Guest Essay

"Strange Light":
Quiller in Plato's Cave

Penny Fielding

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One of the many pleasures of reading the Q-orpus is that it affords us the vicarious thrill of encountering Quiller's world of excitement and secrecy before returning to our own experience of the complex social and emotional interactions that Quiller cuts out of his world.  In fact, these sorts of interactions are one of the few things that most readers can accomplish better than Quiller, whose view of the world outside his profession is extremely limited.  Quiller repeatedly offers us his impression of living an inverted world in which the dangerous brink is "home" and life outside society is "safe", and he often gives the impression that his grasp of  the world in which the reader functions is simplistic and narrow.  In some of the earlier novels (The Tango Briefing and The Mandarin Cypher) Quiller tends obsessively to fantasise the parents of certain characters after these characters' imagined deaths in language which reads as a parody of British bourgeois family life: "Yes, I'm very sad to say. It happened in North Africa, one of those mysterious and dreadful things that sometimes happens to people when they're abroad."

Yet Quiller sometimes remarks on the way in which the secret world lies below and along side everyday life, and, looked at in another way, the boundaries that appear to divide these two worlds may not be as clearly demarcated as we might at first think.  After all, espionage fiction as a genre emphasises the two most fundamental (and also most problematic) ways in which we interact with the world: seeing (spying) and acting (being an agent).  The Q-orpus seems to me to lay bare the intricacies of these complex processes, unmediated by Le Carré's preoccupation with the British class system or the macho posturings of the sex-and-shooting school of spy thrillers that descends from Fleming.

Many of Hall's novels illustrate this phenomenon, but in this essay I'd like to concentrate particularly on Northlight which continually foregrounds of issues of perception.  The novel is imbued with its own frequent descriptions of a latitude at which the light makes perception difficult and blurs clear distinctions: "the strange light here: at noon it was either dark with snow clouds or shimmering with the first ripples of the aurora flowing from the northern ice-cap.  Nothing seemed acceptable, everything seemed suspect in some way."(p. 96) It is this "strange light" which places the novel in a liminal space between the familiar, known world and a region where nothing can be known and this space emphasises the difficulties of perception and the nature of meaning.  When we ask the question "what does this mean?" we usually assume that the "meaning" will be inherent in whatever we are asking about, that it will be there waiting for us to extract it.  But of course, if one thinks about this, one notices that "meaning" is an activity, a process, a verb, an artificial relationship between things or concepts. Hall's novels have a great deal to tell us about this process.

To start at a basic level, Quiller's perceptions tell us a lot about how we see things on a day-to-day basis.  A hotel room may look perfectly normal until Quiller tells us about the displaced hair, the misaligned telephone, the inverted copy of Pravda, so forth.  Only then will we "see" that it is in fact the scene of intense espionage activity.  As Taras Stasiuk has recently pointed out, this is an important way in which the reader is invited to position himself or herself in relation to the text: "Every tiny detail in Quiller's surroundings can mean life or death, and in bombarding us with stimuli Adam Hall gives us a feel for what it must be like to have to pay such attention." To extend this, I think Hall gives us the sense that Quiller is not perhaps the exception, but an extreme variant of the norm.  Quiller's heightened perceptions illustrate in a stripped-down form, the way we see the world in general.  When we look at things in our field of vision, they take on meaning as we see shapes and patterns in them (a Gestalt).  An otherwise random collection of objects and impressions comes into meaningful focus as we identify for ourselves contexts in which whatever we look at makes sense.  Quiller's surveying a field makes us aware of this process as he picks out the KGB agents at an airport, distinguishing them from all the other people present, although to the untrained or uninterested eye they would not stand out.  Northlight alludes specifically to the way perception is the ordering of a visual field by means of  the strange light that makes direct apprehension difficult: "you can find concealment in the kaleidoscope of light and shade.  And if you are watching, you can more easily detect abnormal configurations among the formal geometry of streets and buildings, such as the shape of a man's head" (p.70).

The same can be true of language which is the primary sign system by which we make sense of the world.  An example of this occurs when Quiller is interpreting the dying Jason's words in The Pekin Target and must work out that "Elsie I. Insool. Ay eh"  means "tell CIA" and doesn't have anything to do with anyone called Elsie, although that name could be equally well be extracted from the field of language.  This gives us the sense that language itself is not something absolute but something provisional, depending on context to acquire its meanings:  to extract the phrase "tell CIA to ask Spur" Quiller has to run through many other possible readings, comparing one bit of language against another in a system of resemblances and differences.  He has to set one word off against all possible others, just as the man's head emerges against the background of streets in the Northlight quotation.  Language is not the direct apprehension of facts, but the construction of meanings in which it has to be worked out how one element differs from another.  If meaning works by difference, then the absence of a trait can itself be significant.  Sometimes, what must be extracted from the otherwise random field is a gap or blank. It can be just as important to recognise what is not there (readers of Conan Doyle will recognise a famous instance from "Silver Blaze") as in the moment in Northlight when Quiller recognises that the Bureau has set him up.  From all the possible indicators of the Bureau's actions, Quiller selects one:  "most of all because he hadn't asked me that one specific question over the telephone, I suddenly knew what was wrong" (p. 203).

