Category Archives: Castle In The Air

Review: Castle In The Air

“In this world . . .

It’s Heaven when:
The French are chefs
The British are police
The Germans are engineers
The Swiss are bankers
And the Italians are lovers

It’s Hell when:
The English are chefs
The Germans are police
The French are engineers
The Swiss are lovers
And the Italians are bankers.”

Hidekaz Himaruya

Here and there in the bustling center of Paris underground garages have been built–dug?  constructed?  scooped out?–with access direct from the wide busy streets.  The hustling little vehicles of Paris descend into these nests without slackening their street speed, so that to an innocent bystander on the sidewalk it looks as though every once in a while a hurrying automobile is simply swallowed up into a hole in the ground.  Zip zip zip, go all the cars, and then zip-floop.  Zip, zip, zip, zip-floop, zip zip, zip-floop, all day long.  It can become unnerving, at least to innocent bystanders who continue to stand there all day long instead of going about their business.

On a sunny Tuesday, at midday, such a bystander would have seen, amid the other zipping beeping traffic, a black Volkswagen beetle convertible with the top down, looking like a midget command car, sporting front and rear the oval white license plates of West Germany.  Driving this VW, and yelling at the nearby French drivers in German, was Rudi Schlisselmann, burglar extraordinary.  Beside him, munching morosely on pills to aid dyspepsia, sat Otto Berg, the last of the happy wanderers.  And seated ramrod straight in back, looking to neither left nor right, suffering the cacophony of the traffic as he would suffer any fools–that is, only up to a point–sat Herman Muller, team leader.

Zip-floop.  Volkswagen all gone.

Shortly thereafter, if your bystander were still standing by, he would have seen a little red Fiat zipping among the blue and white Renaults and Simcas, and at the wheel of the little red Fiat he would have seen Angelo Salvagambelli, teeth sparkling in a lush smile, black hair glistening in the wind, a white polyester scarf wrapped in devil-may-care fashion around his neck.  Beside him, blinking in terror at the traffic and the noise and the people and the sunshine, cowered Vito Palone, retired master criminal dragged out of retirement by popular demand.  Or at least by demand of Rosa Palermo, who was now squeezed uncomfortably into the small back seat of the Fiat, from which command post she kept up a steady stream of advice and warning to Angelo in re the other traffic, all of which Angelo cheerfully ignored.

Zip-floop.  Ta ta, Fiat.

Almost immediately after that, our loitering bystander’s attention would have been attracted to the smallest, oldest, most battered and dented little gray Renault ever seen on the streets of Paris.  Since its license plate began with “75,” the number code for Parisian cars, this bedraggled little Renault must frequently have been seen on the streets of Paris, and it’s only a wonder the dogcatcher never grabbed it.  Alone at the wheel of this mutt–for who could possibly be induced to travel anywhere in it other than its driver?–slouched Charles Moule, pianist and existentialist, a cigarette smoldering from the corner of his mouth.

Zip-floopA bas, Renault.

After a few minutes of no activity, our bystander–doesn’t he have a home?–next sees coming along the street sailing gaily through the traffic, a bicycle built for two, with Jean LeFraque in front and beautiful cat-burglar Renee Chateaupierre in back.  This bicycle, with its attractive riders, being taller, more slender and more agile than most of the other traffic, was not only attracting a lot of attention from the other travelers but was also making better time.

Zip-floop, Away the bicycle, accelerating.

But what’s this coming?  A London taxicab, in Paris?  Naturally, with everybody’s pal but nobody’s fool Bruddy Dunk at the wheel.  And reclining in comfort in back, feet stretched well out, were Sir Mortimer Maxwell and Andrew Pinkenham, discussing Great Crimes of the Century.

Zip-floop.  To the depths, Austin Taxi.

Our bystander, convinced that he’d seen everything, departed at last, but he was wrong.  One more vehicle now came down the same street, growling mightily and cutting left and right through the slower traffic; a motorcycle, with sidecar.  At the handlebars of the motorcycle, head sheathed in leather goggles, perched Eustace Dench, master criminal, the singular begetter and deviser of this entire caper.  And in the sidecar, startlingly beautiful and windblown, the Yerbadoroan lovely, Lida Perez, for whom–perhaps–this whole enterprise was being undertaken.

