Fiction imitating life

Fiction imitating life - September 2009


Fiction imitating life

Christopher Lawson

The Ghost by Robert Harris

Robert Harris evokes Martha's Vineyard in winter, the setting for his 2007 political thriller, with wonderful skill. Force ten gales rage, the north wind blows down from Cape Cod, clouds scud, the Atlantic pounds and heaves, empty white clapboard houses creak and bang, and the ghost of Mary Jo Kopechne still haunts the bridge at Chappaquidick Island.

The Ghost

To this deserted spot, the playground of the rich in the summer months, has fled the former prime minister of Britain, Adam Lang, his wife Ruth and his gatekeeper Amelia, with an entourage of a driver and six protection officers from the UK. Lang has summoned a professional ghostwriter, more used to writing up the lives of minor celebrities such as pop stars and footballers, to secure his legacy. The writer's predecessor, Mike McAra, has died in a mysterious accident.

Lang's detractors accuse him of making his career totally subservient to American interests. "One of the serious things I wanted to get at in the book was why is it that the UK no longer seems to have an independent foreign policy, no longer does anything remotely likely to displease the US. And trying to explain that is at the heart of the plot of this book", says Harris. Lang may face the International Criminal Court for war crimes. Harris ferociously attacks extraordinary rendition and state-indulged torture.

Adam Peter Benet Lang, with his theatrical background at university and his fondness for staying in a pop star's West Indian villa, has many of the characteristics of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, friend of Cliff Richard and ex-frontman of the Ugly Rumours.

But he is a difficult man to pin down. "He was like some rare marine specimen fished up from the depths of the ocean, which could only live under extreme pressure. Deposited on the shore, exposed to the thin air of normal life, Lang was in constant danger of expiring from sheer boredom". And "He had achieved his electoral victories by way of morally eviscerating the Labour party, emptying politics of its content, and anaesthetising the country".

Amelia Bly, the loyal gatekeeper, looks like personal aide Anji Hunter, by Blair's side since his early days. Lang's wife Ruth, "famous for her independence", stands in for Cherie Blair. In many ways Ruth becomes the most sinister figure in the book. However, Richard Rycart, the ex-Foreign Secretary, is not quite the late Robin Cook, the principled and eloquent former Foreign Secretary whose untimely death three years ago robbed New Labour of one of its major figures. To the annoyance of the 2008 reader, as the Labour Party implodes, and support in the country dwindles to levels not seen since the days of Ramsay Macdonald, there is no literary equivalent to the electorally doomed Gordon Brown.

The fictional Lang was born on May 6th, 1953, four years before Harris. Although throughout the book an outsider sizes up his contemporary, Harris is of course, an insider himself, a friend of Peter Mandelson and one of the proponents of New Labour. His book can be seen as a cri de coeur at what has happened to his party.

In a promotional interview, Robert Harris suggests his title has no fewer than three meanings. "...The Ghost has many levels really; the ghost writer is the ghost, the ex-prime minister is a ghost of his former self, and in a way Great Britain has become a ghost to the US, a ghost of its former independent self, it seems to me."

The anonymous ghost writer, the man who will only ever have "with" between his subject's name and his own, tells the story in the first person. As soon as McAra's death is revealed to be murder, the protagonist turns from writer to detective, and the book, too, alters course. From a meditation about politics, reputation, writing and the line between fact and fiction, The Ghost becomes a thriller.

A year after publication, Robert Harris's roman a clef has once again hit the headlines of the arts pages of the British press. Roman Polanski will begin filming the book in the autumn. Nicholas Cage has been signed up to play the ghostwriter and Pierce Brosnan the recently ejected Prime Minister, whose reputation is bound to be picked over one more time.

Indeed, the near future will be a hot season for political reputations. In the United States, as well as Oliver Stone's irreverent comic take on W's drunken youth, bestselling writer Elizabeth Curtis Sittenfeld completed American Wife, both in time for the Republican convention. The protagonist, Alice Blackwell, can only be a thinly disguised Laura Bush. It is guaranteed to drive the White House into a fury. A few seconds googling will get you a graphic depiction of the President's todger. The book, says one reviewer, is a "masterful highbrow-lowbrow mash-up that satisfies as ass-kicking literary fiction and juicy gossip simultaneously".

Hutchinson, Random House, pp 310, ISBN 9780091796259, 2007, GBP 3.86 at (paperback)

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