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Literature / Declare

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"Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the Earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding."

A 2001 spy novel by Tim Powers, Declare follows British agent Andrew Hale through a covert Cold War operation with roots in the intricacies of the Great Game and a distinct supernatural bent. It is written as a Secret History, postulating that there are supernatural events occurring behind the scenes of otherwise-mundane occurrences. At its center: the British spy and defector, Kim Philby, and his links with the djinn...

Powers has acknowledged that much of the novel was influenced by the works of John le Carré, while the supernatural occurrences have a distinct Lovecraftian flavour to them.

Tropes include:

  • The Alcoholic:
    • Guy Burgess, largely a result of seeing the djinn's Nightmare Face after the death of his father.
    • Elena's Rabkrin handler advises her to take up drinking, in order to cope with the evil acts required to appease the Mother of Catastrophes.
  • Anachronic Order: The first half of the book skips between the present day of 1963, and Hale's time in the SOE in and after World War II.
  • And I Must Scream: The fate that befalls the King of Wabar, A'ad bin Kin'ad. Then again, it's strongly implied that he got exactly what he deserved.
  • Arc Words:
    • "O fish, are you constant to the old covenant?" "Return, and we return. Keep faith, and so will we."
    • "Declare" itself arguably qualifies—see Title Drop.
  • Batman Gambit: Operation Declare which eventually succeeds in bringing down the Soviet Union by removing its supernatural protector.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: The lives of Kim Philby and his father, St. John Philby, are reinterpreted around the secret history of the djinn.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Elena Teresa Bendiga-Ceniza's last name is composed of the Spanish words for "Ash" (Ceniza) and "Bless" (Bendiga). Therefore, her last name translates to "Ashbless", which is the name of a poet that the author invented who appears in many of his works.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: The Rabkrin are a horrifying lot, though this is because they must appease Machikha Nash to safeguard their homeland. The SOE is generally better, though it too has shown no remorse in killing off its own agents—most notably Cassagnac—in order to uphold and pursue Operation Declare. That said, individual members of both organizations are sympathetic enough. James Theodora is a decent enough fellow who seems almost relieved that he wouldn't be able to kill Andrew Hale, while Elena's Rabkrin handler visibly shows remorse for his organization's actions, and implies that most members of the Rabkrin feel the same way.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: The djinn.
  • Christianity is Catholic: The Church of England is also present, but Catholicism is heavily implied to be the "right" version. Then again, there are plenty of Muslim themes throughout the work, and Powers deliberately leaves it all very ambiguous.
    • Andrew Hale believes that Catholicism is the "right" version deep down inside no matter what, rejecting anything to the contrary — but if you read between the lines, it's heavily implied that at the end of the novel Hale has killed the supernatural being responsible for at least some of the stories of the biblical God; or at least that that's what his handlers believe and intended. Hale himself doesn't accept it, but it's left open to interpretation.
  • Cloak and Dagger
  • Covert Group: The different occult intelligence agencies: they do not typically have formal bureaucracies or names (as opposed to the Laundry, for example), but usually exist as secret networks of agents within existing intelligence agencies—the "conspiracy within a conspiracy", so to speak.
    • The British Declare network is kept secret from the rest of the SOE and SIS.
    • The Russian Rabkrin had to actively evade purges ordered by Stalin and the NKVD to catch them.
    • Relatively little information is available on the French DGSE/SDECE group, or the American occult group working in the CIA, other than that they exist and are "in" on the secret.
  • A Crack in the Ice: Andrew Hale falls into one while climbing Mount Ararat, but is saved because he's roped to the spetsnaz team climbing with him. He nearly lets himself fall though because there's an Eldritch Abomination staring back at him from the abyss, compelling him to release his carabiner.
  • Deadly Euphemism: "establish the truth" and related phrases, taken from Victorian poet J. K. Stephen's To R.B.
    Only this: or at least, if more,
    You must know, not think it, and learn, not speak:
    There is truth to be found on the unknown shore,
    And many will find where few will seek.
  • Depleted Phlebotinum Shells: For a djinn, shapes can be thoughts and thoughts can be actions—and an ellipsoid marked with perpendicular grooves means death. Hale is issued a shotgun derringer with the pellets engraved in this manner to fire into the djinn.
  • Disappeared Dad: Hale doesn't know who his father is, and it becomes a major plot point.
  • Droit du Seigneur: Cited by Philby when gambling for Elena, implying that he'll take her for his wife whether she wants it or not.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Again, the djinn.
  • Evil Twin: In personality, not looks. Philby is a family man, but lacks any loyalty to friends or country. Hale is bereft of family and is a loner, but is staunchly loyal to his country and the few friends he has.
  • Fake Defector: Both Hale and Philby, at one point or another.
