Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Duet in Beirut, by Mishka Ben-David: when authenticity is more than illusion

The question of authenticity hovers over all spy thrillers and crime fiction. But it's not reality we crave, it's the sense of it. The illusion of reality, if you like, so long as it's believable.

An author creates a world. We inhabit it, temporarily, accepting, if the writer is good at his or her job, its rules, regulations, the needs, wants, desires and motivations of the characters who live there. Because what we want is a story. A story that takes us away from our everyday concerns and absorbs us in other, more exciting ones.

So the novelist is essentially playing a trick.  On us, and sometimes on him- or herself too. I'm always slightly amused by the furrowed-brow method-acting 'research' which leads the creators of some, essentially lightweight entertainments to give themselves over to weeks and months of taking notes rather than writing. In a lot of cases, I'm sure it's (a) a tax-allowable excuse for hanging out with interesting folk, sometimes in glamorous foreign locations, eating and drinking extremely well; (b) a way of avoiding actually writing and (c) a method of getting out of the house. The craving of some readers, particularly in hardware-obsessed, anally-retentive macho fiction, for details of armaments, map references and cars, and in other fields for nit-picking restaurant menus and recipes (I count myself vulnerable on all counts here) allows writers to shortcut to believability through apparent knowledge of catalogue detail. Or sometimes, effective Googling.

What of the writers, though, who actually have personal experience of the extreme activities they write about? Frankly, it doesn't mean two empty chambers in a Walther PPK if they can't write. If they can't convince. 'The myth of experience' one screenwriter of my acquaintance calls it. The notion that just because you know something happened, if you were actually there, the reader/viewer has to believe your story.

John Le Carre is often cited as someone whose secret service career informs his writing, lends it a sheen of respect. Maybe, in his early books. But what carries you through a good Le Carre (and there are some duds) is the literary skill and verve, the atmosphere, the insight into characters, the moral stance which in latter years has become outrage. Stella Rimington, on the other hand, former head of Mi5, writes slight, workmanlike thrillers that never transcend the evident verisimilitude of some sequences. They're basically dull.

Among the dozens of former CIA officers who have turned their skills in dissembling to fiction, Charles McCarry is perhaps the most interesting, paralleling Le Carre (even in name) and in his prescient 1979 novel The Better Angels, predicting Islamic terrorism and passenger aircraft attacks similar to 9/11. With a recent book, The Shanghai Factor, centred on China's use of multinational companies for intelligence purposes, his contemporary relevance remains. But as he says, what he does is produce 'stories...largely imagined, but not entirely so.' McCarry has a mordant gift for taking real events and twisting them into very odd shapes indeed, notably the Kennedy assassinations in The Tears of Autumn.

All of which takes me to the recent publication, for the first time in English, of Mishka Ben-David's superb Duet in Beirut. Ben-David was a Mossad officer for 12 years, and Duet in Beirut was written as a screenplay not long after he left the Israeli secret service (which the book indicates is more like a cross between Mi6 and the SAS, with planned undercover military actions a big part of its remit).

Brilliantly translated from the original Hebrew by Evan Fallenberg, the book deals with a rogue agent who tries to make amends for a previous failure by assassinating, without permission, a senior Hezbollah figure in Beirut. His former mentor goes after him, followed by a hastily-assembled undercover team, but the book's amazing insider detail is matched by beautifully (re)created characters, families and locations, plus an utterly convincing portrayal of the inner wranglings of a secret service, and the political context in which it operates.

There are odd plot echoes of The Bourne Identity movie and  you can pick up  resonances from other films too, especially Syriana and of course Munich, but the book's building of tension and pace until the almost unbearable finale is exemplary, cool and very accomplished. Some may find the quite explicit and sentimental Zionism of at least one character difficult, but in the end, this is among the very best and most revealing spy novels I've read. And it works because a gifted author has harnessed his experience to tell a great tale very well indeed.