A KGB spy undergoes spiritual conversion--in an uneven, implausible, but strangely likable first novel by the Vatican's...



A KGB spy undergoes spiritual conversion--in an uneven, implausible, but strangely likable first novel by the Vatican's first Permanent Observer at the UN (1964-73). In the novel, the holder of that Holy See/UN position circa 1972 is urbane Monsignor Righi--but Righi isn't really Righi! He's KGB agent Panin, who, via plastic surgery and secret abduction, has managed to replace the real Righi: now in N.Y. Panin/Righi, with a network of incognito KGB cohorts (including rectory housekeeper Mrs. O'Rourke), is supposed to gather data for the Soviets--especially re Arab/Israel secrets and spying. But a newcomer-priest at the rectory, Polish-born Start Potocki, immediately senses something fishy about Righi, taking his suspicions to the FBI (who fairly soon are getting the goods on the KGB ring). And, more important, Righi/Panin himself starts losing track of his spy-fervor and spy-coldness--in a sexless but intense relationship with a comely, confused young Israeli spy (""the puzzling desire to be a teacher to this genuinely questioning woman""), in a fable-like street encounter with a beleaguered old rabbi who recalls Soviet atrocities: ""For the first time in his career as a spy, the KGB Colonel felt a soulful responsibility. . . he could not let himself continue the lies and the pretenses. . . ."" So, just as the FBI is closing in, Panin haltingly finds God, sneaks back to Rome, Confesses All to an agreeable cardinal, chats with the Pope. . . but finally returns, saint/martyr-like, to torture and certain death in Russia: ""It was as though his becoming a Christian was a call to bring leaven into Mother Russia's battle against God."" Spy-fiction fans, then, will find only a few tidbits of action or suspense here: the FBI/ KGB doings are mild and largely non-violent--with a few effective cat-and-mouse interrogations. Conversely, devotees of spiritual fare may not care for the rather cartoony espionage premise--or for the decided murkiness of Panin's transformation. Still, with lots of engaging UN texture (cafeteria chat, social obligations, matter-of-fact spying) and agreeably wry narration, this is a curious, atmospheric item--though many readers will be sure to drop out once Panin shifts from cornered spy to spiritual seeker.

Pub Date: April 1, 1983


Page Count: -

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1983