Young Philby by Robert Littell is a possible history, the imagined events that might have created one of the world’s most notorious double agents, Harold Adrian Russell Philby, better known as “Kim” (available November 13, 2012).
Police, when working a murder case, compile a Homicide Notebook, which is exactly what it sounds like. Detectives pull together all the evidence: photographs, evidence logs, crime scene sketches, witness statements, etc. Then they index everything so that it’s easy to find for trial.
Reading a Homicide Notebook is an intense experience, especially when you get to the people who actually witnessed an event. Some people say the car was purple, other say it was definitely red. The eyewitness testimony becomes mixed and muddled, but you still have the sense that you understand what actually happened because, somehow, every witness was telling his own truth…and therefore everything—and nothing—was true.
If you’ve never had that kind of reading experience, then you’re in luck because Robert Littell has created it in his new book Young Philby.
Harold Adrian Russell Philby, called Kim (after Kipling’s spy creation), was a real-life double agent during the Cold War. He was a high-ranking British official who eventually defected to the Soviet Union. Philby was a complicated man with complicated relationships. What did he do? Where did he go? When?
Who truly knew him? Who could possibly truly know him?
Littell presents Philby’s story the only way it could be told with any element of truth: via fictional witness reports. Philby’s coworkers, Philby’s friends, Philby’s family, and Philby’s lovers all speak out about his actions. And every one of them, through the conviction of their stories, insists they are the one who knows Philby.
In the opening sequence Littell presents the interrogation of Philby’s recruiter Teodor Stepanovich Maly, cryptonym Mann,who has been tried and convicted of being a double agent for Germany. The center of his final interrogation, however, is the introduction of Philby—who seems to be posing a tactical difficulty for Moscow. The interrogation is held by NKDV member Yelena Modinskaya:
“You were the London Rezident when the Englishman was recruited,” I said. I read from one of my index cards. “ ‘Cipher telegram number 2696 to Moscow Centre from London Rezidentura June 1934: We have recruited the son of a distinguished British Arabist known to be an intimate of the Saudi Monarch Ibn Saud and thought to have links to the highest echelon of the British Secret Intelligence Service.’ The telegram is signed with your cryptonym: Mann.”
The prisoner looked up quickly. The sockets of his eyes seemed to have receded into his skull, the eyes themselves were curiously lifeless, as if they had died in anticipation of execution. Was it conceivable that light went out of the eyes before life went out of the body? “Why does it all come back to the Englishman?” the condemned prisoner was saying.
It all does come back to the Englishman, every time. But which version of the Englishman are we getting? In the opening chapter, Yelena Modinskaya’s interrogation of Maly reveals Philby the possible double agent.
In the next chapter, narrated by Philby’s lover-then-wife Litzi Friedman, we see Philby the stuttering, charming boy. A young man who is all ideals and passion. It’s hard not to fall in love with him too:
“Ah, the Englishman…You won’t believe how innocent he was when he appeared on my doorstep: handsome in a timid sort of way, painfully unsure of himself, suffering (I later learned) from chronic indigestion, talking with an endearing stammer that became more pronounced when the subject turned to social or sexual intercourse.”
Via Litzi we also get Philby-the-revolutionary, Philby-the-comrade, and Philby-the-man-in-love. When the revolution goes wrong and Dollfuss purges Vienna of Communists, it’s Philby who gets refugees clothes and identities to make it to the border. It’s Philby who marries Litzi and brings her safely to London.
After that Philby-the-university-student and Philby-the-potential-spy are presented via the frank and humorous Guy Burgess—who would eventually be one of the “Cambridge Five,” the double agent group that included Philby. We see Philby’s recruitment through Maly’s eyes.
Hearsay is used early and often throughout this incredibly crafted novel. More than once information is presented by a third party reporting what an actual eyewitness saw or heard. For example, we hear what Philby’s father, a man who converted to Islam, wants for his son and what his son is capable of through Evelyn Sinclair who witnesses an interview:
“Wasn’t that boy of yours prowling Vienna?” Father asked Philby. [Kim Philby’s father]
“Dashed off to Austria to polish his German after he came down from Cambridge. Made a beeline for Britannia straightaway Dollfuss crushed those Communist riots last February.”
“What’s his name again?”
“That’s it, Kim. After Kipling’s Kim, if memory serves.”
“Expect him to become a spy like Kipling’s Kim, do you?”
“I can think of worse fates.”
Father opined, “I can’t.”
Littell recreates the tangled, messy web of lies that surround a double agent’s life beautifully. The presentation of eyewitness accounts leaves the reader with the sense that this, this is what happened—but, in the end, you’re unable to point to exactly why you know what you know.
You just know it’s the truth.
Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, Skive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.