  • Fiery Redhead: Elena. While not that aggressive in personal relationships, she is extremely passionate about what she does, be it furthering the cause of Communism, or destroying the Soviet Union for good. Late in the novel, she ignores her orders to recruit a man and tries murdering him instead because he badly humiliated her years ago.
  • Foil: Kim Philby is this to Andrew Hale. There's a reason for it: they are two halves of a Literal Split Personality. Philby got the "home and hearth" aspects of it; Hale got the loyalty and dedication.
  • Foreshadowing: The full nature of the djinn is not revealed to us until more than midway through the book, but due to Anachronic Order the characters often do know. Thus many of their actions take on additional significance apparent only on the re-read.
    • The story of King Solomon's Genie in a Bottle includes several elements that play crucial parts in the plot.
    • In 1948, in the aftermath of the failed first Ararat expedition, Hale and Philby play a game of poker that is apparently interrupted by a sudden, small storm. Actually, it is caused by localized djinn death: Hale had spoken the name of Solomon in conversation, unknowingly summoning some of the already-awakened djinn down to the storm shelter, and when he took out the incised glass beads from the Wabar meteor site to use as betting tokens, dropping them on the ground, he unknowingly kills them in much the same way he would kill the entire colony fifteen years later, thus accounting for the hailstorm. This is never revealed outright, and only becomes apparent when reread.
  • Fright Deathtrap: Hale bribes a British expatriate living in Moscow to tell him where to find Philby. After doing so the Machikha Nash appears and the man keels over dead of a heart attack.
  • Funny Foreigner: Farid, the Lebanese jailer. "I smite you now!"
  • Fun with Acronyms: Elena's codename in the Red Orchestra is "Et Cetera" ("etc.") because her full real birth name is Elena Teresa Ceniza-Bendiga (initials: ETC).
  • Genie in a Bottle: It is mentioned that Solomon had learned how to trap a djinni in a jar using a string of incised beads; the djinni would not be able to escape without rotating the beads, and therefore assimilating the experience of death into itself.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: The king of Wabar. As a result, only half of him is Taken for Granite.
  • The Handler: James Theodora.
  • Historical Character's Fictional Relative: Hale is Kim Philby's half-brother.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Kim Philby was certainly a traitor, but the novel makes his motivations mostly venial rather than ideological, as most biographers agree they were in real life. (Philby does support Communism from the outset, but it's hardly his main motivation.)
  • Human Sacrifice: The Ukrainian famine and the Stalin purges were encouraged by Rabkrin to appease Machikha Nash.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Many if not all of the djinn, not to mention their human servants, readily eat humans. Indeed, the Ukrainian Terror Famine was done at least in part to show Machikha Nash, the leader of the Russian djinn/ghuls, that Stalin was willing to feed her.
  • Immortality Immorality: As means of avoiding God's judgment.
    • Averted by the Kurdish tribesmen that Hale meets before his first attempt on Mount Ararat; though many of them are effectively immortal due to eating the amomon root, they are generally a nice enough bunch.
  • Invisibility Cloak: Walking in the clochard nothing-right-here rhythm masks you from human surveillance.
  • Involuntary Suicide Mechanism/Trigger Phrase: Elana's handler uses one to try and kill her when she announces she's defecting to the French. Fortunately she was praying when the hypnotic "kill command" was implanted, and this somehow disrupted it. Possibly because it's implied that the process involved Black Magic as much as anything psychological.
  • Judgment of Solomon: The famous judgment is given a supernatural twist: Solomon had not actually called for a sword to split the baby (as his scribes would record), but a similar word beginning with the same series of Hebrew letters found in sword, blasphemy, and potter's wheel—a "paleologism" signifying the djinn. Upon exposure to the look of a djinni, the baby's mind would break in two, forming a Literal Split Personality, and it was not inconceivable that the false mother would be willing to settle for half of such a split.
  • Killed to Uphold the Masquerade: Operation Declare was noted to have taken the lives of T. E. Lawrence, Lord Kitchener and Alan Turing. By successfully concluding Operation Declare and then by threatening to make it public if he were killed, Andrew Hale manages to escape this fate.
  • Kneel Before Zod: Hale refuses to kneel to the djinn.
  • Literal Split Personality: Both Philby and Burgess could do that, as a result of their link with the djinn. Both of them lost the ability for different reasons.
  • Lost Him in a Card Game: Hale and Philby gamble for Elena versus a scroll detailing the secret of eternal life. The game is interrupted, but Philby insists on completing the game when they meet up again in Moscow. Hale chooses Elena over immortality, even though he's not sure she'll have him; the tension comes from the betting system—whether Hale or Philby would declare high for Elena, declare low for the scroll, or declare both ways to try to get both. In the end Hale declares high, while Philby tries to win it all.
  • Magical Homeless Person: The Parisian clochards (homeless vagabonds) have mastered the art of walking in a particular way that makes them undetectable by any human surveillance because it makes their presence more like a djinn than a human.
  • Meaningful Name: The name of Operation Declare refers to the sections of the Book of Job where God poses a series of rhetorical questions to Job and demands "Declare, if thou hast understanding." In context, it refers to the fact that their goal, at least going by what Hale's handlers believe, is to 'declare' their answer by killing God.
