Espionage is probably as old as civilization itself. Fictional accounts of the subject have intrigued readers at least since the early nineteenth century, when James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Spy (1821) gained its author a loyal following and a lucrative income. In more recent times, renewed interest in the genre came about as a result of tensions between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) following World War II. From 1945 until the fall of the Soviet empire in 1991, the world’s two reigning superpowers grappled with a persistent conundrum. Though each nation had its own spheres of influence and both possessed massive military establishments, neither could risk open hostilities because of the risk of nuclear holocaust. Such a war would have incinerated cities and destroyed civilization. This uneasy relationship came to be known as the Cold War, where these determined adversaries employed proxy wars, puppet regimes, propaganda, and espionage as the means of undermining the opposition. The principals in this era of tense international relations are fading from the collective public memory; those who were born after its demise can scarcely comprehend how such a conflict ever came about. Fortunately, there is Robert Littell’s novel The Company to remind readers what the Cold War was like to those who fought it.
The spy novel, like its close cousin the detective novel, has often been unfairly consigned to the remunerative but déclassé world of the cheap paperback. However, espionage fiction covers a broad spectrum. It runs the gamut from the pure fantasy of Ian Fleming’s James Bond to the convincing realism of John le Carré’s George Smiley. With several well-received novels in this genre to his credit, Robert Littell is decidedly ranked in the quality end of the spy novel continuum. Littell, like his predecessors, has written extensively about this period, and his novel The Defection of A. J. Lewinter (1973) is a fine example of this. What sets The Company apart from other works in this genre is the fact that it is nothing less than a comprehensive history of American espionage in the Cold War. It is true that other books have been written about America’s spy agency, and the general public has gained some insight into the inner workings of the CIA through the occasional scandal; however, due to the inscrutable nature of its mission—much of its work must always be conducted sub rosa—the public record of the CIA will always remain incomplete. Even more difficult is the problem of cracking the CIA culture, a world closed to those who do not belong to “the Company.” As the displaced puzzle piece on the novel’s book jacket suggests, this agency is a persistent conundrum. It is only through the medium of fiction—with its seamless blending of the real and the imaginary—that one can supply at least some of the missing pieces.
Undoubtedly, what readers relish most about espionage is the subtlety and complexity of this, the most dangerous of games. This is underscored through Littell’s exploitation of two of Lewis Carroll’s works, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871). These books are essential to Littell’s novel both structurally and thematically. In terms of its structure, each of The Company’s six major sections is preceded by an epigraph from one of the Carroll works, and each quotation helps to define the theme or content of that section. Thus, in the first part, “Priming the Gun,” the metaphor of applying powder to the flash pan of a musket preparatory to firing it alludes to the necessary first steps to be taken in any enterprise. It is also a subtle means of intimating the topic of this particular section, namely the recruitment, training, and early careers of the novel’s chief characters. Littell drives home this point with a Carroll quotation where Alice has just initiated her adventures by following the rabbit down the hole: “In another moment, down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.” In other words, this is one master storyteller invoking the words of another in order to inform the reader that this is a beginning in more ways than one: the CIA, the careers of the protagonists, and, obviously, the story itself.
In the second section, “The End of Innocence,” this process continues with another quotation from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “They’re dreadfully fond of beheading people here: The great wonder is that there’s any one left alive!” Again, the demise of innocence functions on multiple levels. There is the...
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