Tag Archives: Spies

The Memory Room

The Memory Room. Random House, 2007. ISBN: 9781741667295.

I usually try to avoid reading others’ reviews of a book until I settle on my own initial opinion, but I was feeling a little directionless when I finished The Memory Room, so I thought I’d tool around the interwebs a bit to see what others thought of it.

I have to say that some of the reviews are a bit lukewarm. Michael Williams in The Age says that Koch “doesn’t hit the high notes in his latest spy novel”. I guess when you’ve set the bar as high as two Miles Franklin Awards and had another novel made into an acclaimed film, it may be hard to sustain that level for every outing.

The reviewers also generally agree that Koch is a master of landscape, and particularly single out his evocations of Tasmania in The Memory Room. Of course, with my particular preoccupation, I’m more interested his treatment of the landscape around Canberra.

Lake George, and plains around the Monaro and southern highlands are recurring themes in The Memory Room:

The car rounded a bend, and Lake George appeared on our right: waterless at the moment, but green with grass. Far out in the middle, white dots that were sheep showed bright in the morning sun; cattle grazed near a tawny stretch of sand. The lake extended to a long line of hills in the east, light-blue and mauve and very far off, looking like hills in a dream, or in some other country.

Vincent, Derek and Erika have a shared history, starting with intersecting childhoods on the outskirts of Hobart. In Peking they are posted together to the Australian Embassy. Vincent is now a spy with the Australian Security Intelligence Service, while Derek and Erika have more conventional Foreign Affairs roles. Later, after a miscalculation of Vincent’s disrupts their careers and fractures their fragile relationships, they find themselves crossing paths again in Canberra.

In Canberra Derek joins the spook community, becoming an analyst at the Office of National Assessments. Vincent’s Peking misjudgement has landed him back at ASIS head office, where the Director-General makes him the ‘master of the registry’:

‘The innermost secrets of the Service are all at my personal disposal,’ he said, and his voice had taken on a throaty, gloating, almost caressing sound, as though he spoke of some private and perhaps shameful passion. ‘The most secret of all files are in my care, Derek. Can you see what trust has been placed in me? And what it means?’

It is Erika, though, who never loses her childish, childhood fascination with spying. Despite her success as a political journalist, Erika has never really grown up. She remains the child looking for her father’s love, spying on other people’s lives from their back gardens. She is still thrilled by secrecy, but isn’t mature enough to grasp fully the import of those secrets.

Erika craves drama, and the Monaro plains are a fitting landscape for this:

When she flees in her red Toyota,… it’s because flight itself secretly stimulates her… and these southern tablelands, with their wide grasslands, their distant hills and mountains, their big skies and scattered little towns, provide the perfect landscapes for her flights. She can stop in one of the townships and have a coffee or a drink; she might even have a little adventure, flirting with a man in a bar or a café, or simply talking to a woman serving behind a counter. She has then become someone else; she has escaped into her other life. Once, she went as far as Jindabyne, in the Snowy Mountains.

There is a melancholy air throughout The Memory Room which is echoed in the landscapes Koch chooses. While there is a contented life sketched out in the background for Derek, Vincent is essentially alone. As is Erika, even in the midst of her most passionate relationships. There are metaphors here also, I think, about hiding in plain sight, that make each Canberra location apt for the conversations that take place there. On top of Red Hill, Vincent and Erika’s lover Rykov look down on the city and Lake Burley Griffin, their private worries much greater than the tussles for political power below them. Erika tries to shrug off her growing stardom in a booth at Tilley’s – transformed here into Diamond Kate Carney’s. Rykov meets Vincent on a lonely road beside honey-coloured paddocks at Captains Flat, stark figures in a landscape, there to be unobserved.

The novel acknowledges the usual jokes about Canberra, and segues for a moment into an examination of its strange city-as-monument landscape. It is a critical examination, but not an unkind one:

And the grand design worked: its vistas were impressive, even handsome. But they were also strange, [Derek] thought, and somehow eternally subdued – partly because the ancient continent had thrown its blanket of primeval quiet over them…

I was quite annoyed then, in my skimming through online reviews, when I found Jake Kerridge’s in the UK Telegraph where he mentions Koch’s evocation of “the drudgery of life in Canberra”.

What the? Derek has come to Canberra for some peace and permanence after the superficial diplomat’s life, and has found work he finds absorbing and satisfying. Vincent has arrived expecting to be in disgrace, to find that he has been made “absolute master of the Service’s innermost room.” Erika has demanded her commercial television bosses to let her base herself in Canberra over Sydney so that she can be with the man she believes is her spiritual twin. Where the $%#* is the drudgery in any of that? It seems the lazy clichés about Canberra extend half way around the world. It is obvious that Kerridge and others who leap straight to the equation of Canberra equals boredom never felt the connections that Vincent feels with the landscape:

I wanted to climb through the barbed-wire fence and lie down in the grass out there: in the pale, dry, comforting grass, among the strange rocks of the grasslands.

