There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Monday, March 19, 2007

No Other Choice to read on the bus

Finished another book while riding to and from work.

No Other Choice is the autobiography of George Blake, a man who spied for the KGB while working for the British Secret Intelligence Service. This is another of the books that I've been meaning to read, and it pairs nicely with the Breaking the Ring, the story of American John Walker and his spy ring.

Where John Walker was a craven traitor who spied purely for financial gain, George Blake was a naive ideologue who gave away his adopted country's secrets in service to an imaginary world where Communism would bring egalitarian happiness.

The title of the book sums it up: Blake feels he had no choice. In fact, one of the rather compelling images of the book is provided by Blake's discussion of God and predestination. For Blake, if God is all-knowing and all-powerful, then everything must be by design. He flatly rejects the idea of free will. Blake had no choice. Nothing he did was wrong. It was all by God's design.

Blake has an interesting tale to tell. As a youth he worked for the underground in Holland and France during WWII. He eventually went to work for the British and first offered to spy for the KGB while he was a prisoner during the Korean War. His spying is eventually discovered, and he was tried and sentenced in 1961 to 42 years in prison. After serving 5 1/2 years, Blake, with the help of sympathetic ideologues on the outside, was able to escape and flee to the Soviet Union, eventually settling in Moscow.

The book was published in 1990 and by that time Blake had seen the beginning of the collapse of the old order. I found Blake's description of life in Moscow fascinating, not least because it is such an awakening for him. The grand Communist ideal that he sought to advance by helping the KGB was nowhere to be found. But he is not disillusioned. He still believes in a mythical Communist ideal.

One of the most profound observations is offered in his discussion of life in prison.

"Many inmates, because of their bitterness and the lessons they have learned in prison, are a greater danger to society when they leave prison than when they come in. This is not surprising when one comes to think of it. Imagine a hospital in which all the patients, irrespective of their disease or injury, whether it be cancer, cholera, pneumonia, appendicitis or a broken leg, are all put in the same ward and given the same treatment, say, a strong dose of purgatives. Nobody would expect many of the patients so treated to leave the hospital cured. The mast [sic] majority of them will carry their disease back into society and may well have been infected with the new ones. Yet that is how the prison system works."

If you like reading about real spies, you'll find this book fascinating.

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