Saturday, May 9, 2009

Michael Fray's Spies: innocence, memories, and the will to remember

When Agz Chaves handed me the book, she confessed she had a hard time deciding whether to give it or keep it to herself. It's that good, she claimed. I could imagine how painful it is to part ways with a book one dearly loves. Touched by the gesture, I promised to read it as soon as possible.

The book is Spies by Michael Frayn. Stephen Wheatley, the main character, recalls the past as he visits his former home where he grew up during the World War II:
Everything is as it was, I discover when I reach my destination, and everything has changed.
As he walks along old familiar paths, he recalls that life-changing summer when his best-friend, Keith Hayward, "calmly and quietly [dropped] the bombshell": mere six words that would set the story in motion.

From then on, both of them—Stephen and Keith—would engage in boyish activities, pretending to be spies, watching other people's heads. This is where the book gets its title.

The story's pretty simple, actually, but how Michael Frayn wrote it makes it a cut above the rest. A key to the success is that the author was able to intersperse the thoughts of the young Stephen Wheatley with that of the old one. The story would've been less potent had Frayn chosen to simply narrate what happened. The old Stephen's words capture what I mean:
"It's so difficult to remember what order things occurred in—but if you can't remember that, then it's impossible to work out which led to which, and what the connection was. What I remember when I examine my memory carefully isn't narrative at all. It's a collection of vivid particulars. Certain words spoken, certain objects glimpsed."
The novel also deals with youth and adulthood, the implications of war, and the worth—or futility, however you may see it—of remembering the past, knowing that one cannot alter it anyway.

I enjoyed reading the book, and I can't thank Agz enough for this gift.



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