I just finished Kim Philby’s My Silent War, and the displeasure I felt in reading it seemed to merit special attention.
Introductory glossary for those not familiar with Philby.
Kim Philby: Philby, somehow named Kim in spite of having three first names, none of which even faintly resemble Kim, was the most successful of a group of British Soviet spies known as the Cambridge Four/Five/Spies*. He rose fast in the British secret service during WW II and the Cold War, heading up several departments, including counter-intelligence, before finally defecting to the USSR in ‘62, where he lived out his life as a Soviet hero of a peculiar kind.
Cambridge Five: spy ring, named thusly because all of the said spies were Cambridge graduates who became communists during their stay there. Amazingly, the last of them was not formally identified until 1990. Which accounts for some of the tone of My Silent War.
On to the book then – it is Philby’s 1968 biography, written in response to British press reports. Philby was a good writer, with all the benefits of the education he dismissed so readily. This only makes matters worse though – he combines the worst of British smugness with the worst of callous Soviet dogmatism. The understated irony of the little book is offensive, given the context of the book; a context which is almost entirely unintelligible from his narrative alone. It is, then, also a very heavily censored book, a historical fill in the blanks. The two (Cambridge) agents whose discovery precipitated his own are never mentioned as spies until he tells the story of their discovery; Philby’s own foul play is almost entirely unstated. The implications are heavy, and very soon Philby’s smugness becomes unbearable, and his self-satisfied tone leaves a bitter aftertaste if you know how many people he got killed. It reads as like bowlderised version of a smutty novel.
Philby would have made a good Graham Greene. Greene knew Philby and liked him; he apparently tried repeatedly to convince him to re-defect to the UK. It does no good; Philby chose not to go that path, and while he makes a good character for a Graham Greene novel, he is a repulsive author in spite of his skills and a pretty creepy human being to boot.
*In case any of my readers suspect a real interest in Cold War politics on my part, or for that matter any real seriousness, I will say that my interest in the Cambridge group can be attributed exclusively to the BBC miniseries Cambridge Spies and the presence therein of Sam West (as Anthony Blunt) and Tom Hollander (as Guy Burgess). Historical fiction is a lovely thing, and there is plenty of interest in the fact alone.