Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Ghost, The Ghost Writer and Tony Blair's Journey

Rarely is a writer's own autobiography "scooped," but such a thing happened to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. When his book, "A Journey," landed in stores last year, readers had already had three years to chew on Robert Harris' "The Ghost." A thriller involving a figure much like Blair, Harris' novel was also the basis for Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer."
Harris' novel is told by an unnamed writer who has specialized in quickie celebrity autobiographies, brought in to ghostwrite the memoirs of former British prime minister Adam Lang. The "ghost" gets his job because of the untimely death of the previous ghost, a staff member of Lang's named Mike McAra.
Lang's memoirs are in need of pruning and shaping into a coherent narrative, and the Ghost gets to know, among others, Lang's brittle and ambitious wife, Ruth. But in the course of the assignment, Lang learns he is being pursued for war crimes due to his assistance in the capture of four suspected Pakistani terrorists. The four were later taken to Guantanamo for rendition, with one dying, presumably of heart failure.
The ghost has more than a few problems keeping his subject's mind on telling his own story. He also develops a relationship with Ruth, but his biggest problems come from his own ghost - the notes left behind by McAra, which point to Lang's shadowy association with the CIA. The truth that McAra uncovered - that probably killed him - is hidden in the horrendous first draft of Lang's book. It is only at the book's end that the Ghost discovers the actual truth.
But "The Ghost" is about more than war crimes. It's true subject is the leader away from power. Lang, as Harris draws him, was an aspiring actor when he was plucked from the stage and drawn into the life of Ruth. It was Ruth's drive which eventually resulted in his political career - a sequence of events which makes Ruth bear more of a resemblance to Hillary Clinton than Cherie Blair.
But like Blair with his "third way" politics, Lang is a cipher to those around him, leaving a mystery in his shadow, his intimates wondering just who he is and what he aspires to do. When the unnamed ghost writer says he does not know Adam Lang, the former defense minister Rycart responds with a laugh:


“Who does? If you met him on Monday you probably know him as well as anyone. I worked with him for fifteen years, and I certainly don’t have a clue where he’s coming from.”

Blair’s memoir, “A Journey,” is a remarkably candid, well-written book that nevertheless renders the self-portrait of a cipher. We learn several times of Blair’s passion, surpassing politics, he says, for what he vaguely refers to as religion. We read this several times, but with no elaboration at all. We assume Christianity, of course, but we wonder why there isn’t even a hint of what he means. Is he talking about a specific faith, or the study of religion in general?

What the book does reveal about him, though, is a soul who isn’t afraid to question himself, his motives, the way he saw the events of his time in office and the efficacy of his decisions. Blair - the real Blair - chose to end his book on this note:

"My conclusion, strangely, is not that the power of politics is needed to liberate people; but that the power of people is needed to liberate the politics. An odd thing for a politician to say; but then, as you will gather from this memoir, it has never been entirely clear whether the journey I’ve taken is one of triumph of the person over the politics, or of the politics over the person.”
There are many human moments, rich in humor and irony, which present a much better portrait of Blair than any contemporary journalism. The Blair in these pages is not necessarily a man who can win over those who opposed him, but one rendered a little more easily understood. That makes him different from Lang, who resembles a caged animal, impotent against the forces conspiring against him, embittered that he is being pilloried for making difficult decisions in difficult times.
But Harris doesn't make him a villain any more than he makes Rycart, the minister now trying to get him prosecuted, into a hero. The ghost sees Rycart as an intellectually vain man who is “as hell-bent on revenge as any discarded lover.” Rycart eventually double-crosses the Ghost into working for him, to get something tangible that can be used against Lang in court.

“Look,” said Lang, “I don’t condone torture, but let me just say this to you. First, it does produce results - I’ve seen the intelligence. Second, having power, in the end, is all about balancing evils, and when you think about it, what are a couple of minutes of suffering for a few individuals compared to the deaths of - the deaths, mark you - of thousands. Third, don’t try telling me this is something unique in the war on terror. Torture’s always been part of warfare. The only difference is that in the past there were no ****ing media around to report it.”

These responses do sound much like Blair’s, right down to his exasperation with the media reaction to every decision, every hint of scandal. Blair relates a similar set of fears following the July 2006 London Underground bombings, which occurred directly after London was awarded the 2012 Olympics and the UK hosted a G8 summit. Blair returned home to his family, his thoughts a blur:

“I reflected on the awesome nature of the weight on my shoulders; the pain and the excitement. Politics: noble causes, ignoble means; the plans you make and the events that turn them upside down; the untold misery and the imperfect attempts to alleviate it…”
Blair is overwhelmed by the responsibility of his decisions, and where the fault lies for the mothers and fathers mourning their children, dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, the horror of snuffed out lives. He also tackles the question: Was the war, and Blair, responsible for homegrown deaths at the hands of terrorists? Blair fights the notion because, he says, “if you give even a sliver of credence to the argument, then suddenly it’s our fault, not theirs, which is, naturally, the very thing they want.”
But what distinguishes Blair from Lang is that Lang accepts the opposition's definition of torture, as if to say that though a moral wall has been breached, it was worth it so that his people could be protected. Blair has denied the torture allegations, and reserves some of his harshest criticisms for the terrorists and for his own critics, such as those who opposed the UK's entry into the Iraq War:
“(The Iraqi terrorists) conducted this attempt at destroying a nation with a wickedness and vicious indifference to human life and human suffering that almost defies belief. Suicide bombers sent into markets. Worshippers targeted at their place of prayer. Soldiers and police, there to help put the country on its feet, assassinated. UN officials, NGOs, civilian workers trying to assist the Iraqi people to a better life, gunned down, blown up, kidnapped and killed. Yet after saying all this, my conclusion does not concern the bombers’ attitude to this carnage…but ours. When was there a single protest in any Western nation about such evil? Where was the moral indignation? ..Where was the focus of criticism?”

Lang defends his actions by reminding Rycart that he is, in fact, just a man. After all, Lang says,
Jesus was unable to solve all the problems of the world, despite being the Son of God, so wasn’t it unreasonable to think he could in ten years time?
At the book's close, Lang is killed by a suicide bomber - in the film, he is shot while exiting a private jet. His nemesis dead, Rycart joins those paying tribute to him, his opposition a conveniently forgotten memory.
The ghost remains alive to tell the story, at least, for the moment. In this way, the ghost functions as the stand-in for the reader and the conscience of the book. If Lang did what he did because he believed it was right, Harris seems to be saying through his characters that those beliefs were much more complicated than the citizens who voted for him were led to believe. The ghost is the only innocent in a political world spinning out of control, a man entrusted to tell a story that seems simple on the surface but challenges the beliefs of both left and right about what is good and evil.
Make no mistake - Harris' Lang is guilty of something, no matter how much he rages. The wrongness of his involvement eventually undoes the ghost himself, as evidenced in the film. The nameless writer disappears off-screen carrying the manuscript full of secrets, with a car pursuing unseen. The viewer hears a thud, and pages billow in the wind, an indictment that is no longer valid but will remain unanswered forever.
But the questions of "The Ghost" and of Tony Blair remain. How far can a free society go in defending itself without compromising its essential nature? What is too far? How far can a leader go in making difficult decisions before his people no longer see him as a visionary and instead see him as dangerous? Where is prudence and where is compromise?
The Ghost reminds us, in the last line of his story, “I’m afraid in life you can’t have everything.”

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

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