Review: Foreign Service Fiction

Anyone who thinks diplomacy is about choosing the right fork at the right time should think again and read James O’Callaghan’s clever satire No Circuses (Tacchino Press, 2015).

Forget preconceived notions of dinner-party diplomacy: keeping one’s elbows off the table, tangoing the rival into submission, and writing it up the next day in communiqués to DC. What diplomacy’s really about, in O’Callaghan’s world, is stopping that counter-productive visit by a lackluster VIP, infiltrating explosives via circus caravan past a military brigade, and joining a secessionist movement to secure the most coveted rank of all: Ambassador.

Diplomacy, here, is accepting the maxim that “Absurdity is demeaning only if one refuses to incorporate it.” Absurdity exists in abundance in O’Callaghan’s world, and by its sheer abundance O’Callaghan honors rather than mocks the men and women of the Foreign Service and the State Department.*

Views expressed here are my own & don’t necessarily reflect the views of my employer

No Circuses

To wit: if our diplomatic corps can succeed despite such mountains of farce as are heaped upon them, imagine how much more they could do in its absence. I’m talking about a cadre of professionals charged with the most delicate, complex, and pressing issues of the day (negotiate for peace in Syria; stem the tide of global climate change; stamp out Ebola one day and pivot to Zika the next; establish trade agreements abroad to help businessmen pay workers a decent salary at home; etc ad infinitum.) yet made to do so on miserly budgets, subjected to petty oversights, and beset on all sides by quagmires of bureaucratic dos and don’ts.

In other words, our diplomats’ obstacles can amount to the absurd in the face of the urgent, and this absurdity is revealed in all its glory through the adventures of Max Lacey, O’Callaghan’s well-intentioned but eternally undermined Foreign Service Officer. Lacey serves in Alcalá, a provincial capital in the made-up but all-too-real Latin American country of Engañada (so named because “the Spanish explorers had been deceived by local guides, or something like that…”). It’s the 1970’s and the jungle is full of communists, protestors, hippies, back-stabbers, coup-makers, and scoundrels, with Lacey on his own there as director of the American cultural center. But he does have one asset at his fingertips: “His personnel officer had sent him the Foreign Service Guide to the Bi-National Center. Max found it pompous, bureaucratic, exhaustive, and reassuring… If they understand us, the Guide seemed confident, they will approve of our policies. To know us is to love us.”

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*I’m the first to admit this line of reasoning departs from standard review practice, taking liberties with the writer’s intended purpose in using the absurd. Well, I’m compelled to digress on a professional point rather than an artistic one.


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