Sunday, 10 February 2008

The Memory Room by Christopher Koch

“What is a spy?” asks Vincent Austin. “Are they born or made?”

The question may not sound particularly promising, but the answer Christopher Koch presents in this compelling portrait of two very singular people is intriguing. For, while espionage may be the book’s stage, spying is simply the backdrop against which a much more profound and rich personal drama is played out.

Vincent says he is a born spy; devoted to secrecy in its purest form: to secrecy for its own sake. Erika Lange shares his fascination.

The two have an extraordinary bond, forged as children and rooted in loneliness. He is orphaned; her mother is dead and her father often lost to her in drink. Together they create a safe, sustaining and secret fantasy world.

They are both fascinated by Alice in Wonderland and Alice’s discovery of a little door behind a curtain that opens with a golden key and leads to a beautiful garden. “Somewhere, we both knew, there was still such a doorway to be found: not one in a fairy tale, but one that led to the world’s ultimate secrets.”

Their relationship – which is life-long yet platonic - cannot be penetrated. It is “two of us at secrecy’s core, like twin kernels in a shell.”

As adults, Vincent becomes a spy, and the ultimate secrets he seeks to crack involve the world’s great closed societies: the enemies of individuality. Erika becomes a journalist, and her beauty brings her television stardom.

She is a femme fatale, the mystery of her fascination with secrecy hidden deep in her past and her imagination.

As Vincent and Erika career through life, damaging, and sometimes destroying, those who come into contact with them, their secret bond holds.

Until, that is, a conflict develops that causes one to betray the other, and Vincent realises there are far greater secrets in the world than those he has been pursuing: “I need more rewarding mysteries now ... more substantial secrets than those yielded up by espionage.”

He realises that it is the life of the spirit that contains the great secrets. Yet, in pursuing these, he is at a loss: “I am a typical 20th century man,” he says. “The decline of the main Christian churches (either clownish, apologetic parodies of their former selves, or mundane vehicles for social reform) has left us to wonder aimlessly, shopping for beliefs.

“Pity a man ... whose spirit can never rise to seek the invisible!”

Which suggests that the real, and unexpected, answer to the question what is a spy is this: a man searching for the secret of faith.

(Jonathan Cape, £17.99, pp432)

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