Koch is indeed a master of landscape, and Canberra’s is evoked with dignity and solemnity, fitting it to the story, and the story to the landscape, “here on these plains… under these wheeling constellations.”

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

11%

1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense

Plumbum

David Foster. Plumbum. Vintage, 1995. ISBN: 0091832217. First published 1983.

I’m afraid I just didn’t get Plumbum.

Early on I felt that it must be saying something interesting, even profound, if only I had the smarts to understand the literary/religious/musical/drug references that must be just eluding me. My library copy bristles with bookmarks of pages and passages that I sensed might be significant once I got a grip on where it was all headed, what the underlying (or to the educated, the overlaying) messages were. Other page markers are for the passages I wanted to return to. Passages that evoke in their chaotic rhythms, their disintegrating language, their rambling logic and illogic, the anarchy of the Calcutta slums where much of the action takes place.

Almost 400 pages on, I just wanted it to be over.

The plot arcs from Canberra, where a group of dissatisfied musicians somehow coalesce into a band. Each of them is looking for one of the things that we might be tempted to believe that rock n roll fame and fortune can deliver us: love, sex, money, respect, enlightenment. From orderly Canberra the Blackman Brothers Band begins an accelerating descent into bedlam, first in a squat in seedy, street-wise Sydney, then to seedier Bangkok, where they sell themselves into slavery to make a buck, then sell their souls to a sound engineer called Nick, to fulfil their dreams.

Nick takes them to Calcutta, renames them Plumbum (it’s the Latin for lead. Get it? Worst. Band. Name. Ever.), draws from them unsuspected musical gifts, and disappears, leaving them to live on the doorstep of his studio. Pete, Jason, Rollo, Felix and Sharon slowly disperse throughout the city, each pursuing their own version of success, or at least survival, until Nick returns to make them gods.

Foster brings in each member of the band through their individual voices. Pete’s is a documentary narrative, Rollo has a superhero alter-ego, Felix speaks in a barely literate testosterone rave. Introductions out of the way, the narrative settles down into a normal enough telling of how the band members came together. Normal, although slightly odd in places, with Jason somehow responsible for his musical icon’s death outside the Albert Hall, and Felix’s near-blinding of Pete with a drumstick in a Fyshwick music shop.

Early on there seems to be a mania for pinning down the reality of Canberra, for naming every suburb, at times every street. Hackett Gardens, Turner. Groom Street, Hughes. Mugga Way, Red Hill. Gritty O’Connor. Scholarly Acton. There is sharp attention to the suburban details:

The window is fitted with a fly screen. Canberra, surrounded by cowpats, is in summer a city of flies. Through the window Pete can see a typical Canberra scene. Across two backyards of yellow grass is a house in the adjacent crescent….

Dotted around Spence are some stately old gums, remnants of the Aboriginal forest. In the shade of these trees stood ruminants ruminating before Canberra came. Spared by the farmer, they’ve been spared by the planner, though most have had limbs lopped, for making threatening gestures.

There are other interesting observations of Canberrans and the city they have made. Jason’s father Arthur is a holocaust survivor:

It’s not sufficiently realised today that Canberra in the 1950s was a city of reborn people. This artificial metropolis attracted reffos of a certain kind the way the blue light in a butcher’s shop does flies…

One of Arthur’s workmates began life in a Ukrainian hut…Today, you can find this man in the Commonwealth Club, hobnobbing with Oxford types. …Like it or not, when men have been through Hell, it is Canberra they desire, Canberra they create.

Later, in Calcutta, Pete tries his hand as a doctor, trying to make the lives around him somehow less horrific, perhaps more like that utopia, Canberra:

Sometimes at night, Pete has a vision of the lifestyle he wants for these people. Decent homes with sanitation. Parks with trees. A clean dry climate.

Free, compulsory education! Law and order! Medical Care! Pensions for the needy! Plenty of good food!

An artificial lake for recreation.

Despite the solidity of suburbia, even normal, dull Canberra starts to unravel for the members of BBB. Sharon’s husband throws her out. Felix’s car explodes in the middle of a Civic night. Rollo is somehow caught up in an ASIO sting, inadvertently passing bags of cash to Russian spies in the Curtin milk bar. Sacked, he’s no longer prevented from getting to rehearsal because “he’s too busy trying to decide which new fighter jet the Australian air force should purchase.” So, with nothing left for them in Canberra, the band begin their descent through the circles of hell, to be reborn as Plumbum.

