Spies, Spooks and Stories

"I'm not a literary writer. I'm a storyteller. I write fairy tales for adults. Because most of them have a shit life." This according to Gérard de Villiers, 83, just back from Afghanistan, in an interview released early this year in New York Times magazine. He died on 31 October. He was about to write his two hundredth novel in the S.A.S. (Son Altesse Sérénissime) espionage series featuring lead character Malko Linge, an Austrian prince who works as a freelance agent for the CIA in order to finance the repairs to his castle. The previous adventures of this nobleman, which began in 1965, have sold 150 million copies worldwide, enabling the author to live a life akin to that of his fictional character in a splendid Parisian apartment and a villa in Saint Tropez.
The New York Times interview was entitled “
The spy novelist who knows too much”. It’s the perfect definition, and explains the success behind his stories. De Villiers wrote stories that were extraordinarily close to the truth. In some cases he was ahead of the events. With a dose of extreme sex and violence and absolute precision scene-setting.
“Real espionage is a tangle within tangle, plot and counterplot, ruse and treachery, cross and double-cross, true agent, false agent, double agent, gold and steel, the bomb, the dagger and the firing party . . . interwoven in many a texture so intricate as to be incredible and yet true.” So wrote Winston Churchill.
“Spying is itself a form of fiction, the creating of invented worlds,” wrote Ben Macintyre, an intelligence expert in a review of an espionage novel,
An American Spy, suspecting that the author, Olen Steinhauer, was himself an agent for some service or other. While Evan Thomas, another journalist studying the world of spies, talks of the “wilderness of mirrors”, quoting the theory of James Jesus Angleton, who headed the counterespionage section of the CIA from 1954 to ’75, who in turn was quoting T. S. Eliot.
Even from the grave, Gerard De Villiers is able to set off an apparently deceiving web of plots. You really do get lost in a wilderness of mirrors and little by little you can't distinguish real from false. But in the end, you realise that everything can be anything at the same time. It all depends on which world you inhabit, which story you are reading or experiencing.
I, for example, knew Gerard de Villiers very well. I travelled around Bangkok with him many years ago, before settling in the City of Angels, as he liked to call it. He was writing a story set here. I don't remember the plot. I do remember that he showed me every single facet of the city. It wasn't enough for him just to explore the dark side. Which he did with enthusiasm. He managed to grasp every connection between what he saw, what his sources revealed and the information he put together like a collector. Adding a little imagination and a lot of intuition, he succeeding in bringing worlds and times together: visible and concealed, past, present and future.
"There's no secret to predicting things. I follow the trends revealed to me by experience, I use my contacts and what I read, including the reports I manage to find. Then I put it all together," said Gerard. It was a modus operandi also used by his friend Jean-Louis Gergorin, one of the founders of the Centre d’analyse, de prévision et de stratégie of the French Foreign Ministry: “in order to be credible, a report must refute current opinion, cross-reference sources and points of view. Exactly as he does”.
“His style of reporting is old school. He seeks to understand without judging. His crude, rough descriptions, in contrast with the current opinion, are close to the truth,” commented Hubert Védrine, a diplomat and socialist politician who cannot be accused of sympathising with De Villiers, dubbed un reac, a reactionary scorned (but read) by the Gauchiste intelligentsia.
That way of working, blending crudeness with harsh reality, in the tradition of the dying breed of great reporters, is all the more useful in places such as Bangkok, where geopolitical analysis blends in with bar gossip. I would have confirmation of this a few years later, when a character seemingly from one of his novels, a Vietnamese business broker met me in a pizzeria on a side road off Sukhumvit, Bangkok's main thoroughfare. I knew he had business contacts with all kinds of people and I wanted to know if relations between Thailand and the USA were really threatened by the Kingdom's closer relations with China. He smiled with that air of ironic complacence that Asians of a certain standing reserve for farang, foreigners. "Don't forget that Thailand houses CIA's biggest centre for cover operations outside Langley," came his reply.
If you look at Bangkok like De Villiers did - or that Vietnamese guy does – it's not surprising to read in Edward Snowden's leaks that American, British, Australian and Canadian embassies in Jakarta, Hanoi and Bangkok were used for cyber-intelligence operations across Asia. Snowden's document points out that surveillance instruments are often hidden in fake superstructures. Which, if you think about it, may explain the futuristic design of the Australian embassy in Bangkok.
