"Karasov the Invisible"
"Thought of the Day," March 30, 1998
Of all the Q-orpus metaphors for loss of identity (and there are a
considerable number), one of the best is to be found in <Northlight>.
It occurs at Volodarskiy's place, when Quiller burns both the dead Lithuanian's
identity papers, and Karasov's identity papers, the ones he's shelled out
six hundred rubles for, but which Q claims, if they'd been shown to a KGB
man, Karasov would certainly have been shot.
There is so much good to say about how Hall handles this scene, which
is rather long, as it involves quite a bit of exposition about who Karasov
is and what's brought him the calamitous situation in which finds himself.
Here, I will touch just a few of the high points.
First, Karasov has double-dealt himself into a state where he doesn't
realize what his own identity is (making him rather like another double
agent, Benedikt, in <Striker>, who reached a point where Quiller reckoned
he no longer knew which side he was on). Hall handles this beautifully,
having Quiller first burn Karasov's purchased papers, then trying fit the
physical qualities of the dead Lithuanian whose papers he took to Karasov
by asking specific questions ("have you got any kind of scar across your
left shoulder?" [15:142]) and, upon receiving a negative answer, also dropping
those papers into the fire. The whole sequence of matching, then
failing to match, identity to official rendering of identity echoes the
grim equation between papers and identity we see in <Warsaw>, where
Q observes that without identity papers in a police state, "you are guilty
of not existing" [10:14]. At Volodarkiy's, Karasov's fate (it is
by this point in the story fairly obvious) is literally to cease existing;
he has in fact already begun to die (note the progression from trying to
fit Karasov to a false identity, to trying to fit him to the identity of
a dead man). There may yet be heat in the burned-out Volodarskiy,
but Karasov, even as the temporary refuges of his identity are one after
the other consigned to the fire, is already being drawn to the snowy ground
which will be his final resting place (just as it was for another famous
doubler, Foster, at the end of <Warsaw>).
I also found it touching to be reminded that, for all his contact with
the world of espionage, Karasov by this point is so without support that
he can't even buy decent papers from those as steeped in deceit as himself.
Hall plays up Karasov's increasing isolation so well: Volodarskiy
can't stand him, Quiller can't stand him, even the dog, according to Volodarskiy,
is too good to provide him company. However, Hall's best device for
stripping Karasov of his dwindling human contact is the line which closes
the chapter: "I don't know anyone called Tanya." That line
serves (at least) a double purpose; on the one hand, it abruptly and chillingly
lets us know that Quiller has no certain point of reference in what Penny
calls the "strange light" of the mission, while on the other hand, it reminds
us that the one human constant we thought we knew of Karasov's identity
isn't even true. It's a tribute to the cadence of Hall's characterizations
that he first lets us sympathize with Tanya Kiselev, crying over Karasov
in the railway station, lets us continue to think (as we did with Schrenk
and Misha in <Scorpion>) that there was at least one good woman who
loved this twisted, duplicitous man, and then to have even this human touchstone
ripped from the image we have of him.
Finally, all this takes place in the dark, imminently threatening setting
of Volodarskiy's lair, an environment which makes it virtually impossible
for even the most well-intentioned preambles to human contact to take shape.
It seems that each time Quiller is prepared to offer some kind of human
emotion, to give substance to Karasov as an individual, the first reaction
he gets is from Volodarskiy's dog. When Q experiences a burst of
resentment for the Bureau mixed with sympathy for Karasov ("you knew this,
Croder, you knew he was a broken reed, you bastard, you knew nobody else
would take on this bloody job" [15:92]), the dog picks up on the "vibrations"
of Q's rage, warning him to desist. Later, as Q walks ever so softly
into the minefield of Karasov's fear, he is just about to gain Karasov's
trust, when a spark from the log in the fire falls to Q's coat; as he brushes
it off, he hears the dog's chain clinking from the darkness, thinking in
desperation, "Jesus Christ, can't I even move my hand?" [15:117]
The dog represents the savagery of the game Quiller, Karasov, and Volodarskiy
all play, providing a brutal governor which prevents care, concern, and
humanity from manifesting themselves. Without such humanity, none
of the individuals in that place can be a complete human being, and for
Karasov, this means yet another element of identity has been taken away