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A Kirkus Best Fiction Book of 2012
A Kansas City Star Top Book the Year
When Kim Philby fled to Moscow in 1963, he became the most notorious double agent in the history of espionage. Recruited into His Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service at the beginning of World War II, he rose rapidly in the ranks to become the chief liaison officer with the CIA in Washington after the ...
A Kirkus Best Fiction Book of 2012
A Kansas City Star Top Book the Year
When Kim Philby fled to Moscow in 1963, he became the most notorious double agent in the history of espionage. Recruited into His Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service at the beginning of World War II, he rose rapidly in the ranks to become the chief liaison officer with the CIA in Washington after the war. The exposure of other members of the group of British double agents known as the Cambridge Five led to the revelation that Philby had begun spying for the Soviet Union years before he joined the British intelligence service. He eventually fled to Moscow one jump ahead of British agents who had come to arrest him, and spent the last twenty-five years of his life in Russia.
In Young Philby, Robert Littell recounts the little-known story of the spy's early years. Through the words of Philby's friends and lovers, as well as his Soviet and English handlers, we follow the evolution of a mysteriously beguiling man who kept his masters on both sides of the Iron Curtain guessing about his ultimate loyalties. As each layer of ambiguity is exposed, questions surface: What made this infamous double (or should that be triple?) agent tick? And, in the end, who was the real Kim Philby?
"A riveting read." —Frederick Forsyth
Praise for Robert Littell
“One of those writers, like Elmore Leonard, who have risen far above genre... One of the most talented, most original voices in American fiction today, period.”—The Washington Post
“If Robert Littell didn’t invent the spy novel, he should have.”—Tom Clancy
“Psychologically interesting thrillers that rival in their intensity and the delivery of their plots the best work of John le Carré.”—Chicago Tribune
“Along with Alan Furst, the best American spy writer currently at work.”—Daily Telegraph (UK)
“Arguably, along with le Carré and Alan Furst, one of the best three or four espionage writers alive.”
—The Boston Globe
“One of the most original and authoritative writers of spy fiction of our time.” —The London Literary Review
“The American master of literary espionage.” —The Independent (UK)
1: VIENNA, LATE SUMMER 1933
Where an Englishman Wanders into the Wrong Century
The Englishman came from another planet looking, no doubt, for adventure, a cause to believe in, comradeship, affection, love, sex. His luck, he found someone who dyed her hair so often she was no longer sure of the original color: me. We were roughly the same age—he was twenty-one and fresh from university when he made his way to my flat in the center of the city—but any resemblance between our life lines ended there. I was half Jewess and half not, with the two parts of my identity in constant conflict; I’d been a Zionist fighting for a distant Jewish homeland before I joined the Communists fighting for Austrian workers nearer to hand. I’d been married and divorced (when I discovered that my husband preferred to sleep in Palestine than with me). Once I’d even been thrown into an Austrian jail for two weeks for my Communist activities that came to the attention of the police; I’d been caught letting my spare room to a certain Josip Broz, who turned out to be a Croatian Communist wanted in half a dozen Balkan countries. (He would hold party meetings in my apartment, pointing to one or another of the comrades and giving them assignments with the words Ti, to—You, that. He did this so regularly we nicknamed him Tito.) My stint in prison wasn’t wasted; I discovered that, for want of a mirror, a girl could see her reflection in a cup of coffee well enough to apply lipstick, without which I feel unprotected. Despite my arrest, my clandestine work for Moscow Centre had fortunately gone undetected. You could make the case that I was at the opposite end of the spectrum from a vestal virgin. I had taken lovers when it pleased me to take lovers but I was careful to keep an emotional distance between us, which is why they invariably ended up becoming former lovers. The truth is, I’d never really been intimate with a male of the species before the Englishman. Intimate in the sense of taking pleasure from giving pleasure. Intimate in the sense of feeling that waking up mornings next to a stark naked Homo erectus was an excellent way to begin the day.
Ah, the Englishman … You won’t believe how innocent he was when he appeared on my doorstep: handsome in a timid sort of way, painfully unsure of himself, suffering (I later learned) from chronic indigestion, talking with an endearing stammer that became more pronounced when the subject turned to social or sexual intercourse. I could tell right off—girls are born with a sixth sense for body language—he’d never gotten laid, at least not by a female. Whether by a male is another matter entirely. Late one night, when we could hear artillery shells exploding in the workers’ quarter across town, the Englishman downed a schnapps too many and told me he’d been b-b-b-b-b-buggered, as he put it. I never did discover if this initiation took place at one of those posh British boarding schools that don’t light grate fires until water freezes in the faucets or later at Cambridge. I happened to have had enough intercourse with the King’s English, not to mention the King’s Englishmen, to know what buggered meant. Forgive me if I don’t share the details. I’m rambling. Oh dear, I do ramble when I talk about the Englishman. Yes, I was saying that, sexually speaking, he was green behind the ears when he fell into my life. I would have been surprised to learn he’d ever set eyes on a young woman’s breast, much less touched one. He certainly didn’t know how to unfasten a brassiere. When we finally got around to sharing a bed, which was ten days after he moved into my spare room, it quickly became apparent he had only a theoretical notion of feminine anatomy. But, to his credit, in sex as in espionage, he was a quick study.
“Where did you learn to fuck like that?” I drowsily asked him the morning after that first night.
“You b-bloody well taught me,” he said. “Your org-gasm is on my lips. I can taste it.”
This, friends, turned out to be quintessential Philby, Kim to his mates, Harold Adrian Russell to the upper-crust English swells who happened by our table to sponge cigarettes when we took tea, as we did almost every afternoon, even in winter, on the terrace of the Café Herenhoff.
But I skip ahead—the tale is best told chronologically. Try to imagine my stupefaction when, responding to a knock so tentative it was almost inaudible, thinking it was the Negro come to deliver coal, I opened the door of my three-room flat to find a young gentleman shifting his weight from foot to foot in excruciating uncertainty, a rucksack hanging off one lean shoulder, a small but elegant leather valise on the floor next to his swanky albeit scuffed hiking boots. My first fleeting thought was that I was in the presence of someone who had wandered into the wrong century. He had the soft pink cheeks of an adolescent who almost never needed to shave; disheveled hair with the remnant of a part in the middle; wrinkled flannel trousers with a suggestion of a crease; frayed trouser cuffs pinched by metal bicycle clips; a belted double-breasted leather motorcycle jacket with an oversized collar turned up; a beige silk scarf knotted around his throat; motorcycle goggles down around his neck; a worn leather motorcycle bonnet, the kind someone might have worn when motorcycles were first invented, hanging from a wrist. “There is no number on your door,” he said, “but as you are b-between six and eight, I decided you must be seven.”
I worked my fingers through my freshly minted blond pageboy to see if the chemist’s peroxide was still damp. “What were you hoping to find at number seven?” I demanded, laying the foundation for the emotional wall I meant to raise between us.
My visitor, speaking English with the barest curl to his upper lip, said, “I was led to b-believe I might be able to let a room at Latschgasse 9, ap-partment number seven.”
The more he stammered, the more I saw my emotional wall crumble. “And who led you to believe that?”
“One of the comrades at the Rote Hilfe Alliance that assists p-persecuted refugees.”
“What brought you to Vienna?”
“My motorcycle brought me to Vienna. I took the liberty of p-parking it in your courtyard next to the rubbish b-bins.”
“I am not inquiring about your mode of transportation. I am inquiring about your motivation.”
“Ahhh. Motivation.” I remember him shrugging in confusion. I was to discover that clichés irritated him, the more so when they spilled from his own lips. “Vienna is where the action is,” he said. “Or will b-be. I came to do my p-part.”
I thought about this. “Are you saying you rode a motorcycle all the way from England to do your part?”
“Not counting the channel, it’s only nine hundred miles, give or take.” He favored me with a shy smile. “If I may be so b-bold, what about you?”
“What about me?”
“Why are you in Vienna?”
“I have a rendezvous with history.” In those days, like these days, one couldn’t be too vigilant. “Don’t change the subject. How did you know about Rote Hilfe?”
“One of my professors at Cambridge is a wheel in the B-British Communist P-Party—he gave me a letter of introduction to the Austrian Committee for Relief from German Fascism. I can show you the letter.”
He started to reach into his rucksack but I waved him off. Anyone could produce a letter. “What is the address of Rote Hilfe? Which comrade gave you my address?” I stood ready to slam the door in his perplexed face if he answered incorrectly.
He produced a small spiral notebook from an inside breast pocket and, moistening the ball of a thumb on his tongue, started to leaf through the pages. I could see they were chock-filled with neat, almost microscopic, handwriting. “Right. Rote Hilfe is situated at Lerchengasse 13, up three flights, right as you come off a very seedy stairwell indeed, down four doors and B-Bob’s your uncle.” He looked up. “Oh dear, I don’t suppose you’re familiar with B-Bob’s your uncle.”
