THE MATARESE CIRCLE (1979)
TIME PERIOD: Late 1970s with investigations into events from before World War One and later.
To me this lengthy, epic espionage novel from Robert Ludlum was his finest work, partly because it nicely encapsulated how – over the course of the 20th Century – the world gradually found itself at the mercy of elaborate “intelligence communities” (LMAO) working in conjunction with international corporate fascists.
There’s something almost poetic about the way that – with the hindsight we have now – the bitter enmity between the novel’s central characters (one a U.S. agent and the other a Soviet agent) is washed away a mere decade before the real-world collapse of the Cold War paradigm.
And with that same hindsight it’s almost eerie how those two rivals come to realize that the real seeds of future totalitarianism lie in the New Feudalism’s ugly motto: Nations are obsolete, so wealth wedded to unchecked political power is the coming thing. Ludlum’s arch-villain Guillaume de Matarese was positively prescient.
LEAD HERO: Brandon Alan Scofield – Codename: Beowulf Agate. Forty-six year old veteran of Consular Operations, Ludlum’s fictional Intelligence Organization specializing in defections from hostile nations – mostly Communist – to the United States.
As The Matarese Circle opens in 1979, Scofield has been with Consular Operations for 22 years, almost since its founding. A Harvard grad fluent in multiple languages, Brandon joined the U.S. State Department right out of college. After a couple years in the “real” State Department he gravitated to State’s covert section Consular Operations (or Cons Op for short).
In those early years Cons Op’s activities were not yet totally Top Secret. They were virtually a humanitarian organization which tried to accommodate as many people fleeing the Iron Curtain nations as possible. So many Eastern Europeans began seeking asylum in the Western World that the Soviets realized they had to take steps to cut off the flow of escapees.
Similar to the way they would later construct the Berlin Wall to prevent flight from East Berlin in particular, the Soviets clamped down on potential defections throughout Europe and elsewhere. Soviet intelligence agents – among them Vasili Taleniekov – began shutting down the almost openly- operating Cons Op defection network.
Violence escalated on both sides and eventually Consular Operations was forced to act more and more covertly. The organization was no longer able to accommodate asylum requests from the scores of people who appealed to them daily, hoping to escape to the U.S.
Now Cons Op had to narrow their scope exclusively to high-level defectors who were deemed sufficiently “valuable” to U.S. Intelligence, Military, Political and Scientific pursuits. Brandon Scofield proved proficient at the covert skills and the violence necessary to carry out Cons Op’s narrowed mission but was disillusioned by the changes.
Scofield was set to transfer to a different section of the State Department, intent on pursuing a career as a Diplomat. Unfortunately, shortly before that transfer could be finalized, KGB Agent Vasili Taleniekov (who knew nothing of the planned transfer) engineered the hit and run death of Scofield’s wife Karine, as a message to Beowulf Agate and his colleagues in Consular Operations.
Brandon Scofield’s fury over his wife’s fate steeled his resolve rather than intimidating him or making him careless. He canceled the transfer request and went on to be Cons Ops’ most effective field agent in Europe and the U.S.S.R.
Not only did Beowulf Agate thrive on stinging the Soviets by pulling off the most high-level defections he could, but he also took a more personal revenge by killing the brother of Vasili Taleniekov, the KGB man behind his wife’s murder.
From then on the professional and personal enmity between Scofield/ Beowulf Agate and Taleniekov/ The Serpent helped write the history of both their organizations. The two men clashed all over the map, with Scofield and his fellow Cold War versions of the Scarlet Pimpernel helping as many defectors as possible while Taleniekov and his KGB colleagues thwarted them whenever they could.
SECONDARY HERO: Vasili Vasilovich Taleniekov – Codename: The Serpent. (I’ve always felt the Viper would have made a better codename since it would reflect the “V” for Vasili just like Beowulf Agate’s codename matched the B.A. for Brandon Alan in Scofield’s name.)
As this novel opens Taleniekov has been with the KGB for 25 years. Like Scofield he was a brilliant student but the Soviet government decreed that with his aptitudes he would serve the State better as an intelligence agent rather than as an historian like he wanted.
