Call me a lowbrow ignoramus, but I like a good spy yarn – especially since the best purveyors of this genre can write rings around the pretentious stuff knocked off by our lionised literati like Hilary Mantel.
At their best John Le Carré or his American near-namesake Charles McCarry can match any contemporary novelist in verve, style, characterisation, psychological insight. They can also devise a complex yet utterly believable plot with the best of them (Mr Conan Doyle, ring your office).
However, even as the reality of politics can make the most vicious satirist sound benignly anodyne, real spy stories make the best made-up plots sound over-elaborate and too clever by half.
One hates to repeat the old saw of life being stranger than fiction, but no pot-boiler writer worth his salt would come up with such a silly and unrealistic storyline as the one played out in Moscow over the last couple of days.
Ryan C. Fogle, a low-level employee of the US embassy, was publicly busted for espionage in the very centre of Moscow. When FSB officers converged on him, the hapless spy was carrying the kind of kit Le Carré wouldn’t even consider putting into his protagonists’ hands.
As Fogle was pinned to the grimy Moscow asphalt, intrepid spy-catchers found in his possession two wigs, one blond one dark, several pairs of sun glasses, $130,000 dollars in cash, a knife, a street atlas of Moscow, a few batteries, a notepad, a mobile phone that was already obsolete 10 years ago, a compass and a Russian-language letter addressed (as ‘Dear Friend’) to the anti-terrorist officer Fogle was supposedly trying to recruit.
Let me tell you, at the CIA they don’t make spies like they used to. The only thing missing in Fogle’s gear was a legible T-shirt saying ‘Kiss me, I’m a spy’. Someone at Langley is going to be reprimanded for this oversight.
The recruitment letter, or rather the way it was commented upon in the Russian press, is particularly amusing. The gist of it is that the potential recruit was being offered $100,000 for a general chitchat and another $1,000,000 for some classified information.
What made me snigger was the text analysis one commentator undertook to prove that the whole affair sounds suspicious. First he cites two paragraphs from the letter, suggesting, correctly, that they’re written in awful Russian. Not only is the letter stylistically and grammatically illiterate, remarks the commentator, but it reads like a bad translation from English.
In other words, those Langley spymasters must have created a skeleton missive in English, to be translated and adapted as necessary to the situation at hand. To test this hypothesis, the journalist used an online translation service (PROMT translator.ru) to render the Russian text back into English.
And – Eureka! The back translation turned out to be what the commentator describes as a ‘stylistically reasonable, dispassionate letter’ – ‘this is how administrative services at the State Department and other American institutions are taught to write’.
Well, it isn’t. Government officials in any country are seldom among its most accomplished stylists but, however badly they express themselves, they do sound like native speakers. The translation cited doesn’t meet this basic requirement. But judge for yourself:
‘It is advance payment from the one who is very impressed with your professionalism and who would highly appreciate your cooperation with us in the future. For us your safety and therefore to contact you, we chose this way has paramount value. And we will continue to take steps for preservation of safety and privacy of our correspondence.’ The Russian text was bad, but at least it was native. This isn’t.
Now there’s no shame in a Russian journalist not knowing enough English to realise this is a clumsy caricature. There is, however, considerable shame in putting on all-knowing airs for the benefit of his obviously credulous readers. And here I was, thinking only our journalists pretend to be a Mr Know-All when they’re indeed closer to a Mr Know-Sod-All. Apparently the contagion has spread internationally.
The scribe then does a Sherlock Holmes and explains what it all means. You see, Fogle got so fed up with Russia that he wanted to go back home by hook or by crook. So rather than simply asking for a transfer, he came up with this fiendish ploy to force the CIA’s hand.
This hypothesis is so full of holes it isn’t worthy of the name. The most gaping hole is the presence of the $130,000 in Fogle’s possession. If the money was his own, then he’s independently wealthy. If it isn’t his own, then he purloined it from CIA funds. In the first case Fogle could have just resigned his lowly position – a rich man like him doesn’t need all that aggro. In the second case he committed a felony, for which he’ll go to prison. Again, a transfer request or, barring that, resignation would have been a saner option.
I don’t know about you, but next time I say nasty things about our pundits I’ll choose milder words. Some people, specifically those poor Russians starved of serious journalism, are even worse off than we are.