- Ethnography, Doubling, and Equivocal Narration in Eric Ambler’s The Levanter
An epigraph, according to Gérard Genette, is one of several discursive practices whereby a writer establishes an interpretive frame of reference. “More than a boundary or a sealed border,” he observes, it constitutes a liminal “zone not only of transition but also of transaction” (1–2). The inscription that precedes Eric Ambler’s The Levanter (1972) parses his eponymous noun as “A native or inhabitant of the Levant” (“Levanter,” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary) and “One who absconds; esp. one who does so after losing bets” (“Levanter,” def. 2). Respectively denotative and connotative, these definitions are culturally slanted, the first because it assumes the outdated construct of indigenousness as a marker of fixed identity1 and the second because it accepts an anthropological stereotype to characterize people of a certain geographical region. Despite these shortcomings, the lexical blurbs operate as part of the novel’s paratextual apparatus to establish a preliminary conception of Michael Howell, third-generation CEO of a family-owned enterprise known as Agence Commerciale et Maritime Howell. The ethnographic profile describes this protagonist semi-accurately in terms of where he resides, principally for the sake of conducting business, while also casting aspersions on his integrity. Readers thus are disposed from the outset to be skeptical about Howell’s reliability in recounting how his company came to be accused of having abetted a Palestinian terrorist faction in the manufacture of bombs intended for deployment against Israel.
With corporate offices in Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, and Liechtenstein, forty-one-year-old Howell travels frequently to Europe and buys his hand-tailored suits in Rome, yet he opts to live with an Italian mistress, Teresa Malandra, near Damascus where he knows himself to be considered “a foreigner . . . and an infidel” (27). Surprisingly, given such marginalization, Ambler’s main narrator takes pride in the advantage that purportedly accrues to him by virtue of his genealogical hybridity:
My sisters and I were born in Famagusta and baptised in the Greek Orthodox faith. My name, Michael Howell, may look and sound Anglo-Saxon, but, with a Lebanese Armenian grandmother and a Cypriot mother, I am no more than fractionally English. . . . Ethnically, I suppose, my sisters and I could reasonably be described as “Eastern Mediterranean.” Personally I prefer the simpler though usually pejorative term, “Levantine mongrel.” [End Page 58] Mongrels are sometimes more intelligent than their respectable cousins; they also tend to adapt more readily to strange environments; and in conditions of extreme adversity, they are among those most likely to survive.(31–32)
Ensuing developments, however, make us question that premise, which is recorded, almost as an affidavit, pursuant to Howell’s indictment in worldwide media for having aided one Salah Ghaled, head of the Palestinian Action Force (PAF), in the latter’s preparations for a devastating land-and-sea bombardment of Tel Aviv. Even though that attack is preempted by Howell’s killing Ghaled in the countdown to a launching of Katyusha rockets on the anniversary of the death of Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), founder of modern political Zionism, the entrepreneur finds himself arraigned for complicity in the court of public opinion.
Because Ambler’s fifteenth novel is narrated from three perspectives—primarily Michael Howell’s exculpatory récit but also supplementary accounts by Lewis Prescott, an impartial “senior foreign correspondent working for the Post-Tribune syndicated news service . . . based in Paris” (4–5), and Teresa Malandra, Howell’s secretary as well as mistress—The Levanter challenges the conventional notion of an apodictic “whole truth” (4). For his part, veteran journalist Prescott, whose assistance the protagonist has solicited to substantiate his innocence, begins the novel by stating, “This is Michael Howell’s story[,] and he tells most of it himself. I think that he should have told all of it” (3). The obvious implication is that Howell has not been entirely forthcoming. What Prescott fails to grasp about his subject, however, is clarified midway through The Levanter when Malandra contributes the following insight:
The reason why Michael is so difficult to understand—especially for journalists—is that he is not one person but a committee of...