BBB arrive in Sydney on page 138. From there to page 393 I became increasingly lost. As do the band members. I can appreciate the vibrancy, the suggestive power of Foster’s writing. As each band member’s individual obsessions overtake them, so the narrative and the language conveying it become more and more chaotic:

The convoy rolls into Utrecht. Pete, riding in Plumbum Three, is riding red and rigid. He saw that kiss, that craven-snatch of Polesblubber Maxmeat jellogore, offered under thin greaseworms on a Flandersfield halbersmack, and Sharon sucking up the yellow treaclepus.

Pages and pages of it. Perhaps I’m just old, but give me safe, suburban Canberra.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs Count:

18%

2 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Fiction

Betrayals

Ian Callinan. Betrayals. Boolarong Press 2011. ISBN: 9781921555879

Bucharest, Brisbane, Moscow, Canberra, Oxford, Vietnam. Cecily and Tim, with their assorted satellites Josh, Denis and Janice, rotate through these locations and spin around eachother without ever quite touching. Star-crossed lovers, as Cecily observes. They seem to be perpetually in eachother’s orbit but held apart by fundamental forces.

The forces between them are the betrayals of the book’s title. Betrayals inflicted by friends and family see their university days in 1960s Brisbane abruptly ended. Cecily embarks on a stellar career in Oxford as an historian of the economies of the Soviet states. Tim’s centre of gravity is also dislodged, and without enthusiasm or conviction he becomes a hero in Vietnam and then a spook in Canberra. It’s inevitable, though, that their paths will intersect again.

I don’t think Ian Callinan likes women very much. The betrayals of the book’s title are largely made by women. Denis betrays only himself. Of course, Tim’s is the greatest betrayal of them all, but his is done without selfishness, if naively.

Cecily’s end is unworthy of her, as if Callinan can’t imagine another recourse for a sensitive woman shabbily treated. He seems not to understand the strength of his own creation. Did she not make a quiet triumph out of her life following the betrayals inflicted on her by her mother, the hurts delivered by Josh? Her response in the end is a sad cliché. It does little justice to the rest of the book, which is brooding and intriguing.

If Callinan has little feeling for his female characters, he has even less for Canberra. While Brisbane is the landscape of Tim’s heady student days and his growing love for Cecily, Canberra is the scene of all that is dull and pedestrian in Tim’s sad married life and his lacklustre career. He reflects on “the unrealised promise of his youth, and all those arid years in Canberra”.

Tim believes that Canberra’s architecture “has an air of bombast”, just “a collection of pretentious buildings each in its own paddock”, “a mishmash…of misshapen masonry and glass”. He knows that Brisbane will always be his home, and this is the key to his view of Canberra. It is an outsider’s view, the view of someone who, despite making a life there for years, has never felt he belongs. Is that Tim’s fault, or Canberra’s?

Tim has spent most of his adult life in the town, raised a beloved son, forged a career and sustained a marriage in a comfortable home. He can recall happy days of skiing holidays, picnics, the tennis club, dinner with friends. Yet when describing Canberra to Cecily, the only compliment he can come up with is that it is “pretty” in autumn.

Tim’s inability to accept and adopt a life in Canberra stems ultimately from his separation from Cecily. His life has taken the trajectory it has and landed him in this public service town, and Tim, or perhaps Callinan, really hates the public service.

The glimpses of Canberra bureaucracy here are so at odds with my experience of public service that I find it hard not to be angry at what feels like a deliberate misrepresentation. Tim’s view is of an administration bent on gamesmanship, a city of 300 000 people “preoccupied with their own ascent, or the ascent and descent of other civil servants on the civil service ladder.” Twice he comments on the “contempt” he believes public servants have for those they serve. There are lots of small inaccuracies in Callinan’s public service anecdotes and vignettes. It may take a nitpicker to notice them, but they bother me because they are either born of, or designed to create, a vague outline of a clichéd public service bureaucracy that is bloated, lazy, insular and ineffective.

Of course, Tim, despite drawing his wage from the taxpayer, doesn’t appear to consider himself a public servant. And it is the career public servant who triumphs in the end. Tim’s colleague Aden takes management courses while languishing in the byway of the Middle East desk throughout the Cold War. He is overshadowed by the more respected analysts on the Eastern Europe desk. Then the Berlin Wall comes down, and everything changes.

Awards:

Nil

Caphs count:

38%

1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense