Monday, October 29, 2007

Tall Tales, British Style

A Very English Agent, by Julian Rathbone, Read by Paul Matthews, Recorded Books, LLC, 2002

Twice short-listed for the Booker Prize, Julian Rathbone is an author I know little about though I’ve seen his name repeatedly. His fiction is rather hard to accurately pigeonhole as he shifts around from exotic locale crime fiction to old school style spy novels to thrillers to historical novels. There is more than a touch of Graham Greene about his themes and plots, though it’s The Third Man with some rather naughty bits thrown in for good measure.

A Very English Agent is the first of two novels that somewhat weds these various streams. We begin lecherously enough with a roadside shagging between the dwarfish narrator and his oversized paramour. This ends with a petit morte or two and is quickly followed on by a grande morte as an exploding shell penetrates the narrator’s lover with shrapnel. Her position (and her size) saves his life and from there the world goes to hell, bayonets, shell explosions, musket fire, the tramp of boots. It is Waterloo.

Rathbone’s battle depiction is the modern style; whereas depictions from the time are generally heroic and rated PG, A Very English Agent doesn’t bother with any less than the most graphic sensory details, screaming horses, the stink of shit and gore and cheap liquor and gunpowder, the splash of blood and organs.

From there we move to the frame story that of the Assistant Undersecretary Mr Cargill, a member of the government who is involved in the investigation of Chalie Boylan, the narrator of the opening sex and war story. Boylan has been arrested for entering the House of Commons with a loaded pistol demanding his promised pension. We will get more of Boylan’s story and more of Mr Cargill’s, the former in prison writing these memoirs and the latter in a domestic prison of his own making.

What Rathbone has created is a rowdy romp through the early nineteenth century as told by a supposed secret agent for the crown. Boylan’s story contains enough detail to be plausible, but his plots manage to time and again put him very implausibly near the center of history. Both the reader and the government officials are left wondering whether Boylan is pulling our legs. The fear that it might all be true is what leads the officials to keep a tight hold on Boylan, as he promises documents of a ghastly scandal that would rock the throne.

Boylan’s record involves naming the Cato Street Conspirators, saving the Queen at the Great Exhibition, and being instrumental in the Spa Field Riots as instigator. He is goaded on to this last by his superiors who wish to have a small, crushable uprising in order to hang someone, anyone, in order to send a message. From there they can sweep in to squelch the revolutionary spirit growing in England at the time. And since it is the time of revolution, it isn’t long before Boylan is put onto the tail of the inflammatory poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The romantic, visionary poet whose verses rang out a clarion call for just such business skulks through his scenes, brooding and sex mad in turn, observed by Boylan who insinuates himself into the very anarchic Shelley household as their deaf-mute servant. As with his other historical claims to fame, Boylan admits that it was he who assassinated the poet, sabotaging his boat in time for the storm which sank it, though concrete evidence remains lacking. While other portions of the novel move rapidly from scene to scene, Rathbone stretches out Boylan’s dalliance with the Shelleys, and this one murder finds Boylan considerably more guilt-stricken than all the other bodies on his hands and conscience.

As instigator, informer, eavesdropper, Boylan has quite a roll call for those who have died because of his actions. The strange thing about Rathbone’s narrative is that even though Boylan is on the side of oppression and the forces of aristocratic conservatism as opposed to democratic progressiveness, even though he murders the poet Shelley, his sympathy clearly lies with those the Crown will crush. As does the author’s. Lines such as: “Liverpool’s government, and no doubt many to follow over the centuries, used and will use occasional terroristical events to promulgate laws that are oppressive in a general way” are meant to bring to mind both the current Bush Administration as well as others through the years.

As an novelist, Rathbone delights in dropping various literary allusions throughout his book, such as his use of Shelley, his Robinson Crusoe-like ending, and the tasty little dig at Jane Austen and all Austenites. Boylan is spirited away to a landed estate of a government sympathizer, that of Mr Darcy, who “married beneath him,” “beat” his wife after their “marriage of the heart” cooled. His wife now lives with her sister, the widow of Colonel Wickham “who you may recall, made a fortune in India.” As much as I enjoy Pride and Prejudice, I had to admit to hooting at that turn of events.

Much of the story is written as Boylan’s memoirs, which at a certain point drop away to an omniscient narration. In these times we follow Boylan’s keeper, Mr Cargill, through his rather complicated personal life, which holds our interest in ways less graphic than Boylan’s narration but nonetheless moving. His sudden hospitalization for arsenic poisoning implicates Boylan, but a more obvious suspect remains free. In these frames we also see that revolutionary changes are coming to Britain whether the government crushes its more flamboyant flowers or not.

One can’t help but think of Vonnegut’s Mother Night, another story told by a spy who pretended to be something he was not. An instigator and compatriot along the way of nearly every revolutionary movement of the time, one has to ask whether Boylan’s work proves more progressive in helping the poor than otherwise ultimately. It’s clear from his narrative that Boylan’s sympathy (if not his loyalty necessarily) lies with the people against the government that hires him and pays his salary, even though he also expresses contempt for the organizers of the mobs. He is a complicated portrait of a fascinating individual.

Fans of Flashman will be sure to appreciate Rathbone’s novel and its follow up Birth of a Nation, which finds Charlie Boylan washed up on the shores of America just as westward expansion is gearing up. Turns out, his knack for finding himself smack in the middle of history won’t fail him there either.

Reader Paul Matthews has a pleasing voice and an even more pleasing delivery. His Boylan parades through a thicket of accents from here to Italy and Matthews is with him every step of the way.

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