My Life in the CIA
by Harry Matthews
by Arnaldo Correa
In the 1947 noir The Lady From Shanghai, Orson Welles (playing an Irish merchant sailor laid low by Rita Hayworth) sums up the espionage writers’ creed: “It’s a bright, guilty world.” Where classic crime noir invariably shot for the gutter, writers specializing in intrigue–including Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, and especially Ian Fleming–aimed higher, fascinated with bureaucracies and cabals and the doings of the wealthy and compromised. The narratives were well-suited to the shadier excesses of the cold war, which at its peak was a rich source of material, providing a reliable villain, lots of nifty technological innovations, and well-established tropes of pursuit, capture, cross, and double-cross. After the fall of the Soviet Union many critics observed that John le Carre and numerous lesser lights struggled creatively, at least in terms of crafting a suitably spooky nemesis.
September 11 gave fans of real-life intrigue a hefty new reading list, but unfortunately nonfiction best sellers like The Cell and Against All Enemies served mainly to highlight our appalling impotence in the face of the new threat of global terrorism, as evidenced by our dearth of skilled Arabic speakers and the notorious inability of the FBI and CIA to share basic information.
It’s reasonable to assume this decade might well see the reinvigoration of the spy novel as a commercial force. Contemporary books aren’t likely to be the literary comfort food the old ones were, but they might provide a new hybrid of entertainment and warning, with the spymasters’ fictive counterparts enacting 21st-century renditions of Paul Revere’s midnight ride, alerting us to the limits of their craft.
One new novel looks back to the bad old days of 1973 to highlight an underpinning of much classic intrigue fiction: that the alpha-male heroes of such books were not just privileged, but cynical and indolent. Harry Mathews’s My Life in CIA is being marketed as an “autobiographical novel,” an understandable approach given Mathews’s standing as the sole American member of the Oulipo, a French writers’ league that promotes the application of math and puzzles to the creation of fiction.
Initially the novel seems straightforward. In bone-dry prose, “Harry” describes his life as a creative, well-to-do Parisian flaneur, biding his time between bistro meals and assignations (the tone and situation are both reminiscent of James Salter’s scorching 1967 erotic novel A Sport and a Pastime) until people start mistaking him for an agent or informant of the CIA–a charge leveled surprisingly often in those days at idle young men of means living abroad.
Mathews skillfully captures the gloomy European political atmosphere of the era, with bitter memories of the ’68 strikes weighing on everyone’s minds and thuggish cliques of fascists and communists still stirring up trouble, eager for targets to denounce. It’s this air of humorless partisanship and sour betrayal that provokes the prankish libertine to reinvent himself as the spy his friends suspect he is.
Mathews reveals, in asides to the reader, details of his real-life literary arc–his pride in being elected to the Oulipo, for instance, and his involvement with a new literary magazine, Locus Solus. Things get complicated when these distinct narrative elements fuse. Harry practices fake “dead drops,” making sure he’s observed by nosy acquaintances, and engages an enigmatic Asian woman to weave him a shawl purportedly containing a Siberian map. He then starts a travel agency as a front and begins tweaking those he meets while doing his impersonation of a “company man” with the organizationally obsessive literary devices favored by the Oulipo. This unnerves his circle, and it keeps the reader on tenterhooks, since we don’t really know if his flights of fancy are intended to distract us from the implausibility of his spy story or if he’s just putting us on.
Mathews seems immensely nostalgic for the sense of action and import specific to the backroom politics of the era. Soon his antics (which include chalking nonsense signs on buildings and skulking in alleys) attract both censure from lefty acquaintances and overtures from shady businessmen, ham-tongued thugs, and at least one real operative, who ushers Harry all too readily into the fold.
Throughout he seems intent on creating the aesthetic effect of a spy story without actually writing one–moments of plausible skulduggery and tension, as when he’s invited to the Russian embassy to spar with a presumed KGB agent, notwithstanding. But when he realizes that his Walter Mitty-esque spy play has overlapped with actual espionage atrocities, namely American intelligence involvement in the Chilean military coup of 1973, the moral core of the story solidifies. “I kept hoping the situation would change, knowing it wouldn’t,” he writes. “The U.S. were going to recognize the new Chilean government. . . . I’d made myself party to a monstrosity.” By the novel’s somewhat fragmented ending, Mathews seems aware he’s started to resemble Graham Greene’s brutish, bumbling quiet American.
