Declare, If Thou Hast Understanding

by Arthur B

Tim Powers ventures into the Cold War, ankh held aloft.
In this unexpectedly grimdark cyberpunk future, where a heap of factions ranging from local big boys Iran and Saudi Arabia to fading superpowers and ex-superpowers like the UK, USA, and Russia to freshly minted wildcards like DAESH are busily tearing Syria to bits directly and/or via proxy, it's a timely moment to remember that fucking about in the general region's affairs is an old game to some of those involved. The Great Game between Britain and Russia saw the two jockeying for position to be top dog in the region once the low-hanging fruit of the Ottoman regime finally dropped; once World War I finally put paid to the Ottomans, France and Britain grabbed great chunks of the Middle East and had the League of Nations declare it legit, whilst the new Turkish state scrambled to get its house in order and the Soviet Union was momentarily busy putting down the White Russians. World War II found Soviet, French and British interests in the area aligning for once, but the Cold War soon put paid to that, with the Americans and Soviets working to sway governments into one sphere of influence or the other and France and Britain desperately trying to keep some semblance of colonial power there.

The problem with being a waning superpower is that typically your efforts to retain power and participate in massively complex geopolitical games end up making you look silly. The Suez Crisis put paid to Anthony Eden's time as Prime Minister, for instance, but perhaps the greatest embarrassment to the British establishment during the Cold War era was the scandal of the Cambridge spy ring, who having been recruited as Communist agents during their student days in the 1930s had ended up gaining important government positions and selling a decade's worth of secrets and services to the Soviets. And out of the three individuals concerned, perhaps the most infamous - for the damage he managed to do, the sensitivity of the position he managed to obtain, and the circumstances of his defection - was Kim Philby.

Philby had gained an important role at the upper levels of the British intelligence establishment; at the peak of his influence, he was the top British espionage liaison to the American government, and was therefore a crucial player in the trans-Atlantic special relationship at a crucial point of the Cold War. In his later years, he would more or less directly admit that he pulled strings to ensure that missions against the Soviets would fail, sometimes resulting in the deaths of his agents, and it was his warning which allowed the first two members of the Cambridge ring - Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess - to defect to Russia in order to avoid prosecution. Philby was suspected; an investigation declared Philby to be alright, but the smell stuck and he lost his position, moving to the Middle East to do the odd bit of journalism work before defecting himself in 1963 after MI6 showed signs of realising what he'd done. Of course, the latter defection making everyone involved in giving him a clean bill of health back in the mid-1950s look like utter chumps.

The Philby story, along with other strange incidents in the history of Britain's covert regional meddling, is the springboard that Philip K. Dick's former padawan Tim Powers uses to launch Declare. Revolving around the patchy espionage career of one Andrew Hale, the story hops about between the 1940s, when his World War II activities brought him in contact with the secret, supernatural aspects of the Great Game, and the 1960s, when he is reactivated in order to complete Operation Declare, a gambit that T.E. Lawrence is cited as being a second or third generation agentof. Through Hale's journeys and the various characters who filter into and out of his narrative - including Elena Ceniza-Bendiga, a former partisan in the Spanish Civil War who spies first for Russia and then for France, mysterious SOE puppetmaster James Theodora, and Kim Philby himself - the novel essentially sets out a quixotic little thesis for the entertainment of the reader. What would it mean, it asks, if the Great Game between Russia and Great Britain, from the mid-19th Century to the fall of the Soviet Union, was all about the great powers competing to either obtain an alliance with or deny to the enemy a colony of djinn, who had survived the Great Flood by knocking together their own boat in a hurry and hitching a towrope to Noah's Ark, coming to rest on Mount Ararat?

Powers was inspired to write this, according to his author's note at the end, as an exercise in crowbarring an interesting story into the gaps in real history, which by and large he tried to stay true to as much as possible. His choice of subject matter is perfect for this purpose, since the career of a spy - especially one playing as dangerous a game as Philby played - necessarily has a lot of blank spots in it. Powers' research is exacting, to the point where some lines of dialogue are taken directly from reality. (For instance, he works in the reported words of Nicholas Elliott, a colleague and friend of Philby's in British intelligence who was tasked by MI6 with extracting a confession from Philby when he was in Beirut, spoken when he finally managed to meet with Philby: "I once looked up to you, Kim. My God, how I despise you now. I hope you've enough decency left to understand why." Public schoolboy putdowns were so well-honed back in those days.) The end result is a plotline which fits into the cracks almost precisely.

