Thursday, January 2, 2014

Charm School

Book: Charm School
Author:Nelson DeMille
Edition:eBook on Overdrive
Read:December 2013
847 pages
Rated: 3 1/2 out of 5

Synopsis:
This is a spy vs spy vs spy story. The premise is the question, "what happened to all of the missing-in-action pilots shot down in Vietnam?" DeMille's answer is a school in Russia which teaches Russians to become Americans. Not just to teach them American English, but make them act, talk, be American's. Not only that, but what would America do if it found out about these missing airmen?

The story starts with an unsuspecting American, Foster, driving across Russia who gets lost. Coincidentally he meets a mysterious American, Dodson,  which he gives a ride to for a short ways. Dodson tells Foster that he and some 300 other MIA's are being held close by to teach Russians to become Americans. Foster gets to Moscow and tells the American embassy this story and then disappears, only to turn up dead in his car, wrecked.

The spy apparatus at the US embassy-the Air Force attache, Sam Hollis, and the public affairs officer-Seth, a CIA agent, start working on figuring out the truth of the matter. Lisa, who writes press releases, is involved with Sam, but Seth is her old boyfriend. The Russian KGB does their best to stop any investigation, but gradually the Americans realize the truth of the story.

Then the question is, what do you do about it? This is the time of detente, so no one wants to rock the boat. The Russians take matters in their own hands by removing diplomatic immunity from Sam and Lisa and demanding they leave the country. On the flight out, Sam and Lisa are kidnapped and taken to the Charm School, interrogated by the KGB. They opt to become Charm School instructors. Seth then tries to rescue them. The ending is the rescue, along with what happens to the school.


Thoughts:
This book has five parts:
I. A lost American stumbles on secret camp in the USSR
II. Establishes good guys, semi-good guys and bad guys
III. What is the Charm School?
IV. Forced removal from USSR and Kidnapping
V. Charm School Rescue

Becoming American
DeMille lays out the crux of the story on page 129 (chp 8). In there Lisa and Sam are discussing who could pass as a Russian? Sam says that there is a saying the "only a Russian can speak Russian Russian." Even with as good of Russian which Lisa and Sam speaks, they would not pass as a Russian born speaker, maybe Seth would (as a note: later in the book, Seth thinks he knows that a real Russian would know he is not Russian because of his limited vocabulary). But Lisa brings up that passing as a Russian is more than speaking flawless Russian. It is how you walk, facial expressions and mannerisms. "To be Russian is the sum total of the national and cultural experience." Then the question comes up, how about the reverse, could a Russian pass as an American? Particularly if there is a finishing school where a Russian could spend a concentrated time acting as an American, mimicking Americans.  The consensus would be if nobody was examining them too closely.

While the premise is interesting, I do wonder about the practicality. Such as, just trying to imitate another person is hard. Doing it for an hour is almost impossible. But to do it for 20-40 years? I would guess it is impossible. Of course, the idea is not to imitate a particular person, but to act like the type of a particle people. But in some ways, that is even harder. While you do not have to imitate someone else's mannerisms, it does mean that you never can relax and revert back to your own culture, your own upbringing. Even small things, such as how you smoke a cigarette would trip you up.

The Russian Charm School-the school which trains Russians to act like Americans--goal was not to train people to become part of the CIA or FBI or any of the intelligence agencies. Rather it was to have enough people to be spread throughout the fabric of society. They do not have to become an aide to the President, but just his housekeeper. A friendly reporter may go anywhere and gather information freely--it is part of his job. Becoming the fabric of an open society, such as America, would be easy enough. I worked with a Russian accountant, did not think a thing of it. Our society is diverse enough that most idiosyncrasies would not be noticed.


Missing Americans
Is is plausible that Russia could have siphoned off 300 American MIA's from Vietnam? It probably is. Now how to get them out of Vietnam and to Moscow without anybody knowing would be interesting. It would be harder if the Americans had actually gotten to a Prisoner of War camp in Vietnam. How would Vietnam have reconciled this with the memories of returning POW's?  Even more so, how would Russia been able to keep it secret for 10-20 years? Even in a closed society such as theirs, there are defections.