Zip-floop.  Motorcycle and sidecar down the ramp.

That’s a very long quote, I know, but it’s there for two reasons–to save me some of the trouble of introducing all the main characters in this book, and to demonstrate that said book is a lot more fun than you might have heard.   I think Westlake had fun writing it, and I know I had fun reading it (twice).  But no doubt about it–it’s different.  It’s not Parker, it’s not Dortmunder, it’s not even Grofield.  It’s not Dancing Aztecs either, though that’s what some people compare it with, to its considerable disadvantage.  If that’s what you’re expecting, you will be very disappointed.   But as I’ve said before, the one thing you can always expect from Donald E. Westlake, writing under his own name, is the unexpected.

What makes it so different?  For one thing, it’s set entirely in Europe,  and all but one of the main characters are from Europe.  The one exception comes from Yerbadora, another of Westlake’s fictional South American countries (he comes up with a few more, there’s not going to be any room left there for the real ones) .

Westlake very rarely wrote about Europe, and when he did, it was mainly in passing, as in last week’s book, Nobody’s Perfect, where Dortmunder spends a few days in London and Scotland, and you can tell Westlake has been there, but–well–there’s this scene at a Scottish manor where a policeman shows up at an inconvenient moment and says “Ul-lo ullo ullo, what’s this; then?”   I feel confident Westlake could have written a better line for a Scottish policeman than that, had he given a royal damn either way.   If you’re going to play around with clichés  you’d best play well.

That book is not about Europe.   This one most certainly is, and the difference is palpable.  Westlake gives a damn about getting it right here, but he’s still hampered by the fact that he does not know Europe the way he does the U.S. or even the Caribbean or Latin America, nor is he ever likely to.   But then, you know, there is a tradition of foreign travelers writing extremely well and perceptively about lands they experienced only briefly–Alexis de Tocqueville certainly had some highly pertinent things to say about America–not all of which were complimentary, but somehow he was so diplomatique, so genuinely interested in our queer ways, that we just assumed they were compliments, and we teach that book in school to this very day.

The thing is, there’s an advantage to being an outsider–you get a different perspective–what seems commonplace to the native will seem strange and wondrous to the foreigner.  Something as mundane as a parking garage may strike him as fascinating.  Still and all, he’s going to be vulnerable to the usual nationalist memes, using them as a form of shorthand–but then, so are the natives, albeit not in the same way.   We all have ideas about our nationalities, conceptions of who we are as a people, and those ideas can be deeply misleading, but they’re rarely made up out of thin air–and they can be a very important part of our identities, singular and collective.

Westlake drew heavily on the movies when writing this one–not Hollywood movies, but films made in Europe by Europeans about Europeans, in France, Italy, Britain–all of which have exceptionally fine traditions of crime fiction, and films about heists, comic and otherwise.  Germany has made perhaps an underrated contribution to this genre, but most of Germany’s crime fiction isn’t available in English translation–Westlake certainly would have seen a lot of German films about crime (Fritz Lang’s, for example) at New York art houses, but I think in the case of Deutschland, he may have been drawing more on his experiences while stationed there during his hitch in the Air Force.  He couldn’t fall back much on their cinema here, because the comic caper is not a form the Germans are known for, though they seem to enjoy it as much as anyone else.

Somebody familiar with the various nationalities involved here may read this book (or this review) and say “What rubbish!”, but really–are people in America actually like Dortmunder or Parker?  Didn’t Westlake to some extent draw on established tropes in pulp fiction and movies to create those two iconic figures, and their various cohorts?  Didn’t Americans more or less create the notion in our popular fiction that we were a nation of gangsters and cowboys (and, somewhat paradoxically, boy scouts)?  We’re nothing of the kind, you know.   But sometimes we like to think we are.

