“As was once said of Prussia, Egypt is not a country that has an army, but an army that has a country. More depressing still, even if there existed a competent alternative government, it is near impossible to imagine what its program might be… I shall never forget, on my first visit to Cairo, seeing “the City of the Dead”: that large population of the homeless and indigent which lives among the graves in one of the city’s sprawling cemeteries. For centuries, Egypt’s rulers have been able to depend on the sheer crushing weight of torpor and inertia to maintain “stability”…”
And now this:
“We few who were getting off at Cairo weren’t important, it seemed… We were being dropped in the desert, in that powdered sand and air like a hot cupboard that kept things the same for ever: hate and love, boredom and exhilaration, beauty and horror; Egypt dealt only in extremes, her weather extended the same charity to them all: to the flies and the maimed beggars on their trolleys in the cities; to the temple at Karnak and the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. It was a place where nothing ever died – where death was always visible…”
The former is Christopher Hitchens, writing for Vanity Fair in February 2011 on what he sees as the gloomy prospects for a revived post-Mubarak Egypt. The latter is Joseph Hone, an English novelist of espionage whose work is passionately admired but ought still to be better known – and this particular passage is from the early stages of The Private Sector (1967), the first of a quartet of novels centred around an unassuming but strangely trouble-making spy named Peter Marlow. And Finds is honoured to have all four Marlow novels on its list.
Hone has a superb advocate in the contemporary practitioner Jeremy Duns, who rates Hone as “one of the great spy novelists of the last century” and writes brilliantly here about the important distinction between ‘Field’ and ‘Desk’ in the genre. Duns describes Peter Marlow as:
“an MI6 desk man turned field agent… a wonderful character, and I think deserves to be as well known as [Le Carre's] Smiley. He’s the constant outsider, peering in at others’ lives, meddling where he shouldn’t, and usually being set up by everyone around him… He is repeatedly being taken out of his grubby office in the Mid-East Section in Holborn and dragged into the line of fire. The plots come thick and fast, and feature ingenious twists, action, mayhem, chases, Esperanto smiles and high-octane affairs – all the great spy stuff you’d want. But it’s all wrapped up in prose so elegant, and characterization so subtle and pervasive, that you put the books down feeling you’ve just read a great work of literature.”
If you’re intrigued then I’d urge you to read Duns at length here, because his appreciation of Hone is deeply felt and most discerning. Duns rates The Private Sector as one of his favourite five novels of all time, and having just read it myself I can undoubtedly see the appeal. Hone beautifully captures the immediate aftermath of what historian Elizabeth Monroe famously called Britain’s Moment in the Middle East – a ‘moment’ of 40 years’ duration, wherein Britain endeavoured to lord over the local oil supplies and pull the strings of the region’s politics – only not by brute colonial rule, rather by a not-so-subtle form of coercion and king-making. (This all ended, of course, in the debacle of Suez, Anthony Eden’s sorry effort to brand Nasser a Hitlerian menace and unseat him by force, an effort thwarted when President Eisenhower effectively told Eden not to be silly – after which Britain would retain a measure of influence in Egypt, but a shamed and demoralized one – and this is precisely the sort of ugly/sinister spy-world evoked by Hone.)
Jeremy Duns quotes a Washington Post review that calls it just right: “[Hone's] tone is nearly perfect – quiet, morbidly ironic, beautifully controlled and sustained, moodily introspective, occasionally humorous and more often bitter, with a persistent undertone of unspeakable sadness and irrecoverable loss.” A third of the way through The Private Sector I thought I was reading a beautiful marriage of Orwell’s Burmese Days (in its evocation of profound British colonial torpor) and John Fante’s Ask The Dust (in its rendering of a hopeless, near-rebarbative love affair). But that is before the spy game truly gets underway, and Hone shifts gears to show his expertise in that department too.
The Private Sector is available to order here, and you will find links to the subsequent Marlow novels on the same page.