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Book Review: The Untouchable by John Banville

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Not until the very end of The Untouchable does its author, John Banville, tell us that “…many books have been written about the Cambridge spies.” Had that comment appeared as a prelude, it may have deterred many a reader, and that would have been a shame.

John Banville’s novel fictionalises a much analysed episode of mid-twentieth century history. A group of influential, intellectual and – let’s be honest – privileged idealists, all of whom attended and were recruited from Cambridge University, undertook spying and espionage activities on behalf of the Soviet Union. There is still some doubt about how many of them there were. One of them retired to an honoured celebrity in Moscow, eventually to have his remains interred in the Kremlin wall.

Perhaps the most enigmatic figure in the group was Sir Anthony Blunt. He was knighted for services to the British establishment. He was art historian to royalty and hob-nobbed with the influential. And it is he who forms the basis of The Untouchable, Victor Maskill in John Banville’s novel.

The central character of the book explores a largely private world of homosexuality, society, family and personal origins. Surprisingly, apart from occasional references to Poussin, Berenson and Josef Stalin, there is scant mention of either art or politics. The character thus almost avoids aspects that need to be explored if the book is to sit squarely on the history upon which it is based. The fact that it does not sit foursquare on events, however, is perhaps its strength. There have, after all, been many books on the subject, so further forensic examination might prove fruitless, even tedious.

The Untouchable thus becomes primarily a psychological and behavioural examination of motive and response. As such, it contributes something refreshing and interesting to the issue. The book, therefore, justifies the author´s decision to fictionalise history.

Throughout, John Banville’s style provides a beautiful vehicle for the lucid examination of the complex. In this book, the author is perhaps more transparent, more literal than in his other work. And so, despite reservations about whether The Untouchable would be worth reading, the process of reading it was a joy throughout. There remains, of course, a nagging doubt as to whether the subject matter needed to be revisited via deference to a literal, historical truth. The book might have dealt with Victor Maskell alone, not presenting him as aka Sir Anthony Blunt, but recasting him in another role with the same connectivity. Then an examination of his motives via his life and decisions might have worked even better than it does, since fiction, after all, is always considerably greater than fact.

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