Saturday, November 17, 2007


This week I read The Ghost, the new historical novel by Robert Harris--a typically multi-layered and well-written book by a very successful novelist. I have loved Harris ever since he wrote Selling Hitler, a nonfiction account of the marketing of the Hitler diaries in the 1980s, and have enjoyed Fatherland (which is set in 1964 and imagines that Hitler won the war in Europe), Enigma (about British codebreakers in the Second World War), and Archangel (about renascent Stalinism in Russia). The history in The Ghost is more recent; it tells the story of a ghostwriter hired to complete the memoirs of Adam Lang, a recently retired British Prime Minister who is obviously Tony Blair. Unfortunately I cannot say what I want to say without giving away a part of the plot, and those who want the fun of the book should skip the latter sections of the post (I'll let you know when), but I find it sufficiently significant to write about it.

Harris is a player in big-time publishing and he tells a good deal of what he knows in this book. The central character says a lot about ghostwriters, the largely anonymous souls who actually write the prose marketed under the names of celebrities. (On any given Sunday a large percentage of the Times non-fiction best-seller list has been ghosted.) Their task, he explains in the first person, is to humanize their subjects, to find the kind of psychological detail (often a trauma such as child abuse or drug addiction) that will hook the public. They must accept little if any acknowledgement (their name almost never appears on the title page) and they often are not even invited to the book party, where their presence might be embarrassing. Nor is this all; the funniest part of the book, in my opinion, occurred when Lang's name became newsworthy again (he is accused of collaborating in American war crimes), and the editor called the hero to move up his deadline. When the ghost complained that the existing manuscript needed a lot more work, he was told not to worry--"now is the time to bring it out, and we know no one is going to read it anyway." (My sales are not in the celebrity range, but I like to think that most of my purchasers actually get through the book and are glad to have done so.)

Harris is a good historian who obviously enjoys research, and one of the highlights of the book for me was the cameo appearance of one of the most famous Americans of the second half of the twentieth century, who is living in retirement on Martha's Vineyard. Harris never identifies him by name and I am not going to give the joke away, but he provides some data that leaves room for only one conclusion. The real interest in the book, however, is the central plot line, and regretfully, I must suggest that anyone who doesn't want to know it should stop here. (The Sunday Times reviewer was very discreet on this point too.)

Throughout the book, everyone the hero speaks to wants to understand one thing: how "Lang" could have come so completely under the influence of the American President (who isn't given a name at all.) Gradually, the hero discovers that his predecessor on the job had stumbled upon the answer. I am not going into all the details and twists, but essentially, what emerges is that the PM had been under the influence of the CIA since his days at Cambridge, and that that, presumably, explains the decision to support the Iraq war and collaborate in the exralegal treatment of suspects.

I would like to ask you to pause for a moment to realize what this means. It's as if John Grisham or Michael Crichton wrote a novel suggesting that George W. Bush was being blackmailed by the Mossad over some youthful indiscretion, or that leading neoconservatives knew all about 9/11 but allowed it to happen so that they could try to militarily control the Middle East. Harris certainly has a stature in Britain equal to theirs here, and he has chosen to imply that a once-popular Prime Minister was nothing less than a traitor who sold the British people out to a foreign power. And he cannot have done so simply from a profit motive.

Let me make it clear that I do not think that the accusation could possibly be true. My friends in the intelligence community assure me that the United States and Britain have had a gentleman's agreement not to spy on each other for 65 years, and I see no reason to doubt it. I find it very difficult to believe that Harris thinks it's true, either. The book therefore is interesting because of what it shows about the state of a certain segment of British opinion--the Labor voters who regarded Blair's collaboration with Bush as a complete betrayal. It is a powerful indicator of how much harm the current Administration has done to our overseas position, especially among our traditionally closest allies, and how desperately we need a new President to start restoring it.

Yet it is also seems to me, frankly, a rather cowardly way out on Harris's part. Several well-informed Brits have suggested to me that Blair was most motivated by religion--he is born again as well, and he sent Bush a book of devotions penned by an Evangelical for British soldiers serving in the Middle East during the First World War, which essentially exhorted the Christian soldiers to march forward for the glory of the Lord. He, like Bush, really believed he could strike a blow for freedom. Neither his Cabinet nor his party, both of whom evidently opposed him, had the courage to stop him--further proof that the British Constitution now allows a Prime Minister with a substantial majority to act almost as a dictator. We Americans have plenty to apologize for and plenty of soul-searching to do, and many of us are doing it. To blame it all on us, frankly, is both inaccurate and unfair. Indeed, I have been troubled for seven years that European leaders have been so reluctant to put forth an alternative foreign policy around which western men and women of good will could rally.

"The fault, dear Brutus," a famous playwright once wrote, "was not in our stars, but in ourselves." I believe he was English.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Several well-informed Brits have suggested to me that Blair was most motivated by religion"

It's finally hit the front page of the BBC newsite:
Mr [Alistair] Campbell has now acknowledged to the [BBC] that his former boss [Tony Blair] "does do God in quite a big way", but [...] feared the public would be wary.