Robert Harris: master of the “what it?‘ scenario
or the last two years Robert Harris has been under the camera‘s eye. The author and the writing process itself are to be the subject of a BBC ()mttilms' film screened later this month. Now. in a brief moment of respite from the ever-present catnera crew. he‘s talking from a hotel room in Munich on the first leg of a mammoth publicity tour for his brainy new thriller l'f/tigma.
\‘v'ith him is the machine of the book‘s title. a decoding device shaped like a typewriter. bttt armed with a few e\tra tricks. lilip back the cover and you‘ll find an array of cables and keyboards. rotors. viewing windows and light bulbs. It‘s an authentic piece of history. the Third Ricch’s chosen instrument of secret communication. and an ancestor of the computer.
Harris is on
the kind of publicity tour reserved for publishing superstars. During the out eight weeks he will visit over twenty cities in America and liurope. where the BBC crew will try to capture the making of a bestseller. In fact his itinerary is so vast that running through the dates his voice gets vaguer and vaguer. leaving the impression that one could simply pick a major city and he’ll be there. [Enigma the book in one hand. linigma the machine in the other. i
When llarris wrote l’at/zerland in 1992. he was already well known and respected as a journalist (including a spell as a senior ()bserver executive) and biographer. Then the book went on to sell four million copies world- wide in 25 languages. making his name as a novelist. No less a person than Nelson Mandela. in a rare excursion into literary criticism. was moved to comment that Harris
handled suspense ‘like a I, literary Alfred l-litchcock‘. /, Set in an imaginary Berlin 1 ‘5 of the 1960s. where the Fuhrer‘s grotesque architectural fantasies had been attained, it was a brilliant ‘what if'.” scenario that worked to perfection. What if the Red Army had not held out at Stalingrad‘.’ What if the Germans had won the war'.’
Given the premise of the book. what was the reaction from German readers. ‘lt was tremendous.‘ says Harris. ‘The book was rejected by 24 publishers. some of whom even went to the trouble of writing back to say how much they objected to the idea. Eventually it was picked up by an enterprising Swiss firm in Zurich. Even then it was slow. lt took a two- ‘The book was rejected by 24 publishers,
some of whom even went to the trouble
of writing back to say how much they objected to the idea... Today it still sells at the rate at a thousand copies a week.’ page denunciation of me in Der .S'piege/ to get things moving. Today it still sells at the rate of a thousand copies a week.‘
In lz'nigma llarris returns to the war and its consequences. basing his story around the code- breaking activities of the British at Bletchley Park. llis unlikely hero is Tom Jericho. a brilliant and unstable mathematician who is working against the odds to break the German war codes during l943. a critical phase in the Battle of the Atlantic against the U-boats. Jericho has done it before. but the Germans have suddenly changed their Enigma cipher. The code-breakers are faced with the prospect of wading through 150 billion numerical permutations in order to break the code. What Jericho and his colleagues need is a computer. a concept still in its infancy. so they set about inventing one. At stake are thousands of tons of Allied shipping. and perhaps the whole course
ROBERT HARRIS FEATURE
Robert Harris’ Fatherland was one of the most successful debut novels of recent years, which was all the more remarkable for a work of literary fiction. Then Harris set out to write a war—time blockbuster about code- breakers. Marc Lambert tries to decipher the message.
of the war itself.
Ostensibly a thriller. Iiizigma‘s real strength lies in l-larris‘ meticulous research. This enables him to present a thoroughly authentic portrait of Britain and Bletchley during the war. a time when because of shortages and rationing ‘body odour lay over the British Isles like a great sour fog’ and code breakers went without pencils. Skilfully guiding us through the intricacies of ciphers and cyptoanaylsis Harris immerses us in the claustrophobic world of Bletchley. with its own class system and sexism. its dotty brilliance and paper-and—string funding. And yet the work carried out there was of huge consequence. not just to the war effort. btit to the century as a whole.
‘Bletchley was fantastically important. but what went on there is still little known and understood.‘ says llarris. ‘Without it we would certainly have lost the battle of the Atlantic. Egypt and the Suez canal to Rommel. and the D- day landings would have been impossible. Bttt it also helped define the world as it is today. My theory is that the modern world was forng at three places — l..os Alamos where they developed the bomb. Peenemunde where the first prototypes of the space rocket were developed. and at Bletchley. which was the birthplace of the modern computer. One day this could be seen as Britain’s greatest contribution to the world.‘
Whether or not lz’izigma has the mysterious ingredient that makes a bestseller remains to be seen but. on the evidence so far. Harris has given himself every chance of remaining a hardback hero.
Enigma is published by lltite/ti/tsa/t an 4 Sept at £75.99. The ()mnibtis special Hardback Heroes will be .S‘lIUH‘lI an BBCI an 25 Sept. Robert Harris will be reading from Enigma and dent(mstrating the machine at ll’aterstanes West [5nd, [Edinburgh an [3 Sept.
The List 8-2l Sept 199515