The Great Game gone

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From: “Katia M. Peltekian” <[email protected]>
Subject: The Great Game gone
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New Yorker, NY
June 6 2005

THE GREAT GAME GONE

by JOHN UPDIKE

The post-Cold War spy novel.
Issue of 2005-06-13 and 20
Posted 2005-06-06

The spy thriller still pines for the Soviet Union. No post-Iron
Curtain intrigue, no replay of the British Empire’s Great Game in
Afghanistan or its intrusions into the Middle East, no elaborate
`security measures,’ no double-double cross in the murk of
C.I.A.-F.B.I. rivalry can match, for heart-stoppingly high
geopolitical stakes, the good old days when, in terms of John le
Carré’s fiction, M.I.6’s Smiley matched wits with the K.G.B.’s Karla
on the global chessboard. There was an intelligibility if not a
friendly intimacy in the old contest, one between two large,
idealistic, rough-mannered nations seeking to maintain their spheres
of influence short of tripping nuclear war. As one hardened
undercover functionary cozily tells another in Robert Littell’s new
book, `Legends: A Novel of Dissimulation’ (Overlook; $25.95), `We all
came of age in the cold war. We all fought the good fight. I’m sure
we can work something out.’ The so-called war on terror has no such
surety; `working out’ is just what the other side, or sides, doesn’t
want. Littell conscientiously covers the new ground – the post-Soviet
Russia of the oligarchs; the potential for financial shenanigans
opened up by worldwide computerization; the stagnant antipathy
between Israel and its neighbors; Bosnia; Chechnya; and (news to me)
an international smugglers’ cove where the borders of Paraguay,
Brazil, and Argentina meet and whores dance sleepily in one another’s
arms – but he remains most excited by, and most at home with, occupants
of the old U.S.S.R. as they strike up fresh relations with capitalism
and the C.I.A.

Littell, a former Newsweek reporter now resident in France, began his
career as a fictional spymaster with `The Defection of A. J.
Lewinter: A Novel of Duplicity’ (1973), a deft and lighthearted
performance on the edge of parody, and capped it, a dozen books
later, with the best-selling magnum opus `The Company: A Novel of the
C.I.A.’ (2002), a nostalgic recapitulation, in nearly nine hundred
pages, of the Cold War intelligence marathon from 1950 to 1995.
Littell is not the only author to scent an epic here; Norman Mailer’s
giant, possibly ongoing saga `Harlot’s Ghost’ deals also with this
secretive struggle and evokes the striking historical figure of
gaunt, erudite James Jesus Angleton, for some twenty years the head
of C.I.A. counterintelligence. `Legends,’ though falling short of
Tolstoyan, or Maileresque, amplitude, does not scant, expertly
roaming the continents and offering a psychological puzzle to go with
all the deception and violence.

Martin Odum, to give the novel’s confusing hero his most often used
name, is an ex-C.I.A. operative who has, he feels, lost his real
identity in the shuffle of `legends’ – false identities, with carefully
worked-out histories and trade skills, assumed for particular
episodes of espionage. Odum has paid a personal price for doing his
devious patriotic duty: he suffers from migraine headaches; his
occasional lover finds her side of their relationship `like
sleepwalking through a string of one-night stands that were
physically satisfying but emotionally frustrating’; he plans to spend
the rest of his life, he confesses to her, `boring himself to death.’
The C.I.A. retired him after his psychoanalysis at the taxpayers’
expense was abruptly terminated. His diagnosis was MPD,
multiplepersonality disorder. Along with his well-remembered roles of
Dante Pippen, an I.R.A. dynamiter training Hezbollah jihadists in
Lebanon, and Lincoln Dittman, a Civil War buff doubling as an arms
dealer in Brazil, there are hints of a legend, an alter ego, beyond
his memory’s reach. These impersonations having served their
dangerous purpose, and Odum having outlived his usefulness to the
C.I.A., he makes ends meet as a private detective in the Crown
Heights section of Brooklyn, using two pool tables as his office
furniture. Well, one day in walks this dame called Stella, wearing a
long raincoat and `a ghost of a smile’ on her lips . . .

It’s a long story, and Littell should be allowed to tell it, twist
after twist after twist. This reviewer put up some initial resistance
against the plot’s ruthless manipulations of chronological sequence,
the arch chapter titles (`1997: Oskar Alexandrovich Kastner Discovers
the Weight of a Cigarette’), the excessively vivid verbs (`The
jetliner elbowed through the towering clouds’; `He heard Stella’s
voice breasting the static’), the occasional fusillade of clichés
(`He must have been off his rocker to think he could trace a husband
who had jumped ship. Finding a needle in a haystack would be child’s
play by comparison’), the clammy, overcooked atmospherics (`eyes
burning with excitement’; `the muscles on her face contorting with
heartache’), and the heavy-breathing ruminations about identity, that
critical modern problem. Almost all the characters, including stray
taxi-drivers and hookers (maybe especially hookers, adept at
dissimulation and undercover work), are pretending to be somebody
else, under another name. In a `nightmarish world,’ we are left to
conclude, `people who are broken have several selves.’ Why does this
theme feel tired? Is it just the Jason Bourne movies, starring Matt
Damon?

