Daniel Silva previews his brand new Gabriel Allon novel, The Rembrandt Affair
HH: My special annual, the fiction book you want to take on vacation with you hour, and I’m joined again by Daniel Silva, whose brand new book, The Rembrandt Affair, is the 10th in the Gabriel Allon series. It’s magnificent, it’s wonderful. Daniel, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
DS: So nice to hear your voice again. How are you?
HH: I’m great. I’ve got to tell you a funny story. I got my reader’s copy of The Rembrandt Affair about two weeks ago, and my AP Art/History teacher and friend, and great fan of yours, Michelle, begged it from me. She took it, she brought it back the next morning. She had been up all night reading The Rembrandt Affair, and pronounced this your best ever. So that’s got to be, that’s your first early review, Daniel.
DS: Okay, how did I fare on my art history, though?
HH: She loved it. She has a couple of questions, though. In fact, I’m just sort of mouthing her interview. She wants to know why you created an undiscovered masterpiece as opposed to using one of Rembrandt’s actual works?
DS: I needed literary license and freedom to move. I mean, I didn’t want to use a piece of art that was actually in existence, and I created a fictitious portrait of Rembrandt’s mistress that’s inspired by, and similar to an existing portrait. But I needed room to maneuver.
HH: And in terms of Rembrandt, did you pick him, her second question, because of his sympathy for Holland’s Jews?
DS: I love Rembrandt’s work, first and foremost. The fact that Rembrandt lived and worked in Amsterdam, without giving away too much of the story, is critical to the story. And I, pure and simple, love the word Rembrandt.
DS: And wanted it to be the title of the novel, I wanted to use it in the title of the novel. I had to fight for it a little bit, but it ends up, I think, being a very memorable title. It’s a wonderful word to say, and I just love his work.
HH: I think that many people will be drawn to this out of order, because you use Rembrandt, and so many people are familiar with him, Daniel Silva. But for the benefit of folks who are hearing this first-time conversation between you and me, we’ve had some in the past, I want to review for them how you came to this, sort of your career, your background, and the ten novels that make up the Allon series. If you give just the quick sort of precis on how you got into this?
DS: I am one of those people who as a child read voraciously, and as a teenager, particularly. I always thought that I wanted to try to write a book. I waited until I was in my early 30s. I was working at CNN at the time. I was the executive producer of the political talk show unit, the unit that did all the programs like Crossfire and Capital Gang, Inside Politics, all the programs that got cancelled under the new regime at CNN. And I wrote my first novel in absolute secrecy, and I would get up and write for a couple of hours, and then switch hats and become a television producer, and was fortunate enough to get that first manuscript published. My intention was to try to do both. I didn’t want to leave the world of journalism. I have a great deal of respect for journalists, and this book actually features a journalist in a prominent role. But at a certain point, it just became impossible for me to try to do my job and write books on the side full time. And so I switched, and became a full-time novelist.
HH: Now the Gabriel Allon series, which begins in 2000 with The Kill Artist, goes through The English Assassin, The Confessor, A Death In Vienna, Prince Of Fire, The Messenger, The Secret Servant, Moscow Rules, The Defector, and now The Rembrandt Affair, which is in bookstores next week.
DS: Next week.
HH: I always encourage people to read them in order, but they don’t have to. They stand alone, and they can enjoy them alone, and they can pick up The Rembrandt Affair on their way to vacation and enjoy that. But I’ve got to ask you, do you know where his life is going?
DS: I have a sense where his life is going, but did I sit down at the beginning and plot it out, you know, it’s going to go like this, and then he’s going to do this, and then he’s going to get involved in this, and then he’s going to leave the service and go into semi-retirement? You know, no, not at all. And as the series has gone on, the relationships between the continuing characters, and now only Gabriel, but the family of characters that is around him, has really come to the forefront. And it’s, to be honest with you, it’s what I like writing the best. It’s a little bit of General Hospital set in the thriller mode, and I enjoy that.
