The Untouchable, by John Banville

Like Dave Anderton in Be Near Me the main character of this book must find the path that is uniquely his own through a bewildering number of dualities. As a recently unmasked Soviet spy, Victor Maskell knows about loyalties and betrayals, his life doubled not just between countries, but between wife and lovers, between the friends who have supported and duped him. A bewilderingly complex character, Maskell has worked in British intelligence and served as an art expert to the queen, whom he clearly admires. He is an expert on Poussin and treasures the objets d'art in his museum and his flat.

Maskell, of course, is loosely based on Anthony Blunt, one of the Cambridge spies. Characters based on Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, and Donald Maclean also fill this fictionalised recounting of their recruitment as Russian spies in the 1930s, their long careers as double agents, and their eventual discovery. But it is Maskell whose consciousness we inhabit.

In the wake of his public disgrace, Maskell agrees to a series of interviews with a young journalist, Miss Vandaleur, and he is quickly lost in memories of the past, regardless of whether she is present or not. This absobing narrative takes us from his childhood in Ireland through his university years when he meets the men who become his friends (and, in some cases, co-conspirators), through the war years, and on up to the present.

Banville has said that this book, like so many of his other books, is about the quest for authenticity. For a double agent, there can be no more difficult task. If you lie all the time to everyone, how do you know when you are telling the truth? Every relationship in Maskell's life is fraught with the possibility of betrayal, be it on his part or on the other person's. His confusion and self-deceptions are wrenching, as are his devotions. As he followed his path to the best of his understanding, he leaves behind him the wreckage of the lives of people he has had to hurt: his family, his wife, his lovers.

I don't feel that I can do this book justice in a brief review. It's only recently that I've discovered Banville's work. Perhaps I'm still too close to this story to analyse why it grabbed me right away and wouldn't let up, why I became so addicted to Maskell's voice and to the story of those times. It was different, then, in the 1930s. Communism, fascism . . . I don't think I ever understood before how such a choice could be made, how young men so privileged with the best that England had to offer could choose to spy for Russia, could choose Stalin over the West, despite its flaws. Now, though, with these men who seem so real to me however fictionalised, it begins to make sense.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>