The Reluctant Contact – Stephen Burke *****
With his second novel Stephen Burke’s subject of interest appears to be more readily identified, but The Reluctant Contact expands on and shows greater refinement of the historical and political content seen in his debut novel The Good Italian. Even though they come at opposite ends of the political spectrum, the common theme of both novels seems to be around the incompatibility of adapting a political or ideological utopia to real human sentiments. It’s the human element however that is more tightly focussed in The Reluctant Contact, but the espionage side is also convincingly handled in the novel’s Cold War thriller situation.
In contrast to The Good Italian, where the subject was love in the time of fascism, set in 1935 in Mussolini-era Italian occupied Eritrea, The Reluctant Contact is about love in a colder climate; in 1977 in a Soviet mining post on the Norwegian Svalbard Archipelago. Pyramiden is a model outpost that operates very much to the ideals of communism, and despite its inhospitable climate, chief engineer Yuri is relatively comfortable there, having spent 11 years in this remote region. So far he’s been able to avoid getting into any trouble with the secret police and believes he has avoided the attentions of the KGB agent Timur, but one of his more ambitious colleagues has been making life difficult for him, spying on him and accusing him of sabotage.
In Burke’s debut novel, it was a young idealistic Italian soldier who came face to face with the ugly realities of colonialism when he falls in love with a native Eritrean woman. Although Yuri is older and under no illusions about the true nature of communism in The Reluctant Contact, he attracts more attention and problems than he really wants when he falls for Anya, a troubled woman who works as a teacher in the Pyramiden outpost. Anya has been waiting for someone to contact her with a view to defecting to join her husband, and by falling in love with her, Yuri not only becomes reluctantly involved in cold war matters, but the relationship that develops with Anya brings its own set of complications.
From his first two novels then, Burke is clearly interested in exploring the idea of a utopian society from a fascist and from a communist perspective, and how that idealism copes with human reality. It’s interesting that in The Reluctant Contact, there is another young idealist, Catherine, a young English woman who has come to the hostile environment of Pyramiden on a research project, ostensibly with a view to exploring how humans might survive in future space missions; another utopian ideal. In reality, she believes fervently in the Communist ideal, believing that the success of this model outpost is proof of how a better, more egalitarian society can be achieved.
But Catherine is not the main protagonist of the novel – although she has an interesting role to play in the development of the drama – but Yuri, an older and more experienced individual under no illusions about what life and communism has to offer. Still, despite full awareness of what he is getting into and the risks involved, Yuri finds himself working as a reluctant informer for Timur and a reluctant contact for Anya, as well as being her lover. He knows there is no ideal to be found, but it seems he has not given up on holding on to something that he believes is making the best of what is available to him.
It’s great that The Reluctant Contact has this deeper theme to give its Cold War setting a little more of a meaningful context, but the fact is that it’s also a terrific thriller. It doesn’t rely entirely on the usual clichés of the genre either with espionage operatives and double agents skulking around and rifling through filing cabinets. Those elements are actually all there, but in a rather more down-to-earth context as they apply to ordinary people caught up in it all, trying to do what is best. The conclusions, twists and revelations consequently are all too credible and masterfully handled not in terms of espionage thriller expectations, but as far as human nature goes too. Pyramiden proves to be far from a paradise that ends personal ambition and selfish motivation, but Stephen Burke’s characters know that there’s always more work to be done on that point.
The Reluctant Contact by Stephen Burke is published by Hodder & Stoughton on the 7th September 2017
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