“The need for change is there…”
Vladimir Putin is still here. I type these words not because we need to be reminded of that fact—I can’t think of another foreign political leader whose shadow has loomed so ominously over a peacetime presidential race—but to consider what it means. When I began writing The Icon Thief, more than eight years ago, Putin was ostensibly on his way out: he was ineligible to run for a third term, so the reigns of power were passed to Dmitry Medvedev, his chosen successor. Instead, Medvedev appointed him prime minister, and a few years later, Putin was back in the presidency, as if he’d never been gone. It isn’t hard to imagine him pulling the same trick forever, or for as long as his health holds out, which might be for quite some time. He’s only in his early sixties now, which is practically his young adulthood compared to some of the decrepit Russian leaders of the past, and he’s in what he takes pains to assure us is peak physical condition. It’s a situation that ought to keep most of us up at night, but it’s also a boon to suspense novelists. As I once pointed out, Putin’s name is the most evocative word in the lexicon of the modern thriller: it calls up an entire world of intrigue and implication, allowing a novel to do in a few sentences what might otherwise require five pages. As a rhetorical device, it isn’t just confined to fiction, either. Putin wouldn’t be evoked so often in this election if he didn’t have such a powerful hold over our imaginations, and recent events have only confirmed, as I’ve said from the beginning, that nothing that a writer can invent about Russia can possibly compare to the reality.
Incorporating a contemporary or historical political figure into a thriller is nothing new, of course. The gold standard was set, as it was in so many other things, by Frederick Forsyth, who built The Day of the Jackal around an assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle, and who gave prominent speaking parts to Margaret Thatcher in several of his later novels. It’s a trick that grows stale when a writer uses it too often, as Forsyth sometimes does, but its easy to understand its appeal. For a certain kind of thriller, the story is less about something that could happen than about what might be happening right now, or that has already happened without our knowledge. Such novels often set up a sliding scale of verisimilitude, starting with big, obvious figures like Putin, working their way down through historical figures or events that aren’t as familiar, and finally entering the realm of pure fiction. Even if you’re reasonably conversant with current events, you can have trouble telling where fact leaves off and invention begins, especially when the novel starts to show its age. (For instance, I have a feeling that most contemporary readers of The Day of the Jackal aren’t aware that the opening sequence, which depicts a failed attempt on de Gaulle’s life, is based on fact—an interesting case of a novel outliving the material that it once used to enhance its own credibility.) Ideally, the transition from someone like Putin to the fictional characters at the bottom of the pecking order should be totally seamless, at least in the moment. We know that Putin is real and that most of the other characters aren’t, but in some cases, we aren’t sure, and the overwhelming fact of Putin himself serves to organize and enhance the rest of the story.
Eternal Empire is literally framed by Putin, both in terms of how the novel was conceived and of how it was finally published. It opens with an epigraph from Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern, which describes how Putin asked to have a fragment of the polar seabed brought back to him as a nod to the underground kingdom of Shambhala, and it ends with an excerpt from a New York Times article from December 10, 2011, which describes the abortive protests that flared up that year against the Putin regime. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the entire novel unfolded like a paper flower from those lines in Polonsky’s book, and it isn’t hard to see why they struck me. In juxtaposing the steely figure of Putin, the ultimate pragmatist, with the gauzy myth of Shambhala, it encapsulates the tension that defined the rest of the series, which in many ways is about the collision between practical spycraft and the weirder elements that have a way of impinging on the rational picture. (As Powell says to Wolfe of the Shambhala story: “That doesn’t sound like the Putin I know.”) The closing epigraph attracted me for many of the same reasons. Its image of protesters with white flowers and ribbons was derived from an actual event, but it could easily stand for something more. A white flower can mean just about anything, so it wasn’t hard for me to tweak the story so that the protests seemed to emerge from the Shambhala plot. And the entire narrative was timed to culminate at this moment, which would serve as the visible eruption of the forces that my characters had spent the entire book marshaling in secret.
Now that five years have passed, the image that concludes the trilogy, of Maddy watching the protesters on television, feels very different in tone. The protests themselves are little more than a footnote, and Putin’s hold on power has never been stronger. Since the plot hinges on a plan to change Russian politics from the inside, the historical outcome might seem to undermine the whole story. I’m not sure it does, though. Maddy notes that Tarkovsky has bought himself “a few years” to prepare, which might well mean that his plan is underway even now—although I doubt it. More pragmatically, the characters observe, both here and in the epilogue, that most attempts at reform are crushed, and that a revolution is more likely to die than to endure. (You can picture me typing those lines, more than three years ago, as a way of hedging my bets.) But if there’s a thread that runs through all these novels, it’s the importance of small, private victories in the face of the indifference or hostility of larger systems. I began the series with a conspiracy novel, which is a genre that implicitly raises the issue, even in its pulpiest incarnations, of the relationship between the individual and the impersonal forces to which he or she is subjected. All three books conclude on a similar note, which is that we can try to get glimpse behind the mask, if only for a moment, and then return to the more achievable task of establishing what little order we can in our own lives. It isn’t much of an answer, but it provides just enough consolation to see us through, both in a novel and in the real world. Putin survives, as I suspect I always knew he would. But so do Wolfe and Maddy. And that’s how their story ends…