Gabriel Allon wants to know if you like apples

Is there a term for a character that’s not really a Mary Sue but is still too idealized? Or is Mary Sue a catch-all term for characters that are beautiful, cool, and just too lovable? Because in The Rembrandt Affair, art restorer and Israeli assassin Gabriel Allon can do no wrong, and the reader’s face is continually rubbed in his general awesomeness. He may not be author Daniel Silva’s stand-in, but that doesn’t stop him from being everything a man should be–and, as Silva presents it, the man the world needs.

More after the bump, due to the fact that there will be spoilers ahead.

So, okay, I want my spies to be cool. Who doesn’t? I want them to be good-looking, dangerous, enigmatic, and all that. I want them to coolly walk into a situation where they are outnumbered, take down their enemies in rapid fashion, they straighten the bow tie on their tux as they leave the bodies behind. (Well, to be honest, I only want this sometimes. The other times, I read Le Carré.) So when Gabriel Allon is all those things, I have little room to complain. But sometimes, you have to know when too much is too much.

In this book, one character finds out the man she thought she loved is a slimeball. Then she is turned into an agent. Then, in the call of duty, she sleeps with the man she now hates in order to get some damaging information. And in the aftermath? She finds herself thinking back to the time she spent with those cool spy folks who turned her and trained her. How fun and awesome they were. Is she mad because they threw her life into turmoil, broke up her relationship, put her in danger, and pretty much asked her to sleep with a dude she hated? No! How could she be mad at them? They’re so cool!

That moment was when I thought Allon had moved from cool spy territory to Mary Sue territory. But it gets worse. Allon turns a situation where there are two hostages who seem assured of execution into one where he manages to sabotage the Iranian government’s entire nuclear program while almost toppling the mullahs. That’s a neat trick, that. It was only missing a scene where Allon showed up outside the mullah’s window with the painting he triumphantly restored in the course of the book, puts the painting against the glass, and says “There! How do you like them apples!”

The particular danger here is that Silva hews very close to current events to make the book feel as real as possible. The American president in the book is never named, but he is an intellectual liberal senator interested in dialogue with Iran. Intelligence services are thrown into turmoil by an incident very much like the underwear bomber. The Afterword notes the research Silva did, where he departs from reality, and where he doesn’t.

Except, of course, it never notes that Allon himself, as a character, departs from reality. The fact that he is always on the side of right, and convincingly so, never comes up. He is awesome, he is righteous, period. Therefore, the foreign policies he defends are the same. In short, if you’ve ever questioned any part of Israel’s foreign policy, then you’ve questioned Gabriel Allon. And since Allon is awesome, he should not be questioned. So, the book tells us, shut up and let him do his job.

The book’s a spy thriller, so I’m not hugely concerned about its effect on international policy, but I still worry when a veneer of reality is presented in effort to make a one-sided view seem convincing. And I worry when I’ve spent too much time with a Mary Sue. Now on to read some Gene Wolfe! Yay!

    • Seth
    • September 27th, 2010

    Case in point – compare the best Bond movies with some of the more ridiculous films from the Roger Moore era. The more of a characature Bond becomes, the less we care about him. Spies are people too. At least they should be, if the author wants us to take their adventures seriously.

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