The title is key to the book. The word itself takes on multiple meanings each of which underpins certain key themes and ideas within the book. Our perception of what the word connotes within the books shifts as the story progresses. The main plot begins with two boys playing an innocent game of spying. Like Briony in Atonement what they see not only affects them but the people they are spying upon. Spying itself is the portal through which Stephen partially steps and is partially dragged through into the adult world.
At the start of the book the word connotes the fantastical game Keith and Stephen are playing. They embark upon a seemingly innocent adventure which the reader can easily relate to their own childhood experiences. The game is instigated by Keith pivotal proclamation,
“My mother is a German Spy”
Stefan places a lot of emphasis when saying, in retrospect, that the,
“Rest of our lives was determined in that one brief moment”
The reader doubts the authenticity of Keith’s statement and the game takes on comic proportions as the two intrepid adventurers mimic the rituals of wartime in their pursuit of the “German Spy”. For them war is something exhilarating and they wish to join the “saint-like” ranks of Uncle Peter. The scene in which they glance through Mrs Hayward’s diary in amazement at the enigmatic “x” and this itself connotes many different things throughout the book. Frayn is sharing a joke with the reader at the expense of the boys’ integrity. Spying is merely a game to boys are embarking upon to fill the boredom of their routine suburban lives. The boys diligently watch Mrs Hayward who the reader may feel sure is nothing but an average middle class housewife. They make a headquarters which itself reflects their childish imitation of the adult world. The sign itself is misspelled “privet” and within the box is Keith’s imitation of his father’s famous bayonet. This is the camp through which they have plotted other adventures like “expeditions” into the jungle and the story could appear to be in the same ranks as these other harmless games. They ritualistically swear oaths of fealty on the “bayonet”. The genre seems to be something akin to a Boy’s Own adventure. However as the book progresses the childhood game mutates into something much more sinister as can be equally observed in Toby Litt’s deadkidsongs. This sentiment is reflected when Stefan says,
“You start playing some game, and you’re the brave one, you’re the great hero. But the game goes on and on, and it gets more and more frightening.”
This is a game with consequences so awful that Stefan has to distance himself from them through the use of a second person narrative. The game would have been harmless is Keith’s mother wasn’t in fact hiding a dreadful secret.
Out of the two characters it is Stephen who, in the end, takes his role as a spy most seriously. The game is at first instigated by Keith and Stephen has reservations about looking into Mrs Hayward’s “private” things. The protagonist at first seems to be Keith and Stephen merely subordinate to his whims,
“He was the officer corps of our two man army. I was the Other Ranks – and grateful to be so”
As the book progresses Stephen emerges as the true protagonist. Stephen becomes easily absorbed in the game and is the most committed to their pursuit of the German Spy. This could be due to a number of reasons. He has a vested interest in pursuing Mrs Hayward because it becomes apparent he has somewhat of a crush for her. He could be wishing to fulfil Keith’s orders perfectly and take on the heroic proportions of his family. Or it could be because this fantasy world removes from the tedious banality of his family who can’t compare to the Hayward’s. It is probably a mixture of all these different factors which draws Stephen into the increasingly dangerous “game”. When they are unable to work out where Mrs Hayward goes to at the end of the lane it is Stephen who takes the initiative and discovers the route she actually takes. Their operation has not been as covert as they may have at first thought and Mrs Hayward warns Stephen about the dangers of spying upon people. This shows the dichotomy over what Stephen perceives and what actually happens. Despite the warnings Stephen ventures out at night in an effort to be heroic. When he goes outside someone sees him and he tries to hide in fear. Keith later criticises Stephen for being a “baby” but Keith is all talk and little substance and hides in a similar situation.
