“The scientific approach to life is not necessarily appropriate to states of visceral anguish.”
Anthony Burgess: Blimey I’ll show them how to write a bloody spy novel.
Denis Hillier is a British secret agent based out of Yugoslavia who has accepted (bribed with a large retirement bonus) a final assignment to bring his old school friend Roper back to the West. He is on the ship Polyolbion. Knowing Anthony Burgess the name of the ship probably has some deeper meaning, but the most likely reference that I found was a poem, a topographical poem, published by Michael Drayton in 1622. Hillier has his fair share of sexual proclivities and spends a good bit of time on the voyage contemplating how best he can seduce the tastier (food will play a part), more attractive females on the voyage.
Clara is the beautiful, blue-eyed blonde teenage girl who at the tender age of 16 has very unusual bedtime reading.
”He went towards the bunk, so as to read the titles of the little library she had ranged on the shelf just above it. Priapus-A study of the Male Impulse; Varieties of the Orgasm; Pleasures of the Torture Chamber; Mechanical Refinements in Coition; A Dictionary o fSex; Clinical Studies in Sexual Inversion; The Sign of Sodom; Infant Eros--And so on and so on. Dear dear dear. A paperback on her bunkside table--a blonde in underwear and her own blood--would have been provocative to a man less satyromaniacal than Hillier; these books were more like fighting pledges of her purity, archangels guarding her terrible innocence.”
She has made an in depth study of sex, but has never put into practice what she has been reading. She proves irresistible to Hillier who has no qualms about her age or her purity, both of which might give a normal man pause, but to Hillier they add to his pleasure in despoiling her. After the deed is done he is drinking Old Mortality whiskey with tepid water a reflection of his introspection on his own life.
Hillier is challenged to an eating contest by a wealthy and unsavory man named Mr. Theodorescu. They agree on a rather large wager which Hillier accepts not because he can afford it, but because he has an eye on Theodorescu’s beautiful Indian assistant Miss Devi. This novel was written, some what, as a condemnation of the Ian Fleming James Bond novels. With that in mind instead of chips on a gambling table this Bondesque spy is involved in a contest of gluttony with the nemesis and the spy carefully studying each other to see who will falter first.
Red mullet, artichoke hearts, fillets of sole, shellfish tart withs sauce Newburg, avocado halves with caviar, cold chiffon sauce, roast lamb persillee, onion and gruyere casserole with green beans and celery julienne, poussin with barely, roast potato with sausage stuffing, harlequin sherbet, peach mousse with sirop framboise, cream dessert ring Chantilly with zabaglione sauce, poires helene with cold chocolate sauce, cold grand marnier pudding, strawberry marlow, marrons panche vicomte and nectarine flan.
Well we have seen Bond fail at the gambling table and so does Hillier at the dinner table. Theodorescu’s constitution is more like a bear preparing for hibernation. Hillier had no chance and wonders if he can charge the bet off to his expense account. He does learn something very important that Miss Devi is truly an assistant and not a traveling bed warmer for her employer.
He seduces her or she seduces him.
”But it was the one way to refertilize all the earth, for the cave opened into myriad channels below ground, mapped before him like the tree of man in an Anatomy. The gallons of mani had swollen to a scalding ocean on which navies cheered, their masts cracking. The eighty-foot tower that crowed from his loins glowed whitehot and disintegrated into a million flying bricks. He pumped the massive burden out. Uriel, Raphael, Raguel, Michael, Sariel, Gabriel, and Jerahmeel cried with sevenfold main voice, a common chord that was yet seven distinct and different notes. But, miracle, at once, from unknown reservoirs, the vessel began to fill again.
Seven archangels? Talk about a full room. I can only assume this is tantric sex on a whole new level. I’m a puppy looking with doe eyed innocence at such levels of pleasure.
Unfortunately for Hillier it is also a nefarious trap that leaves him caught between betraying his country or losing his pension and his life.
When Hillier does finally catch up with Roper he finds that his reasoning for defecting to Russia has to do with more than just an opportunity to join the space race. He is harboring ancient ancestral resentments against the country of his birth. In 1558 his relative Edward Roper was burned at the stake at the behest of the Queen of England the only problem is Roper is a bit fuzzy on his history.
”This took place in 1558, did it?
“You know it did.”
“And it seems to have taken place in summer.”
“Yes. You can see that from the rose and the sun and the sweat. Dirty English bastards, defiling a summer’s day.”
“Well, “ said Hillier, “you bloody fool, it didn’t happen in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth didn’t come to the throne till the November of 1558. The Queen that put your ancestor to death was Bloody Mary. You bloody benighted idiot, Roper. Curse your stupidity, you stupid idiot. Your ancestor was a witness for the Protestant faith.”
“That’s not true. That can’t be true.” Roper was very pale; the eye-twitch went like clockwork; he started to hiccup again: ikota ikota.
“You call yourself a bloody scientist, but you haven't even the sense to look up the facts. Your family must have been late converts, and then this story must have passed into their archives, all wrong, totally bloody wrong. Oh you incredible idiot.”
Even with proof stacked six feet high it is hard to undo decades of conditioned belief.
Burgess with stacks of evidence.
Of course none of the “rescue” goes as planned. Hillier is finding it harder to care as he has discovered there are plans by his friends at Whitehall for this to be his “last mission”. He is truly meant to be retired permanently.
His dreams of retirement are on the verge of collapse and what grand plans they are.
”Ultimately I have a desire for a spacious loghouse on a vast Northern lake, conifers all about, all oxygen and chlorophyll, paddle-steamers honking through the mist. The bar on board the Mannikko is stocked with drinks of intriguing nomenclature--Juhannus, Huhtikuu, Edustaja, Kreikka, Silmapari--and the captain, who has a large private income, is round-buying drunk but never offensive. They serve mouth-watering food--fish soused and salted, garnished with gherkins slivers of hot spiced meat on toasted rye--and there are blonde pouting girls who twitch for savage anonymous love.”
This book confused readers and critics alike when it was first released, and continues to do so. It skewers; it pokes fun; it brings into play uncomfortable seductions; the writing is at times over the top; the characters are unsympathetic; it is unpatriotic; it dismisses the whole glorified concept of spying. It is hard for many to know exactly what to think of it.
There is a dazzling use of language that had me closing my eyes and letting the words trip across my tongue a time or so before I could move on.
The American edition has a subtitle of an eschatological spy novel that was not used on the British edition. Eschatology is defined as a part of theology concerned with what are believed to be the final events of history, or the ultimate destiny of humanity. This concept is commonly referred to as the "end of the world" or "end time". Maybe Burgess is saying this is the ultimate final spy novel. It certainly is the final chapter for Denis Hillier who finds himself a man without a country and with uncertain means to sustain himself.
Burgess felt John LeCarre lacked humor in his novels and that Ian Fleming was a dinosaur. Now whether George Smiley or James Bond or Denis Hillier actually represent the most accurate portrayal of a British spy that is for the reading public to decide, but I can’t help thinking that the bumbling; and yet, effective Denis Hillier might be the most accurate. This is for the lover of spy novels who thinks they have read everything.