Richard Timothy Conroy
(St. Martins)Richard Timothy Conroy served in the U. S. Foreign Service for several decades --- in Zurich, Belize, and Vienna. The present volume deals with the time he spent in the latter, starting in 1963. As he says in his preface, he came from Belize, "one of the ends of the earth," to Vienna which has "for centuries been one of the centers." Especially for a man like Conroy who likes culture and music and the plastic arts. (Our Man in Vienna is enlivened with several of his sketches of the churches and buildings in and around the city.)
Many of us have had experiences with U. S. State Department officials, and without exception. If we can ever get them to let us into the doors of those armed bunkers where they hold forth, we usually find people who revel in being impossible to deal with. They represent the richest, the most heavily armed country on earth --- and if you think they are going to come down to your level, you have another think coming.
With this background, I was fully prepared to dislike Conroy, and his book, but he is such a merry wordsmith that by page fifty I was prepared to drop everything and head out to Washington and visit the Smithsonian Institution where he hangs out now and thank him for jollying up my weekend. Obviously, he is a man who has found as much to dislike about the Foreign Service as I have (he thinks he was shipped to Belize because one of his superiors didn't care for him). The miracle is that he stayed with it as long as he did, and that he didn't let its fabled stuffiness drive him crackers.
The tales --- and Our Man in Vienna is a series of tales --- are set up with a maximum of efficiency and a minimum of waste. This one, for example, explains why you and I have found that consular officials are forever turning us over to someone else. A Dane, Mr. Rideout, has come for a visa, and has just come in for a visa and tells Conroy that he is hearing voices, via an internal radio,
"You can hear the radio now?" I asked, to make sure I'd heard it right.
"Clear as a bell. Sometimes, like on a plane, it comes over the PA system, like 'Fasten you seat belts, please, and will Mr. Rideout please kill the lady on his left.' Other times, like if I'm out on the street, it comes right out of the air."
"And you do it?"
"What the voice says."
"Oh. Sometimes --- sometimes I almost think I'm going to have to."
I took Mr. Rideout over to talk to Mr. Townsend. "You might want to tell your story to our consul general. He's a lot more experienced than I."
Mr. Conroy has developed the subtle writerly ability to offer us shorthand comments, ones that tell us a great deal about him and --- in this case --- his taste in music (which is, by my lights, superb --- he is a fan of Couperin, Rameau and Bach).
Seems there was a lady who was reputed to be what we used to call a "moll" --- a lady to the mobsters. Her name was Virginia Hill. She became rather famous in testimony before the U. S. Senate about her connections with certain unsavory types. She left the U. S. shortly after her testimony, but later came to Vienna seeking a visa to return. Conroy tells us some about Virginia Hill's past, including the fact that many years before, she appeared at one of the Chicago fairs:
When she turned seventeen, she went to Chicago to make her fortune at the Chicago centennial fair, the Century of Progress. Sally Rand had opened there at the end of May 1933, in the Streets of Paris attraction, dressed (it is said) in nothing but her fans and dancing to Debussy's Clair de Lune, a particularly icky piece that mysteriously survived its birth in 1890, but which nevertheless had the advantage of leaving the audience free to concentrate on the dancer instead of the music.
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Conroy's descriptions of working as consul should be a powerful emetic for idealistic young folk who are drawn to "the Foreign Service." His story of the pettiness and infighting around him, his misery at have to work under impossible stuffed-shirts, his descriptions of his own --- often futile --- attempts to be fair to those, who, after all, just want the freedom to travel, make one wince. Often he will say things, like, "The State Department wouldn't like that; maybe they would bust me back to a consular assignment."
Conroy wisely takes the edge off of his feelings by writing in a sardonic style that can best, perhaps, be compared to the late Raymond Chandler. Or maybe one of those English teachers we had in college who viewed the world with a deep interest tempered by a profound sense of the folly of it all.
Conroy's style shows not only a natural, dry wit, but gives us as a bonus who has a wonderful propensity for the Shaggy Dog Story. As we all know, people who work in the State Department Visa branch want to know where people were born. Sometimes it isn't very easy This vignette tells of the wife of one of one of the consular officials in Vienna:
Ida's parents lived in Istanbul, a city that absolutely everybody knows was founded as Byzantium around 66 B. C., renamed Constantinople when Emperor Constantine made it the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire in A. D. 330, sacked by the Crusaders in 1204, and taken by the Turks in 1453. The Turks changed the name to Istanbul in 1930 several years after Ida was born.... Thus Ida was barely born in Constantinople, or would have been had her mother not decided that Vienna was more suitable for her lying-in. So Ida was really born in Vienna, but from the strict point of view of nationality was no more Austrian than she was Turkish, or Roman or Byzantine. She was a Spaniard. Is that all clear? I thought so.--- Lolita Lark