August 4, 2003
Eric Ambler, A Coffin For Dimitrios, Vintage Books, October 2001; ISBN: 0375726713 - 304 pages.
Until recently, the name Eric Ambler meant about as much to me as it probably did to most people. He was just a spy novelist from the 1940s and '50s who had lapsed into obscurity. You might see one of his works on your aging uncle's bookshelf or in a bed-and-breakfast parlor sitting next to a regional bird-watching guide, but nobody actually read them anymore.
An article by Edward Rothstein in the August 17, 2002 issue of The New York Times prompted me to take a fresh look. Written in the context of Vintage Books' plan to republish a number of Ambler's out-of-print works, Rothstein revealed that:
Ambler once said that during the 1930's he was a "very far left wing socialist" and "ready for the barricades." The hero of two novels is actually a Soviet agent who refers to the "so-called democracies France and England" and argues that the regnant authorities had become "the Stock Exchange Yearbook and Hitler's 'Mein Kampf.'" So while novelistically the books try to evoke ambiguity and explore the dangers of misinterpretation, ideologically a rigid and distorted grid is imposed. For Ambler, the essential battles of 1930's Europe are between fascistic capitalism and Soviet socialism.Spurred on by this disclosure, I read A Coffin for Dimitrios, which coincidentally was touted by Alexander Cockburn as one of Counterpunch's favorite summer novels. If Ian Fleming or Tom Clancy comes to mind when spy novels are mentioned, you are in for a big surprise when you enter Ambler territory, where the only dashing hero serving the national interest is likely to be taking his orders from the Kremlin. Serving various western interests, the eponymous Dimitrios Makropolous is a rat and a mercenary who exemplifies Balzac's dictum that behind every great fortune there is a crime.
The hero and narrator of A Coffin for Dimitrios is Charles Latimer, a self-effacing British economics professor who has launched a new career as a spy novelist. While on vacation in Istanbul, he meets the ingratiating but sinister Colonel Haki at a party who is anxious to make the acquaintance of one of his favorite authors. After they have lunch the next day, Haki invites Latimer to his office where he poses the question: "I wonder if you are interested in real murderers, Mr. Latimer."
That serves as the introduction to the late Dimitrios Makropolous, whose corpse has just been fished out of the Bosporus Straits. Haki describes him as "A dirty type, common, cowardly, scum." A lengthy rap sheet reveals his first crime. Joined by an accomplice named Dhris Mohammad, they rob a moneylender and 'Deunme' (Jew turned Muslim) named Sholem, whose throat Dimitrios then slits. In a pattern that is repeated throughout his career, Dimitrios betrays his partner to the police and makes his getaway. His criminal career involves pimping, heroin peddling, assassination and spying for the highest bidder.
From the outset, Latimer wants to know more about Makropolous. What had become of his money? What had he done with his life in between capers? What did his accomplices, who like Dhris Mohammad were betrayed one by one, think of him? Latimer tells himself, "If you could find those people and get the answers you would have the material for what would surely be the strangest of biographies." Thus begins a voyage that takes Latimer through the netherworld of Europe searching for the missing pieces. In the course of his travels, he makes the discovery that Dimitrios is not just a "dirty type" as Colonel Haki put it, but "a unit in a dying system."
In Athens Latimer looks up an old friend and government official named Siantos, who might have information on Makropolous. To escape a pogrom against Greeks in Izmir, Turkey in 1922 (described by Ambler in chilling journalistic detail), Makropolous stows away on a ship destined for Greece where he would escape persecution as well as prosecution for the murder of the moneylender. Siantos also introduces Latimer to his next informant, a journalist named Marukakis employed by a French news agency in Sofia. But a caveat is attached to the recommendation:
They were sitting in a restaurant, and now Siantos glanced round furtively and lowered his voice. "There is only one trouble about him from your point of view. I happen to know that he has . . ." The voice sunk still lower in tone. Latimer was prepared for nothing less horrible than leprosy. ". . . Communist tendencies," concluded Siantos in a whisper.Ambler skillfully weaves Dimitrios into the collapse of European capitalism. Recounted by a series of informants, some almost as sordid as Dimitrios himself, we learn that his criminal talents figure in a pivotal event in the rise of fascism. In 1923 President Stambulisky of Bulgaria fell victim to a rightwing terrorist plot. Although not as signal an event as the rise of Mussolini or Hitler, the overthrow of Stambulisky had all the earmarks of Balkan politics that can be seen on display in recent years. Dimitrios Makropolous not only enters the picture as a hired assassin; but as a bursar for the Eurasian Credit Trust advancing funds on their behalf for the overthrow of Stambulisky. Eventually, Makropolous ends up on the board of directors of this "respectable" institution that has its tentacles planted throughout Eastern Europe. In other words, the same combination of high finance and low criminality that led to the overthrow of Yugoslavia was not only at work in the early 1920s; it was something that compelled Eric Ambler's attention. The "dying system" that Makropolous exploited is unfortunately very much with us today.
