Connoisseurs of the literary spy thriller rank Robert Littell up there with John le Carré, Graham Greene, and Alan Furst in the first tier of the genre’s pantheon. Set against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Prague, The October Circle is one of Littell’s most riveting early works.
“Littell is our best exponent of the real Realpolitikal thriller—this one taking place in Sofia in 1968, in a thin, gray ‘present ridiculous’ after the Russians impose their so-called peaceful counterrevolution on Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia . . . Littell has a graphic command of the ‘present ridiculous’ while lending here and there, through assorted characters, an inventive sense of the absurd—but then can we quite demarcate the absurd from the heroic? He’s also a fine ironist, with lines like ‘A Communist is someone who, when he smells roses, looks around for a coffin’ branded on the pages of his intensive, involving novel. Littell writes not only above the genre but beyond it—with smoke rings of conjecture and a striking show of courage.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Exotic setting, constantly surprising . . . and a clockwork plot.” —Newsweek
“Exciting . . . This author can tell a story!” —Chicago Daily News
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About the Author
Date of Birth:January 8, 1935
Place of Birth:Brooklyn, New York
Education:B.A., Alfred University, 1956
Read an Excerpt
The Past Imperfect
Drifts of heat stirred, piling up against the jeeps that had come to close the road through the Valley of the Roses between Rozino and Klisura. Motionless, sweat-stained, the militiamen sulked against the wooden barriers and followed with their eyes the approach of a truncated pickup truck through the wavy air that hung over the asphalt. When the truck became whole again, the lieutenant stepped forward and flagged it onto the detour. The driver, who had heard about what was to happen on the road, turned off without a word of complaint. At dusk, the air cooled quickly and the militiamen began making book with the collective farmers on their way home from the single bar in Rozino.
The odds they gave were seventy-five to one against.
Working in the glare of an antiaircraft searchlight mounted on a Russian truck, painters redid the white line down the middle of the highway. Three representatives from the International Timing Association, fat men with suits and smiles cut from the same cloth, hammered black-and-yellow-striped poles into the spongy earth to mark the beginning and the end of the official kilometer. Two hours before dawn the District Communist Chief, a rose-grafter who joined the Party after the Russians came, not before, tested the white line with his forefinger, judged that it was dry and waved the mechanical sweeper — the only one of its kind in the country — onto the pavement. Brushes whirring, it jerked into life and started down the line. Behind it, swinging their lanterns as if they were censers, came a dozen workmen checking for oil slicks and pebbles.
The Racer arrived as dawn cracked the slate sky over the roses He was of medium height, lean and leathery. He was wearing a red sweat suit with a green number eight on the back, and was sucking on rock candy that the Trainer supplied from a brown paper bag.
The Trainer cleared his throat. "I will inspect the line myself," he announced.
The Racer shifted his weight from one foot to the other nervously. 'I'll come along."
"Better to wait," advised the Trainer.
"Better to go," insisted the Racer.
Single file, they walked the line as if it were a tightrope stretched between Rozino and Klisura. Lost in fear, the Racer went first, striding along with his hands burrowing into his jumper pockets. The Trainer, who limped from a war wound, followed, his eyes fixed on the ground.
Sunup brought with it the perfume of roses from the surrounding fields and a fine, mistlike dew.
Frowning, the Trainer held out his palm to the dew. "Perhaps we should call it off," he suggested. "The road is wetter than we calculated."
The Flag Holder, who was there to drive the big Mercedes with the sheet of Plexiglas bolted on to the rear bumper, agreed. "Another day," he said quietly, and then drew himself up and put the thought more formally. "It is my opinion that you should wait for another day."
The Racer, who had six weeks to go until his nineteenth birthday, stood silent, considering the matter. Finally he shook his head. The dew would lubricate the pavement and cut friction, he said. He would go ahead, he said, as long as no wind came up.
No wind did come up.
