The Eiger Sanction, by Trevanian. New York: Crown, 1972, 316 pages, $6.95
This is an incredibly readable novel. Its crisp imagery and brisk style are the hallmarks of a great writer. Simple words and phrases abound at the proper times. “Mauve and pewter skies at sunset” means more than the multipage overblown descriptions that most novelists seem to think the public requires of them. But the simplicity of approach does not always extend to the author’s vocabulary. He kept me running for the dictionary.
It takes far more than literary skill to pull off a great novel. Trevanian has a good one—perhaps a brief best-seller—but not a great one. Like many of our highly touted modern movies, this novel lacks stylistic continuity. Satire and sarcasm are becoming an increasing part of the movie fan’s emotional gamut. When done well, the audience has a good laugh. But always at the expense of creating an emotional commitment to a serious plot line.
The idea of climbing a new route on the Eiger seems serious enough. The idea of doing this with men you have never met before makes it more serious. And when the hero is a spy for us, with an assignment to kill a spy for the bad guys who is also part of the Eiger climb, then you have the makings of a real palm-sweater.
Instead of maintaining dramatic continuity, Trevanian has inserted a few Maxwell-Smart-type interludes. Taken individually, these bits of spoofing are clever and imaginative. Mixed into the recipe of a serious mystery, they become catsup on your filet mignon. The albino fat man who is head of the spy office seems sinister enough until one realizes the phonetic implications of his name: Yurasis Dragon. It would seem important to become caught up in the cloak-and-dagger mystique of the spy scene, but a two-page parody of the CIA makes it hard to accept the seriousness of subsequent events.
Jonathan Hemlock, the main character, is an art professor, critic, writer, Eiger climber, lover and assassin. He seems like a blend of an Ullman hero with one from Norman Mailer. His nerves of steel get him up climbs and allow him to kill people without emotion. Both actions, it seems, requiring a similar mental attitude. The author’s knowledge of climbing and mountaineering history is usually accurate, but with one very important exception. Like a ghost of James Ramsey Ullman, he perpetuates a regrettable image of early Eiger climbs:
“In the mid thirties, the Nazi cult of mountain and cloud sent wave after wave of young German boys, filled with a lust to accrue glory to their dishonored Fatherland, against the Eiger’s defenses. Hitler offered a gold medal to whoever made the first ascent; and in neatly regimented sequence the flaxen-haired romantics died.”
It is understandable for Ullman to have written similar words in “High Conquest,” published in the early forties. But it reflects poorly on Americans to repeat the absurd myth thirty years later after men like Heinrich Harrer, who was on the first ascent of the Eigerwand, have proved their apolitical love for the mountains. More than one AAC member has climbed with Harrer, and as Chris Jones so aptly pointed out, the association of German climbing in the thirties with the political climate of the country is not unlike calling modern American climbers “Nixon- Genocidal.”
Several readers of this book have told me that they figured out the bad guy before finishing a third of the book. Even so, there is more to this mystery. The skillful writing keeps the book exciting to the end, butthe real mystery is not who did the murder, but who did the book! There is a strong possibility that Trevanian is a pen name for a person who might even be a member of the AAC.
There is a mention of the IAA (International Alpine Assoc.), which sounds close to the ULAA. The American Alpine Association is obviously a fictionalization of the AAC. The use of a main character who is a writer tends to suggest that the hero may be based, at least in part, on the author himself. Every name in the book has a double meaning. A black girl named Jemima Brown is obvious. Yurasis Dragon is slightly more subtle. What about Jonathon Hemlock? I have already found a climber-writer whose name has the same rhythm and accent as Jonathon Hemlock. Other clues are found in the intricate descriptions of Kleine Scheidegg and guided climbing in the Alps. The writer is obviously not a modern ice climber of the French school: “Big Ben took over when they were on ice and snow where he would pant and bull through the drifts, breasting an upward path like an inevitable machine of fate.” Why would Trevanian, whoever he is, not wish to place his real name on a potential best-seller? This is the genuine mystery.