One note that I'd like to address is the role of Catholicism in the book. Powers describes himself as a conservative Catholic, and Catholicism features very prominently in the book. Hale and Elena are both Catholics by upbringing, both end up drifting away from their faith at one point or another, both have returned to it by the end of the book and in the culmination of that process the obstacles to them being with each other finally fade away. Chesterton is prominently quoted, and his shadow hangs heavy over the general approach.

At the same time, much like Gene Wolfe, Powers broadly succeeds at crafting a book which is not of narrow interest to those who agree with him; he might be C.S. Lewising a little at point, but he isn't going full John Wright. To a large extent this comes down to Powers, like Wolfe, being more interested in using his fiction to explore mystical and spiritual ideas from a Catholic perspective, rather than using it as a political pulpit to declare an agenda with a Catholic viewpoint. (Indeed, Powers doesn't seem to be much interested in that sort of thing at all - to my knowledge, he hasn't got a bully pulpit blog to compare with John Wright or Orson Scott Card's pronouncements.)

In particular, whereas the likes of Vox Day love to slam their opponents hard whilst giving their own side an easy time, and present a universe where not subscribing to their religion is not just wrong-headed, but actively foolish and against your own best interests, Powers writes of a world where being Catholic is difficult on a personal basis, and the Catholic characters are just as imperfect as anyone else. The part of Catholicism which is particularly central to Hale and Elena's character arcs, and which best prepares them to win through the struggles their face, is the way it has taught them to recognise that they are imperfect and flawed people who have done and will probably continue to do bad things, and that in the long run they will be called to account, and that the decent thing to do is atone and make right to the extent they can and accept the consequences to the extent that their atonement is insufficient.

On top of that, the characters who are the most dangerous and least sympathetic tend to be those who depart from the above principles in some fashion. Few consider themselves beyond reproach, save for perhaps some of the djinn; what is more common is a desperation to avoid being called to account altogether, a scramble to avoid the consequences of one's actions and evade judgement to the extent in which no extreme is considered off-limits if it might keep you out of the clutches of a figurative or literal Hell. Hale has a deeply creepy encounter with the king of an ancient destroyed city, who has acquired immortality at a terrible cost in order to evade the judgement of God; by the end of the book, we see Philby as perhaps the epitome of this, since he seems to show no outward contrition for anything he has done but is intent on escaping the authorities both secular and divine.

This is all very Catholic, but is equally a position which most readers will be able to see the logic of. It's fashionable to rag on Catholicism for inspiring a sense of guilt in people, and we can sometimes question whether some of the things institutional Catholicism encourages people to feel guilty about are actually that bad, but if the history of the mid-20th Century teaches us anything it's that people with no guilt, or who have been encouraged to set their guilt aside and press on with following orders, are capable of truly monstrous things. The ethical position of the book is capable of being expressed and defended in entirely secular terms, should you have a mind to, and as a result you can regard a certain amount of the specifically Catholic flavour of the book as simply being down to Hale and Elena's particular perspective on the situation.

That said, this only goes so far. It is clear that in the supernatural world one's religious affiliation is important; in particular, being a baptised Christian has genuine spiritual effects - for instance, it turns out that one reason that the Bedouin tribes Hale interacts with are leery about Christians entering a particular area of the desert is that the djinn there get frisky if they notice a Christian wandering about there. Moreover, Catholicism seems to have a special status amongst Christian denominations, as to an extent does the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic party line there being that the Orthodox churches are basically legit theologically and the schism is more about theories on how to best arrange the Church than any deal-breaking difference in their interaction with the divine; St. Basil's Cathedral plays a very important role in the plot.

It is notable that whilst examples of spies converting to Catholicism or even becoming priests are dropped here and there as ostensible hints at the supernatural nature of the Great Game, Protestant denominations don't get much of a look-in except to illustrate what an unlikeable, dogmatic old grump Hale's grandpa was; not even the most High Church wing of the Church of England seems to have much involvement in Operation Declare, and the British government sees to it that the Pope is kept informed of events whilst apparently not keeping the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Queen in the loop. Additionally, Original Sin seems to be an objective truth in this cosmology, although it is presented in a far more palatable way than some renditions I have seen - it is referred to, by those who can actually perceive it, as a black spot on the soul, which in turn suggests a metaphysic where people are generally good sorts with imperfections that can be polished out, which I like much better than the fire and brimstone approach of declaring that people are basically awful and that maybe if they come to Jesus God will hold his nose and overlook just how intensely awful they are.

