Guest Commentary

On Jeffrey Simser's
"Quiller and the Secret World"

Tim Stevens

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"No rewards are more generous than those given to spies." - Sun-tzu, The Art Of War

Jeff Simser addresses four questions in his essay and provides cogent and controversial answers to them.  I will look at the first and last of these:  what drives Quiller into the secret world of covert action, and why do we want to follow?

Most definitions of a living organism include the requirement of displaying goal-directed behaviour, those of a human being often specifying that the behaviour be subject to a greater or a lesser degree of choice.  I propose that people may be regarded as being more or less alive, and therefore more or less fully human, according to the degree to which they recognise the existence of choice over their actions and exercise that choice.  The greater the impact of the choices we make and the more important the consequences, the more acutely we are aware of the fact that we have exercised choice, and the more alive we feel.

Jeff hits the nail on the head when he says, "[Quiller] fears the world of primly kept gardens and freshly washed autos."  The vital word here is "fears,", not "dislikes" or even "hates."  Quiller literally believes that the aforementioned world represents a threat to his life, which of course it is, for a person of his vitality.  The too-loud footstep, the misjudged blocking of a blow, the failure to avoid the oncoming car--any of these may kill him one day, but he will die knowing what it is like to have been fully alive, to display utter mastery of himself and as much of his environment as was humanly possible.

This is why I regard the passage quoted by Jeff from The Sinkiang Executive, chapter 2, as anomalous.  The fatalism Quiller reveals is completely at odds with his view, exquisitely expressed to his young fellow prisoner in Quiller Balalaika, that we create our own reality.

I believe Quiller has found that, indeed, no rewards are as generous as those given to spies, though the rewards he receives are not the monetary ones Sun-tzu is referring to.  Freed from the shackles of society's approval or disapproval ("civic standing," as Jeff aptly puts it), the spy is as free an agent as it is possible to be, notwithstanding the bureaucratic structure of his organisation.  He must make decisions the outcome of which could end his life or life on the planet.  He must choose whether to act morally by respecting private property, to use Jeff's example, or immorally by torturing an opponent to death, and must rely on his conscience alone as he has no father-figure, no agony-aunt, onto whom he can attempt to push responsibility for his decisions.  Quiller chooses to be a spy because he has realised that the conventional way of living restricts intolerably one's ability to be fully human.  This is not to say that there are no other alternative ways of living--there are--but he is either unaware of them or has chosen to disregard them.

"Escapism" is a word that fits the mood of the times perfectly.  How often do we see a film or read a book and, when telling others about it, smile and shrug in faint embarrassment and say, "There's nothing very profound about it, it's just good escapist fun?"  The term drips with trendy 90s post-modern irony:  "this book/film really is rather trashy, but it's cool to be into trash these days; if it entertains us, excites us, it excludes itself from the realm of serious consideration."

For many people, perhaps the majority, life may be toxically unhappy and grindingly boring, to use Jeff's phrases.  For others, life is exciting, an adventure to be relished.  Both groups need spiritual fuel, so as to hold on to the realisation that one need not sink into despair, that it is possible to gain mastery over one's circumstances.  There are few more immediate and powerful ways to come to this realisation than by reading fiction, in which a realistic and heroic protagonist demonstrates through action and not just in the form of a didactic sermon that the human can make a difference.

"Escapist" fiction allows us to escape the constraints imposed by the culture, by the political system and by our own self-doubts and fears, and move to a higher level of awareness of the possibilities of life.  This is, I propose, what makes espionage fiction and especially that of the Quiller variety so appealing to millions of people, whether they are conscious of it or not.  The setting, i.e., the world of espionage, is not of the greatest importance in itself; it simply is one of the most effective settings in which to display human virtues such as courage, intelligence, integrity and resourcefulness.