JULY 3, 2014
EDWARD WILSON swapped the jungles of Vietnam for the bleak coastline of the Suffolk marshes, Britain’s most easterly point, on the North Sea, facing across to Holland. He traded serving as an officer in the US Army Special Forces for a post teaching English literature and, along the way, quietly emerged as a preeminent spy novelist with an uncanny knack for recreating the milieu and language of the Cold War espionage world. Wilson renounced his US citizenship in the 1980s and took a British passport. Since then he’s been producing novels that blend reality with rumor and show that there’s never been anything particularly special about the supposed “Special Relationship” between America and Great Britain. He’s rather flown under the radar of widespread popularity, but his latest novel, The Whitehall Mandarin, might be changing that.
At the core of Wilson’s novels is Suffolk. American readers may not be familiar with the county, which is somewhat remote and self-contained by English standards. It’s where Wilson chose to lose himself after Vietnam and also where his recurring character, the rather reluctant British spy Catesby, hails from and invariably returns to at times of trouble. Wilson describes Suffolk as “acres and acres of damp un-harvested wheat bounded by thick dark woods.” It is where inward-looking villages hug the coast next to barbed wire–surrounded US Air Force bases with nuclear-armed American bombers ready to take off for Murmansk or Moscow on the signal from Washington. It is where England ends and Northern Europe begins. It is where Wilson, for roughly 40 years now, has secluded himself and worked on expunging his personal demons. Coincidentally, it’s also where one of his earliest fans, and another melancholic literary exile in England, W. G. Sebald, chose to settle and deal with his ghosts of postwar Germany.
To Wilson, Britain was at the forefront of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, caught between America and the Soviet Union. Within Britain, Suffolk is historically where invaders land: where the Vikings landed, where Nazi Germany would have landed in World War II, and where the Soviets might have come, too (but never did, thanks partly to those US bases). Wilson has settled in Suffolk and adopted this land. His spy hero Catesby (and his bosses never forget to remind him he shares the surname of the mastermind behind the 1605 Catholic Gunpowder Plot to assassinate King James I and blow up Parliament) is also caught between the lines. A Belgian mother marks Catesby always as an outsider of sorts, despite his English father. Of and not of, within but still somewhat without — this is, for Wilson, the eternal plight of the fluent exile and always of the spy — able to pass but always slightly suspect.
The Whitehall Mandarin extends Wilson’s planned trilogy of novels set against the backdrop of the Cold War — The Envoy, The Darkling Spy, and The Midnight Swimmer. But The Whitehall Mandarin makes an even greater attempt than his previous trilogy to provide an alternative history of British-American relations during the Cold War. While recreating reality — a British world of the Profumo sex scandal, messy decolonization, and imperial decline combined with America’s rise to prominence and simultaneous descent into the quagmire of Vietnam — Wilson finds the unreal and accentuates it. The “Last Days of Rome” sexual license of the British Establishment (always with an uppercase “E” in England), the LSD trip of 1960s America, and the Heart of Darkness that is both upcountry ’Nam and the wilds of Suffolk: everywhere is both simultaneously familiar and strange in Wilson’s alternative narratives, best comparable perhaps to James Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy.
Heart of Darkness is a reference throughout the book — its appeal to Wilson perhaps obvious, the Vietnam vet turned literature teacher who, like the Polish émigré Conrad, has adopted British citizenship. Like The Whitehall Mandarin, Heart of Darkness begins on the Thames in the heart of London and then moves to a strange, unreal environment that discombobulates those who enter it. Thanks to Apocalypse Now, Vietnam is an Asian correlate for Conrad’s Congo — a place where imperial overreach has run riot and moral compasses are wrecked.
In his previous trilogy, Wilson stayed largely within 1950s England. His fodder has been the familiar world of British intelligence, London streets of watchers and the watched, fungible allegiances, the Cambridge spies, and the penetration of the British secret service by the Soviets, of course, but also by the Americans who never quite trust the British to, as the doyen of British spy fiction John le Carré would say, “share the treasure.”
In The Whitehall Mandarin we have London of the 1960s — swinging and liberated yet still Establishment-dominated and subject to the social codes of the prewar era — well rendered as a place where a call girl and a charlatan could bring down a Tory government (as the 1963 John Profumo/Christine Keeler scandal did, unless you really believe Harold Macmillan resigned on “health grounds”). But then Wilson ups the pace with a dramatic and psychedelic chase across America, where Kennedy cool is giving way to hippie-trippydom. And then he takes us to post–Dien Bien Phu Vietnam as the French Indo-China Empire collapses into the battle for American spheres of influence. We’re in a world familiar to us through countless books and films; familiar to Wilson through having lived it — grunts, choppers, jungle, the North Vietnamese trudging the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Colonel Kurtz–like figures in abundance. Wilson terms it “Disneyland East.”
If there’s a coherent theme to The Whitehall Mandarin, it’s ambition: Britain’s hopeless postwar ambition to retain the Empire, Soviet ambition to influence the developing world, America’s ambition to thwart Moscow, and their proxies in Vietnam. One more ambition that underlies the whole tale for Wilson plays on the double meaning of “mandarin” — the omnipotent Chinese ruling elite as well as the stodgy bureaucrat of Whitehall corridors and endless cups of tea. Wilson ponders an interesting stat from the early years of the nuclear arms race:
FISSION TO FUSION
France = 105 months
United States = 86 months
Soviet Union = 75 months
United Kingdom = 66 months
People’s Republic of China = 32 months
How did China get a thermonuclear weapon so fast? And in the midst of the Sino-Soviet split and the madness of the Cultural Revolution too? Chinese spying on the West predates the recent hacking and leaking scandals. For anyone anxious about a leaky Anglo-American spy community and keen to historically revise the PRC’s espionage credentials, Wilson has a theory!
In the hands of a lesser writer all this scenery and action — swinging London, the internecine feuds of Whitehall and Langley, psychedelia-tinged American heartlands, Vietnam (initially rendered in the style of The Quiet American’s Southeast Asia, before the descent into Apocalypse Now), and even Mao’s creepy inner sanctum of Zhongnanhai — would be overwhelming, too sprawling to control. But not in Wilson’s adept hands. Finally Edward Wilson is garnering the praise and readers in England he’s long deserved, but it is to be hoped that America can discover him too. His stories are our stories, just as his own story is one of two countries nervously eyeing each other in wary allegiance.