Thursday, January 28, 2016

Jeremy Duns: The Moscow Option

The third volume in Jeremy Duns's terrific Paul Dark series takes our troubled agent back to the beginning of his career, to meet his nemesis in a scenario where the world is in danger from a possible nuclear war.

I would strongly urge you to read the first two volumes if you haven't done already - see my review of Free Agent and Song of Treason. The stories stand alone well enough, but are so interlinked that it would be a pity to miss how Duns weaves the various complex strands together over the three volumes. And of course, you get three times the pleasure from discovering how Dark ends up with Sarah Severn in the hands of the Soviets in October1969.

After the Vatican rooftop climax of the previous volume, Dark is now imprisoned in Moscow, but begins to realise, after an encounter with Brezhnev, that a failed operation in which he was involved at the end of the war as a tyro British agent holds the key to the situation which is even now unravelling into a potential nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and the USA.

As ever, the odds are stacked against him. He is locked up in Moscow, the prisoner of a repressive regime, and his unlikely story is not going to be believed by his captors. The situation calls for urgent action, and, as is customary in this series, we get it.

Having effected his escape - Duns provides a useful primer on the "Duck and Dive" method of exiting a moving vehicle - the scene is set for a chase across Russia to the Finnish island where Dark had undertaken a perilous mission in the final days of the war.

The narrative moves at breakneck pace, and whilst the reader sometimes has to suspend disbelief - would it have been that easy to track down Donald Maclean, and get him to help? - the plot's many twists and turns carry you forward to the inevitable showdown.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the Dark series is the way in which the agent's whole career over twenty-five years hinges on a single decision made at the end of the war. That decision governs everything that happens to him later: its presence is almost Hardy-esque in its ubiquity. And Duns, having carefully planted the relevant clues in the previous volumes, brings the consequences of his action home in a climax that telescopes the cold war into one brutal confrontation on remote Finnish ice.

The story has its roots, as always with Duns, in the documented history of the cold war years, so while the adventures of Paul Dark are (we hope) fiction, the backdrop against which they are played is fact, however incredible it might seem. Duns manages to handle a large cast of real (Brezhnev, Andropov, Maclean)  and fictional characters very adroitly to present an exciting and wholly engaging tale. The background notes he provides are reassuring, especially when some of the detail seems wildly implausible - would you have thought that the allies formed a "committee on dumping" at the end of the war, and disposed of 296,000 tons of captured German chemical weapons, much of it in the Baltic Sea? Me neither, but it's true.

I have been enthralled by this series, and am now thoroughly enjoying Dun's latest, of which more soon. Duns has produced a great addition to the espionage genre, informed by a deep knowledge of the cold war years, but which never loses sight of the need to keep those pages turning. Highly recommended.

Big in Japan 2

We took the Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto from Tokyo. These trains are an absolute delight: spacious, smooth, quiet, incredibly fast, and punctual to the second. Mobile phones are banned completely, except in the space between carriages, and even then, you are expected to keep it quiet. The result is a carefree and relaxing journey, everything a typical outing on an English inter-city train is not. And when I say speedy, I mean quick. Our train covered the 318 miles in 140 minutes. We loved the guard, who bowed and greeted the carriage before inspecting tickets. And of course, we had our planned view of Mount Fuji as we sped through the countryside.

Our lodging in Kyoto was a small apartment in a modern block just outside the centre. We took a (surprisingly cheap) taxi to the quiet street on which it was situated, collected the key, and phoned our contact (on the mobile provided) as arranged. She arrived quickly, and was very helpful, showing us how everything worked, and giving us some useful tips about the city. If you want an apartment in Kyoto, you couldn't do better. Details are here.

We liked the decor - these guys stood guard over us:

Kyoto is steeped in history, and unlike many Japanese cities, did  not suffer significant damage in the war, apparently at the behest of Roosevelt's Secretary of State for War, Henry Stimson. We walked out on the first evening to see the Pontocho area, a maze of little alleys packed with bars and restaurants. As dark descended, these places opened for the passing trade, and we enjoyed a stroll along the bustling streets, which are no more than passageways, really.

