CIA, Harold L. Humes and Harry Mathews

He didn’t tell me much about CIA’s modus operandi that I hadn’t heard already, but I did learn about the generally accepted laws of intelligence organizations. The basic rule is that if something can go wrong, it will. Applied to information from the field as it was read in supervisory offices, this means: “When something can be misinterpreted, it will be.”

Harry Mathews, My Life in CIA

We don’t keep secrets these days. We don’t want to be told things that should be kept secret. We don’t joke (especially in airports); we don’t pretend. We don’t pretend to know secrets. Secret agents among us pretend to be something they’re not. Secret agents often pretend to be what they think secret agents should be. And we assume we’re stalked, watched over, listened to by agents so invisible they don’t need to pretend to be secret. We don’t know what combination of places frequented, things read or words used on a cell or the internet will trigger the profile that becomes the secret we do not know we keep. So, what if we happen to be paranoid?

doc_humes_1968-fullinit_.jpgCheck out Rachael Donadio’s essay on Harold L. Humes in the New York Times Book Review, February 24, 2008. In the early 1950s Humes founded The Paris Review with Peter Matthiessen and others and wrote two highly-praised novels, The Underground City (1958), about post-World War II spies in Paris, and Men Die (1959), a story about African-American soldiers on a U.S. munitions base in the Caribbean. Called “Doc” by friends, Humes was a cultural touchstone in New York in the ‘50s and ’60s. He even managed Norman Mailer’s run for mayor in 1961. But he became increasingly paranoid. He believed the CIA was out to get him. It turns out, in fact, that his friend Matthiessen did work for the CIA, using The Paris Review as cover. Humes’ last years were defined by mental illness and odd behavior and he never wrote another novel. He died in 1992.

Humes’ daughter, Immy Humes, has made a documentary film about his life, and his books have been reissued by Random House. I haven’t read them, though I’m planning to do so. But I have another reason for bringing him up. Reading Donadio’s essay I thought of a superb book I did read a couple years ago, Harry Mathews’ My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973 (Dalkey Archive Press, $13.95).

America has not had literary spy writing to match the range of British fiction, from Ian Fleming to Graham Greene to John Le Carre, with some exceptions. For example, Joseph McElroy’s Lookout Cartridge and Don DeLillo’s Names hold great mystery and suspense, with an undercurrent of menace Americans feel they’ve earned in one way or another, even before Iraq.

my_life_in_cia_lg1.jpgMathews calls My Life in CIA an “autobiographical novel,” and narrator Harry Mathews’ tale has a convincing enough ring to it that I suspect it must be true at least in part. Mathews himself is an American apart – the only American included in the French literary society known as “Oulipo,” which means, roughly, “workshop of potential literature.” The group included Italo Calvino and Georges Perec, author of Life: A User’s Manual, who appears in My Life in CIA. As a group they’ve found odd ways to be original with edgy, contrived, but very accomplished writing. Try reading Mathews’ The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium and you’ll wonder what place you stumbled into and when the games begin. Mathews is sly about his own reputation. Undercover, so to speak, he overhears two men taking about him. One says, “He writes some pretty weird stuff. But from what I’ve heard, he himself is not weird.” “He was weird,” replies the other, and then goes on to explain why Mathews’ oddball behavior made it difficult to decide if Mathews really did have a life in CIA.

Mathews’ secret life begins unremarkably. In 1973 he grows tired of the fact that friends and acquaintances assume he is a CIA agent, so he decides to pretend he is one. He makes up a few simple intelligence rules. He never denies that he’s an agent and he figures out how to make routine activities look suspicious. On the street he acts as if he is trying to elude surveillance. He scribbles cryptic signs on walls with pink chalk. He buys a battered aluminum suitcase and keeps it next to his door. And he learns spy lingo. His friend Patrick is in the commercial spy business, studying world hotspots to compile “intelligence” estimates for international corporations. Mathews asks Patrick for “useful information” about the CIA. Patrick tells him, “The first thing to remember is that nobody connected with the Agency calls it the CIA. It’s plain CIA.”

Mathews needs a cover so he sets up shop as a “travel counselor,” providing services to “the exceptional traveler with unusual requirements.” Mathews exploits the background noise of world events to make it seem that if there’s an American in the room, so is a bit of international intrigue. The Shah nationalizes Iranian oil. Allende courts disaster in Chile. The Americans sign a peace treaty with North Vietnam and then bomb the North while at the same time pulling troops out of the South. The Watergate hearings are daily news in the U.S. 1973 is a watershed year for America: “I thought it was emblematic of our decadence that in the week of Nixon’s second inauguration the American League introduced the degrading position of designated hitter into baseball.”

Mathews’ daily life is interesting, too, the women he meets and the Paris culture he absorbs. But as the consequences of secrecy and coincidence pile up, we sense Mathews’ internal sea change, a shift from denial to silence to complicity. At one time he cringed “in personal shame” at America’s involvement in Vietnam. “Now, playing my ridiculous spy game, my feelings changed. I didn’t lose interest in events, in fact I followed them as closely as ever; but I no longer thought myself compromised by them.” As readers we begin to wonder if Mathews actually was CIA and if this memoir is designed to throw us off that scent. Does he protest too much? Or is the protest another layer of the dissembling?

Episodes are by turns credible, improbable and hallucinatory, including an episode where Mathews is rolled up in a carpet and delivered to a strange party, where he meets his double and nemesis, a man called Zendol: “I looked up at an ox of a man in cream-coloured silk shirtsleeves, arms akimbo. He was considering me with less than curiosity.” If only. Mathews’ dilemma is this: When you meet the man resolute in his own game and his own rules, your game and your rules are of little consequence. So if your game really is only a game . . .

As Patrick tells Mathews, “A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it’s a caption that decides which thousand words.” So who’s writing the caption? How Mathews resolves his predictament could be how real life CIA legends are made, or it could be just a great story.

And the writing is lovely. Here Mathews describes the garden of the house he owns in a French mountain village:

I had no real garden; there were only irregular planted areas around the house. What grew in them was the result of luck, the ability to survive, and spasmodic initiatives on my part. The conditions for gardening were difficult – a mountain climate, limy soil, shade or half-shade almost everywhere – so if a plant took, I tended to let it be. It wasn’t a rational approach, and a green disorder was the most I could hope for.

Nudge that description a bit and it’s a metaphor for his writing, his life. Because Mathews calls My Life in CIA an “autobiographical novel” we wonder if it’s a fake memoir, a faked fake memoir, or if it holds seeds of truth in which Mathews, like Mattheissen, was CIA. Doesn’t matter. Most genre thrillers are over-plotted. Reading My Life in CIA again I was struck by how uncontrived Mathews’ contrivance is. We take delivery of so many potted-plant and flower-arrangement fictions, when what we really want is the green disorder of a book like My Life in CIA.