“I am able to figure it out,” I said. “Go on.”
“Yes. Right. The Rote Hilfe office consists of four rooms, one of them with used clothing spilling from cartons p-piled to the ceiling, another crawling with shabby soaks whom I took for Communists hounded out of Germany by Herr Hitler after the Reichstag fire. The ones who weren’t p-playing sixty-six were sleeping in their overcoats on mattresses set on the floor. The whole apartment stank of cooked cabbage, though I never saw a stove where cabbage might be cooked. As for the comrade who gave me your address, I only know his nom de guerre. His friends called him Axel Heiberg. They had a good laugh at my expense when they got around to explaining that Axel Heiberg was the name of an island in the Arctic Ocean.”
“Do you always do that?”
“Mark down everything you see in a notebook?”
“Actually, yes. When I was eleven my sainted father dragged me off on a grand tour of the Levant—Damascus, B-Baalbek, B-Beirut, Sidon, Tyre, Tiberias, Nazareth, Acre, Haifa, Jerusalem, you name it, I’ve been to the souk. He ob-bliged me to keep a journal. I’ve been more or less at it since.” He held out a pale palm. “Philby,” he said. “Harold Philby. Kim to my very few friends.”
“Why very few?”
“In my experience Homo sapien usually disappoints. Only Homo Sovieticus rises to the historical occasion—challenging industrial Capitalism, National Socialism and its fuehrer, and your dreadful Dollfuss here in Vienna.”
I remember being so moved by this declaration that I clasped his hand in both of mine. “Litzi,” I said, perhaps a bit more eagerly than I would have liked. “Litzi Friedman, Latschgasse 9, apartment number seven. I pried away the seven to throw off the police if they should come around looking for me again. Tickled.”
“Tickled to make your acquaintance, of course. Do come in.”
* * *
“Zahlungsmittel in German. Fizetoeszköz in Hungarian. Valuta in Italian. Argent in French. Money in the King’s English, which is a language you speak more or less fluently.”
It will have been early in the evening of Kim’s second day in Vienna; I’d been too tactful to raise the subject the first day. We’d just gotten back to Latschgasse 9 after picking up packets of leaflets at a secret albeit primitive underground printing press and delivering them to workers’ militia headquarters in the great housing projects off the rim road. I will confess it was exhilarating to ride on the back of Kim’s Daimler motorcycle. I became a bit giddy looking up at the church steeples and what the Americans call skyscrapers (some of them ten or twelve stories high) soaring over my head as we sped through the narrow streets of the Innere Stadt. A light rain had begun falling when we turned onto Latschgasse, plastering my shirt to my skin. I noticed that my Englishman (as I’d begun to think of him) didn’t notice. Food for thought: Was the problem with his eyes or what our Viennese Doktor Sigismund Freud calls the libido? Back at my flat, I changed into a dry shirt and dried my hair on a towel, then set out sandwiches and some flat beer and raised the delicate matter of rent. “Yes, money. British pounds. Austrian schillings. German Reichmarks. How much do you have?”
“Are we talking c-cash?”
“We are not talking IOUs. Of course we’re talking cash.”
“Ahhh. Yes. Well. My sainted father paid me for typing up the manuscript of his b-book—he rode a bloody camel across the Arabian desert from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea in forty-four d-days. Hell of an exploit—T. E. Lawrence thought only an airship could cross what the Saudis call the empty quarter. Make d-damn good reading if father could find a p-publisher who didn’t think our Lawrence of Arabia owned the copyright to desert sagas. Didn’t help that the footnotes were in Urdu, which my father speaks fluently. Or was that Persian? Hmm. About the money, I have loose change left over from that odd job, plus the hundred quid he gave me for my b-birthday.”
A hundred pounds was a fortune in working-class Vienna. “You actually have one hundred pounds sterling?”
“Show it to me.”
Kim was sitting on one of the kitchen chairs we’d carried into the parlor for the committee meeting later that night. He rested his left ankle on his right knee, unlaced the hiking boot and pulled it off. Then he produced the wedge of bills that had been taped to the underside of the tongue in the boot. He handed the money to me. I counted it. There was a hundred pounds sterling, all right, in crisp five- and ten-pound notes. The bills were so new I feared the ink would rub off on my fingers.
“How long did you plan on this lasting?”
“Actually, I thought, what with living on the proverbial shoestring, I m-might be able to stretch it to a year.”
“That’s the usual length of a lunar year.”
I snatched up a pencil and began doing sums on the back of an envelope, converting pounds to schillings, adding up what he would need for rent and board. “In Vienna you can eat for six schillings a day if you’re a vegetarian.” I looked up. “You are a vegetarian?”
“I am now.”
“Good. I read an article in our Socialist newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung suggesting the average person lives 2.4 years longer if you don’t eat meat.”
“Does your b-budget include cigarettes?”
“How much do you smoke?”
“A pack a day.”
“Haven’t read anything suggesting cigarettes are bad for your health. But you’ll have to cut back all the same to pinch pennies.”
“If I smoke less than a pack a day I s-stutter more. You’re also forgetting petrol for the motorcycle, assuming we continue to make use of it in Vienna.”
“Oh, we will certainly use it. I’ll get our transport committee to pay for the petrol.” I tallied up the columns. “I think seventy-five quid will see you through the lunar year.” I counted out seventy-five pounds and handed it back to him.
He looked down at the bills, then up at me. “What are you planning to do with the other twenty-five?”
“Congratulations. You have just joined the Vienna Relief Committee. By coincidence, annual membership for Englishmen on motorcycles happens to be twenty-five pounds.”
“But I came here to join the International Organization for Aid to Fighters of the Revolution.”
The moment had come to begin his education. “If you want to work for the Communist cause, you will have to do it discreetly. In time I can put in a good word for you in certain circles. Meanwhile you must play the role of a naïve young English idealist who has come to lend a hand with refugees. The Austrian Communist Party, along with the International Organization for Aid to Fighters of the Revolution, have been declared illegal by Dollfuss and his gang. We Communists work through the Relief Committee, which is legal. Your twenty-five pounds will get four or five of the German comrades you saw sleeping on mattresses to safety in France.” I looked at him. “Can I interpret your silence as agreement to make this contribution?”
“D-do I have a choice?”
I scraped my chair closer to him until our knees were almost but not quite touching. (Didn’t want him to panic.) “You always have a choice—that’s what life is about. Choices. Not making a choice is a choice.” I must have smiled, which is what I usually do when I am about to make a suggestion that I don’t want the suggestee to accept. “You can keep the hundred pounds, pack your rucksack, and go back to England if you don’t want to join us.”
“I am very happy here in Vienna, thank you.”
The comrades who turned up for the committee meeting were impressed when I told them the Englishman had contributed twenty-five pounds to the Relief Committee. The professor from Budapest, an illegal who was trying to stay one step ahead of the Austrian police, wasn’t. “You gave him back seventy-five?” he asked me in Hungarian. “What the devil’s wrong with you?”
Kim looked at me. “You speak Hungarian?”
“I am Hungarian,” I told him. “I was raised by my grandparents in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire.”
“But I have heard you speak German.”
“My grandparents sent me to gymnasium in Vienna. I’ve been here since. This is their apartment.” I told the Hungarian professor, “The Englishman will be invaluable to us when the revolution starts. With his motorcycle and his British passport and his pale English face he will be able to pass police checkpoints. We got past two of them today, Dollfuss’s Heimwehr militia bullies didn’t even search our rucksacks.” I translated what I’d said into German for the district committee comrades. One of them, his eyes fixed on Kim, asked me in German, “How can you be sure he is not a double agent?”
Kim, who spoke German the way English people speak any language other than English, which is to say with discomfort, said, “Sie k-können nie sicher sein.” Turning to me he asked in English, “Would your friends feel m-more at ease if I were to repair to my room?”
The Hungarian professor said in Hungarian, “If the short count”—he was referring to Chancellor Dollfuss, who was notoriously dwarflike—“wanted to spy on us, he wouldn’t try to infiltrate a district committee, he’d try to infiltrate the Party’s Central Committee.”
“You can stay,” I told Kim. To the others I said, “Right now he is too innocent to be a single agent.”
“I’m not sure I should take that as a compliment,” Kim remarked.
“The great advantage to innocence,” I remember telling him with a suggestive smirk, “is that there is a certain amount of pleasure to be had in losing it.”
“Our Litzi is being sexual,” one of the comrades, a university student with long bushy sideburns named Dietrich, told the others in a mocking singsong voice. They all laughed. Except me. Dietrich was one of my former lovers.