And in reacting to the myth, we may end up making it more real.  We’d rather be something than nothing–and so it is with people everywhere.  The French, Italians, Germans, Brits, etc, all believe in myths about themselves as well.  Because the alternative is so very dreary.  And because any nation needs some kind of myth to unify around, otherwise it wouldn’t be a nation at all.  National myths aren’t necessarily lies-just heavily embellished truths.  Freely mixed with lies, until you may not be sure where one leaves off and the other begins.

Westlake wasn’t only drawing on his knowledge of European cinema, naturally.  He also had a pretty fair knowledge of European literature (that which was not British he’d read in translation, since he was a monoglot, as am I, alas).  And as already mentioned, he had a sharp eye for detail, and at some point in time we know he did visit Europe with a large family contingent.

The article Abby Adams wrote about him and his various literary personas, in which she mentioned this grand tour, was produced in 1977, according to The Getaway Car.  I quoted it in my review of Brothers Keepers, and don’t like to trot it out again, but she says they were in the UK for a year, then spent a few weeks jaunting about the continent.   So that explains him wanting to try writing about London and Scotland in Nobody’s Perfect, but the results were, as I’ve already said, less than satisfactory.   And he’d want to try again, see if he could do better.

David Bratman, in his invaluable short Westlake bibliography (to which I am indebted for the term ‘Nephew Book’), had only this to say about Castle In The Air.

Westlake must have been going through a brief slump, because this book is an attempt at a remake of Dancing Aztecs set in France, way too short and simple, and it doesn’t work at all.

I somehow feel Mr. Bratman and I are as two in our approach to book reviewing. Ethan Iverson is only slightly less terse.

The dedication reads, “And this one is for the guys and gals at the Internal Revenue Service.” It’s the weakest over the top caper novel – was it written desperately to pay a tax bill? Don’t let this be your introduction to Westlake.

Well no, definitely don’t do that, but I guess he doesn’t consider Who Stole Sassi Manoon? to be an over the top caper novel?   Or does he actually think that book is better?  Maybe I’ll ask him sometime, but let me just say,  as somebody who agrees with the majority of both their assessments of Westlake’s novels under his own name, that I vigorously dissent here.  This is not one of Westlake’s worst novels.   It’s far from the best he was capable of in this genre, but I’d rank it firmly in the middle.

Westlake may well have been in some kind of a slump–he did not, after all, produce any book under any name between Nobody’s Perfect (1977) and Castle In The Air (1980)–a huge gap in the bibliography–for him.  But there’s any number of possible explanations for that, other than a lack of inspiration.

Perhaps he was being inspired in other directions–he got married for the third and final time in 1979.  He was doing extensive research for Kahawa, some of it in Africa, with Abby.  There may come a moment in any over-prolific writer’s life when he or she wants to stop writing about life for a while and start actually living it.  He was probably also exploring certain revenue options vis a vis Hollywood (a year abroad with a large family would have been expensive, to say the least).

He probably owed M. Evans a book (his last for them, as it turned out), and there evidently was some kind of tax bill that needed paying, but if we’re going to discount books of his that were written to cover overdue bills, we’d probably have to throw out most of the Starks.  Many would say Westlake was at his best when he was under pressure, writing quickly, completing entire books in a matter of weeks–not invariably the case, but I certainly have noticed that the books he really took his time with are not, in the main, what we remember him for.  James Joyce he wasn’t, and thank God for that (and did Westlake ever get to Ireland?).

So this is not at all in the vein of Richard Stark, being very light and witty and discursive, almost as much travelogue as heist story.  And it’s not a comic caper in the style of Dortmunder, because we’re not supposed to get too involved with these rather caricatured figures–good characters, strong voices, enjoyable to read about, but intentionally left on the sketchy side, because that’s what’s called for here.   This is a European comic caper film done in prose form, a wicked little criminal farce; cynical, urbane, blasé, playfully acidic, written to experiment with a somewhat different style of storytelling.

But is that all it is?   Might there be something more going on beneath the surface, some subtextual (or damned near subliminal) commentary we’re missing, from a writer who liked to sneak telling little asides on events of the day into seemingly light material?   Well, let’s start with the surface, and work our way down from there.

