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Elusive & Ephemeral
The Spy Game - Georgina Harding
Member Name: MALU
The Spy Game - Georgina Harding
Date: 21/06/11, updated on 21/06/11 (96 review reads)
Advantages: good descriptions of atmosphere and bad weather
Disadvantages: too vague to be gripping
One foggy day in 1961, a woman gets into her car and drives away from her village in Oxfordshire never to return. The following day Anna, her 8-year-old daughter, hears from a neighbour at whose house she often stays, "There's something I have to tell you, dear. You see, your father telephoned, he called us yesterday, he couldn't come back last night. He asked me to tell you something....Your mother has gone to heaven."
Later, Peter, two years her senior, asks his sister, "How do we know she's dead?"
"Because they told us".
Father takes the children to the seaside for some days, when they return, the house has been cleaned, all the woman's possessions have been cleared away, her presence has been erased so-to-speak, it is as if she's never existed. The children don't attend the funeral and only two years later their father takes them to the cemetery in Oxford to show them the tombstone with her name.
Although this death isn't the main topic of the book but only the preliminary step into the story proper, I'd like to linger on it a bit. What kind of stone age pedagogy is this, I wonder? But maybe this is insulting the Flintstones and their kind, maybe they allowed their children to mourn over the death of their mothers, to cry and wail, to touch her things, to choose something to remember her by. Anna's and Peter's father is described as highly intelligent but emotionally reticent, not as insensitive or cruel - what he is in my opinion. Am I introduced to a British character trait, is it the way British people used to behave half a century ago or do we have the idiosyncratic traits of an emotional cripple here? The book doesn't answer this.
Whatever, Father's incapacity or unwillingness to talk about Mother and the contemporaneous discovery of spies which shock the country because they led an ordinary life and weren't suspicious in the slightest way and the fact that Mother was a German war refugee from Königsberg in East Prussia, now the Russian city of Kaliningrad, who got to know and married her British husband in Berlin triggers off the spy game Peter and Anna invent. What if their mother was an undercover agent all the time? Peter is the brain and organiser, he makes Anna write a diary, to observe everything only slightly suspicious and to write it down in code.
A difference of two years is a lot during childhood, Anna is simply too young to grasp many of the things her brother already understands. The author succeeds in portraying the girl's confusion. The story is told in the first person perspective by the now middle-aged Anna. When her father dies and she sorts through the house, she decides to go on a journey following her mother's traces in reverse. First she intends to visit Berlin, then continue to Königsberg. Not surprisingly, her memories of what happened during her early childhood are vague because of the many years that have passed. What she remembers is that at the time she didn't understand much of what was going on around her because she was simply too young and no grown-up helped her. So we have a double vagueness here.
Anna leaves without having precise ideas what to do, where to go, what to look for. She travels in April, the prevailing weather conditions are rain, cold, wind. What she sees is bleak and deserted. The tone of the whole book is like this, melancholy and drabness wherever you look. I must concede that the author does this well, but I'd like to warn you, should you suffer from depression, it's not advisable to read The Spy Game, it'll pull you down even further. One critic writes "There is a slew of emotion and desperation in those spare words, and that is one of Harding's greatest talents: underneath the careful, polished prose hot springs gurgle and glower." Gurgle and glower, my back bottom! You may accuse me of being an insensitive chunk but I don't feel anything gurgling or glowering here, if I look attentively, I can detect only faint murmuring and simmering.
East of Berlin Anna looks out of the window of the train and sees a landscape which reminds her of eastern England, 'only there are lakes, and the long rectangles of arable fields are broken up by rambling stretches of forest...Every so often a group of wind turbines stands white and pure on a rise in the land". And now it comes: "So this is the place that was East Germany". Can you believe it? I grew up in East Germany and I can tell you there's more to it. Harding was a travel writer before turning to fiction, if her observations in her travel books are as shallow as here, I don't want to read them. A Polish fellow-traveller is "...a squat middle-aged man with stubby fingers and scarcely a neck, "but his face is kinder and more expressive than you would expect." What? Wouldn't I expect it because of his age, fingers or neck or because of his being a Pole?
Nostalgia tourism to the pre-war German territories which are now Polish or Russian are a well-know phenomenon in Germany. My cousin's husband was four years old when his family had to leave a small town in East Prussia. He's been there twice already and would like to go again although he's unable to find anything he remembers. He was too small to know the whole town, he can't even find the house his family lived in, there are no Germans any more he could talk to, what does he seek then? It's a feeling, an atmosphere, he can't describe it. At least he's got a personal relationship to the place, Anna has nothing besides a handful of remarks her mother made which, very likely, aren't even true. Anna is convinced that the young woman, like many refugees, shed her old identity when she left for the West and started all over again.
With this we have a topic of post-modern literature. "I am what I am, I am my own creation", as Gloria Gaynor sings. Do we have to live the life fate has meant for us? Aren't we free to have as many identities as we like? Did Anna's mother lead a double life then as her children suspected? Thrilling questions which aren't discussed and answered in a thrilling way in my opinion. By choosing a too young child without enough memories to fall back on as a grown-up the whole story is kind of bloodless to me. The novel has been compared to the classic To Kill A Mockingbird, well, each story featuring children trying to figure out the ways of grown-ups is. But there exciting things happen, here they're only imagined. In William Boyd's novel Restless a mother does lead a double life which is described in a thrilling way, here we don't have more than the possibility that she might have done so.
In Königsberg Anna muses, "it is not as if I came expecting to find out anything", so one is left wondering why she went at all. To go a step further I'd like to ask the author: why write the book at all?
Summary: Two children think their mother was a spy.