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Friday, July 20, 2018

The Spy Who Romanced in the Cold

Ian McEwan pulls off a love story amid the cultural cold war between the West and the Soviets

Written by Dilip Bobb | Published: September 8, 2012 12:16:49 am

Book: Sweet Tooth

Author: Ian McEwan

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

Pages: 320

Price: Rs 499

They are rated as Britain’s contemporary literary giants,collectively referred to as the London School of Literature. The four — Ian McEwan,Martin Amis,Julian Barnes and Salman Rushdie — are all Booker Prize winners and have been close friends. McEwan has just revealed that he offered Rushdie shelter in his Cotswold cottage the day after Ayatollah Khomeini had issued his fatwa in 1989 and there the two of them stayed undercover for some time.

For all their much-vaunted friendship,there is also rivalry in terms of books and sales and that is where McEwan scores: his most celebrated novel,Atonement,sold over four million copies. The rivalry has just got more intense. Amis,now relocated to America,is out with a new novel,Lionel Asbo. Rushdie’s eagerly awaited memoir,Joseph Anton,will be out later this month,and McEwan’s novel,Sweet Tooth,is just out as well. What has added marketing hype to McEwan’s latest is that it is a spy novel,a genre in which the British have excelled,from Graham Greene to Ian Fleming,Len Deighton and the true master,John le Carre.

This is not McEwan’s first thriller. In 1990,he wrote The Innocent,a fictional plot based on a real character,double agent George Blake. In his latest,set in 1973,when the Cold War was still warm,he draws on aspects of his own life: the University of Sussex,his alma mater; the heroine,Serena Frome,is based on a college sweetheart; academics in the book — British universities were fertile recruiting ground for spies — relate to his professors,while his friend Martin Amis and McEwan’s publisher also feature in the book. McEwan has admitted that Sweet Tooth was “…a way in which I can write a disguised autobiography”.

It’s not,however,that simple. There are many shades of grey (if not fifty) in this book which is much more than a spy novel. It explores human and sexual relationships,patriotism under an unpopular leader (Edward Heath),deception,adultery,hidden agendas and the inevitable clash between personal ethics and public duty. At the heart of the book is the heroine,torn between her job as a recruiter of authors with anti-Soviet views at MI5 and her target,whom she falls in love with. McEwan has some 20 volumes of fiction to his name but he has described this as his first romantic novel.

Characteristically,while researching the spy trade,McEwan applied to MI5 for a job as a secret agent. Nowadays,applications are made online and,despite his intellectual prowess and enviable command over words,his answers to the multiple-choice questions didn’t impress the agency: his bid to become the next James Bond or George Smiley was promptly rejected. It is possible that MI5 was aware that Britain’s most popular fiction writer,extremely wealthy,was hardly in need of a day job,but it also shows how times have changed from the 1970s when potential recruits were hired through “a tap on the shoulder”.

His choice of 1973 as backdrop works brilliantly: it adds tension and drama to a plot that revolves around two people,Serena Frome,a gorgeous Cambridge ingenue,and Tom Haley,the promising author she recruits to take part in the cultural cold war between the West and the Soviets in an operation codenamed Sweet Tooth. Britain is in turmoil: IRA’s bombs are causing mayhem,serial strikes have crippled industries and the economy,while Edward Heath and his government are on the brink of collapse. McEwan describes it as a time when “houses had not yet escaped their inheritance of Victorian gloom” and where bars have a “canine smell of damp jeans and hair”.

McEwan’s book has a parallel narrative on literature and its powerful influence on society. His heroine is young,clumsy,naïve,promiscuous and idealistic — everything an MI5 agent should not be. She is,however,infused with a love of literature that leads to an affair with an English professor at the university who recruits her as a spy,leading to an illicit affair with a young novelist in Brighton whom she lures into a literary charity,a front for MI5. McEwan’s clever mix of fact and fiction resurfaces here: the CIA had once funded a magazine called Encounter where well-known authors were asked to contribute,unaware where the handsome remuneration was coming from.

This is not a thriller in the traditional sense. There’s much more cloak than dagger and the first few chapters of the book are slow-paced,more Smiley than Bond,grey old men in secret chambers plotting mind games while subplots unfold at an equally unhurried pace. Serena’s confusion and conflict at playing spy is at its core. She says: “I suppose I was,in my mindless way,looking for something,a version of myself,a heroine,I could slip inside as one might a pair of favourite old shoes. Or a wild silk blouse. For it was my best self I wanted,not the girl hunched in the evenings in her junk-shop chair over a cracked paperback,but a fast young woman pulling open the passenger door of a sport’s car,leaning over to receive her lover’s kiss,speeding towards a rural hideout.”

That part does arrive eventually as the pace speeds up and the virtuoso twist at the end approaches. The transition from slow cultural chess game to Usain Bolt-type sprint is exhilarating,and the feeling that remains is of stories within stories. Of an espionage operation that trespasses into lives and writing and books and authors,and,above all,love. Serena may be a flawed heroine,irritating even,but she is calculated to prove that “love doesn’t grow at a steady rate but advances in surges,bolts,wild leaps”.

That line from the book aptly describes this novel. It’s not McEwan’s best but comes pretty close. In Britain,McEwan is hailed as one of its 50 greatest writers since 1945. He moves in the classiest of circles but his working class roots give him an insight into both ends of the social spectrum,an advantage he uses so effectively in his writing. Both Serena and her recruit,Haley,are struggling to make ends meet but the windfall from MI5 allows them to live — and love — in a higher gear,before it all comes crashing down and the Big Lie is exposed. There is comedy and tragedy in equal measure and McEwan’s masterly touch brings it all together so effortlessly that the transition from spy thriller to romantic novel is seamless. Whether you have a sweet tooth or not,this is a book that is impossible to resist.

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