Last week, or some time, I promised my takes on Transcription by Kate Atkinson and Warlight by Michael Ondaatje.
World War Two is still getting attention, but the focus has moved from the battlefield to backstairs - Intelligence. I guess the spotlight shifted with Enigma,the giant puzzle (how to break the Germans’ secret code) solved not only by Alan Turing but also by anonymous, dedicated women working as secretaries (secret secretaries) behind the behind the scenes and living on after the war never allowed to say what they had been doing.
Both of these new books play out behind the scenes with similar , elaborate safeguards against detection. Atkinson is sort of funny in her approach. Everyone seems sort of half-baked, unbelievable, unenthusiastic,casual and befuddled. No one seems to know what he or she is doing. And yet things happen, people are arrested, progress is made. Somehow we seem to have won the war.
Ondaatje’s protagonist is a young boy, taken over the years of and after the war. At first I wondered was it semi-autobiographical; it reminded me of John Lecarré’s relationship with his strange father. But “Viola” (her spy name) or Rose, is a dangerous, endangered, dedicated spy over the years, with no time for her neglected son and daughter. there are adventures in which the boy is caught up with cohorts of his mother - or are they his appointed guardians? One, The Darter (nicknames and pseudonyms foe everyone, it seems) takes Nathaniel with him on smuggfing excursions - importing greyhounds - bringing them in by boat on the canals off London. Ondaatje’s research is always fascinating (remember the winds he described in The English Paitent?), and exhaustive but the canals wore me down. However, when he got to rooftop surveillance, that’s when I got interested. In fact, I haver ordered one of his references (The Roof-Climber's Guide to Trinity: Omnibus Edition).
As confused as Nathaniel is about his past (and present and future) I was even more so. Ondaatje doesn’t fill in the gaps so much as he leaps from one time frame to another. My favourite book of his remains In the Skin of a Lion.