The Maisky Diaries, Agents of Empire and Enigma. Politics, pirates and spies
Although my writing at the moment involves a blend of speculative and crime fiction, I do read extensively, frequently referring to non-fiction books for inspiration. They are often as fascinating as any work of fiction, but as real life is the source of fiction that is probably not surprising. Of the three non-fiction books I have recently read, academics were at the helm of two. Gabriel Gorodetsky acts as a curator and commentator of Ivan Maisky’s (a master of political wheeling and dealing)
The Maisky Diaries. Noel Malcolm has assembled an incredible narrative, through painstaking archival research, of two Albanian dynasties whose combined stories more than rival the sweep and epic splendour of Game of Thrones. The third book Enigma. The Battle for the Code, is written by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, a journalist who has undertaken some very thorough research and filled it to the brim with spies, intellectual codebreakers and thrilling adventure.
All the books reflect the complexity of political manoeuvring, espionage and being involved in events where the safety of whole countries sit on a knife edge and makes for some absorbing reading.
The Maisky diaries by Ivan Maisky, edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky
Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to London from 1932 to 1943 kept personal diaries; an illicit act because such things were forbidden by the Soviet authorities, and no wonder. The book ripples with cunning, psychological mind games which could have had dire consequences for Maisky if he had got it wrong. He must have had nerves of steel because Stalin’s purges of the 1930s wiped out most of the diplomatic corps. To the casual observer Maisky was living the genteel and privileged life of a diplomat in the West, on the other he was only one careless word away from ruin. Here was a man who was apparently in close contact with some senior figures in British politics and often engaged in informal tête-à –têtes. But these were interactions loaded with hidden messages and meanings a Bolshevik in the pay of a ruthless dictator had to interpret and then correctly act on. As a condensed version of three volumes, The Maisky Diaries is a remarkable book because it allows us to view the world changing events of some of the most tumultuous years of the twentieth century and from a novel viewpoint. It is far from dry, with some lively accounts of events and Maisky’s scenic descriptions are at times quite lyrical.
Gabriel Gorodetsky’s commentaries add useful details and information as well as occasionally mirroring Maisky’s view from the Western perspective. Although it is a book to dip in and out of, the content means you soon find you’ve sat down for longer than you intended, as yet another intriguing narrative unfolds.
Agents of Empire. Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World, by Noel Malcolm
The title Agents of Empire. Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World promises a sweeping saga of pirates and political skulduggery. There is always a possibility that a book written by an academic will not live up to its title, usually because the facts are so densely and dryly presented that it does not make for a smooth and entertaining read. Noel Malcolm has not only undertaken some fascinating research, but delivered a wealth of facts in a panoramic and thrilling account of some turbulent times. The political manoeuvring engaged in by the Bruti and Bruni families, cutting a dynastic swathe between the Christian and the Ottoman empires, is fascinating and the stuff of adventure novels. The history of the Balkans and the area of Mediterranean over which the family manoeuvred is handled well and provides an important foundation on which to situate the whole saga. As well as vast sweeps of political history there are also details of daily routines, or notable events, the minutiae of which make for an engrossing read. For writers wanting to set a story in this era, or simply exploring the political manipulations undertaken by powerful families, then this is an excellent sourcebook.
Enigma. The Battle for the code by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore
The recent film ‘The Imitation Game’ about Alan Turing’s involvement with Enigma, and various works of fiction, touch on some of the facts associated with cracking the Enigma code. But the story is far more complex and actually begins in Poland before the war and was more initially more about commercial espionage than its military application. However the onset of the Second World War soon changed that. Enigma is comprehensive, tracking the Enigma story from its invention right up to D-Day. It involves, spies, raiding parties, radio interceptors and academics, just to name a few of the many elements that had to be brought together to make sense of the code. Even when the code had been cracked there was still the problem of what to do with the information because to act on it would mean alerting the Germans that their machine was no longer secure and the flow of intelligence would once again cease.
The appendices are a real bonus and good move because it means the general narrative is not hindered by lengthy explanations of decoding techniques, but it is there in all its glory for the intrigued. As with the other two books there are extensive references for further reading, which is always a useful starting point for any literary research.
The Maisky diaries were courtesy of Yale University Press, via NetGalley, Agents of Empire, courtesy of Oxford University Press. Enigma. The Battle for the Code was a recently bought copy.