Wednesday, December 1, 2010

More Murderous Muscovites and Pat the Bunny: Tom Rob Smith's The Secret Speech

I do fear that I'm scarily on the verge of becoming one of those tiresome people who rails endlessly and repetitiously about their pet cause and concern on facebook, so I'll just spew it all out here and be done with it. After all, why have a blog, if one can't spew? I agree with lots of the ranting and raving on the interwebs about the loss of what seem to me to be inalienable rights, but I'm extremely tired of phrases like "it's like Stalin" or "it's just like Nazi Germany", mainly because whatever badness might be going on, it simply isn't like those things. I know I'm not the most well informed person on earth, and the complexities of our modern governmental, economic and geo-political situations are such that I know I'm never really going to catch up (at least I don't spout complete gibberish 24/7). I fully admit that 90% of what I know about anything has been gleaned from reading novels. I have no idea what needs to be done in terms of security but, it seems fairly clear to me that U.S. vs. Davis needs to be revisited, as back in the 70s when the decision was written, the question was warrantless bag searches, and the fact that "flying isn't a right, one can choose not to fly and avoid the whole thing" was the general thrust. Which isn't entirely true. Yes, one might refuse to fly, but for many people that would entail things like quitting one's job in order to avoid what many, many people view as a violation of one's person. Also, the "in light of current technology" clause needs to be picked over, i.e. why not dogs? There is no, "well, we've paid for the damn machines, so we better use them or look like asshats" text in the decision, just saying. But, I'm not a lawyer, so what the hell do I know? I only know about novels, so back to the books.

The thing that keeps popping into my head is Efrafa. Okay. I know this is where I lose anything even resembling credibility. Efrafa is the rabbit warren in Richard Adams's 1973 novel, Watership Down, which was created and run by the terrifying General Woundwort. Woundwort had decided (not incorrectly) that most of the problems faced by rabbits were caused by predators and humans, so the survival of his warren was based on extreme security and discipline. There's a large part of me that thinks I should be hit about the head multiple times for conflating the problems faced by a bunch of fictional rabbits with the lives and safety of actual human beings, but whatever. The rabbits who are sent as emissaries to Efrafa from Watership Down are thrust into a nightmare world where they aren't able to eat, go above ground or defecate where and when they choose. A rabbit who goes to the ruling counsel and requests to leave with some other unhappy rabbits (the warren is over-crowded) has his ears shredded. Life is hardly worth living, and of course one must ask, at what price safety?

For me it becomes ridiculous when the chances of me being groped by some creepy stranger are exponentially raised because whatever halfwit the TSA has hired to do the screening, who is able to start work before the second round of background checks is complete (or, for that matter, has even begun), doesn't know what an IUD looks like and thinks I'm transporting some kind of dangerous exploding device. If one cannot distinguish between a belt buckle or a penny and something that can bring down a plane, I have very little confidence the people staffing these machines are able to do this with anything else, either.

You know in the movie Gross Point Blank, where John Cusack is nearly shot by an old high school classmate working as a security guard? And he asks him how he got that job? And the friend replies, "They were hiring"? This pretty much describes the crack team that has been assembled to keep us all safe from terrorists. And the TSA is hiring pretty much everywhere. I looked at the openings, and at all the government TSA hiring regulations, and the big qualification seems to be that one has never been convicted of a major crime like rape or murder or arson. Note the word convicted. In theory, someone who has been tried multiple times for sexual assaults, but not convicted, could be hired. I know, innocent until proven guilty. But if you know anything at all about the rate of successful prosecutions in cases of sexual assaults of any sort (abysmal), this will give one pause.

Hazel, the leader of the Watership Down rabbits was no dummy. What he did was assess risk, and balance it with quality of life. In my opinion, we seem to be incrementally eroding our civil liberties in the name of safety. And the assessment of which threats we should be worried about seems slightly arbitrary to me. But again, I'm correlating all of this with a bunch of fictional rabbits, so take it all with a big grain of salt. It just seems to me, that like with the brave pioneering rabbits in Richard Adams's book, the people who created this country did so at great personal risk. I'm sort of a fan of letting people assess their own comfort levels in terms of who is permitted to touch them and what seems like an appropriate risk. But again, I'm the lady babbling about rabbits.

