The Wandering Minstrel
The Secret Life of a Writer Behind Enemy Lines
I've not really read a lot of Somerset Maugham. I know he is very well regarded in literary circles, and one day, yes, I would like very much to read his classics. So perhaps this oddity is not a good introduction to his body of work, as it's very much what is known as a “genre book”. However, one always starts somewhere, and why not with Ashenden or the British Agent which is a spy thriller, a genre very close to my heart.
After having read a lot of espionage writers like John Le Carré, Ambler, et al., I was struck by the distinctly different feel of this novel. At times Maugham's literary style tends to get in the way of the storytelling. However, it’s equally true that Maugham was writing from his own experiences as a secret agent. I'm not sure if any sane and able-bodied Brits of that period got away without doing a spell in the intelligence conveyor-belt. His experience added the vital element of authenticity, which is absolutely critical to a book's success, irrespective of genre.
Instead of having a linear narrative, the book is made up of episodes in Ashenden's spying career, each one featuring an encounter with a different agent from an enemy country, somewhat akin to The Secret Pilgrim by John Le Carré. Maugham draws the characters with an unhurried hand, coaxing the reader into each new story.
The book is definitely of its time. The leisurely pace of life, sans cars, planes and other trappings of carbon-powered life informs the simmering development of the plot. There are also the casual throwaway lines which would be considered violently racist today. And hanging over everything like a blanket of fog is the atmosphere of impending war. The stories are set in the time between the two World Wars, with Britain fighting on two fronts: one in India against the rebellious "natives", and the other in Europe against the combined efforts of the Central Powers.
When I first read the character sketch of Chandra Lal, as described by Ashenden's boss R., I was immediately intrigued as I could see similarities with Subhas Chandra Bose straightaway. Background, appearance, locations, all jumped out prominently. However, without resorting to spoilers, my suspicion turned out to be baseless. The writer in Ashenden takes over during his manipulation of Giulia Lazzari, Lal’s beloved, and the emotional detachment is almost painful to read at times, almost like that of a scientist examining a microbe writhing in acid solution through a microscope. I hate to think that this is what Maugham felt an author should be like.
Then there are episodes like the one on Grantley Caypor, the British defector, that chugs along like an out-of-control train, ending almost inevitably in tragedy. The slow burning build-up suddenly comes together with a punch to the reader's guts.
The concluding story didn't really have a lot to do with espionage, but was a neat character sketch of a rather eccentric American who just happened to find himself in Russia at the worst possible time.
There are long passages where the hero just spends time with himself and explains how he doesn't get bored in spite of having nothing worth doing apart from idly roaming the streets of Geneva on horse-back. The only bright specks in his daily routine are the odd meetings with his asset who steps over the border from Germany, the old vegetable vendor who passes notes surreptitiously under potatoes and short spells of flirting with the Baroness. In the hands of a lesser writer these passages would have put readers to sleep. Some chapters are built around leisurely conversations around a dinner table, poles apart from the traditional conversational scenes in spy novels, which tend to run along interrogational lines. Ultimately though, the story does get back on the track just when one feels that it can’t possibly be saved.
A few final nit-picks in what is, overall, a fascinating read: loose ends like the unfinished story of Andreadi the Greek and the obnoxious hairless Mexican General Carmona leave the reader with questions that hang in the air long after the book has been read, and this is a grave flaw in the book. The circumstances in which Ashenden, an author, is persuaded to become a spy, are not very compelling. In contrast, Ambler's protagonists are all from humdrum backgrounds, who get pulled into the world of espionage due to a convincing chain of events beyond their control.