Posts Tagged ‘espionage’

Ben MacIntyre: Agent Sonya

December 4, 2022

     Most of us of a certain age have a vague picture of the espionage that was an integral part of the Cold War years and much earlier; this is the first time I’ve read a detailed account of any of it, and the stories of some of the people who were involved in it, although quite a few of the names had been familiar to me. It was fascinating to read an in-depth account, and to reflect on the implications of what went on. It’s a workmanlike piece of writing; the facts and the biography are what matters, not the style. There are some minor carelessnesses in historical and geographical detail, but not many.

The innate sexism of MI5/MI6, the idea that a ‘housewife’ could not possibly be up to no good, allowed the heroine to get aways with a lot; there’s a certain amount of almost comic silliness in the behaviour of British intelligence (!) at the time as we read about their investigations and interrogations.

Ursula/Sonya is clearly a character of her times, and looking back from our perspective now, it’s rather hard to see why someone would undergo the great rigours of training in espionage and sabotage and take on board all the risks, dangers and penalties of the role. We are taken through her decision to become involved, her recruitment, her work in China during the Civil War, in Europe in the run-up to the Second World War, in Switzerland during that war, her flight to England and her involvement in the passing of many secrets, including research on the atomic bomb to her paymasters in the USSR.

I found thinking about the issues involved in this espionage history quite interesting. I felt that the author seemed to gloss over Sonya’s naivete, even wilful blindness at various times, for instance her response to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939, and also her reaction to the disappearance of so many of her connections during the Stalinist purges. At one level, being so embroiled already, one might argue she didn’t have much option other than to stick with the side that was paying her. Equally, I could understand her decision to move to the DDR in the late forties when she was about to be rumbled. There was clearly a sense of idealism at play: there should be a level playing field, and why were researches and developments not being shared with an all? Idealism too, now vanished, that there was an alternative, however flawed, to capitalism, in construction in a large and important country.

More than this, however, I found myself actually admiring and respecting the efforts, the risks and the decisions taken by those whose actions evened the odds, if you like, during the Second World War and the Cold War; it was clear quite early on that the West was positioning itself for maximum advantage once the ‘Allies’ had defeated the Nazis, and actually, contemplating the outcome of another war when the Soviets did not have the ‘equality’ of nuclear weapons, was pretty horrifying. What sort of a world might we have been living in now? And I’m appalled at myself for almost accepting the balance of terror here. But for many years I realise that I actually did feel ‘safer’ during the Cold War than I have done since…

Michael Ondaatje: The English Patient

January 9, 2022

      I’m in several minds about this novel, which many people rate highly and which I’ve effortlessly avoided for the last 30 years but have now read because it’s our book group choice for January. For me, it joins the list of oddball takes on the Second World War in novels, perhaps the most successful of which is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Louis de Berniere’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin an eminently forgettable one, for me at least.

It’s well-written: I like the ways Ondaatje uses the language to create atmosphere, particularly through the use of the impersonal ‘he’ and ‘she’. At times I felt a sense of showiness with so many names and places and foreign terms, and the narrative often felt too disjointed and disconnected, overly impressionistic. I could see the effect the writer wanted to achieve… The muddling of the story strands and the various timeshifts made for an oddly compelling narrative involving the isolated individuals in the Italian villa; it took quite a while, but eventually the interplay between the four very different characters began to work for me. This setting seemed to echo the isolation of the characters in the desert sections which I liked very much (well, I would, wouldn’t I?)

For me, by far the most interesting character was Kip, the Sikh sapper. I liked his inscrutability and his personality came across very well via the narrative style; the ending of his storyline was very powerful and moving, even more so because of the effect and message of the previous book I read (see the last post above). Even so, I found myself wondering if this interest in him was triggered by all the boys’ stuff, bombs and bomb disposal and so on.

And yet… somewhere I remain unsatisfied. I’m glad I read the book, in the end, but there was a certain self-consciously arty archness about it which I couldn’t shake off, and the quite sudden degeneration into an unpicking of the different spies mystery as the identity of the English patient became clear, I found really annoying. But the ending was unexpected and powerful because of that. It feels like a novel that needs a re-read to become clearer and yet I don’t really see myself finding the time.

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