There is no line that separates good and evil, no threshold over which one steps. Rather a long tunnel connects the two, a tunnel that moves from the brightly-lit chamber of the good towards the black abyss of the evil, a tunnel in which shadows deepen as we move closer to the abyss. We all spend time in these shadows, but most of us are equipped with a moral gyroscope that is constantly pulling us back towards the light. For some the pull is not strong enough and they plunge into the darkness of madness, criminality. Or they become CEOs.
For the spy, it’s different. It’s the same tunnel, the same journey from the light towards the abyss. However, the spy’s tunnel is not like ours. Without warning, his can turn on its vertical axis and the movement towards the well-lit chamber becomes a plunge into the abyss, which, in turn, can suddenly be bathed in light. With time, both light and darkness merge into a twilight grey in which shapes are difficult to distinguish and the distinction between friend and foe blurs.
This is the world of the characters who occupy Gaither Stewart’s rich and complex novel, The Trojan Spy. It would be a misnomer to call this a spy story. True, it does chronicle the adventures and mishaps of a handful of spies, all looking for meaning in a world that has lost it. But it is more. It is a leisurely meditation on love, betrayal, duplicity, morality, the young, the old, Europe, America, the Soviet Union, terrorism and the Cold War,
The book revolves around two characters from different ages and different world. The first is the Cold War veteran Anatoly Nikolaevsky—Nikitin “Toyla, Nikolaev--Schmidt, a man of mixed backgrounds and loyalties. Whether he is a double or triple agent is difficult to tell. He moves with ease between his Soviet handler, Borya and his American handler, Cliff, Sr. Always in the background is the elderly Karl Ludwig Leonhard who is what? KGB? Stasi? We are never certain.
It is Karl Ludwig’s grandson, Karl Heinz, the novel’s sometimes narrator, who forms second pole around which the story revolves. Pill and alcohol dependent, it is in him we see that the real damage that has been done to the children and grandchildren of the Cold War warriors. Karl Heinz laments, “But what worthwhile causes existed for my generation? The era of great ideologies was over. Europe seemed in stasis. For us, heroic causes were foreign ones.”
Betrayal and duplicity are two of the novel’s major themes. Nikitin wears a pair of cufflinks that display the ultimate symbol of duplicity, the Trojan Horse. Borya, who is fascinated with Greek mythology and, especially, Helen of Troy, tells Nikitin, “For the Gods, the big betrayal is betrayal of what you love. The greatest freedom is the freedom to betray.” This could be why betrayal is reserved for the gods and why Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell, its deepest, is reserved for traitors and betrayers, for in their betrayal they sought to imitate the Gods.
Nikitin’s cufflinks say much by saying nothing. Because the Trojan Horse was his creation, Ulysses was condemned to the eighth circle of hell, the circle reserved for the perpetrators of fraud.
Perhaps this is why Nikitin says that, “[T]he result is that you inevitably come to feel like a fugitive; homeless, stateless.” This yields a crypto nihilism that is only kept at bay by the steel mask of ironic detachment.
Borya is fascinated by the duplicity of Helen of Troy. Not only did she betray her husband Menelaus, she in turn betrayed the Trojans when she gave the signal for the Greeks to emerge from the horse. If she was even in Troy…
Roberto Calasso, in his book, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony tells us that Paris and Helen first fled to Egypt. There Proteus, king of Memphis ruled that Helen and her treasure would stay in Egypt while Paris journeyed on to Troy alone. Calasso goes on to note, “Homer kept quiet about the supreme scandal of the Trojan War: that blood had been spilt for a woman who was not actually there, for an impalpable ghost.”
Perhaps Borya sees in Helen a metaphor for the Cold War in which blood was spilt for an “impalpable ghost,” namely the specter of Communist world domination. We know now that no such conspiracy existed, that Stalin simply followed the traditional Czarist foreign policy of maintaining a protective buffer zone around Russia. Like the Greeks storming the walls of Troy, the early Cold War warriors believed “their careers were morally and ethically satisfying—they felt the existence of an evil enemy and considered themselves lucky to be in the forefront against it.”
But like all chimeras, the Cold War evaporated and its warriors were left with a terrible void in their lives. As Nikitin observes, “[T]he spy is the eternal child. He never matures. He lives his live as a fairy tale.” So when one fairy tale dies, another must be found if the spy is to feel whole. In this, the spy is a mirror in which we see ourselves, for like Samuel Beckett’s Malone we constantly invent and reinvent fictions about ourselves with which we hope to keep the void at bay.
For Nikitin, the replacement fairy tale is the belief that victims and terrorists are locked in a symbiotic embrace. “When I stop and consider who benefits from terrorism, the list grows longer and longer,” he says. “The police need terrorism to justify the government’s hard line. …The unending crisis. The wars. The special laws. In the name of the war on terrorism they can do anything they want.”
