The Unlikely Spy, by Daniel Silva

Written in 1996, this is Silva’s first novel, which I did not realize when I bought it. But one can see from the early pages set before and during World War II, why he has established himself since with a series of popular espionage novels.

This work is built around the preparations for the invasion of France on D-day. The Allies need to conceal from the Germans that they plan to land on the beaches of Normandy, rather than at Calais, just across the narrowest part of the English Channel. But to move troops and armaments ashore, the Allies need a harbor complex, of which there is none at Normandy. So, to create one, they build huge concrete structures to tow across the channel, but they need to hide this strategy from the Germans, since it will betray that their actual landing site is Normandy.

This novel, presumably fiction, suggests how they tried to deceive the Germans with Operation Mulberry. It required a complex plan, and Silva creates many interesting characters to execute the plan, as well as the German characters whom the Allies are working to deceive. This means that Hitler, Himmler, Canaris, and other Germans appear regularly in this novel, along with Churchill and Eisenhower in smaller parts.

The main adversaries are Alfred Vicary for the Allies and Kurt Vogel for the Germans. Vicary does not create but he does implement the plan to make the Germans think that the huge floating harbors being built are actually anti-aircraft batteries. Meanwhile Vogel is running two sleeper spies in England who are actually half English, and whom the Allies know nothing about. He assigns them to find out the real site of the Allied landings and the purpose of those huge concrete structures. If they learn the truth, of course, the entire invasion and the future of the Allied war effort will be at risk.

To further the suspense, Silva continually switches back and forth between the sleeper spies and what Vicary and his MI5 colleagues are doing to discover them. One of his achievements here is to make the German spies, Horst Neumann and Catherine Burke, not her real name, very human. Indeed, the reader identifies with them as they develop sincere relationships with other Englishmen. One is even drawn toward rooting for them, although they are both, especially the woman, brutal killers. Meanwhile Vicary, their adversary, is also quite human, with his doubts about himself, about his boss, and about what he is being asked to do.

And the intrigue doesn’t stop with Vicary vs. Vogel. Vicary’s boss, Basil Boothby, also acts very suspiciously, frustrating Vicary at times. And the reader wonders at his true motives. For we learn from the Germans that they also have a secret spy within MI5 who is passing information to them. Meanwhile, over in Germany, Himmler is plotting to take over the Abwehr, which under Canaris is running German espionage operations in England. Because he suspects, as is true, that Canaris is foiling the German spying efforts because he despises Hitler and his methods.

The plot begins when the Allies hire an American engineer, Peter Jordan, to see to the construction of the huge floating harbors. Vogel learns about Peter, and assigns Catherine Burke to seduce him and to discover more about those huge constructions. Which she does. Indeed, the two also fall in love, prompting Catherine to wonder if she is the cold-blooded person she assumes she is. Which earns the reader’s additional sympathy. Momentarily.

But it illustrates Richard Bernstein’s comment in The New York Times that Silva “has a knack for allowing the unforeseen, the accidental, the all-too-human to intrude, pushing the plot in an unexpected direction.”

While this is a highly suspenseful novel, the strategic duel between Vicary and Vogel is less suspenseful than it might have been. That is, while each side reacts to the other’s actions, the reader never feels that the Germans are one step ahead of the Allies, and thus likely to succeed. Indeed, one knows from history that they did not. But from a strictly fictional standpoint, if the Germans could have been more clever—anticipating Vacary’s moves, for example—the suspense could have been even more intense than it is.

And the final moments of the novel are truly gripping, as the two German spies are convinced the information they are sending back home, that the Brits are building anti-aircraft batteries, is false; and so they flee across Britain toward a German submarine hovering just off the coast. It will take them back to Germany, where they will expose the Allies’ deception. Which, in turn, will help the Germans realize the true invasion site: Normandy.

At the same time, their desperate flight prompts their own brutality, which the reader realizes but has been reluctant to accept. For they kill many anonymous and innocent people—as they also have, particularly Catherine, earlier in the novel. It is perhaps Silva’s way of stressing the desperation of spying. But one might note that at the end, one of his characters remarks about how many Allied lives were saved in the invasion because of some innocent lives that were lost earlier in defense of the invasion’s security.

What is unclear is how much of this tale is fictional. My suspicion is that Silva has created fictional characters and fictional events at the heart of his story, but has based them on the fact that the Germans did seek to learn where the Allied invasion would land and that the Allies did plot to deceive them regarding the true landing site. And the events he proposes here do work as one logical possibility.

But Silva also raises an intriguing interpretation at the end. That Vicary—and the reader—were not told how elaborate was the fiction being created for the Germans, such as Peter Jordan’s involvement. That his presence as the engineer working on the harbor project was no coincidence. Nor was his seduction by Catherine. And that Vacary was not informed of this because his chiefs wanted his reactions to events “to feel real to the other side.” Which leaves the reader with the realization the deception is at the heart not only of all spycraft. But also of such novels.