While Harry’s wealth and American passport allow him to play spy without much personal consequence, the hero of Arnaldo Correa’s Spy’s Fate can escape neither the mandatory nationalism nor the personal blowback of a career in espionage. Correa, considered a founder of Cuban noir, began publishing in 1966, and his early short fiction was favored by Castro. The 2002 publication of Spy’s Fate in the U.S. was his first English translation; it’s just been rereleased in paperback. It’s a prescient look at spycraft not as the fetishized means to a Bondian lifestyle, but rather as the thin edge of the wedge in relations between hostile nations.
The novel opens with a veteran’s homecoming. Carlos Manuel of the Cuban intelligence service has spent three years pursuing a mission in Africa, and upon returning in 1994 he finds his homeland badly hobbled by the Soviet Union’s dissolution. He wants to slow down and spend quality time with his grown kids. Instead, he’s startled to find them not just sullen but building a raft for the risky Florida crossing. Correa uses a rambling third-person omniscient voice that’s out of style in American literary fiction but works well here to make 1990s Cuba accessible. Manuel is both shrewd and a patriot, and he realizes the end of Soviet patronage has transformed both his nation and his life’s work into a house of cards.
Fearing for his children on their flimsy raft, he pulls some strings among his intelligence cronies and steals a motorboat to pursue them. Soon enough the weary, aging spy finds himself trying to protect and provide for his children in the U.S. from behind bars. The FBI and CIA sniff at his trail, even as he languishes in a detention center disguised as an ordinary refugee, but eventually he slips away from his captors–though not before igniting the fury of Sidney King, a vengeful CIA manager who lost a leg ten years earlier to a bomb that may or may not have been planted by Manuel. King is now so bitter that he schemes, Bolton-like, against his own subordinates.
Revenge propels the plot as it sprawls into kidnapping, faked deaths, and operational ties between the CIA and conservative Cuban exiles (a cold-war-fiction chestnut, as in James Ellroy’s American Tabloid). But Correa invests his characters with enough detail and color that the reader is absorbed by the conflict between Manuel’s cynical yet loyal cronies, the “true believers” among Castro’s military who want to make an example out of their ex-spook, and the CIA’s middle-aged cold warriors who (with the exception of the payback-obsessed King) are just killing time until Cuba’s collapse. Correa further humanizes the stock narrative of escape and evasion by incorporating a domestic subplot: while Manuel is hiding out in Vermont waiting to cross into Canada and retrieve a Swiss passport, he rents a room from a single mother who’s being stalked by a local prosecutor and finds time to exact skillful retribution on her behalf, an efficient bit of spy sadism that harks back to the original Bond novels.
When Manuel returns once again to Cuba, his actions become a political litmus test for both his fellow spies and loyalists within Cuba’s deteriorating military infrastructure. The irony of Manuel’s career–that he has dedicated his life and skills to serving a tin-pot socialist regime now in terminal decline–remains, despite all the twists of Correa’s elaborate plot, the novel’s solemn central thread.
Both My Life in CIA and Spy’s Fate are published by lefty independent presses, but despite their quirks they’re essentially thrillers, as compelling as anything by le Carre. Spy’s Fate is an absorbing and oddly relevant potboiler, while Mathews performs the valuable service of capturing the myopic obsession with the accoutrements of spydom that’s led real-life spooks to their current state of ineffectuality. What distinguishes both is the dissolution of the covert, ritualized social contract forever epitomized by rows of unnamed stars on a wall in Langley, Virginia: that uncredited sacrifice will be honored by a nation’s ideals. In a time when America’s intelligence corps has been stained by outsourcing scandals, torture, and the practice of “extraordinary rendition,” we shouldn’t be surprised when the spies whose exploits entertain us turn unreliable and jaundiced too.