State of Fear: London After a Dirty Bomb
Gibson Square, 2013, 320 pp., £9.99 (paperback)
Gibson Square, 2015, 324 pp., £7.99 (paperback)
The China Maze
Gibson Square, 2017, 304 pp., £8.99 (paperback)
History, as the saying goes, concerns what happened, whereas fiction tells us about the kinds of things that happen. History tends to concentrate on broad historical forces, fiction on the lives of individuals. The first offers explanation, the second insight. Yet they can and do complement each other. As well as entertaining the reader, historical fiction can shed light on the customs, the preoccupations, and the ways of thinking of eras long past, as well as of the present. Much of what general readers know of the ancient world comes from works such as the novels of Mary Renault, or the three fictional volumes by Robert Harris about the life of Cicero. Even familiar near-contemporary events become more vivid in the hands of a skilled novelist: Thomas Mallon’s Watergate: A Novel, is but one recent example. Fiction comes in a variety of genres, of course, and one of them, the thriller—novels featuring excitement and suspense—is particularly well suited to what has become a preoccupation of contemporary life: terrorism.
State of Fear, The China Maze, and The Oligarch all revolve around acts of terrorism, and all have three cardinal virtues. First, they are marvelously entertaining. They offer gripping suspense that is resolved in the end by entirely unexpected but perfectly plausible plot twists, in the tradition of the master of the cinematic thriller, Alfred Hitchcock. Second, they provide convincing psychological portraits of several varieties of that ghastly but enigmatic modern figure, the terrorist, as did the progenitor of all such novels, Joseph Conrad’s 1907 The Secret Agent. Third, they illustrate the context—the social and political circumstances—in which efforts to kill innocent civilians for political purposes take place. The threat of terrorism and the (often exaggerated) fear of it have become facts of 21st-century life. These three books illuminate that aspect of the way we live now.
“Joseph Clyde” is the pen name, for fiction, of George Walden, one of those polymaths that Great Britain seems, uniquely, to produce. He has combined a distinguished career in public affairs with impressive literary accomplishments. Having studied Russian (and Hungarian) in school and at Cambridge, he spent an eventful year as a student in Moscow at the beginning of the 1960s, an experience he recounts in his penetrating and witty memoir Lucky George. Returning to London, he joined the Foreign Office and worked on Soviet affairs before being sent to Hong Kong to learn Chinese. Posted to the British embassy in Beijing in the mid-1960s, he was one of the few Westerners to observe at first hand the upheaval known as the Cultural Revolution. That episode figures in his memoir as well as in his meditation on the Chinese future, China: A Wolf in the World? He subsequently rose to become the principal aide first to a Labor Foreign Secretary, David Owen, and then to Owen’s Conservative successor, Lord Carrington. He then made the unusual transition from the Foreign Office to electoral politics, winning a seat in the House of Commons and serving as Minister of Higher Education in one of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinets before retiring from the House and turning full-time to writing and lecturing.
Walden has had a great deal to say about his own country, as a regular newspaper columnist and in several books, the most controversial of which is his 2007 Time to Emigrate? Written in the form of a letter to a son, it is an eloquent and, given British political taboos, a courageous reflection on the state of Great Britain, with special attention to the problems, as well as the benefits, that mass immigration has brought. The book addresses, with uncanny foresight, the issues that would, a decade later, motivate the British to vote to leave the European Union. In the wake of that vote, the publisher reissued it, with a long additional section bringing it up to date, under the new title Exit from Brexit.
Walden’s three novels share the same central character. Tony Underwood comes from the world of espionage, but he is hardly a glamorous figure. He works for MI5, the British domestic counterintelligence agency that performs some of the tasks of the American FBI, rather than MI6, Britain’s CIA. Unlike James Bond he has no license to kill, he doesn’t drive a flashy sports car, and women don’t throw themselves at him. The plot of The Oligarch does include an “ornithopter,” a gadget that “Q,” the technological wizard of the Ian Fleming novels, might have devised for 007’s use. (A Google search reveals that such a thing really does exist.) Whereas during the Cold War governments competed to devise ever more ingenious and deadly technologies, true to the realities of the 21st century this device is available commercially.
Underwood bears a superficial resemblance to John le Carré’s hero George Smiley. Like Smiley he is physically unmemorable, described as “the sort of man your eyes would pass over.” Like Smiley, his home life is not idyllic. While Smiley rose to the head of the organization that le Carré calls “the Circus,” however, from which position he managed the defection of his Soviet opposite number, Tony Underwood finds himself stuck on the middle rungs of his service’s hierarchy at the end of a long career devoted to conducting surveillance of foreign diplomats in Britain. Intelligent but not particularly imaginative, patriotic but not fervent, he is less Sherlock Holmes than Dr. Watson without Watson’s militant late-Victorian sense of honor.
