Declare in a Nutshell

Tim Powers, the author of "Declare," stands out from the crowd of contemporary novelists because he is a faithful Catholic who has somehow managed to swim in the toxic mainstream without compromising his faith or principles.

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As we approach the end of this series in which we’ve endeavored to put great literature in a nutshell, an apology and an explanation are necessary.

An apology is needed because the last two titles in the series, this one and the next, are not truly canonical. They do not really belong in the canon of Great Books. This is due to the fact that they were published relatively recently and are by contemporary novelists. They have not stood the test of time. 

In order to be “canonized,” a book must have aged well, transcending the fads and fashions of the time in which it was written. Just as saints are not canonized until after they are dead, books should not be canonized until after their authors are dead. The author of Declare is very much alive (Deo gratias!) and is still writing good books. An explanation is therefore needed.

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Tim Powers stands out from the crowd of contemporary novelists because he is a faithful Catholic who has somehow managed to swim in the toxic mainstream without compromising his faith or principles. This is a remarkable achievement in itself. It is not easy to make the New York Times Bestseller List without selling out to the demands and commands of the Zeitgeist.  

Best known, perhaps, as the author of On Stranger Tides, which inspired the fourth of The Pirates of the Caribbean films, his finest novel is probably—or arguably—Declare, a supernatural spy thriller set against the backdrop of World War II and the Cold War. 

Declare, as with much of Powers’ work, is literary in the sense that it is awash with intertextual references to great literature. Its very title, as revealed in one of the three epigraphs which serve as curtain-raisers to the novel itself, is plucked from the Book of Job: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding.”

The Prologue of the novel, which is set on Mount Ararat in 1948, begins with lines from The Prelude by Wordsworth; the opening chapter, which takes us to London in 1963, opens with lines of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; following chapters begin with literary snippets from Kipling’s Kim, a work which recurs as a thematic motif as the story unfolds. 

The deeper spiritual significance is suggested in the opening of another chapter with lines from Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven,” the theme of Thompson’s poem echoing the providential “wyrdness” which is mystically present beneath the novel’s natural surface and beyond the preternatural powers that lurk beneath its surface. 

The demonic dimension, the diabolical underbelly of the story, is voiced forth in another epigraph in the words of the serpent to Eve from the Book of Genesis. It is the devil’s lying assurance that we “shall be as gods” if we forsake the path of humility and raise the flag of pride. This is the very temptation to which several of the characters succumb and is the very ethos of the Soviet spies who are seeking to harness the powers of darkness to win the world for the communist creed. The trouble is that those who seek to possess demonic power become possessed by it.

As for the key characters, the protagonist, Andrew Hale, is a double agent, ostensibly in the service of the Soviets but in reality working for a mysterious British spy network, into which he had been initiated as a child by his devoutly Catholic mother, a former nun, immediately after receiving his first Holy Communion. The love interest is Elena, a young Spanish communist idealist who believes, mistakenly, that her parents had been killed by Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War. She and Hale meet in Paris in 1941, while working for the French Resistance and for the Soviet Union as spies. 

The antagonist is Kim Philby, a real-life Soviet spy, whom Powers places in the story to connect his historical fiction with history itself. This is a device which Powers employs in many of his works, introducing real historical characters into his fictional narratives to blend and blur fact with fiction, seducing the reader into the suggestion of realism in which we feel that we are entering history when we enter the story.

In terms of time, the story weaves from Hale’s childhood in the years between the two world wars, to World War II, and then to the cat-and-mouse espionage of the Cold War in the 1960s. In terms of space, it moves from London, Oxford, Paris, Berlin, Beirut, Kuwait, Mount Ararat, and finally to Moscow. Time and space are only the temporal and spatial surface on which the story moves; it is what happens beneath the surface in the realm of preternatural powers that the novel reaches to the diabolical depths and the divine heights. 

It is a supernatural spy thriller akin to Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, with which it bears some similarity, at least in terms of thematic kinship. It is apt, therefore, that the epigraph to the chapter which takes us into the demonic presence of the spirits lurking on Mount Ararat is taken from the dedicatory poem with which Chesterton begins his own supernatural spy thriller:  

This is a tale of those old fears, even of those emptied hells,
And none but you shall understand the true things that it tells—
Of what colossal gods of shame could cow men and yet crash,
Of what huge devils hid the stars, yet fell at a pistol flash.

This connection with Chesterton’s novel, which was featured earlier in this series, might be a good way to conclude our discussion of this more recent novel of a similar ilk. Is Declare destined to become as canonical as The Man Who Was Thursday? One should hesitate to “declare” one way or the other. It is not for the critic or the reader to play the prophet. As for this reader, I am certainly happy to declare without the least reservation or hesitation that Declare is well worth reading.

Editor’s Note: This is the forty-ninth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”


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