stories of disappearance

by uzwi

This review of Paul Watkins’ The Story of My Disappearance appeared in the TLS in 1997–

You wouldn’t think anyone could write, “The next great chapter of my life was about to begin,” and get away with it. Paul Watkins can, because he is able to manage such a weird balance of irony and honesty. The “Paul Watkins” implied by his novels meets life with simple directness, later transforming his experience, on our behalf, into thrillers. Reading him is like being subject to a friendly, candid stare in a crowd: you want to look away, but you sense you would lose an opportunity if you did. Then you realise, probably too late, that the opportunity is a little less candid and a little more complex than you expected. You’re hooked through the gills, when two minutes ago you didn’t even know this person. You’re in Watkins’ shadow version of Newport, Rhode Island, being introduced to another of its shadowy fisherfolk inhabitants.

Born in Dresden in 1964, Paul Wedekind studies engineering until, on the eve of his national service, he is induced by the East German secret police to spy on his friend Ingo Budde–cheerful rogue, bland bullshitter and possible heroin dealer. These two serve with the Russians in Afghanistan, where Budde develops himself further as black marketeer and torturer. They are captured by a CIA-sponsored Afghani unit in the hills outside Kabul. Paul watches dazedly as Ingo’s teeth are filed down, then as his friend is dragged away to be beaten to death. Released in an exchange of prisoners, he finds himself listed “killed in action”, transferred to the GRU/KGB and sent to the US.

There he meets Sulieka, single-handedly running an operation to exchange smuggled Russian diamonds for dollars. Sulieka is raw and nervous, rough but real. With her help Paul settles into the life of a fisherman. They fall in a guarded, edgy kind of love. Money falls into their hands after a botched submarine rendezvous and a wreck at sea. They fall out of the habit of being spies, buy their own boat and become “real” fishermen. All seems calm, at sunset and at dawn. Then, in the chaos that follows the fall of the East, Ingo Budde comes back for revenge.

“…you left me,” he accuses. “You said you wouldn’t leave me. That means no matter what.” And: “You were the only friend I had.”

This novel has the elements of a classic thriller–exotic locations and outsize characters; women known only by their bizarre forenames; wars, revelations and fights in bars. There are grotesque wounds and acts of quite amazing savagery made credible by Watkins’ careful tone. Things are still flying about on the last page, like the best filmic slo-mo explosion. It is all very satisfying, but there’s more.

Paul tells his story in fits and starts, reluctant to face his memories but determined to do it anyway. He appoints us to interrogate him–or at least listen to him as he interrogates himself. He admits one thing to us, he admits another. The third thing he admits means that he must amend the first. There are overlays and imbrications. Small betrayals feather the body of deception. Small lies total into large ones. (“I hoped that I would one day look back onthis as an unpleasant but neccessary job I once did a long time ago for my country,” he excuses himself.) Each appalling event in the record is swaddled in a kind of numbness. Things happen–literally–before Paul has quite understood what he is looking at. The effect is gruelling.

As for names: well, names are surfaces. They shiver at a touch and break up, revealing much more complex stuff beneath. Identity is a form of bullshit, claims Watkins with some accuracy, but bullshit is in itself quite complex stuff. The following anecdote, clearly a warning, or statement of intent, appears early in the book:

“Biagio’s name was pronounced Bee-aj-ee-oh, which the locals had abbreviated to Bad Joe. So many people would come into this bar asking who Bad Joe was that Biaggio made up a story about Bad Joe being a notorious fisherman who died at sea with all his crew and whose ghost still haunted the dock. That was why Biagio liked to keep the fisherman’s theme to his bar, with nets strung out across the walls.”

Bad Joe’s nets have never caught fish. Names catch only a receding shimmer of truth. “Wedekind” is so easily anglicised to Watkins. Someone called only “Sulieka” is credited with the jacket-photo of author Paul Watkins as simple fisherman. There’s fog in the bay tonight, and The Story of My Disappearance is suddenly less a thriller than the aftermath of a collision betweenTo Have and Have Not andPale Fire, an event somewhere along the interface between male self-presentation and outright gleeful lie.