The Spy. Why?
By Andrew Gross
|Value for money||6/10|
|Did it do what it said on the box?||6/10|
Fictionalised re-telling of the Telemark story. Why?
While this is an enjoyable read, it prompts one big question. Why did the author feel that a heavily fictionalised re-telling of this utterly thrilling true story was needed? In the preface Gross says that he wants to tell “the story of how only a few brave men put an end to that threat”, but but then proceeds to invent a cast of central characters who are at best “drawn from” the real players and have their names changed. My decision to read the book might have been different if I’d realised up front the level of fictionalisation.
The central part of the book (between the commando raid and sinking the ferry) is almost entirely fictional, involving “Kurt Nordstrom” in not one but two love affairs. Now I get that “Kurt spent the summer of 1943 on the plateau eating reindeer and dodging the Germans” isn’t going to fill a lot of pages, but a shorter more focused tale would have been fine. Once you realise that this section is what it is, it calls into question how much of the remainder is historic.
The irony is that a lot of this is unnecessary. By Gross’ own admission, the dramatic chase which separated one of the escaping Gunnerside team from the others actually happened, just to another character not the invented American, and the true story of how the plant’s night watchman interrupted the commandos setting the explosives not once but twice in search of his glasses is both funny and more dramatic than the way it’s told here.
Beyond that, the story has been told well, with less fictionalisation, several times in recent years. The BBC documentary accompanying Ray Mears’ excellent 2003 book was superb, with interviews of many of the real players. I thoroughly enjoyed the tri-partisan 2015 TV series The Saboteurs which succeeded in portraying the perspectives of not only the Norwegian commandos and their supporters, but also the British and Norwegian commanders, and key participants on the German side. Even the still enjoyable 1965 film sticks to the truth at least as much as Gross’ book.
The book was originally published under the title The Saboteur, which makes perfect sense, but then got re-titled The Spy, which makes none, as there’s very little spying involved, and a lot of sabotage. Maybe this was to avoid an obvious clash with the international TV series, but it raises another “why?”.
If you want to read an enjoyable wartime romp with some real key events, then this book is fine. If you’d prefer to understand the background, achievement and the real players, track down one of the TV series.