This novel certainly makes one interested in more of Silva’s works. However, the knowledge that most of his additional works of espionage feature one of two main characters prompts one to wonder if they may not be more formulaic than this intriguing and promising first novel. (April, 2019)

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The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

This is an interesting and imaginative novel from 2016. It draws the reader in by portraying the horrifying world of its heroine, Cora, who begins as a teenager enduring the violence of slave life on a Georgia cotton plantation run by the cruel Randall family. She then evolves into a mature young woman after escaping from the plantation—inspired by the escape of her mother a decade earlier—after which she endures a variety of contrasting adventures that form the remainder of the novel.

Cora escapes from Georgia via the title’s underground railroad, which turns a metaphor into reality. For the railroad of this novel literally burrows underground through the Southern states in order to carry slaves north to freedom. It is a marvelous example of what an imaginative author can do. In this case, a verbal metaphor becomes a vividly described actual railroad. Its various stations have steel rails, tile walls, often-decrepit furnishings, an irregular schedule, and a variety of station masters, both black and white. Indeed, Cora’s final journey on this underground railroad closes out the novel in a beautifully crafted ending.

But once Cora has escaped the cruel Georgia plantation, with Caesar, a plantation colleague, the remaining portion of the novel becomes less dramatic. Cora’s first landing spot is a town in South Caroline that seems to be exploring how to integrate Negroes into their society. It is in stark contrast to her experience on the Georgia plantation, and she and Caesar, are tempted to stay there. But then she learns that the town is using their Negroes for a medical experiment, and on top of that a slave catcher named Ridgeway is in town, the same Ridgeway who had sought Ruby’s mother, and failed, after that woman’s earlier escape. So Cora has no choice but to flee what had seemed to be an hospitable town.

The next railroad stop brings Cora to the home of a station master, Martin, in North Carolina, where he hides Cora in his attic. For the slave catcher Ridgeway is still after her. Meanwhile, from this attic she can see the anti-Negro attitude of the town being dramatized below her on Fridays in public performances. And in doing so, Whitehead captures the anger and violence that marks the white society. This is in contrast to the South Carolina town she has just left, as well as later in Indiana, in which the slaves create their own self-governing community on a farm, and are accepted as human beings.

However, the contrasting attitudes found at these and future sites begin to seem arbitrary. They concentrate more on the different treatment of the Negroes than on what is happening inside Cora herself. Once Cora is betrayed in North Carolina, for example, and Ridgeway tracks her down, her subsequent adventures become far less dramatic. It is as if the author wishes to cover certain ground, certain life experiences of the slaves, and takes his eye off Cora herself. Indeed, he admits he did extensive research into the lives of the slaves of the 19th century, and it as if he felt the need to include much of that information in this work. Which results in the reader being less involved over the second half of the novel in the life and fate of Cora herself.

Whitehead also reveals a lack of structural discipline as he inserts short chapters or scenes in his account that have nothing to do with Cora, but merely provide a fuller history for certain other characters. In two occasions, he offers such short sections to tidy up loose ends regarding the fate of Cora’s mother Mabel, and that of Caesar, Cora’s companion in escape.

As suggested, there is a sameness to Cora’s adventures in the various locales she flees to. For while each locale reflects a different attitude, positive or negative, toward Negroes, as well as the different types of cruelty toward them, it is those difference that are the point of each of those locations, not how those differences change Cora’s attitude or her own future decision-making. Which, one suspects, is what appealed to the Pulitzer judges who honored this novel with their prize. That is, the message of the novel, the exposure of slave life in horrific detail, is what impressed them, rather than the story of Cora herself and any psychological impact these adventures might have had on her. Plus, these judges were also surely impressed with the imaginative travel the author uses, as well as the potential contributions that Negroes might bring to the country if truly integrated into American society.

In other words, for much of this book, after Cora escapes with Caesar, she is a victim of circumstance. She makes no real decisions herself, as she is moved from one location to another. She simply reacts to what is happening around her. She is, as I implied, more a symbol than a real person, more a typical black slave than an interesting individual. We do not get inside her to feel her hopes and fears, her sorrows or her happiness, or what various frustrations and successes do to change her.

I also do wish that Whitehead had made greater use of his concept of an actual underground railroad. For he does nothing with it in terms of his story. It moves Cora about, yes. But it has no influence on her actions or her fate. It merely enables her to move from Georgia to South Carolina to North Caroline, to Tennessee to Indiana, where she encounters different attitudes toward slavery in each location. What I wanted was for the railroad to affect her safety, such as having her take the wrong route, or for it to have brought her to people different from what she expected, good or bad, after she has perhaps misreads its schedule. That is, I would have much preferred to have the railroad directly influence her adventures or even determine her fate.