Taking this a stage further, we might ask of the Q-orpus a question posed by the Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek:  "How real is reality?"  When we speak of "reality", Zizek argues, what we in fact mean is the way we have learned to read the world as a system of signs; "reality" is the way the "real" is symbolised for us in ways we have learned since infancy.  To look directly upon the "real" would be an encounter with something that lies outside this symbolic order and would thus not be comprehensible to us. There is an excellent example of this in chapter 13 of Northlight.  Quiller comments that at this point the dawn light on the horizon is so blinding it cannot be looked at directly; it is only by looking away that it becomes possible to bring things into focus.  The significance of the moment is brought out by what immediately follows: a sustained analysis of the language composed by his employers, the Bureau, to manage and structure the experience of  the spy engaged in the whole process of looking or surveillance.  The whole episode illustrates the way seeing is not the direct reception of the outside world, but a linguistic structure epitomised by the careful constructions of Bureauspeak. We cannot look directly at things in themselves, but instead look to one side where meanings become ordered in language.  Interestingly, this chapter is called "Mirrors".  This presumably alludes to the surveillance technique practised by the agents on the train in the next chapter, but it also draws attention to the act of looking in a mirror, one of the most fundamental acts of perception in which we tend to identify absolutely with what we see in the mirror, to the extent of assuming that the image is in fact co-extensive with ourselves.  But espionage fiction reminds us again that the act of seeing is really the establishing of a position in which visual information will make sense (rather than already being sense) as Quiller talks of angles of vision, of the way we detect movement at the periphery of our sight.  Seeing is not the immediate apprehension of the world but a way of  ordering it in systems and patterns.

This brings us to another point raised by the Q-orpus which invites us to understand that what we think we are "really" seeing, is often the product of the way the world is organised according to certain social, political, and economic concerns.  Far from seeing an unmediated "reality" we look upon a world already selected for us and inscribed with a network of signs and correspondences. Quiller often tells us where his eyes are at any given point, and surprisingly often we find how his attention drifts away from what he is doing, or from whomever he is taking to.  Here are two examples, the first from The Sinkiang Executive:

"I kept my eyes on the opposite side of the compartment now.  The Glow of Wundalite, a panel read, For a Festive Christmas!  It was already late January. Perhaps they meant for next Christmas too, for every Christmas. That would be the message, really: that you could have a Festive Christmas with those things lit up all over the tree. I let my mind, or part of it, consider these ideas, surprised that I needed so desperately to hang onto something ordinary and acceptable as a focus for thought while the soundlessness went on, and the fierce primeval satisfaction." (p. 11)

This is a wonderful moment and quite complex.  Death is one of the few  things that might legitimately be called "real", however much we may distance ourselves from that real.  Quiller tries to distance himself from the murder of Novikov, which he experiences as something overwhelmingly visceral in himself, by looking at something "ordinary", that is, something part of a normative, shared reality.  Yet what he chooses to look at is an advertisement:  a form of discourse that specifically seeks to construct a reality for economic purposes. Quiller's mental excursion into the "ordinary and acceptable" world of Wundalite, far from offering any reassuring "human" alternative to the appalling death of Novikov, takes him into a world of signs, representations and simulacra.

Another instance occurs in Northlight while Quiller is waiting for Fane to finish telephoning in a hotel:

". . . I looked at a display of dolls in regional costumes and had the odd thought that there actually were children like this dancing somewhere on some village square . . . while I stood here living my lies and practising my deceits on the pretext that I was doing my bit to keep the Cold War from hotting up. Which was the real world, those children's or mine? It can only ever be the one we create, the one we have to design for ourselves to give us shelter from confusion and sustenance for our needs."  (pp. 68-9)

In a posting to the Quiller mailing list Howard Huddleston has already pointed to this as an example of the way Northlight plays with ideas about the construction of reality.  Hall uses the same pattern as in the Sinkiang Executive extract:  Quiller compares his life to an outside "reality", yet picks a reality that is singularly unreal, in this case the dolls which are specifically designed for passing tourists (not a notably accurate index of rural life in Soviet Russia).  The answer to Quiller's question is, of course, that neither is "the real world", as Quiller goes on himself to explain.  The so-called "real world" is that which is constituted for us for us by our social, or psychological, or in some other way contextual needs: beyond that is only "confusion".  (As a passing thought, it's noticeable that in both these examples there's a real urgency in the text to explain.  Neither of the final sentences quoted is necessary for the sense of the passages [which might arguably be better without them] so could be taken to denote a specific concern within the text.)  This latter instance may remind us of The Scorpion Signal in which Schrenk, traumatised by torture, constructs a bizarre fantasy about toys to try to regain control of his disordered perceptions.  In order to restore meaning, Schrenk tries to make "a connection between Children's World [the toy shop] and that world across the square"(p.164) by fantasising a toy of a man being tortured.  For Schrenk, meaning does not reside in "the real world" but in a construction of it.

