The Secret Knowledge

Written by Andrew Crumey
Review by Lucinda Byatt

Whether this qualifies as historical fiction is a moot point: it’s set in multiple pasts, multiverses, spanning the 20th century, from 1913 Paris to 1919 Glasgow, 1924 Capri, 1940 Barcelona, 1941 New York, 1967 West Germany and modern London. However, the past is not there for its own sake. What matters instead are the interlinking strands of events whose effects spin through time and space – only a writer with a PhD in theoretical physics could write so effortlessly, and brilliantly, of these alternate realities, which also feature in Sputnik Caledonia, an earlier award winning work.

The physical object linking the different episodes in Crumey’s latest novel is a musical score, the work of a brilliant pianist, Pierre Klauer, and an arcane book, a code-breaker perhaps, or an initiation to the “secret knowledge”, last owned by Walter Benjamin. Both score and book are pursued by suspicious types, under false names (Carreau, Verrier, Verrine, Oeillet), who are doubles in time and space, as suggested by the radical 19th-century theorist, Auguste Blanqui.

Described as an “intellectual mystery”, the book explores the illusion of progress in history, perhaps also in our individual lives, a tribute to Benjamin’s own theories. Interestingly, the women are the most coherent and linear characters: Yvette and Paige, in particular, but even the historical figure, Hannah Arendt, who appears in the book alongside Theodor Adorno. The two key plots involving Yvette and Paige spiral together, doubles whose strands of DNA intersect only in that the music score is central to both: one has the feeling, at the end, that their stories might easily start all over again. As another of the characters says: “Who can say where anything begins or ends?” Challenging stuff, but fascinating.