I’ve saved Powers’ best for last in the Tim Powers series.
The title comes from the Book of Job, Chapter 38:4:
Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Declare, if thou hast understanding.
God is speaking to Job out of a whirlwind, the Job whose loyalty He’s decided to test by allowing Satan to take all Job’s wealth, all his children, and giving him boils.
Like Job, Declare is a story of faith and loyalty. But Powers’ story shows that faith and loyalty can have their dark side too depending on the cause they serve.
And, again, my Raw Feeds differ from reviews. They have spoilers.
Raw Feed (2002): Declare, Tim Powers, 2000.
A very accomplished novel and now, of the Powers’ I’ve read, my favorite. [I haven’t read his last two.]
Powers combines the most impressive amount of research and diversity of elements of any of his novels: the minutiae of Cold War espionage (mostly the British and Russian intelligence services but some, also, with the American and French services; I would be curious if the various recognition signals people employ are taken from actual histories), his Roman Catholic faith, the lives of John Philby and his notorious son Kim, Arabian myths involving djinn and A Thousand Nights and One Night, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Lawrence of Arabia, legends of the Ark on Mount Ararat, biblical allusions to the real story of Solomon threatening to split the disputed child in half with a sword and also to the mysterious Nephiliim of Genesis, other members of the Cambridge spy network, and the literally, in this secret history, ghoulish nature of Communism.
There are some typical Powers techniques and themes.
Body swapping of a sort shows up in the confused identities protagonist Andrew Hale experiences when he meets his half-brother, Kim Philby, after the latter has escaped to Moscow. This notion also shows up with the notion of split identities and doubles throughout the book: Kim Philby’s ability to be in two places at once until Andrew is born when Kim is ten; John Philby being confused, as an infant, with another child (as usual, when Powers includes real people in his novels, the given details of their lives are drawn from actual histories and biographies — here, in the unusual step of having an afterword, he explicitly states where many of the details about Philby’s life came from), the suppression of identity often felt when in the presence of the djinn, particularly when Hale and Elena Teresa Ceniza-Bendiga (her last name translates into English as Ashbless so another installment is added to Powers’ and James Blaylock’s joint myth of the Ashbless family) are psychically merged with the djinn during the 1948 expedition to Ararat. Guy Burgess is also said to have killed a double of his.
Powers once again relies on analogies of electricity and general physics to rationalize his magic. The djinn of Mount Ararat are said, because of the presence of anchor stones, to be in a “grounded state”. Some djinn inhabit the Heaviside Layer so important in bouncing radio signals around. The importance of a direction of rotation is also here as in Power’s Expiration Date.
I liked the notion that the djinn expressed thought as a marcoscopic kinetic animation of surrounding matter — and the symmetrical idea of imposing thought and experience on them with matter associated with their fellow djinn. I wouldn’t classify anything by Powers since his Dinner at the Deviant’s Palace as sf — and neither would he, but he tries very hard to suspend disbelief in his magical worlds by using concepts like symmetry from physics as well as external trappings like the language of electricity. If his magic is not rationalized into science fiction, associations with the language of rational science is certainly used.
Once again, the chapter epigraphs, here mainly drawn from Gilgamesh and, especially, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (the source of Kim Philby’s first name) are very appropriate. When the young Andrew Hale first hears the ritualistic phrases of the secret spy network that exists in the British Special Operations Executive (particularly the wonderful phrase, drawn from Arab myth, “O fish, are you constant to the covenant?”, we immediately sense something very important even if Hale doesn’t. It reminded me of Scott Crane’s first card game on Lake Mead in Last Call when he is reminded that his hand has been assumed. Andrew Hale being raised for great purposes and manipulated and threatened by outside forces reminded me of Kootie in Expiration Date.
Declare also involves family matters, specifically the revelation (not really a surprise to me) that Philby and Hale are half-brothers. (I liked the split of a unified personality into, respectively, an obsession with family and, in Hale, a concern for duty and loyalty). However, it is the relationship between Hale and Elena and questions of faith, not the exorcism of spirits, that is addressed in the epilogue after the djinn of Mount Ararat have been killed.