Sometimes stray objects burst into Quiller's carefully constructed world to unsettle him: this would include his phobic animals, but the most striking (literally!) example is the snowball in The Scorpion Signal which burst upon Quiller's consciousness disorientating him entirely.  It is up to Bracken to re-insert the snowball into the espionage world of carefully constructed social appearances as he joins in with the children's game, .  Later in the novel, I think Quiller needs himself to take control of the snowball, the stray object, by turning it into a weapon to use against Ignatov and thus re-establishing its significance for the him in the espionage world, re-inscribing it in a system of recognisable signs. One extraordinary complex moment of this nature is Quiller's confrontation with the bomb in Northlight which is worth quoting at length:

This one had the squat shape of a giant slug and the stillness of a rattlesnake.  Its potential for monstrous havoc gave it, in my mind, a kind of life; the brain refused to believe that this degree of power could be contained in such a small object.  What I was looking at was something that could produce an air-blast pressure of a million pounds per square inch and a temperature of four thousand degrees centigrade and a fragmentation velocity of twenty thousand feet per second and it would do this if I made a single wrong move.  The infinitely complex system of intelligence inside my skull was within two feet of the source of cataclysmic obliteration, and the forebrain was working on the options while the primitive stem kept the hairs on my arms lifted and the pressure  in the arteries raised and the heart's rhythm, racing.  (p. 159)

Here Quiller offers us a number of different systems for perceiving the bomb, all of which are designed to keep at bay what it "really" is, its "potential for monstrous havoc" whch would explode all referential systems.  Instead, Quiller summons up its significance as a technical and functional object; its metaphorical significance in a culture of phobic objects (slug, rattlesnake, so forth); the way it interacts with the sign system of his own body in which mental responses are clearly signalled by physical phenomena.  The real of the bomb, itself not signifiable but indicative of traumatic shock (like the snowball in The Scorpion Signal), is brought back into reality (the realm of meaning) through all these signs in a process that Quiller rightly calls "The infinitely complex system of intelligence inside my skull".   It's notable here that, in a move which links this scene to the early description of the dolls and to Schrenk in The Scorpion Signal, the bomb is described both by Volodarskiy and in the chapter heading as a "toy", once again underlining the move from the realm of non-meaning ("cataclysmic obliteration) to that of constructed meaning.

In a Thought for the Day which gave me the idea for this essay, Rick Holt has drawn an exceptionally perceptive analogy between Quiller's fight with Kirinski and Plato's cave.  In the Symposium Plato contends that we see the world not as it really is but as shadows of puppets thrown up by firelight against the wall of  a cave.  All we see are representations of things which are already representations.  Hall's text echoes this in an interesting way as Quiller imagines his own shadow emerging against the light on the wall of the cave:

". . . if Kirinski was this side of the corner where I'd turned a minute ago he would see my silhouette forming gradually against the light.  It was possible that I was part of the rock's configuration and that he wouldn't identify the human outline, so that if I kept still he wouldn't shoot; but I couldn't be sure of that." (p. 236)

Plato explains that the shadows on the cave wall are of the shapes and forms of things  which exist in the true state of perfection of which our world is but a shadow.  Everything we perceive takes its shape from a pure, transcendental form of itself revealed by the true light outside the cave.  But Hall, writing in the late twentieth century, sees a world made up entirely of shadows (and shadow executives) with no fixed and perfect forms lying beyond it.  Reality does not lie beyond the world but is itself the way the world itself is configured.  In Northlight Quiller find himself adrift in a world which is continually threatening to dissolve into non-meaning.  As a spy and an agent it is his job to scrutinise this world and act in it, and this, Hall's most brilliant and intricate novel, shows how complex a process this can be.


Adam Hall, The Sinkiang Executive (London: Collins, 1978).

----------, The Scorpion Signal (London: Collins, 1979).

----------, Northlight (London: W. H. Allen, 1985).  Published in the USA under the title Quiller.

Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry:  An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991).

For non-members of the Quiller Mailing List (join now!), the work of listmembers referred to above can be requested from:

Rick Holt

Taras Stasiuk


I am greatly indebted to Rick Holt for giving me the opportunity to try out these ideas, and for his generosity in sharing his insights into the work of Adam Hall.