A Soldier of the Great War
The novels considered here are very different in manner and effect, but their authors have something in common. David Ignatius and Mark Helprin seem to be about the same age (fortysomething), studied at Harvard and Oxbridge, and have seen more of the world than most of us have. Ignatius was The Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent in the Middle East, Helprin a merchant seaman, a member of the Israeli armed forces, and a fellow of the American Academy in Rome. In writing about modern war or its equivalent, both rework familiar fictional forms, Ignatius the spy thriller and Helprin the intellectual Bildungsroman. Both seem to aspire to broad readership, and both write at greater length than would seem to be required, as has now become commonplace.
Two instances scarcely prove a trend, but I’m tempted to wonder if Ignatius’s SIRO and Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War aren’t responding to a condition we may be hearing more about in fiction, the challenge to the old expectations of life and art in what increasingly seems an apocalyptic time. Ignatius’s first novel, Agents of Innocence (1987), dealt with the destruction of Lebanon in the early 1970s, brought on, it suggests, by the folly of an ignorant and reckless CIA. SIRO takes a similar sinister view of American innocence in a world that is anything but innocent itself.
SIRO has to do with intelligence operations in Soviet Central Asia during the latter days of the Carter administration, as Khomeini returns to Iran and the Soviets enter Afghanistan. Some secondary characters from Agents of Innocence reappear: Edward Stone, the smooth “old boy” who directs clandestine operations in the Middle East, and Frank Hoffman, a fat, hard-drinking, effective case officer who may remind some of the Agency’s William Harvey, famous for excavating a tunnel between East and West Berlin. But Ignatius adds new romantic leads: Anna Barnes, a young historian of the Ottoman Empire recently recruited by the CIA and of course very attractive (“She had the look of a sleek animal: well bred, but with a distant memory of life in the wild”), and Alan Taylor, the handsome, cynical base chief in Istanbul who’s a “rebellious preppie” at heart.
Stone uses Barnes and Taylor in an unauthorized caper. As the KGB is trying nervously to keep tabs on Muslim dissidents in the Asian republics, the Americans create the elaborate illusion that various Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and Tatars are being armed by the US and incited to rise up against their Muscovite masters. Official policy forbids agents from abetting revolutionary efforts among the Soviet nationalities, but both the administration and the CIA are distracted, and Stone thinks he can get away with his dirty tricks.
The outcome is a political and human disaster, especially for the idealist Anna Barnes, who can’t help caring about the pawns who are sacrificed ruthlessly in the Great Game. In a world made more confusing by acronyms like TUSLOG, EXCHASE, and SDROTTEN …