Hall of mirrors

Celia's Secret: an investigation

Michael Frayn and David Burke <em>Faber & Faber, 128pp, £12.99</e

There are, as any writer will be quick to tell you, not very many rules of etiquette governing book reviewing. Indeed, reviews often include a level of rudeness that would be considered actionable in, say, a business report. But at least one rough-and-ready principle still holds: reviewers are not supposed to give away the ending, to spoil the twists and surprises on which a plot turns. It would be bad form to identify the killer in a murder story, the outcome of a love affair or the deception on which a fraud depends - as dull as explaining a magic trick. At times like this, reviewers usually oblige the author by battening down the hatches and settling for a few vague hints about the way the story whirls to its "inevitable conclusion".

I apologise, therefore, for what follows, because it isn't really possible to say much about Michael Frayn's and David Burke's clever new book without giving the game away. An obliging review would have to be brief. Like this. One day, the author and playwright Michael Frayn receives a letter from a woman who has been to see his play Copenhagen. The play concerns a mysterious encounter between two wartime nuclear physicists, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, and the woman encloses pages torn from a journal she has found in the house where the German scientists were interrogated after the war. Could these papers shed light on a top-secret episode of wartime history? Perhaps so. Frayn sets about translating them, and finds familiar names, tantalising references to uranium-235 and other chemical terms, and a lot of strange stuff about ping-pong. Intrigued, he writes back to see whether there is any more where this came from. In so doing, he takes a fateful plunge into a hall of mirrors where nothing is quite what it seems. As the game of bluff and double bluff advances, he begins to lose his footing . . . And so the story whirls towards its inevitable conclusion.

That's it. That's about all I can reasonably say. If you read on now, the book will be a good deal less fun. Because, quite early in the piece, Frayn's co-author David Burke, the actor playing Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, pops up and has a chuckle about this terrific practical joke he's been playing. He knocked off those pages in cod German, basing them mainly on some instructions for a table-tennis table he found in a kitchen drawer. And then he realised that Frayn had fallen for it "hook, line and sinker" and was "begging for more". It would have been churlish to deny him.

The book thus becomes the story of a hoax and, as such, enters a distinguished pantheon of literary japes that share a characteristic to which Frayn is admirably alert: the extent to which the joke depends on the victim's own determination to believe in it. In 1930, a German called Jack Baruch made a fortune by writing Carrying a Gun for Al Capone, a gritty account of gangster life, under the nom de plume Jack Bilbo. The book continued to sell even after he was unmasked. The Peruvian writer Carlos Castaneda went further, becoming a celebrity by publishing a doctoral thesis and several books about his hallucinogenic adventures with the Yaqui Indians, including an entirely spurious figure called Don Juan, a Yaqui sorcerer. Castaneda always insisted that nothing he wrote could be trusted, but the world wanted to believe him, and bought four million copies of his books.

There are other famous cases. Konrad Kujau tapped into our duplicitous appetite for Nazi memorabilia with his fake Hitler diaries. Linda Davison teased our crocodile love of the American Indian by pretending to be a Kickapoor squaw called Crying Wind. And the publisher George Putnam satirised our endless taste for exotica in 1921 by producing The Cruise of the Kawa, a fictitious journey by boat through the South Seas to the Filbert Isles, where the natives could stay underwater for hours. The intrepid travellers came upon some ludicrous wildlife: the coconut-milk-drinking ooza snake, giant crabs that could pull boats, pearls the size of apples and birds that laid cube-shaped eggs. Readers were delighted. The author was invited to lecture by the National Geographic.

Frayn tells his own side of the story judiciously, with plenty of sheepish wit. As it happens, he is at the time writing a novel about a forger, and he feels the same "hot burn of shame" as his leading man. He is also alive to the parallels with his play, which turns on a passion for secrets. He has the advantage over his co-author in having been the victim, the sympathetic figure in this little farce. Pranksters are bullies, and the only revenge Frayn can extract is a mild-mannered determination to deny his tormentor the last laugh. He is also able to stretch the story into a winsome analysis of what we believe and why. But Burke, not to be outshone, reveals interesting motives of his own: one of the spikes of his prank, he confesses, was the rebellious urge an actor feels towards the writer of his lines, as a kick against the tyranny and monotony of mouthing someone else's words night after night.

The whole idea, indeed, came to him during a performance. He was listening to a speech by Heisenberg (Matthew Marsh) about the house in question. "For some reason, I found myself thinking not about the scientists interned there, but about the house itself, and the folk who might have lived in it postwar. I envisioned an ordinary family living there in the Sixties without any suspicion of its previous cloak-and-dagger function. Suddenly, without any bidding from me, a couple of plumbers had entered. Before I knew what was happening, they were prising up the floorboards and discovering an old tin box . . . "

This is the way the whole brief book proceeds: it's a series of trapdoors and false bottoms. Not the least beguiling of its many glittering aspects is that, after a while, we can hardly avoid the suspicion that none of this is true, that Frayn never even wrote a play called Copenhagen, that every word in this parable of deceit is contrived. Frayn has some fun with this idea. "Be honest," he writes. "You did actually believe it, didn't you, when I told you that I'd believed all that nonsense about table-tennis tables."

It is a superior achievement to take a jape such as this and turn it into a fable about how close we always are to very thin ice, and how much we rely on bravado to get us through. Me? Ha! I wasn't fooled for a moment.

Robert Winder's reviews appear monthly in the NS

This article first appeared in the 24 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Miserable small-mindedness