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Kim Philby’s tale of betrayal

A SPY AMONG FRIENDS: KIM PHILBY AND THE GREAT BETRAYAL By Ben Macintyre. Bloomsbury. $29.99.
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Where is there room for a new book on the Cambridge spy for Moscow, Kim Philby, given the abundance of earnest, straight-up-and-down accounts of his perfidy, as well as the wonderfully engaging, inside-out perspective in Robert Littell’s novel, Young Philby?

The slightly unconvincing answer offered by Ben Macintyre, an English journalist, is that Harold Adrian Russell Philby might be better appreciated through his relations with one of the innumerable colleagues he betrayed, one Nicholas Elliott of MI6.

According to Macintyre, Elliott loved Philby, “with a powerful male adoration that was unrequited, unsexual and unstated”.

Despite that trio of un-s, the friendship was not intrinsically uninteresting. Macintyre may not be correct in arguing that “to many readers, Philby remains opaque, like the Cold War itself, often alluded to but little understood”, but he might just have a point in observing Philby “in a different way, through the prism of personal friendship”.

Macintyre proffers “two men bonded by class, club and education but divided by ideology … the most intimate of enemies”.

Both were brought up largely by nannies and concealed a certain shyness, but – thankfully – Macintyre’s delving into psycho-analysis is terminated at that point.

Elliott could have served as a role model for Woody Allen’s Zelig, as an offsider who stands off to the side, someone present at great events but not exercising decisive influence on them, a friend who stood up for Philby when he should have stood up to him.

Macintyre may lack the finesse and flair Littell displayed throughout his Philby book (many of us do not shine by comparison with Littell), but he is a quite talented writer nonetheless.

Macintyre is especially adept at sketching characters, setting a scene and telling stories, even tales of Philby already written down at least once too often.

He also has a remarkably keen eye for whimsically eccentric detail.

Elliott had a great uncle who bet that he could smoke his height in cheroots every day (and died trying). Elliott’s first domicile as a spy was a soundproof cell in Wormwood Scrubs prison. Philby’s father was married to a Baluchi slave girl given to him by an Arabian King. Here, a cook confects vodka in a bathtub, a secretary brushes her teeth with Turkish Cointreau (and finds that concoction refreshing), and a German spy at Cambridge is tagged in the most winning way.

“His name, unimprovably, was Engelbertus Fukken.”

Macintyre may falter when he tries to sum up Philby, other than by disquisitions on his charm. He notes that Philby “enjoyed deception”, after having suggested that, “in some ways, Philby’s story is that of a man in pursuit of ever more exclusive clubs”.

Familiar stories can be retold in quite clever, skewed, cock-eyed ways; Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia is a rich tribute to another famous Englishman who went astray. Macintyre’s Philby, though, is given little that is new to say or do, while Elliott seems too much like a cipher who devoted his life to ciphers.

Macintyre’s book contains an unexpected, welcome bonus. John le Carre has contributed an afterword, describing his own talks with Elliott.

Again, digressions in the form of anecdotes lift the narrative. As a spy himself, Graham Greene tried his hardest to use the code group for “eunuch”.

A London prostitute would not sleep with a particular asset from the Middle East because the designated place of assignation was close to the House of Commons, where her father served as an MP.

Both Macintyre and le Carre could be invited back on the strength of their stories alone.

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