Author: Robert Harris
Harris, Robert (1995). Enigma. New York: Random House
PR6058.A69147 E53 1995
- World War, 1939-1945–Secret service–Fiction.
- World War, 1939-1945–Great Britain–Fiction.
- World War, 1939-1945–Cryptography–Fiction.
Date Posted: March 10, 2017
Review by Alan Riding
KINTBURY, England— The immense success of Robert Harris’ first novel, Fatherland, enabled him to give up his job as a newspaper columnist and buy a rambling Victorian mansion in an idyllic corner of Berkshire 60 miles west of London. It also left him with the challenge of writing a second novel that would not be considered a letdown.
After all, Fatherland, a thriller built on the premise that Nazi Germany won World War II, was something of a happy accident. He wrote the book because he needed the money to pay his mortgage, but no newspaper bothered to interview him before its publication; no one was waiting for it. Published in 1992, the book went on to sell four million copies worldwide.
But with his next novel, Enigma, set among British intelligence officers trying to break Germany’s wartime codes, he faced the pressure of expectations even before he began writing. It was the first of a lucrative three-book contract with Random House, it was already sold in many countries and it was the subject of a BBC documentary on the making of a best seller.
Finally, Enigma has been published here with a roar of publicity, and this 38-year-old writer can relax. To judge by reviews in the British press, he has passed the “second-novel” test. More than one reviewer said he was a thriller writer in the British tradition of Eric Ambler, Len Deighton, John le Carré and John Buchan. The book, which was published this month [October, 1995] in the United States by Random House, is at the top of the British best-seller list.
“Harris has fashioned a story that is as humane, intelligent and gripping as documentary fiction can get,” the critic Anthony Quinn wrote in The Financial Times.
Other reviews were equally warm. “This is a story of intelligence, romance, twisted logic and necessary compromise,” Peter Millar wrote in The Times of London, adding that it was “altogether top-class stuff.”
Approval also came from Lord Jenkins, a former Labor Party minister who was among those who struggled with the German codes at a remote country estate called Bletchley Park. “Enigma totally gripped me and made me feel that I must have missed a few things at Bletchley,” he said in The Sunday Times.
The setting for Enigma is in a sense familiar to many Britons; since the secret life of Bletchley Park was revealed 20 years ago , innumerable newspaper articles and several nonfiction books have recounted the role played by the motley gang of anonymous decoders in winning the war.
Mr. Harris’ inspiration, however, was simply to recognize the fictional possibilities in a story. “I loved the idea of a code breaker as detective, of a man searching out for meaning in what appears to be random and chaotic,” he said in an interview at his home here. “This is the heart of all mysteries.”
The story also brought him back to a subject—World War II—that had long absorbed him. Already in the mid-1980s, he had delved into that period in the most successful of his five nonfiction books, Selling Hitler, the story of the forging of the Hitler diaries. And even Fatherland was first conceived as a nonfiction book, this time about the Europe that Hitler dreamed of creating.
But a summer vacation in Sicily in 1987 changed his plan. “There were a lot of German tourists on the beach,” he said, “and if you closed your eyes, you could just imagine you were in the victorious German empire. Suddenly, everything came to me as a novel, the idea of a cover-up, a sequence of deaths, someone investigating them. I went splashing into the water, and by the time I came back onto the beach I had it written in my mind.”
But the next stage proved more tricky. After more than a decade as a journalist for the BBC, The Observer and The Sunday Times, the transition to fiction was not easy. “The virtues of journalism—clarity, simplicity and all those sorts of things—are the enemy of thriller writing, where you have to use language to mislead, to be more elusive,” he said.
Still, his near-obsession with World War II kept him going. “It was a period so much more epic than the times we live in now,” he said. “For my generation, there is a sense of something not having happened, that we have not been tested. When people ask me why I am so fascinated with that period, I just say, ‘Why aren’t you?’ “
German publishers were not persuaded. “One after another turned down Fatherland, often in insulting terms,” Mr. Harris said. “They said: ‘This is a disgrace. This is not something we can be associated with.’ My agent told me there were 25 rejections.” But in the end, a Swiss publisher brought the book out in German, and to date it has sold 200,000 copies in Germany.
Now Mr. Harris has returned to World War II. But Enigma, which was also the name of the German code machine, required extensive new research. He studied the history of the naval war, notably the allies’ Battle of the Atlantic against German U-boats. He interviewed many people who worked at Bletchley Park in the early 1940s. And, most challenging, he had to wrestle with complex mathematics to explain how the codes were broken.
The drab, ultra-secretive war front at Bletchley, he discovered, had as many as 6,000 employees in 1943, but the elite comprised an eccentric band of British and refugee intellectuals, aided by young women carefully picked from upper-class British families. Paradoxically, they often gathered crucial information that could not be used for fear of revealing to the Germans that they, too, had a captured Enigma machine.
Having learned all he could about this “real” world, Mr. Harris then introduced his story about Tom Jericho, a brilliant young mathematician who collapsed from exhaustion after breaking one crucial code and who is recalled after the U-boat codes are suddenly changed. It is at this point, with tension mounting as a million-ton convoy sets off from the United States, that Jericho concludes there is a spy at Bletchley.
So, Mr. Harris was asked, is the book a celebration of British amateurism? “There’s a bit of that,” he conceded. “Just as the British benefited from that tradition, the Germans were undone by the ruthless military efficiency, which made it easier to read their messages. The idea of brains taking on brute strength does have a certain romantic appeal.”
 Harris, Robert (1992). Fatherland. New York, NY: Random House [LCCN: 91051026]