Undercover: The Thriller Memorandum, Part VII (06/29/78)

The premise of Geoffrey Household’s Hostage: London (Penguin, 240 pp., $1.95 paperback) is that old bugaboo of arms-control propaganda: what if a band of terrorists came into possession of an atom bomb? The plot is old stuff to thriller writers, too. James Bond movies milked it for all it was worth; a very similar notion was the basis for Eric Ambler’s first spy story, The Dark Frontier, and that was written back in the Thirties, when the very idea of an atom bomb seemed incredible to all but a few scientists. Regardless, Household makes his novel work; what is more, Hostage: London, despite its terrible title, is an extremely effective piece of writing about the terrorist mentality itself.

We get some sense of the motives of an intelligent, well-educated Western European terrorist, as we do not in the many recent studies of superterrorist “Carlos,” and of the Baader-Meinhof killers. We get a feel for the terrorist’s day-to-day paranoia: for the bitingly intense fears of the police, his comrades and himself he must substitute for ordinary emotional life. We touch the political id of the modern world.

Hostage: London is presented as the diary of Julian Despard, a group commander of Magma—an ambiguous but clearly international terrorist organization, based (it seems) in London, but with ties to the IRA, the Palestinians, Libya, Latin America, Japan, Italy and Germany. Formerly a radical professor, Despard joined Magma after the group broke him out of prison, where he had been sent after a false conviction on bombing charges; following the escape, Magma arranged for plastic surgery to disguise Despard’s well-publicized face, contrived a new legal identity, and had him trained in urban guerrilla warfare in Uruguay. The goals of Magma are identical with those of Italy’s Red Brigades: destroy, through chaos, the legal fiction of Western democracy; force the imposition of a police state; feed the resentment of the people; and then, when society shatters, take over, and inaugurate the New Revolution—the utopia resisted equally by capitalism and Soviet communism.

The linchpin of this strategy, Despard learns, is the explosion of an atom bomb in the heart of London. Though Despard shares the goals of Magma—indeed, even as he struggles to find the bomb and disarm it, he never really abandons those goals—he cuts himself out of the organization, while still trying to maintain his role as one of its leaders. Magma is set up on a strict need-to-know basis: that means Despard has only the most tenuous contacts with those who rank above him, and no real knowledge of Magma’s hierarchy. The unit that controls the bomb is almost as much of a mystery to him as it is to the police.geoffrey-household-hostage-london3Magma’s leaders are highly placed in British society; it’s an elite group with few ties, on the leadership level, to anything the police might consider subversive. Key people are integrated into the press, the military, and the trades; each works without knowledge of the other This means that even if Despard can stop the bomb, the organization will remain in place: it can self-destruct, but no authority can break it, because no authority can find it.Slowly, then, Despard begins to work his way through the maze of Magma’s strategy, looking for its weak spot. This side of Hostage: London is an almost Holmes-like scenario of deduction: beautifully constructed, and very hard to follow. Clues are spectral, action pure contingency. Much more exciting, though, are the shifts in Despard’s state of mind: his desperation; his fatigue as he reaches one dead end after another; his ambivalence about his intentions, his motives, and the good or evil of Magma’s scheme as such.

Household’s writing is very clear, rarely overdrawn; born in 1900, he has a better purchase o the moods of the present than most writers half his age. Tapping Despard’s uncertainties, he reaches ours; Dr. Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, may have been a joke, but Magma isn’t. It’s simply a neatly inflated version of what, in contemporary Italy, say, is now real life.

Writing just prior to the Red Brigades’ murder of Aldo Moro, Anthony Burgess suggested that the Moro kidnapping might well have a purpose more sinister than could be gleaned from a reading of the papers: the psychological preparation of the Italian people for what, in their terms, would be the ultimate crime—the kidnapping of the Pope. (I’m surprised no thriller writer has come up with the idea; surely the Red Brigade have.) A plot such as Household’s is merely a British version of the same thing, and Burgess is right: we are ready for such an ultimate event. Events have lowered our threshold of disbelief, and because Household has the nerve not to stand off from his characters, because he’s willing to get close to them—to get inside them, sympathize with them, fantasize with them—we do too. What he’s really writing about is the dissolution of limits on action: the attempt of present-day terrorists to destroy our faith that there are limits. That’s why Household’s book is fun, and that’s why it cuts.


Rolling Stone, June 29, 1978


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