This sprawling novel begins with Moscow in 1950 with the chilling observation, “The safest way to write a diary was to imagine Stalin reading every word.” It begins with the tragic destruction of a black American singer, based somewhat on Paul Robeson, who is shot to death at the UN in a nefarious plot, and barrels on through the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and into Reagan’s America. Written in the clunky style favored by such work, the narrative moves at a blistering pace, delivering up a relentless chain of bloody violence and some fine action scenes – an escape over the Khyber Pass is riveting.
The Soviets are genuinely repulsive, but the Americans are not much better: as a view of the Cold War this book is unsparing (as it should be) of either side. Thrillers seldom take the time to develop real characters, and Smith obeys that code. Nonetheless his hero – who is, in spite of everything, really a hero – becomes an appealing and admirable figure: an ex-KGB officer whose love for his wife, murdered early on, helps him steer a true course through the corruption and degradation of his life. The best part of the book is Leo Demidov’s struggle to keep in touch with his humanity in the bleak cinderblock world he’s forced to inhabit, and his hard-won survival is a triumph.
Above all, though, the book is a grim message about Stalinism: in such a world, the greatest threat to anybody’s survival is his own idealism, but without ideals nothing is left but an unsustainable husk. Agent 6 is interesting for its narrative thrills and gory violence, but even more for its portrait of Stalinism devouring itself.