Michael Frayn's 'Spies': the cruelty of innocence

On Books

April 07, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

I know of no writer, living or dead, who has more profoundly explored the common enigma that might best be called the inhumanity of innocence than Michael Frayn. He is, however, far from a specialist. At 68, he is one of the masters of English letters. He has just published his 10th novel. He has written 13 plays, among them Copenhagen, which won three Tony Awards in 2000. He has also written screenplays, translations and the libretto for an opera.

Copenhagen is a drama about an extended conversation that took place between Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist, and Nils Bohr, his Danish mentor, early in World War II. They examine the implication of nuclear physics and of the interplay of personal moral responsibility with science, politics and atavism.

Now comes Spies (Metropolitan, 261 pages, $23), in which Frayn pits the righteous moral certainty of 10-year-olds against the sophisticated, well-intentioned efforts of parents and others of their generation.

The story takes place primarily in London during the World War II blitz, in the concerted act of survival that got Britons through bombings and terror and the threat of invasion. The fantasies that are natural to children are vastly amplified by nightly blackouts, by the fear of espionage, by the anxieties of war that turn every bush into a potential spy nest, every strange person or place or circumstance into a danger to the nation.

The story is told through the consciousness of a man in his 70s, Stephen Wheatly, who has returned for the first time to the neighborhood in which he lived as a child. He reaches back to the time when he was 10 and 11, in 1943 and 1944, when he had one friend, a neighbor of his age, Keith Hayward.

Frayn begins the book by setting up a crackling suspense over the smell of a common shrub, privet -- which in turn becomes one of any number of marvelously effective word plays running through the book. In this case, privet and private and privy are so mingled and interchanged as to become a sustainingly effective demonstration of the difference of awareness -- of experience -- between the young and the adult.

Natural target

Stephen is of a lower class, he declares, than Keith, and he willingly accepts his inferiority. They are inseparable, with Keith leading all their fantasies and adventures. Powerfully, Frayn demonstrates the irresistible force that makes a boy who is a natural object of bullying accept that bullying willingly as a substitute for attention, acceptance, affection.

Given the background of war, the two boys find sinister implications in virtually everything around them, including in the diary kept by Keith's mother, which they sneak looks at.

Frayn's capacity to establish and sustain suspense is masterful. The book's tension is driven by the characteristic secrecy of boys of that age. Stephen and Keith have a hideaway in a neighborhood hedge. They have a secret cache of espionage tools -- binoculars, a logbook. They spy and eavesdrop. They follow members of their own families, especially Keith's mother, whom they find particularly sinister. Their speculations become certitudes.

The reader gradually comes to suspect, and then to understand, that much of the adults' behavior that is taken as sinister or outrightly evil by the boys does, in fact, have dramatic consequence. But the two views of that behavior are almost totally unrelated.

The book's narrative is a sort of two-person dance, with one dancer the consciousness of Stephen the child and the other his awareness as an adult. The adult, of course, remembers the experiences of the child -- though the events, over a gap of 50 years, are subject to interpretation and misinterpretation. The story mainly lives in the mind and perceptions of the child; his thoughts, acts and fears dominate the tale.

Deceptive appearances

At one point, in the spontaneous awareness of the child, Stephen tells himself: "Everything that we'd once taken for granted now seems open to question. Even what appears to be happening directly in front of your eyes, you realize when you think about it, turns out to be something you can't actually quite see after all, to involve all kinds of assumptions and interpretations."

The core of the book is an artful, respectful exploration of the illusions of childhood -- of how firm belief is, how compelling conviction, and yet how superficial and unthought-out and piecemeal are the substances of those convictions.

At final curtain, everyone loses, of course -- such Olympian confrontation can yield nothing but catastrophe. The boys' closeness and their other associations, alliances and assumptions have been destroyed, and grave damage done to others.

Near the conclusion, the child Stephen tells himself, "Everything's back to normal; but we both privately know that what's normal has changed, and changed forever. The game's over because the normal has reached out to absorb the abnormal. The story has changed tack, like a ship altering course, and now it sails on as straight and level as it did before, but to a different destination -- and we're no longer aboard."

But, of course, what the boy sees then as normal is also false. Only in looking back as an old man, in dredging his memory for understanding, can Stephen perceive the realities. They are painful, scarring. And it is clear they are the consequence of the cruelty of innocence -- the lack of stabilizing, sensitizing experience to protect the innocent from actual evil. Finally, the man understands -- in a novel of extraordinary power and wisdom, a tour de force of humane insight.

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