My Silent War by Kim Philby (1968, Grove Press)
When a person hears the phrase “hostile foreign asset in the highest, most sensitive levels of free world government”, the immediate name that jumped to mind prior to the Trump Presidency would likely be Kim Philby.
Philby was a deep-cover Soviet spy who worked his way up to the top levels of Britain’s foreign intelligence services. After abusing his posts for years he came under investigation for potential espionage… and was cleared. Suspicion remained, however, and years later, after further abuse, he disappeared during a second investigation, only to reappear in Moscow.
This book was published shortly after his defection. It is fascinating and very well-written. It provides an admittedly simplified rationale for his actions; he, like many others, fell into communism in the days when it was deemed to be a boon to the poor and before Stalin’s murderous cruelty were known. After those excesses were exposed, he decided that the concept was still better than any other system and that the benefits would eventually be forthcoming.
This rationale, from the middle 1960s, is revealing. By that time, the continued murder, abuses and subjugation of citizenries throughout the world due to communism had become apparent. The excesses of Stalin had been recreated in smaller form every other place where the political philosophy had been embraced. Philby, in his position, knew this… and he didn’t care.
Instead he explains his actions in the format of a true-life spy novel, placing himself as the hero. It is James Bond as written by Hannibal Lecter, manipulative to the audience even as it pretends to transparency.
His betrayal of the Western world is presented as simply one choice among a binary option. His exposure of a defector to Soviet security forces and his destruction of a competent superior’s career are presented as unpleasant necessities. Through it all he plays the amiable conversationalist, and he does so well enough that it’s easy to miss that he’s neglected to mention things like his wives and children in the narrative; bringing up the personal betrayals of his loved ones would make him less sympathetic, you see.
He declines to name current intelligence officials in the book. He writes that this is out of respect for them. In reality, it’s because no purpose would be served by such a revelation other than to damage his image as an honest man; it is a certainty that Soviet agents had been debriefed on all information about those agents which Philby possessed.
It’s a propaganda piece, and it’s a brilliant one. He even managed to get Graham Greene, a highly respected author and former espionage agent, to produce an introduction for his book, praising the writing style and acknowledging the accuracy of his portrayals of retired senior members of the intelligence community.
It’s an evil book, but a recommended one. Its time of influence is past, and it can be useful as a tool to recognize similar efforts in the future.
R.O.D. by Hideyuki Kurata and Shutaro Yamada (Super Dash Bunko, 2000)
I’ve tried to cover various tastes in the fiction side of the reviews (obviously focusing on the genre fiction I know best), but I don’t think I’ve covered a manga yet.
R.O.D. stands for “Read or Die”. It’s a piece of fluff about a secret agent for the British Library system who has utter control over paper. The conceit is utterly silly on its face, but it presents us with one of the most unusual superheroes in literature.
The issue I have with most manga is the narrative flow; having been raised with American and European comics, Japanese comics often focus too much on close-ups of faces and incomprehensible action panels. By and large, R.O.D. avoids these problems and presents a series of short stories which combine to describe a greater arc about personal growth, heroism, and tragic love.
The books inspired first a series of OAVs (short animated films) and then a television series, both of which were treated as additions and expansions of the universe from the series rather than reproductions of the manga. The result is a cohesive, if strange, large story arc tracing the heroine’s origins through to an attempt by her employers to alter reality at will by manipulating all language.
It’s bizarre, but not in a bad way. For those curious to see what the teen reading craze of fifteen years ago was all about, this would serve as an excellent introduction.