"Nobody connected with the agency calls it 'the CIA.' It's plain 'CIA.' " With this piece of apparent insider info, supposedly given to the author...

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“My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973”
by Harry Mathews
Dalkey Archive Press, 203 pp., $13.95

“Nobody connected with the agency calls it ‘the CIA.’ It’s plain ‘CIA.’ ” With this piece of apparent insider info, supposedly given to the author from a friendly informant, Harry Mathews launches this charming, light “autobiographical novel,” deftly mixing fact with fiction.

Mathews is the author of such ambitious, experimental works as “Cigarettes” and “The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium.” He’s also the only American member of Oulipo, a French-based writers’ group devoted to “potential literature.”

In 1973, as Mathews claims in “My Life in CIA,” he was mistakenly rumored to be a U.S. intelligence agent, spying on left-wingers in the Paris literary community. That’s easy to believe — Mathews was a well- dressed, affluent American, writing mostly apolitical works, but living among the politically charged milieu of Paris’s post-1968 arts scene.

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Readers familiar with Mathews might also believe his claimed response to the rumor — to pretend he really was a spy, as a lark. The Oulipo writers liked to stage elaborate games and rituals, both in and out of their writing. It would have been just another game for Mathews to make mysterious public mail drops, to hang out in certain cafes at certain times of the day, to attend both Communist Party cell meetings and receptions for shadowy financiers, and even to start a fake travel agency promoting fake tours to the USSR’s no-tourist zones.

What’s probably fictional is where these innocent machinations spiral into real danger; as Mathews (the character) inadvertently becomes a go-between for real spies and mobsters, finally leaving him on the run from hitmen in the French countryside.

But Mathews (the author) keeps the line blurred between the real and the fictional, the plausible and the implausible.

Like a Picasso sketch, “CIA” is a deceptively simple work that belies a lifetime of expertise.