Monday, 24 February 2014

An extraordinary person, an unjust fate in The Spy Who Loved

From the Week of February 17th, 2014

Joy comes in many forms. Be it ushering a new life into the world or watching a young mind expand with the possibilities of the life to come, be it performing a perfect piece of music or experiencing the power of a sublimely toned body, we are all uplifted by the exhilaration of life's rare moments, those cherished slivers of time in which we, or those we know, are at our best. But while, for most of us, it is enough to simply have these precious memories, others are not so easily satiated by the past. For these souls, joy only erupts from the extremity of emotion and circumstance, from moments in which one's life or one's wellbeing has been wagered on the outcome. Which is precisely why the past wont' suffice. For it is already a known quantity, a settled question from which victory has already flowed. The next battle is the only cure. But as Clare Mulley explains in her riveting work, for some, there can be no more battles.

Born in 1905 to a wealthy, landed family in Poland, Krystyna Skarbec of a daughter of the aristocracy, an educated beauty of class and repute whose life was overturned and shaped by the two great wars that transfixed Europe in the first few decades of the 20th century. Without the Nazis and Communism, without politics and ideology, she might have been someone's wife, a creature living a life of proscribed comfort in which the sorrows and frustrations of being a pretty woman in a man's world would have remained her own. But when the freedom of her beloved country was crushed beneath the jackboots of continental regimes hungering to impose their notion of unity upon the world, the cage of her social confinement was breached, allowing her to crawl out into a broken world and fight for her own freedom.

Beginning in 1939 and only concluding with the end of the Second World War, Krystyna Skarbec, naturalized by Britain as Christine Granville, was an agent in both the Polish Resistance and the Special Operations Executive, a British organization whose remit was to spy on the Axis powers and to commit acts of sabotage where possible. Trained in everything from parachute drops to the transmission of secret codes, Skarbec operated behind enemy lines in much of occupied western Europe, curriering messages to the Allies, helping to take fortified Nazi positions and even intervening to bribe Nazi officers to spare allied prisoners. But despite her extraordinary efforts and the Allied victory over the Axis, she was never able to free her beloved Poland which would remain in the rough hands of soviet Russia long after she had succumbed to the miseries of postwar life.

The spellbinding account of a remarkable woman, The Spy Who Loved is nothing short of extraordinary. Ms. Mulley, an author and journalist, has helped to resurrect the life and times of a woman who should have never been lost to the rough tides of history, whose fearlessness and determination remain inspirational even some sixty years after her death. Swiftly dispensing with Granville's early years, the author concentrates on Granvile's wartime service, painting a lush portrait of a woman of charm and hunger, of grand habits and even grander drive who surmounted the prejudices of her age to leave her mark, to make a difference, to be someone. That sorrow was her primary reward for such strength of will is a pity that no amount of acclaim can sooth.

Cultures then and now might call Krystyna Skarbec a slut. They might look at her sexual appetites and her many lovers and dismiss her as a woman who slept her way to success. Indeed, this opinion, or fear of, is partially responsible for her present anonymity. For the men with whom she was close were so eager to guard her reputation that they were reluctant for her story to be told at all. This is idiocy. For while it is inappropriate to so blithely condemn any woman, it is even more foolish to do so with a woman who behaved no differently than any of her many male comrades. And even were it appropriate to label any woman such, such a label would not fit. For far from a degenerate, skarbec seized life, sucking from it every drop of nourishment it could offer her. In wartime, she comes alive, relishing her own agency, her own power, her own capacity to be a hero. This is the designation she has earned, not one rooted in dated sexist notions of foolish propriety.

As much as this is a winning biography of a rare woman in a brutal period of history, The Spy Who Loved is also a kind of office drama set in wartime. As the first woman to join the SOE, Skarbec was beset by all manner of prejudices that, with sixty years of reformist hindsight, appear even more absurd now than they must have seemed to her then. Despite her willingness to risk her life for her country, despite her obvious competence in the arenas of espionage and sabotage, she was distrusted, denied the legal use of a gun and often marginalized to the sidelines of a war she was eager to fight. Worst of all these nonsensical sins, however, is Skarbec's treatment after the war where upon England, the nation so fond of thinking of itself as the great civilizer, entangled her in sexist legalities which not only denied her the combat medals she so clearly deserved, but obligated her to pretend to be married in order to receive the citizenship she'd so clearly earned. It is shameful enough that these foolish codes troubled such a courageous veteran. That they also indirectly contributed to her death is an intolerable irony.

The Spy Who Loved could have devoted more time to Skarbec's early years. And indeed, it is slightly troubling that so much of the work has to be told through the eyes of others, an unfortunate necessity thanks to the dearth of skarbec's own correspondence. But these are small imperfections in what is otherwise the biography of a brave, liberated hero who should be celebrated for achievements on the battlefield and pitied for the peace she could never find off of it. Unforgettable... (4/5 Stars)

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