The story begins in Berlin, at the start of the Cold War, and we take a time-and-distance trip through some of the key moments in the intelligence war: Budapest during the 1956 anti-Communist Hungarian uprising, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the Russian war in Afghanistan, and the 1991 attempted right-wing coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Littell blends fiction so well with these historical events that I kept going back to Wikipedia and historical reference books to see where the seams were between fact and fiction.
|Budapest during the 1956 uprising|
|The Blaine House in Washington in 1960|
It's one thing to be a mole. At least the mole is directly involved in intelligence on a day-to-day basis and lives in that world. The sleeper or deep cover agent, on the other hand, has to pretend to live an ordinary American life, but without revealing anything of his real identity to any of the people with whom he regularly comes into contact. While it's certainly a precarious and sometimes dangerous life, the intense loneliness and untethered-ness may be more of a hardship than the danger. Over the decades he spends as a deep cover agent in the US, Yevgeny/Gene has no direct contact with anyone back in Russia, including his family and the young woman he fell in love with and was forced to leave behind, without explanation, when he received his assignment to go to the US. Ada Tannenbaum makes no friends in America either, and only after many years decides that the Party would not object to her adopting a stray cat. Yevgeny/Gene and Ada Tannenbaum have little other than their ideological commitment––and their brief and rare telephone conversations––to sustain their spirits.
Philip and Elizabeth go to their children's school events, shopping at the mall and all the usual suburban family activities. When they drop in on their new neighbors, the Beemans, to introduce themselves and give them some of Elizabeth's freshly-baked brownies, they discover that Stan Beeman is an FBI agent. Well, FBI agents have to live somewhere, so maybe it's not an ominous sign, Elizabeth remarks.
How is it possible for a deep cover agent to sustain his commitment? In Elizabeth's case, pure ideological fervor and patriotism seem to be enough, at least so far. She finds Americans "soft" and believes that the US would destroy her beloved homeland if at all possible. Philip, on the other hand, enjoys the life they've made in the country where the electricity nearly always works and anybody can buy cowboy boots at a shopping mall. As the tasks assigned to them become far riskier, he wants to at least discuss the possibility of defecting. How will the couple work this out, especially when it's not entirely clear whether they're a real husband and wife, or just each other's cover?
I recommend The Company and The Americans to anyone who shares my fascination with people living double lives.