This appears to be more of a traditional novel than are other works of Whitehead. And the traditional usually appeals to me. But I sense that the author became too involved here in his message, and too committed to the considerable research he conducted about the life of 19th century Negroes, both the enslaved and the free. So after the first half of this novel, I stopped being caught up in the fate of Cora. I read more to discover what fate the author was going to devise for her. Which turned out to be unsatisfying, but nevertheless beautifully written. (April, 2019)

Drums, by James Boyd

As one begins this 1925 novel, one immediately becomes immersed in the world of the 1770s, just before the American Revolution. And one also becomes exposed to that world of more traditional literature that reigned until the 1920s. It was usually a world of rich description and little forward movement. Far different from what is soon to evolve, in which human beings drive the action, in which the story must move on.

Here, the initial effort is to create the world of rural North Carolina in the months before the Revolution. What concerns the people of that era? What are their lives like? What are their homes like, their fields, their clothes, their food? So much detail has been researched by this author to enable him to recreate that world of 150 years earlier. So much that it is clear the author wants his readers to experience that world—before he wants them to identify with his main character, the teenager Johnny Fraser, an insecure boy who respects his father and mother and is unaware as yet of the challengers of the adult world beyond the limits of the family farm.

But soon the novel will introduce both him and the reader to that adult world, beginning with rural North Carolina where the British administer that colony but where some of the local people are unhappy with the new taxes and their own lack of political control. And where tension rises as word reaches them about a rebellion in the North.

Much of the novel focuses on the youthful Johnny. His parents send him away from their farm to a local seaport, Edenton, where a preacher, Dr, Clapton, educates him in Latin and prepares him to be a true gentleman, not a farmer like themselves. There, Johnny meets more worldly people, and another kind of education begins. He meets and is impressed by Captain Tennant, the British officer who represents the King and administers the colony, although he is confused by Tennant’s sassy daughter Eve. He meets the worldly and friendly Captain Flood, who transports him to and from his family farm. He meets the distinguished Sir Nathaniel, who raises horses and organizes cockfights, and is impressed by him, as well as by the wealthy and pretentious Wylie Jones. He also meets the Merrillees, and is fascinated by, but confused by, their beautiful daughter Sally.

The character of Johnny ends up being elusive, much as was the political thinking of that era in North Carolina. Throughout the novel, in fact, Johnny is analyzing the faults of others, as well as doubting himself and his own faults. He also sees people’s good qualities, and he strives to adapt many of those for himself. But he is confused by the various attitudes he observes among his fellow North Carolinians when word first arrives of the unrest and then the military action in the North. For they reveal mixed feelings about whether one should be loyal to the King, or whether one should strive to be free of England.

Johnny has even greater difficulty, however, is in reacting on a more personal level to the attitudes shown by young women, particularly Eve Tennant and Sally Merrillee. Note, however, that there is no discussion here of the status or the freedom of their black slaves. Indeed, the care given here is that the dialects of the Negroes be as accurate as possible—along with the spoken language found in the rural South or in the formal clubs of London. Any discussion of the rights of slaves does not arise, not until nearly a century later, and then only in the North.

Meanwhile, when news of dissension does spread southward, Johnny’s family sends him to England, both to enable him to avoid making a choice in the potential conflict, as well as to preserve some family investments abroad. And that London world is richly drawn as well, from its social scene to its political scene, as well as from its pubs to its clubs. Once again one marvels at the brilliance with which that far different world is captured. For Boyd again captures the details, in order to bring that distant European reality to life—a sedate and peaceful life for Johnny, which is soon disrupted by battle scenes. These are aboard an American warship under the captaincy of John Paul Jones. For Johnny has at last chosen sides in the American rebellion. And, following a brief interval in Brest, France, Johnny rejoins Jones and his crew on a newly refurbished Bonhomme Richard, which encounters a British warship and overwhelms it in a famous battle.

Whereupon, a wounded Johnny returns to North Carolina to heal, and to witness the arrival of the Revolution in the houses and taverns back home. And we realize that this novel is not so much a portrait of Johnny Fraser as it is a portrait of the Revolution seen through the eyes of Johnny Fraser. He has been less the hero of our novel than the vehicle with which we watch a cross section of society experience this dramatic period in American history. The novel itself is not dramatic, even as the events themselves range from mundane on one level to truly dramatic on another. In fact, we do not even identify with Johnny, even as we see that world through his eyes. And, at the end, when we do see in him a final maturity, there is also an open-ended conclusion about how his life will continue, especially a love life that has until now been unfulfilled.