HH: You know, it’s interesting, my friend, Michelle, made a note and said why, what happened to his first wife? Why isn’t she here? And it’s, you know, I don’t want to give away too much about Gabriel, but…
DS: It’s okay. It’s, his first wife was badly, badly burned and wounded in a bomb attack in Vienna in the early 1990s, during the first Persian Gulf war. And she was attacked, the attack was carried out by one of Gabriel’s enemies. It killed his son, who’s named Daniel, and left her in a state of acute Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and psychotic depression. And she lives in a facility in Jerusalem, and she’s very representative of something. She is the one thing that Gabriel Allon cannot restore. He is a master restorer. He’s one of the finest art restorers in the world. He has a knack for being able to fix old cars. He restores other people, but not his wife. He cannot fix that. He cannot undo that few seconds in Vienna a very long time ago. And so she has appeared in some books. I very deliberately pose her as though she is a figure on a canvas. If you look at those scenes carefully…
HH: Oh, interesting. That makes sense now.
DS: She is posed as a painting. And the scar tissue on her hands, and on her face, is representative of bare canvas that he cannot retouch, he cannot repair the damage to her. And so it’s very haunting for him.
HH: And so…
DS: And so he got, was remarried after much dithering and soul searching. He finally remarried, and he’s got a wonderful wife.
HH: And so does she sit in the back of your memory at the beginning of a book and you consciously say I am not going to bring her up this time? Or as you write, she just doesn’t appear?
DS: As I write, I make a choice whether it’s appropriate to this book. And this case, there were a number of female characters in the novel. I needed to, I didn’t have time for, you know, that sort of heartfelt scene. There were many other scenes in the novel before that where Gabriel has an encounter in Amsterdam that is one of my favorite scenes that I’ve ever written. It just didn’t feel right for this book to put her in. She was in The Defector briefly, though.
HH: All right, now I’ve got a question for you which is odd. I’ll go to the details of The Rembrandt Affair in the next few segments, but this one sort of looks at the whole series. When I was sitting down talking, as I’m sure fans of Daniel Silva around the world do, they begin to compare and contrast the ten novels, that they’ve read them in order and have loved them, and the works of art that are at the center of them. It occurred to me they’re sort of like old friends that you haven’t seen for many, many years. You know them, you know what they’re about, but you have very distinct memories about each of them. When you talk to the people who’ve read this series, do they have a favorite? Do they have, do they uniformly call up one to mind that says wow, this is sort of the touch point?
DS: To the…you know, not that jumps out at me that there is a consensus favorite book, no. I have a couple of favorites, but to be honest with you, no. I don’t, I think lots of people like different books in the series, and there are different styles of books in this series. The last book was a very violent duel between Gabriel Allon and a Russian Arms dealer named Ivan Karkov. Some of them are more mysteries. In this book…
HH: Not violent at all, really.
DS: This book is a real blend of genres…
DS: Part murder investigation, search for a missing painting, and then an intelligence operation.
HH: Do you get lobbied by various fans of various artists to place a particular work at the center of a novel?
DS: No, but I do get lobbied on fun, little things. And where I can, I will include something that someone asked for.
HH: Oh, you wink at people throughout this. I can tell.
DS: I wink at people.
HH: And I’m inordinately happy with the choice of the farm’s name at the foothills of the Shenandoah Valley there, so I’m inordinately pleased with that.
HH: When we come back, America, I’m talking with Daniel Silva about his brand new, and it’s going to be a bestseller. Does it open on the bestseller’s list this week, Daniel?
DS: We…I go on sale like every other author, and hope for the best.
HH: It’s got…I will bet everything in the studio, and there’s a lot here, that The Rembrandt Affair will be at the top of the New York Times bestseller’s list, simply because word of mouth on this book is going to be extraordinary.
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HH: The centerpiece, Daniel Silva, of this, well, there are many. Iran is at the center of this book, as is the subject of Holocaust reparations. And on that latter subject, which you’ve dealt with before, I noted in the Afterword you’ve now joined the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum?
