Monday, June 18, 2007

Spies and Ghosts

Two novels read lately (coupled with a viewing the other night of the movie Breach) have revived my always-lurking fascination for the Spy Novel, whether set in the Nazi era, the Cold War, or post-collapse Russia, where the spies have become entrepreneurs, even heads of state!

Ladies and Le Carre fans, I give you Christopher's Ghosts by America's master of espionage fiction, Charles McCarry--plus Martin Cruz Smith's latest brilliant novel, called Stalin's Ghost (what's with all this ectoplasm?), which has no spies but rather post-Soviet death squads and soldiers turned politicians; the madness of Chechnya and the near-madness of chess.

McCarry wrote two of the greatest spy novels ever, The Tears of Autumn (regarding Vietnamese involvement in Kennedy's assassination) and The Last Supper, both featuring (as do most of his books) an agent named Paul Christopher, sometimes present and sometimes absent, but even then still haunting the actions of others. Two other early books, The Miernek Dossier and The Secret Lovers (the title a brilliant pun), center on Christopher too; and these original four together form a kind of Alexandria Quartet, with The Last Supper serving to tell you what was really going on in those earlier books you thought you had figured out!

Christopher's Ghosts, going back in time to the late Thirties and then ahead to the Fifties to tell more of the convoluted history of Paul, is sad and beautifully written, but somehow--I think--not as complex or involving as the others, even though it forces the confirmed fan (and I qualify!) to reexamine yet again some of what he thought he knew. That's McCarry... always another layer of onion to strip away.

And speaking of onion-dome Orthodoxy, Smith's list of great Renko novels, starting with Gorky Park and reaching a moody and frightening climax (or so we mesmerized readers thought) in last year's amazing post-Chernobyl story called Wolves Eat Dogs, now must make room for Stalin's Ghost. Stubborn-as-ever Renko, who seems more droll with each passing year, gets cuckolded, choked, and shot in the head, and that's just in the first half! But this aging investigator is no master spy, no supercop immune to pain; he suffers and bleeds and needs time to recuperate, yet still drags himself back into the fray, confronting various "ghosts"--of Stalin, his father, and the Chechen dead.

I think I won't reveal any more, but rather just say: Buy it, read it, check out Smith's other novels as well as those of McCarry. (And I include the third Renko novel, Red Square, omitted from his current list of published works for some unknown reason.) If you can read The Tears of Autumn or Wolves Eat Dogs without feeling haunted or short of breath, without aching deeply for the central figures, you're a better man than I, Gunga Deighton.

Given that one of the recurring themes in Smith's and McCarry's novels is the pain of love, the tragic consequences of caring for others, I think I will end this with a somewhat relevant poem, written back in the time of Gorbachev, when my first marriage was coming to an end...

Glasnost, Lesser Spirits

The thaw has breached us.
And now in our icebound Baltics
a certain freedom of movement strikes

the alders, as flights of rhetorical starlings
pursue their social revolutions.
Snow that lay like linen

now flows in rivulets
down the steps and sidewalks,
and dissident speech of crows marks

preparations for the May Day coming.
In all the withered-away reaches of the state,
suddenly green

young workers arise,
throwing off the chains of mothering earth.
It is Progress of Spring all over

again, the break-up of a long, hard
chill, after the Fall
and rime of years. In this

spirit of no love and understanding,
we brush aside the dust of bitterness,
shed our heavy coats, and walk

carefully, negotiating each
step, taking the sun…

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