It was light now and families from the rose collectives began to gather under large black umbrellas along the embankment that ran parallel to the highway. The peasants were not sure what they had come to see. An ancient woman with red-rimmed eyes and no teeth told a child with braids that there would be a parade, though why a parade would be held on this lonely stretch of road she could not say. An old man with sucked-in cheeks and a hacking cough spit up phlegm and said in all probability a dignitary would pass before them, perhaps a Turk. But one among them who could read, a middle-aged man whose back was bent from carrying huge baskets of petals, said they had come to see a man die.
The militiamen who had been sleeping stiffly on the seats of buses parked in the Rozino schoolyard filed onto the road, formed ranks and trotted toward the highway to take up positions every hundred meters. A teen-ager from Rozino, the nephew of the District Communist Chief, brought up the strange bicycle with the long chain and the enormous rear gear. The Trainer received the bicycle from him and pinched the front wheel, and then the rear wheel, between his thumb and forefinger to test the pressure. The wheels were without treads to reduce friction; the rims were made of wood to prevent overheating.
The District Communist Chief who joined the Party after the Russians came approached the Flag Holder, who held Party card number four, and raised a finger to attract his attention. His gold teeth flashed when he opened his mouth to speak. "You are invited to begin when it pleases you," he advised.
The Trainer measured the progress of the sun, still low over the roses, and studied the dew-moist surface of the highway. Then he looked back at the sun again. If he waited, the sun would burn off the worst of the dew. But it would also burn off the morning coolness, which was essential if the Racer's body heat was to be kept within tolerable limits.
The District Communist Chief coughed discreetly. The Trainer arrived at his decision. "We will commence in five minutes," he informed him.
Chain-smoking Rodopies, a strong Bulgarian cigarette that the peasants thought more effective against germs than asafetida gum, the Flag Holder beckoned the Racer onto the embankment.
"Have you selected a name for the baby?" the Racer inquired.
"Georgi," the Flag Holder replied. "I'm going to call him Georgi, after Georgi Dimitrov."
The Racer nodded approval and turned to look out over the land. As far as the eye could see, the fields were all roses. In the distance, a line of women swept across a field plucking petals and deftly dropping them into the burlap bags tied to their belts.
"Do you remember the grade-school teacher from Blagoevgrad," the Flag Holder reminisced, "the one who blew off his leg with his own grenade and tried to hurry and die so we could get away? He was born here in the valley. He used to tell how the women collected the petals before the sun rose up and burned off the dew. They were paid by the kilo, you must understand, and the petals weighed more with the dew on them. The women would joke — the grade-school teacher said you could hear their voices calling back and forth in the darkness long before you could see them — they would joke that they were harvesting dew."
The Flag Holder lit another Rodopi on the embers of the one in his mouth and sucked the new one into life. With the first deep puff he broke into a spasm of coughing. "I must give these up," he rasped, and then mocked himself by adding:
He motioned with his cigarette toward the women in the field. "We Communists are on to their little tricks, of course. We still let them start before sunup because the petals have more perfume when they are wet, but we deduct the weight of the dew from the weight of the petals." The Flag Holder pulled morosely on his cigarette. "In our lust for forward motion, we have forgotten to honor the humanness of backwardness."
The Racer looked across the fields to the low, worn, wooden sheds where the rose petals were stored. The side of one had buckled inward, and the roof looked as if it could go at any moment. After a while the Racer said:
"Where is the forward motion of which you speak? Are you sure you are not confusing motion with movement?"
The Flag Holder smiled — though only those who had known him before the Germans captured him would have recognized it as a smile. "I'm not sure of anything. In this imperfect world, all a man of logic can do is repeat what Ptolemy said: 'The sun rising in the east seems to move across the sky.' "
The Trainer called up from the foot of the embankment, "See — the dew seems to be burning off."
The Trainer's use of "seems" made them both grin, but then the grins evaporated, like the dew. "You are a fool to attempt this thing," the Flag Holder said quietly, "but I honor you for it." The cigarette stuck to his lower lip and bobbed as he talked. "I wish you long life and many children," he added formally — even now he was not able to find an intimate tone.
The Racer waited for him to say something more. When he understood that nothing more would be said, he nodded and turned and scrambled down the embankment. The Racer's friends clustered around to wish him luck. Dancho, a pink-skinned partisan comrade who was beginning to make a name for himself as a magician, embraced him warmly.
