Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Defection of A.J. Lewinter

A friend recommended The Defection of A.J. Lewinter (1973) by Robert Littell during a recent tour of his bookshelf.  Having just finished an epic game of Twilight Struggle, the novel piqued my interest.  It turned out to be a smart, tightly written novel with a lot to say about the nonsensical nature of espionage.

The novel opens up with the attempted defection of A.J. Lewinter, an academic and specialist in the field of missile ceramics, to the Soviet Union.  While at a scientific conference in Tokyo, he walks into the Soviet embassy offering to share information related to the trajectory of warheads used in the MIRV missile system of the United States.  This is, of course, highly valuable information to the Soviets, as it could facilitate the development of a more capable Soviet missile defense system.

After this opening salvo, the novels alternates between the viewpoints of American and Soviet intelligence agents.  The Americans have to try and determine what, if any, security risk Lewinter's defection poses.  Did he actually have access to any sensitive information?  What were his motives?  It is likewise up to the Soviets to determine what exactly to do with Lewinter and his information.  Should they act on his information?  Is he best used as political propaganda?  Most importantly, could he be an American plant?  Littell does a good job of doling out enough information about Lewinter that any scenario proposed by either side seems plausible.

I didn't expect anything more than a good spy story when I first began the novel.  However, it quickly becomes clear that Littell is smartly commenting on the absurdity of intelligence operations.  Consider the following snippet from a conversation between two of Lewinter's Soviet handlers:
"...it is also possible the Americans were trying to make it appear as if they were reacting to a genuine defection in order to convince us that Lewinter had valuable information.  In which case, he would be a fraud.  Or the Americans may have been trying to convince us he's real knowing we'd discover they were trying to convince us he's real and conclude instead he's a fraud.  Which would mean they want us to think he's a fraud.  Which would mean he's genuine."
The novel is full of little bits that call into question the sanity of high-stakes espionage between the United States and Soviet Union.

The Defection of A.J. Lewinter has little in the way of overt action.  Espionage is portrayed as a highly cerebral psychological game (comparisons to chess are rampant) played by men in small rooms that are worlds apart from each other.  It is undoubtedly a more realistic portrayal of espionage than anything offered by the likes of James Bond or Jason Bourne.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, and I look forward to following it up soon with 'The Company,' Littell's definitive work about the American intelligence community.

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