  • Metaphorical Marriage: Andrew and Helena's fellow spy enacts a wedding ceremony for them as it looks like all three are about to die in 1945 Berlin. The fellow spy poses as a priest and "marries" them. They survive, however, and although they are separated for many years immediately thereafter, Andrew remains true to his "spouse" for the rest of his life.
  • Mood Whiplash: While he's being briefed in the Lebanese prison, a man who looks a lot like Hale is questioned by the cops. Their wounds have to match, starting with a black eye. Then a bloody eye. Then coffee spilled on his shirt. Applying the injuries to Hale, hilariously, breaks up the flow of the very tense briefing.
  • My Greatest Failure: the destruction of the first Ararat expedition at the hands of the djinn, and the subsequent deaths and insanity of the SAS men under his leadership, haunt Hale for more than a decade before he is reactivated for duty at the start of the book.
  • Not My Driver: how Hale confronts Theodora at the end, getting the assassination order on his head called off and winning approval for one final mission to Moscow.
  • One True Love: Elena for Hale, despite them only spending a few months together in occupied France, then a single night in the post-war Berlin. This is strongly implied to have its justification in Hale's overdeveloped sense of honor and duty as a result of getting all of it from his "twin" Kim Philby. While Elena occasionally cheats on him (like with Kim), he never even considers a relationship with another woman for over twenty years after committing himself to her.
  • Our Genies Are Different: Taken mainly from Arabic and Muslim folklore, they think and exist more as motions than anything else, so their conceptions of time and identity are vastly different from humans. Most have no permanent bodies, and often appear in the form of storms or whirlwinds. Communication with them is difficult, but certain rhythms and shapes (such as ankhs) can be used to attract them, or to evade their notice.
  • Perception Filter: If you walk in a certain rhythm, humans are unable to observe you, while the djinn take you for one of their own. It is implied that everyone can learn it (like the Parisian vagabonds, the clochard), but some (like Andrew and Elena) have a natural gift for it.
  • Police Brutality: Played for Black Comedy when Hale is hauled into a Lebanese police station on trumped-up charges so his handler can brief him. Meanwhile a man fitting Hale's description is undergoing a mock interrogation so the Soviets won't be suspicious, so a policeman keeps interrupting the briefing to inflict the same injuries on Hale.
    Handler: We better wrap things up before they break the poor man's legs.
  • Posthumous Character: Claude Cassagnac is reported to be dead in the first chapter, though we do see him in the chapters set in the 1940s.
  • Reference Overdosed: Hints about the nature of the djinn are often drawn from a variety of archaeological and mythological sources.
  • Religion of Evil: The Russian cult of Machikha Nash, Our Mother of Misfortune; they worship her in return for her guardianship of Russia.
  • The Scapegoat: Kim Philby plans on using the ghost of his father, residing in a pet fox (long story) as one, to avoid the negative mental consequences of dealing directly with the djinn. The Russians plan otherwise.
  • Secret History: Declare answers the question of why most of its events surrounding very real historical people and circumstances are not known to public by saying that the British, American, and Soviet secret services covered all of it up after the fact.
  • Speak of the Devil: Invoking the name of Solomon draws the attention of the djinn.
  • Split at Birth/Separated at Birth: A strange variation. Philby and Hale are not twins, but (unbeknownst to them) half-brothers born exactly 10 years apart; but since they were born on the same date, the djinn perceive them as two halves of one person.
  • Spy Speak: Declare, the secret British occult intelligence network, signals Hale with "here's a list for you...". The Soviet team uses a phrase that Hale has been carrying as an Ear Worm since childhood: "O fish, are you constant to the old covenant?"
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Andrew and Elena, having loved each other for over twenty years despite meeting just three or four times. Ultimately, however, they get together.
  • Stock Quotes: The djinn at Ash Shaq says "My name is legion. Worship us."
  • Thunderbolt Iron: In 1945 in Berlin the French Secret Service try to kill the Mother of Misfortunes with an iron bullet forged from a meteorite believed to have killed a djinn. Hale plans to blow up a meteor to achieve a similar effect on Mount Ararat. It turns out to be almost, but not quite, what is required.
  • Title Drop: The word "declare" shows up in multiple contexts, at first fairly insignificant but then becoming more and more important.
    • The ultimate meaning seems to be In reference to the repeated line from Job, where God asks him to "declare, if you have understanding"; in that Hale's handlers intend to answer by having him kill God, or at least the supernatural being they believe to be the source of the biblical God.
  • Trust Password: Upon their first meeting in Paris, Elena and Andrew agree on the phrase "Bless me" (in any language) to mean "Things are not what they seem; trust me", and consistently use it throughout the entire novel.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Elena, at first. Cue Cold-Blooded Torture.
  • You Remind Me of X: Philby is a Jerkass toward Hale, in contrast to his charming behaviour to others. It's because Hale reminds him of his father, which isn't a coincidence.