The flip side of this is a question DeMille raises, Did America desert its MIA's? He points out there were a lot of privately funded ventures to account for them. But how much did the people of the United States fork over? What was America's obligation? DeMille points out that Article I.c of US Code of Conduct for Fighting Forces says: c. Just as you have a responsibility to your country under the Code of Conduct, the United States government has an equal responsibility—to keep faith with you and stand by you as you fight for your country. If you are unfortunate enough to become a prisoner of war, you may rest assured that your government will care for your dependents and will never forget you. Furthermore, the government will use every practical means to contact, support and gain release for you and for all other prisoners of war. DeMille's points out the many times, and in particular in Vietnam, where the US has not lived up to this article. Is it right to prosecute or look down on POW's which have failed in their duty?


What to do?
In the era of detente, what would the impact of 300 Americans being held captive do to Russian-American relations? Americans would be howling and saying that we cannot trust the Russians. Detente would go down the drain. Some might say that would make us less safe and more prone to armed conflict with the Russians. That in itself would lead to more than 300 deaths.  But how would our government deal with this? Would it sacrifice their lives? Would it face the consequences? We are taught the importance of the individual in America. Would that hold true if the knowledge of their captivity would potentially lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths? Would it be more courageous to destroy those three hundred lives?

Who would want to make that decision? If the decision was to destroy those 300 lives, what kind of person would do so? That would be akin to murder. I suspect there is no right answer here from a political aspect. From a moral aspect, you cannot kill even one person without having implications.

It seems like the quandary here is summed up in the title of a book I have not read yet, but came across during the time I was reading this: The Person and the Common Good by Jacques Maritain. First we must make a distinction which DeMille does not draw--the difference between the Common Good and the Greater Good. The Greater Good deals with numbers is almost a mathematical result. You stack up bodies on one side, bodies on the other side and measure which one is greater. There is no moral dilemma, only deals with which side weighs the most. The Common Good looks at the moral issues involved and says not only who is being harmed and how many, but what good is coming out of this. You top that off by the Person. From a Christian viewpoint, the harm done to a person is harm done to a person created in the image of God. This image is your neighbor and is sacred. In a book I am reading now by Jacques Maritain called The Person and the Common Good, he points out that the person is the most sacred. The Common Good is a supplementary role. It is the individual which worships God, not the masses. So we need to do everything to protect the individual.

The choice in the book is more concerning the Greater Good choice. Sam Hollis would not look at a person in this Christian view, but only some nebalus morality which says who deserves to be rescued and who does not. I do not know what the Christian choice would be here. But it would be something like what Jesus did and involve self-sacrifice for another.


How is this book different from Every Last Cuckoo?
My book group read Every Last Cuckoo last Spring. They did not like it because of the use of profanity, sex and pot. The Charm School is a book where there is little morality presented. And maybe that is the difference between the two books. Cuckoo makes a pretense of morality while Charm School does not. Still I do not think the group will be very enthralled with the sex and profanity.


Religion.
There is a subtext in this novel about religion. From the Lisa character commenting how the Communists tear down the old church buildings to Sam noting that the Communists erect their own sanctuaries to their leaders. DeMille takes us inside of a Russian Orthodox Church when Lisa wants to attend one on the Sunday before they leave. It is more of a civil religion to the participants. But there is a note that more young are involved, which surprised Lisa. Also DeMille shows how religion turned a Russian general into somebody who decided to defect, both for his and his daughter's sake.

But the book is definitely not a moral tract. If anything, it shows that the American concept of religion is not even skin deep. Sam make no attempt to cover himself in any religious aspect, while Lisa is attracted to the faith of her Grandmothers, to the extent she packs around an old Russian icon which belonged to her grandmother. But Lisa's concern with Sam killing Russians is more along the lines of being squeamish rather than moral. She and Sam hop into bed several times during the book. So there is no morality or grace involved with the religion of the novel. More the trappings of religion.

But DeMille cannot get away from religious issues, anymore than we can. He puts into Lisa's mount, You know, every human life needs a spiritual dimension, or it isn't a complete life. This is played out by Lisa attending church, even if not wanting to believe or follow its tenants. Still there is comfort there.

Traitors
 One aspect of finding 300 Americans teaching Russians how to blend into American society is that they are traitors. But are the Americans really traitors? They were under the directive, teach them or be killed. Whenever an escape went bad, which they all did, ten of them would be killed. They tried some subterfuge in their teaching. But for the most part they were turning Russians into Americans.