A State of Fear, the first of the Underwood trilogy, takes place almost entirely in England, with one brief, sharply drawn detour to Moscow. The book’s subject is the explosion of a radioactive bomb outside the Bank of England, in the heart of London, and its impact on the survivors and the country as a whole. Of particular note is the wider British response, as Walden envisions it. Disaster, we like to think, brings out the best in us: the stoic, courageous endurance of the inhabitants of London and other English cities under German bombardment during the Battle of Britain in World War II; the generosity, solidarity, and determination that the destruction of the World Trade Center evoked in New Yorkers after September 11, 2001 and with which Bostonians responded to the bombing of that city’s Marathon in 2013. The response that Walden imagines in A State of Fear is far less noble, and all too plausible.
The China Maze is the third of the Underwood novels to be published, but in the chronology of the protagonist’s life it comes second. As the title suggests, it is set in China. After three decades of virtual seclusion during the era of Mao Zedong, that country’s remarkable three-decades-long record of economic growth has made it an increasingly familiar part of the contemporary world. Made-in-China products are sold everywhere, and Chinese investors, tourists, and students travel and study around the world. In recent years a rising China has come to be seen as a threat: the President of the United States has asserted that it has, through currency manipulation and other illicit means, appropriated American jobs; Western businesses have had a great abundance of proprietary information stolen by Chinese hackers; the other countries of East Asia confront increasingly aggressive Chinese maritime policies.
The China Maze, however, has to do with a feature of the country that is unfamiliar to most of the rest of the world but that has politically explosive potential. China is a multinational empire, in an age when that political structure, which once dominated the planet, has all but disappeared. To be sure, demographically China looks like a homogeneous nation-state: More than 90 percent of its 1.5 billion people are Han Chinese. Geography, however, presents a different picture. Close to half of the territory that the People’s Republic controls consists of the homelands of ethnic minorities. Tibet is the home of Tibetan Buddhists, Xinjiang of Muslims, the most numerous of whom are Uighurs.
Both groups find Chinese dominance oppressive. Both resist assimilation to the majority Han culture. Their status has a significance well beyond their numbers because the presence of dissatisfied and sometimes rebellious minority populations is a major obstacle to the establishment of political democracy in China: In democratic conditions they would in all likelihood seek independence, which, if they secured it, would substantially reduce the size of the country.
Through the global prominence of its spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, Tibet has become the better known of the two regions in the West. The Muslims have mounted more violent and sustained resistance to Chinese rule, however, and that resistance forms the background of The China Maze. The book is set in Xinjiang, officially an autonomous region rather than a province in China’s northwest, with most of it taking place in Urumqi, the region’s capital and largest city.
In the Maoist era Xinjiang was a backwater, coming to the notice of the world only on the occasions when the Chinese government detonated a trial nuclear explosion at its Lop Nor test site in the region. More recently its economic importance has grown. It is a source of raw materials that the Chinese economy needs and is also the site of part of the Chinese government’s grand project known as the New Silk Road, a plan to build new infrastructure on a large scale, with an emphasis on transportation, to connect China more closely with Europe.
The low-level anti-Han insurrection by Muslims in Xinjiang threatens this plan, as well as access to the region’s raw materials. The government in Beijing has sought to present the violent opposition to its rule there as the East Asian branch of the radical Islamic terrorism that has plagued the West, in order to win Western sympathy and foreign support for its policies in the region. In the book, in pursuit of this aim the Chinese government invites MI5 to send a representative to interrogate someone with a British background whom it has captured. Because he is nearing retirement and has become, in the English phrase, “surplus to requirements,” Tony Underwood is chosen to go.
What he encounters is a classic case of colonialism, which any Brit of a certain age understands very well indeed. Muslim resistance to Han domination has some similarities to the Algerian uprising against the French in the 1950s and 1960s. Unlike Algeria, however, which the Mediterranean separates from the French mainland, Xinjiang is territorially contiguous to the rest of China. The population balance in the region differs from the one in French Algeria as well. By the 1950s people of French descent and other non-Muslims made up less than 20 percent of Algeria’s total population. Beijing has been dispatching Han Chinese to live in Xinjiang since the 1950s and now their numbers almost equal the population of Muslim Uighurs. China is attempting to drown Uighur culture, and Uighur nationalism, in a Han sea, just as the Soviet government tried to drown the three tiny Baltic countries—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—by flooding them with Russians after annexing them after World War II.
With the world’s other multinational empires having dissolved in the 20th century, it is not surprising that Xinjiang’s indigenous inhabitants should try to evict the Han—and with borders with five Muslim-majority countries, several of them known incubators of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, it is entirely plausible that terrorists of that persuasion should appear in China’s northwest, as occurs in this novel.
Like A State of Fear, The China Maze delivers the three elements that the best thrillers provide: suspense, surprise, and satisfaction at the way matters are ultimately resolved. The second volume in the Underwood series also supplies a compelling portrait of a little-known region and the conflict raging there that has the potential to seize the attention of the world. The operation at the center of the story would assuredly do so if was ever carried out in real life, as it certainly could be.