He notes that when Soviet tanks rolled into to crush the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 it was a propaganda coup for the West. Of course the West wouldn’t go to the aid of the Hungarians. They needed their evil empire intact and whole to justify the military empire they were building. So it is that today the last thing the United States wants to do is capture or kill bin Laden. Like children, we need our monsters and bogymen. It is they who give our lives meaning. Lord Acton got it wrong. Power doesn’t corrupt; it rots the brain and keeps its wielder is a perpetual state of arrested adolescence.
So Nikitin goes in pursuit of the one individual or group he believes is the mastermind behind all terrorist activity and in doing so he becomes a poster child for the absurd of Albert Camus. Camus saw the absurd as the tension between man’s intense desire for a rational linearity that made sense of the nonlinear and unpredictable chaos that life can be. Nikitin wishes to impose a linear order on the sloppy mess that is terrorism with all of its arbitrariness and unpredictability.
It is this struggle against the absurd that forces Nikitin into his grey world of amorality. As young Karl observes, “Nikitin, Hakim and now Musa—equivocating, vacillating, changing sides in life, playing all sides against the middle, all acted as if nothing was either absolutely good or absolutely evil.” Morality slips its skids when it tries to impose a linear order on the chaotic fecundity of life, for in the end it must destroy all that doesn’t fit into its neat, rational categories.
The novel moves at a leisurely pace. Reading it is like being in the company of a group of cosmopolitan individuals as they discuss world affairs. The writing is crisp and draws the reader along.
I did have some issues with the ending. The book ends with a grand conspiracy that is plotted and successfully executed by a rogue intelligence agency. I find this troublesome on several different levels. First, there’s a problem with the intelligence community as a whole. It is a given that our CIA borders on the incompetent. The collapse of the Soviet Union came as a complete surprise to it and it tailored intelligence in the run up to the Iraq enterprise to justify policies that had already been formulated. On the Soviet side, researchers are finding that the KGB was not the well-oiled machine the West had thought it was.
Intelligence gathering is an imperfect science that is carried out by inefficient bureaucracies. So it is doubtful that a rogue agency could execute anything that resembled a comprehensive conspiracy.
When it comes to grand conspiracies, I confess to being a sceptic. I simply don’t believe Homo sapiens has the intellectual capacity to carry one out on a large scale. Human nature doesn’t lend itself to mega plots. Somewhere, someone would have one drink too many or would want to impress his mistress and the cat would be out of the bag.
Rather than conspiracies I see passing convergences of interest grounded in life’s contingencies, contingencies that are constantly in motion. These convergences are reactions to events and not their creators. This is why terrorist activity tends to be made up of isolated incidents rather than parts of some sort of overall strategy. Experts tell us that al-Qaeda isn’t so much a formal organization as an ideology.
A good analogy for these convergences can be found in chaos theory. If you sit by a fountain for a period of time, a pattern emerges. Most of the time the droplets of water fall in a random and chaotic pattern. But occasionally, the drops fall in unison, a unity that is quickly dispersed as the droplets resume their random pattern. It’s the same with convergences. A disparate group of individuals come together to plot some mischief and then disperse.
Was 9/11 an inside job plotted and executed by the Bush administration? Absolutely not! Was the administration aware that such a plot was in the works and choose to let it happen? Possibly. Did every neocon and wingnut rejoice when the planes slammed into the twin towers because this breathed new life into our militarized security state? Absolutely! It was a passing convergence of interests.
Grand conspiracies have their appeal because of our need to impose some sort of order event that are, by nature, chaotic and unpredictable. We want to believe a single mastermind is behind them and that once this mastermind is neutralized the threat will vanish. Such a belief is the mindset of a technician who believes that there isn’t a problem that can’t be solved by changing a battery or tightening a bolt. The trouble is that life isn’t a machine and it rarely behaves like one.
But this is a minor quibble when the novel is considered as a whole. It takes the reader on a fascinating and absorbing journey through contemporary Europe. It is a book that could well change how we look at the world. And when you get right down to it, this is what literature is supposed to do.
Gaither Stewart is originally from Asheville, NC. After studies at the UC at Berkeley, other American universities and Munich University, he has lived his adult life abroad, first in Germany, then in Italy, alternated with residences in The Netherlands, France, Mexico, Argentina and Russia. After a career in journalism as a correspondent for the Rotterdam daily newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, and contributor to the press, radio and TV in various European countries, he today writes fiction and journalism. He is a senior editor and European correspondent for the major American online publication, Cyrano's Journal Online. His works are published in venues throughout the world, and hed is a frequent contributor to Southern Cross Review. He lives with his wife, Milena, in Rome, Italy.
Case Wagenvoord blogs at http://rightwingstoner.blogspot.com and welcomes comments at [email protected].