It seems fitting that Stanislav Levchenko, a Soviet KGB major who defected to the United States via Tokyo in 1979, names Ryunosuke Akutagawa, a prewar fiction writer, in describing his early fascination with Japanese culture.
Akutagawa is best remembered for his psychological fables, in particular an enigmatic short story--later to become the basis of the much acclaimed movie "Rashomon"--in which witnesses and participants build an elaborate puzzle with contradictory testimony about a rape-murder scene.
"Here was a writer from another land speaking to the very heart of Russia," Levchenko writes, embarking on his own tale of how he became a perfect spy.
Levchenko's book, "On the Wrong Side: My Life With the KGB," is an engaging confessional that attempts to portray a courageous and tortured man, a survivor of the most heinous of institutions in the Soviet system.
Yet there are elements of the tale--and of the telling--that inexorably ring hollow. Levchenko's tone alternates between sincere exposition and something resembling the ultimate tradecraft of a spy: fiction. A skeptical reader might feel too beguiled by Levchenko to believe him.
"I have tried to open my soul so that people will know that inside the KGB officer there existed a man with feelings and a heart and sensitivities," the author writes. "At times, I feel that this book is a form of spiritual surgery, a catharsis, a cleansing of old wounds."
Indeed, since Levchenko's intelligence work in Japan has already been spelled out in an earlier book by John Barron, "KGB Today: The Hidden Hand," published by Reader's Digest Press in 1983, a personalized account is in order. Perhaps the most important contribution Levchenko can now make is to document the contradictory emotions and compartmented realities in the mind of the spy.
Unfortunately, he chose a hackneyed, novelistic technique to do so, and thereby damages the fragile suspension of disbelief that would be necessary to digest his spooky world.
The reader meets "Stan" Levchenko, as his new American friends have christened him, through italicized musings set on the seaside in North Carolina. Here the author broods over his life, combing the beach for symbolism: The sound of the surf becomes melancholy strains of classical Japanese music; a hungry pelican is predator to a wriggling fish, then prey to screaming gulls.
"'That, too, is part of the game,' I mused. 'You are the hunter until you make your catch. Then all at once you're the hunted."'
Such passages are the frame from which the author flashes back, abruptly, to a more prosaic account of his difficult childhood, his education, and his training and exploits as a KGB operative.
Levchenko's life is plausible, but it reads like a fable. Mother Russia is personified as an attractive woman doctor named Anastasia, who nurses young Levchenko back to life after he is crushed in a traffic accident. Anastasia marries his remote and widowed father, then beats the boy mercilessly when he does not perform well in school.
Laden with the guilt of an abused child, Levchenko copes with tyranny by fantasizing about exotic Japan. Before being seduced by the KGB, he seeks succor as Japanese translator and peace researcher; he becomes a covert Russian Orthodox Christian, poignantly composing business letters to God in one compartment of his mind.
A redoubtable Levchenko, meanwhile, gets perfect scores in his cloak-and-dagger training and is dispatched to Tokyo under journalist's cover. In Japan, he performs superbly until he meets his professional nemesis, KGB Col. Vladimir Pronnikov, a dirty trickster who emerges as the incarnation of Soviet evil. A nagging conscience--and fear of Pronnikov--finally prompt Levchenko to abandon his beautiful wife and son and seek asylum in the United States.
There is no reason to doubt that Levchenko was a KGB officer operating in Japan from 1975 to 1979 using as his cover a post as correspondent for the New Times, a Soviet weekly magazine. Japan was later shocked when Levchenko identified a number of prominent journalists and politicians as being among the agents he used for espionage and disinformation. A translation of Barron's book caused an uproar here.
Levchenko asserts, with a fair degree of authority, that Japan is a "paradise for spies." The intelligence marketplace offers a gold mind of strategic high technology and the government conducts only limited counter-espionage activities. But the self-described "expert" on Japanese affairs stops short of seriously evaluating why Japan remains so vulnerable.
Instead, he advocates swift enactment of anti-spy legislation that has been indefinitely shelved in Parliament because it rouses the the ghosts of the tokko , or thought police, for many people who lived through Japan's nightmarish war years. Levchenko says he has declared war on the Soviet system, yet he appears oblivious to the latent issue of authoritarianism in Japan, the "graceful, gracious, courageous country I had come to love."
Levchenko's story, like the spy, is too perfect to be entirely believable. One senses a lack of gritty texture to his tale, puzzles over his motives, and walks away feeling unsatisfied about knowing the inner workings of the man.