There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

A long way out on a thin plank over a deep sea: Horse Under Water by Len Deighton.




….I stepped on to the balcony. The stone floor was hot underfoot, and on the grey wooden chairs sat Buddha-like cats squinting into the sunlight. Charly was fixing coffee and toast in the kitchen, holding the front of her silk housecoat closed. I am pleased to tell you that a lot of the coffee-making was a two-handed job….





Horse Under Water (1963) is the first Len Deighton novel I have read. In winter 1991 I made several valiant attempts to summit the novel Winter, but I was too easily distracted.




Horse Under Water starts with our narrator Harry Palmer diving on a sunken World War Two-era German submarine on the coast of the Algarve in Portugal. The sub contains more than meets the eye. Counterfeit currency? A secret log? A weapon hitherto unknown to science? It's up to Palmer to sift the clues and outwit opponents.


(Being a longtime reader of Jack Higgins, I'm familiar with the dangers of sunken Nazi subs making a present-day reappearance. The dangers they pose are not just to divers. They usually contain secrets that will rock today's power-brokers.)

Palmer's biggest opponent as concerns the sub's ramifications seems to be plutocrat cabinet minister Henry Smith. Palmer has an audience with him halfway through the novel, and their conflict is lovingly adumbrated, acid-etched. Palmer leaves none of the fine furnishings of his nemesis unnoted.





Excerpt:


....The butler led me along soft corridors, men in red coats and tight trousers looked quietly down from the dark paintings lost in a penumbra of coach varnish. Mr Smith was seated behind a table polished like a guardsman's boot.


A slim eighteenth-century clock with frail marquetry panels paced out the silence, and from the Adam fireplace a coal fire ran pink fingers across the moulded ceiling. On Smith's table a lampshade marshalled the light on to heaps of papers and newspaper clippings. Only the crown of his head was visible. He spared me the embarrassment of interrupting his private study. The butler motioned me to a hostile Sheraton chair.


Smith ran a finger across the open book and scribbled in the margin of one of the typewritten sheets with a gold fountain pen. He turned up a corner of the page, ran a finger-nail along the crease and closed the leather cover.


'Smoke.' There was no trace of query in his voice. He pushed the box across the table with the back of his hand, recapped the pen and clipped it into his waistcoat pocket. He picked up his cigarette, put it into his mouth, drew on it without releasing his grasp on its battered tarnished shape, mashed it into the ashtray with controlled violence, disembowelling the shreds of tobacco from the lacerated paper with his long pink nails. He thumped the ash from his waistcoat.


'You wanted to see me?' he said.


I produced a bent blue packet of Gauloises. I lit one with a flick of the thumb-nail against a Swan match. I tossed the dead match towards the ashtray, allowing the trajectory to carry it on to Smith's pristine paperwork. He carefully picked it up and placed it in the ashtray. I drew on the harsh tobacco. 'No,' I said, denuding my voice of interest, 'not much.'


'You are discreet - that's good.' He picked up a battered filing card, held it under the light and quietly read from it a potted description of my career hi Intelligence.


'I don't know what you're talking about,' I said.


'Good, good,' said Smith, not at all discouraged. 'The report goes on, "inclined to pursue developments beyond requirements out of curiosity. He must be made to understand that curiosity is a dangerous failing in an agent."'


'Is that what you wanted to do,' I asked, 'to tell me about curiosity being dangerous?'


'Not "dangerous",' said Smith. He leaned forward to select a new victim from his ivory cigarette box. The light fell momentarily across his face. It was a hard bony face, and it shone in the electric light like the expressionless busts of Roman emperors in the British Museum. Lips, eyebrows, and the hair on his temples were all colourless. He looked up. 'Fatal.' He took a white cigarette and put it into his white face. He lit the cigarette.


'In wartime soldiers are shot for refusing to obey even the smallest commands,' said Smith in his most gritty voice.


'They shouldn't be.'


'Why not?' His drawl had gone.


'Oppenheim's International Law, sixth edition: only lawful commands need be obeyed.'


It was not the reply that Smith was expecting and he flushed with anger. 'You are demanding that an investigation in Portugal be continued. The Cabinet have instructed that it be closed. We should never have sanctioned such an operation hi the first place. Your refusal is impertinence and unless you change your attitude I shall recommend that severe measures be taken against you.'


He pronounced the personal pronoun with discreet reverence.


'No one owns a spy, mister,' I told him, 'they just pay his salary. I work for the government because I think this is a good place to live, but that doesn't mean that I'll be used as a serf by a self-centred millionaire. What's more,' I said, 'don't give me that "fatal" stuff because I've taken a postgraduate course hi fatality.'


Smith blinked and leaned back into the Louis Quatorze chair. 'So,' he said, finally, 'that's it, is it? The truth is that you think you should be as powerful as a Cabinet Minister?' He rearranged his pen set.


'Power is like a fried egg,' I told him, 'no matter how equally you try to divide it someone is sure to get most.'


Smith leaned forward and said, 'You think that because I hold a controlling interest in companies that make jet engines and automatic weapons it precludes me from having a say in the control of my country.' He held up a hand in an admonishing attitude. 'No, it is now my turn to lecture you. You are a spy; I do not impugn your motives as a spy but you feel free to impugn mine as a manufacturer. You say that you work for the government. What is the government you speak of? You mean as each political party is elected to power all the intelligence groups are disbanded and new ones formed? No, you don't mean that, you mean that you work for the country, for its prosperity, for its power, for its prestige, for its standard of living, for its health scheme, for its high rate of employment. You work for all those things, to keep them and to improve them, just as the motor-car manufacturer does. If there is a way for me to sell, for instance, an extra fifteen thousand vehicles next year, my duty is to do so.


