Historians take the long view when examining global affairs. I was recently reading microfilm of newspapers from the early 1920s, doing some last research for my book. The countries that dominated the headlines then were the same ones that dominate them today. The Third Anglo-Afghan War had just concluded with the Treaty of Rawalpindi, ostensibly settling boundary issues between India and Afghanistan. The Levant was under British and French mandate following the First World War. The Republic of Turkey was in its infancy under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the British had just revoked Egypt's independence.
I had the same sense of déjà-vu in reading Don DeLillo’s 1982 novel, The Names. It's set against the geopolitical backdrop of the Iranian Revolution, the rescue of the American hostages in Tehran, the Lebanese Civil War, the 1980 Turkish coup d’état, chronic Greco-Turkish tensions over Cyprus, and the instability of Greek democracy. The Names centres around a group of expats involved in various shadowy activities involving international banking, risk analysis, security, and archaeology. Its hero, James Axton, is a risk analyst for a mysterious American group found to have ties to the CIA. David Keller, another American, is based in Athens. He works for a bank that has heavy ties to the Turkish government, and becomes the target of an assassination attempt in Greece. Charles Maitland, a Brit, is a security specialist. The men spend their time flying around the Middle East attending to business in dodgy locales: Tehran, Ankara, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Beirut in particular.
Control is a central theme of the novel, whether it's states trying to manage their politics or DeLillo's characters handling their personal affairs. Axton loses control in his marriage as his wife, Kathryn, slips further and further away from him (she moves from a Greek island to Victoria, British Columbia - about as remote and obscure a locale from Greece as possible). He loses control over his own reality, holding on desperately to his job, revelling in mundane office paperwork as he becomes increasingly obsessed by a mysterious, murderous cult. He eventually travels to the Pelopennese and as far as Jerusalem, Damascus, and India in an attempt to learn more about it. Along the way, something interesting happens: language, the means by which people order and make sense of their mental worlds, takes on a new importance for Axton; religion, as exemplified by the mystery cult, is what orders the meaning that he finds through language. The connections they establish and the control they represent suggest a world made in the cult's own image, which Axton sees painted on a rock on the outskirts of an abandoned village in the Pelopennese: Ta Onómata, The Names.
As the novel closes, Axton is back in Athens. After the CIA revelations, he resigns from his job. Rootless, his wife and son on the other side of the world. He regains control of his life, while the world around him continues to spin out of control; he witnesses the assassination attempt on Keller. Geopolitics and the personal chaos caused by the characters' involvement in it are useful allegories these days. In the continuing drama of the Arab Spring, states and their residents, the masses and their leaders, are locked in a competition over who gets to dictate the terms of order. The newspapers of the 1920s were clear about who was meant to maintain control over the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Today, questions of empire, language, religion and politics, domesticated and boiling over, are much more complex. For that we should probably be grateful.