The October Circle

Title:                      The October Circle

Author:                  Robert Littell

Littell, Robert (1975). The October Circle. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

LCCN:    75026955

PZ4.L772 Oc3


Date Posted:      March 24, 2016

This novel is not a spy novel, but sheds considerable light on the social/political times of the old Soviet Union. It is amazing, to me at least, that so much changed in Russia in such a short time. Not all of the old is gone, for sure, but a great deal of pent up feelings have been released, and I certainly witnessed that in St. Petersburg in 2015.


Littell (The Defection of A. J. Lewinter[2]) is our best exponent of the real Realpolitikal thriller—this one taking place in Sofia in 1968, in a thin, gray “present ridiculous” after the Russians impose their so-called peaceful counterrevolution on Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. The October Circle, a group of old-line, ’30s-style Communists who will remind you of the worn idealists of La Guerre est Finie[3], sit around coffee-housing about Malraux and Sartre and the better old days when you could still distinguish right from wrong and retain some hope for a humanity without checkpoints. They polarize around the Flag Holder, a once-writing writer with no fingernails, who keeps everyone at a distance except his son Georgi; a mistress; a magician; and the young bicycle racer who will pick up the “flag” after the dreadful cycle of arrests, mutilation (Georgi) and terrorism is generated. In a desperate protest—perhaps only “theater” will be effective—the Flag Holder sets himself on fire. His suicide is dismissed summarily with his burial as a nonperson. This leaves only the young legatee Tacho to make the ride across the border and choose between freedom—or another unremembered martyr’s death. Littell has a graphic command of the “present ridiculous” while lending here and there, through assorted characters, an inventive sense of the absurd—but then can we quite demarcate the absurd from the heroic? He’s also a fine ironist, with lines like “A Communist is someone who, when he smells roses, looks around for a coffin” branded on the pages of his intensive, involving novel. Littell writes not only above the genre but beyond it—with smoke rings of conjecture and a striking show of courage.

[1] A Kirkus Review, downloaded January 29, 2016

[2] Littell, Robert (1973). The Defection of A. J. Lewinter. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin

[3] A 1966 French film (The War is Over)