English criminal mastermind, Eustace Dench, has been approached by Yerbodoroan patriot, Lida Perez.   She has informed him that the President of her country, one Escobar Diaz McMahon Grande Pajaro Lynch, is planning to expropriate a huge fortune, ‘the blood of the peasants’ as she charmingly calls it, to Europe, so the Lynch family can retire in splendor before El Presidente is overthrown.  It will be concealed in the stones of a castle he and his wife, Maria Colleen San Salvador Porforio Hennessy Lynch are importing to reassemble in Paris.   Yes, Westlake always has to get the Irish in there somewhere–Yerbadoro was ‘liberated’ from the Spanish by Irish pirates, centuries before–but if you knew your South American history, you’d know this is totally plausible.  The founding father of Chile was named, I kid you not, Bernardo O’Higgins.

The idea is that Dench recruits a string, they steal the stolen wealth, heisting an entire castle in the process, and they get half–the other half going to the Yerbadoroan revolution the idealistic Lida is helping to spearhead.  Dench has no intention of keeping his end of the bargain, but needs Lida’s cooperation to pull it off (also, she’s really really beautiful, and he’s hoping to bed her before the caper is done, a goal shared by most of the male members of the string, and possibly one female member, but I digress).

Dench recruits four other master criminals, one each from England, France, Germany, and Italy–who will each in turn recruit talented thieves from their native lands–each national team will have three members, operating on their own, with Dench planning and overseeing the entire operation via walkie-talkie.

There’s just one teensy tiny little hitch–see, the three continentals Dench recruited are multilingual, all speaking English fluently, and maybe another few tongues as well–Lida is also a polyglot.  But the people they recruit are monolingual, as is Dench himself–none of the Englishmen speaks any language but English.  Well, when you speak English, you shouldn’t be expected to learn any other languages, right?   English is the lingua franca.   The actual franca mainly dissent from this view, which Eustace firmly deplores.   We had the Empire such a long time,” he laments, “You’d think somebody would have learned English.”

There’s actually one more problem–each of the national teams fully intends to take all the Yerbadoran treasure for themselves, and screw their allies of convenience.  Forget Starkian professionalism, or Dortmunderian loyalty.  In Europe, the phrase “No honor among thieves” means something.     As it happens, the Germans find the loot first, with stereotypical efficiency, but what follows is an intricate dance of interweaving double, triple, and even quadruple-crosses, some of which are intra-mural–national solidarity being well and good, but money is money, and thieves are thieves.    Each of them wants as much as he or she can possibly get.

But first they’ve got to steal it–the components of the castle (it’s just a small castle, in case you were wondering), are in four shipments, one for each team.   Eustace is, as mentioned, coordinating their efforts via four walkie-talkies, from a rooftop.  His plan is perfect, but the people executing it are not, and he’s frustrated by his inability to know what’s going on.

What Eustace wanted, what Eustace needed, was for the entire city of Paris to suddenly be reduced to the size and aspect of a model train layout, with himself on a high stool overlooking the whole thing.  Then he could see if the English contingent was doing its job in Ménilmontant, he could see if the French contingent was successfully performing its task in the Gare de la Chappelle, he could see if the Italians and the Germans were performing profitably at the Arc de Triomphe.  Instead of which, here he was on this windy hotel roof, seated in this wobbly folding chair at this rickety folding table, holding down all his maps and charts and memorandums with these god damn walkie-talkies, and trying to get somebody somewhere to tell him what in hell is going on.

There’s probably an app for that now, but a fat lot of good that does him.

Here’s how I’m seeing Eustace Dench, if anyone cares–

Lavender-Hill-Mob-3

(Alec Guinness, in The Lavender Hill Mob.  Like you didn’t know.)

The operation is a success, in spite of everything, but turns out all the expropriated wealth was hidden in the stones the Germans got, and the Germans are not feeing inclined to share.   Herman Muller, leader of the German group, has recruited former military men like himself, who served together in WWII, and one of them expresses a certain disquiet that they are working with the Italians again.  Hmm.

