Gareth Hanrahan intercepts a tale of secret history
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.