Enigma

Enigma Book Cover Enigma
Robert Harris
Enigma cipher system
Arrow
2009-01-10
464

From Wikipedia again...

Jericho is a doctoral student of the mathematician Alan Turing at a Cambridge college. When the war starts Turing and other professors disappear, recruited as code breakers by the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS). Eventually Jericho is also roped in, at the invitation of Atwood who is professor of ancient history at the same college. At Bletchley the code breakers are an eclectic academic set, under pressure to break the Enigma code used by German U-boats wreaking havoc on British and American shipping in the Atlantic. The tension is magnified by internal turf rivalry between the allies over the cryptography effort, with the Americans of the opinion that the chummy common-room efforts of the British operation cannot sustain the decryption speed and volume required to win the Battle of the Atlantic. In the book Turing himself is absent from Bletchley, on a trip to Washington D.C.

On a train en route to Bletchley, Jericho happens to meet the attractive Claire Romilly who works as a clerk at one of the huts, temporary buildings on the park grounds housing the growing code breaking effort. Jericho helps Claire finish the Times crossword with ease and the two strike up a friendship. Claire's upper-crust manner reflects what Baxter (a code breaker with leftist views) terms as the organization of Bletchley Park along British class lines. Society debutantes are chosen to handle sensitive transcription whereas the more mundane tasks are delegated to young women from working-class backgrounds. As Jericho gets closer to Claire, he also discovers a weakness in U-boat Enigma protocol that leads to the U-boat code being cracked, thereby establishing his reputation among the code breakers. One night Jericho is stunned to see intercepted (but still encoded) signal transcription forms in Claire's bedroom, a serious violation of security procedure. Confronted with the forms Claire reacts in an emotionally wounded manner, which also signals the end of Jericho's romance with her. However Jericho does not report the incident or the security breach. In the following days Jericho desperately attempts to meet Claire once again, and slowly tips himself over the edge of a nervous breakdown. He is sent back to his college to recover.

When the Germans change the Enigma naval code book, the Bletchley Park code breakers lose their back door and are forced to bring Jericho back. This is in fact how the book begins. Thereafter the plot unravels to answer a series of questions: What are the papers in Claire's bedroom? Is she a spy? How much can Jericho trust Kramer, an American naval officer and one of Claire's many lovers? What is the role of the supercilious upper-crust investigator Wigram? How much does Claire's room mate Hester Wallace know? Are Jericho's hut colleagues Atwood, Pinker, Puck, Baxter ... jealous of him? Will Jericho break the code for a second time as one of the largest convoys steams across the Atlantic pursued by U-boat wolf packs?

Apart from the plot, the book is notable for its grim descriptions of winter in a war-torn Britain.

The book, though fiction, is criticised by people who were at Bletchley Park as bearing little resemblance to the real wartime Bletchley Park.[1]

With Alan Turing as a background character, Robert Harris recreates the Second World War intelligence gathering machine at Bletchley Park that is the scene of a spy/crime investigation that shows the exposed heart of Britain’s class system as it ceased to be the dominant world power. There is quite a touch of Brideshead Revisited in this book as well as plenty of references to the social patterns of Edwardian times changing to a post imperial one that fully emerged in the 1950s.

The description of how complex encryption systems could be broken by exploiting human behaviour using mechanical (soon to be electronic) number crunching is fascinating. The crime and love stories were good too. Still, the lives and times were the real stars in the book.

The Spies of Warsaw

The Spies of Warsaw Book Cover The Spies of Warsaw
Alan Furst
Military intelligence
2009-01
328

An Autumn evening in 1937. A German engineer arrives at the Warsaw railway station. Tonight, he will be with his Polish mistress; tomorrow, at a workers' bar in the city's factory district, he will meet with the military attache from the French embassy. Information will be exchanged for money.So begins THE SPIES OF WARSAW, with war coming to Europe, and French and German operatives locked in a life-and-death struggle on the espionage battlefield. At the French embassy, the new military attache, Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, a decorated hero of the 1914 war, is drawn in to a world of abduction, betrayal and intrigue in the diplomatic salons and back alleys of Warsaw. At the same time, the handsome aristocrat finds himself in a passionate love affair with a Parisian woman of Polish heritage, a lawyer for the League of Nations.Colonel Mercier must work in the shadows, amidst an extraordinary cast of venal and dangerous characters - Colonel Anton Vyborg of Polish military intelligence, last seen in Furst's THE POLISH OFFICER; the mysterious and sophisticated Doctor Lapp, senior German Abwehr officer in Warsaw; Malka and Viktor Rozen, at work for the Russian secret service; and Mercier's brutal and vindictive opponent, Major August Voss of SS counterintelligence. And there are many more, some known to Mercier as spies, some never to be revealed.