Earlier that evening, we had gone into central Kyoto to eat. One of our concerns before travelling had been about food - we thought Japan was not going to be very veggie-friendly. We were wrong. Whilst most restaurants are heavy on fish and meat, there is plenty for the vegetarian, partly as a result of Japan's apparent love affair with Italian food. As we had in Tokyo, we found an Italian restaurant, and had an excellent meal with some decent wine. We were also entertained by the waitresses. At this place, they announced, in Japanese, the meal they were serving as they approached, and then placed the dish on the table with a resounding "Buon Appetito!"

We were well placed for a stroll along the Philosopher's way, which could easily be reached on foot from our digs. On our way, we passed the Okazaki Shinto Shrine, where the presiding spirit animal is the rabbit. There were a lot of rabbits.
The daily encounter with shrines and temples (shrine: Shinto; temple: Buddhist) was to be a feature of this trip. They are everywhere. But as Prof. Macfarlane tells us, this does not necessarily indicate a devout population. Indeed, as he points out, religious belief is largely a modern phenomenon in Japan, brought about as a reaction to the growth of Western powers. In a fascinating section of his book, he discusses the origins of the renewal of Shintoism:
He goes on to point out that the chosen system was given strong support in schools and quickly became part of the cult of Emperor worship that the Japanese had chosen as a kind of counterpart to Christianity. He says:
So, whilst there was an ancient tradition which believed in guardian spirits in nature, its modern revival seems to be simply a case of expedience. And now it seems the Japanese use it in the same way some people use superstitious rituals. So if your daughter is taking an exam, you might visit the shrine, and enjoin the spirits to guide her. In a similar fashion, many houses are guarded by this guy:

He's a Tanuki, and you can find more than you really need to know about him here.

Anyway, the temples and shrines are beautiful, and they are there in abundance on the Philosopher's path, which we travelled along in bright sunshine on a beautiful day. We spent most of the day there, and saw all the major monuments. We also enjoyed browsing around the many handicraft shops that line the paths. Enough for now. More on the Philosopher's Way in the next Japan post.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Jeremy Duns: Song of Treason

Not that long into this second instalment of the Paul Dark saga, I found myself reading an obscure article from the online archive of the Catholic newspaper The Tablet.  I had been moved to check something in Duns's text, because it sounded rather unlikely. Had there really been a small explosion in St Peter's, Rome in July 1962?  I clearly should have known better, having read the first novel in the series, and noted the meticulous way in which Duns contextualized his hero's adventures through  authentic historical detail, the sources for which are detailed in the extensive notes at the end of the book. The explosion, along with a mass of other real-life events, is listed in that appendix.

This instalment in Dark's history is set immediately after the end of the previous novel, in May 1969, and like its predecessor, begins with a tremendous and unexpected shock, which propels Dark into a perilous mission to Italy during which he will be once again caught between the competing demands of his cold war masters. Duns skilfully organises the narrative, using Dark's first-person account to lend immediacy to the action-packed plot. Dark, the servant of two masters, has to play one side off against another in an increasingly desperate race against time to prevent an assassination attempt. In the murky world of cold war espionage, no-one is to be trusted, and every action Dark takes is a risky one. In the end, he is forced to risk everything to stop a conspiracy that has its roots in the realignment of European power after the Second World war. As in the first volume, the narrative links together threads from Dark's past - here, his experience in Istanbul in the early fifties, as well as the crucial period in the last days of the war - to produce a complex and believable backdrop to the action.

And the action is relentless. Duns habitually uses precise dates as chapter headings - Thursday 1 May, 1969 - so the reader is aware that the plot is unfolding swiftly, and the main events of the 1969 narrative take place over just three days. The story moves at a blistering pace, hinging on Dark's increasingly frantic attempts to understand the situation he is in, and to save his skin - and that of Sarah Severn, the diplomat's wife who has become caught up in the crossfire of double-dealing and treachery that constitutes normality in Dark's world.