This novel has been called “the best novel of the American Revolution ever written.” And I would not argue. Well, I loved the smaller scale April Morning by Hoard Fast, but not least because it was about the Battle of Concord and Lexington, near where I grew up. And, in fact, to support Drums’ pedigree is a later decision by Scribner’s to bring out a special edition with illustrations by N. C. Wyeth.

The title, Drums, refers to the drums of war. Before he leaves for England, a youthful Johnny encounters an old Indian who explains that the drumming he hears is that of nearby Indians who have heard reports of rebellion in the colony, and their reaction to the rumors is to send out a message, as they have long done when their own tribes prepare for battle. Boyd also recalls this incident in the last lines of the novel, when Johnny, hailing a distant soldier, “raised his stiff arm in the Indians salutation….[and] the distant figure lifted a long black rifle against the sky.” It is a final touch of the artistry that went into this novel. (March, 2019)

The History of the Siege of Lisbon, by Jose Saramago

After 60 or so pages, author Saramago introduces into this 1989 novel an interesting, provocative premise. But he uses the first sixty pages to set up that premise, which depends on his main character, the proofreader Raimundo Silva, inserting a “not” at a crucial point in a history book he is proofing. He does this arbitrarily, acting, as he says, as a Mr. Hyde rather than a Dr. Jekyll. But because his action is so arbitrary, Saramago must spend those initial sixty pages setting up his hero’s action. And, in the process, this delays when the action of the novel truly starts, for he must first both convince us of the man’s unsettled character and establish his particular role in the world of publishing.

What the inserted word “not” does is confound Portuguese history. For it makes the book of history our hero is proofreading say that the Crusaders, on the way to the Holy Land, did not stop to help free Lisbon from its occupation by the Moors. When, of course, they did stop to do exactly that.

As a result of his inserting the one word, falsifying history, a woman, Maria Sara, is hired by his publishing house to manage both him and other proofreaders to be hired for subsequent works. Raimundo meets with her and learns he will not be punished, because of his long and faithful service to the publisher. But she reveals she is intrigued by his bravura insertion, and she provocatively proposes that he himself write a book, one in which the Crusaders do fail to help in the recapture of Lisbon from the Moors.

Raimundo at once rejects the idea, but when he goes home it begins to intrigue him. Just as Maria Sara does. And he starts speculating how and why the Crusaders would reject the king’s appeal. Which leads to typical Saramago speculation about the various possibilities. And then leads to Raimundo one day visiting the castle that was the headquarters of the Moors—whereupon, the answer comes to him.

Except, author Saramago is not one to immediately reveal his hero’s insight. Instead, the proofreader delves still deeper into the process by which the Crusaders might decide to deny their services in his new version of history. He decides this means the Crusaders would enter into negotiations. They would ask how they will be rewarded if they help defeat the Moors, and the answer Raimundo’s king comes up with is that just as God has helped the Christians in other battles in Portugal, he will help the Crusaders enjoy such a victory if they agree to join in retaking Lisbon from the Moors.

The Crusaders’ answer is a kind of blasphemy, for they say that since God has brought you victory in the past, you surely do not need our help. The king is mollified, however, when a few token Crusaders do agree to help. Whereupon, Saramago switches from Raimundo’s imaginative speculation to the reality of Raimundo’s life. The proofreader decides to bring a book of poems he has proofed to his publisher. And just as the man weighs the possible outcome of every encounter, whether in his own life or in his fiction, his indecision is amplified when he is faced with the attractive Maria Sara as he delivers the book of poems. Since this is the first time, half way through the book, that he has finally made a connection with another person, one anticipates Saramago, at last, picking up the pace.

But, instead, Saramago develops his story on three levels. He concentrates on the viewpoint of the Moors under siege, especially a blind muezzin to whom is described the movement of troops below. Then he switches to Raimundo at his writing desk but also thinking of Maria Sara. And finally, he gets inside the writer Raimundo, who is evaluating the impact on the king of most Crusaders abandoning the siege and heading off to sea, while a few troops remain behind to join the besiegers. The overall impact is that of watching Raimundo figure out how to write a book that contradicts history. Which approach Saramago continues in the following chapters, moving back and forth, in and out, ending with Raimundo hesitantly approaching Maria again.

And for the first time, about three quarters into thus work, there is a human connection. But what is not clear to me at this point is Saramago’s intent in writing this book. The title suggests the goal is a portrait of history. And that as a novelist he knows he must approach this purpose through a human being, his proofreader. But we don’t sense the humanness of this proofreader until now. When it briefly takes over the book.

But then, in his finale, the author returns to the siege of Lisbon, and spells out in detail how the siege could have ended, even though, in history, it did not end that way. In his version, Saramago also tells the story of a knight and his concubine Ouroana. And how a common soldier Mogueime declares his love for her and how she replies. This suggests a parallel to the love of Raimundo and Maria Sara, with the common soldier standing in for the common proofreader. Just as Saramago’s history of the siege stands in for the real siege without repeating it.

