Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Odessa File

“What’s this guy’s story?”

leave a comment »

"It was Victor Chigorin..."

Note: This post is the twentieth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 19. You can read the earlier installments here.)

If you’re a certain kind of writer, you’re constantly dealing with the temptation to include real men and women in your work. I’m not talking about using the people in your personal life as the inspiration for particular characters—which I’m pretty sure all writers have done—but about incorporating public figures under their real names. It’s a tendency you often see in suspense fiction, an inherently unrealistic genre that nonetheless strives for verisimilitude wherever it can, which often involves a bit of judicious trickery. Just as the detailed description of actual hardware, tradecraft, and weaponry lends a spy thriller a veneer of authenticity that can carry the reader over its less plausible elements, populating the story with names the reader will recognize can contribute, at least in theory, to the illusion that these events have actually taken place. Frederick Forsyth, my own favorite suspense novelist, does this almost to a fault: the Nazi hunter Simon Weisenthal plays an important role in The Odessa File, as does the historical SS officer Eduard Roschmann, and in the later novels, Margaret Thatcher practically deserves separate billing.

Using real names also has subtle effects on the way a reader engages with the text, and the results aren’t always what you’d expect. In the afterword to his massive novel Harlot’s Ghost, which features such actual intelligence figures as Howard Hunt and Bill Harvey, Norman Mailer writes:

In the course of putting together this attempt, there was many a choice to make on one’s approach to formal reality. The earliest and most serious decision was not to provide imaginary names for all the prominent people who entered the work. After all, that rejected approach would have left one with such barbarisms as James Fitzpatrick Fennerly, youngest man ever elected President of the United States.

Mailer goes on to note that using fake names might even give the novel an air of authenticity that it doesn’t otherwise deserve. As roman à clef novelists like Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins know, when you transparently base a character on a real person but change the name, it often creates the impression that the author is privy to inside information, and that we’re seeing the real, unexpurgated story under a superficial veil of fiction. Giving a real name allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions: instead of thinking that we’ll find out what made Howard Hunt really tick, we can object that this isn’t our idea of Howard Hunt at all.

"What's this guy's story?"

In my own fiction, which is often inspired by real events and public figures, I’ve gone back and forth on which approach to take. Vladimir Putin, for instance, never appears in the flesh, but he’s often mentioned under his real name, and I didn’t see any way around this: these novels take place at a particular historical moment, and if I was going to write about modern Russia at all, it was impossible to do so without factoring Putin into the equation. I followed this rule whenever I was writing about easily verifiable events—like the London riots that play an important part in Eternal Empire—or when it didn’t seem harmful to call people by their proper names. I drew the line, however, at players with a direct role in the story: I didn’t fell comfortable putting words into the mouth of a real person, even if the odds of his ever reading the novel seemed remote. The one exception, which I considered for a long time, was making Garry Kasparov a character in City of Exiles. I’ve always been fascinated by Kasparov, both in his role as a chess grandmaster and as an unlikely opponent of Putin, and I knew early on that the novel’s plot would need to include either Kasparov himself or an obvious surrogate.

Ultimately, I chickened out, although I suspect that few readers with any familiarity with Russian politics can think that Victor Chigorin, from the moment he appears onstage in Chapter 19, is anyone but Kasparov: they look the same, have much the same background and public persona, and even utter some of the same words, many of which I drew directly from Kasparov’s interviews. To make it even more obvious, the epigraph to the novel, taken from an interview with the former KGB general Oleg Kalugin, mentions Kasparov by name as a potential target of attacks by the Putin regime. (For what it’s worth, I did alter a few biographical details here and there, notably to make Chigorin part Turkish, but in all important respects, Chigorin is as close as I could make him to a portrait of the original, down to what he has for breakfast.) I did this because while I could see myself giving Kasparov plausible actions and dialogue, his ultimate role in the story wasn’t one that I felt like imposing on a real man whose safety has occasionally been a real issue of concern. In fact, I may have pulled back slightly when it came to Chigorin’s fate, even though he was ostensibly a fictional creation. Chigorin survives the events of this novel, but it was a very close call…