I enjoyed this tremendously. It is a worthy successor to Free Agent, and whets the appetite for the third story, a taster for which is added in the paperback edition. Duns has created a character who can stand alongside Smiley and Harry Palmer in the annals of cold war fiction.

Big in Japan 1

In October and November last year, 'er indoors and I travelled to Japan. We stayed in Tokyo, Kyoto and Kanazawa, and travelled to Hiroshima too. It was an absolutely fascinating trip, during which most of my preconceptions about the country were challenged, and I felt that I learned a lot, but also that there was so much more to learn. So, partly in order to debrief myself and try to make sense of what we experienced, I thought I would start a series of posts focusing on the country and our encounter with it.

Part of the preparation we did was to read a fascinating book by a Cambridge academic, Alan Macfarlane, which disarmingly starts with a confession that he feels he can never completely understand Japan, and that the "Alice in Wonderland" connotations of his title are intentional: "Japan is a one-way mirror out of which the Japanese can look, but which outsiders cannot look into. It also seems to be a world that even those inside the mirror find difficult to understand."

That was quite encouraging in a way - if a distinguished anthropologist, who had visited Japan on numerous occasions over a twenty-year period felt like this, then the pressure was off: we just needed to enjoy the experience. And we did.

Our first stop was the Japan Rail office at Narita airport, where we were to pick up our rail passes. This was a valuable lesson in Japanese mores. First, we had ordered and paid for the two-week pass online. A courier had delivered two rather flimsy chitties, which we were to present at the office. We turned up, and were met by a charming woman, who asked us to fill in a form, in which we had to give all the information we had already given online. There seemed to be no point to this: our details were surely in the system, but here, as elsewhere, we found that Japan creates jobs for its people, and this woman's job was to meet and greet, and sort out forms for tourists like us. This was our first taste of the Japanese fondness for bureaucracy and paperwork. Next, at the desk, another lovely young woman made, very deftly, the passes - stout card, with our details in ink - and then arranged, with astonishing speed and efficiency, a series of reservations for the Shinkansen bullet trains we were going to use to travel around, even making sure we had seats on the correct side to view Mount Fuji. More on the trains in a later post.

We travelled to our hotel in the business district of Tokyo, Shinjuku, and marvelled at the size of the station, and the huge numbers of people it contained - but also at the sense of calm that prevailed. In big stations in the UK, there's always that sense of chaos just beneath the surface. Here, all was serene. At the hotel, another example of job creation: instead of just going to the desk, three or four people were employed to filter you to the next available desk clerk. Again, everything was done with a smile and with great efficiency. Our room was one with everything the modern traveller might need, but, because it was a 'traditional' room, with tatami matting, it felt as if we were staying in some old Samurai dwelling, rather than on the top floor of a chic hotel.

On the street outside the hotel, some work was being done on the road, so a section was coned off - except cones weren't used. Instead, this:
Yes, the all-purpose Hello Kitty road traffic control device.

We spent just one day in Tokyo before visiting friends in Fussa, a small town to the west of the centre of the sprawling conurbation. But we returned at the end of the holiday, so more on Tokyo later. That weekend we travelled with our friends to see Mount Fuji. On a brilliant sunny day, we enjoyed some fantastic views, and also had our first temple experience. According to, "clouds and poor visibility often block the view of Mount Fuji, and you have to consider yourself lucky if you get a clear view of the mountain." So we can count ourselves lucky to have seen it like this, from Lake Kawaguchiko:

At the foot of the climbing trails up the mountain stand a series of shrines. We visited the Kitaguchihongu shrine where we saw our first glimpse of traditional dress:

Very quickly, the ultra-modern world of Tokyo seemed to fade away, to be replaced by something much more rooted in the past. Though that, as we shall see, was something of an illusion as well.