Security is the problem that exercises both Philip Roth and Raymond Williams. The sort of 'security' I mean is the sort that spreads a feeling of insecurity - a fear of surveillance, bugging, secret cameras, interrogation, the false smile of Mr Nice and the sincere snarl of Mr Nasty. Security men are sometimes clumsy and might cause us inconvenience through their category mistakes. For instance, in the Middle East last year, I decided not to post an urgent letter to a man in America whose Germanic name ends in 'berg': some conscientious Arab policeman might hold up my letter for careful, stupid scrutiny, assuming (like an Arab terrorist) that 'berg' equals 'Jew' equals 'Zionist'. This is the kind of insecurity that Philip Roth explores in The Prague Orgy. His American hero, the famous Nathan Zuckerman, spends a few days in Czechoslovakia in 1976, is bugged the whole time and finally ushered out of the country by a passport officer with the courteous farewell: 'Ah, Zuckerman, the Zionist agent. An honour to have entertained you here, sir.' When Zuckerman is talking to a Czech who wishes to marry him, she gestures toward the bugged chandelier and passes him a note: 'You cannot trust Czech police to understand ANYTHING, even in Czech. You must speak CLEAR and SLOW and LOUD.'
LRB 21 November 1985 | PDF Download