A bit flustered, I turned to the professor and invited him to begin his lecture. Removing his eyeglasses, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his thumb and third finger, speaking a German more imperfect than Kim’s, he began. “Industrial capitalism rests on the pedestal of the theory of equilibrium, which holds that the process of producing something creates just enough purchasing power to buy it. The Great Depression and the subsequent distress of the world’s working classes have demonstrated that this convenient theory of equilibrium no longer—”
Leaping to his feet, Dietrich cut off the professor in midsentence. “Your Marxist theories are boring me to death,” he declared. “They have become irrelevant. The rise of Fascism has focused the attention of many of us on things other than economics. We should be talking about how to stop Hitler from annexing Austria—”
Dietrich in turn was interrupted by Sergius, at seventeen one of the youngest workers’ militia delegates to a district committee. “Look at the glasses of tap water Litzi has set out on the low table,” he said. “The glasses are still but the water in them is trembling, as if what’s going on in this city—what’s going on in Europe—is shaking the crust of the earth.”
“The water is trembling because Dietrich leaped to his feet,” one of the worker delegates said with a soft laugh.
“The water is trembling,” I remember saying, “the way the ground trembles before an earthquake. Revolution will explode in Vienna. There is a good chance it will spread to the entire capitalist world.”
Sonja, Dietrich’s current girlfriend and the only other woman in the room, raised her hand. She was, like me, in her early twenties; unlike me she was strikingly beautiful, with the high cheekbones and deep-set coal black eyes associated with Caucasus mountain tribes. I seem to remember that one of her grandparents was Uzbek. “For shit’s sake, Sonja, we’re not at the university,” Dietrich snapped unpleasantly. “You can speak without raising a hand.”
“I want to put a question,” she announced.
“By all means pose your question, dear girl,” the Hungarian professor said.
Sonja leaned forward, her breasts swelling over her low-cut Austrian peasant blouse. Her cleavage was not lost on the voyeurs present. “I am, as you know, the Socialist party’s representative on the district committee,” she said. Unaccustomed to speaking publicly, she took a deep breath before plunging on with a fierce intensity. “I am a Marxist but not a Communist. And I ask the question that many of my Socialist comrades ask: Which is the greater evil, German Fascism or Soviet Communism?”
Dietrich, who was a die-hard Communist, rolled his eyes, which made me wonder what the two of them talked about in bed. Several of the district party comrades who held Communist Party cards turned away in disgust. And then a curious thing happened. My Englishman, who had been following the conversation attentively, looking from one speaker to the other as if he were at a country club tennis match, addressed himself directly to Sonja. Here, as best I can reconstruct it, is what he said: “When you say Soviet Communism, you of course mean Stalinism. I think we must distinguish between the two. Stalin’s fastidious autocracy must be seen in historical p-perspective. The cadres that organized the B-bolshevik uprising lived as illegals for years, even decades, before the revolution thrust them into positions of power. Even then their grip on p-power was tenuous—they had to defend the revolution against foreign invaders and their White Russian lackeys in a b-brutal civil war. This surely explains, in p-part, the invasive role of the Soviet secret police and the disagreeable purging of the party ranks in the twenties, explains also Stalin’s conviction that he is surrounded by enemies and must eliminate them before they eliminate him. In the pursuit of enemies, real or imagined, Stalin has undoubtedly d-distorted Communism. But Communism, as opposed to Stalinism, is another cup of tea entirely. Communism will carry on after Stalin and Stalinism. To answer your question: Hitler, who has the loyalty of the German military, and Fascism, which has captured the imagination of the German masses, are clearly the greater evil.”
Blushing in embarrassment, Kim glanced quickly at me. “Our Englishman is less innocent than we thought,” I said. “He has answered the question correctly. Those of us who have pledged allegiance to the Communist cause defend an ideal, not an individual.”
“You’re saying,” Sonja said, looking intently at the Englishman in her eagerness to understand, “that Stalin is the lesser of two evils?”
“That’s not exactly—”
“If Hitler is the greater of two evils, it follows that Stalin must be the lesser of two evils.”
“It’s more complicated than you’re suggesting.…”
“The lesser of two evils is still evil?”
“You’re twisting my meaning.…”
Sonja would not let go. “You’re saying that Stalin’s betrayal of Communism does not invalidate Communism?”
“Nobody said anything about Stalin betraying Communism,” Dietrich declared heatedly. “There is a difference between distorting and betraying. Distorting is a tactical course change. It’s trimming your sails to the wind. It’s adapting to an evolving reality so the strategic objective, which is dictatorship of the proletariat, can be reached.”
Sergius agreed. “It’s Lenin’s two steps forward, one step back.”
The professor touched Sonja’s shoulder blade. “Stalin is Communism, dear child. Whichever path he decides on, rest assured it is the right path.”
“With or without Stalin, world revolution is inevitable,” I said. “Talking eternally about it at Latschgasse 9, apartment number seven, won’t speed it up. I propose we put the theoretical portion of our meeting behind us and move on to practical matters. Those in favor?”
All the members of the district committee except Sonja raised their hands. Seeing she was outvoted, she frowned at Dietrich, who seized her wrist and lifted it for her. The others laughed.
Dietrich brought up the question of acquiring arms for the workers’ militia units, which skirmished nightly with the toughs in Dollfuss’s militia. An important arms shipment hidden on one of the barges that plied the Danube, which flowed through Vienna’s outer suburbs, had been discovered and confiscated by the police earlier in the week. The story had made headlines in the government-run newspapers. One of the militia delegates pointed out that we were starved for funds, which were desperately needed in order to purchase arms abroad. The district committees had been asked to impose a tax on neighborhood merchants, who up to now had only been asked to contribute voluntarily. We discussed the matter at some length without reaching a consensus. The church bell down the block started ringing the hour. We all counted the rings in our heads. “Twelve,” Dietrich announced. He stretched his shoulders and reached to rub the back of Sonja’s neck. “Twelve,” she agreed, resting her hand on his thigh.
All of a sudden I could imagine what they talked about in bed.
* * *
“Let’s make revolution.”
“Ahhh.” I can picture Kim clearing his throat, a nervous tic that usually surfaced when he didn’t quite know what to say. “Yes. Let’s.”
And we did. We smuggled seven Soviet Simonov rifles and four German Walther 41s, broken down into component parts and buried under garbage in collection trucks, to Schutzbunders (the workers’ militia of the Austrian Social Democratic Party) in Karl-Marxhof, one of the fortresslike tenement blocks. We smuggled twenty-one German Bergmann pistols and a dozen Soviet Tula Tokarev automatics, concealed in a baby carriage, to a makeshift arsenal set up in the coal bin cellar of a toy factory. We brought in ammunition for all these weapons, four or five bullets at a time, hidden in my brassiere. We supplied gunpowder wrapped in small cornflower paper satchels to a clandestine munitions factory workers had set up on the top floor of a tenement. We slipped rucksacks filled with leaflets hidden under Hartmann’s hygienic towelettes past checkpoints, with Kim blushing a shade redder than the teenage Fascist militiaman who waved a towelette aloft and cried out to his comrades, “Look what I found!” Carrying cartons labeled as Austrian baby food, we delivered medical supplies to one of the makeshift infirmaries in the massive workers’ housing projects. In the first days, Kim was bewildered by it all: the anxious faces of women and men who unpacked the weapons we brought, the preparations for violence in improvised factories, the cramped and airless cellar bins where meetings dragged on until the early hours of the morning. There were occasions when we were invited to vote and nobody could remember what we were voting on. Groggy from lack of sleep, we often got back to my apartment as Vienna was soaking up first light like a dry sponge.
I’ll be candid: As the days sped past, I found myself waiting with growing impatience for Kim to make a move, the way men usually do when they want more from a woman than conversation. The back of a hand casually exploring your upper spine to see if you’re wearing a brassiere is as good a place as any to begin. Massaging shoulder blades is always useful. Touching thighs when you’re crammed into a café booth invariably takes the relationship to another level. A kiss on the cheek that, missing its mark like an errant arrow, grazes a corner of your lips must surely be seen as a hint of intimacies to come. The flat of a palm on your stomach daringly close to the undercurve of a breast can only be the seal on a done deal. Under ordinary circumstances all that remains to be decided is the venue: his bed or yours. But from my Englishman, nothing. Zero. He would offer me a cigarette (he smoked those dreadful French Gauloises Bleues) and even hold the flame of a matchstick to the end while I sucked it into life, or accept one of mine (a newfangled Czech cardboard filter tip) without so much as our fingertips touching. In the fullness of time I came to understand that I would have to lead this particular horse to water and make him drink if I hoped to quench my thirst.
“Let me ask you something,” I blurted out the evening of his tenth day in my flat. “Are you…”
“Am I what?”
“Are you…” I grimaced and spit it out. “Queer?”
We were emptying ashtrays overflowing with cigarette ends into the garbage pail after a late-night meeting of the district committee. Kim looked at me sharply. I thought I detected a blush on his English cheeks.
“Queer as in homosexual?”
I nodded weakly.
“What m-m-m-makes you ask?”
I settled onto the sofa next to him, our thighs touching. “Do you find me attractive? Do I attract you?”