DS: I was appointed to it. It’s a presidential appointment. I was sworn in, in May, 2009.
HH: Now my friend, Dennis Prager, has served on that in the past.
DS: He is. He is, I believe he is still a member.
HH: Yeah, it’s a pretty awe-inspiring job. Does it impact how you write, or what you do in your novels at all?
DS: Without question. Look, I had been, I have done research at the research facility at the museum for a number of books that I’ve worked on. But to be a part of this incredible institution, and to have a say in shaping its policies and direction, has been incredible. And I, you know, I am…it’s impossible for me not to be influenced and moved by being in this environment, and working with these incredibly dedicated and talented individuals, and not only on the council, but the professional staff at the museum. And it’s just a tremendous, tremendous honor for me to be able to serve not only the museum, but my country. I am a special federal employee.
HH: Now it is a magnificent facility for anyone listening who has not been to the Holocaust Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. It’s also the site of a tragedy. It was attacked by a crazy extremist.
DS: And we lost a member of the family, and we are, as an institution, are looking after his family and his son. But it was a terrible, terrible day for the museum.
HH: You use a term in The Rembrandt Affair, a memory militant, which I have not seen before, and I’ve read pretty deeply in the Holocaust. Is that unique to you, or is that a term of art within the community of Holocaust scholars?
DS: It’s referring to a character who’s been in, first appeared in The Messenger, and reappears in this novel, named Hannah Weinberg. And it’s just someone who, a term that I came across in France, where there is a fair amount of tension between…in the Jewish community right now, because in many respects, they are under siege. There’s a great deal of anti-Semitism in France at the moment, much of it coming from segments of the Muslim community. But it is a term that is used quite frequently, actually. I did not invent it.
HH: All right, now on my book show each summer, I do one fiction and one non-fiction. Your The Rembrandt Affair is the fiction choice. I am also interviewing Eric Metaxas about his brand new biography of Bonhoeffer. So I’m knee deep in Nazis in the last couple of months, last couple of weeks, actually. And it really leaves you disgusted with how evil they were. But you and Eric have to really live with these people. I mean, you have to dive into the, not just the art thieves and the scoundrels around Hitler, but you go to Argentina and you follow the butchery, et cetera. How much time do you have to put into that side of the novel, not just the current events side, but the historical side?
DS: In this novel, I mean, if you look at the broad range of topics that I had to research for this book, from the history of Rembrandt and his life, his work, the basic facts of art theft…
HH: That’s fascinating.
HH: I just love that stuff.
DS: The holocaust in Holland, the impact of the holocaust on Holland on those who survived it by going into hiding, Argentina and its relationship to Nazi war criminals, on and on and on. So this was an incredibly research intensive book. Then, we get around to where the story leads us, and that is to the Iranian nuclear program. So I had a stack of books at the end of my desk that was quite high. It was a skyscraper.
HH: I’ve got to ask you about Argentina out of order here, because on Wednesday, I did a very long interview with the ailing Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Silva. And we talked about the most evil man he’s ever met, which is General Videla in Argentina, who had a very open, welcoming embrace of sort of the Nazi ideology. I don’t think people really consider Argentina anymore in that context. Did you find as you were writing your plot through Argentina that people tend to discount that era in their history, or the fact that the Nazis did in fact have a pipeline through to there?
DS: You know, I don’t think it’s as well known as other aspects of the Holocaust. And I think that much of the real history has been obscured by sort of the silly conspiracy theories about…
DS: …you know, Hitler washing up on shore there, and things like that. And the truth is bad enough. And Argentina really did become a primary sanctuary and bolt hole for unbelievable numbers of Nazi war criminals, including Eichmann, and Mengele. And unfortunately, they did get there with the help of certain elements of the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church. And so it’s a very sad chapter in history, and I think it ultimately, I think one can make the case that it had a huge impact on the course of Argentine history.
