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‘Young Philby’ by Robert Littell, a spy novel that combines real and surreal

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Let us now praise Robert Littell, whose spy novels have given many of us vast pleasure over the years. I’ve particularly enjoyed the surreal ones, such as “The Defection of A.J. Lewinter,” in which an American scientist defects to the Soviets with MIRV missile secrets, whereupon spies on both sides struggle frantically to save not their homelands but their careers. Or “The Sisters,” in which two demented old-timers at the CIA set in motion a plot to kill President Kennedy that no one stops, because exposing it might harm the agency. Or “Legends,” about a spy who has had so many false identities (legends) that he no longer knows who he is.

I call these tales surreal, but Littell, a reporter for Newsweek before he turned to fiction, insists that he’s just reporting the reality of a world filled with people and events right out of “Catch-22.” Or maybe “Alice in Wonderland.”

In “Young Philby,” Littell finds much that is seriously strange in the career of Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby (1912-88), the most famous real-life spy of the 20th century. Philby’s career as a high-level British intelligence officer who was secretly passing secrets to his masters in Moscow has often been fictionalized, by authors as notable as John le Carré and Graham Greene. What Littell adds to the mix is an abundance of black humor as well as a suggestion — whispered about for years — that Philby, the infamous Soviet spy, might actually have been loyal to Britain all along, and it was therefore the Soviets who were fooled. That’s a minority opinion, but it reflects Littell’s view of espionage as a hall of mirrors.

Littell tells his story via 20-odd sketches of Philby presented by his friends, lovers, British colleagues and Soviet handlers, most of them real-life figures. They show him as a dedicated socialist at Cambridge, an anti-fascist volunteer in Vienna, an eager recruit to Soviet intelligence, a journalist during the Spanish Civil War and a senior British intelligence officer in Washington.

So where is the humor in this tale of betrayal? We might start with the occasional glimpses of Philby’s friend and fellow spy, the entirely outrageous Guy Burgess, who viewed a spy’s life as the high road to sex. (“To let the cat out of the bag, espionage is an aphrodisiac.”) Then there’s Litzi Friedman, the communist activist who became Philby’s lover in Vienna in 1933, and says of their romance: “I could tell right off — girls are born with a sixth sense for body language — he’d never gotten laid, at least by a female.” After government troops gunned down scores of their left-wing friends, Philby married Friedman to get her out of Vienna alive.

There’s more humor, of a sort, when Philby, in Spain during its civil war, is ordered by Moscow to assassinate the fascist leader Gen. Francisco Franco, an order thought to have come from Stalin himself. Philby, who has no stomach for killing anyone, stalls, with the approval of his sensible Soviet handler in London. The handler is soon called back to Moscow and executed for the failure of this crazy mission, although Philby survives.

This leads to a top-level meeting in Moscow, at which a female analyst warns Stalin that Philby might be a British spy and declares, “It defies credibility that SIS [the British intelligence agency] is staffed with imbeciles who didn’t notice that state secrets were being leaked to Moscow.” But of course, that imbecility is precisely Littell’s point. Throughout the story, the Soviets are forever executing people who were loyal, while the Brits are forever trusting people who were not. (The woman who presumed to warn Stalin was soon shot.)

There’s more absurdity when Philby, as a journalist covering the 1939 “Phony War” in France, is taken to view the celebrated Maginot Line, the fortresses that were supposed to protect France from German invasion. He meets a tank commander named de Gaulle who insists that the fortresses are useless because “The Germans will not attack them, they’ll simply go around them.” He’s right, but no one in power will listen. Littell’s account of the French defeat and the chaotic British retreat is quite moving and not at all surreal, except perhaps when Philby finds time for lunch with the author P.G. Wodehouse, who opines that, after all, the Germans are civilized chaps.

In Washington after the war, Philby was friendly with James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s celebrated red-hunter, who Littell suggests might have suspected Philby and taken action that led to his eventual downfall. But the truth of that remains a mystery, like so much in the murky world of espionage. For readers who savor both history and absurdity, this fascinating novel is not to be missed, and I persist in my belief that Littell is one of the most underrated of American novelists.

Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Post.

YOUNG PHILBY By Robert Littell Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s. 268 pp. $24.99

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