The structure of this novel, which bounces from the 1930s to the 1960s and points between, is the story of the strange relationship between Elena and Hale. Normally, I don’t like the stories where men and women are thrown accidentally together and, under stress, become lovers, but I didn’t mind this one which is especially surprising because Powers not only doesn’t describe their two nights of sex but doesn’t really describe how they come to love each other. It just happens as they work as spies in Nazi-occupied Paris.
The novel has four or five passages of beautiful prose, and one is when Hale, listening to the tapping of cryptic signals on the radio wonders if his old lover Elena is at the keys. Another is when he thinks it would just be better if he never saw Elena again.
A key part of the novel is the question of faith and why anyone would deny, if not the existence, the authority and company of God. Elena’s early faith in Communism, including a statement that she would willingly obey a command to return to Moscow to be executed because she has faith that such a fate would help bring about a better, Communist world, clearly stems from the betrayed Catholic faith of her childhood (her parents were killed by Catholic loyalists during the Spanish Civil War). She looses her faith in Communism when she is exposed to the cryptic, secret order that exists in Soviet intelligence to preserve and extend a deal Russia has made with the flesh and blood devouring Mistress of Misfortune, Russia’s protective djinn. (Powers, in a chapter epigraph, literalizes Karl Marx’s famous line about the specter of communism). Elena surprisingly recovers her old Catholic faith. Hale drifts out of his Catholic faith but discovers it again confronting the djinn of the Arabian wastes and the dangers during his 1963 Ararat expedition. Hale is tempted by the power and immortality the djinn offer that his brother Kim Philby seeks. And he despairs, at times, of winning. However, he eventually realizes he must press on with hope if not always with faith. His faith is rewarded when he finds Elena at St. Basil’s on her fortieth birthday, a promise she made many years ago to the Virgin Mary if she survived Lubyanka Prison.
I think it is significant that the novel simply ends Hale’s and Elena’s story with them embarking on a walk out of the Soviet Union. We have no idea if they make it or not. I think Powers’ point is that it’s not important whether they make it. It’s that they are loyal to each other and try to make it out together. As Hale notes, you have to play the hand dealt by life. Both reject the notion of immortality.
The ideas why Philby and others reject such a faith strike me as powerfully believable. Hale meets a descendant of the Nephiliim in the desert. His top half is like that of an immortal man, his bottom half a stone rooting him in place. Yet he is glad of his situation because he means he will not die and be called to judgement. This same fear and resentment of final judgment motivates Philby against Catholicism. Elena, on the other hand, realizes that it is partially pride that has kept her away from her childhood faith. She hates the idea she must approach God as soiled as any other sinner.
It is also the same sort of pride, a sort of , Hale notes, aristocratic pride, that keeps Philby away from worshiping God. (I also liked the wonderful legends of fallen angels hanging on or being pulled behind Noah’s Ark and thus avoiding destruction.) Ultimately, Philby goes for the option of being a sort of king to the Gray People of Moscow, pathetic traitors and Western ex-patriates deprived of their passports and inhabiting, as Powers wonderfully describes it, the same sort of joyless existence as the hell of Babylonian myth. In fact, in the epilogue’s scene in Moscow, Powers does a very good job conveying the sad, pathetic, horrible nature of Soviet Communism. Though Powers doesn’t do it, but Milton might as well be invoked in his line about better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.
I liked the Catholic influence on this novel. I also liked the phrase about sinning sensuously is sinning like a beast, sinning by deceit is sinning like a man, and sinning by pride is sinning like an angel (and pride is the grandest and most common sin of this novel).
Powers has described this book as “tradecraft meets Lovecraft”. It’s more tradecraft than Lovecraft, but Powers love of that author shows up at the beginning when members of the 1948 Ararat expedition have, in best Lovecraftian tradition, gone mad. The djinn being drawn to certain mathematical shapes reminded me of Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch-House”. The passages where Hale feels like something old and powerful has been drawn down from the stars is like Lovecraft. The descriptions of whirling heavens also reminded me of Lovecraft though, according to the afterword, they are probably more inspired by a dream of John Philby’s. Some of the language describing the sensation of being on Ararat’s glacier in 1963 reminded me of Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness”.
Thematically and by depth of research and skill of characterization, the best Powers’ secret history I’ve read.