Tuesday, September 4, 2007


I'm just finished with Ben Macintyre's Agent Zigzag (Lover Traitor Hero Spy), which I found in a bookstall in the Covent Garden market in London. It tells the true story of an English rogue named Eddie Chapman, a career petty criminal who fell under Nazi control when the Jersey prison in which he was doing time was taken over by German invaders during the Second World War. Chapman saved himself at the hands of Vichy by offering to go to work as a German spy. Then (after months of rigorous and detailed private training), upon parachuting into England to begin spying for the Nazis, he immediately turned himself over to the British authorities and let them in on the situation. After much very skeptical inquiry (he was, after all, a wanted man in Britain for crimes committed before the war) his offer to counter-spy for his home country was provisionally accepted--but naturally a very close eye was kept on him.

What follows can only be filed under "truth is stranger than fiction," and indeed a blurb from MI5 on the book's cover says that this spy story would be rejected as fiction for being too improbable. The business of constantly-shifting loyalties, combined with Chapman's already sociopathic and narcissistic personality, makes it compelling to watch and to try and keep track of. It must have been almost impossible at the time to know when Chapman was lying, since he seemed to do it so effortlessly and so well (though of course the book is written with the benefit of hindsight).

One has to remind oneself that the save-the-world plots of James Bond films are hopelessly over-the-top, and in reality it requires much smaller events to result in people dead and countries imperiled. For countries at war, with their very existences in doubt, everything takes on an elevated importance, and one never knows when little things may turn out to be pivotal. With our sensibilities thus recalibrated, we watch Eddie Chapman saunter back and forth across the lines, playing each side against the other while living in grand, hedonistic style. He was simultaneously in love with (and promised to) several women in different countries, and his best friend was his boss at the German Abwehr, whom he was betraying by working for British intelligence while pretending to be a Nazi spy. He seemed motivated by a genuine sense of loyalty to England and volunteered repeatedly for what can only be seen as death-defying missions, yet he angled for more money at every turn, and British Intelligence was always wondering if he wouldn't just flip a switch and go over to the Germans in earnest. Meanwhile, he would steal things off of people's desks when they weren't looking.

We make the acquaintance of an amazing cast of eccentrics, geniuses and sociopaths, personalities flamboyant and invisible, who work in Britain's and Germany's espionage sections, and hear a seemingly unending line of stories. Talking about the business of running a double agent--that is, using an active German spy for English purposes--Macintyre writes:

The logistical challenge was immense. Each double agent required a safe house and a staff of at least five people: a case officer, a wireless operator to monitor or transmit his messages, two guards on twelve-hour shifts to ensure he did not run away, and a trusted housekeeper to look after and feed the group. Meanwhile, the case officer had to establish what his agent had been sent to find out, and then produce a fake facsimile of it, but without damaging the war effort. An agent who transmitted useless information would be seen as a failure by the [German spy service], and dropped. To maintain German confidence, the double agent must send a mixture of true but essentially harmless information known as 'chickenfeed,' extraneous facts and undetectably false tidbits, along with whatever disinformation was agreed upon...

The ideal case officer needed to be a combination of guard, friend psychologist, radio technician, paymaster, entertainments organiser and private nursemaid. It helped if he or she was also a saint, since the individual being cosseted and coaxed in this way was quite likely to be extremely unpleasant, greedy, paranoid, treacherous, and, at least initially, an enemy of Britain. Finally, all of the above had to be accomplished at breakneck speed, because the longer a spy took to make contact with the enemy, the more likely his German spymaster would suspect that he had been captured and turned.

It's ironic that the very person whom the English police were striving to remove from society for his criminal nature (there were warrants out for his arrest) was found to be just the unscrupulous kind of character needed to play a Englishman disenfranchised from his country, someone who could be convincing to the Germans.

There's lots to keep straight, for us readers and especially for Chapman himself. He had a vast vocabulary of tricks and wireless codes which were used to encrypt messages, code words that meant specific things. Now, as a Nazi agent turned to work for the Brits, he had to keep up his German trickery, but modified so as to keep to a minimum the actual harm done to England, while at the same time implementing the will of British Intelligence--by way of their own large vocabulary of tricks and signs and codes. His secret messages back to the Brits were acknowledged (so that Chapman might know of their successful reception) by ads place in code in the personals section of the London Times, a paper which Chapman knew his German boss read habitually and would then pass on to Chapman.

It's fascinating to watch as events unfold, especially between a small number of key players. For these players, these dangerous and momentous events constitute a seminal part of their lives, a thing that put them on the map. I've often wondered about war generally as being this seminal event for all who are involved in it, and these people in these recorded events made their way into history books because of their involvement. This book covered these cast members' fifteen minutes, the things they looked back at for the rest of their lives.

Chapman was released from spy service toward the end of the war, and, predictably, returned to his previous ways as a rogue private citizen, hobnobbing with all manner of street urchins, thiefs and swindlers. And for the rest of his life he told the story of his wartime escapades, double-sided espionage at the highest level. One wonders, boy who cried wolf and all, whether any of his cronies actually believed him...

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