Secret Protocols by Peter Vansittart

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The Independent Culture

To anyone raised on the McEwan-and-water orthodoxies of contemporary British fiction, the view from Vansittart's Mount Olympus can be a bracing experience. For a start, there is the sense of a ferocious intellect burning unappeasably away, writing exactly what it likes without giving a damn about the Waterstone's buyer or the prize jury. Then there is the rapt cosmopolitanism of the gaze: not westward across the Atlantic, but back into the heart of an old Europe which, for all the anaesthetising effect of post-war politics, still seems very much alive. Dense, allusive, with all kinds of buried sub-texts poking up from beneath its surface, Vansittart's work often seems to operate by way of a series of barely recognisable codes, a view of history so thronged with detail that it practically needs foot-noting.

Hitting the 1950s, for example, Secret Protocols casually refers to "a Tory politician who had lost his seat for opposing Suez... jowled and piggy-eyed, a CND vice-president, novelist, the modern Dickens." A moment or two with the reference books suggests that these gentlemen are Nigel Nicolson and J B Priestley. Other twitches at the reader's elbow are yet more recherché. A few pages later, Vansittart describes a character as "unpredictable, a chimp holding a Sèvres" in a delicate little reprise of Evelyn Waugh's famously bad review of Stephen Spender's autobiography.

Perhaps, in the end, such layering doesn't matter: literature is still literature, after all, whether re-imagined by the book club browser or the deconstructionist from Yale. As he is now in his 86th year - his first reviews were commissioned by George Orwell for the left-wing weekly Tribune - Vansittart's perspective is necessarily long-term. Erich, his super-reflective hero, grows up in a powerfully realised pre-war Estonia, the child of an English mother and a high-caste Germanic father, who in moments of irritation can be found murmuring the expletive "Hegel". News of European power politics is brought to the dinner table by the "Herr General", a deeply ambiguous neighbour who cabals with the Nazis while affecting to despise them. Come the war, when German Balts are ordered "home" and the Russians invade, Erich ends up in a displaced persons camp, nervously monitoring the frets and fractures of its vagrant populace and - significantly - framing his observations in terms of art and colour: "Yellow was maggoty, blue deathly. Crimson neither glowed nor swaggered but spilt from the dead and wounded."

"Wilfred", the camp's self-effacing power-broker, survives to join his young protégé in Liberation-era Paris, where real people - Malraux, Cocteau, Primo Levi - start to wander across an increasingly stylised canvas. Searching for news of his vanished parents, the Herr General, anything that may be salvageable from that lost, early life, Erich consoles himself with the mysterious "Suzie", a figure as compromised as any one else in the novel, and eventually revealed as a Vichy collaborator. Relocated to England, as a publicist at the embassy of the exiled Estonian government, he bags a ringside seat at the Fifties charivari of Suez, Teddy Boys and Angry Young Men. For all its focus on a single, deracinated survivor, the patterns uncovered here are those of ancient European enmities and alliances that, even now, conspire to derail modern notions of "progress": many years later, at the dawning of Estonian independence, the Herr General will re-emerge to talk cryptically about the necessity for fresh starts. Telegraphically written - Vansittart is particularly scornful of the definitive article - yet containing moments of extraordinary poetic beauty, Secret Protocols also carries a scent more or less vanished from the high-street display cases: the whiff of moral seriousness.