'You might say: it's my duty to increase the prosperity of every Englishman living. That is why it is your duty to do as I say in these matters. Your orders come to you through the legitimate line of command because all your superiors understand these things. If, in order to sell my fifteen thousand vehicles I need your help, you will provide it ...' He paused for a moment before adding, 'without questions.


'Your job is an extension of mine. Your job is to provide success at any price. By means of bribes, by means of theft or by means of murder itself. Men like you are in the dark, subconscious recesses of the nation's brain. You do things that are done and forgotten quickly. The things I've mentioned are the realities of this world. No one deliberately chooses that this should be so. No historian is asked to account for the evil of the world. No man who writes a medical encyclopedia is responsible for the diseases he catalogues. And so it is with you. You are a cipher - you are no more than the ink with which History is written.'


'I'm a stoker in the ship of state?' I asked humbly.


Smith gave a cold smile. 'You are worth less than a substantial foreign contract for Clydeside. You sit here talking of ethics as though you were employed to make ethical decisions. You are nothing in the scheme. You will complete your tasks as ordered: no more, no less. You will be paid a just amount. There is nothing to discuss.' He leaned back in his chair again. It creaked with the shift of weight. His bony hand clamped around the red silk rope that hung beside the curtain.


In my pocket with my keys and some parking-meter sixpences I could feel a smooth polished surface. My fingers closed around it as the butler opened the big panelled doors.


'Show the gentleman out, Laker,' said Smith. I made no move except to put the gleaming silver-coloured metal on his mahogany table. Smith watched it, puzzled and fascinated. I bunched my fingers and flipped it. It scampered across the mahogany surface, clattering against its own bright reflection.


'What's the meaning of this?' said Smith.


'It's a gift for the man who has everything,' I said. I watched Smith's face. 'It's a die for making gold sovereigns.' I watched the butler out of the corner of my eye; he was hanging on to every word. Perhaps he was planning his memoirs for the Sunday papers.


Smith flicked a tongue across his drying lips like a hungry python. 'Wait downstairs, Laker,' he said, 'I'll ring again.' The butler had withdrawn to his notebook before Smith spoke again. 'What has this to do with me?' he said.


'I'll tell you,' I said, and lit another Gauloise while Smith fidgeted with his guilt feelings. This time he left the dead match where it had landed.


'I know of some gear for wolfram-mining that goes to India in regular consignments. I'll tell you, those people in India must be inefficient because they have received tons of it and yet there is no wolfram in the whole Indian subcontinent] You can hardly blame them when they try to resell to - someone just a few miles north.'


Smith's cigarette lay inert in the ashtray and quietly turned to ash.


'There are people in Chungking who will take as much as the Indians send. Of course, it wouldn't be kosher if an English company sold strategic goods to Red China, and the Americans would blacklist them, but what with all this muddle in India everyone ends up happy.' I paused. The clock ticked on like a mechanical heart.


'As a way of moving gold there's nothing to beat...'


'You are just guessing,' said Smith.


I thought of the diary that Smith's confidant Butcher had made available to me and how easy it had made my subsequent guesses, 'I am just guessing,' I agreed.


'Very well,' said Smith in a resigned but businesslike voice, 'how much?'


'I've not come to blackmail you,' I said, 'I just want to press on with my job of stoking without interference from the bridge. I'm not pursuing you. I'm not interested in doing anything beyond my job. But I want you to remember this: 7 am the responsible person in this investigation, not my boss or anyone else in the department. I'll be responsible for what happens to you, whether it's good or bad. Now ring your bell for Laker, I'm leaving before I vomit over your beautiful Kashan carpet.'






Jay

31 December 2017




....'So this is the lot,' Dawlish said. He sniffed contemplatively.

'Yes,' I said. 'I'd guess that most of these people have donated money to the "Young Europe Movement" at one time or another.'

'Jolly good,' said Dawlish, 'I knew you would manage.'

'Oh sure,' I said, 'especially when you wanted to cancel the whole operation.'

Dawlish looked at me over his spectacles, which can get to be very irritating.

'Furthermore,' I said, 'you knew that that girl was employed by the American Narcotics Bureau, and you didn't tell me.'

'Yes,' said Dawlish blandly, 'but she was a very low-echelon employee and I had no wish to inhibit intercourse among the group.' We looked blankly at each other for two or three minutes.

'Social,' Dawlish amended.

'Of course,' I agreed. Dawlish disembowelled his pipe with a penknife.

'When will Smith be arrested?' I asked.

'Arrested?' said Dawlish. 'What an extraordinary question; why would he be arrested?'

'Because he is a corner-stone of an international Fascist movement dedicated to the overthrow of democratic government.' I said it patiently, even though I knew that Dawlish was deliberately leading me on.

Dawlish said, 'You surely don't imagine that they can put everyone who answers that description in jail. Where would we find room for them, and besides, where would the Bonn government get another Civil Service?' He gave a sardonic smile and tapped the pile of documents. 'Our friends here are much more useful where they are - as long as they know that H.M. Government have this little pile hi Kevin Cassel's cellar.'

He opened the drawer of his desk and produced an even more enormous file of documents. Across the front it said 'Young Europe Movement' in Alice's fuse-wire handwriting, and was bulging with months of work that Dawlish had never even told me about.

'You didn't understand your role, my boy,' he said in his smug voice; 'we didn't want you to discover anything. Somehow we knew that you would make them do something indiscreet.'

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