The London Embassy
The stunning opening paragraphs of the first story in The London Embassy collection set the tone for the rest of the book: elegant, worldly, cool, and clever. One wonders, however, how reliable this clever, obviously sophisticated first-person narrator can be. Can the reader trust the observations and judgments so articulately offered in this graceful, understated prose? Anyone who has read many of Paul Theroux’s stories soon learns to reserve such judgments. As his masters—Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, and Somerset Maugham—before him, Theroux relishes the ironic tone, the deceptively limpid narrative, the tale of the wise hypocrite. The more seductive the style, the more confident the tone of Theroux’s narrator, the more reserved should be the reader’s initial judgment: Theroux may well be playing games with his audience again—delightful, entertainingly wicked games, but games nevertheless.
The world of international diplomacy, of career diplomats, and sophisticated world travelers, lends itself well to the type of fiction that Theroux seems to enjoy producing—particularly when he takes on the shorter forms. The characters who populate the stories in The London Embassy know that their initial perceptions very likely are not to be trusted. This is a world of artifice, of role-playing, of intrigue, and of games—games played often for the sake of simply playing them. In some of the stories, the author himself is clearly playing games with the reader. Occasionally, the games are rather obvious, to the detriment of the story, but just as often they are subtle and excruciatingly effective.
The narrator of the stories in The London Embassy (unnamed until the last page of the book) speaks in the cool, candid tone of a professional observer. Even when he is involved in the stories he is telling, his narrative is marked by its detachment, as if he is stepping back and watching himself along with the others in the story. His attitude is rather like that of many of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first-person narrators—especially Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby (1925)—or of Joseph Conrad’s ubiquitous Charlie Marlow. Theroux’s narrator relates his disappointments in love, his education in the labyrinth of diplomacy, and his adventures in the vastness of metropolitan London all with a calm, rather interested manner, as if he is surprised to find himself where he is, having the experiences he is having; but he is determined to make the best of it and, above all, not make waves.
Eccentrics populate all of Theroux’s books, from Saint Jack (1975) to The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (1975) to The Mosquito Coast (1982), but he writes about them here with that special fondness that many British authors reserve for oddballs. Perhaps Theroux’s long residence in Great Britain has given him this peculiarly British viewpoint toward the eccentrics of the world. Many of his characters, in The London Embassy and his other books, could have stepped out of the pages of Charles Dickens or Evelyn Waugh. Here, the eccentrics range from a daffy American poet living in England to a young Embassy telex operator who takes to wearing a single gold earring, thereby scandalizing his superiors; from a grave robber to a beautiful young actress who makes real-estate deals on the side. Still, Theroux, despite his years in Great...
(The entire section is 1402 words.)