Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Ghost by Robert Harris

I've been thinking about depictions of political leaders in fiction, and how Tony Blair seems to have been less fictionalised than Margaret Thatcher, whilst at the same time been regularly played "for real" in dramas such as "The Queen." Robert Harris's Prime Minister in "The Ghost" isn't Tony Blair, but there are a number of things that he takes from Blair. His prime minister has taken Britain into an ill-advised war in Iraq, has left power under a cloud as a result, has rumours circulating around him about his involvement in sanctioning torture of suspects in the War on Terror, has an overly-close relationship with the Americans, and has a politically ambitious wife. "The Ghost" is the story of his ghostwriter, who is helping him with his memoirs. Actually his second ghostwriter for the first has died in unusual circumstances.

I've not read Harris before, and he certainly pulls together a tight, taut story. There's a tension at the heart of what he's doing in that its less about the revelations of the Blair-like ex-PM, than the sense of jeopardy facing the ghost writer himself. I don't think this works particularly well, in that what could have been a brooding psychological thriller is always pulling in the direction of car chases, and physical jeopardy. Its unsurprising that so many of his books have been made into films because Harris is, to all intents and purposes, writing not only the script, but the storyboard - and his descriptions and scenebuilding almost seem intended purely for the screen. I've not seen Polanski's film of the book, but there's nothing in the novel that couldn't have made it's way to the screen. It makes for a strangely disappointing read, in that you're clearly in the hands of a strong writer, who is adept at sketching in a very powerfully rendered world, yet at the same time there's none of the more subtle surprises - psychological surprises - that a good thriller writer can give you. It's not helped by some sloppy editing (sloppy writing?) particularly around the book's use of key technology (minidisk recorders, the internet) at various points. A minidisk is referred to as "digital tape"; the ghost writer's laptop is the last one in the world without wifi... you get the sense that the novel was begun at least, earlier than when its set, yet such sloppiness in a tech thriller make one question the confidence with which Harris writes about politics. It's a shame, as there is much to enjoy in the book - which has come up with an original subject and format (the ghost writer writing his own memoir) - and it does a reasonably good job of getting to the heart of the contemporary political machine.

No comments: