I have just had the exhilarating experience of reading the new novel by Winnipeg’s Margaret Sweatman, a political thriller set in the heart of the Cold War years. I was intrigued by the title – Mr Jones – as that was indeed the name we gave to the first book club I belonged to – the Mr. Jones Book Club, named after the much-misunderstood character (in my estimation) in the Bob Dylan song, “Ballad of a Thin Man.” The quotation at the outset of the novel is taken from the song – “And you say / Oh my God, am I here all alone?” It is apt insofar as Sweatman does an expert job of conveying the rapidly ascending loneliness and paranoia of certain of her characters, who are caught in the inexorable trap of being the subjects of loyalty investigations over alleged Communist ties. The time frame of Mr. Jones coincides with the beginning of the Cold War in 1946 with the defection of Igor Gouzenko. I have to add as well that as my current book club is focussed on Canadian history, I consider this would make a great book club choice. It surely is the best I am aware of at depicting the critical period in Canadian history where, on the one hand, a growing human rights awareness was developing amongst thinkers, activists and some ordinary citizens, and on the other hand, simultaneously the growing tensions between the Soviet Union and the West led even peaceful, gentle Canada to develop fairly draconian national security measures. These measures interfered in a significant way with civil liberties, particularly freedom of speech and thought, along with freedom of assembly.
The time frame of Mr. Jones coincides with the beginning of the Cold War in 1946 with the defection of Igor Gouzenko. He was a Soviet cipher clerk and espionage agent from the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, famously photographed in a hooded disguise. This remarkable and unusual character took with him papers establishing a spy ring which included one Member of Parliament, Fred Rose, Canada’s one and only Communist MP, and various public servants. The novel continues through various murky episodes, chilling at times in their sense of menace, right up to the High Noon of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The focus throughout is on the three main characters who form one of several love triangles that ricochet off one another and set up fascinating explorations of loyalty, betrayal and inevitable guilt.
Emmett Jones is the first of the three. At the outset he is told by his superior at External Affairs that he is the subject of an extensive investigation by the Mounties, for his possible Communist affiliations past and present. Sweatman, in the opening chapter neatly announces a key theme: the surface appearance of a typical happy and prosperous family at ease during cocktail hour at a summer cottage, and the underlying tensions and psychic disturbances, as characters ponder the dangers associated with the fear of being suspected to be a radical nonconformist. Jones has been a bomber pilot and has horrific memories of his role in the mass firebombing of German cities. He is described as having been easily captured by the first hopeful political community he encounters as a university student – the student communist movement in Toronto.
The second character in the triangle is John Norfield, a charismatic but enigmatic figure who is a major influence on Jones’ political thinking. He is a dedicated Communist who turned to the movement with a religious zeal after his experiences as a POW in Hong Kong had shattered his faith in existing social and political structures. Norfield remains a man of mystery. We wonder at how he has exerted such a pull on his younger and less committed friend. Norfield was himself loved by a young and impressionable college student, Suzanne. She comes from a relatively wealthy Toronto family, well-bred and expected by her parents to marry the “right sort of man” – definitely not a secretive radical like John. Early in the novel we learn that her parents are sufficiently concerned about her growing attraction to the handsome older student that they hire a private detective to get the goods on him. This makes for an ironic commentary on the wider plot. Just as her high-toned and conventional-minded parents make rigid distinctions between “suitable” and “unsuitable” partners for their daughter, so too the Canadian state, or at least its security apparatus adopts a dogmatic approach to questions of eligibility for public service. Eventually, after John leaves the country without explanation, Suzanne comes to rely upon and then marry the less powerful but apparently more reliable Emmett Jones.
I found the ways in which each of these characters find particular meaning in either the Communist ideology or the philosophy of Karl Marx to be a vital part of understanding the shifting ties that bind them. Jones is particularly influenced by Marx’s theory of alienation in capitalist society, no doubt finding it as a way to put into context the ghastly assignments he had received as an unwilling pawn in the Bomber Command unit in the war.Norman is an actual historical figure who was one of the most prominent of the many individuals whose careers were ruined, based on vague and often unsubstantiated allegations or suspicions. For Suzanne, it is the strangeness and the simple ability of Marxist and Communist ideals to challenge the status quo that provokes in her a receptiveness that is decidedly non- intellectual.
As this is an intense thriller I will say little about the plot other than to highlight the fact that both Norfield and Jones become objects of ongoing interest to the secret agents who haunt the novel and are a constant weight on their subjects. The oppressive effect of being placed under surveillance is brilliantly conveyed.
The cottage at Blue Sea Lake takes on an especially important role as it becomes something of a refuge when the newspapers report on Jones’ connections with the famous diplomat Herbert Norman and publish a photo of each of them side by side. This was at a time in the later 1950s when Norman was a well-known subject of scrutiny by the U.S. House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Norman is an actual historical figure who was one of the most prominent of the many individuals whose careers were ruined, based on vague and often unsubstantiated allegations or suspicions. Herbert Norman who was a brilliant Asian scholar, asked to play a vital role in the immediate postwar reconstruction efforts in Japan led by General McArthur. He went on to top posts as Ambassador, most prominently in Egypt, where his sensitive touch was a vital aspect of Canada’s peacekeeping efforts that resulted in the Nobel Prize being awarded to Lester Pearson. Norman had engaged in a youthful flirtation with Communism while a student at Oxford but had moved away from radical views and steadfastly denied any ongoing connection to Communist ideology or even the slightest support for the Soviet Union. After a thorough investigation he was cleared for his work at External Affairs by the Canadian government only to be hounded again and again by the jackals on the American committee. The relentless pressure by an agency of a foreign government that exerted such great influence on Canada was eventually too much for Norman, and he leapt to his death from the rooftop of a Cairo apartment in 1957.
The situation of Jones, who also secures postings in Japan and elsewhere, parallels that of Norman, a minor character in the novel, but a major presence looming over the various plot developments. There are also significant differences in some aspects of Jones’ predicament but what is underscored for the reader is the manner in which civil liberties can so blithely be set aside once the clarion call of national security needs is made. The central values of our nation like fairness, due process and accountability are swept aside and anti-Communist crusaders are given a prominence that is unwarranted once their actions are scrutinized in the clear light of day.