April 16, 2013

Robert Littell - The Company he keeps

There seems to me to be three titans in the world of espionage thrillers - John le Carre, Charles McCarry and Robert Littell. The first two of these were involved in the world of espionage in some form (though le Carre plays down his active involvement) while Littell was a close observer of the cold war as a journalist for Newsweek for many years.

After the early books le Carre went off the boil, for me, but McCarry and Littell have improved over time. McCarry has a poetic tone together with an allusive, indirect style that is reminiscent of Martin Cruz Smith. Littell, though not so poetic, can be equally indirect - almost misleading - in the way he constructs his intricate stories of failed belief and betrayal.

The Company is a massive book - almost 900 pages in hardback - and is a lightly fictionalised history of the CIA from its inception up to the first Gulf War. I say 'lightly fictionalised' because we're given three central characters, together with their partners and offspring, who rise to high positions within the organization but are evidently not 'real' because we're given too much access to their lives and their thinking processes. However, they mingle with people who are decidedly real - various actual heads of the CIA, a couple of American Presidents, other functionaries in other national intelligence organisations. This is a clever ruse because it affords us an emotional connection with our group of heroes as they rise through the ranks and experience some of the great events of the last fifty years - East Berlin after the War, the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, the Bay of Pigs debacle, the coming to power of Boris Yeltsin and so on. Rather than have one agent go through each of these historical events, which might have been a little far-fetched even for a spy novel, Littell is able to put a different agent in place for each event.

This helps his structuring, too. The book is divided into a series of 'Parts', each of which takes place at a later chronological time in the CIA's development and focuses on a different agent's activities. In effect, we have three or four different novels rolled into one. This affords us a greater scope of involvement in the events and variety in our own experience of the CIA's activities - in one section, for example, we're alongside 'Ebby' Ebbitt as he witnesses the Hungarian Uprising at very close quarters, in another we're with Jack McAuliffe as he hits the beach at the Bay of Pigs with the Cuban fighters ... while also cross-cutting to Leo Kritzky, working as an adviser to Jack and Bobby Kennedy as they await news of developments on the beach.

As you can tell, it's a sprawling tapestry. And it works for a very simple reason: detail.

Writing before the widespread ubiquity of Google's search-bots (the book was first published in 2002), Littell's research is phenomenal. Here's a Hungarian secret policeman spotting an agent who had slipped from their observation:
As the bells in the Paulist monastery on Gellert Hill struck eleven, one of the AVH men in the blue Skoda spotted a male figure on the walkway of the Szabadsag Bridge. For a moment a passing trolley car hid him. When the figure reappeared the AVH man, peering through binoculars, was able to make a positive identification. The vacuum tubes in the transceiver were warm so he flicked on the microphone. “Szervusz, szervusz, mobile twenty-seven. I announce quarry in sight on the Szabadsag walkway. Execute operational plan ZARVA. I repeat: execute operational plan ZARVA."
First, knowing that there was a Paulist monastery on Gellert Hill - discernible from a map, for sure, but then knowing that its bells would toll the hour. Then, knowing that the Szabadsag Bridge would have a 'walkway' and that trolley cars also used the bridge. Third, the knowledge that the policeman's equipment had vacuum tubes and needed to be warm to operate. Finally, knowing the Hungarian check-in words, "Szervusz, szervusz". Each of these elements - unless they're completely made-up, which I doubt - requires research.

Later in the narrative, an agent and a journalist are taken captive in Pakistan during the time the Afghans were fighting Soviet invasion. They're taken on a long journey into the mountains and we witness this scene:
Around the guerrilla camp bearded men, some with blankets over their shoulders, others wearing surplus US Army coats, were loading arms and ammunition onto donkeys and camels. Nearby, yelping dogs brawled over a bone. Next to a long low mud-brick structure, a bearded mullah wearing a white skull cap read from the Koran to a circle of men sitting cross-legged in the dirt. At the edge of the clearing, a teenage boy fired a bazooka into a tree at point blank range, felling it in a shower of splinters. Then he dragged over a wheelbarrow and began to collect firewood.
Again with the detail - the mullah wears a white skull cap for his reading ... and the very fact that Littell knows that a terrorist encampment would embrace such activity. And the teenage boy using a bazooka to create firewood - either a massive leap of creative thinking, or he's witnessed or heard of tribesmen doing this for their firewood.

Finally the leader arrives in this camp:
A lean and graceful figure emerged from the passenger seat. He was wearing a black turtleneck under a soiled knee-length Afghan tunic, thick English corduroy trousers, hand-made Beal Brothers boots and a brown Pashtun cap with an amulet pinned to it to ward off sniper bullets. His skin was fair, the hair under his cap long and matted, his short beard tinted reddish orange with henna. He had the dark, intense eyes of a hunter, with shadowy hollows under them that didn’t come from lack of sleep. The fingers of his left hand worked a string of ivory worry beads as he approached the captives.
Of course there's all the detail of the clothing to show both the elegance and the international nature of the man - but the amulet worn to ward off sniper bullets ... that's research again, or first-hand knowledge.

As the book progresses we're in no doubt that these things happened as Littell describes them. His grasp of this level of detail gives an authenticity to locations, characters and circumstances that means you relax, as a reader, and get caught up in the story itself.

The other element at which Littell excels - demonstrated in all of his espionage books - is the double-bluff. Or even the treble-bluff. In a spy-novel half the fun is trying to work out who the moles are, and Littell never fails to provide levels of deceit and double-dealing that are pleasureable because of their sheer intelligence and unpredictability. This novel is no different, but of course I can't mention the set-up or the resolution or you'd have to kill me ...

It seems to me that as he's grown older Littell has concentrated more and more on the political background to his books, in the sense of geopolitics and the inter-connectedness of nation-states. In The Company we witness spies serving for more than fifty years in the defence of their own ideology, whatever it might be. Littell is fairly even-handed, and while on the whole the Soviet system comes off worse because of the way its people suffer, he doesn't necessarily allow the American system to gloat too much. One character has, at one point, to remind his second-in-command that they can't follow the course of action the 2IC would like because it would make them no better than the Soviets. But it's a close thing whether the subordinate obeys or not. It's as though Littell is reminding the United States of why the CIA is there in the first place, and what it's defending. If it were to forget, then there'd be no difference between the two giant Cold Warriors and so what would have been the point of the last fifty years of compromise and negotiation?

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