The Spy Who Gagged Me
Singapore being the epicentre of international espionage seems like an unlikely plot device for an espionage thriller. And yet Khalid Talib’s debut novel 'Smokescreen' exploits this plot device to the hilt. Why Singapore of all places? Well, Israel established diplomatic relations with the island country in 1969 and the two nations reportedly enjoyed ‘extensive security relationship’. So if one looks at it the novel does have some real life underpinnings. Smokescreen draws inspiration from the infamous ‘Operation Susannah,’ a failed Israeli covert operation in Egypt and also references the Jewish state’s role in shaping Singapore’s army, weaving these elements into a fast-paced journey that begins in Cairo and goes off the rails immediately.
In the opening chapter, we are thrown into a shadowy meeting between elite IDF officers and the chief protocol officer of the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Plans are being drawn up at the desert headquarters of Sayeret Matkal for a high-risk operation, indicating the command level of the Israeli officers involved. As the novel progresses Singapore is caught in a Mexican standoff of sorts with the United States, Palestine and Israel. It is up to Jethro Westrope, a journalist and a Jason Bourne incarnate to save the day. Thrown into the mix are an assassination attempt (of course) and a diabolical scheme which could have global repercussions. There is a subtle dig at the media establishment as well, as the novel depicts how easy it is to manipulate the existing narrative in the media.
The setting and storyline is fresh, and this comes as a welcome change in a genre quite saturated with clichés. The exotic feel of the thriller gets you excited from the very beginning. A combination of shibboleths, allegories, dissimulation it captures the time and setting quite well. The characters are well etched and devoid of the usual cliched character traits. At times the novel reads like the screenplay of 24, which in fact is a good thing. The novel is fast, racy and is laced with terrific wit. Lurid at places it is suffused with ample adrenaline .The book grabs your attention from the first page and does not let go.
In an article for the Arab Daily News, Talib gives us a glimpse about general socio-political context within which this novel was written. Singapore’s post-colonial history is dominated by an overarching sense of fear against occupation by larger Muslim-dominated neighbours of Malaysia and Indonesia and hence the ‘extensive security relationship’ with Israel. Despite vividly painting his surroundings, followed by descriptions of localised cultural practices amongst his characters with their dialectical mannerisms, it is the plot which captures the reader’s attention. The gold standard of all great spy thriller narratives: Nothing is as it seems.