Walden gives the reader a vivid sense of the terrain—alternately barren and mountainous—in the part of Central Asia (once called West Turkestan) that China governs, of the sometimes awkward blend of traditional and modern customs in the daily lives of the Uighurs living there, and even of Xinjiang’s distinctive cuisine. The reader of The China Maze will come away with a vivid sense, as well, of the depth of the hostility between the colonized and the colonizer. The Uighurs bitterly resent what they see as China’s seizure of their land and its assault on their culture. The Han, for their part, regard the Muslims with contempt: The idea that Westerners have a monopoly on the belief that members of other ethnic and racial groups are and always will be their inferiors will not survive a reading of this book. Academic tracts portray this conflict analytically; Walden conveys it viscerally. One of the British China hands in the book says of it, “Imagine the Arab-Israeli dispute, Syria, and Iraq fused into one. That what’s the Chinese can look forward to in Central Asia.”
Walden shows the brutality of which the Chinese are capable, especially in the conduct of their security services, but his portrayal of the country and its people is a rounded one. He is anything but a Sinophobe; his memoir Lucky George describes his enchantment with the grace, artistry, and beauty of classical Chinese calligraphy and his adventures in trying to secure samples of it in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. Accordingly, his China novel also includes examples of personal decency and even doubts about the entire communist enterprise on the part of individual Chinese officials.
Like the best historical fiction, The China Maze offers education along with entertainment, as does the third of the Underwood series, The Oligarch. Here the focus shifts from China to Russia. The novel revolves, once again, around a terrorist scheme, in this case an attempted assassination.
Once again, the driving force behind the act of terrorism is the deep grievance of subject peoples against their imperial masters. In this case the would-be assassins come from Georgia and Chechnya, which Russia has attacked in the course of the past decade.
By now, Tony Underwood has left MI5 and become a security consultant to a Russian billionaire, a man who made a fortune through the dubious methods by which people became rich after the end of communism, then relocated to an estate in the English countryside. The Russians most successful at enriching themselves in the 1990s became known as “oligarchs”: Thus the book’s title.
While Russia sits at the heart of the book, the action takes place elsewhere, in England and in another country George Walden knows well from having spent four years there as a diplomat: France. Some of the French scenes are set in Paris, others in Marseille, and crucial ones in the Camargue, a swampy region located in the southern part of the country, between the Rhone River and the Mediterranean, that is best known for its wild horses.
Russia figures in many thrillers from the Cold War era, but The Oligarch deals with two distinctive features that the country acquired after communism. One is the Russian diaspora. In the wake of the Revolution of 1917 the losers from that epochal event—the aristocrats and professionals whom the communists had deprived of their positions and property—fled to the West, clustering in Berlin and Paris. In the Putin era, by contrast, a number of the winners have left the country. Fearful of being forced by the regime to relinquish their gains, they have made the British capital their favored destination. Underwood’s oligarch puts it succinctly: “In London there are two kinds of Russians: those who come here for the security and those who come to kill them.”
The wealthy Russians have left their mark on the real estate market in south London and southern England, driving the price of luxury homes ever higher. In addition, their complicated and sometimes hostile relations with the authorities in Moscow occasionally play out in their new country, and in less than salubrious ways: Witness the sensational poisoning in London of the Russian intelligence operative turned vocal adversary of the regime Alexander Litvinenko. Emigré politics are at the heart of The Oligarch.
Another feature that distinguishes the new Russia from the Soviet Union is its leader. No one has done as much to shape the post-communist Russian state as Vladimir Putin, who wields more power within the Russian government than any single individual since Stalin. Not surprisingly, his dominance of Russian politics has generated a growing library of analysis and speculation about his policies, his ideas, his goals, and his personality. Useful books about him and his regime have appeared in English, but Walden’s portrait of the character called simply The President is convincing, and indeed chilling, in the way that only the best fiction can be. Moreover, the plot of The Oligarch, with a surprise twist at the end, is particularly timely given the accusation that the Russian government sought to manipulate the U.S. presidential election.
Taken together, A State of Fear, The China Maze, and The Oligarch illustrate three unavoidable characteristics of the world in the second decade of the 21st century. It is a world in which, for worse as well as for better, not only goods and services but people and ideas flow more freely across borders than ever before—and on a global scale. It is a world in which, despite the vast social, economic, and technological forces that swirl through it, individuals, with their sometimes bizarre motives and aspirations, still matter. And it is a world in which unexpected, history-altering events can and do happen.
For those who are all too familiar with these facts of contemporary life, or who are not interested in reading about them, or who wish to escape them, the three books are still worthy of attention. In each of them readers will find the kind of story that, if he were still among us, Alfred Hitchcock would want to put on film. Perhaps a successor will yet try.