“I find you … intensely ’t-tract-tractive.”
“Do I have to draw you a diagram?”
“Actually, I’ve b-b-been working up the nerve to ask you if we m-m-m-m-might—”
“For God’s sake, Kim, you don’t need to ask!”
At which point he did what he could bring himself to do—he grasped a fold of skirt above my knee as if he were staking a claim on the fabric and the body beneath it. “You have to understand, chaps like me are afraid to court b-beautiful girls like you.”
“What are you afraid of?”
“We’re afraid you’ll say no, which would d-demolish the little b-bit of ego we have.” He cleared his throat. “We’re afraid you’ll say yes and we won’t rise to the occasion, which would also d-demolish the little b-bit of ego we have.”
“I’m afraid, too,” I whispered.
“What on earth would you be afraid of? You could have any man with a snap of your fingers.”
“I’m afraid I’ll snap my fingers and no one will hear. I’m afraid the rain will plaster my shirt against my breasts and no one will notice.”
“I noticed,” he said simply.
“That’s a start. As for not rising to the occasion, I was married once, I have had experience helping men rise to the occasion.”
“You make it sound so mechanical.”
“There is a certain amount of mechanics involved. A woman who is not timid about using her hands and her mouth can make any man rise to the occasion.”
He worked the fabric of my dress through his fingers the way a Muslim manipulates worry beads. I slowly opened my thighs so he would understand he had been invited in. “Tickled,” I murmured with an encouraging smile.
His lips trembled when we kissed—it was almost as if he were stammering. Then he said something quite memorable, and it sticks in my mind that he managed to say it without the faintest trace of a stammer. “If we have sex, knowing me, I am bound to take it seriously.”
“Knowing me, I’m bound not to.” I regretted the words the instant they passed my lips. Which I suppose explains why I quickly added, “Who can say I won’t make an exception for you?”
* * *
As a child, I assumed everyone had a controller. In my case it was my maternal grandfather, Israël Kohlmann. I’ve lost count of how many delicious summers I spent at his country estate in Kerkaszentmiklós, a Hungarian village within hiking distance of the frontier with Croatia. Grandfather was the only Jewish landowner in the neighborhood, but if there was anti-Semitism in the Hungarian air I was too young and too carefree to get a whiff of it. When I think back to those summers, I remember rope-skipping down the long poplar-lined gravel alley that led to grandfather’s manor house; I remember hiding for days, with the rest of the family and the servants, in the dark cellars when the Reds, and later the Whites, pillaged the countryside during the dreadful years of the civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution; I remember swimming with my male cousins in the Kerka, the river that gave its name to the village. It was before I had breasts, I was stark naked and I was as fascinated by their genitals as they were by the absence of anything remarkable between my legs. My controller, which is to say my grandfather, must have learned about the nude swimming because one day I returned home to find a bathing costume set out on my bed. When I went swimming with the boys after that I wore it.
Having been raised by a controller, I found it perfectly normal, when I was recruited by Moscow Centre, to be reporting to a controller. The first one called himself Dmitri. He had a theory that a female agent was best debriefed in a bed, so I used to whisper in his ear as he made love to me while loud American jazz played on the gramophone in case microphones had been concealed in the room. I told him whom I had observed talking to whom, I described the mood in the workers’ tenements, I summarized what had been discussed at district meetings, I suggested who among the comrades might be pro-Soviet enough to be recruited by Moscow Centre as an agent. One day I turned up for my semimonthly debriefing to discover Dmitri had been summoned back to Moscow so suddenly he’d left his treasured collection of American jazz behind, which seemed strange to me at the time, though I didn’t put two and two together until years later when I read about the purge within the ranks of the NKVD.
His replacement, an overweight man in his fifties with tufts of hair pasted across his scabrous scalp, instructed me to call him Boris. He wore a monocle in the socket of his good eye, the other had been replaced by a glass eye after a grenade exploded in his face during General Frunze’s conquest of the Soviet city that now bears the general’s name. With a thumb hooked under one suspender, Boris would puff away on a cigar; from time to time he would wave his hand to create a porthole in the smoke and take long looks at my body with his good eye. I uncrossed and recrossed my legs, thinking the least I could do for a Red Army hero was reward him with a fleeting glimpse of thigh. In the end he would lose interest in my thighs, the porthole in the smoke would close, and he would debrief me through the smoke.
Two weeks before my Englishman turned up in Vienna, Boris, too, was suddenly summoned back to Moscow; he departed so hastily he left a wife and a son behind, who promptly entrained for Italy and were never heard from again.
The third controller, whom I found waiting for me at the safe-apartment in the Judenplatz, a little square at the heart of Vienna’s first Jewish ghetto at the end of an alleyway north of Schulhof, was, to my surprise, a woman, which supported the hunch I had that women were considered equal to men in the Soviet Socialist Republics and thus could rise to positions of importance. Depending on the time of day and the brightness of the light coming through the single window, she looked to be in her early forties or middle fifties. Her hair had been pulled back in a tight knot, her thin lips (without a trace of lipstick) looked as if they had never entertained a smile, her eyes were so heavy-lidded I could not make out their color. She instructed me to call her Arnold.
“But that’s a man’s name,” I said.
“Precisely. That way if you are careless enough to refer to me, everyone will think your controller is male.” She dipped the nib of her pen into a small jar of ink and looked up expectantly. I started to speak in German but she waved a forefinger the way my grandfather used to when he was cross with me. “Today we will speak in English so my colleague can follow the conversation,” Arnold said.
Looking across the room, I could make out what appeared to be a tall, thin comrade sitting in a corner so shadowy his features were scarcely visible. He was wearing a dark suit and tie. He was obviously a chain-smoker because several times I noticed him lighting a cigarette on the burning end of one that had been smoked down to a stub. The embers glowed in the murkiness each time he sucked on the cigarette, creating just enough light to reveal a triangular mustache on his upper lip.
“Aren’t you going to introduce us?” I asked Arnold.
“He knows who you are. You have no need to know who he is.”
Laughing nervously, I mumbled something about her not being very polite.
“Politeness is for the captains of industry who exploit the proletarian classes. To the business at hand. Your report.”
I launched into an account of my recent activities: the smuggling of firearms into the workers’ tenements and gunpowder to munitions factories.
“If civil war breaks out and the housing projects are attacked,” my controller asked, “in your opinion how long can the workers hold out against Dollfuss’s Heimwehr militias?”
“The workers’ militias have a small number of rifles and pistols, perhaps one firearm for every twenty workers. They don’t have much ammunition for the weapons they have, something like four or five rounds per weapon. They will be at a great disadvantage in a pitched battle with the Heimwehr.”
“Describe the mood in the great housing projects.”
“The mood is revolutionary. A spark could ignite an uprising. Since Dollfuss disbanded parliament, he rules, like every tyrannical dictator, by decree. He has already outlawed the Communist Party. If he outlaws the Social Democrats, who still control the Vienna city council, it will be the last straw. There will be a storm of protests. Whether the protests turn violent will depend, in my opinion, on how Dollfuss and his militia ruffians react.”
“I am told you have rented your spare room to an Englishman.”
I fumbled in my handbag for a cigarette and a book of matches, lit the cigarette, and dragged on it to still my nerves. Was I in a pickle with Moscow Centre for bringing an Englishman into my circle of friends without my controller’s permission? “He turned up at my door,” I explained. “A British Communist vouched for him, the comrades at Rote Hilfe gave him my address.”
“What is his name?”
“You surely know his name if you are aware he rents my spare room.”
“What is his name?”
“Harold Philby. His friends call him Kim.”
The gravelly voice of the man sitting in the shadows across the room reached me. “Are you sleeping with him?”
I glanced at him. A thin plume of his cigarette smoke drifted toward the ceiling. “Yes.”
My controller asked, “What can you tell us about his political orientation?”
“He considers himself a Marxist and a Socialist and admits to being attracted to Communism. In any case he is an enemy of Hitler and an admirer of the Soviet Union, which he considers to be the rampart against the spread of Fascism. In his mind’s eye, he sees himself as a foot soldier manning this rampart here in Vienna, working to thwart Dollfuss in the short term, to thwart Hitler’s eventually annexing Austria.”
“Is his family left-wing?”
“From what I could gather, I would suppose the opposite to be true. His father, Harry St John Philby, is something of a minor celebrity in England. Kim told me he’d been a member of one of the British expeditionary armies that drove the Ottoman Turks from Arabia. Since then he fancies himself an Arabist—he taught himself Arabic, converted to Islam, and went off to live in Jiddah, where he runs a modest business importing Ford motor cars. If Kim’s father holds political views at all, they must surely reflect his establishment roots.”
“What, then, accounts for his son’s being a Marxist and a Socialist?”