In an Afterward, translator Giovanni Portiero explains why Saramago has written this novel in this way. That he prefers “stories inserted into history.” That “the central concern of Saramago’s novel focus[es] on our ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, to differentiate between reliable and suspect historical reporting, and the difficulty of drawing the frontier between the two.” As Saramago himself says, “The truth is that history could have been written in many different ways and this idea of infinitude and variation are the essence of my writing.”

And so we have a work of fiction in which the fiction merely embellishes a literary philosophy, rather than explores human relationships. This is not for me true fiction, but I must also acknowledge that this work has made me aware of a moment of Lisbon history that I knew nothing about. Which, in a way, is perhaps Saramago’s intent. To make history come alive, by inserting his own fiction, by showing, in the translator’s words, that “history and fiction are constantly overlapping.” (December, 2018)

Two Moons, by Thomas Mallon

I have always been intrigued by Mallon’s historical novels, but have read only Henry and Clara, which did disappoint me. This 2000 novel, however, is quite effective. It is a quiet novel, but its youthful romance, its pursuit of scientific evidence in the heavens, and its late 19th century Washington scene are quite effective. The actual year is 1878, when the Capital is still recovering from the Civil War and people are yearning for a brighter future.

This is the story of thirtyish Civil War widow Cynthia May and her love of an ambitious astronomer Hugh Allison. Both are fictional characters. She is a mathematical whiz at the U.S. Navel Observatory, while he is a handsome and ambitious, but physically delicate, astronomer scientist. The author blends their love affair with the lives of real scientists who surround them at the Observatory. And he supplements those lives with the predictions of a presumably fictional astrologer, Mary Costello. This woman advises a powerful senator, the historic Roscoe Conkling of New York, on how the stars might help him beat back reformists who are challenging the party machine. Conkling is a ladies man, and the plot turns when he encounters Cynthia, is fascinated by her, and decides to pursue her.

Cynthia’s own story is a quiet one, not a dramatic one, and yet, as I indicated, effective. For she is both smart and settled into her widowhood—until, that is, she meets Hugh. The reality of their affair is enhanced by the care the author takes to create the hectic daily life of the Observatory, where Mary is called a computer since she deals with mathematical calculations and Hugh tracks the planets through a telescope. What also enlivens this scientific background is the political and personal infighting at the Observatory, climaxing with the desire of most of the scientists there to move their location away from Foggy Bottom, where the fog and the malarial mosquitoes both disrupt their investigation of the skies and endanger their health.

And this effort to move the Observatory is complemented by the political maneuvering in Washington D.C between the Presidency and Congress. Even as Mallon captures the woman’s point of view through Cynthia and Mary, he also captures the political history underlying this novel. Such as the maneuvering by Senator Conkling, for example, in support of President Rutherford B. Hayes, maneuvers which are not always clear to the average reader.

The scientists at the Observatory spend their time searching the skies, studying the planets (the discovery of two moons around Mars is made during this period), and seeking to identify new heavenly bodies through their telescopes. But while these efforts are directed toward reaching out and discovering unknown civilizations across the heavens, Hugh Allison thinks about knowledge flowing in the opposite direction. He wants to send out a message to those possible civilizations and make them aware of we fellow beings here on earth.

And so Hugh seeks to shine a powerful light into the sky that will draw attention toward the planet earth. As he says, he wants the speed of light to carry through the universe a message that will be found long after he himself is gone.

Much of the novel focuses on his efforts, aided by Cynthia, to obtain a machine from a fellow scientist in France that emits the powerful light that he needs. Senator Conkling enters the scene here because Cynthia realizes that, after their casual encounter and his efforts to seek an amorous relationship, she needs to develop that relationship. Because he has the power and influence to help them bring over the searchlight from France and pass it through customs.

Hugh’s plan is to take his searchlight to the top of the then unfinished Washington Monument, and to shine its beam into the sky. This effort represents the climax of the novel, after which their story eases into a quiet ending. Meaning that there is no dramatic finale, no earthshaking discovery. What follows is merely a New York Blizzard ten years later that allows the author to settle the fortunes of his main characters.

We have glimpsed in this novel a moment if imaginary history, and a moment of imaginary reality. And it is a reality both highly believable, and symbolic of its times. It reflects, as the Washington Post says, “a quaint kind of homegrown ambition and optimism that is uniquely American.”

