Theme: International Thrillers
Books weren’t much use, aside from a few novels, and who can trust a novelist?
It all began when someone inferred he was with the CIA and instead of denying it, he wholeheartedly ensconces himself in the life of a spy. He cases joints, he marks walls with chalk, he invents a business, he gets involved in subversive politicking and he manages to bumble his way into bizarre situations in which he has no idea he is being set-up. Which leads the reader to constantly feel as if they are being set-up. Did this really happen to him or is this the fictional part that connects two seemingly unrelated events? As a reader, you ask yourself this on almost every page. Amazed that even half of these things could be true, it’s difficult to ignore the blending of a life lived on the edge because he was tired of denying he was CIA and a writer writing on the edge because he was mistakenly assumed to by CIA.
Only a deft hand and a certain type of writer could incite this vertiginous feeling in the reader – to actually feel like you’re floating in that invisible, intellectual space known as suspension of disbelief. It’s all so plausible and simultaneously off-kilter, almost unbelievable as in this plot hatched while Mathews skies one day:
Two qualities are required of an intelligence officer in the field: placement and access, that is , knowing whether information can be found and how to get it. What activity could supply those qualities? Something involving travel to Iron Curtain countries. If I worked for CIA, I could run a real travel agency; short of that, couldn’t I set myself up as a travel advisor? Thus a new and necessary entity was born on the last schuss of my trail: Locus Solus – International Travel Counsel.
The name was the clincher. Locus Solus had been a little magazine I’d started thirteen years before with three poet friends (it was originally the title of a work by one of our idols, Raymond Roussel). The magazine was officially published in Lans-en-Vercor, or rather, unofficially: then as now I wanted to avoid bureaucratic hassle, and I managed to persuade the quiet, friendly man who ran – and was still running – the local post office to let me use my personal address as the magazine’s.
I now was beginning to see that what my intellectual friends cared about was not anything I needed or wanted. They may have had the answers. I noticed, however, that their answers frequently came from commentators on the authors they revered rather than from the authors themselves – they were like students taking refuge in essays on Shakespeare instead of tackling Hamlet on their own. They reminded me of 4th-century Manicheans who hoped that if they ate a fig from the right tree they might eventually sigh forth some particles of the Godhead. My friends were looking for the figs of intellectual correctness. For me, what matter was not the rightness of the ideas I’d collected but the process of thinking, something that often led to confusion – in my opinion, a very productive state of mind. So I went on listening to the talk about post-structuralism or Maoist theory, as interested as ever, but keeping my mouth shut, unless there was an urgent reason for me to open it.
Mathews writes with a worldliness that makes us feel as if we are a reader of the world. We are present there, in Paris, in 1973, getting drugged at a Communist Party Meeting or having a coffee with Perec at a cafe on Saint Germain. I think Mathews is overlooked for his creativity as well as his writing. It doesn’t matter if his story is true or not, it’s a good one and it’s as thrilling as Mathews is.
Listen to a podcast of Harry Mathews being interview by Michael Silverblatt ~