Sunday, November 09, 2008

Claire Berlinski's first real job . . .

(Image not from Claire Berlinski)

Long-time readers will recall the above image, which appeared some months ago when I was reading Berlinski's interesting though not scholarly book Menace in Europe in preparation for my Yonsei UIC course on multiculturalism and the future of Europe.

At the time that I posted the image, I made a mental note to mention a funny story that she tells about herself on her website, where she poses a question about herself for our benefit: "Have you ever had a real job?"

In reply, she begins as I might have:
Yes! I'd just finished my doctorate -- this was 1995 -- and . . . I was beginning to realize that the next step in my life, the expected step anyway, was to apply for tenure-track teaching jobs. Every time I thought about this I felt a keen sense of mounting desperation.
I also finished my doctorate in 1995 and therefore know from experience the desperation . . . but I married well and found myself living the high life in South Korea. Berlinski also went to East Asia -- not through marriage but through the offer of a not-entirely-respectable job:
I was paging desultorily through a copy of The Economist when I noticed a classified ad: An Asian publishing group was planning to launch a pan-Asian daily newspaper based in Bangkok, and was looking for "experienced sub-editors with an extensive knowledge of Asian languages and politics." I wasn't even sure what a sub-editor was, and would have been hard-pressed to locate any Asian country on a map -- I could have found China, maybe -- but on a whim I sent them my resume. They wrote back, inviting me to an interview in a hotel room in London. The curtains were drawn, the room reeked of smoke, and the two men interviewing me -- a Thai with terrible skin and a German whose entire body was yellow with nicotine stains -- were clearly drunk. As luck would have it, they just happened to ask me the one question I could answer: What did I think of the Nick Leeson bond scandal? The night before I'd been at a dinner party hosted by a pair of mathematicians, and had heard an earful about Leeson. I promptly relieved myself of a detailed discourse on Stochastic calculus, Markov methods, and the characteristics of economic equilibria that support Black-Scholes option pricing -- having no idea whatsoever what any of these terms meant, of course. Fortunately, they asked no follow-up questions. Their only query was whether I smoked. "I don't," I said. "But if the job requires it, I'll learn." It seems this was the right answer.
Good answer. If I ever get asked that question at a tenure-review meeting in some alternate universe, I'll have to remember to give the same answer.

Nah, just kidding. The correct answer is: "I've published something on that."

But you're wondering about Berlinski's job:
Next thing you know, I was flying to Bangkok, installed in an orchid-filled apartment with a cohort of bowing servants, and working behind the scenes at a paper quite unlike any news organ I'd ever imagined -- a place where money was never an object; where the correspondents received salaries so profligate as to make the playboys of the Saudi royal family blush; where from time to time the publisher strode in accompanied by a dozen stunningly beautiful Chinese courtesans, made cryptic pronouncements about countering the White Man's neo-colonial journalism, and then took to his heels and strode out, leaving us all mystified; and where we never -- I mean never -- produced an article anyone would ever want to read. Everything we turned out was bilge: lists of unreadable economic statistics, bizarre theories about secret conspiracies between Mainland China and Taiwan; ranting incoherent editorials about the perfidy of the IMF. We were the only newspaper in the world that defended the SLORC. Yet there was so much money flowing through that place! And no one ever cut it off!
Berlinski doesn't say whether or not sub-editors received any of those profligate salaries, but she seems to have been satisfied despite her perplexity:
I simply couldn't figure it out, although I wasn't inclined to ask too many questions, because it was a really cushy job. I have many stories about that newspaper. Our features editor was thrown into a Thai dungeon on trumped-up drug charges, our deputy editor-in-chief was found to be moonlighting as a brothel-owner, our Burma correspondent fell into a sewer while literally chasing a story and nearly died of blood poisoning. But those are for another book.
Eventually, Berlinski uncovers the truth about her job . . . maybe:
Anyway, one day, a woman I'll call E., our correspondent in a country I'll call Klong-Klong, strode into the office for a quarterly meeting with the editor-in-chief, a man I'll call Vindaloo. I remember her well: She was an attractive, well-put-together woman in her mid-thirties with an air of breezy self-assurance. She wore very bright red lipstick. She invited me to get a massage with her, and over the course of the afternoon E. told me two very fascinating secrets -- first, that she had slept with Hugh Grant, who was "nothing to write home about," and second, that the newspaper I worked for was "obviously" a highly elite, ultra-secret economic intelligence gathering unit for the CIA.

The second she said that, it all fell into place . . . .

Was it true? I have no idea. I'll never knew the truth -- how could I? But the more I thought about it, the more I loved the idea. From that day, I began to look at everyone around me in a different light. And once you start looking at things that way, you never stop.

I've been intrigued by the CIA -- and the people who work there -- ever since.
Actually, I doubt that the CIA would have been throwing around so much money, and the pan-Asian paper that she worked for is said to have been the old hardcopy edition of the Asia Times, which doesn't strike me as a likely front for the CIA . . . though I cannot quite articulate why.

But her suspicions about the job led her to write a spy novel, Loose Lips, which begins in much the same way, as you can learn for yourself by reading the first chapter online at

But as for the question that Berlinski poses about herself for our benefit -- "Have you ever had a real job?" -- I have to wonder if she has genuinely answered it if her suspicions were correct.

Is a job for a CIA front a real job?

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