meier 0000050 Louis J. Sheehan

Louis J. Sheehan

We moderns seem to have no limits to our fascination with spies, whether in film, fiction or the occasional snatches of actual trade-craft glimpsed through cracks into their parallel universe. We’ve gorged on every kind of spook, from the ultimate rake (James Bond) to the ultimate drudge (George Smiley) — though both were arguably outdone by that long-running reality drama, “Who Outed Valerie Plame?,” which featured a glamorous spy, a zealous investigator, a vice-presidential aide named Scooter and a reporter who was the only one to spend time in jail.

So Andrew Meier, a former Moscow correspondent for Time magazine and the author of two previous books about Russia, can hardly be blamed for his enthusiasm in following the trail of a young American who was swept up in the radical swirl of the 1920s and recruited by the Soviets to spy for them in Europe and Asia, only to perish in Stalin’s camps. “As harrowing as ‘Darkness at Noon’ and as tragic as ‘Dr. Zhivago,’ ” promises the publisher’s blurb for “The Lost Spy.”

And indeed, the twists and turns of Cy Oggins’s 49-year life are astonishing. Born to Russian Jewish immigrants who changed their name from Melamdovich and settled in Willimantic, Conn., Oggins studied at Columbia, married a fiery radical named Nerma Berman and at some point in the 1920s joined the Communist Party and was sent abroad. Oggins and his wife lived first in Berlin, where he posed as a well-to-do art dealer. From there they moved to Paris, where Oggins’s work apparently included spying on a family of Romanov émigrés. Next, after a brief return to the United States, he was assigned to Shanghai and Manchuria. Finally, after some mysterious wandering, he was arrested in Moscow in 1939 and, eight years later, despite the intervention of American diplomats, killed by lethal injection. He was arrested, Meier surmises, because his boss in the Chinese spy ring had tried to defect, and he was killed because he knew too much to be released. http://louis-j-sheehan.info

“Surmises” is the key word here, because on this, as on far too many other things, Meier really doesn’t know. And therein lies the problem with “The Lost Spy.” We know where Oggins was at some junctures of his life. We meet a few of his friends (most notably Sidney Hook, the Marxist-turned-anti-Communist philosopher), examine a few grainy photographs and rummage through some Soviet and American official documents. But we never really get close to Cy Oggins. In all of Meier’s prodigious researches — and they are prodigious — he simply finds too little to flesh out the man or to tell us what he really did for, or against, the Russians. Meier struggles mightily to plug in the yawning gaps with sidebars, history and speculation. Historians are certainly within their rights in trying to supplement the historic facts with some guesses about the influences of the time and the place.   http://louis-j-sheehan.com  But in “The Lost Spy,” there are too few historic facts and far too many guesses.

Page after page, Meier tells us what Oggins might have or could have or should have known, felt, witnessed or concluded. “No document records that Cy and Nerma stood among the fighters, but it is hard to imagine them missing the chance.” “At some juncture along his journey, Cy may well have sensed a strange presence.” “It is conceivable that Cy contributed to The Voice.” In these cases, there is at least an element of retrofitting — we know how Oggins ended up, and so can presume that he was involved in such radical activities. But at some points the speculation turns to fancy, as in this addendum to a riff about why Oggins may have changed his first name from Isaiah to Cy: “It was a name that also bore the unmistakable aura of one of the heroes of the day, the legendary ex-Red Sox pitcher recently retired after 22 seasons, Cy Young.”

Meier uses the subjunctive mood to signal the reader that he is often just guessing. But, alas, he doesn’t use it often enough. There are stretches of the story in which it’s not clear whether Meier is reporting, speculating or inventing. Oggins’s arrest, for example, is recounted in graphic detail: “By the time the doors of the voronka opened, Cy was in darkness. Two men hoisted him by either arm and took him in, stopping only at the receiving room. Cy stood as a clerk wrote down his name and the date and place of birth.” How does Meier know? He would know how such arrests usually took place, since there is ample literature on this. But where did he learn that “as he sat in his cell, Cy could not help but return to the past”? The text offers no clue, and neither do the notes.

Such attempts to graft a persona onto Oggins are unfortunate, and sometimes grating, because Meier’s sketches of the background to his narrative — the radical scene in New York in the 1920s, the Soviet intrigues in Berlin, Paris and Shanghai, the murderous cynicism of Stalinism — are well researched and often quite fascinating in themselves. We meet a Russian Romanov living in faded splendor in Paris, we find J. Edgar Hoover building up his army of informants and agents, we are offered vignettes of malicious Soviet projects in Europe, ranging from counterfeiting to assassination. But here again, we are never sure whether Oggins had anything to do with these events. Meier describes in some detail, for example, an elaborate counterfeiting operation by the Soviets that “may have” been run out of the house in Berlin where Oggins lived. “Were Cy and Nerma involved? The spy memoirs, court records and once-secret archives in Berlin and Moscow yield no trace.” http://louis-j-sheehan.com

Perhaps that is the true story here, how little trace remains of an immigrant’s son who got caught up in the radicalism of the ’20s and ended up devoured by the very “new world” he dreamed of. Meier’s problem may be that he tried too hard to turn this into a “Darkness at Noon” or a “Dr. Zhivago” — which, unlike the story of poor Cy Oggins, are fiction. http://ljsheehan.livejournal.com

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