Sunday, November 06, 2005

A bad book on the CIA

These days, the CIA has been in news a lot, over 9/11, Iraq, rights to torture, fights for the Bush Administration, fights against the Administration. So I thought I'd check out The Company: a novel of the CIA, the book that according to the Economist should have been doing what the Godfather did for the mob. Another reviewer said this is the definitive novel of the Cold War, while its authour, Robert Litell, was compared with Le Carre. Tall claims, and in my opinion, largely off the mark.

In the last page of the book, we’re told that they (the Soviets) lost because we (the West) made fewer mistakes. I thought we won because liberal capitalist democracy is a better way of organising society. No matter, this is about as much introspection as you’ll get here. The search for legitimacy motivated the Corleones every step of the way. They were complex characters. Not so for Littell’s characters – they know that they are fighting the good fight. And Littell knows that his heroes are fighting the good fight. And just in case you, the reader, miss the point, the Soviet spymaster (that is, the bad guy) is a paedophile (that is, he is a baaaad guy).

You don't have to be a Chomskyite to note that not all of the Company' fights were good. In the name of the fight against Soviet expansionism, the CIA propped up murderous dictatorships – the Shah, Pinochet, Suharto and Mobutu to name a few. Even Henry Kissinger agreed that these were ‘difficult choices’, devoting considerable space in his memoir. But not Littell. If not for the attacks of 9/11, I wonder if the CIA’s role in Afghanistan would have been mentioned at all!

It’s not that Littell doesn’t know his subject material. He describes Berlin of the 1950s in great details. Real characters like Jim Angleton, Kim Philby and Yuri Andropov make appropriate appearances. His description of Ronald Reagan authorising the arming of the Afghan mujahedin with Stinger missiles is not very flattering for the late President. Actually, in these scenes, Reagan reminded me of George W Bush as depicted by Bob Woodward.

Anyway, this is a spy novel, not a treatise on the Cold War. It is really a 900-page long yarn about a mole hunt that lasted four decades. A shame as you can guess who the mole is about a third of the way through, making most of the book pretty dull. Again, it’s not that Littell can’t write – there are terrific action sequences set in the crushed Hungarian uprising of 1956.

As well as being too long, there are irritating discrepancies in the book – Ayatollah wasn’t a common usage in English in the early-1950s, James Bond wasn’t a cultural icon in 1960, Tabligh Jamat isn’t a political organisation.

All in all, a grossly overrated book that I’d suggest giving a miss.