Interestingly, other Abrahamic religions are given a bit more credence than Protestantism; King Solomon is held to have genuinely been able to control and imprison the djinn at will, whilst there are hints dropped that the iconoclastic purging of the Ka'aba at the dawn of Islam was in part an effort to drive out djinn-worshippers. Indeed, given the habits and demands of the djinn and the general history offered, you could very easily interpret the book as implying that the Abrahamic faiths are a series of countermeasures developed against the encroaching influence of the djinn, their emphasis on unswaying monotheism a riposte to the djinn's demands for worship. On the other hand, it's hard not to come away with the impression that Powers is of the opinion that Christianity is just plain better protection than other flavours of that strand of faith, and whilst there's a certain extent to which this can be attributed to Hale being Christian himself and interpreting the events of the book through that lens you can't quite escape it.

That said, Powers avoids falling into the trap of imagining that all of world history revolves around the Middle East, even though several of his characters fall into precisely that trap - towards the end, Hale pulls the rug out from Theodora by quite reasonably pointing out that for all they knew there could be djinn in remote regions of China. On the other hand, one thing which I did notice is that there seemed to be not the slightest indication that there were any djinn local to Britain, or Europe in general, even in remote regions, which considering their association with lonely places and standing stones feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

On top of all that, Powers isn't a "my party, right or wrong" kind of guy, and he doesn't side with Catholics just because they are Catholics. Hale mentions that Papal infallibility does not require or imply Papal impeccability when teased about the less ethical pontiffs of history, and Elena is an atheistic devotee of Communism for a good long while because her parents were assassinated by Catholic partisans in Spain - an action which Powers does not try to defend or condone. On top of that, both Hale and Elena are guilty at times of a range of sins, and further guilty of contemplating or even attempting further sins to stop them being found out, but we are not expected to condemn them for it; indeed, they end up having premarital sex with each other and Powers doesn't seem to consider this any great sin. All this adds up to a worldview expressed clearly and eloquently, but not resorting to cheap propaganda or overlooking the difficulties of living by the moral doctrine presented in real life, and concerned less with lambasting people for worldly sins many readers won't recognise as sins anyway than with presenting physical, moral, and supernatural threats and perils that most can agree are dangerous and harmful.

A small downside to the novel is the almost complete sidelining of women in it; the only female characters of major significance to the plot are Elena and one of the key djinn (who happens to be a graverobbing ghoul). Elena, at least, is consistently presented as a competent spy who is not just able to take care of herself, but in some ways is better at it than Andrew is; as in On Stranger Tides, there is a slightly sordid tendency for Elena to be treated like property, with Philby and Hale playing cards to see which of them gets to court her, but at least this time around this is presented as a more or less unambiguously bad thing. Philby cajoles Hale into playing in the 1940s, and Hale's decision to go along with it seems to be presented as a major moral failing on his part; the game is picked up in 1964 at the end of the book, at Philby's insistence, and Hale leverages it so that Philby ends up making a crucial mistake.

The major flaw in the book is that, after its deliciously mysterious first half, it has an awful tendency to over-explain itself. Powers does not seem to quite trust his readers to follow an admittedly quite complex plot, and so more or less everything in the book is very thoroughly illuminated by the end. On the plus side, this does mean that if you get to the end and still don't understand it you just haven't been paying attention; the price of this is that the book loses a lot of rereadability, because every mystery in it is resolved so thoroughly as to offer no further mystery later on, and several sections of the novel become rather predictable because the mechanisms underpinning them have been so carefully diagrammed beforehand. This is especially true of anything which involves Philby, since if you know the real history you broadly know what direction the plot must take, though Powers at least retains some capacity for surprise through the Hale/E plotline.

Still, for all this Declare is a rich feast indeed, and perhaps my favourite Powers novel - worth a read for any fantasy reader with an interest in the time period in question, unless you truly cannot stomach even the most benign presentations of Catholicism.