Well, leaving that aside for now, Herman is described as “a skeleton-thin smooth and eerie man with a long pockmarked face.”  I rather see him as Conrad Veidt, don’t you?  (No, I am not making the least attempt to cast this in such a way that they could have actually done a movie with these specific actors after the book was written–anyone quibbling about who died when is missing the whole point of that noble game, Imaginary Casting Director).

(Ja vohl, mein herr!)

So the German plan is to defeat Dench’s plan by floating the building blocks of the castle with the hidden treasure down a disused canal, and then reassembling them to look like the wall facing one side of that canal. And it seems Mr. Westlake was taking notes during his trip to Paris.  Still the architectural conservative, as we saw in Brothers Keepers.

Progress doesn’t merely add, it also subtracts.  One of the unfortunate subtractions currently under way in Paris is the gradual filling in and removal of the system of canals running northward through the eastern part of the city from the Seine to the suburb of Pantin and beyond.  At one time, goods from northeastern France and meat from the slaughterhouses of the 19th Arondissement were barged south along the Canal St. Denis and the Canal de l’Ourcq into the Bassin de la Villette, just north of the Place de Stalingard. From there, the waterway tunneled beneath Place de Stalingrad and underwent a change of name, becoming the Canal St. Martin as it zigzagged southward through the 10th Arrondissement.  Running through the 11th Arrondissement, the canal has been covered by the Boulevard Richard Lenoir, but the waterway still exists, in slimy and rat-infested darkness, beneath the broad boulevard, and at least re-emerges just south of the Place de la Bastille, where this last section just north of the Seine is called the Gare de l’Arsenal, and is the only segment of the canal still in any ordinary kind of use.

Westlake concludes this bit of travelogue/obituary by lamenting that the canal as a whole will disappear entirely in future–“Too bad it never became a tourist attraction.”  Ah, but you underestimate the French genius for cultural preservation, Monsieur Westlake.  As I’m sure you were pleased to learn, upon future visits.

The other members of the gang have realized the Germans are up to no good, but get to the warehouse housing the partly reassembled castle too late (“Germans!” roared Rosa, shaking her fists at the castle.  “You can’t trust Germans!”  She should talk.)

But the French, subtle as ever, have figured out where the Germans have gone with their loot, and how–and of course do not choose to share this intelligence with the others (Qui trouve, garde–google it).   It’s one of them in particular who cracks the code, one Charles Moule, and Westlake made head-casting him far too easy.

stpp2

(Don’t shoot him, he’s only the piano player!   And a David Goodis homage to boot!)

Charles has been recovering emotionally from some past emotional trauma, involving a woman (naturellement), and has been helped no end in his recovery by lovely cat-burglar, Renee Chateupierre, who has seemingly been carrying a torch for him.  I can’t get such a firm fix on her–Isabelle Adjani would have worked out fine, but there’s no end of haunting dark-haired beauties in French cinema (like Michèle Mercier, for example, seen above).

As they are lying together in a bed on the train to Paris, before the heist begins, we get this uniquely gallic love scene between them–

Charles was saying “After Claudia was shot by the tourists in Barcelona, life no longer seemed worth the effort.”

“You don’t have to talk about this, Charles,” Renee said.

“But I feel I must, Renee.”

“It’s not necessary, Charles.”

“It’s necessary to me, Renee.  After–after what has happened between us, I can no longer remain silent.  Tonight is my rebirth.  I want you to understand my soul.”

“I do understand your soul, Charles.”

“Do you understand how I felt after Barcelona?”

“But you could never show it,” Renee said.

“How could I show it?”

“You never could.”

“I never could show it.”

He never could show it.   Just talk about it.  Endlessly.   With a beautiful naked brunette next to him.  Who wants to listen.  Vive la France.

Everybody gets a turn, and next the Italians grab the boodle, and of course their style is entirely different.   Their leader is a woman, the multi-lingual Rosa Palermo, who recruited the roguish Angelo Salvagambelli and  the dignified elder statesman of crime, Vito Palone (who was enjoying a nice quiet retirement in prison, writing his memoirs before these diavolos broke him out without even asking nicely first).