One of the most enjoyable books I have read. The foreboding of the second World War is there the whole time. You know what horrors are about to befall Poland. You know the people in the story are doomed in one way or another. You know that people who are involved in espionage are asking for trouble and causing death and destruction to others. Yet, I had sympathy for most of the characters and could place many of the locations in Warsaw.

It made me want to go to Paris to see the places mentioned there as well. The period setting and those associated values remind me of much of my grandparents generation.
Alan Furst is compared with Robert Harris and that is fair. The story telling from the first person is similar and so is the history as a background/canvas style. I just find Alan Furst’s writing more compelling.

Very worth reading.

Fatherland

Fatherland Book Cover Fatherland
Robert Harris
Alternative histories (Fiction)
Random House
2009
386

It is April 1964 and one week before Hitler's 75th birthday. Xavier March, a detective of the Kriminalpolizei, is called out to investigate the discovery of a dead body in a lake near Berlin's most prestigious suburb. As March discovers the identity of the body, he uncovers signs of a conspiracy that could go to the very top of the German Reich.

This is a terrifying book in some ways. Yet it almost seems normal in the context of Nazi Germany. That is why it is terrifying.
The story is almost a “normal” crime novel about a privileged class murder except that the privileged class is one of mass murderers. The premise of the what-if question posed by the novel is easy to believe; also hard to understand. It touches on:
• the nature of power
• the way International relations almost require turning a blind eye to atrocities
• the control of information
• propaganda and its insidious influence on popular thought
• suppression of ideas and free thought
• career vs principle
It is a very good thing to think of what might have happened if only a few things in the past were different.

Pompeii

Pompeii Book Cover Pompeii
Robert Harris
Aqueducts
Random House
2004
397

This latest "New York Times" bestseller by the author of "Archangel" chronicles the suspenseful last days of the legendary ancient city nestled below the slopes of the volcano Mount Vesuvius. "[An] intelligent, engaging historical novel."--"The Washington Post Book World."

This is the first Robert Harris book I read. It started me on a reading journey that I have not regretted.
What I love about this book is the way it tells a story of immense scale and impact (eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum) with the history and well shaped cultural insights being a background to a love story and tale of Imperial values, in what is arguably the peak civilisation outside the past 200 years.
I highly recommend this book and author.

Night Soldiers

Night Soldiers Book Cover Night Soldiers
Alan Furst
Europe
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
2005-05-01
511

Suspense fiction. Bulgaria, 1934. A young man is murdered by the local fascists. His brother, Khristo Stoianev, is recruited into the NKVD, the Soviet secret intelligence service, and sent to Spain to serve in its civil war. Warned that he is about to become a victim of Stalin's purges, Khristo flees to Paris. Night soldiers masterfully re-creates the European world of 1934-45: the struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia for Eastern Europe, the last desperate gaiety of the beau monde in 1937 Paris, and guerrilla operations with the French underground in 1944.

Another book by Alan Furst that I have greatly enjoyed. This is the originating book for the series focusing on the lead up to and during the second World War. It is about the minutiae of espionage and it seems to me to be the most authentic of all books on the subject (at least fictional). The scope is enormous and the ideas resonate for me.

  • How war and conflicts of ideology can corrupt good people.
  • Understanding your place in the world as an adolescent.
  • How loyalty can overcome brainwashing.
  • Mobilising the disaffected to a cause.

I felt for a young man trying to make sense of a world that was mad. Then doing what needed to be done to survive it… as one would. I read this book after reading almost every other book in the series. In some ways I am glad I did because the scope of the book needs some context to ground your understanding of what is happening.

As a first major writing effort, it has to be one of the best.

