Saturday, August 24, 2013

Havana Queen

State Department veteran James Bruno combines his insider's view of the complex machinery of the U.S. government with his firsthand experience of Cuba to create this compelling scenario of how the Castro regime may, finally, come to an end.

Bruno's great sense of place, already evident in his earlier thrillers, comes to the fore, taking the reader to the streets of Havana and Santiago and to the bizarre world of the Guantanamo Line, where one of the world's last remaining Communist regimes and an illegal American occupier coexist.

Against this colorful backdrop, Bruno creates a fast-paced plot of the endgame in Cuba, as the corrupt regime of the Castro brothers faces its own group of militant rebels determined to throw them out just they had ousted Batista in the 1950s. An intrepid FBI agent of Cuban heritage, Nick Castillo, is drawn into this drama, making common cause with the rebels even as he falls into an ambiguous relationship with the designated heir of the Castros, Che's (fictional) daughter, Larisa Montilla.

The action includes the inter-agency conflict between the FBI and the CIA embodied in Castillo's own discordant relationship with Kate Kovalchuk, an "ice princess" paired with Castillo to find out just what is going on in Cuba as hardship and government paralysis drive the people to rebel against the failed regime.

Bruno has a healthy respect for the tenacity of a corrupt regime to cling to power. He also depicts how foolish it would be to underestimate the extent to which Cuban intelligence has infiltrated our own government with all-too-real vignettes of traitors at work. Just because the Castros are incompetent in running a country doesn't mean they aren't masters of espionage and sabotage.

In fact, in a final act of defiance, the dying regime in Cuba is ready to strike at the very heart of its giant nemesis to the north by setting in motion a plan to assassinate the president of the United States even as all is lost.

This is the dramatic denouement as rebel forces appear to win the day in Havana and Santiago, forcing Nick and Kate to return to the States in a last-ditch effort to foil this final plot.

Bruno's timely novel will have you checking the news to see how much of his scenario is taking place right now. His sympathetic portrayal of a society waiting to rejoin the civilized world will have you rooting for them, too, and the day when this last bastion of Leninism joins the dustheap of history.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Geneva Trap

The settings and, for lack of a better word, the tradecraft move this lightweight thriller by Stella Rimington along. The author, a real-life M as the former DG of MI-5, has written a series of novels featuring Liz Carlyle as an agent. While this one, at least, lacks the panache of a James Bond tale, it has that reliable, competent prose that well-educated Brits bring to their writing and a view of true-life espionage with its feet firmly planted on the ground.

This one takes place largely in Geneva and Marseilles, as well as London, and that was part of its charm for me because it gave me a chance to revisit some places I have fond memories of. A brief side-trip to rural southern France, evocative of the Bruno novels, didn't hurt, either.

The main plot involves foiling an effort to infiltrate and sabotage an Anglo-American drone program. A subplot, unrelated except that involves the same characters, starts with protecting a former member of a cult-like counter-culture group and ends with foiling a plot to attack a G20 meeting in Avignon.

The British intelligence services portrayed here are not Le Carre's gloomy, traitorous dens any more than they are Fleming's fantasies. Rather, they are workmanlike versions of a domestic police force, where ordinary, fairly well-trained officers get on with their business. They are mostly pretty nice. Liz Carlyle is, of course, quite sympathetic, and her superiors and co-workers, despite some personality quirks, are at least well-intentioned. Her boyfriend in the French intelligence services is also nice; ditto for his co-workers and superiors. The pragmatic, conscientious agents in Switzerland are also...nice. Even the Russian traitor is nice and the North Korean mole comes across as an unfortunate waif. The only real meanies are the Russian pulling the strings of the drone plot and the French lowlifes plotting the G20 assault.

There is a slight sense of danger, and Liz lets herself get taken in a way bordering on incompetence, but she is charmingly rescued at the last minute by said French boyfriend (who himself was charmingly rescued at the last minute by a female colleague).

