Cause for Alarm

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jul 19 09:07:18 MDT 2003


Victim of a "trade recession", engineer Nick Marlow has reached the end of
his rope. When he finally gets a job offer from the Spartacus Machine Tool
Company to take charge of their branch office in Milan, he is relieved to
be working once again. Without any strong convictions about politics in
general or fascism in particular, he seems--like all Eric Ambler heroes--an
unlikely candidate for intrigue. But in short order the hero of the newly
reissued "Cause for Alarm" finds himself shoulder to shoulder with a Soviet
spy in a high risk bid to stave off a new World War.

After arriving in Milan, he is visited by a Nazi agent, a retired General
named Vagas, who is described as a "tall, heavy man with sleek, thinning
grey hair, a brown, puffy complexion and thick, tight lips." "Fixed firmly
in the flesh around his left eye was a rimless monocle without a cord to
it. He wore a thick and expensive-looking black ulster and carried a
dark-blue slouch hat. In his other hand he held a malacca stick." After
Vagas leaves his office, Marlow is left wondering why "General Vagas
thought it necessary to carry a sword-stick." Of course, in this genre,
that is an invitation to turn the page to the next chapter to find out why.

We discover that Vagas is anxious to find out the status of Italian
armaments. Since the Spartacus corporation is an important supplier of
machinery used to turn out artillery shells, Marlow has knowledge that is
worth a lot to the Nazis. In exchange for delivering information about his
own company's involvement and the status of the Italian armament clients he
visits regularly, he will be paid handsomely. Even though the Germans and
the Italians are in an alliance, they don't quite trust each other. Like
Mafia gangsters who periodically form syndicates, they always have to look
over their shoulder to see if a knife is about to be plunged into their
back by a partner.

As it turns out, the affinity with the Mafia is not just metaphorical. We
learn that a branch of the fascist secret police has murdered Marlow's
predecessor after they find out that he too had been funneling information
to Vagas. Called the "Organization for the Repression of Anti-Fascism", or
OVRA, it is the Italian counterpart of the Gestapo. As a peculiarly Italian
wrinkle on repression, it is composed largely of ex-Mafia gangsters. As is
the case with many of the historical allusions in an Ambler novel, this
organization actually existed. Zaleshoff, the Soviet agent who is trying to
recruit the engineer to a sting operation that will pit the Nazis against
their Italian allies, explains the origins to Marlow:

 >>The word 'Ovra,' Mr. Marlow, is formed by the initial letters of four
Italian wordsOrganizzazione Vigilanza Repressione Anti-fascismo, vigilant
organisation for the repression of anti-fascism. In other words, Mr.
Marlow, secret police; the Italian counterpart of the Nazi Gestapo. Its
members are as nice a bunch of boys as you could wish to meet. You've heard
of the Mafia, the Sicilian secret terrorist society? Well, those birds were
the inventors of protection racketeering. Anyone who didn't or couldn't pay
was beaten up or shot. In the province of Palermo alone they bumped off
nearly two thousand in one year. Chicago was a kiddies' play-pen compared
with it. But in nineteen-twenty-three, the Fascisti had an idea. They
smashed the Mafia. It took them some time, but they did it. It was, they
claimed, one of the blessings of Fascismo. But, like some other Fascist
blessings, it was mixed. Some of the Mafia hoodlums emigrated to the United
States and took their trade with them, which was very nice for the Italians
but not so good for the American public. The big majority of the boys,
however, were recruited by the Ovra, drafted to different parts of the
country, so that they couldn't get organised again, and set to work on
behalf of the Government. That wasn't so good for the Italian public. The
Ovra's first big job was to liquidate the opposition: the Liberals and the
Socialists. That was in nineteen-twenty-four. They did a swell job. The
murder of the opposition leader, Matteotti, a few hours before he was due
to produce documentary evidence in support of a speech indicting the
Fascist Government, was an early success. But it was only a beginning.
These were the holy fathers of American gangsterism and they knew their
stuff.<<

Although the exciting plot and vivid characterization suffice to make
"Cause For Alarm" a literary treat for any reader jaded by the typical
contemporary navel-gazing postmodernist fare, the relationship between
Marlow and Zaleshoff should be of special interest to leftists. (Although
they represent themselves as Americans, Marlow--and the reader--will
immediately recognize the Zaleshoffs as Soviet operatives.) It expresses in
literary form the aspirations of the popular front in the west, which was
seeking to humanize the Soviet Union. Andreas Zaleshoff and his sister
Tamara are deeply sympathetic characters. Although they are anti-fascist
fighters, they are not dour or strident leftists.

After being beat up by the ORVA, who suspect him of working for Vagas,
Marlow agrees to join the Zaleshoffs. In his case, the decision seems
motivated more by a desire for revenge than concern about world affairs.
Despite his personal affection for the Soviet spies, he is always a bit
skeptical about their idealism. After Marlow confesses that he is thinking
about taking another job in the armaments industry, despite everything he
has seen in Italy, Zaleshoff questions this decision. Their dialog not only
goes to the very heart of the kinds of contradictions scientists,
technicians and engineers are forced to make in bourgeois society; it
amounts to about as much as an open political statement from the author as
you are likely to find in a body of work that puts much more of an emphasis
on entertainment than didacticism:

 >>"What of it?" I said indifferently. "Someone's got to do the job."

He laughed, but without good humour. "The stock reply according to the
gospel of King Profit. Industry has no other end or purpose than the
satisfaction of the business man engaged in it. Demand is sacred. It may be
a demand for high explosives to slaughter civilians with or one for
chemical fertilisers, it may be for shells or it may be for saucepans, it
may be for jute machinery for an Indian sweat-shop or it may be for prams,
it's all one. There's no difference. Your business man has no other
responsibility but to make profits for himself and his shareholders."

"All that's nothing to do with me."

"Of course it isn't," he rejoined sarcastically, "you're only the guy that
makes it possible. But you also may be the guy that gets squashed to a
paste when those shells and high explosives start going off you and your
wife and kids."

"I haven't got a wife and kids," I said sullenly.

"So what?"

"Damn it, Zaleshoff, I've got to eat. If there's a shortage of skilled
engineers and I'm a skilled engineer, what do you expect me to do? Get up
on a soap box?"

"In a year's time, my dear Marlow, the same trade paper will be telling you
that there are too many skilled engineers. Too many or too few too much or
too little empty stomachs or overfed ones-the old, old story. When are you
English going to do something about it?"

"Are you speaking as an American or a Russian?"

"What difference does it make? Isn't it common-sense to replace an old, bad
system with a better one?"

"You mean Socialism?"

I must have said it derisively for he laughed and did not answer.<<


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