“I am only guessing, of course, but it can be explained in part as a rebellion against a domineering father, rebellion, too, against the stifling social class in which he was raised. He speaks often of England’s enormous unemployment in the wake of the Great War and the Great Depression, how nothing was done by Ramsay MacDonald’s supposedly Socialist government to remedy this. Kim’s worldview seems to have been formed during his undergraduate years at Cambridge University, where his closest friends were all leftists. Several had worked in the coal mines before obtaining scholarships to university. Kim himself joined the Cambridge Socialist Society. I don’t know if there was a Communist cell in Cambridge; I don’t know, assuming a cell existed, if he became a member. But there is absolutely no doubt about Kim’s determination to take part in the struggle against Hitler and Fascism.”
“From time to time you are on record as recommending Austrian or Hungarian comrades as potential recruits to Moscow Centre. Would you recommend your English roommate?”
“Intellectually and emotionally, there is no question whose side he is on. As he is fresh from university, he has had little field experience in organizing cells, in propaganda techniques, and none at all in living clandestinely. But I can say that he has a mental agility—”
The man sitting in the shadows interrupted. “What does that mean, mental agility?”
“He is a fast learner,” I said.
I could hear the man in the shadows laughing under his breath. “Those of us who are still among the living are all fast learners.”
My controller glanced at reminders she had jotted in ink on the palm of a hand. (I made a mental note of the technique—it was a good way to hide reminders, since they would wash off with soap and water.) “If we were to decide to recruit your Englishman,” she said, “how do you think he would react?”
“Kim? Why, he would be flattered. He would be thrilled.”
“Would he be able to keep his recruitment secret from his family and his Cambridge friends?”
“He would be bursting to tell me. But the answer to your question is yes, I believe he is capable of keeping secret things secret.”
“In your opinion, would he be more useful as a foot soldier manning the ramparts, as you put it, or as an agent operating covertly?”
“I do both.”
The man in the shadows had a sense of humor. “She has a point,” he said with a faint snicker.
My controller didn’t have a sense of humor. “We are not scoring points,” Arnold said with obvious irritation. “We are laying the foundation for world revolution.”
“I quite agree,” remarked the man across the room. “World revolution is our goal. But first we must recruit activists who can help us eradicate Fascism from the heart of Europe—comrades willing to put their lives at risk smuggling arms, informing on governments and their militias.”
My controller turned back to me. “In your opinion, is your Mr. Philby capable of leading a double life?”
“He is certainly capable of compartmentalizing his life. I have seen him convince English chums on the terrace of the Café Herenhoff that he’d come to Vienna to see the sights and sample the schnitzel. He would have to be taught the ropes, of course. He was rather innocent, naïve even, when he arrived in Vienna. He has matured since.”
“No doubt thanks to you.”
“I don’t deny I have played a role in advancing his maturity.”
“What have you taught him?”
“To speak German more grammatically.”
From the shadows, the man repeated the question. “What have you taught him?”
“I taught him…”
“Comrade Friedman,” the man said, “we count on you to respond to our questions without hesitation. Collecting intelligence has a great deal in common with the assemblage of a jigsaw puzzle. The information you give us could assist us in filling in gaps in the puzzle.”
“I taught him how to love a woman. He had no experience in this matter. I taught him how to deal with the police if he were to be arrested: to tell the truth as often as you can, to stay as close as possible to the truth when you are obliged to lie. I taught him some of what my previous controllers taught me: how to be sure you are not being followed, how to slip away if you are being followed, how to fabricate invisible ink using urine and write messages between the lines of a genuine letter, how to easily alter your appearance. I myself change the color of my hair once or twice a month. I also taught him simple word substitution codes that can be used to communicate with people outside if he is arrested.”
“Examples, if you please.”
“I taught him Send me a toothbrush and tooth powder means I have given them false names and false addresses. The message Send me a bar of soap means I have been forced to give them true names and true addresses.”
“May I say, Comrade Friedman,” the man in the shadows remarked, “that Moscow Centre is pleased with your work.”
I will admit his words went through my body like an orgasm. My fingertips tingled with pleasure. I was almost speechless with gratitude. “I thank you,” I managed to mumble.
* * *
We had our first fight, my Englishman and me, on our hundredth anniversary—a hundred days since we’d met, ninety since we’d begun to sleep in the same bed. I learned more about him from that first fight than I’d learned from the ninety-nine-day armistice preceding it. It began when I remarked, with extreme casualness, “I saw you looking at Sonja during the meeting tonight.” We had reached my apartment, windblown from the motorcycle ride across Vienna. “Not that it matters,” I quickly added, “but you were undressing her with your eyes, though I have to say, when she leans forward there’s not much undressing left to do.”
“It obviously matters or you wouldn’t have mentioned it.” Kim tossed a shoulder. “Identify the crime? She is very p-p-pretty.”
I threw his words back in his face. “‘If we have sex, I am bound to take it seriously.’”
“But I do take our relationship seriously.”
“Whatever happened to monogamy?”
“We are not m-m-married.”
“We sleep together every night, which while it lasts is roughly the same thing as being”—here I made the blunder of imitating him—“m-m-married.”
He reacted the way a bull does to a cape—figuratively speaking, he pawed the ground and charged. I had never seen him quite so livid. “You’re flogging a dead horse, Litzi. I fantasize about Sonja when she leans forward and I catch a glimpse of her b-breasts. Every b-bloke around the table fantasizes about her. That’s why she leans forward. I fantasized about you when the rain p-plastered your bloody shirt to your bloody b-body.”
I was in a dark mood, too—before Sonja, all the boys around the table fantasized about me. So I flogged the dead horse at hand. “In the end you men are all the same,” I said. “Anybody—any body—that inspires an erection becomes an object of fantasy. Tell me something, Kim, where does fantasy stop and reality begin? To put it another way: Does fantasy ever stop and reality ever begin?”
“Depends on the situation. Every situation, sexual or otherwise, has a bit of b-both, I suppose.”
“So what you’re saying is that every time you get an erection, you’re responding to a bit of reality and a bit of fantasy?”
“Sounds to me as if you’re suffering from erection envy.” He shook his head in disgust. “Women are so b-bloody unfair.”
“How unfair? Why unfair?”
“Look, in a heterosexual couple, it’s the male of the species who has to supply the erection if there is going to be sex. All you girls have to do is spread your b-b-bloody legs. If your lips aren’t lubricated by desire, we can fix that with saliva.”
“You’ve certainly come a long way on the subject of sex.”
“I owe it all to you.”
“Fuck off, Kim.”
“I did. I fucked off from Cambridge. I fucked off from England. I fucked off from my sainted father, though come to think of it he was the one who suggested Austria as the place to fuck off to. I wound up in Vienna. I wound up in your apartment. I wound up in your b-bloody b-bed. I’ll fuck off from here, too, if it suits me.”
I was flinging my clothes on the floor as I pulled them from my body. “Why are we unfair, for God’s sake? Where do we get it wrong?”
Kim went around the room collecting my clothing and folding things over the back of a chair. “At the end of the day,” he said, “you hold our erections against us because if we can get them with you, we can get them with anybody we fancy. Through no fault of ours, we p-produce serviceable erections when we are attracted to the b-body of the female in question. No attraction, no erection. Even with all your mechanical expertise, no attraction, no erection. Women hate the simple truth: Men may appreciate your intellect or your charm or your cooking or your p-political courage or your humor, but we can’t come up with erections unless we appreciate your b-bloody b-body. I could find myself in b-bed with what’s her name—the chairman of the philosophy department at the university…”
“You can’t even remember her name, how could you find your way to her bed. It’s Frau Voggel.”
His voice turned hoarse and he paced the bedroom brandishing a cigarette he had neglected to light. “Frau Voggel, yes, right. I could be in b-bed with the fat cow Frau Voggel, chatting about that legendary celibate Immanuel Kant, which is what we talked about after the concert last week, but I couldn’t get an erection if my b-bloody life depended on it.”
“Come to the point.”
“The p-point is, my fantasizing about Sonja should be seen as a sign of sexual health. It’s like—like doing bloody pushups or running bloody laps. To stay in shape, to keep the b-bloody libido fit, men need to fantasize. Listen, Litzi, women have this enormous advantage. You are able to make love to an overweight soak of a man in his sixties who has a small p-pecker and a big bank account and an annual income that can keep you in the style to which you would like to become accustomed whether or not you are attracted to him.”
The boil had been pierced. He needed three matches before he succeeded in lighting the cigarette twitching between his lips. I could see his hand trembling as he held the flame to the end. Smoking took the edge off his anger. Settling onto the bed, he noticed that I was propped up against the pillows. Naked. “What was that all about?” he asked.
“Something tells me it was about your father.”
