The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books.
Francis King : A Domestic Animal. Faber Finds, 2014. A well-written account of unrequited love that becomes an obsession. Both the plot and the dialogue are, at times, unbelievable, although the obsession and the emotions it provokes in holder and object are very credible.
Sheila Fitzpatrick : A Spy in the Archives: A Memoir of Cold War Russia. London, UK: I. B. Taurus. This is a very readable account of the author’s travels to the USSR in the 1960s as an historian of the first decade of Soviet power. She seems to have met everyone and known many of them. With such an intriguing story, and such an interesting person recounting it, the major disappointment of this book is that Fitzpatrick tells us so little about herself. We learn the names of some of her partners, but only hapharzardly, and usually with only little context. She seems such a fascinating person, we hunger for more about her life and relationships, to know the whole story. And how could an academic historian publish a memoir with no index? What – or who – is she trying to hide?
Ben Macintyre : A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal. London, UK: Bloomsbury. This is a well-written and interesting account of spy Kim Philby and his apparent treachery. The only flaw in the book is the author’s omission of the most plausible theory as to why Philby was not unmasked by the British as a Soviet agent for so long: Because he was so unmasked, long before his flight to Moscow, and then used by MI6 (and perhaps also by CIA and its predecessors) as a conduit for passing messages to the KGB that were intended to be believed.
Merely for MI6 to tell the KGB something would almost certainly guarantee that it would not be believed, as is discussed here. So how can MI6 pass messages to their enemy which MI6 want to be believed, for example, messages about western intentions in the face of a nuclear war? The most effective way is for intelligence agents of the KGB, implanted in western agencies, to pass these messages on. The irony in Philby’s case is that the Soviets were never sure about his true loyalties - for how could a double agent so senior remain undetected by the British or Americans for so long? Because of this suspicion, perhaps the messages he delivered were not always readily believed by the Soviets.
Lisa C. Paul : Swimming in the Daylight: An American Student, a Soviet-Jewish Dissident, and the Gift of Hope. New York City: Skyhorse Publishing. This is an account of the friendship between Paul and Inna Meiman, a dissident and refusenik, that began in the 1980s when Paul was an exchange student in Moscow. The story is not without interest, and the depth of their friendship is clearly portrayed. But the book has far too much detail, far too many letters printed in full, far too much of interest only to the two protagonists. The book lacks an index, which means one would have to read it to find the single mention of Vadim Delone (in a footnote on page 88). Throughout, one has the feeling that this is a very personal story, albeit one played against major historical events. But the events, like the footnote on the 1968 Red Square protest against the Warsaw Pact invasion of the CSSR, are mentioned only in passing if at all, as if they were of no interest to the author.
Kai Bird : The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames. New York: Crown Publishers. A riveting biography of Ames, who was CIA’s initiator and main contact to radical Arab groups, particularly the PLO. One doesn’t make peace with one’s friends, as the saying goes, so such contacts were vital. They still are. As I have argued before, we cannot accurately predict the actions of our enemies without knowing their beliefs, mindset and worldview, and intentions, and knowing these requires at least sympathy and perhaps great empathy. Demonising people or groups gets in the way of understanding, so CIA is to be admired for having and nurturing people such as Robert Ames.