Okay, this is kind of awkward.
At The Globe and Mail, we’re not supposed to publish anything we haven’t been able to verify. If journalists used to be among the few who worried about misinformation, the recent parade of fake-news-powered events across the world has put everyone on notice about the danger of falling for tales that are too good to be true.
But right now, there’s a guy on the other end of the line who won’t tell me his name, and he’s got this story about Ivana Trump being a Russian spy which is sounding increasingly plausible.
To clarify: He’s not saying that he knows any of this for sure. But the possibility that the former wife of the U.S. President may have, at one point, been a secret agent formed the inspiration for a tantalizing new thriller this fellow has just written, called The Kingfisher Secret. And the theory is grounded in more provable facts than your average InfoWars conspiracy head-trip.
Last November, the author met a Czech businessman who revealed that, near the end of the Cold War, there had been a rumour going around within the intelligence community suggesting the then-Mrs. Trump had been recruited as a young woman to be a KGB sexpionage agent.
(The author is being identified only as Anonymous, supposedly to protect his source. We were skeptical – it seemed like too-clever marketing – but Jared Bland, the publisher of McClelland & Stewart and a former arts editor at The Globe, insists there are legitimate reasons for the move. “Of course it’s irresistible fun to have an anonymous author, I would never deny that,” he said over the weekend. “But we’ve also undertaken a great deal of care for security and confidentiality because of genuine fear for a particular person.”)
The KGB program was well-known and successful: For decades, women (dubbed “swallows”) were trained to insinuate their way into the lives of Western targets in hopes of using compromising information to flip them to the Soviet side. (Among the conquests of the male agents, known as “ravens:” John B. Watkins, Canada’s ambassador to Russia in the mid-1950s, whose ensnarement formed the basis of the 2003 telefilm, Agent of Influence.)
“After he told me the story, I did the first thing you would do, which is go online and start Googling,” says the man on the other end of the line. Among other catnip, he discovered a May, 1989, Spy magazine article by Jonathan van Meter about Ivana Trump which noted an alarming number of contradictions between her official biography and the available evidence, including questions about what she was doing in Montreal in the mid-1970s. “As soon as I saw that, I booked a ticket to Prague to look into it further.”
What he says he found, at places such as the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, was far less than he expected – and, therefore, far more. Which is to say, the file on the former Ivana Zelnickova was suspiciously thin, almost as if it had been purged of anything potentially incriminating. “The woman I spoke to at the Institute said that, given who [Ivana] was at the time, there should be truckloads of information.”
The story he dreamed up from that intriguing kernel begins in Montreal in October, 2016, as the fortysomething tabloid reporter Grace Elliott lands the first real scoop of her career: an exclusive interview with a Stormy Daniels-like porn star named Violet Rain who claims she had an affair with Anthony Craig, an automobile manufacturing billionaire on the cusp of winning the U.S. presidential election. But after her boss buys the story and then explains he won’t be publishing it – echoing the “catch-and-kill” tactic practised by the owners of the National Enquirer to protect Donald Trump from revelations about his own extramarital affairs – Grace is sent to Prague to ghostwrite an advice column by Elena Craig, the candidate’s Czech-born former wife. While there, Grace sniffs out that Elena is hiding some inconvenient gaps in her life story.
As the novel jumps between eras – alternating between glimpses of the brutal Soviet intelligence machine of the 1960s, ′70s and ′80s that regarded the young Elena as an asset rather than a human being, and Grace’s dangerous attempts to ferret out the truth – readers may find themselves feeling oddly sympathetic toward Ivana, who has for decades been regarded as a figure of ridicule.
“Novels are empathy machines,” the author says. "As you’re writing it, you can’t help but think: What truly would it feel like, to be owned?”
“What’s happening in the United States is, people are forgetting we’re human beings,” he adds. “The people who we consider our enemies have to go to sleep at night, and they love their children ... and I think a novel – while it still has to have villains in it – can bring humanity to some of the things we’re seeing in the news, in the way the news often can’t.”
If that all sounds terribly earnest, there is great house-of-mirrors fun to be had. Although the Trump-like Craig has only a bit part, he dominates the scenes he’s in, just like his real-life inspiration. “We invented luxury,” Craig bombasts during a speech promoting his automobiles. “We did that. It never existed before us.” Elena, we are told, “had never met a man more confident yet so lacking in confidence.” Indeed.
Shrouded in secrecy during its creation, the book is only now being sold to international publishers. In the past two weeks, it has been snapped up in 11 foreign-language territories.
Is the author concerned that fans of Trump will dismiss the novel as a paranoid fantasy, proof that the president’s critics will fall for any nutty theory as long as it undermines him?
“They are saying that about non-fiction,” he notes. “The line between fact and fiction – I’ve never seen it the way it is now.”
He pauses, then says this: “I don’t think there is a spy in the White House. I don’t. There’s a spy in The Kingfisher Secret in the White House. I don’t know anything about what’s going on in the White House, really. But I wanted to create an alternate universe, where I do understand. Because right now, in the real world, I don’t. The ultimate question, ‘Why is this happening?,’ is one that I can’t answer.”