I do not know what impelled Nicholas Cornwell to take on the improbably sounding nickname; however, if the improbable plot-line of Tigerman, Harkaway’s third novel, is any indication, the man has a penchant for improbabilities.
Tigerman is the story of superhero, comic book style, except that Harkaway’s superhero does not have superhero-abilities as a result of a freakish accident to which so many of the comic book superheroes, from whom Harkaway seems to have drawn inspiration, are prone. Tigerman purports to be a realistic account of an ordinary man attempting superhero feats without superhero powers.
Although nothing freakish has happened to Lester Ferris, the eponymous hero of Harkaway’s novel, something very freakish and unpleasant is happening to the island of Mancreau, the fictional island, one of the many outer posts of the British Empire, situated between Africa and Asia, where Ferris is posted. The island has become literary toxic, you will not be surprised to read, as a result of the unregulated chemical work of the greedy multinational companies, which dumped the toxic waste in the sea near the island. The toxic waste is sending to the surface of the sea, and then into the atmosphere, toxic bubbles, which are wreaking havoc on the flora and the fauna of the island. They are also causing the kind of neurological disturbances in the humans which would send Oliver Sachs straight to his lap-top to dish out his next book of weird and rare neurological conditions. It is also gravely suspected that the core of the toxic waste, resting on the sea bed, has, somehow, given rise to a new strain of bacteria, which—no marks for guessing—are resistant to every known antibiotic, and which, if and when they are freed, will bring about the end of the humanity as we know it. If any of this seems a tad far-fetched, please be advised that this is just the beginning.
Ferris, the British sergeant posted in Mancreau, is a veteran of Afghanistan, so, it goes without saying, a burnt-out case. As the once mighty empire is handing over the toxic island, which is dying, to the NATO and UN forces, Ferris is given the ceremonial, though mostly redundant position of the British counsel at the British consulate that has the staff of one (including him). There are representatives of other nations: Dirac, a Frenchman who got into trouble for publically flogging an African war-lord in an African country the French had no business to be in the first place, but felt it was their duty to send a peace-keeping force to (no doubt because the African country was a French colony at the turn of the twentieth century, when the French dealt with the Africans far more cruelly than Dirac did with the war-lord); Pechorin, who is from Ukraine and (obviously) corrupt; and Kershaw from the USA, who talks tough, concrete, and does not get the English subtlety. The island is going to be evacuated soon; and, in these last, lawless days, around the island has formed a ring of ships, referred to in the novel as ‘Black Fleet’. The description of the ‘Black Fleet’ is (deliberately, I think) is vague, but the reader is invited to consider that all the big nations are fully aware of what is going on in the Black Fleet (‘a bit rum’, as Ferris might say—in the middle of the novel full two pages are devoted to the talking habits of the English, which, it has to be accepted, are curious—and diabolical, as the rest of the world would say). Ferris’s job, as the novel opens, is mostly to roam around aimlessly on the streets of Mancreau and exchange pointless pleasantries with the natives (at which, being English, he excels, although this is not cited as a characteristic of the conversations of the English). Ferris has taken under his wing a 10 year old boy, who is more into comic books than Dawn French is into sticky toffee pudding. The boy tells Ferris that his name is Robin, which, of course, is down to the boy’s unhealthy obsession with comic books. Ferris, a bachelor, harbours dreams of adopting the boy, but is not sure how the boy’s family would react to it; indeed he is not sure if the boy has a family. Ferris thinks that the boy has a family but is loath to ask him about it for the same reason he prefers not to ask the boy his real name (that curious English reticence, again). The bond between Ferris and the boy forms a major strand of the novel. For the best part Harkaway manages to make it affecting without becoming maudlin; at the same time the reader is expected to suspend his credulity as the British sergeant refuses to ask the boy the simple question about his family even as he (Ferris) gets involved in all sorts of derring-do at the boy’s behest. Ferris, who is an intelligent man, figures out many a conspiracy and shows skills in ferreting out secrets last shown by Sherlock Holmes; but is unable to bring himself to do the simple thing that would help him to solve the mystery of the boy’s provenance: either ask the boy a direct question or follow him and see where he goes. (In Ferris’s defence, if he had done it, his creator, Harkaway, would not have been able to string along the suspense for 300 plus pages.) Then, suddenly, there is an apparently senseless murder of a tea-stall owner called Shola whose ramshackle restaurant is frequented by Ferris and the boy. (Incidentally Ferris prevents them from killing the boy, who, so he thinks at the time, is not their primary target, by dint of a tin can containing custard powder as some sort of improvised bomb!) After Shola’s funeral Ferris, while roaming around, inebriated (as you do), in the cemetery, comes face to face with a tiger. When he tells the boy his encounter with the tiger the next day, the bot starts calling Ferris Tigerman, and the two of them spend their combined energies on preparing tiger-shields and face-masks (How much is this British counsel getting paid monthly?) As Ferris, in the Tigerman persona, attempts to solve the murder of Shola, he, as is only to be expected in such novels, stumbles onto more secrets neither he nor his boss in London—a woman codenamed Africa (!) and talks in a manner in comparison to which the female M character (played by the insufferable and vastly overrated Judy Dench in Bond films) is an epitome of serenity—wants to know. He also gets involved in the kind of scrapes, the likes of you and me would wet our pants just thinking about. In the process Tigerman achieves the celebrity status worthy of all comic books superheroes. As the novel reaches its climax, the action becomes more frenzied and plot more improbable.
There is much to be admired in Tigerman. The novel has one of the most surreal openings I have come across in a long time: Ferris and the boy ‘Robin’ watching a pelican swallow a live pigeon. Harkaway knows how to turn a drily witty turn of phrase. The dialogues (especially those between Ferris and Kershaw, his American counterpart; as well as between Ferris and the Japanese scientist who is researching whatever ghastly thing that is germinating on the sea-bed) are . The levity of the tone in these dialogues stands in stark contrast to the dense prose, sombre in tone, of many other sections of the novel. The tone, as a result, is somewhat uneven. The first half of the novel is reminiscent of a Graham Greene novel: a reticent, world-weary Englishman in the last days of a dying-out exotic island, pullulating with local myths. Just as the reader is getting accustomed to the gentle pace, the novel unexpectedly ratchets up a gear, and lurches into a comic book action-adventure territory that gives a jolt to the system. Many of the action sequences, though described in painstaking details, are not easy to visualise. Harkaway does not let the pace slacken and throws in surprises and twists by the bucketful, the last one being the biggest and the least convincing.
Tigerman is a literary comic book thriller; that’s the best way I can describe it. It is not a bad novel; it is not an easy novel to read; and it is not a memorable novel.