One big caveat: along with my marked discomfort with what has been deemed an appropriate warrantless search of my bra, I hold onto the fact that it's still not much like life in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Of course, as I mentioned earlier in this post, I know this primarily from reading novels. I reviewed Tom Rob Smith's excellent thriller, Child 44, a few months ago, which is set in the last months of Stalin's dictatorship and in the months following his death. He evokes beautifully what it must have been like to live in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and, I repeat, it is nothing like living in the United States in the first decades of the 21st century. We have our own problems, sure, but fear of being denounced by our coworkers and families to the state and being sent off to prison camps for years of hard labor on the flimsiest of pretexts really, really isn't one of them. Not to mention the completely wonderful and utterly game changing First Amendment. I would also like to point out that we are one of the only nations that has any such law. Not Canada. Not Britain. Not France.

At the end of Tom Rob Smith's first novel, Stalin was dead and the Soviet government had agreed to (hero/anti-hero) Leo Demidov's request to set up a homicide division within the Militia in Moscow. I wasn't sure where this would lead, as even with Stalin gone, the Soviets still were unwilling to (publicly) admit that individuals committed crimes against each other, rather than just against the state. I had some thoughts about where the series would lead, maybe Leo would solve crimes in Moscow? Another serial killer? Whatever I thought, I was wrong, partly because my Soviet history is, to say the least, weak.

At the beginning of The Secret Speech, copies of Khrushchev's eponymous speech were being distributed to former and current members of the MGB (the State Police). The actual title of the speech was "On the Personality Cult and Its Consequences" and it criticized Stalin and the excesses of his regime. In Smith's book this leads to suicides, murder, rage, fear and guilt in the former perpetrators of Stalin's policies. Smith is an excellent thriller writer, and his strengths lie most in his ability to craft believable human beings who behave in recognizable and complex ways. His hero Leo, is particularly fascinating. He's a former state security agent whose awakening to the moral implications of his work was documented in the first book. The question in The Secret Speech is: what should be done with the people who perpetrated these horrors? Mainly, can they, and should they, be forgiven? Is it possible to make amends? The way in which Smith shows various people's reactions to these questions is often incredibly insightful. One former security officer commits suicide, not because of his remorse over what he's done, but because he couldn't stand his wife knowing, and the social embarrassment the revelations would cause. Which seems ludicrous in the face of the enormity of some of the horrors he assisted with, but rings emotionally true to me.

What rang less true, as with in his first book, were some of the thriller aspects. Leo is painted as being wonderfully morally complex, but he also is a bit of a Teflon covered action hero. Sneaking undercover into a Gulag and escaping seemed a little far fetched, to put it mildly. One of the things I like about Smith is that his female characters have as much going on as his male ones. The journey taken by Leo's adopted daughter, Zoya, is particularly wonderful, part LeCarré, part Dickens, I would have been happy spending many more pages with her. Not so with his chief villain, Fraera. Formerly a mild-mannered priest's wife, she was arrested seven years earlier by Leo, sent to the Gulags, and after much hardship has become a kind of criminal mastermind, bent on revenge. It all felt a little ludicrous, particularly because so many of the characters seem so complex and real, in comparison Fraera felt a little like someone who should be fighting with Batman. But, over all, Smith likes complexity and hard choices in his fiction, which I like. He also writes a great thriller that is near impossible to put down. He is working on a third and final installment, and as this book ended amidst the bloodshed and disappointment of the Hungarian Revolution, and the formation of the KGB, I am excited to read his next instalment.


That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Haven't read The Secret Speech (or any of Smith's novels since the freakin' early 90's, which I really oughta remedy), but… How is the escape from the Gulag handled? If he has transportation in and out of the region arranged somehow, it's not actually that implausible. Gulags weren't really prisons, or even concentration camps on the organized German model---they were more like wilderness outposts. According to Solzhenitsin, security in the gulags was actually very light---often you had only a handful of guards for an entire prison---on the logic that guards were expensive, and where the hell was an escapee in the middle of Siberia gonna go?

Caviglia said...

I think you're confusing him with Martin Cruz Smith who is a different person. This is Tom Rob Smith's second book, and he's (disturbingly) younger than both of us.

Well, Leo was snuck in by a branch of the Secret Police to extract a prisoner and had a plane waiting. So it wasn't like he was an ordinary prisoner/escapee. His biggest problem was not being killed by the other prisoners as he was identified as a member of the MGB and his original plan went totally to hell for reasons I won't go into. It was actually his escaping from the wrath of the prisoners that seemed a little unlikely. It took a slightly action movie-ish turn.

I'm actually super curious what you would make of his books.

Caviglia said...

Also, there was a completely great mad scene in the middle of the gulag sequence.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Ahhh, yeah, I realized I had my Smith's confused as soon as I posted. I'll check it out... some... time... In January, perhaps, when I get my life back.

But yeah, if he had a plane waiting, then getting in and out would probably be quite easy (assuming you don't get killed by inmates). Many gulags didn't even have external walls!