Vito would be played by Carlo Battisti in my movie (Have you seen Umberto D? If you ever do, in a theater–bring tissues).   I think Marcello would be fine as Angelo (don’t you dare ask ‘Marcello Who?’)   Now for Rosa, the studio heads will doubtless be at me to cast Sophia, Gina, maybe even that chick from The Matrix Reloaded, but I shall stick to my guns–only one woman was ever born to play her.

(Magnanimous of me, I know.)

“I’ll trace places with you,” Vito suggested.

“To do what?”

“To unload the truck.”

Rosa couldn’t believe it.  “You,” she demanded, “would ask a woman to do such a job?  A woman like your own mother?”

“All right,” Vito said, “All right.”

“A woman like your sisters,” Rosa said.

Vito, defeated,  climbed back up into the truck, saying “Yes, yes, I’m going.”

Angelo, cheerful, vaulted up into the truck.  “Here we go, then.”

Rosa stepped forward to yell into the truck: “A woman like the Holy Virgin!”

“All right,” Vito’s voice came, plaintively, from within the truck.  “All right, all right, all right.  I didn’t mean it.”

(That’s what I call making a big deal about the Madonna.  Presumably near a street.)

At a certain point in time, none of the string members know what’s going on, or who has the loot (other than whoever has it at that given moment). Because they could not trust each other–or even understand each other terribly well, and we’re not just talking about language here–cooperation between them was necessarily going to be short-term, unreliable, easily disrupted.  They share a common heritage, a common profession, but it’s not enough.

Finally Eustace, fed up with their lack of professionalism (and seeing his moment at last), drives off in the truck full of Yerbadoroan treasure, with Lida (perhaps the greatest Yerbodoroan treasure of all, and I don’t need to post an image of a young Salma Hayek, right?  Yes, I know she’s from North America, but I don’t care), who still thinks they’re going to give it back to the people, and it was only those other ruffians who were going to take it for themselves.

Her expression becoming tender, Lida said, “Oh, Eustace.  And you saved it all for the peasants.”

“They were never out of my mind,” he said, giving her knee another little squeeze.

(Yes, definitely Sir Alec.  As to the other Brits, if you want to know my casting picks, you can pull my ear in the comments section, mate.  This is getting bloody long.)

Finally, the teams are so scattered and in disarray from innumerable betrayals, that three members of the French, Italian and German teams decide to try and form a Triple Entente, to regain their money.  But sadly, only one speaks a language other than his own, and it’s the wrong one.

Switching to French, Jean said “We three will have to work together.  We are all of us competent criminals in our own right, after all.”

Emphatically, Rudi said, “Now we’ll have to work together.”

“We’ll have to make plans together,” Vito said.

Silence.  The three men looked at one another expectantly.  Gradually their confidence and determination faded away, and they finished by staring at one another in bewilderment.

Jean broke the unhappy silence.  In English he said, “Neither of you speaks English?”  And in French, “Not French either?”

Sadly shaking his head, Vito said, “Did neither of you study Italian in school?”

Rudi looked from face to face.  “You have no German?”

Silence again, broken by Jean: “How–”

Rudi: “When–”

Vito: “What–”

Another silence, and this time a kind of fatalism gradually overtook all three. They began to smile and shrug at one another, as though to say what-the-hell.  With many rueful smiles and shrugs and hand gestures, they shook hands all around, and waved, and slowly backed away from one another.

“Au revoir,” said Jean.

“Auf Wiedersehen,” said Rudi.

“Ciao,” said Vito.

And then Lida figures out what’s really going on–she’s idealistic, not stupid–and hijacks the truck with the treasure one last time, driving it through the plate glass window of a newspaper office by mistake, but she acts like she did it on purpose, is captured on film, raising her fist in a revolutionary salute, and becomes an international sensation, because if there’s anything people of all nationalities agree on, it’s that beautiful passionate Latinas with a cause make for interesting headlines.

