Sunday, October 19, 2014

An addiction to betrayal (Books - A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre)

Two middle-aged spies are sitting in an apartment in the Christian Quarter, sipping tea and lying courteously to each other, as evening approaches.  They are English - so English that the habit of politeness that binds them together and keeps them apart never falters for a moment.  The sounds of the street waft up through the open window, car horns and horses' hooves mingling with the clink of china and the murmured voices.  A microphone, cunningly concealed beneath the sofa, picks up the conversation and passes it along a wire, through a small hole in the wainscoting, and into the next room, where a third man sits hunched over a turning tape recorder, straining to make out the words through Bakelite headphones.

The two men are old friends,  They have known each other for nearly thirty years.  But they are bitter foes now, combatants on opposing sides of a brutal conflict.
So begins Ben Macintyre's atmospheric, brisk paced A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and The Great Betrayal (Crown, 2014).  You can read this book as fascinating political history, or as a thriller that just happens to be true, but I read it as a book about character.  Kim Philby and his close friend Nicholas Elliott went to English public school together, Cambridge together, and went into intelligence in MI6 together following World War II.  Elliott became a company man who climbed the ranks of British intelligence, while Philby infiltrated himself deeper and deeper into the circles of power.  He stints included several years in Washington D.C. at the height of the Cold War.  At that time he managed to befriend CIA Counterintelligence head James Angleton, a man known for paranoiac secrecy.  All the while he communicated everything he knew about British and American plans to Russian intelligence.  Philby made a hash of key British and American maneuvers for decades.  He did it without a computer, zip line, disguise, or walkie-talkie watch, and for years few people thought to give him a second look. 

Macintyre maintains a taut narrative, even while we know that Philby ultimately defected to Moscow.  He makes of Philby an impressively charming protagonist, cunning double-agent , and a man for whom the reader feels sympathy.  For a time I found myself  hoping he would not be caught. But most interesting of all, he tells the story of a man who lived by betrayal - it was the engine of every relationship he had. He betrayed his country, his wife, and his closest friends.  At times these betrayals seemed like compulsive thrill-seeking, as Philby hardly seemed driven by ideology.  He was a profligate liar, and yet even as he was drawn to subterfuge, it seemed to come at a cost.  Philby recklessly drank himself into oblivion.  He may have fooled others in feigning intimacy, but it seems as though he didn't fool himself.  

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