Vasili was not working out well in intelligence work at first but after some U.S. GI’s stationed in Germany raped his activist girlfriend he was sobered into a more vicious attitude and a greater willingness to use violence. Like his archenemy Beowulf Agate, Taleniekov became a virtual legend in the intelligence field, engineering many masterful operations which were studied at the covert academies.
VILLAINS: The Matarese. Much of the information on this shadowy organization is unearthed by Scofield and Taleniekov as the tale progresses so I’ll just offer a minimum of information here.
This organization was founded by Guillaume de Matarese in 1911 as a renegade intelligence outfit dedicated to the fanatical philosophy of the Matarese patriarch. Initially the Matarese agents specialized in paid political assassinations, all the while secretly retaining proof of the culpability of their clients.
As decades rolled along the potential exposure of the powerful individuals who paid to have their opponents knocked off provided the Matarese with leverage to start openly co-opting or secretly infiltrating the world’s intelligence agencies. From there the Matarese could pull more and more strings behind the scenes to the point that they are getting ready for their big move as our story opens.
In general the origin of the Matarese organization parallels the founding of the Union Corse (Corsican Union), Corsica’s version of the Mafia, which started out as a secret political resistance group before degenerating into a criminal empire. Rather than lapse into common criminality Ludlum’s Matarese evolves along political lines as if the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations were wedded to the Bilderberg Group.
In particular Guillaume de Matarese seems to be a pastiche and composite of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli (“Il Padrone”), Henri Curiel and Nicholas Ishutin. The Shepherd Boy is supposedly based on Juan March Ordinas.
SYNOPSIS: In Moscow, Vasili Taleniekov has made waves with his superiors once too often. Though he usually acts to shut down potential escapes to the West by high-profile dissidents he made an exception in a recent situation.
An outspoken Jewish dissident behind the Iron Curtain had become a cause celebre for an unnamed American Senator. Taleniekov felt that the tactical setback of letting the dissident go was worth the strategic advantage of letting the Senator mistakenly believe that the Jewish man was being freed ONLY because of said Senator’s “friendship” with certain figures at the Soviet Embassy.
Vasili outmaneuvered a few fanatical, younger KGB Agents to ensure that the dissident got away and appeared at a high profile press conference with the unnamed Senator. Now, that Senator believed he was obligated to certain Soviet personnel and an awkward, potentially compromising relationship had been established where none had existed before.
Like Don Corleone with his “favors” Taleniekov’s plan was for the Senator to be called on for repayment during some future, as yet unknown, KGB crisis. In the doghouse now with the superiors of the KGB Agents he had outfoxed, Vasili was increasingly worried that he would eventually make one enemy too many.
As if in response to such thoughts Taleniekov finds himself drawn into an explosive, potentially career-destroying situation. His old, OLD mentor in the Intelligence Field from when he started tells Vasili that he has learned that the legendary Matarese organization is real and not the stuff of conspiracy theories as so many had come to believe.
They are also about to enact their coup de main, seizing covert control of the U.S. through political maneuvers and open control of the U.S.S.R. through assassination. The Matarese are so confident of their success that they are cavalierly dismissing the danger of unleashing nuclear war if anything goes wrong.
The old mentor – dying from a bullet wound from a Matarese agent – barely has time to pass his information along to Vasili. He wants Taleniekov to seek out his hated foe Beowulf Agate to pool their resources and expose the Matarese once and for all.
The mentor points out that Taleniekov and Scofield were both recently framed by the Matarese for deadly actions (see the novel for details). Those actions will provide the excuse for Matarese conspirators in the American and Soviet governments to kill off Scofield and Taleniekov like they have framed and killed off other high-powered intelligence players who are not part of their conspiracy.
Vasili naturally is loathe to seek help from his hated old foe and instead tries to work from within the KGB to expose the Matarese conspiracy. In short order he is denounced as a traitor by their high-placed conspirators and sentenced to death on sight.
Taleniekov is forced to flee the Soviet Union and begins contemplating what would once have been unthinkable: joining forces with his archenemy Beowulf Agate to save themselves – and their nations – from the Matarese.
Back with Brandon Scofield we readers get a taste of how Brandon, nicknamed Bray, often makes waves with his superiors like Taleniekov always did with his. It’s part of the standard fictional bit of making clear how similar a character is to his archenemy, though they’d both be disgusted to think about it.
(For a fun comparison think of Belloq pointing out to Indiana Jones how alike they are.)
Scofield’s situation also lets the reader in on other aspects of Consular Operations’ responsibilities and organization. Cons Op has personnel who help defectors disappear into new identities and provide security for those defectors. Those security agents of Cons Op also keep an eye out for signs of a defector secretly being a covert plant.
That section of Consular Operations has informed Scofield that one of the defectors from the Soviet Union – a scientist – seems to have been covertly providing his former Soviet masters with information on American satellite surveillance of the USSR.
Beowulf Agate mounts a sting operation to determine the truth and becomes convinced that the scientist is only aiding the Soviets to save the life of a loved one he (the scientist) mistakenly thought was already dead when he defected. But as it turns out his superiors in Consular Operations already considered that.
A furious Scofield realizes his desk-bound superiors simply took the easy way out and had Brandon’s agent-in- training kill the scientist just because they were too inept to figure out how to USE the man to feed the Soviets false information instead of the real info he had been providing.
The fallout from all of this results in Beowulf Agate being recalled from Europe and forced into an early retirement. Daniel Congdon, the current Director of Cons Op, wants him out of the way because of his increasing rebelliousness.
Bray numbly accepts all this, since he was growing fed up with the bureaucratic in-fighting and jockeying for position afflicting the modern Cons Op. He plans to retire quietly and gradually drink himself to death since he has never truly stopped mourning his late wife.
Before he knows it he becomes aware that his old enemy Vasili Taleniekov is trying to make contact with him. Quite reasonably Scofield mistakenly thinks Vasili is seeking him out to kill him rather than let him peacefully retire.
Over the next several days Brandon and Taleniekov square off in a life or death battle of spycraft move and countermove. After a physically and mentally exhausting clash which could serve as an entire novel by itself for most writers, Ludlum’s two arch-foes come to an understanding about the Matarese.
(That’s because Materese agents interrupt their private war by trying to kill them both, prompting them to defend themselves and each other against the common enemy.)
Taleniekov and Scofield – both unhappily – form a tense temporary alliance in which their mutual hostility periodically flares into verbal sparring and games of one-upmanship. The pair try to get American organizations to expose and investigate the Matarese conspiracy but U.S. Intelligence, politicians and the media are too riddled with Matarese collaborators.
Brandon becomes labeled a traitor, just like Vasili, and the reluctant allies escape, planning to rendezvous in Corsica to begin their investigation of the truth behind the Matarese legend.
EPISODES: Taleniekov arrives in Corsica a few days before Scofield does. Taleniekov nicely demonstrates the skills of the historian he once longed to be and his research very quickly strikes a nerve in the town near the aged ruins of Guillaume de Matarese’s mansion.
Beowulf Agate arrives just as a violent running battle between Vasili and the superstitious locals reaches its height. Our two reluctant allies survive and then are startled by the arrival of a beautiful woman in her mid-30s sporting a shotgun.
This woman is Antonia Gravet, the great-granddaughter of Guillaume de Matarese. Word of Vasili’s investigation had spread into the isolated hillside communities and Antonia was sent to make contact. She leads Bray and Taleniekov to the remote cabin she shares with her very, very old great-grandmother, the woman once known as the Whore of Villa Matarese.
This “Whore” was the teenaged final wife of the septuagenarian Guillaume de Matarese and was present in the Villa in 1911 when Guillaume assembled the first Council of the Matarese. By this point Matarese and his two sons (from his first wife) had been thoroughly cheated in business by British and French rivals.
The government connections of those rivals protected them through legal chicanery so the Matarese clan were headed for financial ruin in the long run. Guillaume contacted other powerful financial giants who had suffered the same fate and invited them to Villa Matarese for one last grand event.
