Monday, September 14, 2009
Dan Fesperman, The Amateur Spy
The Amateur Spy, by Dan Fesperman, is partly a spy story of the Eric Ambler sort (an amateur gets caught up in an espionage plot), and partly a profile of a terrorist incident (from the point of view of the unlikely terrorist). From the beginning, the narrative is engaging and the characters vivid. The settings (Greek island, Jordanian/Palestinian refugee camp, residential and commercial Washington DC) are convincingly realized. Jordan gets an especially lively portrait, and the scenes in Washington DC ring much truer than in many DC-based thrillers (and much, much truer than the treatment DC usually gets in the movies). The story rocks along from a violent beginning, as Freeman Lockhart, recently retired from a U.N. aid career, is pulled from his bed in his new home in Greece and coerced into spying on his former colleague, a Palestinian who is now fundraising for a hospital in a refugee camp in Jordan. At first, the blackmail that the spies, assumed to be CIA, hang over Freeman's head seems plausible (protecting both he and his wife from the fallout of a disastrous aid mission in Africa), but as the book goes along both the blackmail and the spy plot lose some of their "oomph," possibly because this portion of the narrative, in Freeman's first-person voice, begins to seem a bit too naive, sort of like the Joseph Cotton character in The Third Man--but Freeman isn't the author of Westerns, he's a seasoned veteran of aid missions that have put him in difficult positions before. Freeman seems almost casual in spying on his friend, but never actually reports to his "handlers." When he finally finds out who his handlers are, the news is not terribly startling, but that element of the plot just withers away without any resolution. As the novel moves forward, the parallel plot from the (third person) point of view of Aliyah Rahim, a Palestinian refugee who has lived in the U.S. for most of her life, begins to be more credible and more important than Freeman's story. Aliyah's daughter died because of post-9/11 discrimination against Arabs in an incident that implicates the foreign service's attitudes and incompetence. Aliyah's husband, depressed since the girl's death, has become involved in something that is making Aliyah increasingly uncomfortable, and she ultimately agrees to travel to Jordan in the service of the husband's plot, while secretly attempting to sabotage the plot. Freeman and Aliyah cross paths briefly but only come together at the end. I can't help thinking that bringing them together sooner might have been more interesting, and the ending, in the style of a thriller, doesn't really satisfy in terms of the Freeman plot--and leaves Aliyah hanging, her story unfinished. A tighter spy story, in closer conjunction to the terrorist story, would seem to be to have been an improvement--but The Amateur Spy is nonetheless the most interesting of the 3 Fesperman novels I've read, because of the realism of the characters and the suggestion of stories more interesting than the ones actually delivered. For instance, the temptation to terrorism here is both believable and beyond the cliches frequently offered in thrillers, plus the motivations of the various Palestinian characters (merely sketched in the novel) offer an interesting inside perspective on the shades of Palestinian opinion and action in the region--tantalizing but just out of the reach of the novel itself. The violence often implied in the blackmail plot and in the moody setting never really materializes (maybe a good thing?), remaining mostly off-camera, except for a bit of mob violence. Fesperman gives the physical and political settings as lively a realization as does Matt Beynon Rees in his Palestine novels, but Rees manages to give a much fuller sense of the interior lives of his Arabic characters, perhaps by his tendency to minimize his American and British characters (and leave the Israelis offstage for the most part). Fesperman's story emphasizes the Americans (and the Palestinian-Americans) and we get only filtered glimpses of the Arabic population. I've pasted in 3 covers for the book--an interesting variety of graphic representations of "spy thriller" and the Jordanian/Arbic setting--I actually read the Hodder paperback, which gives a nice view of the amazing city of Petra, but with a "torn" edge that suggests fire or age or soemthing I don't quite get.