Gareth Han­ra­han in­ter­cepts a tale of se­cret his­tory

SFX - - Opinion - By Tim Pow­ers, 2001

Here is a list: se­crets, re­grets, gen­uine his­tory, the su­per­nat­u­ral.

The ba­sic in­gre­di­ents of a Tim Pow­ers cock­tail. Also, co­pi­ous amounts of al­co­hol – in the case of 2001’s DE­CLARE, it’s arak, weak beer with le­mon­ade and in­sect re­pel­lent.

DE­CLARE swaps Pow­ers’ usual South Cal­i­for­nia set­ting for Eng­land, and al­ter­nates be­tween the Sec­ond World War and 1963. In 1942, An­drew Hale’s a Bri­tish spy, sent to in­fil­trate a So­viet-con­trolled Re­sis­tance net­work op­er­at­ing in Paris. He learns there’s an­other, older war go­ing on, and that there are other forces at work in the world. Re­turn­ing to Eng­land, he en­coun­ters the man who will haunt him for the rest of his life – am­bi­tious, du­plic­i­tous Kim Philby. In 1963 – the year Philby fa­mously de­fects to the So­viet Union – Hale’s ac­ti­vated again, called from his life of aca­demic ob­scu­rity to carry out one more mis­sion for the mys­te­ri­ous Op­er­a­tion DE­CLARE.

On one level, DE­CLARE’s an ex­cel­lent spy thriller in the mode of John Le Carré, full of be­tray­als and con­spir­a­cies and trade­craft. It’s a study of two very dif­fer­ent men in­volved with the same woman; a story of state­craft and di­plo­macy and se­cret strug­gles.

On an­other, it’s some­thing un­canny. Pow­ers ex­pertly in­ter­weaves ac­tual his­tor­i­cal fig­ures and events with his fic­tion. Noth­ing Philby does in this book is con­tra­dicted by the his­tor­i­cal record. All the dates line up – the story hap­pens in those un­doc­u­mented gaps, slip­ping through gaps to in­fil­trate our world. Read­ing DE­CLARE is ver­tig­i­nous; it doesn’t ex­pose a se­cret world hid­den be­hind the wain­scot­ing, so much as con­vince you that his­tory makes more sense this way. It’s Sher­lock Holmes’ maxim; once you’ve elim­i­nated the im­pos­si­ble, what­ever re­mains, how­ever im­prob­a­ble, must be the truth. Even if that truth is “ge­nies”. DE­CLARE builds its case like an in­tel­li­gence an­a­lyst – or a the­olo­gian, dis­cern­ing the pres­ence of un­seen pow­ers through a myr­iad of seem­ingly dis­parate signs and por­tents. Words take on new sig­nif­i­cance – with­out chang­ing one let­ter of their texts, Pow­ers changes the mean­ing of The Ara­bian Nights, and Ki­pling’s Kim, Philby’s let­ters, not to men­tion the book writ­ten by Philby’s fa­ther St John, The Empty Quar­ter. Ev­ery­thing gets swept up in the whirl of the djinn – the physics of ra­dio trans­mis­sions, He­brew et­y­mol­ogy, Lawrence of Ara­bia, the course of the Cold War. You’re lifted up to see the world from a new per­spec­tive, where new truths be­come ev­i­dent. Of course Philby sur­vived the rocket at­tack in Spain in ’36 – he was wear­ing his fa­ther’s fox-fur coat! How could it be oth­er­wise!

In short, if you’re the right sort of reader – in­ter­ested in his­tory, fas­ci­nated by con­nec­tions, maybe a lit­tle twitchy and para­noid – then DE­CLARE will do ab­so­lutely ter­ri­ble things to your brain. Pow­ers com­pares his tech­nique to that of an as­tronomer, de­tect­ing minis­cule per­tur­ba­tions in or­bits caused by the grav­ity of an un­known planet. He spots wob­bles and in­con­sis­ten­cies in his­tory; he takes truth and sets it spin­ning around what must be fic­tional.

For years af­ter­wards, I kept com­ing across lit­tle in­ci­dents and ref­er­ences in his­tory books that I’d first en­coun­tered in DE­CLARE and as­sumed Pow­ers made up – but no, they were taken from ac­tual his­tory, all of them, every time. And if they’re all real, what else might be true? Where wast thou, when I laid the foun­da­tions of the world? DE­CLARE, if thou hast knowl­edge!

The Gut­ter Prayer by Gareth Han­ra­han is pub­lished on 17 Jan­uary by Or­bit.

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