An elegant, twisty spy story by a true master of the craft
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Robert Littell is the author of sixteen previous novels and the nonfiction book For the Future of Israel, written with Shimon Peres, president of Israel. He has been awarded both the English Gold Dagger and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for his fiction. His novel The Company was a New York Times bestseller and was adapted into a television miniseries. He lives in France.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
1: VIENNA, LATE SUMMER 1933
Where an Englishman Wanders into the Wrong Century
The Englishman came from another planet looking, no doubt, for adventure, a cause to believe in, comradeship, affection, love, sex. His luck, he found someone who dyed her hair so often she was no longer sure of the original color: me. We were roughly the same age—he was twenty-one and fresh from university when he made his way to my flat in the center of the city—but any resemblance between our life lines ended there. I was half Jewess and half not, with the two parts of my identity in constant conflict; I’d been a Zionist fighting for a distant Jewish homeland before I joined the Communists fighting for Austrian workers nearer to hand. I’d been married and divorced (when I discovered that my husband preferred to sleep in Palestine than with me). Once I’d even been thrown into an Austrian jail for two weeks for my Communist activities that came to the attention of the police; I’d been caught letting my spare room to a certain Josip Broz, who turned out to be a Croatian Communist wanted in half a dozen Balkan countries. (He would hold party meetings in my apartment, pointing to one or another of the comrades and giving them assignments with the words Ti, to—You, that. He did this so regularly we nicknamed him Tito.) My stint in prison wasn’t wasted; I discovered that, for want of a mirror, a girl could see her reflection in a cup of coffee well enough to apply lipstick, without which I feel unprotected. Despite my arrest, my clandestine work for Moscow Centre had fortunately gone undetected. You could make the case that I was at the opposite end of the spectrum from a vestal virgin. I had taken lovers when it pleased me to take lovers but I was careful to keep an emotional distance between us, which is why they invariably ended up becoming former lovers. The truth is, I’d never really been intimate with a male of the species before the Englishman. Intimate in the sense of taking pleasure from giving pleasure. Intimate in the sense of feeling that waking up mornings next to a stark naked Homo erectus was an excellent way to begin the day.
Ah, the Englishman ... You won’t believe how innocent he was when he appeared on my doorstep: handsome in a timid sort of way, painfully unsure of himself, suffering (I later learned) from chronic indigestion, talking with an endearing stammer that became more pronounced when the subject turned to social or sexual intercourse. I could tell right off—girls are born with a sixth sense for body language—he’d never gotten laid, at least not by a female. Whether by a male is another matter entirely. Late one night, when we could hear artillery shells exploding in the workers’ quarter across town, the Englishman downed a schnapps too many and told me he’d been b-b-b-b-b-buggered, as he put it. I never did discover if this initiation took place at one of those posh British boarding schools that don’t light grate fires until water freezes in the faucets or later at Cambridge. I happened to have had enough intercourse with the King’s English, not to mention the King’s Englishmen, to know what buggered meant. Forgive me if I don’t share the details. I’m rambling. Oh dear, I do ramble when I talk about the Englishman. Yes, I was saying that, sexually speaking, he was green behind the ears when he fell into my life. I would have been surprised to learn he’d ever set eyes on a young woman’s breast, much less touched one. He certainly didn’t know how to unfasten a brassiere. When we finally got around to sharing a bed, which was ten days after he moved into my spare room, it quickly became apparent he had only a theoretical notion of feminine anatomy. But, to his credit, in sex as in espionage, he was a quick study.
“Where did you learn to fuck like that?” I drowsily asked him the morning after that first night.
“You b-bloody well taught me,” he said. “Your org-gasm is on my lips. I can taste it.”
This, friends, turned out to be quintessential Philby, Kim to his mates, Harold Adrian Russell to the upper-crust English swells who happened by our table to sponge cigarettes when we took tea, as we did almost every afternoon, even in winter, on the terrace of the Café Herenhoff.