He thought about this. “Sorry I went spare. My sainted father made the mistake of taking for lawful wedded wife someone who thought of marriage as a gilded cage. Talk about women being unfair, given half a chance she would have locked herself and her husband in and thrown away the key. It was so b-bloody Victorian. Her idea of happiness had something in common with rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. She loathed everything my father loved—the endless empty quarter of Arabia, the B-Bedouin camps in the middle of nowhere, the flatbread baked in the oven of the sand, the stench of humans who don’t have enough water to waste it washing, the wells where the camels get first dibs and the chaps riding them come jolly second. Oh, Dora dipped her big toe into the desert once or twice, joining St John when he let a bit of air out of the tires of his Ford station wagon and set off into the sand tracks toward a horizon that somehow remained out of reach. That’s what horizons are about, isn’t it? To lure you toward p-places you can’t get to, to tease you with the unattainable. Ahhh, my sainted father has his faults—which of us doesn’t?—but he appreciates b-beauty in all its forms: desert sunsets, blinding sandstorms, veiled women with mysterious eyes, handwoven silk that clings to the female b-body arousing fantasies of the body the silk clings to, B-Bedouin warriors racing their camels to an oasis. Once St John came across a Bedouin racing his camel to an oasis—he turned out to be the Wahabi ruler of the Najd in Central Arabia named Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud. I’ve actually met the b-bloke, a six-footer who receives guests with princely hospitality. My tent is your tent sort of thing, except when he says it, he means it. St John once told me ibn Saud was the greatest Arab since the Prophet Mohammed. Mind you, doesn’t say much for the other Arabs, but what the hell. When the Turks were driven from Baghdad, Father persuaded the Foreign Office to put his p-pal on the throne of an invented entity called Saudi Arabia—the b-bugger was so grateful he rewarded St John with an Arab wife, by whom I expect to have half siblings in the not-too-distant future. As my father has converted to Islam, he can legally have two more wives. Why not? Four seems quite a sensible number to me. Whilst my sainted father gallivants around the Middle East trying to reach horizons that elude him, Mother is at home in London, thank you, tending the tea roses in her gilded cage.”
“Is that what brought you to Vienna, Kim? Trying to get to a horizon your father couldn’t reach?”
While he was mulling this over I said, “Well, I don’t see our relationship as a cage, gilded or otherwise. I certainly don’t feel ambivalent about your erections. And you can look down Sonja’s blouse till you’re blue in the face.”
* * *
Every day brought its ration of rumors: a friend of Dietrich’s who worked at a frontier customs post reported that Hitler’s storm troopers had crossed the Bavarian Alps and were marching on Lintz (false), a woman who delivered eggs to the chef who cooked for Dollfuss heard he was counting on Italy’s Mussolini to prevent an eventual German annexation of Austria (true), my Soviet controller had it from an unimpeachable source that the Socialist workers’ militia had been secretly mobilized with orders to overthrow Dollfuss and create an Austrian Socialist Republic (false). “Keep your ear to the ground,” Arnold instructed me. “Let me know if you hear anything.”
All I heard was the falling snow muting the sound of traffic below my window. If you concentrated hard enough on the flakes drifting through the yellow light of the new electric streetlamps, it looked as if you were rising through the snow into the night sky. And then, ominously, one evening in February, the tap water in the drinking glasses stopped trembling. Kim and I exchanged looks. (When we compared notes much later, we discovered both of us had thought the same thing: that the earth might have somehow stopped rotating on its axis.) About the time we noticed the stillness of the water in the glasses, all the lights in the apartment, along with the shortwave radio tuned to the BBC foreign service, went out. Kim padded over to the window and peered up and down the street. “There’s n-no electricity on the block,” he said quietly. “Even the streetlamps have g-gone out.”
“What do you think it means?”
“It m-means the generators have stopped generating electricity.”
I should say here that electricity stoppages were the rule in Vienna, not the exception, and we had candles ready at hand. I lit several. When the telephone rang Kim said, “I’ll get it.” He put the receiver to his ear and listened. “Woher wissen Sie, dass?” he demanded.
“How does who know what?” I asked impatiently.
“It’s Dietrich,” Kim told me. “He says the electricity has gone off in Karl-Marxhof. He says Dollfuss’s Heimwehr gangs are stringing barbed wire across the streets leading to workers’ tenements.”
“The revolution has started,” I whispered breathlessly. “The workers will rise up and sweep away the capitalists and the Fascists. Vienna will become the second Paris Commune. It’s my rendezvous with history.”
Kim, more levelheaded than me, said, “The Paris Commune was crushed in six weeks. If it’s really revolution, the workers in Vienna won’t last six d-days—the Heimwehr mob are armed to the teeth, our Schutzbund comrades will fall back into the tenement b-blocks but I don’t see how they can hold out for very long.”
I called the telephone number my controller had obliged me to memorize. A woman answered and said, “If you’re calling for roses, we don’t deliver in winter.” I said, “But we’re already twelve February—the winter is almost over.” Having exchanged pass-phrases, my controller said: “Report.” I told her about the electricity going out, about the barbed wire.
“Is that all?”
“Isn’t that enough?” I demanded.
The telephone line went dead in my ear.
“What was that all about?” Kim asked.
“I make reports,” I explained.
“To a woman with a man’s name who doesn’t deliver roses in winter.”
Kim had the bright idea of telephoning Eric Gedye, the correspondent who covered Austria for the Daily Telegraph. He was a fixture at the Café Herenhoff, which is how we came to know him. “Electricity seems to have gone out in the city,” he told Gedye. “Any idea what’s up?”
I could see Kim shut his eyes as he pressed the telephone to his ear. “So it’s b-begun,” he murmured. He listened for a moment. “Don’t know what we’ll do. I suppose we’ll wait for instructions.”
He turned to me when he’d rung off. “The Dollfuss people are putting about that nonsense of an armed uprising by the Schutzbunders. Gedye says it’s a p-provocation—Dollfuss is using it the way Hitler used the Reichstag fire—to purge Socialists and Communists. Your short count has b-banned the Social Democratic Party and declared marshal law. His soldiers have occupied the Social Democrats’ headquarters in Lintz and started shooting up tenements in the city. The power plant workers here in Vienna have gone out on strike in p-protest. The army are bringing howitzers into Vienna to attack the tenement blocks.”
The telephone rang again. Was it my imagination or had the ring become shriller, had the interval between rings grown shorter? I snatched the telephone off the hook before Kim could reach it. It was Dietrich. He was yelling in order to be heard over the bedlam in the background. “We’ll go immediately,” I yelled back, startled by my own voice, which seemed to reverberate through the apartment.
“Why are you yelling?” Kim asked when I’d hung up.
“Because Dietrich was yelling,” I said. In my excitement I remember thinking this was a perfectly rational explanation. “He says we are to meet him at the Herenhoff and wait for orders.”
We pulled on galoshes and coats and hurried downstairs. I wanted us to use Kim’s motorcycle but he said it would attract too much attention, so we wound up going on foot. Walking through the falling snow, with the flakes melting on the skin of my face and muffling our footfalls on the sidewalk, it was hard to imagine that Vienna was on the brink of civil war. The Herenhoff was swarming with clients jammed onto benches reading newspapers by candlelight. Others were shouting at the top of their lungs to people who were immediately across the table from them. (I had always imagined people would whisper during a civil uprising. When I mentioned this to Kim, he actually burst out laughing. It was the last time he would laugh for weeks. Laughter, it seems, was the first victim of Dollfuss’s small war.) Waiters in black Spencers threaded between the tables, the trays filled with mugs of beer balanced on palms high over their heads. Dietrich had managed to save two seats at a miniscule table at the back near the toilets. “Where is Sonja?” I shouted.
“She is helping to throw up barricades in the streets around the Karl-Marxhof tenements with her Social Democrat friends, who are having second thoughts about Stalin being a greater menace than Hitler, about Hitler being a greater menace than Dollfuss. Listen, Litzi, our cell leader has ordered us to set up a machine-gun post on a roof of the university off the Ringstrasse.” Dietrich looked at Kim. “You are welcome to join us, Philby.”
My Englishman never hesitated. “Course I’ll join you,” he shouted. “P-puts me a game up on my sainted father. My first revolution and I’m only twenty-two. He didn’t get to chuck the Turks out of Mesopotamia until he was thirty.”
“Sergius is coming by to give us the key to a coal bin with guns and ammunition hidden in it,” Dietrich said.
“Right. Does either of you know how to work a machine gun?”
Dietrich and me, we avoided each other’s eye. “It isn’t difficult,” Dietrich said. “One of us will feed in the belt of bullets. The second will pull the trigger. The third will wet the burlap wrapped around the barrel to keep it cooled.”
“You must have learned that from All Quiet on the Western Front,” Kim remarked. He plucked an indigestion tablet from a small tin and popped it into his mouth.
“I learned it at a field camp where Communist instructors showed us how to use firearms,” Dietrich said.
The filaments in the overhead electric bulbs flickered, then went dark again before coming on full force. Conversation in the café died away and we all stared at the fixtures, holding our breaths as we waited to see if the lights would remain on. They did. Kim shrugged. “Feeding in bullets sounds like something I can do,” he said in a normal conversational tone.
