Published ten years ago (2001), Declare is Tim Powers’ Cold War novel. It focuses on the disturbing figure of Kim Philby, the famous British Cold War traitor. I have often been puzzled about the motivations of Philby and his companions, Maclean and Burgess; why would the scions of privileged families turn on their own country and betray its secrets to the Soviets?
Powers’ novel attempts an explanation, and it also attempts to account for the depth of evil into which the Soviet empire sank over its depraved history.
Powers is known for using historical figures and events as the basis for fantasy literature—known as “magical realism” if the author is considered to be “literary”—in novels such as The Stress of Her Regard and On Stranger Tides. In Declare, Powers takes this technique to an astonishing level.
The world of espionage is a natural place for the strange and surprising; after all, it is a shadowy world in which the players of the “great game,” a phrase which Powers borrows from Kipling’s Kim, rarely know quite what is happening or whom to trust. At the same time, the players may sense that they are involved in the real mainsprings of the events of history, but the history is unknown to those who are not initiates. Thus the appeal is to what C. S. Lewis called “The Inner Ring” in an essay of that name. The desire to be “in the know,” to be one of the small number of a secret but powerful elite, is a powerful one, and it is gradually revealed to be a mainspring of the action of Declare.
As the story opens, the protagonist, a British lecturer, Andrew Hale, receives a coded message in a phone call on the second day of 1963 that reactivates him as an agent for the first time in ten years, and about fifteen years after he has ceased to be an active agent. Hale was baptized a Catholic as a child but has lost (or abandoned) his faith and has given his primary loyalty to the British Crown. From the beginning we see that Hale has suffered from what we now call post-traumatic stress, but what is the source? Is it simply the stress of the life of an espionage agent, or is there something more? Gradually the events that led to his dismissal from the service are revealed to the reader, through a series of flashbacks. Hale’s reluctance to think about the circumstances is evident in the way that the story unfolds and contrasts with his acquiescence in his reactivation; it takes some time for him to admit to himself and for the reader to discover what is behind his mixture of feelings about Declare, the project on which he was working at the time of his greatest failure.
The role of Communism in the story is partially exemplified in the character of Elena Ceniza-Bendiga, a Spanish woman who when Hale meets her in 1941 is a devout Communist and considers herself married to the Party. Her journey both contrasts with Hale’s and parallels it.
The fantastic element in the plot involves interaction of occult and even demonic forces with the dark world of espionage, a remarkably good fit. Powers uses gaps and unexplained aspects of the life of Kim Philby to insert this element in a plausible and compelling way. Philby’s father was a noted Arabist, and the Middle Eastern connection with this story is fascinating. (Powers discusses his approach to Philby’s life in an Author’s Note and in this interview: http://www.theworksoftimpowers.com/exclusive-author-interview/exclusive-author-interview-9/.
Andrew Hale’s fear of the supernatural (entirely justified by events in the plot) is balanced by his attraction to the power and knowledge that it seems to offer to him; Philby, too, reveals his desire to be the one who knows all that is to be known. The lives of each reveal the consequences of the character’s choices.
In Declare, questions of deception and recognition are crucial. Who will recognize a character, and as what? What kind of union does one want to achieve, and with whom? I found a passage in Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth: Part Two that touches on a theme of Declare: “’Eternal life’ is gained through ‘recognition’, presupposing here the Old Testament concept of recognition: recognizing creates communion; it is union of being with the one recognized. But of course the key to life is not any kind of recognition, but to ‘know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’ ([John] 17:3)” (83). Indeed, to be recognized by the occult supernatural powers is a terrifying experience in Declare, but the events of the novel leave an opening for other forms of recognition.
As a reviewer at Amazon remarks, Powers’ work is reminiscent of the novels of Charles Williams. Declare reminds me of Williams’ All Hallows’ Eve in the significance of baptism and of Descent into Hell in the use of the doppelganger. Indeed, doubling is almost a theme of the novel, and several characters encounter doubles and alter egos.
Declare touches on the deepest aspects of life and on some of the most compelling events of the history of the twentieth century. It is a novel that lingers in the thoughts long after the reading and that repays rereading.