I’ll start with a brief review of “The Company”, a 2002 novel and my second by Robert Littell, the first having been “The men we became” which i read back in 2004. The Company is a book about the history of the CIA and is set in the period after WW2 up until the 90s. It is a massive tome at almost 900 pages. I took a look at it’s size and cover art, leafed through and read the inscriptions then bought it for a song, singing in my heart as i remembered John Barron’s classic “The KGB” and hoping for a similar treat. I walked away from the seller, a young woman, without looking back just in case she had made a mistake about the price i bought it for. Given the saga it tells, it is a book to read at a brisk pace. If you are into the big landscape, epic novels, the ones where the characters are well-matured, this is one not to miss.
There is the Berlin station chief, Harvey Torriti quite something of a sipper himself and the people who form his staff. The plot is typical of spy novels in the way it weaves events into other events and there is deft storytelling end to end with the usual clock and dagger action. I like how Jack meets his future wife and i like the way the characters are developed from the beginning. There is Leon Kritzy and the Russian student who after an education at ivy-league Yale starts work for the KGB under an alias, complete with the demeanor and all the spyware, you know, the transmitters, secret communication techniques-here it is an interesting invisible ink which appears when you hold up the paper to a fluorescent bulb.
Leon Kritzy became an agent of the KGB, traitorously and throughout the novel is working as a mole in the company. There is the sad part about the flight from America to Moscow and the marching students in war-time Russia protesting against military deployment in the streets. The part that touched me was when one of his daughters goes looking for him in Russia. There is the part where the CIA head has been saying there are moles within the agency and been dismissed all along as a paranoid, past his prime and in need of a vacation. But Jim Angleton knows kritzy is a mole and gets him arrested and held incommunicado in some safehouse where he goes to interrogate him periodically. Littell masterfully paints a grim and sinister piece of this where they are holding Kritzy, torturing him in an effort to break him-the lights overhead are too bright, never go off night or day. He is deprived of sleep in order to disorient him . When he asks for a drink of water, Jim tells him to drink from the toilet bowl. At first he refuses but eventually does drink from it, left with no option. He doesn’t crack in spite of all this and a frustrated Jim is forced to release him. The story traverses the globe, through the rugged and dangerous countryside of Afghanistan, where the roads are manned at roadblocks by militiamen, to a meeting in the woods, to Cuba and the botched landing of the Bay of pigs. There is action galore for 900 pages.
Save for Le Carre, there are few spy novel writers with as much depth, and who write a well-nuanced novel such as this one of Littell. The enjoyment i derived from the experience of this read can only be compared to Ken Follett’s classic “Eye Of the needle” this one about a formidable German spy named Henry Faber who is sent to spy against the British during WW2. There is the unforgettable part where Faber, armed with the roll of film of a fake military base and all the works, sets sail in a stolen vessel to rendezvous with a German U-Boat out in the sea, where a violent tempest tosses the vessel this way and that, with Faber fighting to control it, using all of his strength in the effort, “cursing all of England….” so writes Follett.
I do not read books these days, they are hard to come by anymore but when i do read, i must set out convinced it will be time well spent. Which i suppose leaves one with the option of going tech with a kindle. I will be back.