It is hard to fault them. But you do wonder what would their reception have been if they returned? Hero's? Traitors? Court-Martial? What would have been fair? Also what kind of life would they have had? Had their wives remarried? Would they have been able to assimilate back into American life after being gone 20 years?


Evaluation:
 The book is pretty well written, enjoyable to read. There are a few places where DeMille causes you to think about tough questions: is it better to kill a few to save the world from potential destruction, or to save them and face the consequences? How do we know what reality really is? But for the most part, DeMille writes an entertaining spy vs spy, and in some cases, vs a third spy book. 

DeMille sets a good stage, with an interesting plot. The emphasis is on action and intrigue. But the last two parts to the book, he loses steam and stops riding the wave he built, but relies on active and improbable scenario's to keep the book alive.

Is this a book which I would read again? I probably would not seek it out, but would not turn away if the opportunity presented itself. Would I read something else by him? Probably yes.   While this may not be a fair comparison, I was reading a different action book, Ben-Hur, at the same time. Lew Wallace's epic story has more staying power, more interest than just a chariot race and leads to more satisfying conclusion. Still The Charm School is a good read.
 
Notes from my book group:
  • The premise of the book is that there could be a large number of missing American's in Russian. Is this premise realistic?
  • Does the love triangle between Lisa, Sam and Seth add to the book? How so?
  • When does the book take place(1988)? What was the relationship like with the USSR? Who was president? What was detente?  What place does the large picture have in the book? Is the Spock injunction: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one, correct? To what extent? Who makes this kind of judgement? By the way, Kirk's response, in the next movie, was: Because the needs of the one... outweigh the needs of the many.
  • What would the appropriate response  be to finding that 300 Americans were being held in a foreign country?
  • The vocabulary and sexual situations are similar to a book we read earlier, Every Last Cuckoo. We did not like this later book because of this, how does our thoughts about Charm School be affected by its vocabulary and situations?
  • Is the thought that a person can be "in character" for 20-40 years realistic? What kinds of changes would you think would be happening to a person who tried?
  • Sam Hollis figured out a reporter was on the the Charm School Russians. How? What other mannerisms would you expect to see not brought over?
  • If this novel was written 30 years earlier, how would it have been viewed? I am thinking of the Red Scare and McCarthyism.  In 2010, Rush Limbaugh talked about Charm School in relationship to a the NYPD breaking a spy case: Moscow angrily rejected US accusations today that Washington had cracked an undercover spy ring and said the Cold War style cloak and dagger saga seemed time to wreck a recent thaw in relations. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said US police had gone out of control after ten suspected spies were arrested in the US in the biggest espionage case for years.” US police out of control. Well, he would know, he would know if police are outta control. He was the KGB. And don't forget, they may call it the BBD, or the BFR, the BFF, it's still the KGB, and no one, no one ever leaves the KGB.
  • Was there a Charm School? Did we have one as well?
  • Did your view of Russia change because of reading this book?


New Words:  (There are many Russian words which DeMille uses, but usually does a good job of giving a translation)

  • babushka (140):  1a :  a usually triangularly folded kerchief for the head;  b :  a head covering (as a scarf) resembling a babushka;  2:  an elderly Russian woman
  • Maslo(296)   butter
  • Troglodytes(374)   a person who lived in a cave.
  •  Cordite:   a family of smokeless propellants developed and produced in the United Kingdom since 1889 to replace gunpowder as a military propellant

Good Quotes:
  • First Line: You are already staying in Smolensk two days, Mr. Fisher?
  • Last Line: They stood silently for a long time, listening to the sounds of the ship and the sea, feeling the roll and forward momentum of the freighter as it moved westward, away from Russia.
  • You make a distinction between the people and the government here. But I think people get the kind of government they deserve. pg 143, chp 9
  • Bezizkhodnost. Exitlessness;Dead end; futility; hopelessness; going nowhere....that's what's left when you subtract God from man.  Pg 255, chp 15
  • ...justice is done differently here,... The only justice here is revenge.  Pg 300, chp 19
  • You know, every human life needs a spiritual dimension, or it isn't a complete life. pg 401, chp 26

References:

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