It is not always pleasant when events of one’s half-forgotten past come back in middle age, bite at the heart and stir up guilt. Ostrakova, a poor and apparently humdrum Russian woman of fifty who works in a Paris warehouse, is in fact the widow of a Russian defector who fled to Paris to join the Baltic émigrés in their struggle. She was a very young woman at the time. She was sentenced to five years in a Russian labor camp for complicity, knew she was unlikely to see her husband again, and became the mistress of a Jew she met in the camp and had a daughter by him. When amnesty is granted she gets a permit to go to France to see her husband who is dying of cancer, on condition that she report on the activities of the Paris dissidents. She has to leave her child behind as a hostage. She fakes a few reports. her husband dies, Glikman, the Jew—it turns out—dies also.
Ostrakova is left with the guilt she has felt since those days about having chosen to abandon the illegitimate baby she hardly remembers for the husband who was not its father and whom she loved. An itchy, sweating, furtive man has lately been following her in the street in which she lives. He has, she thinks, the peculiar stink of the Russian secret police. She had smelled it at her trial. He is a Soviet agent who interrogates her in a dirty bar and threatens her with a crude version of her story. She is frightened: even more when he says that the daughtr has grown up and has become a criminal living an immoral life because of the mother’s neglect. Then suddenly the enemy offers to be a benefactor: he will reunite the daughter, who is called Alexandra, with her mother if Ostrakova will sign papers of French naturalization. The French and Soviet embassies agree.
But two things disturb the poor woman’s excitement. Looking at the hazy photographs they have shown her of the child Ostrakova can see no trace of the fiery Glikman in her features; the child might be a corpse. All Ostrakova’s memories of her old friends come to her mind. She remembers the name of their old heroic leader, Vladimir, the General. She finds an address—he is in London—and writes to him for help. He has been noted for his chivalry and his love of women and his rage against injustice. Nor is she wrong; a dapper little hobgoblin of a man with a touch of the comic devil about him turns up. She thinks of him as a conjuror or magician. He is a messenger from the General. Secondly, an attempt is made by two men to throw her in front of a car in the street. When the General gets the news of this, he decides to act.
In this opening chapter of le Carré’s new book …