Hang out with spies in distant Asian capitals, offend French communists, smoke ever so slightly expensive cigars, have no visible means of support—and the locals are likely to ask questions about a person.
So Mathews (The Human Country, 2002, etc.), expatriate novelist, learns. Well before 1973, his annus mirabilis, sundry residents of Paris suspected him of being a CIA agent, assuring him that it didn’t really matter but pleading that he confide the truth in them. “It hurt to be thought of as a spook,” Mathews writes. “Not because by that time it had become shameful but because it was simply wrong.” Farther afield, Mathews relates in a wonderful anecdote, a Filipino doctor reaches the same hurtful conclusion; when Mathews protests that he’s a writer and quotes verbatim from the works of Gerard Manley Hopkins by way of proof, the doctor responds, “How glad I am to see that the CIA is training its men so well.” An unlikelier agent there probably has never been: Mathews, after all, is the only American to have been invited into Oulipo, the French literature-meets-science movement whose best-known exemplar is Georges Perec’s “full-length novel in which the letter e never appeared,” and in 1973 Mathews was occupying himself with progressive causes and, from time to time, explicating the bad-capitalism twists and turns of what the French were calling le ouateurguète, Watergate. (“There was a lot of arguing among members of the audience. This helped me look sober and well-informed, which I certainly wasn’t.”) One of Mathews’s literary champions, though, turns out to be a chap who just happens to work for Zapata Oil, owned by George H.W. Bush, a man with, yes, close connections to the CIA. Unlikely, too, are the twists and turns his fictional memoir takes, punctuated by little cloak-and-dagger episodes and even a spectacular moment of wetwork among the wine-and-cheese picnics al fresco.
Did these things happen? Is Mathews really Jonathan Hemlock? This isn’t much help in answering such questions, but it’s a lot of fun.