Our Man in the Underworld

Oulipo Compendium

edited by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie
Make Now, 333 pp., $36.00 (paper)

In late 1965, shortly after finishing his second novel, Tlooth, Harry Mathews paid a visit to his friend Fred Warner, the British ambassador in Laos. Accompanying Warner to various embassy functions, he was surprised to find himself cold-shouldered by everyone he met. “What was I doing here?” they would ask.

Nothing, I explained, I was simply a writer who happened to be a friend of the British ambassador. “You are American?” I nodded, they nodded, and then pointedly ignored me.

It took Mathews a while to work out the reason behind this unfriendliness. An American in Laos in 1965 who claimed to be doing nothing? What could he be but a spook, one of the innumerable Alden Pyle figures dispatched by the CIA to Indochina. What bothered his interlocutors, however, was not the fact that he was in intelligence, but that his cover was so inept. What self-respecting spy, at least since Christopher Marlowe, ever claimed to be a writer? Accordingly Mathews decided to change his story, and at the next shindig claimed to be an engineer. Smiles all around: “You don’t say? Let’s have another drink.”

So began Mathews’s entirely fictitious and unwanted undercover life as a secret agent. An acquaintance from Paris (where Mathews had settled in the mid-Fifties) doing his military service in the French embassy in Vientiane puts two and two together, and passes back to head office news of Agent Mathews’s arrival. On his travels around Laos he gets a first taste of the difficulties he will have in ensuing years overturning such assumptions: at a party in Paksong, for instance, he goes to great lengths to try to convince a Filipino doctor that he really is a writer. The doctor’s favorite English poet is Gerard Manley Hopkins; Mathews recites all of “Binsey Poplars,” then “The world is charged with the grandeur of God…,” then “The Windhover.” The doctor is enraptured, and they spend twenty minutes discussing “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” “It has been a joy to meet you,” he tells Mathews, who is sure this display of literary knowledge has done the trick, only to be told: “How glad I am that CIA is training its men so well.”

In the interwar years left-leaning writers such as Auden and Isherwood and Louis MacNeice had greatly enjoyed pretending to be spies, and in their work created a dense and wide-ranging set of analogies between the writer and the secret agent: both are figured moving through society undercover, quietly noting down crucial indicators of impending change, seeking out strategic advantage for their side, and delivering their reports in carefully worded code. It’s one thing, though, to imagine yourself surreptitiously gathering enough information to write poems that will undermine the foundations of an unjust political system, and another to be taken for an operative in the pay of a government organization. “I wanted,” as Mathews puts it,

to play a part in the grand conspiracy of poetic subversion; in fact that was…

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