It’s a tough act to pull off. To strike a perfect balance, especially when writing a biography. What do you keep and what do you discard? How far do you go and where do you stop? These are difficult questions to answer, so when an author manages to pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat, he/she deserves all the credit.
Agent Garbo is a tough character to write about. A man so unknown that few people, even among those who consider themselves WWII buffs, have ever heard of him. And yet, a man so important, so significant, so central to the D-Day plans that he is considered almost as important as Gens Eisenhower and Montgomery to the success of that most memorable event – the landing at Normandy.
Pujol (Poo-Hol) came from a relatively obscure background with a fanciful idea – to fool the German intelligence at their own game. How this unknown man from war-torn Spain could claim to be able to carry out so audacious a plan was a valid question, more so if you read how ludicrous some of the schemes thought up by British intelligence agencies up to this point of time were. I will not go into the details, but Pujol was able to not only fool the Germans, he convinced the British to help him do so, and in the process became the biggest supplier of disinformation to the Abwehr (German intelligence). His fanciful dispatches had even the most hard-bitten Nazi intelligence officer believing that Pujol had recruited a veritable army of sub-agents across Britain and they lapped up whatever he fed them. His insistence that Normandy wasn’t the main Allied assault kept the German army fatefully divided and allowed the Allied forces to convert their toe-fold into a foot-hold; the Germans meanwhile waited for an assault that never came, because it already had.
This, in a nutshell, was the man Stephan Talty encompasses in his book. And this is where he excels. There is enough about Pujol’s personal life for the reader to get a good idea about the man who became Agent Garbo. There is his rather aimless life before WWII and also a taste of his incognito existence after the war ended; Talty makes sure that his hero isn’t painted pure white. But there is just enough to round out the picture, never so much as to distract from the magnum opus of his wartime exploits.
And here Talty’s brilliance shines through once again. It is easy to get lost in the character you’ve spent years researching. The desire to make him the sole focus of your narrative is both strong and natural. And this is exactly what Talty resists with consummate dexterity. We never lose sight of the fact that the war effort was a gargantuan task that involved millions upon millions of men and women and important though Pujol’s role was, he was in the end, one cog of a vast, vast machine.
What we have in our hands therefore, is not an attempt to turn history on its head, but a lovely detailing of one less known aspect of a seminal event in our global, communal history. This book is a delightful read, and I would unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in history, or the people who made it.