I always liked to read spy stories, and I’ve even met some real ones, during my student years. But the ones I met must have been unimportant since all they wanted from me was that I get involved in some political discussion. They were wasting their time because I only started to have a political mind much later after I left China. One could not avoid the politics in China in the period after Mao. So I learned how to reason politically while trying to decode the cultural environment that was nothing but politics. And, once you find out how China works politically, you will understand the politics of any other country in this world.
From the moment the U.S. and China re-established their diplomatic relationship, in 1979, the intelligence agencies started to plow the arid Chinese soil. I learned about this when I was in Beijing as the journalist in late nineties and trying to reconstruct some past events. I also remember one pathetic Russian recruiter who, during one of my previous visits to China, one early morning when I was taking photos of people practicing tai-chi in Ri Tang park near the Jianguomenwai diplomatic compound in Beijing, left an unimpressive impression. So to be honest, all the spies I met in my life, at least the ones I am aware of, were rather disappointing, acting awkwardly and rather humorously to hide their intentions. In short, not the kind of people one would mingle with for more than a few minutes. But the spies who interested me were the ones in the books, especially the ones in Le Carre’s novels. Who could resist them?
As we are now living in a highly interesting period, when many of the cards are being reshuffled, and boundaries were redrawn, as the Cold War is evoked and re-heated, spy stories are bursting out like bamboo shoots in the spring, again. First, there was Le Carré revival, with his Pigeon Tunnel (not a novel but stories of his life in which he describes how he became what he is) inspiring reading of his other books. With fascinating assertion right at the beginning of his book, Le Carré, the most famous spy-thriller author, tells us how he used his working experience as an employee for British intelligence for a few years to write the novel that made him famous, his “Spy who Came in From the Cold.”
It’s a tiny little novel that enraged his spy colleagues, but earned him enough money to buy a small cottage near Bern, in Switzerland. In his book, Le Carré is very close to revealing that he went spying just to have enough material for writing books. I heard something similar from my wife when she once said that she trained to be a doctor just to be able to write columns from the ER, where she practiced medicine for seven years. And since Le Carré and my wife are both wonderful writers, there must be something to what they are saying.
My interest in spy stories was revived by reading two books Adam Brookes wrote recently. I got to know Adam in Beijing, where he was the reporter for the BBC. I am always impressed by the people who work for the BBC but never understood why Bush House people always took themselves so seriously. I think I asked Adam about this when we were visiting Tibet together, and he had to do a fruitless interview with the local Chinese bureaucrats. “Why are you doing this,” I remember asking him, high up on the Tibetan plateau, where we were all short of oxygen. I knew that, from China, Adam and his lovely family moved to D.C. and a couple of years ago he started to write spy novels, which seemed to be a late answer to my question. Another writer who was doing radio and TV before going to the things that matter, the writing?
Besides Le Carré and Brooks, I also recently read the David E. Hoffman book, called The Billion Dollar Spy. A true story about the Russian informant who provided the Americans with so much useful information that saved them billions of dollars on the technology that would be otherwise needed to catch up with the Russians. It is a fascinating book, and you can read its resume here.
Recently, too, Eva Dillon published a book on a similar topic. The book is called Spies in the Family: An American Spymaster, His Russian Crown Jewel, And the Friendship That Helped End the Cold War. I haven’t read the book yet, but here is Dillon’s presentation of the book in which her father, the spy, is the protagonist. While reading Hoffman’s book, one learns everything about the conditions the CIA agents were working under during the Cold War in Russia. Those conditions have no doubt changed with the new technologies applied to spying, technologies that are currently saving a lot of time and field work. It’ll be a fall into a bygone era of intelligence and covert warfare, then, almost entirely removed from our age and circumstance.
And while we now know much about Russia, little still is known of what is happening behind China’s Great Wall. If not for this mind-blowing piece, published in the New York Times, that tells us about a possibility of a Chinese mole within the American intelligence community, we might know nothing at all. Have spies already been replaced by technology and hackers? It’s a question that might kill the genre of literature of which Le Carré was the absolute master, and of which many a journalist fantasizes about contributing to. No longer?