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Comments (go to latest)
Bill at 12:31 on 2016-01-19
Does Kim Philby's old man Harry St. John Philby come into it at all? An even more fascinatingly weird character.
Arthur B at 13:36 on 2016-01-19
He is of central importance to the backstory.
Robinson L at 20:00 on 2017-06-30
I got this out from the library last year, on the strength of your recommendation. I gotta admit, the whole “Secret History with Supernatural Overtones” gimmick really appeals to me. For instance, I loved the little touches like mentions of the various Western political figures who died or became very ill in the late 1910s/early 20s, after mucking around with all the djinn stuff on Ararat. In real life this conspiracy theory guff runs the gamut from amusing to irritating, but as historical fiction I find it compelling. (I actually really dug the opening to the third Transformers movie for similar reasons.)

On a related note, I liked the way the book very plausibly—to my non-expert’s eye—took puzzling episodes from religious sources like Solomon proposing to cut the disputed baby in half, or the peculiar ways the djinn die in legends, and works them into its own metaphysics. (A couple years ago, I read a fantasy short story based on Arab legends where the main character accidentally kills a genie’s son by carelessly discarding some shells or the like. I was confused by that aspect of the story, and I felt like Declare’s explanation at least gave me a better handle on the incident.)

Throwing in the tale of the 1001 Nights about the guy who gets sown up in an animal skin to be taken away to a giant bird’s nest, and using it to introduce the parallel story of Hale convincing Theadora to send him to the Soviet Union (ostensibly to finish Philby off, actually to reunite with Elena) in the epilogue was brilliantly done.

And then there’s how much of the story is based on Kim Philby’s own life—something I knew absolutely nothing about before reading the book—including a blistering array of real life anecdotes and incorporating them into the larger narrative. The audiobook I listened to came with an Author’s Note at the end, where Powers compared his process in composing the story to astronomers seeking out new planets and other cosmic phenomena by studying the observable effects on the known celestial objects in the vicinity—which to me sounds just fantastic.

Unfortunately, Declare lost me when it came to the characters. They didn’t put me off, or anything, I just didn’t find Hale or Elena engaging or compelling. They were just kind of there. They served their function in the story adequately, but they didn’t stir or excite me. This is especially unfortunate given how the final climax revolves entirely around their relationship.

In fact, the only character who managed to engage me at times was Kim Philby. I mean, he’s often a colossal jerk, no question, but he’s not a cardboard villain: you can kind of see how the stuff he does is justified in his own mind, and there’s glimpses of complexity and depth here and there. Most memorably to me, there was the part where he reflects on how he makes sure to baptize his kids and does other Christian observances to ward off the powers of the djinn despite being an atheist.

Actually, though, that brings up one of the things which bothered me about the main story: part of the conceit is that one of the djinn from Mount Ararat was taken by the Russians in (I think) the 1890s to serve as supernatural protector of Russia, which somehow translated into protector of the Soviet Union after the Revolutions of 1917 (why it protected the Soviet regime from overthrow but not the Tsarist regime still eludes me). The Soviets know about this, and make sacrifices to this protector to keep it appeased. These were the same Soviets who were so stringently atheist that they inspired the epithet “godless communists,” and prompted the USA in the 1950s to add the words “under God” after “one nation” in the Pledge of Allegiance to further differentiate the country from said godless communists. Am I suggesting I think the Soviets would be above such hypocrisy, then? Certainly not. In fact, that’s exactly my point: we have here a case of the Soviets cynically embracing the aid of a creature their doctrine insists is nonexistent for the sake of maintaining a geopolitical advantage. What could be more in character? But this creates so much opportunity to explore the complexities and hypocrisies of the Soviet policy towards the djinn which the book never even acknowledges, let alone taking advantage of.

I’m also iffy on the whole “supernatural guardian of the Soviet Union” angle, though I admit it works in terms of the narrative. My issue is that it’s all but stated outright that the djinn is the only thing keeping the Soviet Union from collapsing. I’m not going to try to defend the Soviet Union, but just because I think it was a rotten system in many ways, doesn’t mean I’m prepared to sign on to the idea that it was an unholy aberration which could only be propped up by dark magic. That’s putting it into an entirely other class of wrongness which I think is intellectually dishonest and denies the complexities of existence in the actual historical Soviet Union. It also smacks of Fukuyma-esque “End of History” triumphalism, asserting that Western capitalist weak-tea republicanism is the pinnacle of human societies—its only serious rival (discounting fascism) over the past century could only survive with the help of evil spirits. Yeah, I don’t think so.