Perhaps intelligence work really is this congenial, at least viewed through the prism of a stiff-upper lip grande dame. If Le Carre and his imitators are too gloomy, these may err in being too cheery. But you have those great settings and that authentic tradecraft.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Dark Star Safari

Paul Theroux wants you to know exactly how hopeless Africa is. To prove it he undertook a journey overland from Cairo to Cape Town, largely through East Africa, bringing his vastly cynical powers of observation to yet another trip.

As I said in our book group discussion, I am in awe of Theroux's writing -- his ability to observe and describe places, people and situations. He is a compelling writer with great talent.

His venturing into places like Ethiopia and Sudan, which most of us will never visit, gives the reader a precious view into these societies.

That said, I found I could read this book only in small doses. His unrelenting cynicism and condescension and general unlikability put me off. We discussed in the group whether you have to like a writer to like his or her book. The problem is that in travel writing, which is essentially a memoir,  the writer's personality will intrude, which doesn't necessarily happen in other genres.

I finished only about a third of the book before our discussion. And, though I consider it better than the 3 or 4 earlier books of his I've read, I will probably put it aside for a while, and finish it, if I do, at a later date.

One of the points I made about Africa is that we see it as ridden with ineradicable problems because we are demanding that they organize their society the way we do. Africans lived happily in more primitive circumstances until two centuries ago, when Europeans invaded in a serious manner. In a global economy, of course, there is no way to preserve that primitive society. But rather than let Africans evolve at their own pace and in their own way, we have imposed a Western template on them that does not seem well suited.

Perhaps, I suggested, the inevitable Chinese colonization of Africa, as that ravenous economy scours the planet for natural resources, will provide new impetus for modernizing African society.

Maybe Africa is hopeless. But at various points, India, China and Brazil also seemed to have insurmountable problems. They have not yet succeeded in overcoming all of them, but they have advanced considerably.

Theroux's anecdotal account of his idiosyncratic journey through Africa makes for entertaining travel writing, but it is hardly the basis for any considered judgement about the future of the continent. It may already be outdated and someday, no doubt, it will appear as quaint as the 19th-century travel journals do to us today.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Graham Greene

"One never knows when the blow may fall." Anyone who thinks the book can add nothing to the marvelous Carol Reed film "The Third Man," need read no further than this first line to realize that some of Graham Greene's genius could not be translated into film.

This was one of the revelations from taking part in Jim Grady's 2-hour "seminar" on Greene at Politics & Prose. Grady -- author of the novel that led to one of the best spy films of all time, "Three Days of the Condor" -- has a keen eye for what makes a book suspenseful, but also dramatic in the full sense of the word.

He said one of the keys to Greene's success was his insistence on the necessity of morality. "The writer takes a moral position," Grady said. He recommended John Gardner's On Moral Fiction for a further discussion of that aspect. (I have The Art of Fiction on my shelf, and have now ordered the other one.)

The mood of dark disorientation holds for the novel The Third Man as well as the movie. Oddly, the book was published after the movie came out. Greene said he needed to write a fuller treatment in order to write the screenplay. Differences between the two come from changes made in the course of filming.

The ability to suddenly drive home a universal truth with a dazzling economy of language makes this a far more finished work that the modest introduction might suggest. "We never get accustomed to being less important to other people than they are to us" is a sentiment almost anyone can identify with.

Then there is the great line delivered with such panache by Orson Welles in the movie: "In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace - and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock."

In discussing The Third Man together with The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana, Grady said he was looking for "noir" novels. The three books also took place at pivotal moments in American history -- Europe as the Cold War began, Indochina as surreptitious American involvement began, and Cuba before Castro's coup. And, Grady noted, in all three, the hero was responsible for the death of someone important.

I didn't have a chance to re-read American and Havana for this discussion, so I remained mostly passive. I felt, perhaps because I had read it recently, that the discussion on Third Man was more stimulating. I remember finding Quiet American chilling. At the time, it it fit in with a class I'd had in college where the teacher talked about the dangerous naivete of Americans, as illustrated in the class by Herman Melville's Benito Cereno

In the P&P discussion, one participant noted the similarities between Havana and Tailor of Panama, so exactly parallel you might think Le Carre was paying homage to Greene. The latest chronologically, it was the lest favorite of the group, seeming more like a satire or farce than a genuine noir novel.