On re-reading Tim Powers’ Declare – again

Mild spoiler alert.Declare

I know the novel inside out and back to front by now, but every time I pull it off the shelf, I am soon lost in the pleasure of its familiarity. Declare is my desert island, indeed my dessert island book, and my love for it is as deep as my love for desserts.

It’s only because of Declare that I have read, and enjoyed, John Le Carré, David Downing’s Station series, countless other espionage thrillers, and devoured numerous books about Kim Philby and the rest of the Cambridge Spies. By now, I’m guilty of Cold War nostalgia, but there’s something about the era, and the Great Game, and the dead drops and signals and wilderness of mirrors that speaks to me.

This time, I only started reading it again because my daughter brought it on holiday with us, and I’m fed up of reading off screens. The other daughter brought Tim Powers’ other classic, The Drawing of the Dark, and I read that before even realising we’d packed Declare, too. My daughter had just started it when I spotted it. She left it lying around and I, er, annexed it.

Apart from all the spy stuff, of course, there’s Powers’ usual mix of almost-credible supernatural explanation for real-world events, and you’re always sent scurrying to look things up. Was that really…? And did they actually…? Otherwise irrational acts, unexplainable events, come sharply into focus. Philby and his pet fox, the head injury he received just before his defection, Stalin’s purges and executions of his illegal spy networks. I was in Broadway, near St James’ Park, not long ago, and I got a frisson just thinking about the spy game. One of the reasons the novel spoke so strongly to me was that it came out shortly after I finished my PhD, and it includes reference to parasites in radio communications, which was a big part of both my PhD thesis and my MA dissertation.

All of this is wonderful, but I think the thing that has its hooks deepest into me is the romance that is central to the novel between the protagonist, the hapless but courageous Andrew Hale, and his partner in weirdness and spying, the dedicated and equally courageous Elena Teresa Ceniza-Bendiga. 

Elena is probably my favourite character in all of fiction, and I probably subconsciously named the woman in my novel French Blood after her. Recruited by the communists as a young teenager during the Spanish Civil War, she first meets Hale in wartime Paris, where she acts as his controller, his liaison with the illegal networks and generally bosses him around, knowing just that little bit more than he does about what’s going on. He’s barely out of boyhood and she’s a slip of a girl, a little bit younger, who has seen and suffered so much more than him. Early in their relationship, she declares that she’s married to the cause and will brook no romantic attachments. It happens anyway, as they flit around Paris avoiding the Gestapo. He, swept up in events that he knows little about, cares more for her than he does for any cause, and everything he does is to some extent designed to impress her – or keep her alive. One of my favourite lines comes from a scene in which she gets stern and exasperated with him for continually expressing romantic thoughts.

‘“I really should report you for spontaneity,” she sighed.’

They are separated, over and over – theirs seems a doomed relationship – and at the very beginning of the novel (which takes place in 1963, before several flashbacks and a flash-forward), Hale, called back into the Game, is informed of a cover story which he knows will cause her to believe he has betrayed her and everything they have worked for since 1941. 

I won’t spoil it any more. I’ve recommended this book over and over again, and I guess I will keep doing so. Elena 4Ever.

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