Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 02 Oct 2017

Enigma by Robert Harris

Although the secret life of Bletchley Park and the role of England’s army of Enigma code breakers in the second world war – and especially in the battle for the Atlantic, where 3,500 merchant ships and 175 war ships were lost – was well known when Robert Harris first published his  second novel, Enigma, in 1996, I think Harris was amongst the first to see its immense fictional possibilities.

Reviewing Enigma in the Financial Times on its publication, Anthony Quinn said it was “as humane and as gripping as documentary fiction can get”, and this didn’t and still doesn’t seem too high a claim.

Brilliant Cambridge mathematician Tom Jericho is recuperating in his old rooms in King’s College following what seems to have been a nervous breakdown. He has been recruited to British intelligence and serving as a cryptanalyst at the War Office’s code breaking centre at Bletchley Park. What has driven him over the edge into nervous exhaustion? And why is he suddenly – and unexpectedly – recalled to Bletchley, a place he thought he would never see again?

Enigma takes us into the icy heart of a rapidly expanding Bletchley Park in the fourth winter of the war. England’s future – and perhaps the outcome of the war itself – increasingly rests on Britain’s ability to crack the Reich’s Enigma codes and protect the Atlantic convoy supplies that are so crucial to the forthcoming invasion of occupied Europe.

But the early days of eccentric English amateurism at Bletchley – raffish upper class dons, refugee intellectuals, shabby Classicists, a rarified world of misfits of every political persuasion – are over. For the past couple of years the noise of building has been constant as the original site is extended and extended again to accommodate Bletchley’s ever-growing staff. What was a small country house estate has become a small gated town, six thousand or so people working in shifts round the clock, surrounded indoors by the squalid, stinking fug of their own damp overcoats, wartime food and stale tobacco smoke; and outside by the impenetrable wintry darkness of wartime blackout.

The book has one of the greatest openings of any twentieth century thriller:

Cambridge in the fourth winter of the war: a ghost town. A ceaseless Siberian wind with nothing to blunt its edge for a thousand miles whipped off the North sea and swept low across the Fens. It rattled the signs to the air-raid shelters in Trinity New Court and battered on the boarded-up windows of King’s College Chapel… By nightfall, with not a light to be seen, the university was returned to a darkness it hadn’t known since the Middle Ages… In the wartime blackout the centuries had dissolved.

Against this incredibly atmospheric background Harris plays out the somewhat less believable conventions of a thriller: the possibility that there is a  spy operating at the heart of the Bletchley establishment.

On several rereadings the thriller element – perhaps inevitably – has always struck me as less convincing than the rest of the book. And yet this doesn’t detract from the pleasure – for Harris’s real accomplishment in turning the Enigma story into fiction is that he also manages to capture its full complexity: both the unrelenting pressure of the work, its suffocating responsibility (“The weight of our failure is measured in the bodies of drowned men”, one character says) and the crushing monotony as experienced by the many thousands of underfed, sleep deprived clerks, typists and scribes… No wonder it broke people.

We may now be familiar with Bletchley from many TV and film adaptations but none of these reduce Harris’s achievement. And what of the ending? Is there a spy at the heart of Bletchley? Is the biggest code breaking endeavour ever mounted being betrayed? Well, that would spoil things. What I will say is that the ending is a complex bluff and double-bluff, by turns theatrical and ingenious – and much better than I remembered it being. But that is hardly the point. For even if you forget the ins and outs of its plot, I guarantee you’ll always remember Enigma’s depiction of wartime Britain – the deserted cobbled lanes of Cambridge, the empty country roads, the towns falling into medieval darkness as night descends, and the freezing ill-lit rooms reeking of anxiety and stale tobacco smoke.

Enigma bears comparison with le Carré’s Cold War classics, Greene’s entertainments, and Eric Ambler’s 1930s novels.  It really is quite marvellous.

Alun Severn

September 2017