Saturday, September 15, 2007

Robert Littell and the CIA

The recent TV miniseries and (before that) bestselling book The Company have catapulted the author into the spotlight. Or have they? I have been a fan for years, but it seems that the public has been fickle with this author. The Company (The Co.) is historical fiction about the CIA, from its start to recent times.The Co. reads like a thriller, albeit a very well-written thriller, yet the story seems to be mostly history rather than fiction. Believe me, that does not detract from the drama- many of the most nerve wracking and tragic geopolitical events from about 1948-1990 are described (including the Bay of Pigs, failed Castro assassinations, Hungarian Revolt, the Fall of the Iron Curtain). At the same time, it was amusing (and perhaps a welcome relief) to see a fleeting homage to Littell's own earlier book, The Visiting Professor (TVP), embedded in The Company, but TVP is a terrific book in its own right and should have sold well, though it might be a bit esoteric for some.

The Company is a large and ambitious book if you think about it, or look at it, but if you read the book it never seems ambitious. It is too absorbing to "seem" anything at all, too balanced to feel wrong, and simply impossible to put down.

The Visiting Professor (TVP) is about chaos theory, the USSR, academia, spies, codes, sex, and grocery stores, and it is so funny that I was constantly reading it out loud to my wife. A Russian chaos theory expert applies every year for a visa to the USA, where he has a standing offer of a visiting professorship at a college in upstate New York, in an Institute for Chaos-Related Studies (maybe slightly different name, was long time ago I read this). He is denied the Visa every year because he is Jewish. However, one year, because of the utter chaos of the Soviet system, he is accidentally granted the visa, so he immediately flies/flees to NY before the mistake can be corrected. He is fascinated by America and American things, like grocery stores and all the items they contain. He studies one store just by wandering around looking for food, he meets its manager, offers remarkably helpful suggestions about reorganizing the store, and meets a girl. By the end of the wild ride, he has tamed the NSA and KGB and re-written the book(s) on free love and grocery management, single handed and with a funny accent.

The Defection of A.J. Lewinter is a book with a harder edge than TVP, lying in between TVP and The Company in tone: it reeks of late cold-war cynicism, is very funny at times, and then not funny at all, as the consequences of American intelligence agency jurisdictional battles and their internal power politics are severe for any pawns caught in the game. The swing in tone made me uncomfortable, which was undoubtedly the intent. So what is the issue? I found myself falling for the spy's treatment of a female companion as entirely genuine. Naive of course, but spies have families, and she wasn't implicated in any wrong-doing, so maybe this was the human side to him. Not on your life. The entire affair was premeditated and coldly calculated to use and discard the life of a "civilian" for a "greater good", the greater good being simply the corporate political survival of one vicious SOB in the U.S. intelligence community. I paraphrase the sentiment here, "Those roses I sent, the days we wandered in the park, the night we lingered in the hall, all go to show that I love you, not, but instead consider you a sub-human weapon in my arsenal, dear. But don't take the fall-out personally. Yes, you did kill someone, and the wrong person at that, but consciences do not fit realpolitik, and anyway I'm sure you'll recover and leave the mental hospital within 30 or 40 years. Have a pleasant convalescence."

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