The book didn’t start off promising. It started in fact with a foreword written by Richard V. Allen. This name meant nothing to me, but when I approach books outside of my usual stalking grounds this tends to be the case. It turns out the man was Reagan’s National Security Advisor. Cool. He had first-hand experience of what occurred and seems logical enough given how he occupied the same strand of relevance that the book is set to handle. I don’t know Mr. Allen. I like to think, however, I know a little bit about forewords. It seems to me entirely off base to spend what should be engaging the text we are about to read rather than fellating your former employer.
We get it. You liked Reagan. I’m so very proud of you. What about the man on the cover? Maybe tell us how his work aided or affected you in specifically, or your reaction when you first heard? Oh, he allowed Reagan to single-handedly dismantle an oppressive Soviet Regime while coyly mocking those obnoxious, détente loving liberals? How fascinating. The French helped too? Oh, but not really? So it was just us? No, sorry. No, I know I heard it. Caught it as I was saying it. Not us. Reagan. Got it.
I understand that politics indelibly inscribed in the legacy of a spy, but perhaps engage the proper topic and save the self-congratulations for the autobiography.
And so, with that bitter pill under my tongue, the text proper began. I’m only slightly above wishing that pill was cyanide.
Less A Perfect Spy and more Weekend at Bernie’s. The book tells when it should show and shows when it should tell. Want examples of how stolen intelligence was used to bring down the entirety of the Soviet Union and find evidence for what the cover lauds as the greatest spy story of all time? Too bad. Want to know the color of the wallpaper inside Vetro’s childhood apartment? Congratulations, you have stumbled upon a chronicle of interior rich enough to let your heart rest satiated and fat.
It is dry, a strangely organized attempt to explore the life of a man who apparently took a whole bunch of files and handed them to some French people because he felt slighted by the regime he has spent so much of his life trying to impress. Not a bad premise. With a better writer and a tighter focus on the man behind the leaks we’d have character study. But this book is something else. It spends a great deal of talking about Vetrov, but in much the same way you would look at a log of minutes. 70% detail, 30% content. Which is to say that only about a third of what they tell you matters in the slightest, is engaged with beyond the sentence in which it is mentioned, and actually moves the narrative forward.
There are parts that genuinely interested me; the interaction between man, wife, and mistress, the actions and panicked searchings of an organization incapable of properly suspecting itself, and a small collection of tighter, more subtle things that one could chew on between boredoms.
The failure of the book is impossible to ignore, however. It is over-wrought. Unable to focus, unable to straddle the gap between player and space, he handles Vetrov with the sophomoric enthusiasm of someone who adores something they can’t quite express. Between the chapter dedicated to Vetrov’s prison letters and the feeble attempt at dismantling his psychology that followed, the book wreaks of an author trying to explore something with a set of tools he does not possess.
There is no master of espionage here. It is a cluster of amateurs whose sheer improbability gave them license to succeed.
If this is the great spy story ever told, I am desperately certain we need better a higher class of spy.
“The actions of a single person with access to the secrets of a major power have the potential to modify the course of history.” -Sergei Kostin, Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century