“Expect The Worst In Iraq” headlines David Ignatius’s latest Washington Post column
“What’s the ‘worst’? What are we doing in this part of the world—?,” I asked him today during an interview on his new book, BODY OF LIES (Norton, April 16, 2007).
“The worst,” he replied, “would be extending the current civil war, Turkish intervention, the Shiite and Sunnis violence spreading throughout Arab lands, large refugee population dispersals, double-digit oil prices.” Ignatius, who initially believed in invading Iraq, despairs of its future—and ours, as we become increasingly mired in this war.
That despair shows in his latest novel, BODY OF LIES, which, like Ignatius himself, asks as much as it purports to solve.
The title itself is problematic. Who is lying? Which betrayals are the worst? Is the whole book finally a body of lies? Are our efforts in Iraq a body of lies? The title basically reflects the book’s central stratagem, a CIA-Jordanian plot to capture Suleiman, the henchman of an Al Quaeda network. The plotters would copy World War II’s “Operation Mincemeat,” when British Intelligence conveyed flawed intelligence to the Nazis through a fake British intelligence agent’s body.
The central characters, an unholy triumvirate of an ideologically possessed, wounded CIA agent, Roger Ferris, and his two mentors, Ed Hoffman, opportunistic CIA chief, and Hani Salaam, suave Jordanian intelligence czar, are caught in a larger, murkier body of lies than the initial stratagem implies.
Despite Ignatius's focus on Roger, what happens to him in the course of the novel is debatable. Mentored first by the coarsely ambitious Ed Hoffman (no relation to this reviewer), and then by Hani Salaam, Ferris is caught in a bitter revolving door of betrayals and counter-betrayals. Their ostensibly mutual goal is defeating Suleiman, the most vicious of new Al-Quaeda leaders and penetrating his network. Ironically, Suleiman’s name means “man of peace,” an echo of “Solomon,” a wiser man.
The even more ironically-named Roger follows an arc of change saying yes to one intelligence mentor and another, one belief and another, one way of life and another. Weaker in bed than in anti-terrorism, Roger chooses women who are political animals. Their choices determine his choices.
The age-old contrast between dark and light women is here. Roger divorces his seductively dark, malicious wife for the Looking-Glass-named, mysterious Alice, who disappears into a Palestinian, looking-glass world. Whatever Alice is, she is not the cheerful blonde he expected. Even at the end when ostensibly the lies are over—or so Roger tells himself and Alice, she won’t tell him what she’s been up to or where her life is going. Blondes not only have more fun but they keep better secrets. In Ignatius’s world, nothing and no one is what its seems.
Everyone in the book lies, manipulates, and betrays, especially Ed Hoffman, who is, for Ignatius, a symbol of the new CIA. Nephew of Frank Hoffman, a gruff, old-world CIA agent appearing in Ignatius’s first novel, "Agents of Innocence," published 20 years ago, Ed Hoffman’s ambitiousness and power hunger obstruct the secret mission of invading Suleiman’s network.
Frank Hoffman resigns on principle. But Ed Hoffman, the only character appearing in all six of Ignatius’s novels, shows how far down Ignatius believes the CIA has come—despite all its carefully depicted high-tech toys and secret workings.
Ferris’s unthinking betrayals of low-level informers cost them their tortured lives. The novel repeatedly asks but does not solve the problems: to whom do we owe allegiance and how much?. Towards the end, Ferris, the onetime ideologue, would save Alice before he would be true to the plot to overthrow Suleiman.
But the novel’s ending with Alice and Roger fading into the Arab woodwork, married by a Sunni priest and an Episcopal clergyman, raises many questions. Do they “choose to live with Arabs,” as Ignatius argues, or do they choose to live as Arabs, as this reviewer believes?
“Roger Ferris,” he asserts, “never liked normative questions.” Yet Roger is not the hero, nor does he represent Ignatius. It’s Hani Salaam, who steals the novel from Roger and Hoffman as its most interesting character. Hani may appear in another Ignatius novel. He should. He’s too fascinating to disappear with BODY OF LIES.
In BODY OF LIES, Ignatius comments that, “Falsehood was perfectible in a way that true life was not.” He then paraphrases Janet Malcolm’s observation “that there is only one kind of narrative where the accuracy of what’s described on the printed page cannot be questioned, and that is fiction.” At the end of the novel and even after interviewing Ignatius, the reader wonders what are the lies and what is the truth. Ignatius, the god of this created – or partially created—world doesn’t always want to say what he thinks his characters are doing, what’s hidden, and what’s behind the veils.
Once you’ve turned the last page of this addictively deceptive thriller, you need to read BODY OF LIES again. The first time captures the airborne pages to see what happens. The second time raises doubts about finding “the right body,” who is lying, whom to believe—if anyone, what certainty resides in uncertainty. See what you make of the resonances in this fast-paced, thoughtful book asking, “Where do we belong?” “Where can we go?” When can we leave?” “What is our responsibility?” “Who are we?”