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Young Philby, By Robert Littell

Can this espionage story of the mythic Kim Philby give us something new?

What is at the root of our fascination with British traitors? Recently, we have been shown Russian television film of the defector George Blake as entirely happy in his exile, fêted by Putin and dismissive of the fact that he might have been brainwashed during his captivity by Communist troops in Korea. But in terms of iconic status, Blake is a minnow compared to the whale that is another double agent, the late Harold "Kim" Philby.

Philby has been a fecund source of inspiration for writers beginning with Graham Greene (who famously had nothing negative to say about his friend's behaviour) through John le Carré (Philby is the prototype for the mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), and now the American master of literary espionage Robert Littell. Distinguished writer though Littell is, can he say anything new about Philby – or take a new approach to him? The answer to both questions is, it seems, yes.

Young Philby (as the title suggests) is a sort of origin story. We see him as a young man in Vienna during a right-wing purge, encountering the seductive Communist Litzi Friedman (whom he is to marry, and who has a jaundiced view of his unrealistic ideals and sexual naivety). But by the end, Philby has been changed by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War and has dedicated himself to working for the Soviet Union by forging a spy ring in England, compromising both this country and the intelligence services of the US.

The picture given of Philby emerges from a series of fragments, written and spoken by the spies who handled him, and the irony is that several are to die at the hands of Stalin's brutal regime, even though they were loyal.

Littell sets this against the trusting nature of the British intelligence establishment, indulgent of well-educated young men with the right background. The epistolary nature of the novel makes it harder for Littell to create the kind of tension that is the currency of espionage fiction, but that appears to be part of the author's point.

Was he a tabula rasa for the various voices here, who make their own decisions regarding the kind of man he was? Or does the slightly out-of-focus figure that appears represent the real Philby – malleable, shifting, uncertain?

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