A fat Viennese gentleman at the next table said, “This is not the moment to be joking about bullets, young man.”
Dietrich, suddenly emotional, reached across the table to wring Kim’s hand. “I consider you to be one of us, Philby,” he announced.
By the time Sergius turned up, we were each nursing a third cup of coffee. Out of breath, his eyes tearing from the cold outside, Sergius scraped over a chair and tried to get the attention of one of the waiters.
“You have the key?” Dietrich demanded.
“What key?” Sergius said.
I could see from the look on Sergius’s face that he was finding the situation comical. Either that or he was trying to mask his nervousness. “The key to the coal bin,” I said.
A waiter passed. Sergius plucked at his sleeve. “Beer,” he said. He grinned at Dietrich. “Why do you need coal at a time like this?”
Dietrich leaned across the table. “This is not the moment to fool around. We’re supposed to retrieve a machine gun and ammunition from the coal bin that you have the key to.”
“I have the key to the coal bin on”—Sergius mentioned an address in a back street not far from the café. “The bad news is the only thing hidden there is coal. We don’t own a machine gun.”
“Why are you here?” I asked the comrade.
“I was sent to tell you there is no machine gun. You can go see for yourselves if you want. There were a few rifles and pistols hidden in the coal bin, along with some cartons of Italian fireworks, but they’ve already been distributed to workers.”
“Who ordered you to set up the machine-gun p-post on the roof?” Kim asked Dietrich.
“Our cell leader.”
“Can’t. He’s on a police wanted list. He never sleeps in the same bed two nights in a row.”
“What do we do now?” I asked Kim.
He looked from Sergius to Dietrich to me. “We ought to head for the epicenter.”
“The tenements?” I said.
My Englishman nodded.
We heard trucks rumbling down the cobblestones outside. Kim and I rushed to the door of the café. Half a dozen flatbed trucks loaded with coils of barbed wire were driving slowly past the Herenhoff, the headlights of one truck illuminating the cargo in the truck ahead of it. Several of the trucks towed howitzers, their muzzles covered in canvas. I will admit I was quite alarmed at the sight of field artillery. As for Kim, I never detected the faintest suggestion of fright on his face or in his voice. Under that boyish grin he had nerves of steel. In my mind’s eye I see Kim, sensible as usual, counting the trucks passing in the street and nodding as if he had stored the information and understood its significance. The painfully shy Homo erectus who had washed up on my doorstep in a previous incarnation no longer existed.
What a difference a hundred days can make.
* * *
Even after Kim brought me to safety in London, flickering images of the next several days—which is how long it took for Dollfuss to eradicate Socialism in Austria—would haunt me. (Kim claims they are fragments shored up against my ruin. Lovely phrase. He says he swiped it from a poet. I forget his name. Fragments. Ruin. Why not?) I notice a baby carriage in Hyde Park and I see orderlies in soiled white laboratory coats ferrying the wounded to makeshift infirmaries in baby carriages. A pothole in Piccadilly Circus makes me think of shell craters pockmarking the streets around the Karl-Marxhof tenements when the Heimwehr thugs opened fire with their howitzers. I come across a discarded shoe in a Maida Vale trash bin and I see the small mountain of shoes in the alleyway behind the Karl-Marxhof infirmary. Some of the shoes—dear God in heaven!—some of the shoes still have human limbs in them. I spot Spanish tourists walking two abreast toward Harrods—the fragment that leaps to mind is an endless line of prisoners, their hands clasped behind their necks, being marched two abreast through the debris-strewn streets toward what the English during the Boer War called a concentration camp.
Oh, my eyes have seen horrors that my brain would give anything to stop remembering.
I’m working on it.
Sometimes the fragments join in a sludge of memories.
The night of the twelfth of February: With the leadership arrested, with the revolutionist factions decapitated, our Socialist and Communist friends wandered the streets in confusion, not sure where to make a stand, not sure what form the stand should take if a stand were to be made. The armed Schutzbund militias retreated to the tenement blocks to defend the barricades. It must have been nearly midnight when Kim and Dietrich and I reached the epicenter. I remember scrambling over barricades thrown together with automobiles and delivery wagons and pushcarts and heaps of tires and a mountain of furniture. Eventually we came to the fortresslike tenements at Karl-Marxhof. Dietrich found Sonja behind a second barricade. She and other girls were tearing sheets into bandage strips and folding them into cartons. A hundred or so young Communists, red ribbons tied around their upper arms, manned the barricade. A handful carried rifles, the others an assortment of clubs made from table legs. One young man wearing a greatcoat with a fur collar appeared to be armed with a carpet sweeper. Many of the Communists sprawled on couches that had been dragged down from apartments and formed part of the defense system thrown up to block the street. A young Communist with his pointed beard dyed bright red climbed onto a kitchen table and, using a megaphone fashioned out of cardboard, delivered a fiery speech. Only part of what he said reached my ears, something about how the first shots of the next great war were being fired here in Vienna. The Communists manning the barricade cheered him. Oh, yes, an absolutely indelible memory: Sergius began to pound out the Internationale on an upright piano wedged into the furniture that had been piled on the barricade. Several of the Communists began to sing the words. People watching from the tenement windows joined in. Soon the entire street resounded with the glorious words of the Internationale. To my amazement, I will say to my delight, tears sting my eyes now when I think of it, everyone was singing in Russian.
Vstavay, proklyat’yem zakleymyonniy
Ves’ mir golodnykh i rabov
Kipit nash razum vozmushchonniy
I v smertniy boy vesti gotov.
My Englishman and me, we tried to warm ourselves at a furniture fire blazing in the middle of the street. I don’t remember what time it was when the attack began, only that it was still too dark to make out the dials on the small wristwatch Grandfather gave me for my fifteenth birthday. We heard a distant roar that sounded like motors coughing into life beyond the barricades. This next fragment—it is within the realm of possibility that I fantasized it, and repeated it to myself so often I began to think of it as something that really happened. In my fantasy, Dietrich, hearing the motors drawing closer, offers Kim a revolver. Kim looks down at it as if he’s not sure what it is, then says, “I could not shoot a b-bullet at another human.” “Even if the other human is shooting at you?” Dietrich asks. Kim shakes his head slowly and I hear him say, “There must be another way to fight the good fight.” Dietrich says, “Find it.” Kim nods. “I will.”
No, I never raised the subject of Dietrich’s offer of a revolver with Kim. Perhaps I was afraid he would tell me I’d invented it. I had fallen for my Englishman and I wanted this particular fragment—this evidence of humanity—to be reality and not fantasy.
I can still reproduce in my brain the shrieks rising from the tenement windows when the giant bulldozers arrived at the first barricade and began punching gaps in it. Several young Communists shot fireworks that shrieked en route and exploded in sparkling circles when they slammed into the bulldozer cabs. We could hear rifle bullets ricocheting off the plows. Kim seized my hand and pulled me into a doorway. I remember a narrow staircase winding up and up, each floor smelling of garbage or urine or cooking kerosene. Then a blast of cold air hit my face. I was on the roof, peering over the parapet. Far below, as if in a sinkhole, I could see automobiles being lifted like toys and flung to one side. Thick black smoke rose from the tires that had been soaked in kerosene and set afire. Tanks churned through the gaps opened by the bulldozers, their treads crushing furniture, the machine guns in their turrets spitting sparks in all directions. A figure raced toward one tank carrying a can of kerosene with an oil-lamp wick burning in its throat. As he raised his arm to throw it he was cut down by a strafe of bullets. A second figure appeared out of nowhere to pick up the can but it exploded in his hands before he could throw it. For an instant the explosion illuminated the street like a burst of lightning. I believe I recognized the comrade before he was engulfed in flames, it was my onetime lover, it was the Dietrich who had leaped to his feet to tell the Hungarian professor that his Marxist theories were boring him to death. And the crazy thought crossed my mind: At least he didn’t die of boredom.
When the tanks broke through the second barricade, shoving aside the upright piano and the mangled furniture, the Communists with us on the roof began throwing bricks down at the hunched shadows advancing behind the tanks. The comrades in the street fought heroically. For a brief moment it looked as if the attackers were hesitating, but perhaps that, too, was fantasy imposing itself on reality. Soldiers in helmets and greatcoats surged through the gaps in the barricade and spread out in the street, shooting at anything that moved in doorways or windows, smashing open the street doors of the tenements with rifle butts, launching what turned out to be a methodical search of the apartments. One of the comrades on the roof burst into sobs. Another shook him by the shoulders. “We must save ourselves,” he yelled.
Kim pressed his lips to my ear. “We, too, must save ourselves.”
I heard a voice I recognized as mine say, “Why must we?”
“To fight Fascism.”
