Book Review / Wetwork reservations

WALKING BACK THE CAT by Robert Littell, Faber pounds 14.99

NATIVE Americans are not a very prepossessing bunch. They live for alcohol, junk food and government hand-outs, and inhabit waste lands strewn with wrecked cars from which they voice platitudes about impending social collapse or ecological catastrophe.

This, at any rate, is still a prevalent popular view, and one with which Robert Littell engages in his new novel. The "Indian question" is a recent interest for an espionage writer who perceives a link between Cold War paranoia and the fero-city with which white colonists exterminated America's indigenous populations. Gore Vidal once observed that the puritans did not go to America because they were being persecuted, but because they were not free to persecute anyone else. On arrival in the New World they made up for lost time by unleashing one of the worst genocides in the history of humankind.

All this might seem to have little to do with the "new world order" and the plight of Robert Littell's hero Parsifal, a Soviet agent buried in the mid-Western heartland, used to combining small-town conformity with obedience to the orders of a rival empire. Parsifal is an expert in what the KGB calls "wetwork" and what those outside the "Intelligence community" call murder. In the past, his role was so straightforward as to verge on the grotesquely banal. The targets - his CIA opposite numbers - were as predictable as the weary ideological rhetoric of his masters. Now the collapse of the Soviet state and the resulting dispersal of power and weapons have left him in limbo. He may be amoral, but he requires a frame of reference for his amoral deeds; this is exactly what he does not have when mysterious new instructions take him to an Apache-run gambling joint in the arid landscape of New Mexico.

To this strange, very human paradox, Littell adds the disillusioned all- American boy Finn, a Gulf War veteran who escaped to Apache country to put that orgy of blood-letting behind him. Instead, he is quickly enmeshed in the seedier side of reservation life. Parsifal and Finn are polar opposites in this modern morality play. Both are displaced persons, geographically and politically; both are addicted to violence and obedience; both possessed of intelligence and cunning unmodified by reason. The theatre for their conflict, an Apache gambling casino, is not global but local, the issues non-ideological but infinitely more complex. As the drama intensifies, Littell's Indians - sad, laconic, with occasional flashes of grim humour - provide a gently devastating social and cultural critique.

Littell avoids the trap of portraying the Apaches as "noble savages". They are as morally fallible as anyone else, and they know they can put up little resistance other than a fatalistic irony to the society of the "White Eyes". In so doing, they preserve their dignity even as they are degraded, confounding popular misconceptions more effectively than any Rousseau-esque stereotypes would have done.

The background presence of the Indians gives human form to the novel's theme of nostalgia for lost certainty. The coming of the "White Eyes" has upset the Indians' moral universe by severing their connections with the sacred land. For Parsifal and Finn, the end of the Cold War has removed all convenient explanations for their violent deeds. They no longer carry out the orders of opposing camps, but have become "guns for sale", as confused and unpredictable as the societies that spawned them. "All you got to do is invent yourself all over again," counsels the wise old Apache that Littell cannot resist inventing. Would that it were so simple for the post-Cold War West.

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