But I skip ahead—the tale is best told chronologically. Try to imagine my stupefaction when, responding to a knock so tentative it was almost inaudible, thinking it was the Negro come to deliver coal, I opened the door of my three-room flat to find a young gentleman shifting his weight from foot to foot in excruciating uncertainty, a rucksack hanging off one lean shoulder, a small but elegant leather valise on the floor next to his swanky albeit scuffed hiking boots. My first fleeting thought was that I was in the presence of someone who had wandered into the wrong century. He had the soft pink cheeks of an adolescent who almost never needed to shave; disheveled hair with the remnant of a part in the middle; wrinkled flannel trousers with a suggestion of a crease; frayed trouser cuffs pinched by metal bicycle clips; a belted double-breasted leather motorcycle jacket with an oversized collar turned up; a beige silk scarf knotted around his throat; motorcycle goggles down around his neck; a worn leather motorcycle bonnet, the kind someone might have worn when motorcycles were first invented, hanging from a wrist. “There is no number on your door,” he said, “but as you are b-between six and eight, I decided you must be seven.”
I worked my fingers through my freshly minted blond pageboy to see if the chemist’s peroxide was still damp. “What were you hoping to find at number seven?” I demanded, laying the foundation for the emotional wall I meant to raise between us.
My visitor, speaking English with the barest curl to his upper lip, said, “I was led to b-believe I might be able to let a room at Latschgasse 9, ap-partment number seven.”
The more he stammered, the more I saw my emotional wall crumble. “And who led you to believe that?”
“One of the comrades at the Rote Hilfe Alliance that assists p-persecuted refugees.”
“What brought you to Vienna?”
“My motorcycle brought me to Vienna. I took the liberty of p-parking it in your courtyard next to the rubbish b-bins.”
“I am not inquiring about your mode of transportation. I am inquiring about your motivation.”
“Ahhh. Motivation.” I remember him shrugging in confusion. I was to discover that clichés irritated him, the more so when they spilled from his own lips. “Vienna is where the action is,” he said. “Or will b-be. I came to do my p-part.”
I thought about this. “Are you saying you rode a motorcycle all the way from England to do your part?”
“Not counting the channel, it’s only nine hundred miles, give or take.” He favored me with a shy smile. “If I may be so b-bold, what about you?”
“What about me?”
“Why are you in Vienna?”
“I have a rendezvous with history.” In those days, like these days, one couldn’t be too vigilant. “Don’t change the subject. How did you know about Rote Hilfe?”
“One of my professors at Cambridge is a wheel in the B-British Communist P-Party—he gave me a letter of introduction to the Austrian Committee for Relief from German Fascism. I can show you the letter.”
He started to reach into his rucksack but I waved him off. Anyone could produce a letter. “What is the address of Rote Hilfe? Which comrade gave you my address?” I stood ready to slam the door in his perplexed face if he answered incorrectly.
He produced a small spiral notebook from an inside breast pocket and, moistening the ball of a thumb on his tongue, started to leaf through the pages. I could see they were chock-filled with neat, almost microscopic, handwriting. “Right. Rote Hilfe is situated at Lerchengasse 13, up three flights, right as you come off a very seedy stairwell indeed, down four doors and B-Bob’s your uncle.” He looked up. “Oh dear, I don’t suppose you’re familiar with B-Bob’s your uncle.”
“I am able to figure it out,” I said. “Go on.”
“Yes. Right. The Rote Hilfe office consists of four rooms, one of them with used clothing spilling from cartons p-piled to the ceiling, another crawling with shabby soaks whom I took for Communists hounded out of Germany by Herr Hitler after the Reichstag fire. The ones who weren’t p-playing sixty-six were sleeping in their overcoats on mattresses set on the floor. The whole apartment stank of cooked cabbage, though I never saw a stove where cabbage might be cooked. As for the comrade who gave me your address, I only know his nom de guerre. His friends called him Axel Heiberg. They had a good laugh at my expense when they got around to explaining that Axel Heiberg was the name of an island in the Arctic Ocean.”
“Do you always do that?”
“Mark down everything you see in a notebook?”
“Actually, yes. When I was eleven my sainted father dragged me off on a grand tour of the Levant—Damascus, B-Baalbek, B-Beirut, Sidon, Tyre, Tiberias, Nazareth, Acre, Haifa, Jerusalem, you name it, I’ve been to the souk. He ob-bliged me to keep a journal. I’ve been more or less at it since.” He held out a pale palm. “Philby,” he said. “Harold Philby. Kim to my very few friends.”
“Why very few?”
“In my experience Homo sapien usually disappoints. Only Homo Sovieticus rises to the historical occasion—challenging industrial Capitalism, Nationa...
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Buchbeschreibung Duckworth Bloomsbury Trade Mrz 2014, 2014. Taschenbuch. Buchzustand: Neu. Neuware - A gripping tale about the most enigmatic spy of the last century 288 pp. Englisch. Artikel-Nr. 9780715647431