Ministers of Fire

  • Mark Harril Saunders
  • Swallow Press
  • 352 pp.

In this multi-layered and gripping thriller, the characters face not just intrigue but moral complexities in the game of spying and foreign affairs.

Reviewed by Sara Mansfield Taber

Mark Harril Saunders has crafted a gripping thriller that blasts to life “The Great Game.”  Ministers of Fire offers much to intrigue: an intricate, multi-layered plot; complex characters of varied nationalities, including Afghan, American and Chinese; immersion in foreign locales from Afghan mountain redoubts to poky Shanghai apartments; and windows into both the personal motives of spies and the real gears of foreign affairs.

Saunders’ book is not just a page-turner but an insight-packed exploration of, as the author puts it, “the puzzle of nations.” Artfully, Saunders shows how an American-Chinese collaboration to arm the mujahedeen during the Russian incursion into Afghanistan sets in motion an unstoppable series of events with long-term ripple effects, the end to which are not in sight. In the story, we travel over time and continents, from a 1979 killing of the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan to the Shanghai of 2002, where a covert CIA operation to spirit a dissident Chinese nuclear physicist out of the country runs afoul of deceitful men of several nationalities. The layers and layers of motivations within and among the individuals involved in the operation are riveting and seem, painfully, both all too probable and probably typical.

As the son of a spy-turned-negotiator, Mark Harril Saunders has had the opportunity to live among the peoples of South Asia and the Far East, and to witness foreign relations up close.  This personal knowledge gives his details a remarkable precision and renders his tale both solid and authentic. A spy’s child myself, I relished his imagined dip into my father’s world.

While the plot in Ministers of Fire is compelling — I had to read on — what I enjoyed perhaps even more were other aspects of this ambitious novel.

A crew of intriguingly complicated characters is on offer here: Lucius Burling, a self-centered CIA station chief who, on discovering that the woman he loves has been tortured by the Chinese, feels not just tenderness but disgust at her weakness; Jack Lindstrom, a surly, drug-addicted American operative maimed by PTSD but still possessing faith in love; General Zu, a Chinese tyrant who despises Americans but protects a son settled in the West; MacAllister, a conniving American “who likes to play with things that should be left to God — love, faith, whatever it is that can make people happy…” Each unique character in the book — and there are many more — is a mishmash of contradictory motives. Through their various mouths, the reader is delivered dark perspectives on the world: that we are all puppets; that each of us is trapped in a larger net; that despite any principle supposedly guiding a government official, it all comes down to the personal; and that relations between countries are like marriage. Despite their ostensible opposition, the Americans and the Chinese in the book are clasped tightly in bed together. And at the end of the story, Saunders delivers us not the Hollywood shoot-out of good versus evil one of his characters desires but something more complex, grey and real.

Another treat supplied by this book is a window into the lives of the operatives and families of the CIA — people familiar to me. Here on the page are the stressed and fed-up wives (one of whom beats a rat to death when she reaches the end of her rope), the estranged children in private schools and the frayed marriages. And here are the inner lives of the operatives — mostly men — themselves. Here we find: the joining-up to escape a dull life; the living through children; the men who don’t understand women but live for them; the impenetrable silences; the failure to connect — and the moral quandaries and forced choices; the conflicting and shifting loyalties; the compulsion of the chase; the compartmentalization; the ruthlessness; the feeding on weakness, which, as Burling remarks in a flash of insight, may be “what is really meant by sin;” and the endless identity confusion. At one point in the book, Burling reflects: “Since he had quit the Agency, he had enjoyed flying into other countries with the knowledge that his papers were in order, he was who he said, but now he felt that this sense of identity had been one more illusion: parts of himself were scattered everywhere — Samarkand, Pakistan, Kabul, D.C.”

Also well imagined in this book is spy work itself: the horse-trading of lives, the edgy relations between analysts and operatives, the animosity between the State Department and the Agency, the identification of operatives with their agents and even their enemy counterparts — and the confusion of it all. “Burling saw the trap he had laid for himself: indeed the world was a double mirror, hard and simple on one side, on the other elaborately framed. It kept spinning around and you never knew which side reflected the future, which the past.”

Fascinating, too, in Saunders’ book is the picture of the Chinese and of China’s “plangent mixture of mourning and menace.” Saunders portrays an array of Chinese outlooks on America and capitalism — to stimulating effect. He illuminates the relationships between tyrants and their pawns, the problems with ideologies of any stripe, the bewildering blurring of the crazy and the real and real-world ironies such as that of anti-capitalist Communists packaging pirated CDs.

An added treat in Ministers of Fire is the grit and stink and allure of places salting the scenes of spies interacting with their contacts: “The noodle shop on the corner gave off a thick white steam.”  “They were met outside the garden by the sharp smell of marigolds.” “In Samarkand, the minarets were silent. The madrassah with its symmetrical blue-tiled façade was empty of life. In the center of town, an old hotel faced a large, shaded square. Its lobby had the stale, dour feeling of a place for English travelers on the Continent; the old British ladies who played bridge in the cool dusty corner by the stairs seemed right at home …”

And Saunders is at home in this world, too. It is as if Saunders is himself a vast Chinese market.  Here he displays, in abundance, his wares.

Sara Mansfield Taber, daughter of a covert operative, is the author of Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter. She has also published Bread of Three Rivers: The Story of a French Loaf, Dusk on the Campo: A Journey in Patagonia and Of Many Lands: Journal of a Traveling Childhood. Her essays, travel pieces, memoirs and commentary have been published in literary magazines and newspapers such as The Washington Post, and produced for public radio

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