Red sparrow in Narva
Kultuur 20 May 2015  EWR
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We all have our guilty indulgences, escapes from the humdrum. One of mine happens to be escapist reading. For that there is nothing better than a good Cold War or WWII spy thriller.

I chanced upon Jason Matthews 2013 work Red Sparrow in the library recently. Matthews is the first author that I am aware of who has tackled, in fiction, especially the spy thriller, the new Cold War that Putin has created. Arguably the first Cold War was a mutually escalated affair between the superpowers; what Putin has done in the last number of years has been all about restoring Russia’s place where he firmly believes it belongs – as 1A in the world.

Matthews’ work is prescient considering the Crimean annexation and armed conflict on the eastern border of Ukraine. For the Estonian Canadian reader there is very good reason to find and read this book, more on that anon.

The author is a retired officer of the CIA’s former Operations Directorate. Over a 33-year career he specialized in clandestine intelligence gathering and recruitment, operations in what his blurb on the flyleaf euphemistically describes as denied-areas. Read the Soviet Union, Warsaw Pact countries. Although he did work in other areas of the world there is no doubt that he is eminently qualified to address Russia and Putin today.

A plot summation would ruin the pleasure of reading this exceedingly compelling thriller, but essentially the focus is on searching for Russian moles and spies in the USA and the accompanying theft of American military intelligence secrets. As the author certainly knows the topic the book is, yes that trite phrase, a real page-turner.

Almost the entire first half or so of Red Sparrow is set in either Helsinki or Moscow; readers familiar with either city realize how well Matthews knows the terrain. And Russian: the conversations are liberally peppered with Russian words and phrases, immediately translated in the same sentence. As a Canadian born Estonian, never having studied Russian, I was surprised as to how many of the words were familiar (especially the vulgarities, of course… must be through osmosis.)

As the pace builds the plot remains credible, not like some, say James Bond thrillers or the weaker Smiley works. The author adds an interesting twist. He is certainly a gourmand, perhaps even a good chef, for at the end of every chapter there is an interesting recipe directly associated with what either the main characters ate/made, or has a direct connection with location, local culture. For after Moscow and Finland the venue moves to the USA, Rome, Athens and more.

Why, our readers can even find a recipe for rosolje, the Estonian beet salad that no festive spread is without, and creates arguments about whose version is best – wife, mother or grandmother. Or whether it is even Estonian, as Russians make a similar dish.

Yes, dear reader, that means that a nice, healthy part of the dénouement of the thriller is set in Estonia. Matthews impresses with getting the Estonian words used right with the correct spelling – Kohtla-Järve has the umlaut – although he is at times a little dismissive of the KaPo (Defense Police) and the populace. Minor points. For certainly this is the first time that this reader has seen so much text dedicated to Estonia.

Particularly Narva. The book concludes, in fact, in that border city chosen, certainly because of Ivangorod across the Narva River, the symbolic divide between East and West. Matthews does make note of Estonia’s NATO membership. Indeed it was no surprise considering rising tensions thanks to Putin that President Ilves chose Narva as the site for this year’s Independence Day parade, the 97th for Estonia. Narva is, as many commentators have emphasized, a NATO border city of importance.

As for the Red Sparrow and who she is – read the book!

This is an elegant and brilliant, fascinating spy thriller. Almost hard to believe that this is Matthews’ debut. For a first work it is seamlessly constructed, and as noted, little details such as use of local language and local recipes makes it an astounding debut. In many ways it carries on the grand tradition of John LeCarré, and for this reader it is a worthy comparison. Surely Jason Matthews is at work on a new book; in the interim if your indulgences are similar to mine, head to the library or bookstore, and be prepared for sleep deprivation.
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