"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 from him.

-- IM