Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Meaning and Magic in Bletchley Park

Sarang's third effort, Bletchley Park, is his most ambitious novel to date.  The story follows Basil Thwaite, a young mathematician recruited to work at the WWII-era code-breaking facility that gives the book its name.  Basil excels at his work, but he struggles to fit in with his fellow cryptographers.  He is not bullied, as he was at public school, but he finds social interaction to be baffling and embarrassing.  He retreats further and further into the clean, crystalline world of math, searching for meaning in the intercepted Nazi messages that flow into Bletchley Park.

Here the story takes a bizarre turn.  Where the rest of the team struggles to decrypt the incoming gibberish, Basil starts to discover too much meaning.  The dramatic moment arrives when Basil, discomfited by an encounter with an attractive coworker, accidentally starts decrypting a message he had already decrypted.  As the message resolves, Basil realizes that its interpretation has changed, that a slight difference in sequence has resulted in an entirely different, but completely intelligible, message.  The first message described a petrol shortage on the eastern front; the second assesses the political reliability of a Vichy official.  Basil is thrilled—he seems to have defeated the Nazis' attempt to smuggle one message under the cover of another.

But as more and more possible meanings emerge, excitement soon gives way to doubt and confusion.  After all, which of the interpretations is correct?  Is it a petrol shortage?  A disloyal operative?  New orders for the U-boats?  A warning about Dutch saboteurs?  It is beyond belief that the Nazis would undertake the laborious task of weaving all of these messages together.  After all, why bother?  But what other explanation could there be?

The Allied leadership becomes frustrated as Bletchley Park's output becomes sporadic and unreliable, and severe pressure is placed on Basil's superiors to fix the problem.  But there is no way to justify choosing one interpretation over another.  It is unacceptable to give the generals dozens of interpretations of each intercepted message; it is equally unacceptable to pick interpretations at random.  The Allies expend significant resources in a desperate attempt to test the different interpretations, but no systematic pattern emerges.  The longer Basil works on an intercepted message, the more interpretations he produces, but all interpretations seem to have an equal (and low) chance of being correct.

In the hands of a lesser writer, Bletchley Park could easily dissolve into a hazy morass, but Sarang doesn't let the Allies' dilemma overwhelm the story.  In fact, as Bletchley Park becomes near-useless, Basil becomes increasingly detached from his work.  Distrusted by some of his coworkers and despised by others, he spends his time reading philosophy, history, and economics, occasionally venturing to the local pub for beer-soaked debates.  Bletchley Park shifts back and forth between Basil's forceful, slightly muddled arguments and tense discussions within the Allied leadership.  As Basil broadens his analysis, the military view narrows, and we see an inversion of sorts.  Basil is concerned with the big questions of the Empire:  Indian home rule, Palestine, the sterling area.  Meanwhile the Empire is increasingly focused on the narrowest of questions:  what is it to make of the profusion of increasingly erratic intelligence coming from Bletchley Park?

Some readers will find Sarang's meandering, discursive storytelling unsatisfying, while others will find his hyper-realistic sex scenes unsettling.  But the book is the most emotionally honest that Sarang has written, and the first that can really be called a book of ideas.  One gratifying result is that Sarang has managed to avoid the irony/sincerity debate entirely.  The book is so earnest, and yet appears so light and effortless, that it seems to exist on a different dimension, like an imaginary number hovering over the real number line.  It is not always a pleasure to read, but it leaves the reader with such a whirlwind of ideas that few readers will be able to put it out of their minds until long after they finish it.


Blogger Grobstein said...

Someone please write this.

2:40 PM  
Blogger James said...

Hey, I don't write 'em, I just review 'em. Ball's in Sarang's court.

11:33 AM  

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