Undercover: The Thriller Memorandum, Part VIII (09/06/79)

The strongest book I’ve read this summer is Ronald Fraser’s Blood of Spain: An Oral History of the Spanish Civil War (Pantheon, 628 pp., $15.95). While many writers use the tape recorder to avoid serious scholarship and serious thought, Fraser has used it as an opening, combining hundreds of interviews, many threaded throughout the narrative, into an account that, perhaps for the first time, makes human, political and prosaic sense of one of the most complex and interesting struggles of this century. As introductory material, Fraser lists forty separate political and labor organizations; his reconstruction of Spain in the late Thirties is so lucid, and so full of still-burning questions, that after a hundred pages or so you actually understand—and care about!—what most of the groups stood for and how they interacted. As one who needed a chart to get through War and Peace, I can’t offer much greater praise.

A full review of Fraser’s hook will appear soon. In the meantime, The Hydra Head, a novel by Carlos Fuentes (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 292 pp., $9.95). This intriguing espionage thriller about the politics of Mexican oil (Fuentes was formerly Mexico’s ambassador to France) reminded me of the shifting perspectives of Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou—but then, Godard is probably the only non-Latin who could film within the phantasmagoric context of Latin American fiction. “Spanish,” writes Fuentes, “…is the only language with two verbs for to be: to be, the permanent state; and to be, the temporary condition. Spanish makes that distinction, but none between dreaming and sleeping.” That’s Fuentes’ M.O. here. A cabal needs a bureaucrat’s identity for use in an assassination; they take it; the bureaucrat must get along as best as he can without it while he tries to discover where it went.

The extra-genre premise, for once, really does deepen the spy story beyond plot. The problem is that the plot is based in a cheat, involving Israeli designs on Mexico’s black gold: a Jewish survivor of the concentration camps is brought on to denounce Israel as no better than Nazi Germany. One gets the feeling that Fuentes’ whole purpose in writing this book was to get that message across; not only does it rob the unfolding plot of credibility at the moment when the plot needs it most, it upends what has taken form as a beautifully composed thesis on death as sleep and death as dream, and turns it into propaganda.


The Dogs of March, a novel by Ernest Hebert (Viking, 255 pp., $9.95). A carefully written story about an uneducated, middle-aged man, living in rural New Hampshire, who wants to hold onto his way of life and understand the forces conspiring to take it away from him. Hebert never cheats by trying to make his protagonist overly attractive or sympathetic, but he convinces a reader that a life bounded by weather, guns, habit, blocked love and junk cars in an untilled field is not only worth living, but worth paying attention to. Uncle Scrooge (Abbeville, 213 pp., $15.95, collected comics). Carl Barks was responsible for the best of the Donald Duck comic books; he created Uncle Scrooge, the insatiable infinitillionaire, in 1947. By the end of the Fifties, Scrooge, Donald and nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie had tracked down just about every lost treasure known to man or (it is incumbent upon the reviewer to I say) duck. This is the second deluxe, oversized, full-color retrospective of Barks’ work, but unlike last year’s gratifying Donald Duck, it’s wasted on the shortest and least exotic of the stories. Almost completely ignored are the insane, heroic, “book-length” fantasies that produced Barks’ spectacular visual absurdities, his most outrageous plots, and which kept kids running to the newsstands every month. Where is Scrooge’s desperate pursuit of the lemming that steals the key to his money vault, a chase that ends as millions of lemmings are about to sweep Scrooge & Co. into the sea? Where is Scrooge’s ill-fated retreat to Shangri-La, a moneyless paradise he inadvertently corrupts through his possession of a handful of gleaming bottle caps? Where is his quest for Jason’s Golden Fleece? The Minotaur? His journey to Atlantis?

Barks’ comics read as if he fell asleep each night musing on Pizarro, King Tut and The Flying Dutchman—he ravaged the annals of history, myth and fable to find his tales, and ended up giving more than a few their first, and perhaps richest, glimpses of the ancient past, the delight of excess, the joy of adventure and the glory of greed. But you’d never know it from this book. Unless a second volume follows soon (prepared by a true fan, like George Lucas, not by an “editor”), this collection will stand as a terrible disappointment, a shocking betrayal.

Rolling Stone, September 6, 1979

3 thoughts on “Undercover: The Thriller Memorandum, Part VIII (09/06/79)

  1. Pingback: Carl Barks — The Unknown (Still) | Miles To Go

  2. Not to be nit-picky, but I believe the panels of Uncle Scrooge at the top of this page are by Dan Rosa, not Carl Barks.

  3. Not nit-picky at all, Stanley — thanks. I had to rely solely on Google for this one; I will amend it (eventually, hopefully, with something by Barks, for now just the generic Undercover stamp).

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