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william conrad

28 april 2011

Pierre Boulle's novels include Le pont de la rivière Kwaï (1952) and La planète des singes (1963) – quite a trivia question, really: who would imagine the same person wrote both? Both were made into big Hollywood action movies (The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957] and Planet of the Apes [1968]), but both are originally novels of ideas. The paradox of Boulle's career is that he was so good at turning schematic exercises in thinking into keenly-plotted narratives.

Boulle didn't fare quite so well with William Conrad (1950). But it was his first novel, and shows him working in the direction of his later thrillers with intellectual creds. Like Le pont de la rivière Kwaï, William Conrad is about a man who goes over to the enemy during the Second World War. The title character is a Nazi agent, of the type later called "moles." He's been planted in Britain before the war, posing as a Pole with anti-Hitler sympathies. William Conrad becomes a respected novelist, a liberal journalist, a veteran of the Fall of France, and ultimately the chief architect of Churchill's propaganda efforts. All the while, he waits for the call from his masters, so that he can unravel his own work.

(Conrad's name is borrowed from Anglo-Polish novelist Joseph Conrad, and some elements of his personality from T. E. Lawrence, who is frequently invoked. But he's not really modeled on either; this is just to show the range of Boulle's invention and the eclecticism of his character creation.)

When the call finally comes, Conrad tears it up before reading it. He joins the British Army (again), and dies leading a charge that turns the tide at El Alamein (and thus of the entire war). What happened?

One might say that William Conrad slowly is won over by his own propaganda. He's the sort who believes words, even those he knows are mouthed by hypocrites. But in a deeper sense, Conrad becomes a British patriot simply because he is in daily contact with suffering, sacrificing people. He can't help but love them, and he can't help, despite his training and birth, to be won over by his new environment.

One might ask: if the circumstances were reversed, would a British mole turn Nazi propagandist and Wehrmacht officer? Remembering that Boulle would go on to write Le pont de la rivière Kwaï, the answer is yes, he probably would. Boulle is fascinated by the plasticity of human behavior. William Conrad simply gives the theme a more positive spin, because of its inherent direction towards a good outcome. Boulle is no moral relativist, and William Conrad no more an apology for Nazism than its successor is an apology for the aims of Japanese militarism. But he asks us to contemplate just how far any individual can be sure of his own internal moral compass.

William Conrad is a novel in the manner of Graham Greene. Nowhere is this more evident than in the character of X, a British spyhunter convinced that Conrad is receiving coded instructions from Nazi handlers, in the guise of innocuous fan mail. X is perfectly correct. In a long passage reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe's "Gold Bug," X's master cryptanalyst J.R. Beckett breaks the fan-letter code, revealing Conrad's Nazi allegiance even as Conrad is in the process of abandoning it.

The cryptography in the book is quite impenetrable. But it's also very gripping. Like X and Beckett, the reader wants to know the truth about William Conrad. The narrator has presented Conrad quite elaborately as a Nazi pretending to be an ultra-Anglophile Polish immigrant. But at no point in the book does Conrad do anything to help the Axis. One almost wonders whether the objective, third-person narrator is himself unreliable. And indeed, by the time we learn the truth about Conrad, the truth itself has moved on.

The narrative tension in William Conrad compensates for its tendency to wander into long polemical passages that mix philosophy and wartime politics. Boulle's characters speculate on culture, race, national manners, and the evolution of both species and civilizations. (You can see La planète des singes, a novel more full of speeches than its several film versions, foreshadowed here, as well.) Boulle usually keeps you thinking; when you tire of the thinking, he usually shifts back to suspense to keep you reading.

And he can craft an observation with the best of them. Conrad's typist Miss Barter is a minor character; an even more minor character is her boyfriend, an aviator who reports back to X's henchmen on the routine of Conrad's office. Whenever Miss Barter and her lieutenant get a free evening, "tous deux ne songèrent plus qu'à retirer le plus grand bénéfice possible de l'occasion" [both wanted nothing more than to derive the greatest benefit from the occasion] (39).

But one night, when they've made a date and he's brought her a box of RAF-issue chocolates, Miss Barter stands the lieutenant up.

Son amie ne paraissant toujours pas, il avala, pour tromper son impatience, les bonbons qu'il lui avait apportés. Quand il eut fini, il s'endormit avant d'avoir eu le temps de lui en vouloir.

His girlfriend never showed up. To kill time, he ate up the candy he'd brought for her. When he was done, he fell asleep before he had a chance to get angry at her. (150)
The character of the lieutenant matters very little in the story, but Boulle is a good enough writer to give him a lovely character note. That's a greater sign of promise in this first novel than any of its grand ideas.

Boulle, Pierre. William Conrad. 1950. Paris: Julliard, 1972.