Littell (The Defection of A. J. Lewinter, 1973) is our best exponent of the real Realpolitikal thriller--this one taking place in Sofia in 1968, in a thin, gray ""present ridiculous"" after the Russians impose their so-called peaceful counterrevolution on Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. The October Circle, a group of old-line, '30's-style Communists who will remind you of the worn idealists of La Guerre est Finie, sit around coffee-housing about Malraux and Sartre and the better old days when you could still distinguish right from wrong and retain some hope for a humanity without checkpoints. They polarize around the Flag Holder, a once-writing writer with no fingernails, who keeps everyone at a distance except his son Georgi; a mistress; a magician; and the young bicycle racer who will pick up the ""flag"" after the dreadful cycle of arrests, mutilation (Georgi) and terrorism is generated. In a desperate protest--perhaps only ""theater"" will be effective--the Flag Holder sets himself on fire. His suicide is dismissed summarily with his burial as a nonperson. This leaves only the young legatee Tacho to make the ride across the border and choose between freedom--or another unremembered martyr's death. Littell has a graphic command of the ""present ridiculous"" while lending here and there, through assorted characters, an inventive sense of the absurd--but then can we quite demarcate the absurd from the heroic? He's also a fine ironist, with lines like ""A Communist is someone who, when he smells roses, looks around for a coffin"" branded on the pages of his intensive, involving novel. Littell writes not only above the genre but beyond it--with smoke rings of conjecture and a striking show of courage.