The spy wears Prada


The spy wears Prada

LINZA DE JAGER hung out in Beirut with secret agent Analise Assad while bombs rained down and blood flowed.

Beirut Station ticked all my boxes. It's a spy novel with the bonus of a few special ingredients. The best of these is the protagonist, a glamorous female CIA spy of Middle Eastern origin. 

Analise Assad can speak three languages and shoot like a sniper. She can change her appearance in the blink of an eye. One moment she looks like a fashionable shopper with her large Prada sunglasses and Ferragamo bag, the next she dons her hijab and disappears, as it were, among the faithful in a mosque. It is noted of her, “most intelligence officers needed to be trained to compartmentalise their lives, but Analise's instincts had sprung from her chrysalis fully formed". She needs her ingenuity here in Beirut, because she's under non-official cover; this means she is not officially recognised by the CIA as an agent. If something goes wrong, she is on her own.

When we meet Analise, her time in Beirut is almost at an end. She's happy to be leaving because she sees the place as a “hardship tour", and that's saying something, because she was previously stationed in Iraq. Israel has just begun its 34-day war against Hezbollah. Bombs rain down on the city, which until the 1950s was known as the Paris of the Middle East. Analise's plan to return to America is thwarted when an assassination attempt on a member of Hezbollah, Najib Qassem, fails.

Ironically, she and her boss, Rick Aldrich, foiled the assassination, which they helped plan with the Israeli secret service, Mossad. They stopped a car bomb from being activated when Qassem's grandchildren got into his car. Now the assassination must be replanned from scratch. And it's a necessity because the CIA has received information that Qassem is planning to assassinate US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she arrives in Beirut for talks.

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Analise is the key to the success of the operation. She has befriended Qassem's grandson, Rami, through her work as a volunteer English tutor at a school. She paid attention to Rami and he opened up to her. He tells her of his concerns about the marriage being planned for his twin sister and about his dreams of playing football. Thanks to him, she can get in touch with Qassem. Reluctantly and against her better judgement, she begins to care for the teenage boy.

The book's subtitle is Two Lives of a Spy. This is important because it helps the reader understand Analise. She is two people, and increasingly she no longer knows herself, she only knows her professional persona.

That's the case with all spies, and most of them may be even more alienated from their true selves than Analise. Beirut is trapped in a vicious cycle. When blood flows — and it flows all the time in this book — more has to flow in revenge. Analise's boss believes the CIA spies are doing a difficult but necessary job. This is how he sums up their work: “We are the heralds, the Mercuries, the good shepherds. Our job is to speak truth to power." He is the most moral and complex character in the book. He has already resigned from the CIA but he can't stay away because he is addicted to the adrenaline.

Aldrich has a thing about his personal safety, which is why he has a doppelganger driving with him in a decoy vehicle. After all, he remembers what happened to his predecessor, Bill Buckley, who was kidnapped and killed in this very city. The use of Buckley, a true historical character, is one of many factors that make the book feel so real.

Despite everything, however, Aldrich is doomed. He can't keep his mouth shut about his suspicions that Mossad is playing a dirty game by killing Lebanese politicians because Israel wants to annex the country. He reports on this to his CIA bosses in America, and shortly thereafter he dies in a car bombing. It's his murder that changes Analise's life. Her true self is now emerging and she can't remain silent. When Analise reports her suspicions to the CIA, it's hunting season on her as well. What follows is a great episode, if your nerves can handle it. 

What stands out in the book is the role of Analise, because it destroys stereotypical ideas of what Arab women are like. The thugs and survivors around her are scumbags. The city also stands out, and its foods, because delicious food is prepared amid all the drama. Beirut's history of spies is also telling. Analise, for example, takes refuge in an apartment that belonged to double agent Kim Philby in the 1960s. It's just as well we're dealing with a novel and not reality, because there's no toilet paper or running water here. Our heroine is too busy to pee anyway, I assume.

Beirut Station's plot rushes forward like a fast-moving river. 

Vidich is described as the successor of writers like Graham Greene and John le Carré, but one need not look for influences. He's his own person. He has a secret weapon in his writing arsenal, and it's one that few people would want. His uncle was CIA scientist Frank Olsen, who was killed, it is suspected, by the same organisation. If you really want to smell a rat, check out the Netflix series Wormwood that covers this, and you'll see what motivates Vidich.

Who, what, where and how much?

Beirut Station by Paul Vidich was published by Bedford Square and costs R425 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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