I have a vague memory of being pushed over parapets to other roofs. White sheets were flying from chimneys in sign of surrender but the Heimwehr gangsters weren’t taking prisoners. Howitzers started to shoot out the ground floors behind us so that the tenements would collapse into themselves. I remember spiral staircases, I remember clammy tunnels with large rusting sewage pipes running through them, I remember air passages that were so narrow you had to walk sideways, I remember cellars packed with doctors trying to staunch the flow of blood from wounded men, with women trying to staunch the flow of mucus from the noses of sobbing children. Kim found an English acquaintance, an artist of some sort, I think his name was Spender, we’d had a drink once on the terrace of the Herenhoff, drifting like a dazed soul in a cellar filled with dazed souls. Kim tried to shake him out of his stupor but Spender pulled his arm free and cried out, “Sunt lacrimae rerum—they weep for their houses, which are crashing down around their heads.”
Shaking his head crossly, Kim murmured, “Lacrimae rerum gets it wrong—these are tears for events, not things.”
After an eternity the cellars and the tunnels gave way to stingingly icy air, to a night sky brimming with stars, to alleyways filled with cartons of shoes, some of them with limbs attached, to narrow streets rank with cordite, to checkpoints manned by nervous soldiers who aimed rifles and flashlights at us as my Englishman frantically waved his passport. A British citizen and his girlfriend caught up in a war, let us through, for God’s sake. My apartment. The dull but not unpleasant thud of artillery shells exploding across town—it reminded me of the dry thunder over my grandfather’s estate that brought no rain. I remember my Englishman gazing out the window at the low clouds on the horizon tinted bloodred by fires burning out of control beneath them. He was drinking schnapps straight from the bottle when he turned his back on the fires and told me, out of the blue, that he’d once been b-b-b-b-b-buggered by a schoolmate.
What did that have to do with the thugs running riot in the workers’ tenements across the city?
* * *
Kim forbade me to leave the apartment—the streets were crawling with Heimwehr patrols hunting down Socialists and Communists. He himself went outside two, sometimes three times a day. I could see him from my window, hunched over the handlebars of his motorcycle, waving his British passport to get past checkpoints or patrols. He had given himself a mission—scrounging old but serviceable overcoats and suits and ties from the journalist Gedye and the artist Spender and their English friends, delivering the clothing to the Schutzbund comrades trapped in cellars and sewers, many of them wounded; their only hope of fleeing was if they could pass themselves off as civilians caught in the crossfire, and for this they needed clothes that weren’t battle worn and bloodstained.
After the three-day civil war, comrades, several of them with festering shrapnel wounds, all of them exhausted, made their way to my apartment. Some stayed only long enough to disinfect their wounds with alcohol, others (having no place else to go) camped. The Hungarian professor and three students occupied the spare room, two on the bed, two on the rug folded to make a mattress. Three young Communists who had crawled through sewers to escape the epicenter lived in the sitting room. Kim and I shared what food we had with the others as we clustered around the shortwave radio post trying to make sense of the BBC bulletins through the static. I translated the news into German for the comrades. According to the BBC, fifteen hundred had been killed and another five thousand had been wounded when Dollfuss crushed a Communist uprising in Vienna. (Some Communist uprising!) In what appeared to be a meticulously planned operation, Socialist and Communist leaders were being rounded up. Those who managed to avoid arrest were fleeing abroad. Opposition headquarters had been closed down. With the movement crushed, the workers’ militias collapsed in disarray. The BBC correspondent reported seeing women frantically digging up the gardens at the Engelhof when word spread that weapons were buried there. The workers’ tenements, long considered to be impregnable Socialist fortresses, had been occupied by the army and the government’s Heimwehr militia. Workers’ rest homes and holiday camps across Austria had been closed by the police. Terror gripped Vienna. Civilians caught with rifles or pistols were being shot out of hand.
In my apartment, we existed in a kind of suspended animation. Kim sat next to my phonograph, his head in his hands, listening to scratchy records of Beethoven sonatas, each of which, to the professor’s dismay, he could identify by its opus number. When we ran out of coal, we started breaking up furniture and burning bits of it in the stove. First went the legs and backs of chairs. We burned the curtain rods, the drawers in the dressers, then the dressers themselves, even the wooden cooking spoons. We burned the frames of my grandfather’s paintings I’d rolled up and pawned to raise money for German refugees flooding into Vienna after the Reichstag fire. We burned the frames of the two small charcoal designs I’d bought in Paris—I would have pawned these, too, but they were signed by someone the pawnbroker never heard of named Modigliani and had no value.
Sonja appeared late one night, her face stained with dirt, her eyelids swollen from unshed tears. Because of the cold, she never removed her overcoat so the boys didn’t get to see if she was still wearing her low-cut blouse. Pity. It might have warmed them a bit. When I told her how Kim and me, we’d watched the attack on the barricades from the roof, she said the comrade I’d seen throwing a can of kerosene at a tank wasn’t Dietrich, the way I thought. Poor Dietrich, she said, along with the young Sergius, who never stopped taunting his executioners, had been dragged from a coal bin and taken to a city park and shot into a newly dug trench by a firing squad made up of Fascist women. When I asked how she knew that, she smiled a bizarre smile and said, “Dietrich came to me in a dream and told me.”
Late one night a week or so after the February events, Kim came to me in a dream—so I thought until I felt his breath in my hair. I couldn’t see his face but I could feel the tension in his body. We could still hear sporadic rifle fire in the city and I supposed he was going to say something about being unable to sleep because of it. “We must leave” is what he said.
“Leave the apartment?”
“Leave the apartment. Leave Vienna. Leave Austria.”
“With your British passport, you could leave. I would never make it past the frontier.”
“We’ll get you a British p-passport.”
“Wives of British citizens are given British p-passports. I stopped by the embassy this afternoon to verify this.”
“We’re not married.”
“Things are calming down in Vienna. Shops, offices are starting to open for b-business. So is the town hall. I went there after I went to the embassy. I spoke to the clerk who does marriages. I slipped him five pounds, I said I would give him another fiver when he performed the ceremony. He said he c-can marry us in three minutes—matter of signing and stamping a piece of p-paper. We could be there when they open for business at eight. We could be at the embassy by eight-thirty. With a signed and stamped certificate of m-marriage, we could get you a British p-passport and be on the way to Italy by nine.”
When I didn’t immediately say anything, he said, “Right. Someone has just suggested m-marriage. You could have the d-decency to react.”
“What about the professor and the others?”
“They have a better chance of surviving if you’re not here when the police break in the door.”
“I am not against marrying you, Kim, but I prefer to stick it out in Vienna.”
“You can’t, Litzi. You were arrested once so they know you’re a Communist. They may even know you give reports to a woman with a man’s name who doesn’t deliver flowers in winter. Your name will be on lists. It’s only a matter of time b-before they come around looking for you. On top of that you’re Jewish. Everybody knows Hitler intends to annex Austria. Anschluss is only a question of time. He wants to get his pound of flesh from the Jews who refused to let him study in the Vienna Art Academy. Ah, if only they’d admitted him, he might be an artist starving in a garret in Vienna instead of Chancellor of Germany in B-Berlin. Litzi, if Dollfuss doesn’t kill you for being a Communist, Hitler will kill you for being Jewish.”
In the darkness, Kim kissed me. I distinctly recall his lips were not trembling. Mine were. He had taken charge of his life and mine. We were married at eight-fifteen the next morning by a town hall clerk who badly needed the talents of a dentist. I signed the register identifying myself as a student without religious affiliation. Kim claimed to be a British tourist. Next to “Religion” he wrote, in English, “None that I am aware of.” At nine the British Consul handed me a brand-new British passport with an old photograph of me glued onto one page—I had dredged it up from the metal box under the bed; it was me before I’d seen piles of shoes with limbs still attached to them. There was no mistaking the innocence in my eighteen-year-old eyes. In the photograph my hair was shoulder length and sun-bleached. The consul, a kindly gentleman who was counting the days until he could return to Scotland, asked me if blond was the original color. I told him I had dyed my hair so often I wasn’t sure. He said not to worry, that if the frontier police noticed the discrepancy, they wouldn’t find it remarkable that I had transformed myself into a redhead. All the girls were doing it these days, he said. He wished us good luck and Godspeed. I told him I didn’t believe in God. Kim coughed up a laugh and said he did believe in speed. The Consul said he did, too. He saluted the newlyweds from the small balcony over the embassy’s polished brass entrance as we saddled up in the courtyard below. Kim wore his rucksack on his chest, I wore mine on my back. It contained clothing and (in the hope they might one day be worth something) my two small rolled-up Modiglianis. I hung on to Kim’s shoulder straps as he stomped the motorcycle into life.
Was it the airstream in my face that brought tears to my eyes as we headed through the achingly familiar boulevards of my beloved Vienna toward England, a country nine hundred miles away, give or take, that I could scarcely imagine?
Copyright © 2012 by Robert Littell
Posted September 23, 2013
Posted February 9, 2013