Blair’s Ghost, Bush’s future… Robert Harris offers a roman á clef about power January 31, 2009Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, Culture, US Politics.
Funny watching Marine One, or not since it was renamed on the moment of Obama’s inaugural oath (version one), lifting away with Bush. Amazing to see power almost visibly wash away leaving him physically deflated as he climbed the steps into the helicopter, do his usual thing of greeting the pilots, and then move to the passenger cabin. What next for him? What next for the former most powerful man on the planet? And that brought to mind Robert Harris’s novel The Ghost.
Harris is the man who brought us the fascinating Fatherland, set in an alternative history where the Nazi’s had… wait for it… yes, they’d won World War 2 (sadly, as smiffy will agree, this was rather less good than Brad Lineaweavers similarly themed libertarian take on such matters Moon of Ice… or perhaps not). But no purveyor of scientifiction is Mr. Harris. That his big break had a sniff of that was perhaps unfortunate in literary circles, although its popularity clearly less so. Subsequent to that he wrote a not terribly interesting thriller about the Enigma cipher machines, then the rather better Archangel which dealt with Stalinism in contemporary Russia in perhaps the most concrete form possible, and eventually a series of rather fine novels set in Classical Rome, Pompeii and then Imperium. You want to know about Cicero without the pain of reading the original? Set your sights on the latter volume.
Anyhow, on to The Ghost. A solid, but strangely unsatisfying, take on the Blair years which depicts a ghost writer who is given the task of completing the autobiography of former Prime Minister Adam Lang who is now in Martha’s Vineyard at the home of a billionaire trying to finish the project. The ghost writer is a replacement for another writer who dies in ‘mysterious circumstances’. Once in the US the writer discovers that there is more than mere political dysfunction at work in the former PMs entourage.
Of course the real core of the novel is the strange dissonance between the engagement with the character of the former PM and his wife in the text and our knowledge that Harris actually knew and – by some accounts – was quiet close to Blair’s, Tony and Cherie.
And while intensely critical of Lang particularly since he has supported an Iraq war that has been both unsuccessful and politically deeply the sense creeps through that Harris actually is rather fond of Blair/Lang . Some remarkable liberties are taken, particularly a somewhat icky sex scene (icky in the sense of hugely unconvincing) between two significant characters. But even that lese-majesté – read it and you’ll know what I mean – seems a bit opportunistic. It doesn’t add anything to the plot other than the hardly unstartling proposition that middle aged people have affairs or one night stands.
And the plot is troublesome. It is organised like a thriller and is a surprisingly short read. But the problem is that it’s not really a very good thriller. The twists and turns are perhaps a little too obvious, and as ever with a first person narrative, too much is heaped on the narrator’s shoulders and yet too much happens off screen as it were. So it feels in some respects as if – despite considerable tooing and froing – the narrator never goes very far at all from the isolated billionaires refuge. In another book that might lead to an atmosphere that was utterly claustrophobic. But not this one. Although I will hand it to Harris, the final twist is pretty good. If not great.
In a way the fundamental issue with the book is that we already know the reality, know that the Iraq adventure was utterly misconceived, that Blair was instrumental in cheerleading it and that the consequences have been abysmal. In order to make that reality worse in the book one must try to throw something else into the mix. But really, when faced with that reality, what could be worse than it already is? And although Harris strives hard to introduce a certain something it seems forced. Not so much a great revelation as a rather dowdy, and hugely unlikely, side issue.
Oddly where the book succeeds is not so much in offering us a portrait of the Blair/ character but in depicting what it is like for those whose hour has passed. There’s a fine scene where the narrator during an interview with Lang has to do something else for an hour or two. When he returns Lang is still sitting in precisely the same spot and the narrator realises that it is because he has absolutely nothing else to be doing with himself.
And the outline of his now much reduced retinue is interesting as well. Those who out of a residual loyalty, or even love, remain at hand despite the fact that the spotlight has moved on.
The half-life that global figures descend into after their careers are over is drawn perceptively. Days whiling away time thinking back on the great events of their lives. Or regretting the choices made and the roads not taken. And when, as more often these days, those who have been such figures retire at relatively young ages the shock must be the more difficult to bear.
One wonders how Blair regards the more youthful Obama as he bestrides the globe able to change and amend many of the worst aspects of the last eight years, even if unable to remove the stain of the Iraq War. Blair’s clear impotence in the Middle East, cruelly but accurately made visible in the past month, tells its own story.
Perhaps had Harris written it before the Iraq war it might have given at least one person pause for thought. Perhaps two.