So Eustace and all his confederates get rounded up, but Lida intercedes for them, feeling that they did, after all, save the money for the peasants, even if they did it by mistake.   They get short sentences (probably helped that none of them was actually caught red-handed with the loot), and after they get out, they join forces with the now-exiled Yerbodoroan President and his shrewish wife, who had a lot of other valuables stowed away in their castle (furniture and such), and they need the help of the thieves to find it.   And then invest it, along with reward money Eustace & Co. got from the grateful new Yerbodoroan government.

And would you believe they all end up running a restaurant together?  The Brits, the French, the Italians, the Germans, and the two exiled South Americans.  Le Yerbadoro–an enterprise that puts all their many unique talents that don’t involve thievery to good use–yeah, it does oddly prefigure the end of Ratatouille, doesn’t it?   Coincidence?  I have no idea.  Eustace, now managing the place, concludes our story by saying “I never would have guessed it, but there is something pleasant about being an honest man.”

So.  Thieves from four European countries, out to claim the spoils from a distant Latin American country, form alliances and break them, steal from one another, each gaining the advantage and then losing it again, until finally the whole criminal enterprise breaks down in confusion, and after the dust has settled, they decide to join forces as honest people, and open a restaurant, probably catering heavily to tourists.  National boundaries forgotten.   Maybe they even learned each others’ languages, some of them–probably not all of them.

Mr. Westlake?   One somehow hates to ask–knowing there will be no answer–but is this, in fact, an exercise in criminal farce?   Or another of your occasional attempts at political satire disguised as farce?

Let me just check something–this book was published in 1980–since it was, we all agree, written in a hurry to pay the IRS, that means he probably wrote it sometime in 1979.  I’m sure if I look at the history of the European Union (called The European Economic Community at that time), I won’t find that anything terribly significant happened in that —Oh you sly bastard.

So yes, that’s what I think this is.  Political satire, disguised as criminal farce. Westlake’s Condensed History of Europe.  Westlake was having a bit of fun here, as he often did, without letting us in on the joke–if we happened to twig to it, all the better.  Really, it’s not that hard to see, but most people just kept missing out on his references, because he wasn’t supposed to be a ‘deep’ writer.   And he’s not really trying for depth–it’s not that kind of story, not an ounce of pretension here–but I find his blithe shallowness rather profound, for all that.  Candide is very shallow–Moliere’s best plays are all light comedies–Oscar Wilde never took anything seriously, until he was given no choice.  But when you look beneath the facile surface, you may find there was, after all, a point lurking amid the drollery.

He wishes their honest new enterprise well.  Of that there can be no doubt.   So they’re thieves–like all of us, all nations, everywhere and always, and particularly the ‘great’ ones–it was Balzac who once wrote that at the foundation of every great fortune is a great crime.  America’s was chattel slavery, and the theft of the land from its aboriginal inhabitants.  Europe’s was colonialism, which led quite directly to America’s crimes, and many others besides.  We’re all villains and thieves, and I do mean all of us, but we mean well.  We really do.  No, seriously.

But you’re left to ask, bidding adieu to these reformed criminals, whether their newfound unity and sense of shared enterprise will endure.   Are they not still, after all this time, different peoples, with different languages, different cultures, each of which engenders a different mode of being, thinking, living, even loving?

And we don’t want to lose that sense of self, do we?   It’s part of who we are, and we treasure it.  But as long as we hold to it, can we ever truly be one with our brothers and sisters in other lands?   Can we ever learn to trust each other?  Can there be honor among thieves?   If Westlake didn’t know the answer, I sure don’t.

I do know that this is my last review for 2015.   I’ll return with Kahawa in the New Year (more well-meaning thieves), but I think I will get in one more article before the ball drops.

PS: If you like that joke map of Europe up top, there’s plenty more where that came from–the work of Bulgarian artist, Yanko Tsvetkov.  Europe has always done the best job satirizing Europe (sure, Bulgaria is part of Europe, why not?).

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

8 Comments

Filed under Castle In The Air, Donald Westlake novels, Uncategorized