Spies Doubt Deception
I suspect many people at the moment are dusting down their old copies of John le Carre’s masterful novels of Cold War espionage. With Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy about to be released on the big screen (and memories of the fascinating TV series with Alec Guinness in our minds) it’s time to revisit the likes of Small Town in Germany and The Spy who Came in from the Cold, and feel, as I do, the warmth and pangs of nostalgia – the joys of experiencing tension, stress, fear, ambiguity, confusion, deception and counter-deception, paranoia, uncertainty, reality as it slips into illusion and delusion and treachery and then back again – it is all there for us to live vicariously, without the danger of getting shot or of being unacknowledged. And perhaps as the novels’ characters anxiously puzzle who is friend and who is enemy, we may emphasise with them and ask ourselves, perhaps for the first time, profound questions of trust and distrust, naivety and doubt – and understanding.
What is life, and reality and how best we live it, nay, survive it – all the fundamental questions are there for us to wallow in and even learn a little about ourselves and our relations with ‘others’.
In an early book called The Postcard the French philosopher Jacques Derrida discussed the many ways a message may not get through – it may end up in the wrong hands, it may be misunderstood, it may be lost among other messages, it may be subverted. No form of language, including the philosophic, is immune from such inherent aberrations. Communication is basic to mankind – yet nothing is guaranteed, despite our implicit assumptions. Espionage, in a way, propagates this so-human question of communication and its vicissitudes.
In yesterday’s Age (17-01-2012) two related items appear thanks to, one senses, the imminent appearance of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Neil Ascherson, the (British) Observer newspaper correspondent, tells of his time in Eastern Europe in the sixties and his frequent brushes with spies.
Having enjoyed his quixotic memoir, I turned the page to discover, much to my surprise, an obituary of Gevork Andreyevich Vartanyan who (I quote) “worked for Soviet intelligence for more than half a century and played an important role in thwarting a Nazi plot to assassinate Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt, at the Tehran Conference in 1943” where they were discussing the strategy of opening up a second front, in Western Europe (an uncommon Melbourne obituary I’m sure you’ll agree).
With complex spy-work, parts of which are mentioned in the obituary, the plot was foiled.
Among a few quotations from Vartanyan the rest of the obituary was written by—who knows. No name is provided, simply Telegraph (London) as service source. I quote one paragraph by the unknown author.
“The fact that the two (sic) nations were allies did not, of course, preclude espionage. During the Tehran Conference, Stalin observed Roosevelt passing a handwritten note to Churchill, and instructed his head of intelligence in Persia, Ivan Agayants, to get hold of a copy. Agayants succeeded. It read ‘Sir, your fly is open’.”
I laughed, and then began to speculate – being now in cynical spy-mode. Obviously this is not a Vartanyan story. Likely a British one. A true one? Possibly, yes. But also possibly no. I can see at least two feasible scenarios. Let’s say the British (and American?) agents discovered Stalin’s concern and instruction (how?); the British could have then decided to have fun at Stalin’s expense, and so concocted a ‘fly’ story, then ‘allowed’ it to be ‘obtained’ by one of Agayant’s boys. Moves like that were/are run of the mill in spy quarters.
But, on the other hand, if the handwritten message actually contained potentially embarrassing material like, for example, “For Christ sake Winston stop being so rude to fucking Stalin; after all he’s been proposing a western front for two years now. Of course he mistrusts us. We’ll have to do something. It’s a pity I know: the two bastards could have destroyed each other if the eastern front continued just one more year. And do look a bit less arrogant, if you can.”
Faced with a possible public embarrassment, and knowing a Soviet attempt to obtain a copy would not weaken over time (Roosevelt had noticed Stalin’s impassive – yet revealing? – look as the note was being passed), MI6 had the tricky task of satisfying both Stalin’s curiosity to see the note, as well as his confidence that he had in fact read the genuine message. Any note fabricated around strategic scenarios for example would lead to further questioning why it was sent secretly from Roosevelt to Churchill. The ‘final’ note clearly had to appear both innocuous in content, and plausible as a private missile in the middle of a meeting. The solution was a clever one. It may have succeeded.
However the possibility should not be ignored that the entire story was a spontaneous figment over drinks at the bar one evening by several of the chaps. And by the third subsequent re-telling it had morphed into a ‘true account’ of one ‘delicate’ moment at the Tehran Conference. How would we know whether we know the ‘truth’ or not? And that, even before we concede that a forgery also has its ‘truth’. In a way that’s the secret life of espionage and what keeps it alive – forever. There is never completion; never a time for self-congratulations and end of doubt; never the moment to finally relax.
It is also, in a way, an allegory of life. And all that may also be the ‘truth’ of Derrida’s book.
Why do so many people revel in spy fiction? Are we, perhaps, obsessed with it? And possessed by it? I have a suspicion I could be.