The Unbeliever by Oggy Boytchev

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Reviewed by Annabel

The Unbeliever by Oggy Boytchev

Oggy (Ognian) Boytchev grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Bulgaria. He developed an interest in spies and spy novels as a child, after hearing propaganda on the radio of a convicted spy’s confession – broadcast after his execution. He went on to escape the to the west, becoming a journalist, linking up with the BBC’s legendary Foreign Editor John Simpson as his producer. Behind every great reporter is his team, and Oggy documented their years of reporting together, often under really dangerous circumstances, in a thrilling memoir, Simpson and I (2014).

For his first novel, Oggy returned to the subject of that broadcast to tell the fictionalised true story of a spy, a Bulgarian communist diplomat who spied for the CIA from the late 1940s through a turbulent period in eastern Europe’s times, before finally being caught in late 1963.

Meet Alexander Ivanov, Bulgarian, a good communist, husband, lawyer, diplomat, lover and spy.

“Do you plead guilty or not guilty?” […]

The accused was a stout man in his mid fifties, with short grey hair combed to one side. Dressed in a dark three-piece suit, white shirt and a striped tie, he was flanked by two self-conscious sergeants in the uniform of the People’s Militia, the feared police service of the communist regime. His clothes set him apart from the rest of the people in the hall, barely five foot five, but with an intimidatingly elegant demeanour. He had a rough labourer’s face, which belied his fierce intelligence.

“Guilty,” he replied in a strong, unwavering voice.

The prologue begins with the verdict, before moving to the early 1990s when Boytchev met Ivanov’s widow Dora to hear her side of the story. The book didn’t take flight until much later though, when Boytchev gets a call from a man who has a secret copy of the interrogation notes; their owner’s father had been an ‘ambitious young major’ and planned to write a book about the case, which didn’t happen. Having two sides of the story made all the difference, and Oggy’s book was born. Boytchev structures the novel using these two points of view.

First, after the trial and its verdict, we return to September 1963 and Ivanov’s arrest. With his diplomat’s hat on as a member of the International Space Federation he was in Moscow at his favourite Metropol hotel, awaiting a tryst with a young physicist, Olga. When he answers a knock at the door, three KGB officers and another from Bulgarian State Security are there, not Olga. The Bulgarian introduces himself:

“I am Major Ivan Ohridski, Bulgarian State Security,” the young man said. …

Alexander didn’t utter a word, he just shrugged his shoulders contemptuously. By the time the KGB agents had finished their job, Alexander was already waiting by the window fully dressed in a thick dark coat. He was holding his black felt hat in his hand. He threw one last glance through the window as if to say goodbye to the city he was so fond of.

Major Ohridski was unnerved by Alexander’s disdain. In his previous experience, people were reduced to gibbering wrecks when the KGB descended on them.

We already have a clear picture of the initial relationship between Ivanov and the young major whose job it will be over the coming weeks to coax a confession out of him. Ivanov knows in his heart that he will be executed, but he holds the cards at first, controlling his gradual release of information. They come to have a grudging respect for each other, not least because the major doesn’t resort to torture, just a dogged determination to get the truth. When faced with the insurmountable odds of other people’s testimonies, Ivanov rather relishes revealing this disclosures to the CIA.

Ivanov comes across as an arrogant man who really enjoys living the high life, meeting other countries’ diplomats, as a multi-linguist moving easily in many circles, speaking French, German and English as perfectly as Russian and his native tongue. Once his career takes off, he always has a mistress on the go, from Lucienne in Paris, to his secretary Rosa in Italy and latterly Olga; all of whom he ‘looks after’. Despite his multiple infidelities, he remains fiercely in love with and protective of his wife Dora.

Dora tells how they first met when his family left Sofia after an attempt to blow up the king in 1925. They moved to the provinces and he and Dora had the beginnings of a relationship, but were parted temporarily when Alexander moved to Paris to study law at the Sorbonne, where he met Lucienne, the first of his many lovers. However, upon his return Dora, by now studying to be a doctor, and Alexander were married.

Alexander has always had strong views on the government of his beloved country, but it’s who you know that ultimately determines your career trajectory. Alexander would always feel that he’d been passed over, each time an opportunity for real advancement appeared. But, because of his expertise and language skills, he was useful – he and Dora would find themselves back in Paris in 1946, with Alexander working on the peace treaty between the Allies over the fate of the Axis members.

It’s here that he is first approached by the CIA to assess the political situation between Bulgaria and the Soviet states. Alexander’s spying would rarely involve traditional spycraft. Instead, pandering to his ego and using his fierce intelligence and lawyer’s ability for analysis, he starts to file reports on the factions and alliances within the communist party. As his own position and influence rises, ending up with him working at the UN in New York and being a friend of U Thant, the paranoia behind the scenes increases too. There are too many people back in Bulgaria and Moscow who are less visible, some survivors of Stalin’s regime who’ve had to forge new alliances, and they’re suspicious of the elegant Ivanov who moves in rather un-communist circles. By 1963, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, everyone remains permanently on edge, but Ivanov continues to follow his own path, despite Dora’s increasing concerns.

Between the two viewpoints of the Major and Dora, Boytchev manages to give us a comprehensive view of Bulgarian politics, especially after WWII, although many of those who will haunt Ivanov’s careers were active before too. He protects Dora, but she is no fool, she understands more than he ever knew, and through her viewpoint we see how hard it was to constantly manage to get the right balance that doesn’t call attention to oneself, something Alexander is often immune to. Sometimes I got confused as to who was who in the world of Soviet-Bulgarian politics, but that didn’t detract from the narrative drive, as they may have changed allegiance to another leader by the next time they cropped up.

Dora had no option but to stand by her man, however, it was clear that they really did love each other, and philanderer that he was, Ivanov is not without charisma. Major Ohridski is also sympathetically realised, an upright young officer not yet mired in politics. However, they are all pawns in the power plays of their leaders.

Sometimes, real life is stranger than fiction. You couldn’t make up a story like that of Alexander Ivanov, but Boytchev has turned it into a taut and chilling drama.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Oggy Boytchev, The Unbeliever (Quartet, 2018). 978-0704374508, 214pp., paperback.

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