The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


My father has recently finished Smiley's People. One of the attractions of spy fiction is that it is, even at its most downbeat (e.g. The Looking-Glass War), an extension of boyhood fantasies, of stepping beyond the banalities of everyday life into a world of danger and excitement which few others are privy to. One can think of any number of popular kids' books which draw on this - the Alex Rider books, Artemis Fowl, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials - and going back a bit, The 39 Steps and Treasure Island. Also The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. I suppose that's one of the things that draws people into spying in real life. I can understand the romantic attraction, but it's a false one, I think: at root it's a profession which depends on lying to people. That's before you consider the uses, or abuses of it - CND, miners, Northern Ireland, Spycatcher, Iraq. Doris Lessing was on Desert Island Discs a while back and said there was something dreadfully childish about the spies she met.

Thinking on Sciascia's work, and trying to figure out why it attracts me, I realise that it is, similarly, the portrayal of a hidden world underlying the everyday one, with this additional, horrific element - it doesn't so much underlie it as suffuse it. Everyone knows what is going on, and no-one acknowledges it (it was routine for a long time to deny that the mafia even existed). This notion of the mundane life being continually subverted by a nightmarish one is fascinating, and true to experience.


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