- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 5, 2002

By Michael Frayn
Metropolitan, $23, 261 pages

Perchance, Michael Frayn's 10th novel, "Spies," could have been written as a play. The plot is conveniently chronological and the number of characters is under a dozen. The setting is sparse. Indeed, most of the scenes could be rendered in black and white. But what a joy for the reader and an accomplishment for the writer that Mr. Frayn chooses a novel to unpack this boyhood mystery. And what a surprise that, as a novelist, Mr. Frayn arrives at a different set of conclusions than he does as a playwright.
Of course, Mr. Frayn may be best know to Washingtonians as a playwright, not a novelist. His play, "Copenhagen," played London's West End for three years, received numerous awards, and recently ran for four (all too brief) weeks at the Kennedy Center. Those who caught the play will find familiar themes in the novel, as Mr. Frayn uses "Spies" to chase a few of the stray electrons that escaped from "Copenhagen." To be certain, Mr. Frayn is not as ambitious with the novel as he was with the play. There he succeeds in reducing a cocktail of complexities nuclear physics, memory, perspective into human terms.
In the play, and to a lesser extent in the novel, his subject is Werner Heisenberg's "principle of uncertainty," a frequently cited, but scarcely understood, axiom of quantum theory. As Mr. Frayn is doubtlessly aware, to paraphrase the Heisenberg Principle is to do it an injustice, especially when the paraphrasing and analogizing leaves the realm of physics and enters the provinces of philosophy, history, and, even worse, politics.
Rather than explore the uncertainty principle in the jargon of philosophy or physics, Mr. Frayn, sensibly, sticks to the tools of the novelist (and playwright): characters and narration. As his characters struggle to recall the past, they can never be certain of the accuracy of their own memory. In "Copenhagen," questions about the reliability of memory are left decidedly unanswered. The only possible conclusion is that there isn't any. However, in "Spies," Mr. Frayn keys a slightly different note: The past becomes a much more manageable entity. His story concludes with a degree of certainty about what actually has happened. So as a novelist, Mr. Frayn believes that time and perspective provide clarification, not confusion.
That's not to say the writer doesn't have a little fun with his readers along the way, inserting the occasional false passage, dummy quote, and trap door. One of his favorite tricks is to have the narrator say something and then snatch it back with, "but that's not what I said." Mr. Frayn is able to play with his reader through the dual narration of a young Stephen Wheatley and his older, wiser, self. The story begins with a graying Stephen journeying back to the hamlet of his youth. Why? His reasons are mysterious but something compels him to return. As he puts it, he needs to smell a shrub, "I scarcely like to name … It's too ridiculous." "A trip down Memory Lane, perhaps," mocks his son. "Exactly," he replies, "The last house before you go round the bend and it turns into Amnesia Avenue."
Incidentally, amnesia is one thing the older Stephen does not have, as he vividly recalls the smells, the emotions, and the precise sequences of events of a summer that passed 60 years ago. Upon returning to his street, the ominous "Close," our older narrator observes the younger one. Little Stephen is walking across the street to see his best friend, the spoiled but imaginative, Keith Hayward. The two of them, not the most popular boys on the block, play the sort of games that require sacred oaths, bayonets, flashlights, and secret hideouts standard boy stuff in wartime England.
Even though Mr. Frayn was born off the River Thames, his narrative flows from the Mississippi. One can't deny that there's a bit of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in the two youngsters, with Keith devising Sawyer-like adventures and Stephen dutifully playing Huck.
And then like a chain reaction their game spins out of control. Once Keith says, "my mother is a German spy," the two boys start sleuthing about, and stumble upon things for which they're hardly prepared. What they discover, or rather, what Stephen discovers, puts an end to their little game, and also an end to their boyhood innocence. Like all awakenings, Stephen's is a cruel one. The game starts harmlessly enough, as they note the comings-and-goings of Keith's mother: Her frequent visits to her sister just down the street, the daily walks to the post and her strange ability to vanish around a corner. With a nod toward Heisenberg, when someone knows they are being observed spied upon their behavior changes.
The young spies soon suspect that something is awry in their sleepy little town. Stephen, initially the more timid of the duo, is the one who finds his bravery. When the situation gets dicey, Keith retreats to his well oiled toys and the comforts of his home. At summer's end, he's off to boarding school none the wiser. But Stephen carries the burden of his knowledge, apparently, for the rest of his mediocre life. As an old man he hopes to exorcise it and that smell by rehashing the memories. But memory is a tricky thing. Isn't there always the danger that "memory [is] being overwritten by hindsight once more?"
True to his other works, Mr. Frayn teeters on the brink of philosophical sophistry in this one as well. When the didactic impulse gets the better of him and he gives his philosophical meanderings the odd paragraph, it's obvious that our writer should stick to novels and plays. Even so, these excursions, however awkward, give the reader a peak at Mr. Frayn's metaphysical demons. For example, the older Stephen wonders, "When I examine my memory carefully, it isn't a narrative at all. It's a collection of vivid particulars. Certain words spoken, certain objects glimpsed. Certain gestures and expression. Certain moods, certain weathers." Yes, time is fluid, but the events and objects that fill it are not. The problem is as old as Zeno's paradox of the arrow.
Surprisingly, in the novel itself there are offered solutions (of sorts) to some of these philosophical quandaries. Mr. Frayn in his philosopher's cap claims to be haunted by questions like, "what is memory? What is perspective?" But Mr. Frayn in his novelist's cap works them out just fine: The narrator relies upon his memory to tell a story. He successfully, and nearly seamlessly, stitches together a sequence of events. The narrative unfolds and, in the end, the truth is served. No, he doesn't fill every gap. But not even the best spies have all the information.
What's truly remarkable is that a narrator as old as Stephen remembers such precise details from a summer so long past. Old spies must have a gift of memory. They clearly have a knack for narrative and language. Based on these criteria, Mr. Frayn himself must also be a spy, and quite a savvy one, in addition to being a novelist and a playwright.

Hans Nichols is a reporter for Insight magazine.

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