“Stephen knows enough to know that spies do not loudly advertise themselves but are mostly shabby little men whom no one notices” …
The Long Room deserves to be one of the books of 2016. It’s a hugely enjoyable novel, superbly paced, cleverly layered and in the end, moving in an unexpectedly off-kilter, subversive sort of way.
Stephen works in the Long Room, for an MoD outfit called The Institute, as a surveillance operative. He is one of the “interpreters of silence” who work the earwigging floors in an upturned parody of a call centre where all languages are spoken, but tapes are monitored in silence behind headphones. There is a faintly surreal quality to this silent tower of eavesdroppers, checking up on the outside world, nearly always a day behind, but who break for parties, secret santa and curries on the way home as if they work for the Bradford & Bingley. The mundanity of it all is both skewed and comic in places, but it is completely convincing at the same time.
It is the 1980s, so these listeners are cold warriors, monitoring what seem to be half-retired and collapsing relics of George Smiley’s golden era – failed old revolutionaries and spies on their last legs. Stephen’s floor are sprung to different life by terrible bomb attacks, but generally their retro world of cassette tapes, endless folders and envelopes and late forms is like a damp-stain from history, a slow patient collection of nothing much at all. These characters and this setting, lost at the back of the filing cabinet, strongly paint the 80s as having more in common with the immediate post war era, than the Twenty First Century, that somehow these days are a tipping point where people must remain stranded on either side.
Not unlike the surveillance expert in that devastating film The Lives of Others, Stephen becomes out of sync with his colleagues, and is more of an outsider than even they might suspect. He has fallen in love with the wife of one of his targets, with her voice, her piano playing, and with his Oxford literature degree in place, his observations are increasingly peppered with the great passionate words of other writers and times. Helen – the object of his affection – “walks in beauty, heralded by birdsong”.
So, this is not quite the espionage of George Smiley at all, and nor does Stephen have much in common with the transformation of Stasi Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler. In fact, it’s hard to believe this damaged character would even pass the entry exam in either of these universes. He is more like one of the hopelessly deluded characters in an Iris Murdoch novel, than an embittered and broken agent of darkness like Alec Leamas. If there is something of Le Carre here, it is in that masterpiece A Perfect Spy, and Magnus Pym – with some of Pym’s deviousness if not, in the end, any of his craft at all. Stephen’s version of a molehunt would have the Circus down on him for sure.
With a haunting backstory driven by a different war – I thought the descriptions of Stephen’s mother preparing for Christmas were a tour de force – and the arrival of a real spy as ungainly as Conrad’s Verloc and painfully and deliberately obvious, the book takes a relentless, but compelling route towards an unforgettable ending. Stephen misses cue after cue that the reader picks up immediately and there is a sequence of events towards the end of the novel so well written that its full excruciating quality is brilliantly achieved.
In the end, it is an espionage novel, a cold war novel of a kind, but also an obsessive love story that may be as disappointing for its protagonist as something from Anita Brookner. As an acute observation of those increasingly deadly-seeming days of the 1980s, in what is almost the banal humour of Stephen’s tale, there is an exquisite study of that sense of bewilderment at how our lives turn out, how loneliness and pain can triumph, that is deeply affecting. The story maybe says much in the end about the the Cold War generation of Stephen and his colleagues whose lives seem to compare bleakly with the golden idealism of Brideshead shining down from their TVs:
“When he comes home to his empty flat, he finds at times the waiting silence has an edge to it, as if someone had been there who has only just left, or something was still waiting, with its teeth bared, in the dark” …