07 August 2015

Library Limelights 89

Daniel Silva. The Heist. New York: HarperCollins, 2014.
Superspy Gabriel Allon is on another mission, this time to recover a stolen, priceless Caravaggio painting. Rigging an intricate trap for the unknown thief includes the support of Italian, British, and Israeli intelligence services, along with his friend Keller from Corsica. And a "civilian" must be co-opted to make the dangerous plan work. Now about to become the head of Israel's intelligence agency, Gabriel also has a lovely wife, Chiara (expecting twins), who herself is no stranger to international intrigue. The chain of villainy reaches up to the thinly-disguised ruler who is destroying Syria; Silva does not spare the pen for the brutal dictatorship.

Mind-stretching as some of the manoeuvres might be, the plot sails along among the art world of fabulous European cities. Steal a famous artwork to find a stolen masterpiece ― that should work, right? Silva's interspersed humour is irresistible. Art lovers will appreciate the details of Gabriel's other life as a restorer of old masters' paintings. Other notable aspects are the complex banking systems employed by fraud artistes. Silva knows how to keep you captive in pure escapism.

One-Liner: He sat with his knees together and his hands folded in his lap, as though he were waiting on the platform of a country rail station. (258)

Gathering accomplices:
"Far be it for me to complain," said Gabriel, shaking Isherwood's hand, "but your secretary left me on hold for nearly ten minutes before finally putting me through to you."
"Consider yourself lucky."
"When are you going to fire her, Julian?"
"I can't."
"Why not?"
"It's possible I'm still in love with her."
"She's abusive."
"I know," Isherwood smiled. "If only we were sleeping together. Then it would be perfect." (132-3)

The old man:
Narkiss Street lay still and silent beneath their feet, but in the distance came the faint rush of evening traffic along King George. Shamron lowered himself unsteadily into one of the chairs and motioned for Gabriel to sit in the other. Then he removed a packet of Turkish cigarettes and, with enormous concentration, extracted one. Gabriel looked at Shamron's hands, the hands that had nearly squeezed the life out of Adolf Eichmann on a street corner in northern Buenos Aires. It was one of the reasons Shamron had been given the assignment: the unusual size and power of his hands. Now they were liver-spotted and covered with abrasions. Gabriel looked away as they fumbled with the old Zippo lighter. (232)

A Geneva moment:
Bittel slipped on a pair of wraparound dark glasses, which lent a mantis-like quality to his features. He drove well but cautiously, as though he had contraband in the trunk and was trying to avoid contact with the authorities.
"As you might expect," he said after a moment, "your confession has provided hours of interesting listening for our officers and senior ministers."
"It wasn't a confession."
"How would you describe it?"
"I gave you a thorough debriefing about my activities on Swiss soil," said Gabriel. "In exchange, you agreed not to throw me in prison for the rest of my life." (152)

Robert Harris. An Officer and a Spy. [large print] Thorndike Press/Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.
Always a pleasure to find something new from the author of Fatherland, Enigma, Archangel, The Ghost Writer, and more. Here we have a novel reconstructing the events of The Dreyfus Affair ‒ about which I had only the slightest notion beforehand ‒ so it was tempting to Google it at tense moments. But resist I did. The names and basic events in the story are historical; their personal lives and dialogue are Harris's inventions. The fusing creates high drama of "the trial of the century" in the language, manners, and context of Gay Nineties Paris.

Alfred Dreyfus was a junior army officer in France, court-martialed for espionage in 1894. The evidence convicting him was false, and the army concealed its mistake by concocting a major cover-up. Dreyfus spent solitary years in the most inhumane conditions on Devil's Island. Twelve years later he was exonerated thanks to the efforts of Colonel Georges Picquart (the story's narrator) and other allies, including Emile Zola who wrote the iconic public "J'accuse" letter to the French government. Bravo, Robert Harris!

Much to my startlement, Part Two opens with "The Sousse Military Club looks out from behind a screen of dusty palms across an unpaved square, past a modern customs shed to the sea." Sousse, Tunisia, was the site of a brazen, deadly terrorist attack in June this year. Before that, the town was hardly a figure on the world stage except for its marvellous UNESCO World Heritage walled medina. Having spent four days there in 2012, I felt one of those nervous frissons on reading that first sentence. The French army sent Picquart there to shut him up; his "exile" was temporary.

One-liners: "Like Adam, I appear to have been expelled from the garden for an excess of curiosity." (368)
His strange sea-green eyes hold mine, and for a fractional instant I glimpse the shadow, like a fin in the water, of his dull malevolence, and then he nods and moves away. (668)

Picquart's social status:
Bachelors of forty are society's stray cats. We are taken in by households and fed and made a fuss of; in return we are expected to provide amusement, submit with good grace to occasionally intrusive affection ("So when are you going to get married, eh, Georges?"), and always agree to make up the numbers at dinner, however short the notice. (95)

A colleague:
Gribelin is an enigma to me: the epitome of the servile bureaucrat; an animated corpse. He could be any age between forty and sixty and is as thin as a wraith of black smoke, the only colour he wears. Mostly he closets himself alone upstairs in his archive; on the rare occasions he does appear he creeps along close to the wall, dark and silent as a shadow. I could imagine him slipping around the edge of a closed door, or sliding beneath it. (158)

Arranging a secret meeting:
As I seal the envelope, I reflect how easily I am slipping into the clichés of the spying world. It alarms me. I trust no-one. How long before I am raving like Sandherr about degenerates and foreigners? It is a déformation professionelle: all spymasters must go mad in the end. (159)

A former colleague:
Henry is very much at home. We take a table in the corner and he orders a cognac. For want of a better idea I do the same. "Leave us the bottle," Henry tells the waiter. He offers me a cigarette. I refuse. He lights one for himself and suddenly I realise that an odd part of me has actually missed the old devil, just as one occasionally grows fond of something familiar and even ugly. Henry is the army, in a way that I [...] will never be. When soldiers break ranks and want to run away on the battlefield, it is the Henrys of this world who can persuade them to come back and keep fighting. (375)

All keep their backs to me except for Henry, who enters loudly, banging the door, and nods as he passes.
"You have a good colour, Colonel," he says cheerfully. "It must be all that African sunshine!"
"And yours must be all that cognac."
He roars with laughter and goes to sit with the others. (530)

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