Recording the Gaps

Article excerpt

Jan McKemmish's novel, A Gapin the Records (1985), is a post-modernist spy thriller, although readers of Len Deighton and John le Carré might have difficulty in recognizing its resemblance to texts they are familiar with. McKemmish sets out to subvert this popular genre, challenging its ideological position on world politics, gender and social class, as well as undermining the literary conventions on which it is based. She implies that, in daily life, information about government activity, both overt and covert, is presented to us in such tantalising fragments that fiction inevitably must develop in the gaps. A Gap in the Records offers us the mysteries and confusions generated at the opening of a conventional thriller, but refuses to resolve them as the genre demands, because any explanatory resolution falsifies our experience of ordinary life where gaps in the records are rarely filled, if at all. But although the entire novel is devoted to ideas of subversion, it ends by asking whether subversion may not actually help support the very institutions and ideologies it seeks to destroy.

Can one ever trust appearances? The CIA is watching you, but who is watching the CIA? A Gap in the Records invents a world where a counterintelligence organization controlled by four middle-aged Australian women seeks to direct international politics and economics. "The hen's party as the men called it",1 dedicated to "The secret undermining of the world power milieu", conspires both against the capitalist West and the Communist East. Mary Stevens, recruited on its behalf after visiting Paraguay, becomes the solitary secret agent of spy fiction who intrigues and kills according to the organization's mysterious directives. She successfully carries out her first major assignment in Hong Kong by murdering a capitalist mover, messenger, black marketeer and infiltrator into China called Crane (an allusion perhaps to Drake Ko in John le Carré's novel The Honourable Schoolboy), although her horrified response to the deed is in comic contrast to the ruthlessness with which the average spy/hero despatches his victims. When the "hen's party" manipulates her into a disastrously unhappy love affair in Paris as cover for her subversive activities, she rebels, refusing their scheme to settle her into Wall Street, "neatly placed to effect the redistribution of the world's wealth", though offering instead to infiltrate Pine Gap, the highly classified US base in Central Australia, and the novel ends with her ensconced there.

But the fragmentary plot is a minor constituent of a novel which seeks to alert readers to the kind of world they live in by providing quite unexpected perspectives on it. One example is the choice of Australia, a former colony still nostalgic for its colonial shackles, as the site from which global tension and conflict are viewed, for the spy thriller is basically an imperialist genre. Public school playing fields engendered the Great Game in which Kipling's Kim participates as the British Raj seeks to forestall Russian encroachment in India. Britain, with an Empire on which the sun used never to set, has produced a large number of outstanding writers of spy thrillers -- Kipling, Buchan, Maugham, Greene, Fleming, le Carré and Deighton -- many of whom actually worked for the secret service at some time or other. Gentleman spies, for whom national and class loyalty were one and the same, readily developed an `us and them' mentality:

In Buchan's Richard Hannay stories...the hero may admire a brave enemy...but he has a total confidence, shared by the author, in the rightness of his own cause and the wrongness of the enemy.(2)

Mordecai Richler exposes imperialism's ugliness when he attacks Ian Fleming and John Buchan for representing the agents of international evil as having `inferior', that is non-Anglo-Saxon, racial origins.

As a boy I was brought up to revere John Buchan, then Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor General of Canada. …