Title: The Company
Author: Littell, Robert
Littell, Robert (2002). The Company: A Novel of the CIA. New York: Overlook Press.
- United States. Central Intelligence Agency–Fiction.
- International relations–Fiction.
- Intelligence officers–Fiction.
Date Updated: March 11, 2015
I discovered this book after viewing the movie (obtained from Netflix). Crisis constantly lurks around the corner, monitored by spies who are always with us. In his career-capping thirteenth novel, master of the espionage thriller Robert Littell has crafted a story of the legendary CIA – “The Company” to insiders. The interaction and intertwining of both fictional and historical characters bring to life nearly fifty years of this complex and powerful organization. At its heart lies a spectacular mole hunt involving the CIA, MI6, KGB and Mossad. Racing across a landscape spanning the legendary Berlin Base of the 1950s – the front line of the simmering Cold War – the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the Bay of Pigs, Afghanistan, and the Gorbachev putsch, The Company tells the thrilling story of agents imprisoned in double lives, fighting an enemy that is amoral, elusive, and formidable. It also lays bare the internecine warfare within The Company itself adding another dimension to the spy vs. spy game.
My copy was produced by Penguin Books in New York
Chris Petit reviewed this book, as he welcomes a return to form for one of the Cold War’s finest spy-writers.
A French general once said that all great battles were won in the joins of staff maps. This is particularly true of the cold war, which took place almost entirely in the interstices. According to Frances Stonor Saunders’s Who Paid the Piper?, US intelligence was quick to identify the nature of the emerging conflict. It predicted that a military stalemate would ensue once the US and USSR had the atomic bomb, meaning that the principal battlegrounds would be cultural and clandestine; hence, Saunders claims, Abstract Expressionist art became a weapon in this war and was secretly funded by the CIA.
If the Cold War once looked to be about the arms race and hysterical propaganda, it appears now—and The Company revises the view accordingly—to have been more about ideology and the sort of official secrecy that was a rehearsal for the world of corporate surveillance and information-as-knowledge in which we now live.
Robert Littell made his name writing slim, laconic espionage thrillers in the 80s. He introduced the phrase “walking back the cat” to describe the retracing of an operation gone wrong, and showed a connoisseur’s appreciation of the double-cross. In his clandestine world the only rule was that there were no rules.
Littell’s aim here is a definitive historical anthology, told as fiction, through the CIA and the KGB. This is not new ground. Norman Mailer and James Ellroy have covered similar territory ambitiously and at length.
Given its business of dissembling and fictionalizing, the CIA is something of a gift to novelists. Its history has the improbability of truth. But where Mailer and Ellroy approached their work with literary aspirations, Littell—surprisingly, given his previous refinement—has opted for a more accessible approach. The Company is never less than hugely readable, thanks to an ability to refresh material grown familiar to the point of staleness.
Littell’s skilful interleaving of history and speculation amounts to what feels like an authentic document. He shows how the personal betrayal gives the larger one its resonance. Just as Kim Philby betrayed James Angleton, his CIA confidant (code-named MOTHER—Littell’s dramas often play out on a Freudian level), so the CIA betrayed the Hungarians in 1956 and anti-Castro Cubans in 1960.
Littell identifies the CIA’s biggest dilemma as one of identity: was its role analysis—the stealing and study of enemy secrets—or the control of events through manipulation? One led to paranoia and paralysis, the other to political dog fights. Part of Littell’s achievement lies in understanding how secrecy creates myth. The cold war’s smartest operators knew that, and were finely tuned to its tragic implications.
On a routine level, the pleasure of this novel is one of expectation fulfilled. The right connections are made—from the spy versus spy moves of Cold War Berlin, to the hook-up with the mob to get rid of Castro. The Company is an exercise in “walking back the cat”, done on a massive retrospective scale, with real cameos from the likes of Allen Dulles, snappy Jack and sinister Bobby Kennedy, Sam Giancana and all the usuals, down to, perhaps, a glimpse of a young Robert Redford, helping Hungarian refugees in 1956.
For all the domestic asides, The Company is principally about foreign affairs and, as such, an apt summary of the Le Carré stake-out. In spite of the sprawl of his historical narrative, Littell keeps his story tight, again taking his cue from Le Carré in the game of hunt the mole.
In Littell’s hands, the hunt soon becomes a philosophical conundrum. Is there really a mole in the CIA, or is it a product of company paranoia? Or is the fear the result of “a sticky trail of conjecture”, planted to create a false suspicion? Where Littell offers Russian intelligence as a distortion of Lewis Carroll and Tolstoy, he shows its American opposite as more in thrall to the dry classicism of TS Eliot and his “wilderness of mirrors”.
Littell makes his most notable character out of James Jesus Angleton, super-paranoid head of CIA counter-intelligence, breeder of orchids, chain-smoker and product of Malvern College, England, whose Soviet-style mole hunts actually did great damage to the CIA.