When Keith and Stephen find the German’s hideout the reader realises that this game is anything but innocent. The game has slowly progresses into something far removed from a Boy’s Own Adventure. They savagely try to frighten the German in a vicious expression of their perceived superiority. The seemingly weak and indecisive Stephen mimics the cruel actions of his friend. Stephen shows a sadistic pleasure in asserting himself,
“I can’t wait to see the comical terror on the old man’s face”
He is able to justify what he does because, to him, the German is sub human. This classification is eerily similar to Adolf Hitler’s own classification of certain racial groups as “untermenschen”. The boys are almost animalistic and the reader realises the true horrors a child can be capable of. A similar affect is produced by William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”. They are no longer just “spies”. The irony is that this was no German but in fact the exact opposite of what Stephen perceived a German to be -Uncle Peter. The importance of perception is an underlying factor which Frayn emphasises through the narrative structure and the events of the book. Frayn is showing that, as Sylvia Plath said,
“Reality is relative, depending on what lens you look through.”
To rectify the shame he feels over what he has done Stephen goes to the barn with supplies for the German. Though he is scared of the man in the Barns and the children and dogs of the Lanes he persists. Uncle Peter says his name from within his hideout. At this time Stephen subconsciously realises that it is Uncle Peter. Uncle Peter talks to Stephen about the “game” which he has been playing. In discussing Stephen’s “game” but he seems to acquaint this with his own actions in war,
“You start playing some game, and you’re the brave one, the great hero. But the game goes on and on.”
Ironically this is what Stephen wanted to do all along. He wanted to be like Uncle Peter who was portrayed as a paragon of heroism. Even this illusion has been shattered and they are more alike than Stephen thought. Like many Uncle Peter may have enlisted thinking the war would be over soon and it would be a heroic adventure. However the war went “on and on” and what may have at first been an adventure changed into something different. Uncle Peter says he was
“In the darkness five hundred miles from home and suddenly the darkness is inside you as well.”
Stephen always subconsciously felt “miles from home” because as a German immigrant he was in a foreign country. He perceived the German’s to be the “darkness” but all along this darkness was “inside” of him as well. Of all the characters in the book Uncle Peter is the one who can truly relate to Stephen’s situation through his own experiences. When Stephen goes out again he hears police officers talking about the dead body on the railway tracks. He blames himself for the death of Uncle Peter. The narrative is riddled with flashes of Uncle Peter’s death. Ironically the most important experience is something Stephen never actually “spied”. When he goes home he says the “game is over”, but we can tell from Stefan’s narrative that this is not true and the “game” continues to haunt him.
At the very end of the book the narrative facades are pealed back. Stephen’s father was the true “German Spy”. Even this, a classification essential to the book, is turned on its head. He is a German who is spying for the British forces. The object of so much of Stephen’s fear and loathing has been in his house all along. This revelation reveals the true moral centre of the book. In his childhood Stephen expressed the kind of “wartime” prejudices that were seen as acceptable at the time. There is a ‘black and white’ distinction between Germany and England. By turning things completely on their head Frayn is making a clear point. At the end of the book he describes the persecution experienced by Stefan’s Jewish relations under Nazi rule, in the story children call Stephen a “sheeny” which is a derogatory term for a Jew, a parallel is drawn between the two countries. It is the Germans whom he describes being bombed by Uncle Peter as the two worlds collide; he is not necessarily criticising Uncle Peter, he is illustrating one of the many absurdities of war. Germany was that “far-off nearby land” at the time: geographically close but at the time they mentally seemed worlds apart. Distinctions that seemed so easy as a child have been ripped to shreds and Stephen is left to pick up the pieces.
So, who are the “spies” the title is referring to? It could be Keith and Stephen who embark upon an innocent game of “spies”. It could be Barbara Berrill who herself spies upon the boy’s not so “privet” hideout. Or maybe the mysterious man who looks through people’s window during the blackout. Or it could be Stephen’s dad, the only true “German spy” of the book. Stefan himself is spying upon the foreign territory of the past. They are all “spies” in different senses of the word and in plural the title refers to them all. Or is it intended to be interpreted as a verb? The reader can hold these different definitions of the word and accept that they are all in someway true. This is what Stephen has been doing through a lot of the book, in a form of doublethink, holding contradictory ideas in his head and accepting that they are all in some way true.