From Marukakis, Latimer learns more about the Eurasian Credit Trust, which sounds like a precursor to the Italian Banco Ambrosiano run by Michele Sindona and officially connected to the Vatican. According to Eduardo Galeano:
"The Ambrosiano spun a universal cobweb for the laundering of dollars coming in from the drugs and arms trade, and operated hand in glove with the Sicilian and US mafias and the drug networks in Turkey and Colombia. It acted as a vehicle for the disappearance of loot procured by the Cosa Nostra from contraband and abductions, and it was the dumping ground for dollars earmarked for the Polish unions fighting the communist regime. It also gave generously to the Contras combating the Sandinista Government in Nicaragua, and to the P-2 Masonic Lodge."
This sounds strikingly similar to the bank described by the Marxist reporter Marukakis in response to Latimer's query: "What sort of a bank is it?"
"It is registered in Monaco which means not only that it pays no taxes in the countries in which it operates but also that its balance sheet is not published and that it is impossible to find out anything about it. There are lots more like that in Europe. Its head office is in Paris but it operates in the Balkans. Amongst other things it finances the clandestine manufacture of heroin in Bulgaria for illicit export."
From his former partner, an obese Dane named Peters (played by none other than Sidney Greenstreet in the film adaptation), Latimer learns how Makropolous exploited his latent entrepreneurial talents in the heroin trade. His suppliers in Sofia would pack the drugs into a coffin that was destined for Paris, where the gang packaged and sold it on the retail market. It appeared that customs officials were reluctant to violate the sanctity of the dead. Makropolous eventually betrays Peters and the rest of the gang, just as he had betrayed Dhris Mohammad in Izmir. In acknowledging Makropolous's "leadership," Peters seems to be describing the same sort of talents that lead to success in legitimate business:
"It was curious how we all accepted his leadership almost without question. Yes, he had the money; but there was more than that to it. He dominated us because he knew precisely what he wanted and precisely how to get it with the least possible trouble and at the lowest possible cost. He knew how to find the people to work for him, too; and, when he had found them, he knew how to handle them."
Eventually Latimer makes contact with Grodek, a retired spymaster who had subcontracted Makropolous for an ambitious job on behalf of the fascist Italian government. The two would track down and make copies of maps that revealed the location of mines in the contested Straits of Otranto. Just as importantly, the Yugoslav government could under no conditions discover that the maps had been purloined, otherwise they would simply shift the mines to a new location.
In contrast to the dashing exploits of a James Bond, who might have rappelled into a fortress guarded by Ninjas in order to steal the map, Grodek and Makropolous devise a plan that sounds much more consistent with the examples set by CIA or FBI agents who have agreed to spy for the Kremlin. They appeal to the greed and the venality of a government employee who has access to the maps.
In a bravura passage that takes the form of a letter from Latimer to Marukakis, the seduction, extortion and eventual destruction of a lowly clerk named Bulic is described in chilling detail in chapter nine. Posing as a powerful German businessman trying to line up support for a bid from his company, Grodek wines and dines Bulic and his wife. Showering flattery and a small fortune on the couple, he eventually wins them over in an elaborate confidence game. Assuming that nothing more than simple graft is involved, Bulic convinces himself that nobody would be seriously harmed by a little favoritism on behalf of the gracious and generous Grodek.
Makropolous enters the picture after the couple has been softened up. The ex-pimp and heroin smuggler represents himself as somebody even more powerful than Grodek, who is "enormously rich" and "believed to control as many as twenty-seven companies." Grodek and Makropolous invite the Bulics to Alessandro's, described as the "most reliable gambling place in Belgrade" but in reality just another element in the elaborate sting: Allesandro is an Italian agent himself. In just a matter of hours, Bulic has lost more money than he ever received from Grodek. He goes back the next night only to lose even more.
Since Makropolous has vouched for them, they must repay their debt immediately. When Bulic pleads poverty, an alternative is put on the table: retrieve the mine-laying maps and the debt will be forgiven. After Bulic calls him a "dirty spy," another set of Makropolous's talents come into play:
"Bulic was kicked in the abdomen and then, as he bent forward retching, in the face. Gasping for breath and with pain and bleeding at the mouth, he was flung into a chair while Dimitrios explained coldly that the only risk he ran was in not doing what he was told."
Eventually Latimer understands Dimitrios Makropolous in social terms. This was not a "bad apple," but the personification of the crisis of European society that has not been resolved to this date:
"But it was useless to try to explain him in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than baroque abstractions. Good Business and Bad Business were the elements of the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent; as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michael Angelo's David, Beethoven's quartets and Einstein's physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler's Mein Kampf."
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Louis Proyect is a computer programmer at Columbia University and a long-time peace activist and socialist. He is also the moderator of the Marxism mailing list at www.marxmail.org. He writes a bi-monthly book review for Swans.
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