The Spy With 29 Names

‘In wartime’, Churchill remarked to Stalin during the Tehran conference of November 1943, ‘truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.’ This is a story about stories – about lies and deceptions, the precious truths behind them and the most effective double agent of the Second World War.

Juan Pujol Garcia, better known as agent Garbo, makes his first appearance through a fog of German traffic deciphered at Bletchley Park. ‘What’s going on?’ MI5 wondered as they intercepted messages from an apparent German spy informing his masters about the movement of non-existent British convoys. Skillfully unpicking Pujol’s story, Jason Webster follows MI5’s transition from incredulity to delight, as they first realise and then fully exploit the potential of this self-created double agent, who offered his services to the British when already embedded in the German system. Things progress from passing on cipher tables and providing an insight into German strategic priorities, to preparations for the biggest deception of them all – fooling Hitler over the D-Day landings. 

This familiar story has never been spun in quite this way. Webster makes much of Pujol’s guile stemming from the Spanish literary tradition of the picaro, the lovable, imaginative rogue, ‘who deftly weaves his way through the world, smart, wily and slippery like mercury’. The real value of creative storytelling is deeply woven into the fabric of this book. Pujol’s first cover story was that he was a writer; he went on to create a network of fictitious spies, whose fabulous code-names, added to his own, comprise the 29 of the title. By the end of the war, the distinction between storytellers and characters has blurred. Several real people play the parts of invented agents, or even play themselves having been unwittingly co-opted into deceptions. Meanwhile Pujol and his British handler are forced to live their fictions so deeply that, at times, the fantasy spills over into life. This is the point: to change the world by telling tales. 

Appropriately for a book about the blurring of facts and fictions, this true story powers along like a novel. It has a compelling narrative and an almost filmic quality to its key scenes, as befits an author better known as a crime novelist. In his VE Day scene, Webster considers another fiction. ‘If we were to remove Pujol and his handler from the picture, from history altogether’, he muses, ‘the scene would collapse’. Rather than jarring, this stray into ‘what if’ seems fitting. Ultimately we don’t know whether Pujol completely fooled his German spymaster; having a Jewish grandmother, it was in his interests to maintain the value of his ‘espionage network’. However, we do know that he fooled Hitler with profound consequences for Europe. This telling of the story is well worth reading.

Clare Mulley’s latest biography is The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Britain's First Female Special Agent of WWII (Macmillan, 2012)

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