"Say the word," he forced himself to joke, "and I'll tag along on the handlebars."
Valyo Barbovich, a young opera singer, laughed uneasily. "The last thing he needs is excess baggage."
"Much luck to you," said Angel Bazdéev, a dwarf who was already well known as a circus clown.
The Racer smiled tensely. "All right, let us start," he called. He bent quickly, easily, from the waist, almost as if he were hinged, and undid the ankle zippers and stripped off the sweat suit. Underneath he wore red shorts and a green T-shirt with the number eight in red on the back.
The Flag Holder revved up the big Mercedes. The Trainer climbed in alongside the Flag Holder, hauling his bad leg in after him, and the Mercedes started down the highway. The Racer pulled on his crash helmet and tightened the strap until it bit into his chin. Then, as Dancho and the Dwarf steadied the bicycle, he climbed on and reached over to tighten the straps that locked his toes into the pedals.
A motorcycle rumbled alongside and the driver pushed the Racer onto the highway; with the special gear, 130 teeth connected to a sprocket of 15, the Racer could not start the bicycle by himself. At thirty-five kilometers an hour his legs were barely moving. At seventy kilometers he began to hit his stride. At eighty kilometers the Racer nodded and the motorcyclist swirved away and the big Mercedes veered into place in front of him, the Plexiglas wind screen on the rear bumper inches from the front wheel of the bicycle.
There was no margin for error. Riding in the vacuum of the Plexiglas, curved gracefully over the handlebars, head down, arms thrust forward, feet pumping, the Racer began to accelerate. He had to go as fast as the Mercedes, no faster, no slower. Faster and his wheel would touch the Plexiglas. Slower and he would fall back into the slip-stream. Either one would kill him.
Inside the Mercedes the Trainer stared at the special speedometer mounted on the hood, and glanced back at the Racer. The man on the bicycle nodded imperceptibly.
"Another increment," the Trainer told the Flag Holder. "But for the love of god, be gradual."
At 120 kilometers an hour the Racer began to gulp for air. At 150 the heat hit him, engulfed him, smothered him, hammered at his temples. At 170 a point of pain in his thigh muscle brought tears to his eyes and he had to blink them away to see the Plexiglas.
Ahead the first black and yellow marker came into view.
"Faster," hissed the Trainer, his eyes glued to the speedometer. "Still faster."
Hurtling along behind the Mercedes as if he were part of the Plexiglas, the Racer worked his legs until they appeared almost motionless. Sparks of sunlight glinted off the ticking spokes. Sweat stains spread under his arms and down his back. The Racer was in full flight now, soaring fifty-eight meters a second — faster than free fall in space — pushing himself to the limit of pain, torturing himself across a frontier he thought he could never cross, pushing against the limit again, riding on the mirror of moistened road, sucked ahead by the pane of Plexiglas, gulping air, afraid he would ignite from the heat, afraid he would disintegrate from the pain, afraid most of all of the fear, thinking god whom I don't believe in help me to keep going please. Riding faster than his thoughts, the Racer abandoned himself to speed, lost himself in speed, became speed. A spoke in the front wheel snapped. Smoke seeped from the wooden tire rims. A fine spectrum-colored spray arched up from the rear wheel as the Mercedes and the bicycle leaped past the second marker.
The Trainer caught his breath and stared at the stopwatch in his damp palm. "Seventeen point five eight seconds between poles." He looked up at the Flag Holder and whispered hoarsely: "It is done. A record for the world to beat! Two hundred kilometers an hour."
They slowed down as carefully as they had accelerated. When the Mercedes reached forty kilometers an hour, the Racer dropped back and raised his eyes and saw the triumph on the Trainer's face. Suddenly he thrust his right fist deep into the sky.
From the side of the road a flash bulb froze the instant of exhilaration.CHAPTER 2
The Present Ridiculous
Mister Dancho freezes, cocks an ear, listens decides his imagination is working overtime and goes back to tugging on his cuffs so that they protrude from the sleeves of his blazer.