But, as I rounded page 300 and headed into the book’s last quarter,
the pieces of the puzzle began to click together and I felt myself
sinking into an earlier assumed identity: I became a
fourteen-year-old boy lying on a red cane-back sofa in Pennsylvania
eating peanut-butter-and-raisin sandwiches (a site-specific ethnic
treat) and reading one mystery novel after another. Not just
mysteries – Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Ngaio
Marsh, Erle Stanley Gardner – but an occasional international thriller,
like Eric Ambler’s `A Coffin for Dimitrios’ and Graham Greene’s `The
Third Man.’ The idea of reading a non-genre novel, with its stodgy
domestic realism and sissy fuss over female heartbreak, repelled me,
but I could lose myself all morning and afternoon in narratives of
skulduggery, detection, and eventual triumphant justice. And so, to
judge from the best-seller lists, can millions still. Thrillers, as
we shall call them, offer the reader a firm contract: there will be
violent events, we will go places our parents didn’t take us, the
protagonist will conquer and survive, and social order will, however
temporarily, be restored. The reader’s essential safety, as he
reclines on his red sofa, will not be breached. The world around him
and the world he reads about remain distinct; the partition between
them is not undermined by any connection to depths within himself. At
this same age, I remember, I looked into Joyce’s `Ulysses’ and
Orwell’s `1984′ and was badly shaken by the unmistakable impression
that these suffocating, inescapable worlds were the same one I lived
in.

To complain of thrillers, or romances, that they are less than real
is to invite several counter-charges. It could be said that a book
like `Legends’ consummately achieves a novel’s basic purpose,
implicit in its name, of bearing news. Littell, a former reporter, is
generous in the amount of data he provides about not just guns,
explosives, and the procedures of terrorism (how to plant a bomb in a
dead dog), the battle of Fredericksburg, the Civil War nursing career
of Walt (known to his soldier friends as Walter) Whitman, chess,
Lithuanian history, Russian as spoken with a Polish accent, and so
on; he persuasively conjures up a desolate ruined island in the sadly
depleted Aral Sea, top-secret conference rooms in Washington and Tel
Aviv, and a medically vivid simulacrum of Osama bin Laden. Facts,
fascinating facts, are the bones of his fable, and who doubts that
the C.I.A. really exists and that describing how nations and
corporate entities relate to one another brings more important news
than describing the relations of mere individuals? On the other hand,
it could be argued that all fiction is escapist: by its means we
escape our own heads and lives and enter into other heads and lives.
Whether the head belongs to a Hobbit in Tolkien or to one of Virginia
Woolf’s sensitive, externally unadventurous women does not change the
nature of the escape: what gives relief and pleasure in fiction is
its otherness. It can hardly help being other, no two sets of
experience being identical: an American finds in English fiction a
different slant and social atmosphere, and a realistic Victorian
novel like `Middlemarch’ develops, as electricity and automobiles
overtake reality, a refreshing strangeness.

The slippery difference between a thriller and a non-thriller would
hardly be worth groping for did not the thriller-writers themselves
seem to be restive – chafing to escape, yearning for a less restrictive
contract with the reader. They write longer than they used to, with
more flourishes. Nothing in Agatha Christie’s brilliantly compact,
stylized, and efficient mysteries suggests that larger ambitions
would have served her; the genre in its lean classic English form fit
her like a cat burglar’s thin black glove. But Littell and le Carré
and the estimable P. D. James give signs of wanting to be `real’
novelists, free to follow character where it takes them and to
display their knowledge of the world without the obligation to
provide a thrill in every chapter. The hero of `Legends’ at times
shows sympathetic depths but in the end turns into a killing machine
as remorseless as the novel’s savage opening vignette. The heroine
never comes clearer than that ghost of a smile and the three shirt
buttons she tends to leave undone. The villainess, Bondishly named
Crystal Quest, chews ice, literally – cold-blooded, eh? The amorous
dialogue, the little there is of it, feels painfully awkward, if not
at bottom hostile, and the rest creaks like an oxcart under its
burden of conveying data. A random sample:

`In the early nineteen-eighties,’ Kastner explained, `Ugor-Zhilov was
a small-time hoodlum in a small pond – he ran a used-car dealership in
Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. He had a KGB record: He’d been
arrested in the early seventies for bribery and black market
activities and sent to a gulag in the Kolyma Mountains for eight
years’ [and so on, for sixteen more lines of type].
`You seem to know an awful lot about Tzvetan Ugor-Zhilov,’ Martin
observed.
`I was the conducting officer in charge of the investigation into the
Oligarkh’s affairs.’
Martin saw where the story was going. `I’ll take a wild guess – he paid
off the Sixth Directorate.’

`Legends’ patiently details the labor of espionage; in turn, the
reading of it can be laborious. Various checkpoints of the intricate
plot are repeated almost in toto, lest the reader carefreely lose
track and, like a scholar in springtime, gaze out the window at the
birds and trees of the non-espionage world. Espionage, this novel
implies, borders on the tragic, hollowing out a man so that he no
longer feels real to himself. The games the C.I.A. would play with
the world take on, in the plot’s developments, a megalomaniacal
hubris. Littell, and history with him, has come a long way since
1973, when `The Defection of A. J. Lewinter’ marked his début. That
novel is airy and comic, speedy and understated; it shares many grim
ingredients with `Legends,’ including a C.I.A. whose presumptuous
meddling destroys lives, but it has a warmth in its portraits of
Russia and individual Russians that extends to the American heroine
and her romantic involvement in the machinations of the state. The
passage of time, too, as with `Middlemarch,’ has added a nostalgic
patina. More than thirty years later, the mirvs and missile defense
at the heart of the intrigues around Lewinter have faded from the
foreground of our anxieties. The Cold War, surprisingly, had an end,
and the U.S.-U.S.S.R. rivalry did not produce a nuclear holocaust.
Now we fear not missiles sent forth by a government playing at
brinkmanship but loosely sponsored suicide missions that turn
passenger jets into missiles. An opaque seethe of religious animus
and insatiable grievance has replaced the hidden counsels of the
Kremlin, whose inhabitants, in softening retrospect, became over time
fellow-conspirators of a sort, enemies whose fears and aspirations
mirrored our own.