“The power-house” is a spy novel written by John Buchan in 1913. It is set in London, and tells the story of the narrator who discovers an incredible plot aimed at destroying the foundations of Western democracies through an anarchist organisation called The Power-House. “The power-house” was first serialised in Blackwood’s magazine and then was released as a book in 1916. Preceding the famous The thirty-nine steps, little known, “The power-house” is a very interesting spy novel.
Edward Leithen is a Common Law barrister and MP. He learns about the surprising disappearance of Tommy Deloraine and Charles Pitt-heron. As he looks for the latter in order to help his anxious wife, he comes to terms with a strange man, Andrew Lumley, in a memorable first encounter, which frankly is the most interesting scene of the book. Lumley is masterminding an anarchist organisation called the Power-House, with which he plans to bring the western democracies to their knees. He then learns that Pitt-Heron and Deloraine are on their way to Central Asia, followed by strange men who want to get rid of them, whilst Leithen, asked by Lumley not to get involved, goes into a never ending flight and chase, hoping to save his friends, escaping his would-be killers and stopping Lumley and his diabolic domination machine, the power-house, before they attain their objective.Retour en haut de page
Originality of the power-house : civilisation and chaos
Winston Churchill’s quote comes to mind and illustrates perfectly well Buchan’s liberal creed mixed with conservative intuitions : “a new dark age made more sinister and protracted by the perverted lights of science”. If the book, which started very well, like all of Buchan’s works, then turns into a never-ending chase-thriller, the scene of the first encounter between Lumley and Leithen is a great moment of adventure literature powered by a clear take on civilisation, the constant dangers hovering over it, and the need to protect it ; in a way, Buchan’s philosophy, nowhere as clear as in this book, is a kind of antidote to the misguided ideals of Communist regimes, or closer to home, the American neo-cons or left-wing socialist French who, similarly to the Soviets or the Maoists, believe men can be reformed through law, punishment or coercion. Clearly, Buchan’s book is about highlighting these up and coming dangers, and in this sense, it is a bit of a prophetic book : see the Soviet regime 4 years later, Mao’s China 40 years later (China is by the way evoked as a potential sleeping giant), the Nazis (the Power-House is the Krafthaus, and there are many similar inspirations to Lumley and to the Nazis), or more light-heartedly, James Bond’s archenemy SMERSH. In that famous scene, Lumley says : “You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.” ; this statement constitutes the clear fault line between “Realpolitik” and idealistic politics. And more interesting prophecies “We have fixed a gold standard, because gold is sufficiently rare, and because it allows itself to be coined into a portable form. I am aware that there are economists who say that the world could be run equally well on a pure credit basis, with no metal currency at the back of it ; but, however sound their argument may be in the abstract, the thing is practically impossible. You would have to convert the whole of the world’s stupidity to their economic faith before it would work.” Isn’t that prophetic ? Of course, the gold standard was an unnecessary lock on creative monetary policies, but it did constitute a psychological dyke against the irresponsible debt profligacy of western democracies ; is it possible this level of runaway debt would never have been attained had it been for the gold standard ? And consider this : “As life grows more complex, the machinery grows more intricate, and therefore more vulnerable.” A simple look at modern life or at the electronic society suffices to convince us. And even more interesting : “Civilisation is a conspiracy…Modern life is the silent compact of comfortable folk to keep up pretences. And it will succeed till the day comes when there is another compact to strip them bare.” And even more insightful, though we will admit, not really new : “Take the business of Government. When all is said, we are ruled by the amateurs and the second-rate. The methods of our departments would bring any private firm to bankruptcy.” No comment.
In the same chapter, Leithen remembers a conversation he had with a German Professor, somewhere in Tyrol… “a Nietzschean and a hot rebel against the established order” : “The pity is that the reformers do not know, and those who know are too idle to reform. Some day there will come the marriage of knowledge and will, and the world will march.” Coming from a professor in Tyrol, it sounds like some crystal ball gazing into Nazism. Then again they clearly make the difference between true anarchists, nihilists, and what Lumley has in mind, an anarchist organisation learning from civilisation and which became international. Then Lumley : “Let us call it iconoclasm, the swallowing of formulas, which has always had its full retinue of idealists. And you do not want a Napoleon. All that is needed is direction, which could be given by men of far lower gifts than a Bonaparte. In a word, you want a Power-House, and then the age of miracles will begin.”
There is much more in “The Power-House” than a good, although sometimes slightly linear, also improbable and a tinge repetitive London-based conspiracy-novel, there is a lot of thinking about the world, about civilisation, and clear distaste for ideal societies, philosophy of progress etc. Buchan knows that the tarpeian rock of Barbary is close to the capitol of civilisation, he knows that the so-called advancements of men governing men (through too much uncontrolled science, law-making frenzy, intellectualism…) can lead to an abrupt fall. To paraphrase Churchill’s “it is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” we would say Buchan’s “The Power-house” is political philosophy wrapped into a thriller inside a conspiracy theory.
© 2013- Les Éditions de Londres