Many years later, in 2009, he would return to what was now my city to write another adventure set there, SAS: Le Piège de Bangkok. In this case the plot centred on the life of Viktor Bout, a former officer of the Red Army turned arms dealer. A book has been written about him: “
Merchant of Death: money, guns, planes, and the man who makes war possible”. The film adaptation, “Lord of War”, starred Nicholas Cage. In 2008 Bout was arrested at the Sofitel Silom Hotel following a long undercover operation by officers of the CSD, the Thai Crime Suppression Division and DEA, acting on a capture warrant issued by the United Nations. Bout found himself at the centre of a legal battle between the US government demanding his extradition and the Russians, who claimed he was an “innocent businessman”. For the Thai government he was, by turns, a problem and an opportunity. In 2010 he was extradited to the United States “suddenly, secretly and in breach of both international and Thai laws”, according to a statement from the Russian embassy in Bangkok. In the meantime, the master of “romanquête”, or investigative novel, had “put together” the whole affair, adding the character Ling Sima, a beautiful yet ruthless colonel in the Chinese secret services. This was going on at a time when, as many analysts have now discovered, China was building an espionage service capable of competing with the CIA. Coming between Thailand and the United States fits right into the Chinese strategy of undermining the enemy's allies.
Chance would once again have it that I too was looking into this story: our paths probably crossed in the red light district controlled by the Russians, or in the halls of the big hotels where those characters that “solve problems” in Bangkok hang out. But we did not meet.
In reality, I have never met Gerard De Villiers. I knew him, but not personally. Only from his books. I wrote the introduction to two of them – one of which was his first in Bangkok. I took them with me on my travels to beautiful yet troubled places. He never got a coordinate, street number or description wrong. Whether in Burma, Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam, De Villiers was the perfect travel guide. One time, in Yangon, I believe I met an old friend of his from SDECE, Service de documentation extérieure et de contre-espionnage (which later became DGSE, Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure).
And then I had a friend – this little story is dedicated to him - who worked for the Secret Services and he had interviewed him. He told me of a man who impersonated his lead character, with a secretary-bodyguard (or was there more than one?) in a black latex bodysuit.
One way or another, De Villiers had become a ghost, a spectre. But not the stuff of nightmares or horror films. More the mysterious, fascinating, ambiguous kind, flesh and blood yet living in the underworld or in the world of the Great global Game, in the wilderness of mirrors. In America they call them Spooks. As Yuri Orlov, the character played by Nicolas Cage, says at the end of “Lord of War”, just before he is released: “Sometimes they need a freelancer like me. You call me evil, but I'm a necessary evil.” Twas ever thus: when reality becomes fiction, it loses its original nature and enters a mythological dimension. Then, when it becomes reality again, it moves to a place of shadows.
In Thailand, where Spirits share the same space but in another dimension, observing us from the saan phra phum, the Houses of the Spirits, dotted around the streets, in homes and gardens, a De Villiers figurine could go alongside those of Jim Thompson or Tony Poe. Both are characters I have followed around Thailand, Laos and Malaysia and who have gone from writing material to spirits that appear and disappear when I least expect it. Their life is an insight into adventure, history, geopolitics and novels, one of those stories that could only be set in a theatre like the Mekong Basin.
Jim Thompson, also known as “the Thai silk king”, arrived in Thailand at the end of the Second World War as an agent of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA. He later resigned to go into business and art collecting at his beautiful house on the banks of a khlong, or canal. Many, however, believed that he continued in his old job as a freelancer. The house where he welcomed celebrities passing through Bangkok was an operational centre collecting vital information for America, which at that time was about to lose itself in the jungles of Vietnam. Over time, though, Thompson became increasingly similar to Thomas Fowler, the character in Graham Greene's The Quiet American, more interested in the traces of a smile on a Buddha's face than in political strategy. It's a story that has fuelled and continues to fuel suspicions around his mysterious disappearance, on Easter Sunday 1967 along a path in the Cameron Highlands, in central-northern Malaysia.
On the other hand, Anthony Poshepny, better known as
Tony Poe, died peacefully on the morning of 27 June 2003. After the Second World War, in which he had fought as a marine on the South West Pacific front surviving the Iwo Jima landing, he became an agent for the CIA. In the Sixties, he was based in Laos, conducting his own guerrilla warfare against the Viet Cong and Pathet Lao, with forays into China and Burma, from which, it is said, he returned with trophy necklaces made of ears. It is also said that the character Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now was based on him. In the end, though, even Tony began to have his doubts about war. "It was the simple reality, more than anything else, that defeated Tony," says one of his junior agents.
Reality is defeating myth, and perhaps the death of De Villiers is really the end of an era. The end of so-called HUMINT, intelligence gathered by people, and the start of cyber-intelligence, in which everything takes place in another parallel world, the cyberworld. No wonder that The Kill List, the latest novel by another great spy writer,
Frederick Forsyth, is set in this new theatre. Men, such as those in the Joint Special Operations Command, are to do what drones cannot.
"The cyberworld is the new frontier of the wild west," said General Dani Arditi, former president of the Israeli National Security Council, at the
seminar on Cyber Warfare held recently in Bangkok. But he added that, precisely because of this wildness – as in the wilderness of mirrors - "You have to be flexible. Nothing is stable these days." And he concluded with a smile: "These are interesting times." He reminded me of De Villiers.