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Thursday 2 October 2008

First Step

A little over a month ago, on Labour Day in the US, at a family wedding in Narragansett, R. I., I had a conversation with a charmingly gloomy young American who was in love with sailing ships. He had just had the opportunity to be skipper in a schooner race out of Newport but, in his own words, had ‘blown it’ because he ‘had not been brave enough’. The difficult thing for him was that he had thought he was ‘keeping tight to the course’, when what had been needed was the realisation that a chance to win had opened up, was there…and then, irredeemably, was not. One of his main regrets was that his crew knew. He could see it in their faces.

It was interesting to meet someone who both mentioned and admired Joseph Conrad so much - not something I often get the chance to do. Amongst 19th Century sea-faring novelists, I prefer Herman Melville. Not just for Moby Dick. Benito Cereno is a marvel, with an incidental take on the 19th Century American view of Spanish fatalism. Melville describes the sea better than Conrad and the young American accepted this, but he could not imagine how a reader would find Ahab more interesting than Lord Jim, his own favourite character. In his own expressive phrase, ‘Ahab is a stick, Lord Jim lives.’

Lord Jim is a book about someone who assumes he is brave, and finds himself in an absurd panic. He then spends the rest of his life in expiation of what he sees as his own cowardice. Lord Jim flees civilisation to be incessantly, even wilfully courageous. But can never rid himself of that first failure.

I don’t know that this is a tragedy, but I do think that characters and people sometimes get the elemental and the elementary mixed up. The test and the quest, the mettle of a man? But both measured by a simple moral chart which is acquired when we are young and necessarily vulnerable - uncertain about what trust and loyalty, even to oneself, involves. It also includes the notion that a hero has to be extremely vigilant – in case he misses his chance to step up.

Waiting for a first book to come out is a desultory and unheroic business - much more like Ishmael clinging to a coffin (no white whale, though) than reporting on Lord Jim’s inevitable death. This is not exactly worry, more an endless checking to see if I’ve got things right, forgotten something – or got things wrong. You don’t want to let down the people who took you on, and you don’t want to disappoint the reader. It’s rather like trying to see if you left a zip undone from an old photographic negative.

It also makes me a little too aware of what I have written. I mention Lord Jim in The Maze of Cadiz. This is meant to be an indicator, a helpful pointer. Cotton is very wary of bravery. He knows just how much spin and convenient elision is involved in the concept.

And then there is the question of imposition and names. There are commercial categories for books and The Maze of Cadiz has been put in the ‘historical spy thriller’ section.

For me the word ‘thriller’ always has something electric about it. Almost a century ago, John Buchan fixed the genre as running on a tightrope between the improbable and the just possible. Running has a lot to do with it.

But it is also worth pointing out that Buchan himself used the word ‘shocker’ – and there is definitely something of buzz and jolt about this kind of thriller. When we first went to Spain, the washing machine gave jolts and sent tingles up my arm when I touched it. ‘What do you expect?’ said the baffled electrician I called in. ‘It’s electricity.’ That was when I found out that the Spanish then often earthed through the water pipes. (I later passed the parcel of sensation on to Cotton). As my mother-in-law put it ‘ouch. Yes, enough electricity to alarm but not to kill.’

Of course there have been many other types of thriller, often done, and done for a long time, in less propagandistic times. Graham Greene and John le Carré, for example, both examine moral greyness, character flaws and human weakness within a framework of intelligence communities.

There is then the thriller that squeezes in ways we recognise disturbingly well. I wanted to put the reader in the same stifling scenario as the main character and with as little idea about what was going on. I wanted to add a flavour of unease and anxiety to an unidentified risk. If thrillers are usually brisk nightmares that turn out as victorious daydreams, I wanted to give the nightmare a little more twisting time, and introduce a doubt about whether it would turn out well.

My charming American acquaintance had wanted to understand something about his future prospects as the captain of a schooner in a race. The Maze of Cadiz ends without Cotton having fully understood what he has done. I don’t want to give away the ending, but he will have to make some drastic decisions about himself. Has he been brave or has he acted out of alarm? Or will he shut off, in a kind of mental mutilation, in order to keep going? He has done his job in extreme fashion but what has it entailed? No, no grateful superiors and praise.

Then there is the ‘historical’ angle. I am always a little suspicious when people behave promptly, perfectly and up-to-the minutely in a historical context, always a little let down when the 14th Century baron has an instinctive grasp of how the Plague was spread, or the 16th century lawyer is portrayed as a precursor of the Human Rights Act. In this case, anyway, The Maze is within living memory. Peter Cotton may still be alive, living abroad, though I suspect his second wife Helen, died in 2005.

It has been suggested I write about real ‘Historic’ or ‘Historical’ Memory for a newspaper. Next year will be the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War. The Memory mentioned is an effort by the present Spanish Government not so much to lay ghosts to rest, but to find out what happened on, now in, the ground. This has involved a lot of grave finding and grave digging.

As I write this, there is a debate in Spain on whether or not to exhume the remains of the poet Federico García Lorca. He was buried near Granada with a number of others summarily shot in 1936. His family have, rather elegantly but not entirely willingly, agreed that if other families consider it necessary, they will allow the exhumation.

I did want to write something exciting, but perhaps a little less fantastic and a little more pertinent and less gung-ho than Buchan’s great The Thirty-Nine Steps. Fathers, grandfathers, even great grandfathers – everyone has a living history. Outside fantasy and within some approximation to history and recent life spans, thrillers are murky. They dice with inconvenient uncertainties and truths about our own judgements.

Outside a thriller’s remit? Not, I think, if you have a wider sense of thrill. Wonder over escapism? Something like that.

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