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Via [personal profile] sovay.

An extraordinarily competent spy novel which kept confusing me by being compulsively readable and bizarrely enjoyable despite both being in a genre I usually consider Not My Thing and also being a book that is in some ways actively working against being entertaining.

Late 1960s; the Cold War is raging. The protagonist runs intelligence networks for the British in East Berlin, but the accession of a new head of East German counterintelligence means that his agents are caught and wiped out ruthlessly. Shipped home with his career in shards around him, he's offered a last chance at taking out the counterintelligence head in the dirtiest way possible, a way that involves seeming to defect.

This is in some ways one of the bleakest novels I have ever read. The protagonist sees no difference in ideology between the two sides because there is no difference in methods. His is a world of cheap rooms, bad food, luxury offered only as bribe, sex offered only as bribe, murder he meets only with numbness, financial chicanery, betrayal after betrayal after betrayal. His only consolation is that he believes that having individuals fight the war is better than having armies do it (World War II seems to have broken something in him, permanently, and you get the impression he will do anything to keep a nominal peace). Between the Great Powers the only neutral space is the top of the Berlin Wall-- a killing zone.

And yet, one of the brilliant things about the book is that, well, who's to say the protagonist has it right? He's incredibly damaged and his worldview is not necessarily the one the narrative endorses. One of the great suspenseful questions of the novel is whether he will succeed in breaking out of his internal mental traps (some of which he intentionally set up himself, as part of his cover), and that far outweighs any questions about physical jailbreaking.

In fact, I think the most brilliant thing about this book, and the thing that makes it so readable, so interesting, is that it is desperately suspenseful, yes, and it contains spying and counterspying and prisons and tribunals and daring escapes, yes. But the suspense has nothing whatever to do with the mechanics of the spying and counterspying and daring escapes. The suspense is based on, one, as I said, the protagonist's mental state; and, two, that although we are always aware what his plan is, and can watch it play out as it was designed to the letter, the real doubt is about the deeper motivations. A lesser book would have tried to hide the fact that the protagonist is faking being a double agent. This one makes you wonder what the goal of the British government is in running someone who is this broken, when we know they know it. Ninety percent of the events in this book are predictable from the first couple of chapters. But every single one of them occurs with so many undercurrents, so many fresh possibilities for doubt, that after a while the mere fact that our protagonist's plan keeps working seems as though it is sinister, as though anything he manages through competence must ultimately be the result of conspiracy. In short, this book takes a (mostly) relatively simple plot and makes you so paranoid about it that it continuously surprises you.

Which is also about where the protagonist is, explaining a lot about his mental state.

This is the book I have seen that uses most thoroughly the paradox that spies are individual persons who work for abstract concepts in a way that can be harming to the very concept of individuality. In 1963, in the middle of the war it's discussing, it must have been even more viciously fanged, it must have been written in fire. A reader now can look at this book and say, in twenty-odd years that wall will come down. In fact, a reader now can read this book while listening to the Sex Pistols' 'Holidays in the Sun', which I did; it was cheering. When the novel came out it must have seemed like an ongoing exposé of a state of living in 1984.

Unless, of course, the protagonist is wrong. But the things that made him the way he is did, historically, happen.


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March 2017

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