Saturday 3 August 2013

Red Sparrow: The Human Side of Spying

This article originally appeared in Critics at Large and appears here because my final comments in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, Encompass Editions, 2013 in the Soviet section offer a few comments on Putin's Russia. This review can be read as a continuation of those reflections.
“Even now with the Soviet Union long gone, the monster is right beneath the surface.”
– Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow

In interviews, Jason Matthews has indicated that he believes that the current Russian state is much different than the former Soviet Union, but one would never know that by reading his debut novel Red Sparrow (Scribner, 2013). The Russia that he portrays under the icy “blond scorpion,” Vladimir Putin, who is a minor character in the novel, is repressive and cruel, a throwback to the Soviet Union. The Cold War may be officially over, but that is not the position of the Russian head of state. Putin is determined to retool the Russian Empire in order to reestablish the glory and prestige that the Soviet Union once exercised and he is willing to resort to any means from placing moles inside the American government to authorizing “wet actions” (murder) in order to achieve that goal. Any expression of dissent or disloyalty is mercilessly punished. The real life murder in a Moscow elevator of the investigative journalist Anna Polikovskaya, and the poisoning in London of a former KBG officer, Alexander Litvinenko, by polonium-20, incidents that are mentioned twice over the course of the novel, are merely the tip of the iceberg of the ruthlessness that characterizes contemporary Russia. While reading the novel, I noticed press reports that only seem to confirm the notion that the rule of law operates only at the pleasure of Putin and that the past is much alive in the present. Any serious rival to Putin is arrested, subjected to a show trial and convicted so that he cannot run for public office. In the novel, the brutal interrogation techniques in the Lubyanka prison are reminiscent of conditions that existed in the past. Even the novel’s central conceit, that young women are sent to courtesan schools to learn the art of seduction espionage and become “sparrows” for the purpose of sexual entrapment, is a relic of the Soviet era since the author has stated in interviews that he has no knowledge of the current Russian state operating them, although he concedes that independent contractors may be performing that service in the Putin era.

Red Sparrow tells the story of Dominika Egorova, a young woman swallowed by the Russian intelligence machine after the death of her father. Egorova is a beautiful Russian ballerina whose ankle and dreams were crushed by a ruthless competing dancer. Her uncle, a high-ranking intelligence officer, manipulates her through her fervent nationalism into becoming a Russian agent. She soon learns that servants of the state do not act with honour. Her uncle duplicitously persuades her with a veiled threat of blackmail to entice a Putin rival to her bed in order for him without her knowledge to be assassinated with him lying on top of her. As she maneuvers through the snake pit of espionage, contending with roiling emotions and her evolving contempt for her misogynous masters, she is assisted by a version of synesthesia that lets her ''see'' emotions as colours; a specific colour around someone’s aura will let her know whether the person is lying. Only the reader knows that she possesses this paranormal quality. Some may find this device gimmicky. I prefer to regard it as a metaphor for her heightened intuition.

To begin her training, she is sent to a secret “sparrow school” outside of Moscow where the students are taught the techniques of “sexpionage” to enable them to become bait for honey traps that snag vulnerable diplomats and foreign businessmen in situations so compromising they'd rather steal state secrets than have their own secret lives revealed. Her eventual target is Nathaniel Nash, an American agent who needs to prove he can excel as a recruiter after a high-ranking mole in Russian intelligence codenamed MARBLE is nearly captured in Moscow when Russian agents spot not MARBLE but Nash at what was supposed to be a secret assignation. A blemish on his record, Nash is discarded by his CIA boss in Moscow but he finds employment in Helsinki. His new mission is to recruit Egorova as an agent while the Russians want her to seduce Nash in order smoke out MARBLE’s identity. As the action careens between Russia, Finland, Greece, Italy, and the United States, Dominika and Nate’s serpentine journey is fraught with forbidden passion and danger. As they struggle to trust each other, circumstances and the deception that is the raison d’être of spying render that challenge almost impossible. This summary could almost read as a cliché, but Matthews creates believable characters whose lives run on adrenaline and anxiety, and the reader is drawn into their world.

Author Jason Matthews
Red Sparrow has elicited considerable attention because its author spent over thirty years in the CIA, and apart from Charles McCarry, no former American agent has ever written a quality spy thriller after he retired from the service. By contrast, a number of former British intelligent officers, from Ian Fleming and John Le Carré to Charles Cumming, have been practitioners of the spy craft and put their experience and knowledge into fiction. One of the strengths of his book is how Matthews incorporates the tools and the argot of his former tradecraft into Sparrow, and they do have the ring of authenticity. One of the most notable is surveillance, which is a large part of the espionage game – and spooks do call it that. Any operative in a foreign country, particularly a police state, expects to be followed or “to be covered in tics” since its agents know that he will be meeting at some point with his recruit in order to trade information. He must take a long circuitous route that could take as long as twelve hours, keeping alert to everyone who may be tailing him before he feels confident “going black” and attending his rendezvous.

In certain respects, Red Sparrow resembles less the spy-novel œuvre of le Carré, to which it has been compared, than the novels of Ian Fleming. True, Nathaniel Nash does not in any way engage in the pyrotechnic physical derring-do that is the trademark of James Bond. But Matthews does share the moral certainty of Fleming. The un-heroic functionaries in a le Carré Cold War novel are aware of the moral ambiguity of their work. Unlike le Carré, Matthews will never be accused of implying there is a moral equivalence between East and West. There is nothing in Sparrow that resembles these sentences from le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: “I would say that since the war, our methods and those of the opposition have become much the same. I mean you can't be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government's 'policy' is benevolent, can you now.” By contrast, in Sparrow, the CIA has no one comparable to the trained Russian assassin with a milky white eye and ammonia smell armed with a Khyber knife. Even Russian and American moles are vastly different in Sparrow. The thoroughly decent Russian mole who has been feeding information to the Americans for over a decade was motivated by understandable reasons – his wife died because she was misdiagnosed and he was not allowed to get her American medical assistance. The high-placed American mole, codenamed SWAN, however, is a totally unsympathetic one-dimensional sociopath driven only by money, pleasure and power. Moreover, there is no mention of enhanced interrogation, black sites or extraordinary rendition, although to be fair Matthews focuses only on American-Russian espionage and does not touch on terrorism. Likely to satisfy his former colleagues, he does indulge in some turf war, portraying the FBI as a foil for the CIA, both incompetent and fixated on due process when it comes time to arrest the American mole.

Nonetheless, Sparrow conveys a sense of verisimilitude regarding what the CIA actually does in overseas operations. Action films like The Bourne Legacy and Skyfall that are chock-full of shootings and explosions are entertaining, but according to anyone who has worked in the organization, they are fantasies. What the men and women are primarily entrusted to do is to gather vital information about hostile governments. Despite the modern technology that can be gained from overhead photography or drones – technology plays no role in Sparrow – nothing can replace the cultivated face-to-face relationships that are at the essence of this novel. And that requires language skills – Nash speaks almost fluent Russian – interpersonal skills and stamina, because one of the operative’s main objective is to protect his agent. Exposure in a police state could mean arrest and likely execution. The action scenes and violence in Sparrow will grab some readers’ attention, but human relationships are at the core of Matthews’ absorbing, compelling novel, along with its most memorable character, the double agent Dominika Egorova. If there is a sequel, which Matthews is apparently working on, do not be surprised if she becomes a triple agent.

No comments:

Post a Comment