The timely anxieties of spy literature.

Reading between the lines.
June 14 2004 12:21 PM

Espionage Lit

The timely anxieties of spy literature.

Book cover

Frederick P. Hitz spent more than 20 years in the federal government, most of it in the CIA, where from 1990 to 1998 he was the first presidentially appointed statutory inspector general. Such a distinguished bureaucratic career would presumably qualify him for writing a book on spying and fiction, as he has—it is called The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage. Hitz's strategy in the book is clear: "great works of spy fiction are compared to actual espionage operations." He covers recruitment, tradecraft, assassination, sex, even life after spying, as practiced in the real espionage cases of Penkovsky, Popov, Ames, Hannsen, etc., comparing them to the literary examples in the works of Kipling, le Carré, Greene, Furst, etc. In the end, Hitz reaches the rather uninteresting conclusion that "no fictional account adequately captures the remarkable variety of twists and turns that a genuine human spy goes through." Completely missing the point of fiction, Hitz's conclusion is as limited as the ambition of his book. For the problems that important spy fiction presents to its readers are not about espionage logistics. They are primarily moral.

Take Graham Greene's The Human Factor, a book much admired by Hitz. Maurice Castle, a low-level MI6 analyst, became a Soviet spy out of gratitude to a communist who helped smuggle Castle's black lover out of South Africa. His MI6 bosses suspect a spy in Castle's section and consequently kill an innocent colleague of his in cold blood. At the same time, the agency is abetting the apartheid regime and its secret service, the BOSS, in the murky Operation Uncle Remus. * All around Castle there is systemic moral corruption: In the name of protecting human liberty and life, MI6 and, by extension, Great Britain, systematically violate them. Greene, a Catholic, is interested in the modern situation in which the moral framework of God has been broken by the ideological state, in which someone like Castle, a decent man driven by love for his wife and fellow man, cannot possibly retain his decency. Greene's concern for spies is moral, while his interest in the "twists and turns" of spying is structural: The backdrop of espionage allows him to set up a conflict between a corrupt system and a defeated individual. But all Hitz gets from The Human Factor is the example of a perfect villain in Captain Van Donck, the BOSS boss who tried to imprison and kill Castle's wife; all he can say about the abominable Operation Uncle Remus is that "in Greene's eyes this is ample justification for Castle's decision to risk all in one final act of betrayal of British intelligence." The magnitude of the moral disaster inherent in consorting with racist murderers in the name of freedom does not impress Hitz in the least.

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Beholden to the peculiarities of "real" espionage cases, Hitz gets overly excited that they are "MORE bizarre, MORE deserving of a place in Ripley's than the fictional accounts," as if the goal of fiction were to be bizarre. He does not understand that the enduring relevance of John le Carré's Cold War novels, for example, is closely related to the looming question of the inherent immorality of spying and the state that sanctions it. In Smiley's People, one of le Carré's greatest novels, Smiley succeeds in taking down his nemesis, the Soviet Überspy Karla, only after he makes the cardinal mistake of caring about his mentally ill daughter. As in The Human Factor, any moral instinct, any responsibility to another human being (rather than the state) is a lethal liability for a spy. Smiley embarks upon a quest for a symptom of humanity in the inhuman Karla, and once he finds it Karla goes down in flames. Smiley's quest provides the structure of the book, so the reader keeps turning pages, hurrying toward a troubling conclusion—the loveless win the Cold War because the smallest traces of warmth are extinguished in them.

Unsurprisingly, the spy's quest as a structural metaphor, spying as a literary device, is not unfamiliar to other novelists. Even Kipling's Kim, the first modern spy novel, uses espionage to go after something immeasurably bigger then the technicalities of collecting intelligence. Hitz is aware of the seminal importance of Kim, for his title is an explicit reference to the novel—Kim the little spy was part of the struggle for Central Asia between the Russian and British empires known as the Great Game. Kipling's hero is an Irish orphan growing up indistinguishable from the natives in British India. Kim becomes a challa (pupil) to a Buddhist lama, which, after he is recruited, becomes a perfect cover.

But Hitz doesn't really know what to do with Kim: The tradecraft employed in it has become largely obsolescent, while the narrative is devoid of sex, assassination, or rogue elephants. The problem is, of course, that Kim is really not primarily about spying. Kipling's book is about a whole set of issues crucial to the British colonial discourse, and the spying in it allows them to come into focus. The book is about becoming a perfect British subject, about the ways in which the (moral) project of "civilization" affects an individual psyche. Kim and his lama are pursuing fulfillment, but Kim's quest is about accepting his responsibility toward the Empire and its subjects—Kim is about a white boy's burden. Writing at the height of the British imperial project, Kipling does not see the malady at the heart of the modern state, the malady that for Greene and le Carré has infected everything. They all write about the same British state and the same quest—the difference is that Greene and le Carré write about the moral corruption of the state, the abysmal failure of the quest. In le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the character of Lacon, Smiley's political boss says: "I once heard someone say that morality was a method. … You would say that morality is vested in the aim, I expect. Difficult to know what one's aims are, that's the trouble, specially if you're British." It is easy to imagine Kim, working at the Circus some decades later, downing a bottle of whiskey a day to convince himself that the state he works for has any aims left.

Hitz fails to grasp that the secret services and their spying are "the only real measure of a nation's political health, the only real expression of its subconsciousness," as the disappointed traitor Bill Haydon claims in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Spy fiction taps into that subconsciousness and probes the issues repressed into the dark heart of the state and society. And if Hayden and le Carré were right, then this nation's political health has catastrophically deteriorated, its subconsciousness replete with morbid fantasies of domination. The only good news is that the twists, turns, and lies perpetuated by George "It's-a-Slam-Dunk" Tenet and his bumbling boss, the inherent immorality of the political and intelligence system they embody, might provide enough spy-fiction material for decades to come.

Correction, July 8, 2004:In an earlier version of this piece, the author mistakenly identified an operation as "Operation Remus." It is actually "Operation Uncle Remus." Return  to the corrected sentence.

Aleksandar Hemon is the author of the novel The Lazarus Project and three short story collections. He lives in Chicago.

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