Yes, one wants to seek out more of Mallon’s work. In his historical fictions, he brings together the humanity of his characters, whether historic or fictional. And then, as he captures the sense of their times, he lets a quiet moment of history reverberate into our future. (November, 2018)

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

This Man Booker prize novel from 2017 is certainly an original. And also unusual. Highly unusual. It is about the dead, about what happens after people die, a subject that highly interests me. But the direction that Saunders takes here is not a direction that I have followed in my own writing. I do admire his effort here, but it is too worldly for me, too concerned with the humanity of his characters, rather than any spiritual consequences. Saunders also introduces too many characters for me, as if to emphasize how death reaches across such a broad human experience. Indeed, one reviewer says there are 166 characters in this book. But my problem is less with the number of characters; it is more with there being no linkage among so many of these characters, which I will call the undead, as they roam about this cemetery setting—and as they cling to this residue of the life that they know, resisting their transition to an afterlife that they do not know.

As the title indicates, this is primarily a story about President Abraham Lincoln. He is distraught at the death of his young son Willie in the second year of his Presidency. And so he journeys to the cemetery the day after the funeral to mourn his son, and to alleviate a sense of guilt for not paying enough attention to the boy’s illness—a guilt re-enforced by the lives also being lost on the battlefield. However, it seems that, as he developed this novel, Saunders’ vision may have grown beyond Lincoln. As if he also saw the possibility of commenting on the human condition. And so he began exploring the lives and deaths, the relationships and fates, of these dead people who saw in Lincoln’s concern for his son a relevance to their own future.

These dead people are in a transitional state that Tibetan Buddhists call the bardo. And it is a state they are comfortable with, for they can leave their dead bodies, move around freely, and talk to one another. They can even invade the bodies and the minds of both the living and their fellow undead— and, in doing so, impact their thinking. In this case, they are trying to impact both Lincoln and his son.

In fact, Tomas Mallon suggests in The New Yorker that “when his father [Lincoln] lets go, accepts the boy’s death and helps to usher his spirit to a real afterlife, the consequences are world-shaping. Vollman and Roger Bevins [the novel’s main observers] perceive a Lincoln who now fully understands and embraces suffering, and feels a new bloody-minded determination to win the war.” This would seem, however, to be guided more by a literary decision than by historic facts. For Mallon grants that the history suggests that Lincoln did not reveal that determination until later. Instead, he suggests that Vollman and Bevins are indulging in wishful thinking, and that, as Bevins says, “we must do so, and believe in it, or else we were ruined.”

In short, this is an intriguing novel when it is focused on Lincoln and his son Willie, but less so when the relationships among the undead dominate.

And they often do. That is, Saunders will pay considerable attention to one group of undead characters who have a relationship with each other, and then move to another. But none of these groups will have a relationship with another group, much less with Lincoln or his son. And this disparity is often confusing. Why, even, are these separate groups present in this novel? I believe this apparent decision to expand the parameters and introduce a commentary on the human condition was a mistake. And even Michiko Kakutani seems to agree in her New York Times review, writing that the “supernatural chatter can grow tedious at times—the novel would have benefited immensely from some judicious pruning.”

How Saunders presents his characters is also highly original. As well as unusual. Each of his 166 characters contributes to what is happening, or comments on it, in just a few lines or a few paragraphs. The result is a kaleidoscope of opinion, often deliberately contradictory. A few of the quoted characters are figures of history, historians and biographers who lend authenticity to the reality of Lincoln’s character and his world. But most are undead fictional characters, who seem to concentrate more on their own lives and their own fates during their back-and-forth conversations. They are most effective, of course, when they discuss Lincoln and his son. But toward the center and the latter part of the novel, these characters address primarily their own lives, their own concerns. And while it expands the undead experience, there is still little or no connection among these various groups of the undead.

There is still more confusion when, toward the end, the reader grasps that not all these undead characters realize that they are dead. Now, I grant that if all did realize this, this would open the novel up to a concern about what was going to happen to them. Indeed, I have written myself of characters who are in a way station between earth and their fate in the afterlife. But Saunders is not interested in those ramifications, such as issues of penance and redemption. What concerns him and his undead is this troubled old man who is visiting this son, this innocent boy he has lost. And the undead wish to help both of them in their sorrow, thinking it may offer a key to their own future, although they are unsure of how to do so.

What many of them prefer is to remain in this undead status, where they are in control of their existence. And they also realize the danger of becoming emotional, that they could lose their undead status and explode in what Saunders terms a loud “matterlightblooming phenomenon.” What seems to have far more potential, however, is that this change is often preceded by what is called “future forms,” by an undead body being transformed into what it might have been like at key points, if he or she had lived out a normal life.

For me, however, my interest is not in the status of the undead, with their various emotional and psychological concerns. Or even in the absence of any spiritual element. What interests me is the psychological and emotional portrait of Lincoln. He is a troubled soul, troubled by the fate of both his son and the tens of thousands of soldiers who have already died in the Civil War. And Saunders, thereupon, has him come to an understanding that history suggests did not happen but which does work here in literary terms: that just as the president must accept the loss of his son, so must he accept the loss of what will become hundreds of thousands of soldiers—in order to save the Union. This realization leaves him in great sorrow, for which he is well known, but it becomes here the price Saunders says he must pay to preserve the freedom and the lives of millions more.