Written by nevalalee

February 27, 2014 at 9:28 am

The Forsyth Saga

with 2 comments

Aside from Thomas Harris, whose career I’ve already discussed at possibly excessive length, the suspense novelist who has had the most influence on my own work is Frederick Forsyth. Unlike Harris, I discovered Forsyth fairly late in life, after my interests and style as a writer were mostly set, so my debt to Forsyth is wholly conscious. I read The Day of the Jackal years ago, and was suitably impressed, but it wasn’t until I started writing suspense on my own that I realized the extent of Forsyth’s achievement, and began to study his example more carefully. He’s rarely had any literary pretensions, so he has been critically undervalued in comparison to someone like le Carré, but he’s an exceptionally good writer, the ultimate pro. To my eyes, he’s the ideal suspense novelist, at least when it comes to promising and delivering everything that an intelligent reader wants. He may not linger in the imagination in the way Harris does, but paragraph by paragraph, he’s the best I’ve found.

The heart of his achievement remains his debut, The Day of the Jackal, which is still the great international thriller, and a model for nearly every novel of its kind published since. Forsyth, who had worked previously as a journalist in Europe and Africa, wrote it relatively quickly, after years of research, and somehow hit upon the most effective suspense formula that has yet been devised: the violent chase, counting down toward a deadly assignment, with a constantly accelerating pace, so that each section of the book becomes increasingly compressed in both space and time. It’s such a good formula, in fact, that Forsyth acknowledges that he began writing his second book, The Odessa File, by going back over his first novel, seeing what he had unconsciously done, and trying to reverse engineer it—as many other writers have tried since, and for good reason. The great virtues of his work emerge fully formed in Jackal: the pacing, the seamless mix of fact and fiction, the mastery of lean convincing detail, and best of all, the luxuriant disclosure of arcane information, so that an account of the assembly and testing of an assassin’s rifle becomes as erotic as any love scene.

Forsyth has his flaws, of course. Foremost is the startling lack of women, or even the slightest interest in women, in most of his novels. His books are exclusively about men, either solitary or deeply immersed in wholly masculine worlds—those of spies, assassins, soldiers. All the same, whenever he tries to insert a woman in the story, as in the unfortunate The Negotiator, the results are so poor that one welcomes their absence elsewhere. (I haven’t even tried to read The Phantom of Manhattan, Forsyth’s attempt to write about “the human heart,” and one of the more inexplicable books in any great author’s bibliography.) Women are clearly extraneous to Forsyth’s vision, which seems so expansive at first glance—the locations, the knowledge of politics and espionage, the wealth of detail—but is, in fact, savagely focused. Indeed, Forsyth’s great strength, at least in his best books, is his refusal to be drawn away from his wheelhouse. At several points in his career, he has evidently grown tired of this singlemindedness, but the fact remains that none of his successors are nearly as good at this sort of thing as he is.

Once I realized that Forsyth was the best living practitioner of the kind of novel that I’d found myself writing, I set out to systematically read everything he’d written, something I’ve done with only a handful of other contemporary novelists, like Ian McEwan. In the past few years alone, I’ve gone through Jackal, The Odessa File, The Dogs of War, The Devil’s Alternative, The Fourth Protocol, The Negotiator, the short story collection No Comebacks, and Icon, which I’ve just finished this week. (The Fist of God and The Deceiver are waiting in the wings.) Aside from The Negotiator, which represents one of Forsyth’s rare lapses in the suspense form, they’ve all been great reads, even as the details begin to blur. That’s the thing about Forsyth: he’s so good in the moment, but constructs his books so tightly that there isn’t much room left for the reader’s imagination, and hence, except for Jackal, less of an afterlife in the memory. That isn’t a criticism, just an observation, and perhaps a warning. Forsyth is our great constructor of clockwork thrillers, and in his career, we can see not just the potential of the suspense form, but also its limits.

Written by nevalalee

January 12, 2012 at 10:00 am

%d bloggers like this: