Touted as a bestseller in Russia and Israel that was made into a Russian television mini-series, KGB in High Heels by Yosef Shagal opens in Moscow in the fall of 1977. In this era prior to Peristroika, the Soviet Union was still THE SOVIET UNION and the KGB was a feared instrument of its state security.
It is generally written from the first-person perspective of Valentina Maltseva, a sassy twenty-something female journalist for Komsomol, the Soviet youth newspaper. Valentina’s married boyfriend, and editor, returns from a trip to the United States and claims a startling revelation. The deus ex machina is that while in the States he had come across a book called The KGB that was nothing but a compiled list of all of the thousands of KGB informants living in the Soviet Union. This provided the novel’s first “Huh?” moment, as I hoped that perhaps something was lost in translation. I could not quite envision a Paperback Booksmith in a circa 1970s American mall having any such book.
Supposedly included on this book’s list of informants was a Russian adventurer with whom Valentina had been assigned an upcoming interview. Determined to test the accuracy of her boyfriend’s claim, she attempts to set up her interview target by claiming to him that she has a message from his handler. Immediately following her clumsy effort she is visited by two KGB agents who take her into custody and transport her into the presence of Yuri Andropov, then the very head of the KGB, (and later General Secretary of the Communist Party) himself.
Andropov leverages her indiscretion to blackmail her into performing a KGB mission in Argentina. The big picture of the mission is never explained to her (nor to the reader) but rather our protagonist is merely assigned a series of immediate tasks. She uses her own wiles to try to figure out what is going on, and rapidly comes to the conclusion that she is in great danger.
Why the KGB needed a caustic twenty-eight-year-old female journalist to perform the mission is also never explained. Were there no trained KGB agents available that weekend? In Argentina the bodies of trained agents on both sides of the Cold War soon begin piling up as our protagonist attempts to figure out her real role – and stay alive.
Valentina is a likable and charismatic character. The writing is good, although it depends heavily on conversation and is a bit short on description, often reading a bit like a transcript. As a non-Russian, I would have loved to have learned more of what Soviet life was like in the 1970s.
The lack of description also affects the action sequences. An opportunity to describe a potentially thrilling gunfight scene is missed when Valentina faints at its beginning and only revives after its conclusion, at which point its outcome is related to her.
Although written mostly in the first person, there are a few injected chapters describing events outside her presence. I have never cared for books that lurch between first and third person, as I constantly find myself asking, “How would the observer know this?” There are just too many other ways to relate non-observed events while still retaining a first person perspective. The events described in the third person chapters are also never factually tied in.
More troubling is the translation, which comes across as anything but pitch perfect. Translators function best when they are translating into their native tongue. In KGB there are enough occasional grammatical mistakes, erroneous verb tenses, and incorrect use of words to make one question whether that was done here. Missing and incorrect punctuation also occasionally dot the manuscript, but not enough to be jarring or interrupt the flow of what is otherwise a fairly intriguing read once Valentina hits South America.
The ending leaves much unexplained, but the inclusion at the end of the book of the opening chapter of the next book in the series provides a ready explanation. What is unclear is how many books one will have to purchase before a resolution (and complete explanation) is finally reached.
Title: KGB in High Heels
Author: Yosef Shagal
Publication: AKW Books; 1 edition (August 12, 2009)
Price: $4.50 (Kindle)