No Valentine’s Day: Love’s tortured course in Cold War (Column: Bookends)
Valentine’s Day is coming and as love blooms or advances for many young in age or heart, consider its course in difficult situations. Truth is the first casualty in wars, but so is romance. The conflict doesn’t even need to be a shooting war – even undeclared conflicts like the Cold War can be daunting and hazardous for lovers – particularly if they are on opposing sides.
But like many other human misfortunes, love in the Cold War with all its travails, tragedies but (some) triumphs too, makes for some memorable but haunting stories. Most were adapted for the screen and have become iconic films but also remain equally well-read books too.
Love is always not genuine – initially – in some cases, being either an amoral tool for different, usually sinister, motives or even accidental. But then the best-laid plans, or even intentions, of humans can (and do) go awry, for love, true to its overpowering nature, can subvert all other reasons and motives, make hardened men (and women) act atypically or recklessly, and can achieve unexpected outcomes.
The most famous arguably, though not the first of its kind, was a bleak story by a retired intelligence operative who went on to become a most celebrated writer of the espionage genre.
“The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” (1963) was David Cornwell alias John Le Carre’s third novel but successful enough to convince him to turn a full-time writer, earn him renown (especially after the 1965 film adaptation) and remain a major influence on the genre.
It is about Alec Leamas, a burnt-out spy, being sent to (the then) East Germany for a mission, whose motive only becomes evident in the narrative progresses – and offers a sharp look at how amoral even liberal democracies can be in security matters. It, however, strikes a more deeper, mournful chord, in its cynical manipulation of romance, especially when this draws in Leamas’ oblivious English girlfriend.
Liz, an idealistic Communist, ultimately ends up paying a price for the operation’s success and Leamas unhesitatingly chooses his own course too from atop the Berlin Wall.
And possibly the first Cold War novel to use romance as a key plot element was Ian Fleming’s “From Russia With Love” (1957). The fifth in his James Bond series and purportedly among US President John F Kennedy’s 10 favourite reads, it sees the British spy service receive an intriguing offer.
A young cipher clerk, Tatiana Romanova, posed in Istanbul, has fallen in love with Bond – after seeing his photo in a file and wants to defect. She makes the offer irresistible by promising to bring out a Spektor, a Russian decoding device much desired by the British, but has a condition – she wants him to come there and escort her.
Though we come to know of what the fiendishly intricate Soviet plot this masks right away, the thrill is in reading to know if Bond and his agency will fall into the trap, how it will play out and what will happen eventually. It also became the second Bond film.
Another classic where love is used to seek other motives, though much more positive, could be seen in Frederick Forsyth’s “The Devil’s Alternative” (1979) – one of his rare, early books not to be adapted into a film. It sets a fiendish set of interlocked options before the US President, with each promising to lead to a major disaster, before British secret agent Adam Munro, who is getting some vital information from his former Russian lover, steps in. And it is the only at the end where Munro learns how he was set up.
But there are also those where the individuals concerned seek to make their own destiny, and there are some helpful people around. In this strain is the neglected classic – Evelyn Anthony’s “The Tamarind Seed” (1971), which inverts the usual order by having a Soviet male character.
British Home Office employee Judith Farrow, holidaying in the Caribbean after a failed affair with a married British minister, meets vacationing military attache Feodor Sverdlov and they fall in love, despite the hackles it raises on both their sides. Will they have a future together – or even survive for it is the crux of this pulsing adventure, which also became a noted film starring Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif.
Then the last in this series, for it came as the Cold War was winding down was Le Carre’s “Russia House” (1989), made next year into a film starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer.
British publisher Bartholomew “Barley” Scott Blair, visiting Moscow for a book fair, meets an enigmatic Russian man who is impressed with his views and chooses him as a recipient for some secret information. The conduit is Katya with whom Blair falls in love. But pressed to obtain more information while his source and Katya are in danger, our hero must decide whom to betray – his country or his love?
What would you do?
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)