Review: No Circuses

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 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.”

Diplomacy appears not to have changed much between 1970 and today. Contemporary funding woes, intended audience, and outreach philosophies all seem to have their roots in Lacey’s Cold War world and earlier.

Take the campaign to win hearts and minds in the early days of the War on Terror. Lacey’s mentor, the worldly cultural attaché Harvey Tyrone, relates his own frustrations in a career spanning to the ‘40s. Harvey shook his head in disgust. “That was in the days of ‘winning hearts and minds.’” Meanwhile Max is scolded for being photographed with the ancient members of the Alcalá Historical Society: We’re trying to reach young people…These old guys ain’t our target audience! his incompetent boss tells him. Win hearts and minds. Reach out to youth. We live in an echo chamber of the past.

Another disheartening question arises from No Circuses: has there ever been a time when our diplomats weren’t asked to “Do more with less”? The book suggests not: During WWII Nelson Rockefeller had taken a goodwill tour of numerous countries. This led to the foundation of many such centers, planned as important vehicles for “Telling America’s story to the world.” Now, in the budget-constrained 1970’s, Washington had begun to cut back…

Later Tyrone asks, “Money problems? Money? Harvey sat halfway up before falling back in shock. “I have never seen, or heard of, or met anyone who heard of, a center that did not have money problems.”

Max’s fiscal solution in this salute to the absurd? Rent out space in the cultural center to a shoe store, a bank, a lawyer’s office. Even better: to the opposition party’s campaign headquarters.

Such revelations—that today’s “solutions” are old wine in new bottles (to use a tired old phrase), that our current funding deficiencies are part of a long trail of red ink—would be demoralizing if not presented amid O’Callaghan’s playful, circular logic. Lacey’s staff ask “questions he could not answer except where the answer was so obvious that he wondered why they had asked”. Much of the plot relies on systemic inconsistencies, which are as true as they are impossibly ludicrous: …the Italian Ambassador announced he was seeking guidance from Rome, while reports from Rome said the Italian government was seeking clarification from San Genesio.” And this:

The State Department denied any knowledge of a Plan Delta, while an anonymous source at the CIA insisted that the last agents in the Mekong Delta had been evacuated long ago. However, a lower-level source at State suggested that all this might involve a certain “Delta Report,” but said that he could give no information because it was a Defense Department initiative. Pentagon spokesmen refused to comment…

If there are weaknesses to No Circuses they lie in over-telling. The narrative slows as Lacey’s tortured mind churns over every possibility and outcome, a cumbersome process that slows the pace. Or does the at-times weary internal monologue intend to mirror the plodding, cautious approach diplomacy itself?

These excursions aside the novel possesses dashes of brilliant writing: When a strange white tree exploded into a thousand flying egrets turning deeper into the forest, their thrashing wings the only sound in the prehistoric stillness, he experienced it almost as a dream. Max himself is living the dream, giving readers a glimpse into diplomacy of a bygone era. He goes by ship to Engañada, observing from a mile offshore the ports he passes: They looked lush, mysterious, even picturesque. Reality set in beginning at dockside, where squalor overwhelmed mystery.

No Circuses, it the end, removes the stately illusion of diplomacy and gives a frank taste of life in the Foreign Service. Even its high absurdity serves to underscore the very real vagaries, delusions, challenges—and rewards—of a diplomatic career, a life where “You’re really just a guest even though you’re the host.”

*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.