Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Book of the Month: The Spy Game (Georgina Harding)

The narrator of The Spy Game, Georgina Harding’s second novel, is Anna Wyatt. Middle aged and well settled in life, Anna is leading a comfortable middle-class English existence. She has no financial worries, and has a grown up daughter. Anna also has a brother, Peter, who lives in Hong Kong with his Chinese family. Anna’s relations with her only sibling have become distant over the years. Yet, as children, the two were very close, united as they were in grief. The two also shared a secret—more like a suspicion—when they were growing up. This related to their mother. In 1961, one foggy Monday morning, in the middle of a freezing winter, Anna and Peter’s mother, Caroline, drives into the fog and never comes back. Eight year old Anna and her older brother, Peter, are later told that their mother’s car skidded on the black ice as she drove to London, killing her on the spot. From then on, their mother is never mentioned again. She is rubbed out: it is as if she never existed. Their emotionally distant father does not remarry, and raises the children with the help of their neighbours.

The same day as Anna and Peter’s mother disappears, a sensational story breaks out—the arrest of the members of the Portland Spy ring (a real life Soviet spy ring that operated in Britain in the 1950s and involved spies who operated without the embassy cover, and led, for all outward purpose, ordinary lives: two members of the spy ring were notorious spies who were accomplices of the Rosenbergs and ran an antiquarian book shop). Anna’s brother Peter, blessed with an overactive imagination, is convinced that their mother did not really die. His theory? Their mother was a spy, possibly linked to the Portland Spy ring, and disappeared just in time when she realised that the balloon was going up. Their mother, they know, was a German, an East German too, who had met their English father in 1947, in Berlin. The children know remarkably little about their mother’s past. Other than her name—Karoline which she had anglicised to Caroline after marriage— and her surname, the only thing the children know about their mother’s past is the German city she said she came from—Konisberg. This city, at the height of the Cold War, cannot even be found on the map. After the German defeat in the Second World War, the city in which their mother said she was born, had become part of the Soviet Union, was renamed Kalinigrad, and  was not open to the Westerners. The children, especially Peter, become obsessed by this notion that their mother, a Soviet spy, is alive. They decide to observe everyone in the sleepy village, and communicate with each other in codes. They start compiling dossiers on others, and, putting two and two together, arrive at the conclusion that it is twenty-five. The children do not discover anything that throws light on the disappearance of their mother, but they get a glimpse into the lives of some of the people in the village: such as the their neighbours, the Laceys, still traumatized by their experiences in the Japanese prisoner of Wars camps during the Second World War; and the young Jewish refugee, Miss Cohen, from whom young Anna takes piano lessons, and who is slowly going mad in the stifling English culture so far removed from her childhood in Germany. Miss Cohen has a mysterious—mysterious to the children, in any case—lover, who, Peter is convinced, is a spy and is connected in some way to the disappearance of their mother. Indeed, during one Christmas, when the children are shopping with their neighbour in Oxford, Peter gives them all a slip when he spots Miss Cohen’s lover—the children (and the readers) do not know his name—and follows him, claiming, later, that he saw the man meeting a woman who was wearing almost exactly the same coat their mother wore when she stepped out of their home for the last time.

Years later, Anna, while clearing the house after the death of her father finds her mother’s diary, which her father never showed her (but clearly wanted her to find after his death). In the diary, hidden under the trivia of the daily life of a village housewife in the sixties, Anna finds an intriguing quote her mother had copied from Elliot’s Waste Land:  ‘Lilacs out of the dead land’. Middle-aged, with old age round the corner, and a lot of free time on her hand, Anna decides to solve the mystery of their mother’s identity. Peter, her childhood co-conspiracy-theorist, is immersed in his hectic Hong Kong life and is no longer interested in finding out who their mother really was. Anna would have to make this journey of discovery—if it ever leads to it—on her own. She goes through the newspaper-archives detailing the Portland Spy Ring case, and is struck by the outwardly ordinary lives the spies were leading. Anna’s search for her mother sends her first to Berlin—where her parents had met—and finally to Kalinigrad—now the Cold War has ended, the town has been opened to the Westerners—a bleak Russian town, with Stalinistic cookie-cutter buildings, where all the evidence of its pervious Prussian influence has been rubbed out. There, in the drab building that stored what remained of the Konigsberg archives before the Soviet juggernaut rolled in, a building that ‘resembled a filing cabinet’, Anna  delves into her mother’s history that had lain hidden behind the Iron curtain all these years.

The Spy Game is a densely atmospheric novel. It begins with a foggy morning on a freezing day in January. The fog never really lifts; it engulfs everything that is described. The narrator is adult Anna, who is reflecting back on the seminal event that came to mark—almost blight—her childhood: the disappearance of her mother. It is a sober reflection on the meaning of loss and the elaborate identities we create to fit in with our version of truth.

The section of the book dealing with the efforts of young Anna and her brother to find out what happened to their mother has more than a passing thematic resemblance to Michael Frayin’s Spies. In Spies a young boy is convinced that the mother of his best friend is a German spy.  The difference is that whereas Frayn’s novel cunningly leads the reader up the garden path, so to speak, only to show, with the denouement, for what it really is—a tall story concocted by a couple of school boys with overheated imagination—Harding infuses her story with liberal doses of paranoia and surrounds it with ambiguity. When Anna embarks on her quest to unravel the mystery surrounding her mother’s background, the reader might be excused for expecting a dramatic resolution that would help make sense of all that precedes it. That does not quite happen: the uncertainty persists till the end.

This is the first novel of Georgina Harding I read. (I have since read her next novel, The Painter of Silence, set in Bulgaria, which has the same ambiguity as in The Spy Game). Harding used to be a travel writer before she made the switch a few years ago to fiction writing. Her début novel, The Solitude of Thomas Cave told the story of a man who stays in the Arctic for a whole season, in the seventeenth century. In an interview given at the time, Harding clarified that she did not of course travel to the Arctic where the novel is set; she spent hours in the British Library and did her research. I don’t know whether she travelled to Kalinigrad or to British Library while researching for The Spy Game. Whatever might be the case, she does not strike a single false note in her description that successfully conveys the desolation of the landscape.
Harding is a spare writer, and her lean, calmly quiet prose, with its lexical ambiguity, adds to the dark theme of her plot and contributes richly to the undertone of melancholy, even though, at times, you feel that it struggles to bring forth the pathos of the lives of two motherless children trying to make sense of the tragedy that has turned their lives upside down.

The Spy Game is elegantly written novel that deals with the universal themes of loss, grief and deception. It may not be the most gripping novel you have read, but it is still worth a read.