There is no mistaking it this time. Mister Dancho's eyebrows dance as he takes in the lobby. The only one in sight is the old woman who checks coats in the winter and spends the summer keeping out from under foot so that the restaurant's director won't get it into his head to lay her off. Right now she sits tucked away in a nook behind the empty coatracks, staring with total absorption into a pocket mirror propped up on a ledge, carefully lining up the tweezers and pruning with short snapping motions hairs from her chin.
Mister Dancho wheels. The skirt of his blazer flares. "What in —"
The door marked "Sitters" opens a crack and a single heavily made-up eye peers out at him.
"You!" Dancho whispers, darting through the door and catching the woman inside in his arms. Wordlessly, they embrace.
After a while the woman sighs:
"These six weeks have been an eternity."
"My dear Katya," Mister Dancho murmurs, arranging his facial expression as if he were setting a table, "how I've waited for this moment." He holds her at arm's length and stares unblinkingly into her eyes. "There is no logic in this, you understand." A thought strikes him. "Where is your husband?"
"Not to worry. The Minister is off to Moscow — something to do with Czechoslovakia. He won't be back till tomorrow, maybe even Tuesday." She looks up at him with anxious, moist eyes.
Mister Dancho is obviously relieved. "On the other hand," he goes on, "we can spend a few stolen hours together. This is no small thing, because there is much emotion between us." He breaths heavily, as if breathing is an effort. Then he says gravely:
"I stand ready to try, on the condition that either one of us has the right to call it quits if the" — he searches for a delicate word —"liaison" — and watches carefully to see what effect it will have on her — "produces more pain than pleasure."
She winces at the word "liaison" (Dancho, who is not without experience in such matters, has the impression she feels she ought to), then leans against him and breaths into his ear:
"I'll risk everything."
"My darling," Mister Dancho exults. He draws her palm to his lips, which are as soft as a child's. "I'll be at Club Balkan later ..." he implores, and she seals the rendezvous with a smile. Before it fades, he has slipped out of the ladies' room.
For Mr. Dancho, entrances and exits are the parentheses between which he invents himself, and so he gives them as much attention off stage as on. Pausing just outside the threshold of the dining room, he pats his lips with a monogrammed handkerchief, tucks it into his breast pocket so that the tip spills out haphazardly, adjusts his cuffs again, rearranges his facial expression and plunges through the curtain into the waves of sound the way a fish returns to water — a quick splash and he is off and running as if he has never been away.
"Dobar vecer, Mister Dancho! Kak ste?"
"Salut, Dancho — how was London, England?"
"Our conquering Dancho returns! But you must take a drink with us."
"Welcome back, Mister Dancho! Did you convert the Queen to Communism?"
Shaking hands left and right, pecking with his child's lips at rouged cheeks angled up to him, Mister Dancho drifts from table to table in crosscurrents of conversation. Behind him, waiters in wrinkled black jackets race into and out of the steam-filled kitchen through a swinging door that squeals on its hinges like a cornered cat. At one booth, six actors are arguing over a cure for migraines. They have divided into two camps, the herbalists and the acupuncturists, and appear ready to go to war over the point. Nearby, two adjacent dinner parties are joining forces, the men scraping tables and chairs together while the women hold high the drinks as if they are afraid of mice or flooding. The waiter for the station looks on sullenly, not lifting a finger to help, concerned only with how he will sort the checks. A woman who is table-hopping backs into Mister Dancho, turns, brightens and plants a wet kiss on his lips. Raising her eyebrows, she smiles and moves on, sure that Dancho's eyes will follow her. Knowing she is sure, he looks away, his fingers scraping the excess wetness from his lips.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The October Circle"
Copyright © 1975 Robert Littell.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
August 1948 The Past Imperfect,
August 1968 The Present Ridiculous,
What People are Saying About This
"Exotic setting, constantly surprising . . . and a clockwork plot."
"Exciting . . . This author can tell a story!"
-Chicago Daily News
"A brave, ambitious, and most worthy book."
-The Washington Post