Speaking of which, Powers cites John le Carré as one of his influences writing Declare, and by happenstance I listened to le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold on audiobook around the same time I listened to this one. One of the things which impressed me about the le Carré book was the way it ended up portraying the British Secret Service and the Abteilung as interchangeably unscrupulous and vicious entities, rather than downplaying the negative aspects of one while highlighting the negatives of the other. In Declare, well, Jimmy Theodora and the rest of the Secret Service don’t exactly come out looking good, but they’re clearly depicted as the lesser evil by several orders of magnitude when set against the Soviet villains. I much prefer le Carré’s portrayal, and I think it would have been neat if factions within the British SS were equally eager to strike an alliance with the djinn as their Rab Krem counterparts.

The major flaw in the book is that, after its deliciously mysterious first half, it has an awful tendency to over-explain itself.

I agree. From a narrative viewpoint, I was frustrated by the scene where Hale’s contact explains the plan to kill the Soviet Union’s guardian at around the three quarter mark, because it gave away too much about the story’s climax. When the guy said he doubted the Soviet Union would survive Philby’s death by more than three years, my immediate response was to deduce (not knowing any of the real history): “in that case, Philby obviously must have died in 1988.”

To get counterfactual for a second, how would it have been to skip over Hale’s briefing on the secondary part of his mission, and have him spontaneously shoot Philby after they’ve seen to all the djinn, apparently for no reason, and only after that scene has played out show a flashback of the plan to kill the Soviet Union’s guardian djinn? I suspect it would have preserved and enhanced a lot of the tension.

he might be C.S. Lewising a little at point[s]

I think you’ve articulated my sense of the book’s religious sensibilities much better than I could. I appreciate that the main characters are not treated as morally superior people than everyone else because of their Catholic faith, or like there’s something fundamentally wrong with all the other characters who are not Catholic – but yeah, it does kinda feel at times like Hale and Elena are on the right metaphysical track where the non-Catholic characters are not.

Hale mentions that Papal infallibility does not require or imply Papal impeccability when teased about the less ethical pontiffs of history

This summary is almost as long as that conversation takes in the book, and all right, fair play to Powers for acknowledging the issue. However, as someone who wasn’t raised in the Catholic faith, I admit I still don’t understand the distinction, or the theological ramifications thereof. Not exactly a criticism of the book, but a bit of a disappointment.

Elena is an atheistic devotee of Communism for a good long while because her parents were assassinated by Catholic partisans in Spain - an action which Powers does not try to defend or condone.

Really? The last word I remember the book putting on the subject was that Elena’s devoutly communist aunt *told* Elena that her parents were killed by Catholic partisans, and Elena was too young at the time to question the veracity of this assertion – the clear implication being that her aunt lied about who was responsible for the deaths because it suited her political agenda.

My last comment isn’t about the book itself, but rather about the audiobook. The Declare audio recording is narrated by Simon Prebble, a superlative reader, who previously narrated the Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell audiobook, where he did an excellent job. However, that book is set in the time of the Napoleonic Wars, and didn’t deal with modern technology.

Declare, being set ~150 years later than Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, does feature (near) modern technology, and being a spy novel, it prominently features (near) modern firearms. Now, I understand that for several decades, it was commonplace to refer to firearms by their caliber (though I feel like maybe that tradition has receded in recent years?), and literally every other time I’ve heard someone describe a gun in this way, they’d call a .22 automatic, for instance, a “twenty-two automatic.” Simon Prebble is the only narrator I’ve ever in my life encountered who consistently pronounces the full stop punctuation mark at the beginning. For him, it’s always a “point twenty-two automatic.” It sure as heck got me to notice just how many times a specific type of gun gets referenced in the book, precisely because it caught me up short every single time. Is this possibly a British-ism I somehow never noticed before, or is it something more specific to Prebble?

Anyway, last thoughts on Declare: Overall, I liked or appreciated a lot of things about the book, but despite the inherently compelling (for me) premise, it did little to motivate me to run out and read more of Tim Powers’ works.
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