Enigma, Robert Harris

Arrow, 1995, 390 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-09-999200-0

March 1943. It’s not the darkest hour of the Second World War, but it’s still somewhat bleak. While the Nazis are getting stomped on by the Russians at home, progress is being made in Africa and supplies are getting through, the war isn’t quite won yet. Convoys from America are still the thin lifeline sustaining England and it is essential to keep the U-Boats at bay (or, more accurately, safely sunk on the ocean floor) if the fight is to go on.

Fortunately, the bright fellows at Bletchley Park, a top-secret English codebreaking centre, have cracked the top-secret encryption used by the U-Boats to communicate with their home bases. This allows the British Royal Air Force to oh-so-conveniently patrol the areas where -surprise!- they discover U-Boats ripe for sinking. A cozy arrangements for all except the Nazis and the U-Boat crews.

Naturally, the Germans can’t be allowed to find out that their codes have been broken, right? Otherwise, they’d change it to something completely different and the RAF would be back to totally random patrols. The expression “national security” was invented exactly for situations of this type.

As Robert Harris’ Enigma opens, a “brilliant young mathematician” (it’s in the job description) named Tom Jericho has two problems. First, he’s recalled to Bletchley Park from his self-imposed exile because the Germans have finally switched encryption. Second, but far more importantly, he’s still moping over the cause of his exile, a small love disaster with a girl named Claire.

The fact that their relationship isn’t too spectacular, remains safely in the background or that Claire emerges as something of a trollop isn’t the novel’s principal flaw.

In any case, Jericho is driven back to Bletchley Park, where we get a tour of the facilities with the care we could expect from an author who’s made his reputation with intricately detailed “alternate histories” novels of Nazi-occupied England. The technical details all sound right, and we can only be grateful for yet another good record of not only one of the war’s biggest stories, but also the birthplace of computer theory.

Bletchley Park is a great setting for a spying thriller, mixing dramatic importance with technical possibilities. Enigma also has the advantage of covering what was at the time (1995) unbroken ground for thriller writers. (Ironically enough, the first histories of World War II completely ignored Bletchley Park because all the details were still classified. It is only since the seventies that the relevant papers have been declassified and that the true significance of Bletchley Park has been integrated in the “official” history of the War.)

Well, mostly unbroken ground now. Technically-competent readers have since had the chance to read profusely on the subject of cryptanalysis, and the definitive fictional treatment of Bletchley Park is now to be found in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon.

In other words, try to read Enigma before Cryptonomicon, otherwise Stephenson’s irresistible prose may spoil Harris’ soggy narrative. It’s not that Enigma isn’t a good book (it’s quite good, actually), but it shares with British cuisine an overall air of sophisticated detachment, of carefully studied blandness. Hey, don’t be fooled: it’s still good, smart, perfectly adequate entertainment. But don’t be surprised if you find out that the tough unpleasant British wartime conditions start mirroring the novel’s overall appeal.

(As of this writing (January 2001), the film version of Enigma has screened at the Sundance film festival, garnering mixed critical notice. Perhaps the most puzzling thing about the film is the casting, with Dougray Scott (Jericho), Saffron Burrows (Claire) and Kate Winslet as the “plain” Hester sidekick. Ah, only in the movies… It should open continent-wide sometime in 2001 whenever it finds a distributor.)

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