HH: Now you are obviously in the business of selling thrillers, and you are very successful at it, and this is another great thriller. But how much in the back of Daniel Silva’s mind is I really want to lay down an access to history that people will not forget?
DS: It’s what…I’m just attracted to it naturally. I always wanted my books to be about something. And so it’s just, I am drawn there naturally. I don’t set out to say well I want to say this, I want to teach you this. If I feel myself teaching or lecturing, I pull back. But it’s just the kind of material that attracts me, and I’m endlessly fascinated by history and its impact on our daily lives. And that’s just where I find myself pulled to as a writer.
HH: Have you seen the Rape Of Europa? I assume you have, though.
DS: I’ve seen portions of it, and have the novel, the book, excuse me.
HH: And this is about the looting of Europe’s art by the Nazis…
HH: And this is, how much of that is still a mystery waiting to be uncovered? How much are we missing?
DS: Well, we have managed to hack away and get pieces returned, and undo some of the damage, but I don’t think we’ll ever really be able to undo what the Nazis did in that brief period of time. And this book deals with a very slender aspect of that, and that is the fact that in some cases, lives were traded for property. And in this case, that property was a Rembrandt portrait.
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HH: A new edition to the Gabriel Allon family is Zoe. Daniel Silva mentioned her in the first segment. She is a reporter, a very good reporter, a very admirable reporter. But there is a subplot here, Daniel, which is the tension between cable news and old-style investigative journalism, which I found fascinating, having lived on the broadcast side of the business for so long. And I think there’s some…you’re a CNN guy. But you seem to have your sympathies with the print world.
DS: Well, I started in the print world, and I ended up in cable news. But I didn’t set out to create any sort of tension between print and broadcast media. But what I did set out to lament is the slow death of print journalism. And it’s something that concerns me greatly. I love opinion journalism. I worked in the opinion journalism business. And at night in the Silva-Gangel household, we sit and watch, you know, we are flipping back and forth between Keith and O’Reilly, and Sean and Rachel Maddow, and all these programs. We’re political junkies. But I do believe that there must be solid, non-opinion journalism, down the middle newspaper reporting that we can all coalesce around and agree to a certain basic set of facts. And I’m very, very concerned by the state of American journalism.
HH: I agree with that. That’s why we have John Burns on this program at least quarterly when we can get him from London, because he is sort of the paradigm of that kind of a journalist who I think Zoe has much in common with.
DS: That’s right.
HH: And she’s very…there’s also, however, a return of Mikhail. And I’m wondering, are you planning a Mikhail subset of books? Is there in the back of your mind, is Mikhail…
DS: You are not the first person to ask me that, and the answer is no, I’m not. But he is, I love Mikhail Abramov. He’s appeared in I guess about five of the books now, and so he is just a, one of the more electric members of Gabriel’s team.
DS: He jumps off the page, and he does some of the tougher stuff now for Gabriel. And but no, I have no plans to make a separate Mikhail series, but you are not the first person to ask me that question.
HH: Well, I wondered, because Gabriel is getting old. He’s getting older.
DS: He is not getting old. At a certain point, I think we stop aging, particularly literary spies and characters. And I see him as age neutral.
HH: Do you really? I mean, in your mind?
DS: I do. I see him, I find it hard not to picture him as the prince of fire, that very sky, quiet and unbelievably talented young man who was pulled into Israeli intelligence in the early 1970s to track down and assassinate the perpetrators of the Munich Massacre. I see him like that. I can see him aging a little bit, but in my mind, he’ll always be that person.
HH: You know what’s fascinating, as you no doubt do, I know some people who have been in that business for their entire lives, and in fact, they’re now retired, and were there in the Reagan years under Casey, and they stayed through the years subsequent, and they have lived very interesting lives. But they do get older, but they don’t really get decrepit. They just get older. They get gray hair around the temples. And so I have always put him at about his mid-forties, or edging up to fifties, and Shamron somewhere up there in the 70s, or something like that. But in your mind, when you sit down, you’re not adding a couple of years of chronology to him?
DS: You know, it does sort of get time neutral in my…yes, it’s in the real world, yes, the world around him is reflective of the world as I write it. But I really do think that at a certain point, a long-running character, an author gets a little bit of a grace period here. He gets a, you get a little bit of license, and that he stops aging.
HH: Two quick asides before we come back after the break and talk about Iran. Timothy Peel is an odd, little character. Is that a wink at somebody?
DS: No, it’s a, he’s named for the Peel Commission. He’s a little bit inspired by the little boy from the movie Shane.
HH: Oh, okay.
DS: The little boy who fell in love with the gunslinger who came to a lonely town.
HH: Yup. Okay. And is there an art, an antique squad, a real one at Scotland Yard?
DS: Without question. Absolutely. And unfortunately, due to budget cuts and monetary/financial restrictions, they’re probably not manned to the extent necessary to combat art crime in London.
HH: Oh, a fascinating history of art crime, by the way, America, in The Rembrandt Affair, which however, at its core, remains an amazing thriller.
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HH: Daniel Silva, Iran is in the background, but at the heart of The Rembrandt Affair, and their nuclear ambitions. A couple of years ago, I had Doug Frantz and Catherine Collins on about their book, The Nuclear Jihadist, about A.Q. Khan. And there were echoes of this here. How much time did you have to put in to mastering what Khan did to get Pakistan, and then subsequent people their weapons in order to make this read as it does, as though it’s the secret intelligence report?
DS: A lot. And the Khan network is, inspires a lot of what goes on in this book. I mean, I think that it is fair to say that the Kahn network could not have existed, and Pakistan could not have gone nuclear, were it not for the assistance it was, received from certain European businessmen.
DS: …which you no doubt covered in that interview with them. I think it is fair to say that Iran would not be as far along as it is now were it not for the Khan network, obviously. And Iran has received a great deal of nuclear technology and equipment and material from European suppliers through its smuggling network. I got a chance to interview a very, very senior former American intelligence officer, and I asked him, you know, who’s the worst offender, and he said flat out that it was German companies. And Swiss companies have also been heavily involved in this. And we know from published reports, and from people that I have spoken to in the intelligence community, that the Iranians are on a European shopping spree, that they continue to try to acquire nuclear technology, material and goods from European suppliers. That leads experts to say that they are still dependant on them for their nuclear program. So if we can curtail the flow of the illicit nuclear trade from Europe and other places to the Iranians, we might be able to slow down their progress. But as this book points out, it also gives us an opportunity to peer inside the Iranian program, if we can manipulate their supply network, and hopefully do a bit of mischief as well.
HH: You know, at the center of the book, the narrative, I’ll call it the Ramona briefing that occurs in Pages 318-322, there is an attempt to sort of explain to smart people who may not be up to date on the deals, what Iran has been doing. If you hand that out to the folks like the senior former American intelligence official, do you think they’d nod and say that’s pretty doggone close, Daniel Silva?
DS: You know, I’m not writing for them, but what I would say is that I was told flat out by my sources that there were other uranium enrichment facilities that were not disclosed by the Iranians. And within a couple of weeks of getting a very high level briefing, we learned that the Iranians had built this facility at Qom. And so I believe that there are other uranium enrichment facilities that we don’t know about. The New York Times carried a very lengthy piece, I guess in March, that there’s a belief within the intelligence community that there are Qom lookalikes out there. And so I don’t think that what I wrote in that scene is very far from the truth.
HH: It is consistent with everything I’ve seen, but of course, that’s all unclassified. It will just be fascinating as we learn more to see how that matches up. Now I’ve got to ask you, and again, I don’t want to give away anything about the book, and I’m not going do. So I want to assure people I’m not about to.
HH: But as you were writing this, there’s a line in your book that says passports are, “a chink in the armor of the Office,” and you’re referring to Mossad. And of course, we had the allegation that Israel sent a hit team into a Middle Eastern country earlier this year on British and Irish passports. If that happened concurrent with your writing, it must have been bizarre. Or did you borrow from that for your writing?
DS: (laughing) No, I didn’t borrow from that. I think they borrowed from me. To…anyone who’s familiar with the series knows that my team of operatives swoops in to countries, including in this book…
DS: They swoop into Geneva on false passports, often times working out of hotels, which they did in Dubai, and I’m assuming that it was an Israel Mossad operation, and they are willing to do that if they think that it is necessary and the risks of the operation are in keeping with the target. So I just found it funny to sort of see the operation, and the way they worked, because it just seemed very, very familiar to me.
HH: Oh, my gosh.
DS: And it probably seemed very familiar to my readers as well.
HH: Did any network other than NBC, which probably has to disqualify itself, did anyone think to call you up to comment on that story?
DS: The phone rang a lot.
HH: Because it’s just, I was…
DS: And I was so on deadline at the time that I just couldn’t break away and do any interview. So I kept my head down during that period. I did.
HH: Okay, and are you at work at the next…I’ve got one more segment coming up, and I want to talk to you about the Swiss after the break, and about the hidden children. But do you have another one underway already?
DS: I am in the early stages of another novel.
HH: How fast do you write?
DS: I write like most commercial authors these days, and that is we are really encouraged by our publishers, and that is putting it mildly, to publish a book a year. So I publish a book a year.
HH: Are you following the iPad purchases versus the Kindle purchases of The Rembrandt Affair versus the old-fashioned way?
DS: I…actually, my book will go on sale on Kindle I believe the day that it opens, so I don’t know actual numbers yet. What I can tell you is that my electronic book, or e-book sales in my last book were up sharply. The future is here. The future is coming now.
HH: Yeah, I just…it’s going to change how I review books and read them, because I have to do it with a pencil right now, and it makes it a little bit harder.
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HH: Daniel, as always, thank you. A couple of quick exit questions – you know, do the Swiss like you much, because they do, they come off even worse than the bad, modern, German industrialists here.
DS: I…truth be told, I adore Switzerland. I go there a lot, I enjoy the country immensely. But it is a classic setting for espionage tales. Geneva is where a large portion of the climactic scenes take place. It is, of course, a city of spies, a U.N. city, and international city. But they do have some aspects of their history that are quite unsavory. And their financial and banking ties to the Third Reich is front and center among that. And it is true that a number of Swiss firms have engaged in nuclear trade with the Iranians. And in fact, this book is really inspired by a case of a Swiss family of engineers and industrialists who sold both the Pakistans and the Iranians nuclear goods.
HH: And then I want to close by talking about the hidden children in the Holocaust in the Netherlands. Obviously, most of my audience will have heard of Anne Frank, and will know generally oh, that happened. But I don’t know that they’re going to know the scale of it, of that there are survivors still who are out there. Have any of the survivors read this yet? And if so, how’d they react? And if not, what do you expect to hear from them?
DS: No, I have no one that’s read it yet. The…I think one of the, how to phrase this, it’s one of the most rewarding or touching aspects of my work is how many times at public events or book signings where a survivor has come forward and pulled me aside and said thank you so much for doing this. And it happened after I wrote a book a few years ago called A Death In Vienna.
DS: And I try to be true to the stories of what happened to them. I research meticulously. And it is something that is very, very important to me.
HH: Last question, Daniel Silva, we’ve got 30 seconds.
HH: A hint about the next one?
DS: I learned a long time ago not to talk about books that are not written yet. But I’m glad that you noticed the little Hugh Hewitt homage.
HH: Well, it was very nice of you.
DS: (laughing) and the…
HH: And I’m ridiculously happy with that.
DS: …safe house.
HH: But Daniel Silva, always a great pleasure. I look forward to seeing you. When you head out West, let me know when you do a book signing out this way so that I can send people to get their copy of The Rembrandt Affair inked, as they should. Thank you, Daniel Silva.
End of interview.