 

Imperium

Imperium
Robert Harris
Historical fiction
Vintage
2006
403

This is another good book from Robert Harris. It is focussed on the life of Cicero in his time as a public figure. While Cicero is interesting for achieving high office without a power base, the descriptions of Roman life and politics are what I like the most. Narrated from the perspective of an elite slave, it shows how little things have changed in politics. It shows how much has changed socially. Then there is that broad canvass of the Roman Empire and just how civilised they were at one level and yet savage at another. The treatment of Roman citizenship was the first time it became clear to me how much this concept meant at the time. I was reminded of my reading of Gibbon and how the Enlightenment sparked a renewed interest in the Greek and Roman concepts of Republic and citizenship. How all that resulted in The Terror and Napoleon. I was also reminded of how excess wealth gets used to create power. That power can be used for many purposes and those are not much different today to 2000 years ago. The writing is again something that made me read until far too late at night. I read this reasonably large book over two nights and an afternoon. It left me wanting more.

Sherston’s Progress

Sherston's Progress Book Cover Sherston's Progress
Siegfried Sassoon
Fiction
Simon Publications
2004-02-01
280

"Third volume of the famous WWI war novel following ""The Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man"" and ""The Memoirs of An Infantly Officer""."

This is the third in a series of books by Siegfried Sassoon. The first is called Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man and is an enchanting description of Edwardian England that is safe and secure in its isolation from world turmoil. The tranquil and genteel country estate life of the gentry that focuses on a young man’s sporting achievements is set against a backdrop of the impending Great War. The chilling unpreparedness for what was to come and the human warmth that pervades the training of a cavalry regiment in the English heartland makes the known murderous events so much more poignant. The second book Memoirs of an Infantry Officer retains the gentleness of the preceding book but has the sharp and jagged edges of trench warfare protruding from its pages in a way you could imagine it happening in the trenches. Simple descriptions of horror juxtaposed against the memories of home and a better life tumble into serious questioning of the morality of war and the repulsive indifference of the aristocracy to suffering of ordinary soldiers. Ben Elton wrote a book, The First Casualty that seems to draw inspiration from Sassoon. It is easy to see how the writing of Sassoon and Wilfred Owen has coloured our understanding of the Great War. The final book, Sherston’s Progress, takes us into a world that does not understand what is happening in the trenches, sees the casualties and deaths as something that is “the Kaiser’s fault” rather than the result of outdated aristocracy that has not kept up with the changes of the past 30 years. 30 years when there was more technological advance than in the previous millennium. Changes in the way that ethnic groupings saw themselves as having no allegiance to Emperors, Sultans, Kings or any other imperial powers imposed upon them by force. Changes in the way that middle classes wanted political power to go with their increasing economic power. Changes that were modern rather than mediaeval. The final book was written when the Nazi rise to power was under way. Discussions of the intense conflict between a pacifist sentiment that you do not like killing a kindred spirit (possibly even a cousin) and a sense of duty to defend a beloved way of life that meant so much in your youth. The tension between duty and harsh reality. Loss of faith in the fundamentals of your own culture. A yearning to express the horror and yet uncanny beauty of the extremes generated by mechanised war. All through the prism of time. Written in the third person, this is extremely auto-biographical. How else could one write of such experiences? CEW Bean experienced trench warfare first hand and wrote about it from the perspective of others. Very few could write personally until their latter years. I recognise the language used from my grandparents and great aunts and uncles. An unsufferable loss of a generation of young men … then another in the subsequent World War. Is it any wonder that those generations took refuge in post War consumerism and looked to find comfort?

My Life as a Fake

My Life as a Fake Book Cover My Life as a Fake
Peter Carey
Fiction
Vintage Books
2005-01
265

Accompanying the arrogant poet, John Slater, to Malaysia, London editor Sarah Wode-Douglass finds herself obsessively drawn to a mysterious manuscript that bears a legacy of fraud and danger.

Fiendishly devious and addictively readable, Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake is a moral labyrinth constructed around the uneasy relationship between literature and lying. In steamy, fetid Kuala Lumpur in 1972, Sarah Wode-Douglass, the editor of a London poetry journal, meets a mysterious Australian named Christopher Chubb. Chubb is a despised literary hoaxer, carting around a manuscript likely filled with deceit. But in this dubious manuscript Sarah recognizes a work of real genius. But whose genius? As Sarah tries to secure the manuscript, Chubb draws her into a fantastic story of imposture, murder, kidnapping, and exile–a story that couldn’t be true unless its teller were mad. My Life as a Fake is Carey at his most audacious and entertaining.

I enjoyed this book from a few angles. Firstly it is closely linked to the Ern Malley affair in 1943 – The Angry Penguins. Secondly it is also about living in a foreign country. Thirdly it is about consequences of actions that might have seemed ok in the past but don’t turn out that well.

I read it over two nights and had the usual sleep deprivation as a result.