My Life in CIA, by Harry Mathews

tantric, ski slopes, real life is like the movies but slightly more boring

Around his early 40s a man looks at his life, searches, and more often than not he finds his youth has gone missing. If he has the means he buys a sports car or a boat, or if he’s Harry Mathews he becomes a spy for CIA.

Well, not really a spy; he pretended. He pretended to be a spy because circumstances opened themselves to it and he was an adventurous, creative guy who also happened to be a little bored.

The setting for My Life in CIA (those in the know don’t use “the” in front of CIA, we learn) is Paris, France over the course of 1973. Harry Mathews is a divorced, well-to-do 43 year old man of the 70s - “snug black velvet bellbottoms” and all - whose cocktail party friends suspect as being a spy. Every denial becomes a confirmation in their eyes so he decides to indulge and ride the intrigue for whatever mischievous fun he can find. Here’s an example:

“The following Monday I started passing the Saint Germain without going in. I carried a briefcase and walked briskly west down Boulevard Saint-Germain. On the corner of Rue Saint-Simon I stopped in the recessed doorway of a bookstore and looked back. No sign of my mark, not the first morning or the next; the third he was there. I led him by a devious route - Rues de Bellechasse, Varenne, Bourgogne, Las-Cases - to the church of Sainte Clothilde. I walked slowly and expectantly round the little park in front of the church. Then I hurried home a quite different way. I made sure I never lost my tail.

That afternoon I took the metro to Saint Augustin on the right bank. I got straight into a taxi that deposited me, back on the other side of town, near an Avis garage in the fifteenth arrondissement. I rented their cheapest model, a Peugeot 204. For half an hour I had fun practicing ”evasive driving techniques“ before heading for Sainte Clothilde. I pulled into the first space that opened up on the park side of Rue Marignan. Before leaving I cracked the rear window next to the sidewalk, left the same door unlocked, and pasted a two-inch strip of Scotch tape over its lower edge.”

Most I think, might be unnerved and stop the game after being followed by a stranger, but of course most people probably wouldn’t pretend to be a spy. If a little Sunday cloak and dagger were not enough, Mathews goes so far as to create a company to act as cover and go out in the world laying a trail of open questions for the “real” spies to find. And find him they do.

As the tall tale grows, Matthews meets a cast of mysterious strangers - the tantric lover, Marie-Claude Quintelpreux - “…release the demons in you that molest pure yearning!” Or, Florence, who is forty inches tall and “perfect in every limb,” who saves Mathew’s life in the obligatory foot-sex-with-a-midget-in-a-church-after-being-hosted-to-drinks-and-dancing-with-Zendor-an evildoer-whose-house-you-find-yourself-in-after-being-whisked-away-naked-in-an-exotic-rug scene.

There are also some true spies, opportunists, ruffians, beautiful women, communists and assassins who either don’t know what to make of our hero, want something they think he’s got, or want him out of the way; permanently. Through his odd encounters, we glimpse along with Mathews a world beyond the cocktail party chatter and intellectual ideas where he came from into a world of concrete action and cause-and-effect - as in, these people mean business. Mathews finds himself not so much deeply involved in the game of spying as in the brutality of staying alive.

As enjoyable as the Mathews’ story is, I think that it also illuminates elements of the absurd character that geopolitics can take on, and how we all, playing our small roles, are taken in by it, sometimes forgetting that the consequences are often harsh. Mathews also captures a nervousness among some of his elite friends and others he encounters that might be as good as any snapshot of 1973. In one scene, Mathews speaks to a group of communists about his made-up geopolitical views but all they care to hear about is Watergate, a subject about which they seem hopelessly naive. It is not until he meets people in the country - far removed from the social and political scene - that the frenetic life he (momentarily) left behind can be seen for what it is.

I read My Life in CIA one afternoon over the summer. Fitting for the season, I’d say, because it’s fast paced, fun and something of a farce. If you’re one of those habitual daydreamers like me, you’ll enjoy Mathews’ winking Graham Greenesque account of playing spy and even if you’re not, you’ll enjoy his crafty story telling and the occasional reference to velvet clothes and a few other ’70s artifacts.

[Dalkey Archive Press page]
[Harry Mathews page at the Complete Review]