Colson Whitehead in his own Times review re-enforces this position when he praises this novel’s “luminous feat of generosity and humanism.” Of course, the humanistic aspect is what precisely troubles me—that the author chooses to explore only how our humanity continues after death. But if our humanity survives, should not the question be: what happens next? And Saunders has no interest in that. He is interested only in how these characters continue to be human in this way station. Which, granted, is a literary subject, and easier to accommodate in a novel than one’s spiritual fate.

And the generosity that Whitehead cites? That is expressed in the number and variety of human beings Saunders brings onto the scene.

Thus, Whitehead is also in sync with the author’s decision to explore so many characters in this world of the undead. As he states, the undead do crowd around this dead boy and his mourning father, seeming to hope that Willie, with his father’s encouragement, can move on peacefully to the next world. Of the love the father shows, one character, Reverend Thomas says, “It was cheering. It gave us hope.” Or, as Whitehead himself says, “If the spirits can persuade this boy to undertake his rightful departure to the Other Side, they might be saved as well.” And this farewell to one son, Lincoln’s son, Whitehead even says, foreshadows the farewell “to the hundreds of thousands who will fall in the battlefields.”

And he does make Lincoln seem reconciled to this. “Abraham Lincoln must stop being the father to a lost boy,” Whitehead writes, “and assume his role as a father to the nation, one on the brink of cataclysm.” And adds: “Survival depends not only on the captain, but on all aboard.” Which can explain, I grant, the presence of so many of the undead. But it is, again, an explanation in psychological terms or philosophical terms. But not in literary terms. Much less in spiritual terms. No, I still believe the few should have stood in for the many, not the many for the many. Unless they, too, were in mourning for their son—as they would be when the war went on.

This is Saunders’ first novel, after considerable success as a short story writer. But it does not, of itself, lead me to expect future novels from his pen. First, because it is so original in its concept, the expectation by critics of an even more original work might inhibit any attempt by the author to attempt another one. And, second, because its technique of advancing the story by means of brief quotations from a variety of sources suggests an imagination that is more comfortable with using shorter points of reference and outside sources. But if I am wrong, surely the length of my comments here suggests such a work will be worth exploring. (May, 2018)

Conspirata, by Robert Harris

This 2009 work is history as a novel—and less a novel as history, as I wrote regarding the first volume in this series, Imperium. Because its emphasis here is on history. We are immediately with Marcus Tullius Cicero in the Rome of 63 BC, as this newly elected consul (head of the Roman senate) struggles to preserve the nation’s republican government.

Meanwhile, its other characters are also historic. A young Julius Caesar hovers nearby as a threat to overthrow the republic; and Pompey, who heads Rome’s army in the eastern Mediterranean, is another threat to return at any time and assume leadership himself. Meanwhile, other adversaries to Cicero in Rome mark the difficult road he faces in preserving the Roman Republic. They include such powerful figures as Crassus, Clodius, Catilina, and, at times, the mysterious Cato.

Caesar is mainly an onlooker as this novel begins, although he does maneuver himself into the role of pontus maximus, Rome’s religious leader. The main political concern of everyone early on is Pompey, and when he will return and will he bring his army to back him up.

We follow all this through the narrative voice of Tiro, Cicero’s devoted and intelligent private secretary, a slave who transcribes his owner’s conversations and speeches. Presumably, they are largely the actual words Cicero once spoke, and through Tiro’s efforts have come down to us through history. But the loyal slave has also been given by Harris the intelligence and wit that enlivens the political and social intrigue around Cicero.

Indeed, the website Leserglede, citing this intrigue, calls this novel “a very strong tale of shifting alliances, greed, sexual liaisons, personal ambition, love, hate, and total betrayal among the elites of Rome.”

The novel is divided into two parts, the first as Cicero leads the government as the chief consul in the Senate, faces an assassination plot, and maneuvers the political process to support the Roman constitution and preserve its government. For this, he uses primarily his intelligence, his wit, and his powers of oratory. The second part concerns his next five years out of office, as he valiantly strives to prevent Pompey, first, and then Caesar from coordinating their efforts and establishing a dictatorship.

Throughout, these pages offer a marvelous interpretation of history. Yes, this is Harris’ interpretation, especially, I think, toward the end, when Cicero’s outcome verges on injustice and tragedy. But the overall result is still history. If this is a novel, however, it is not literature. For as clear as the events are, they are more a re-creation than a creation. The emphasis is more on what happens, rather than on why. The emphasis is more on narrative than on interpretation.