These men came from America, Russia, Spain, Italy and Great Britain. Over the course of a few days the fanatical and maddened- yet charismatic – Guillaume enlisted the visitors in a long-range plan for collective revenge on the forces which had driven all of them to the brink of ruin. (This plan turns out to be what we today call Corporate Globalism, hence Matarese’s “Governments are obsolete” credo.)
Matarese had liquidated all his assets except the Villa and divided them among his Council so they could begin their work. When the wealthy guests had departed Matarese had himself and every servant at Villa Matarese killed in a macabre blend of Jonestown and Masada.
The dead bodies of the initial victims were all buried in a circular mass grave, putting the “Circle” in Matarese Circle. As the decades rolled along the elite Matarese members considered all of the people slain to advance their cause to have been killed “Per Nostro Circolo.” (For Our Circle.)
The only survivors at Villa Matarese were Antonia’s great-grandmother, who was mistakenly believed dead, and a youth called the Shepherd Boy, a child prodigy from the local Christian schools. The Shepherd Boy oversaw and finished the slaughter, shooting Guillaume de Matarese himself dead to end the bloodshed.
Armed now with the names of the very first members of the Matarese Circle, Brandon, Vasili and Antonia split up to further investigate the Matarese organization.
Vasili slips back into Russia to investigate the Moscow member of the First Matarese Council. Again his research skills lead him to paydirt – this time in Germany – but the Matarese Circle is right behind him all the way and kills off Taleniekov’s lover Lodzia and two of his dear friends.
Scofield and Antonia probe the Italian Connection and fall in love while unearthing the ways in which the Matarese covertly use the drug trade to finance terrorism and then use terrorism to further their political goals. It’s very touching the way Antonia has to coax Brandon out of the shell he’s locked himself in since his wife’s murder.
There’s no cheap little “meet cute” or battle of the sexes bickering or shallow rush to bed. Bray and Antonia talk to each other like adults and though they know the shadow of the Matarese hangs over them they dare to let each other in.
Next stop Paris, where Antonia waits for Taleniekov to catch up while Brandon moves on to London. Matarese agents temporarily complicate Vasili and Antonia’s efforts to leave France and rendezvous with Scofield in London. This series of events allows Taleniekov to avenge himself on the Matarese agents for killing Lodzia and his two friends back in Russia and Germany.
Once reunited our trio of heroes find the Matarese links in Great Britain, but before they can move on to America, Taleniekov and Antonia are captured by agents of the Matarese Circle. Beowulf Agate alone remains free.
SPOILERS: In what I consider to be Robert Ludlum’s most finely crafted finale, Beowulf Agate – while still on the run – uses all his espionage skills and calls in every favor he can to compile the evidence necessary to expose the Matarese plot and bring down many of its higher-ups. That includes the Shepherd Boy, who is still alive and crucial to the group’s plans.
As Scofield tries to free Vasili and Antonia from the Matarese’s hands, ugly shocks are in store for both the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” In the unfolding chaos Taleniekov – who has been so injured by his Matarese interrogators that he could never live a normal life again – sacrifices himself to aid the getaway of Bray and Antonia.
The U.S. and Soviet governments are saved from the Matarese Circle and Scofield manages an escape from the world of violence for himself and Antonia. In memory of their late friend Vasili they name their charter boat The Serpent, after his old code name.
COMMENT: To me The Matarese Circle is Robert Ludlum’s masterpiece for many, many reasons. Unlike some of his later novels, which I feel are too long for the stories they have to tell, there is not one wasted page in The Matarese Circle, despite its epic length.
The depth of characterization provided to Scofield and Taleniekov is such that the novel feels like the concluding story of a multi-book saga about their encounters with each other. Or like the final episodes of a long-running Beowulf Agate television series which wraps up with Brandon and Vasili forced to join forces and forging a bittersweet friendship after years of enmity.
+++ After the first time I read The Matarese Circle I found myself wishing that Ludlum had gone on to write a Prequel series of short stories about various escapades of his Cold War Scarlet Pimpernel codenamed Beowulf Agate.
Given Ludlum’s proven talent for period pieces he could have really brought alive many of Scofield’s defection operations from the 50s to the 70s, with the best stories naturally being the ones where he clashes with Taleniekov. Vasili could win some of their clashes of course to up the suspense level.
And please don’t accuse me of reaching with that notion. The novel drops in plenty of tantalizing references to the bitter feud between Bray and the Serpent over the years. Sometimes they even used elements of their private battles as a confidential code between themselves so the Matarese or the other agencies hunting them could not decipher what they were saying.
To revisit my earlier comparison to Indiana Jones it’s like when Belloq talked about it “ending like this after so many stimulating encounters between us.”
+++ Robert Ludlum obviously had a soft spot for his fictional Consular Operations. He had the Director of Cons Op be the White Knight riding to the rescue of Jason Bourne and Marie St Jacques at the end of his very next novel, The Bourne Identity. Michael Havelock and Jenna Karas in The Parsifal Mosaic were also agents of Consular Operations. Plus Cons Op got a few mentions in The Icarus Agenda.
In Ludlum’s 1995 novel The Apocalypse Watch we get a look at Consular Operations pursuing its Post-Cold War mission, which sadly reduces it to just another miscellaneous intelligence outfit. The Janson Directive (2002) featured a former Cons Op agent. By then Robert Ludlum had introduced Covert One, his new fictional organization.
Cons Op could have still been used to great effect even after the fall of the Soviet Union. The intelligence organization could have focused on the emerging Russian crimelords, many of whom were former KGB agents. Or worked to prevent those crimelords from selling the late USSR’s nukes to rogue governments, thus giving a different meaning to the title The Apocalypse Watch.
Or, since China and its various client states remain nominally Communist, Ludlum could have featured Consular Operations accommodating defections from China, Vietnam, North Korea, etc. An Asian-American Cons Op agent or two would have made ideal heroes since Ludlum often bemoaned the lack of diversity in his previous novels.
+++ Antonia Gravet is my favorite Ludlum heroine. To me she easily outshines Marie St Jacques from the Bourne novels. Her past informs her character very effectively. I loved the sudden revelation of her time with the Red Brigades AND her subsequent disillusionment with them.
I can’t imagine any readers being unmoved by Antonia’s anger over the way groups like the Red Brigades exploit young people who legitimately want to make positive changes in this unfair world.
+++ Some readers may feel that the story development about Ludlum’s two old enemies reconciling is too clichéd but I disagree. The sheer, exhaustive length of the novel helps the story EARN that emotional burying of the hatchet as Bray and Vasili’s own private Cold War thaws.
I will freely admit to getting a lump in my throat a few times:
a) when Scofield was negotiating toward the end and told the State Department he wanted “two things: vindication for myself and political asylum for a Soviet Intelligence Officer.” (Taleniekov of course.)
b) when Taleniekov made it clear that he refused to abandon Antonia to her fate when fighting the Matarese agents in Paris because he was trying to heal the wound of his killing of Scofield’s wife Karine.
c) during Scofield’s subsequent extending of condolences over the death of Taleniekov’s beloved Lodzia.
d) when Brandon at last brings himself to refer to Vasili as “… my friend.”
and e) the gruff, old-school manliness of Scofield and Taleniekov’s farewell once it was clear Vasili would not survive: “We’ve worked together … I’m proud of that.” followed by Taleniekov’s reply “We were the best there were … Now do for me what I would do for you.” Even Hemingway’s ghost probably shed a tear over that exchange.
+++ As I mentioned near the start of this review I’m young enough that I can’t think of The Matarese Circle outside of the context of the real-life end of the Cold War before another decade was complete.
Nor can I think about it outside of the context of Ludlum’s prescient view of what would follow the Cold War: corporate and government neo-feudalism aka Corporate Globalism. A world in which the adamantine individuality of figures like Brandon Scofield and Vasili Taleniekov would be marked for extermination.
Though the villainous Shepherd Boy was supposedly based on Juan March Ordinas, he may well put modern readers in mind of George Soros.
So here’s hoping that people like George Soros and the Koch Brothers burn in whatever Hells there may be. +++
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