Marco Polo, If You Can

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

In Marco Polo, If You Can, William F. Buckley, Jr., includes all of the elements necessary for a good espionage novel—an engaging CIA agent, a beautiful traitor, an elaborate plot, fast-paced action, and the familiar confrontation between American and Soviet intelligence operatives, but the key to the novel’s appeal is Buckley’s use of the U-2 incident of 1960 as the basis for his plot. Instead of Francis Gary Powers, it is the fictional Blackford Oakes who crash-lands in the Soviet Union, but Nikita Khrushchev, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Allen Dulles, and other well-known figures are brought back to life in disconcerting detail. By the end of the book, one cannot help wondering how much of Buckley’s plot is pure fiction. As an ex-CIA agent with many prominent connections, he has access to information not available to the public. In any case, Marco Polo, If You Can is a witty and thought-provoking blend of fiction and nonfiction. Between the lines, Buckley raises some serious questions about the ethics of politically motivated intelligence operations.

The structure of Marco Polo, If You Can is more complex than that of Buckley’s previous spy novels. The story begins with Oakes being tried in Soviet Court for “a squalid career of espionage and other forms of hateful work against the Soviet state.” From there, the scene shifts to Washington, New York, and Berlin, from present to near past to distant past with sometimes confusing rapidity. In chapter 3, two characters are introduced whose behavior is obviously suspicious but whose allegiances and actions are unclear, and little clarification is provided until chapter 9. To follow the maze, one must pay close attention, above all, to the dates. It is clear from the epigraph, if the reader has forgotten, that the events leading to the U-2 incident began in 1959 with Khrushchev’s American visit, and clear from the first chapter that Oakes plays the part of Powers. From that point, Buckley depends on chronological markers to maintain the order of his narrative, but they are often not enough to keep bewilderment at bay. Buckley uses flashbacks to provide pieces to the puzzle of Oakes in Soviet Court, but his approach is so convoluted that a systematic analysis is nearly impossible for the reader.

One of the great pleasures of the novel is its gallery of amusing portraits of familiar political figures. Eisenhower appears early, decisive and commanding, but also occasionally impatient and vainglorious. The Director of the FBI, renowned for his thoroughness, takes months to locate the Soviet “mole” who leaks the minutes of the National Security Council—a humorous swipe at J. Edgar Hoover. Buckley even takes a stab at Nixon, who appears near the end of the book in a situation foreshadowing Watergate. Khrushchev—irrational, loud, rude, dangerous, and, in the end, foolish—is an entertaining stereotype. Whether Buckley’s interpretations of these public figures are wholly accurate is not the point; it is intrinsically pleasing to be taken behind the scenes, and Buckley’s characterizations are executed with supreme confidence.

Buckley’s fictional characters, within the limits of the novel, are not merely the black and white agents of good and evil. Anyone who has read any of the three earlier novels (Saving the Queen, 1976; Stained Glass, 1978; Who’s on First, 1980) will know that Blackford Oakes and Rufus are old friends. Rufus, the somewhat mysterious and paternal sage, comes out of retirement as the...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Christian Science Monitor. April 7, 1982, p. 17.

Human Events. XLII, April 17, 1982, p. 11.

Library Journal. CVII, January 1, 1982, p. 110.

National Review. XXXIV, January 22, 1982, p. 56.

New Statesman. CIII, May 28, 1982, p. 25.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, January 24, 1982, p. 12.

Policy Review. Summer, 1982, p. 183.

Saturday Review. IX, January, 1982, p. 62.

Time. CXIX, January 18, 1982, p. 81.

West Coast Review of Books. VIII, April, 1982, p. 38.