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When the world-renowned art historian Anthony Blunt was publicly unmasked in 1979 as a former Soviet spy, his uncomprehending longtime companion, John Gaskin, asked: "Why did you do it?" Blunt replied, "Cowboys and Indians," knowing full well the fantasy was misguided. Blunt was a key figure in the Cambridge Conspiracy, a group of young, upper-class sexual and political radicals who enlisted as agents for Stalin in the 1930s. During and after World War II, they penetrated the highest levels of MI5, the English secret service, and proceeded to feed the Russians a steady stream of prized information, including the names of many MI5 agents in Moscow, sentencing them to torture and death. If Blunt, who also served as director of Coutauld Institute and surveyor of the queen's pictures, was playing cowboys and Indians, he took his share of scalps. Being stripped of his knighthood was hardly punishment enough.
Of course, this sensational betrayal, having been committed by a privileged cadre of dandified, homosexual aesthetes, has proven over the decades to be a literary mother lode (cf John Le Carré) and its newest prospector is John Banville, author of The Book of Evidence and Athena. The Untouchable is a novel posing as a memoir written by a very Blunt-like chap named Victor Maskell just after his fall from grace. (Banville hews fairly close to the big facts while having stirred and shaken some details for dramatic kicks.) Conjuring up a languid, Brideshead Revisited atmosphere of manor-house teas, Oxbridge repartee and impetuous idealism, Maskell sets out the key players: Boy Barrister, a dissolute yet sexually industrious true believer in the cause (modeled on Guy Burgess), the handsome, egotistical Nick Brevoort (on his identity we'll keep mum) and Querell, a cynical papist and Graham Greene-esque writer (although Greene had little to do with this crowd). After Barrister and Maskell visit Russia, Maskell returns with a profound distaste for its citizens and leaders. But as Banville amply demonstrates, this distaste hardly equals his disdain for America, leading us to believe simple snobbery is, in no small way, his motivation for treason.
The grim legal and social repression of homosexuality in England once made everyday gay life a secret endeavor, so it's no shock that many of the Cambridge spies were homosexual; they quickly took to the role-playing required of them. Banville neatly captures this complimentary dovetailing of hidden identity and adventurous thrill: "This is the secret power of the spy, different from the power that orders armies into battle; it is purely personal; it is the power to be and not be, to detach oneself from oneself, to be oneself and at the same time be another." He also takes shrewd measure of how little aesthetics, no matter how marvelously elevated, can invigorate a soul bereft of authenticity as well as feeling. While fellow leftists are dying in Spain, Maskell "passes a sleepless night weighing in the scales the losing of the Louvre against the gaining of the Hermitage." Humiliated and, in the end, betrayed himself, Maskell's erudite and elegantly turned reflections -- you can hear the tinkle of the sherry glass in his voice -- still cannot answer that simple question: Why? In Banville's philosophic yet lyrical telling, this uncertainty and its unnerving implications make The Untouchable a spy novel fit for company among the best of Greene and Le Carré. -- Salon