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Young Philby

By Robert Littell

Duckworth, 2014

ISBN: 9780715644515

Young Philby

Bugger if I didn’t enjoy this one.

At the heart of Robert Littell’s highly entertaining espionage novel lies a startling thesis concerning the infamous Kim Philby, an Englishman who, along with his Cambridge contemporaries Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, is widely considered to be a Soviet spy.

A neat feature of the novel is the way in which each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different personage: we hear from the Jewish girl who Kim meets in Vienna in 1933 and then marries to save her from the Nazis; from his eccentric father, an Arabic scholar and a Muslim convert; and from various Soviet agents, both sympathetic and sceptical. Philby is a chimera as seen by others, we observe him only from the outside, and so he remains a mystery. To many of these people Kim fits the stereotype of the upper-class Englishman, a naïve albeit highly intelligent figure (a stereotype that Hugh Grant has built his career upon), which makes you think he may be playing a role.

If Littell’s thesis is true, a key chapter of the Cold War is turned upside down, but either way Young Philby is a terrific read. Once again we are plunged into the arena of the Great Game, where we encounter plucky adventurers serving imperial aims…

The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.