The spy thriller's stuck in a post-Cold War funk. What we need is a John Buchan.
BY MARK STEYN
In Wild East, an anthology of tales from post-Soviet Eastern Europe, there’s a hilarious Arthur Phillips story, “Wenceslas Square,” a CIA-boy-meets-KGB-girl plot about a complex double honeytrap each side is running with the aim of subverting the other. The American operative is some minor diplomat whom Moscow’s been keeping an eye on for no reason other than that he was seen to eat his dessert “eccentrically” at an Ottawa restaurant while at the U.S. Embassy there in 1986. Now it’s 1989 and Communism is collapsing across half a continent. But, even as the streets of Prague fill with cheering throngs, each set of spooks grimly analyzes the surveillance tapes of the sex sessions in hopes of gleaning some potential point of leverage on the other. The Czech Politburo quits, there’s talk of Husak resigning to be replaced by Havel, and the vast teams assembled to conduct “Operation Brief Encounter” find themselves in an ever more bewildering situation: “Tyler Vanalden had the strangest sensation. He hoped that Czechoslovakia would become an ever more restrictive dictatorship, lock every border, throttle every free voice. Otherwise, it would come to an end, this thing he did for his country.”
Both intelligence services instruct their operatives to carry on shagging while, outside, the earth moves for everyone but them. “But only two weeks later,” complains the American, “the Czechs had already paroled the damn hero-playwright, letting him out early when, obviously, now was the time to show some spine. He drafted a cable to Washington, which read: ‘This will all blow over. Communism is eternal.’ ”
If that sounds absurd, remember that, up to the eve of its collapse, the real CIA’s analysts insisted that East Germany was the world’s ninth-biggest economy. But it wasn’t only
Western and Soviet intelligence that got stuck in their own honeytrap. So did the spy novel itself. In the 1990s, just like Austin Powers, they lost their mojo. The “tradecraft,” “dead drops,” “walking back the cat,” the rituals seemed as quaintly obsolescent as those of an all but extinct tribe. When 9/11 happened, the Cold War “wilderness of mirrors” template appeared less relevant than Ian Fleming, with Osama as a Blofeldian supervillain and al-Qaeda as Spectre. At the beginning of the Afghan campaign, CNN produced a fancy computer-simulated model of Osama’s supposed underground lair in Tora Bora,
If a global terror campaign that blows up Bali, Madrid and the London Tube can't revive the brand what can?
showing the mountain entirely hollowed out with a state-of-the-art inverted Trump Tower extending down into the ground all the way to Sub-Basement-Level 43, in which upsidedown penthouse Blosama could be found stroking his Persian and purring, “Not so fast, Mr. Bush.” Alas, a couple of weeks later, when Special Forces got to the al-Qaeda caves, they discovered they were just that: caves— as in dirty, smelly, cramped and not always scrupulous about sticking to the jihadist latrine-duty roster.
But four years on and the spy thriller’s still stuck in its post-Cold War funk. If a global
terror campaign that blows up Bali, Madrid and the London Tube isn’t enough to revive the brand, what is? With hindsight, the problem wasn’t the loss of the old enemy—the Soviet Union—but the whole wilderness-ofmirrors approach to it. Robert Littell’s novelization of the CIA’s entire Cold War—The Company— has a scene in which someone, almost en passant, mentions that any statement has 11 possible meanings. If the statement is true, that could mean the guy’s a fake defector feeding some true stuff so we won’t spot he’s a fake defector. But, if the statement’s false, that could mean the guy’s a fake defector posing as one of those true defectors who appears as more plausible by getting a few things wrong. Etc. The result of this approach is that the default mode of the entire genre became a postmodern chess game played by two sets of grey knights.
The “moral ambiguity” tack doesn’t usefully transfer to the global jihad, even if alQaeda were willing to play along. What’s the saddest passage in any John Le Carré novel? Not the seedy MI6 man trudging home from his dingy Whitehall office through bleak rainstreaked streets to the dreary flat with the tea kettle, but a disquisition on global affairs delivered by a character called Dimitri. In his most recent novel, Absolute Friends, Le Carré has abandoned moral ambiguity for an unambiguous opposition to the blundering Yank morons, and as such Dimitri’s lecture concludes with a list of recommended sources:
“I have in mind such thinkers as the Canadian Naomi Klein, India’s Arundhati Roy, who pleads for a different way of seeing, your British George Monbiot and Mark Curtis, Australia’s John Pilger, America’s Noam Chomsky, the American Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, and the Franco-American Susan George of World Social Forum at Porto Alegre. You have read all of these fine writers, Mr. Mundy?”
Even if Mr. Mundy hasn’t, Mr. Le Carré has: The Spy Who Went Into Da Klein. Deep decline. Who needs a thriller that reads like the guest list to the Guardian’s Christmas party?
The best of the Cold War specialists has a line that could sum up the entire genre: “Reality was poison. Too many people, over too many years, had failed to see the truth to be
able to recognize it now.” Those words are uttered by a spook created by Charles McCarry. A former CIA agent himself and the coming man in literary espionage in the ’70s, McCarry was entirely out of print by the dawn of the new century. Now Overlook Press is republishing his great series featuring master CIA man Paul Christopher, beginning with the most persuasive of the Kennedy conspiracy theories, Tears of Autumn. One early chapter in Paris manages to distill two great currents of the age—the grubby idealism of Camelot and the catastrophic realpolitik re Vietnam—into a single magnificent dinner party scene. Last month, Overlook reissued a second Paul Christopher novel from the same period, TheMiemik Dossier, whose sharp portraits of UN agencies and charismatic Muslim warlords (the novel winds up in Sudan) remind you that McCarry would have no trouble writing a great September 11th novel. Fie produced, among other things, one of the best satires of the ’tween-years—the Clinton interlude between the Cold War and the jihad. In Lucky Bastard, the priapic president is, in fact, a lifetime Soviet agent and the other half of the First Couple, the endurance of whose marriage is otherwise inexplicable, is his KGB handler.
If McCarry isn’t interested, maybe Alan Fürst might like to give it a go. He’s the author of all those novels set in wartime Europe and reeking of period detail, sometimes to the neglect of any narrative energy. But he has a more serious moral intelligence than most of the Cold War boys, and the situation of his protagonists—diffident reluctant heroes sandwiched between advancing Fascists and advancing Commies—wouldn’t be so difficult to transfer to, say, moderate Muslims or beleaguered European progressives. The Trotsky line that opens Night Soldiers—“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you”—applies as much to the Continent today as it does to Furst’s Europe of 70 years ago.
In a satire of the Clinton years, the priapic president is a Soviet agent. His wife's his KGB handler.
As it is, the most relevant novelistic observation on our times comes from our late Governor General, John Buchan:
“Islam is a fighting creed, and the mullah still stands in the pulpit with the Koran in one hand and a drawn sword in the other. Supposing there is some Ark of the Covenant which will madden the remotest Moslem peasant with dreams of Paradise? What then, my friend?”
Sir Walter Bullivant of the Foreign Office posed that question to Major Richard Hannay in Chapter l of Greenmantle. Nine decades later, Sir Walter’s successors are struggling to answer it. As Canada’s viceroy, John Buchan (Lord Tweedsmuir) inaugurated the Governor General’s Literary Awards. I doubt whether Buchan could even get nominated these days, and his more muscular prose would be more likely to get him referred to the RCMP’s hatecrimes division. But surely somewhere in some less timorous jurisdiction there’s an author willing to take up the (green) mantle. M
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