First, it does actually produce results – I’ve seen the intelligence. Second, having power, in the end, is all about balancing evils, and when you think about it, what are a couple of minutes of suffering for a few individuals compared to the deaths – the deaths, mark you – of thousands. Third, don’t try telling me this is something unique to the War on Terror. Torture’s always been part of warfare. The only difference is that in the past there were no fucking media around to report it.

Harris reproduces well the kinds of rhetorical trick employed by Blair: the reminder that he’s better informed than his interlocutor (‘I’ve seen the intelligence’), the chatty appeals to common sense (‘in the end’, ‘when you think about it’), the emphatic assertion of moral superiority (‘the deaths, mark you’). ‘The men arrested in Pakistan claim they were innocent,’ the narrator observes. ‘Of course they claim they were innocent!’ Lang replies. ‘What else are they going to say?’ He should know.

The former prime minister is literally as well as metaphorically detached from the world, cloistered away on Martha’s Vineyard to write his memoirs, staying at a mansion belonging to the billionaire media mogul who owns the firm that is meant shortly to be publishing him. Lang, inevitably, hasn’t done a stroke of work towards producing the book, for which he has been paid a $10 million advance. McAra, on the other hand, before he fell or jumped or was pushed from the ferry into the icy waters of Vineyard Sound, produced a thoroughly researched and unreadably stodgy manuscript of 200,000 words. The narrator – the writer behind a number of bestselling autobiographies by various stars of stage, screen, track and field – has a month to work this into some kind of marketable shape.

Having signed up to the project for a $250,000 fee, he is summarily dumped by his girlfriend, who has reservations about the morality of his going to work as a war criminal’s propagandist-in-chief. Thus unencumbered, he packs his laptop and a small suitcase and flies out on the first available plane to Boston, mentioning more than once in the process that if he’d known then what he knows now, he’d never have accepted the assignment. He’s not so much an everyman as an anyone: his parents are dead, he has no brothers or sisters, there’s no one to miss him while he’s gone. Lang calls him ‘man’, because he can’t remember his name, and because he has an irritating habit of trying to be down with the kids.

The narrator doesn’t know much about anything in particular, except how to write clearly, entertainingly and, most of the time, plausibly. He describes the hotel he stays at when he first arrives on Martha’s Vineyard as ‘decorated to look like the kind of place Captain Ahab might fancy dropping into after a hard day at the harpoon’. Nothing literary is sacred to him, clearly, though there’s no doubt he has the measure of the place, as well as knowing how to make his reader laugh. Harris works hard at his narrators’ voices: in Imperium, Tiro often sounds as if he’s been translated from Latin.

To introduce himself to Lang, the narrator says: ‘I’m your ghost.’ The joke doesn’t go down well, overshadowed as it is by McAra’s death. All manner of different ghosts haunt the novel: Robert Harris is the ghost of the narrator, who is the ghost of Michael McAra, who is the ghost of Adam Lang, who is the ghost of Tony Blair. But the narrator also finds himself more straightforwardly haunted by the ghost of his predecessor: when it’s no longer safe for him to remain at the hotel, he moves into the dead man’s bedroom in the billionaire’s mansion, where the wardrobe is still full of the dead man’s clothes, where he discovers the dead man’s copious research notes for the former prime minister’s memoirs, where he begins to wonder whether McAra’s death can really have been an accident. Then there are the ghosts of the thousands killed in the course of the war on terror, and the ghosts of previous wars: the servants at the mansion are an old Vietnamese couple, refugees perhaps from a war that a British Labour prime minister declined to follow the Americans into.

The plot builds steadily, as mysterious contradictions concerning Lang’s past begin to emerge, and the narrator is increasingly implicated both in the complex machinations to exonerate Lang and in those to indict him, haplessly playing a life-threatening double game that he was never suited for and would never have chosen to get into. Who is really working for whom? Who will win out in the struggle between Lang and Rycart? Will the narrator at some point have to choose a side? What was the deadly secret that McAra uncovered? And just what was it that happened while Lang was at Cambridge all those years ago?

As is stipulated in the unwritten rulebook of modern political thrillers, The Ghost contains its fair share of newish technology and sprays of brand names. Playing with the conventions, Harris makes his narrator somewhat cackhanded when it comes to dealing with the hi-tech stuff. He has signed a strict confidentiality agreement, one of the conditions of which is that he is not to remove the manuscript of the memoirs from the house on Martha’s Vineyard. All the same, during his first day on the island, he emails himself a copy so he can work on it back at his hotel. But the attachment goes missing in cyberspace – how, or where, he can’t begin to fathom. Then there’s the GPS system in the car that McAra was driving the night he died.

Wanting to get away from the house, to escape an awkward personal situation he has foolishly landed himself in, the narrator takes the ‘tan-coloured Ford Escape SUV’ from the garage. He turns on the ignition, and ‘an American woman’s voice, soft but commanding, said, from somewhere behind me: “Join the road as soon as possible.”’ In due course he disobeys her soft commands. ‘Turn around when possible,’ she says repeatedly. Unable to work out how to switch the device off, he eventually realises – a bit slow on the uptake, as ever – that ‘the woman in the back seat’, another kind of ghost, is directing him along the route that McAra took on the day he died, retracing the journey that led to his death. But neither the narrator nor the reader can have any idea where the GPS system is leading him.

So far, so thrilling. And the twists – with one notable and important exception – are highly pleasing, right up to the neat explanation of how the book you are reading came to be both written and published. Several question marks are raised along the way, however, as is de rigueur with this kind of text, concerning the reliability of the narrator. He goes on at some length about the need when writing a book to tidy up the facts to make the story more satisfying. And then there’s the minor question of how he is able to see the ‘expression of deep scepticism’ on the Vietnamese gardener’s face ‘as he watched me go, wobbling off uncertainly’ on a bicycle to explore the island: uncertainly wobbling cyclists tend not to look back over their shoulders – though perhaps they should.