BEIRUT: Forged passports, faked identities, suitcases with hidden compartments and bags of cash in multiple currencies – Mischa Hiller’s rollicking new novel “Shake Off” has all the elements of a classic espionage thriller. There is a sculptor who specializes in gadgetry but is recklessly indiscreet, a courier whose faith is wavering, a scar-faced villain, a handler as father figure and a beautiful woman who may or may not be an artfully laid trap.
This cast of supporting characters rotates around Michel, a secret agent posing as a student in London, who is – or rather believes he is – working for a shadowy agency bent on avenging the murder of his parents, among many others. The catch is that the agency at play here is purportedly a renegade arm of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the foundational trauma is the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre.
Just as Hiller’s audacious debut novel “Sabra Zoo,” published last year, set a coming-of-age drama amid the devastation of the camps, “Shake Off” uses the same event to take another stab at genre fiction. This time around, the author trades a young man’s painful journey from innocence to experience for a sexier story of lies, deceits and betrayals in a criminal underworld of cold, suave and irresistible spies.
“Shake Off” is one in a number of recent cultural products that do not so much treat as stylize the tired and intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, pulling it out of the margins of polemical, art-house or high literary fare and placing it firmly in the mainstream, however formulaic the container used to do so may be.
Ari Folman made the conflict a cartoon in the movie “Waltz With Bashir.” Olivier Assayas rendered it camp in the television mini-series “Carlos.” Julian Schnabel gave sweeping historical epic, teen spirit and paint-by-numbers politics a whirl in the film “Miral.” That all those examples are screen works is no accident. “Shake Off” aches for cinematic adaptation on every page.
Hiller’s hero is a young man orphaned at the age of 15. The novel opens in 1989, when he is enrolled at the School of Oriental and African Studies, a terrific student with a terrible attendance record and a Qatari trust fund paying his tuition.
He carries Swiss, Greek and Lebanese passports. Only the last is real, apparently – it identifies Michel by the surname Khoury rather than Anton – but it also turns a Greek Orthodox Palestinian from West Beirut into a Maronite Lebanese from East Beirut. This grates on Michel because the falsified bio, Hiller’s keen metaphor for fiction itself, links him to the Phalangists, who killed his entire family of five in one go.
To explain how Michel became an operative in disguise, Hiller gives readers cascading flashbacks. We see Michel as a boy tagging along with his mother as she cleans the apartments of wealthy Lebanese who own a great many things but very few books. We see him crushed beneath the weight of his father, soaked in blood, escorted out of the camp by an Israeli soldier and a Red Crescent medic.
We see him as a foster child, taken in by a childless, bourgeois Beiruti couple. We see his first sexual experience with a Kurdish maid, who eases his nightmares but is promptly sent away. We see his first, life-altering encounter with the formidable Abu Leila, who pays him a visit and asks him if he is interested in seeing justice done.
From there, the action accelerates as Michel is shipped off to Cyprus, Germany (West and East) and the Soviet Union for education, training and what Hiller lovingly calls “tradecraft.” (Michel’s Moscow trainer Vasily tells him that every KGB trainee reads John Le Carré for the tradecraft. “He has been in the business,” Vasily says of the bestselling spy novelist. “You can tell.”)
Michel shows an aptitude for languages. He learns to pick locks and shake off surveillance teams, one of the many reverberations of the book’s title, which more obviously alludes to the intifada but is also tweaked by Hiller to mean kicking an addiction.
The albatross around Michel’s neck is an unhealthy reliance on codeine, which he takes to deal with the job and obliterate memories of the massacre. He has other problems, too. His gadget technician Lemi is too loose with information. His courier Ramzi is nagging about family life and taking fewer risks. Things go very wrong when Ramzi is detained on a trip to Ramallah, where he is meant to trade one package (cash) for another (documents).
The exchange is part of Abu Leila’s grand plan to set up a meeting, which is to be the culmination of Michel’s career. One expects the meeting to concern an assassination plot, a coup d’etat or a full-fledged revolution. But no, what Abu Leila wants is a counter-proposal to the Oslo Accords, which, in the time of the novel, are still nebulous back-channel talks. What Abu Leila wants, in other words, is a one-state rather than two-state solution, “a secular, democratic state for Jews, Christians and Muslims. A country where everyone would have equal rights, regardless of their religion.”
For 21st-century readers, that sounds almost quaint. But it is a plan that various legitimate and subterranean intelligence services are willing to kill for in “Shake Off” and, more to the point, the “Old Man,” aka Arafat, is against it.
When Michel gets his hands on Ramzi’s bungled envelope, Hiller ramps up the action. Abu Leila is killed and Michel goes on the run, taking his girlfriend Helen with him. The envelope remains unopened until the end, when it signals a betrayal as forceful as a kick to the stomach. Or does it?
Hiller, 49, is an English novelist raised in London, Beirut and Dar es Salaam. He has a gift for brisk pacing and heart-pounding suspense, but his dialogue is wooden.
Take when Helen breezes into Michel’s room and, for no apparent reason, asks: “Do you think men are weaker than women?”
“That’s not a fair question when you have a man crying in your room,” Michel responds.
When the two of them tumble into bed, Michel relates: “I undid her buttons with my free hand and opened the shirt. As I suspected, she wore no brassiere, but then she hardly needed it. ‘Do you think I’m too small, Michel?’ ‘I think you are just right.’”
Wince-inducing stuff, that.
The misogyny of the spy novel genre is, of course, well known. In Hiller’s fictional world, women exist to seduce or to breed. If they are beautiful, they are volatile. If they are average, they are desperate. Given the paucity of women in politics in this region, whether in positions of power or proposing serious ideas for the resolution of long-simmering conflicts, it would be nice for novelists to imagine such characters into being, if for no other reason than to shake things up, rather than off.
Mischa Hiller’s “Shake Off” is published by Telegram and available in bookstores throughout Beirut.