We witness the events, therefore, and their political impact, but we do not experience them emotionally, not as Cicero did, nor as Tiro did. We remain outside these characters’ consciousness. We are observers. We witness history, and it is vividly presented, but it does not involve us. It does not because we know it is history, we know it is foreordained, and that the characters are not in charge of their destiny, as fictional characters need to be.

But I might also note what I wrote after reading Imperium: “It is the personal side of Cicero’s life that is missing here, and that might have turned this rich novel into a truly literary work….Yet Harris might argue, with some legitimacy, that he is dealing here with historic figures, that we know what they did but that to try to enter their minds would be presumptuous, even foolhardy. That he would prefer to be faithful to events, and to make them accessible to the general reader, rather than to speculate on what those characters were like within. Shakespeare may have explored their inner thoughts, but how many Shakespeares have there been? (And how many historians would there be to jump on him, Harris, for doing this?)”

My response today is that as foolhardy as such introspection might be, it is still the road to literature, as other classical authors besides Shakespeare have shown. Although I will acknowledge that the depth, the introspection, is often done through concurrent fictional characters. Whereas, in this case, the most interesting aspect of Cicero’s personal life is his complex relationship with his wife Terentia, whom he married for wealth and position. But to examine this marriage at length would, unfortunately, deflect the reader from the political intrigue that is the heart of this novel.

Indeed, Harris himself summed up his approach to this work during an NPR interview, and it is a political approach. “In a way, this whole trilogy — and this book in particular — is a duel between Cicero and Caesar— two ambitious men, but with very different forms of ambition….Cicero’s ambition is to rise within the system. Caesar’s desire is to smash the republic and remake it in his own image. And the clash between these two men, who are sort of, in a way, almost wary friends and admirers—that’s really the dynamic of the book. And I believe that Cicero has had a less good shake from history than Caesar.”

Yet, given the lack of psychological depth, there is another kind of artistry here. For the dramatic opening scene, with its discovery of a murdered boy, a human sacrifice, reverberates at the end, as it is connected to Cicero’s fate—as are many of his good actions as consul. For example, after he avoids the threat to his own life, and, as consul, is able to save Rome from the takeover by Catilina, Cicero also begins to sow the seeds of his own vulnerability, for his enemies will later take advantage of his persistent claim that he has been the savior of Rome.

In fact, Cicero exposes himself to actual prosecution, since after arresting Catilina’s co-conspirators, given that martial law existed, he permitted their execution without a trial. Which was contrary to his professed belief in the rule of law. (Indeed, the senate debate on this matter, with interventions against death by Caesar and for death by Cato is a highlight of the book,)

And so, when Cicero’s term as consul ends, the many who supported Catilina are now happy to see Cicero himself accused of bypassing the rule of law. This happens after Clodius, on trial for profaning secret female rites, and having had his alibi refuted by Cicero’s damning testimony, has bribed enough jurists to get himself acquitted—and then, in revenge, waits patiently to build a case against Cicero. Specifically, he gets elected as a tribune, and persuades his fellow legislators to pass a decree that says that anyone who aids a person who has executed others without a trial (which is Cicero) now faces the death penalty themselves.

The edict, in effect, condemns Cicero into exile, since no one can now aid him. And because to defend his own honor in a separate case he had specifically accused Caesar of supporting Catalina’s plan to subvert the government, he himself has become vulnerable. Even though Caesar has sworn to allow nothing to happen to him. Thus, the grandeur, the corruption, and, most of all, the hypocrisy of Rome is vividly portrayed, with all the political maneuvering that makes the infighting particularly fascinating.

What is interesting is that, first, Cicero, while raised in moderate wealth, is not recognized as a member of the elite. He is a self-made man. He earned his election as consul in the senate, a prestigious position, by his forthright intelligence, his eloquence, and his political smarts. And that, second, this man of justice is not an ally of the poor. For he calls them “the mob,” because he sees them being used in the power grab by Caesar and others of the elite. With the result is that he is despised by two opposing camps, both the wealthy patricians and the neglected populists.

What becomes confusing to the modern reader is that aligned against Cicero are the people he is presumably helping. These are the plebeians, the poor, the common people, who are represented by the tribunes and who have been seduced by Caesar; whereas, he seeks his allies among the nobles in the senate, as he tries to preserve the constitution and republican form of government. Which situation is contrary to today’s political environment, where we are used to the rich nobility seeking power and wealth, while it is the plebeians who seek fairness and justice.

This is the second in a trilogy of novels that recreates Cicero’s life. I enjoyed the first novel, Imperium, about Cicero’s rise to power, and this one as well. Here is a fascinating reading experience, a political thriller in its own terms, as it brings vividly to life a lesson in history. I look forward to the final volume, and expect it to be written on the same level. For what does literature matter, when an author brings to such vivid life the complexities of an ancient era? (March, 2015)