Monday, June 13, 2011

The Company

The Company (2002) is a huge door-stopper of a book (nearly 900 pages) that chronicles the Cold War as seen through the lens of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  Mixing fact and fiction, the novel is a sweeping Clavell-style epic that begins with the end of World War 2 and continues through the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Company (as the CIA is more colloquially known) revolves around a group of men who are recruited to join the newly minted agency after their graduation in the early 1950s.  They are soon thrown into the wild west that was post-war Europe and cut their teeth running agents and coordinating resistance within the Eastern bloc.  Soon the cohort becomes involved in several of the major covert operations that would come to characterize the West's struggle against the Soviet Union (e.g. the failed Bay of Pigs invasion).  These "on the ground" action sequences are some of the most compelling in the novel.  Littell portrays actual historic personalities alongside his fictional characters, and the two are blended together seamlessly.

Woven throughout the novel is a plot hatched by Starik, a sinister Soviet spymaster, to bring about the downfall of his glavny protivnik (principal adversary), America.  Taking the long view, Starik quietly embeds a double agent, SASHA, within the CIA and dangles tantalizing clues as to his identity in front of the Americans for decades in the hopes of creating a paralyzing climate of paranoia.  This plot arc, based on the career of the notorious spy-hunter James Jesus Angleton (featured prominently in The Company), provides continuity and links each major section of the novel together.  The climax of the novel comes as the fictional identity of SASHA is finally revealed (the real SASHA was never identified...if he even existed in the first place).

With a few notable exceptions, many of the fictional characters, though having well-developed personal stories, are fairly wooden.  The author also takes some liberties with his unflattering portrayal of real characters--Littell's Robert Kennedy is a rabid dog, and his Ronald Reagan a lost sheep.  Thankfully, these quibbles are fairly minor and the gripping plot quickly carries the reader past them.  Overall, The Company succeeds magnificently in its attempt to offer a panoramic look at the Cold War and the culture within the CIA during one of the more turbulent periods of American history.

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