Frayn presents the theme of memory in Spies through the use of various techniques such as form and language. Frayn also uses a fallible narrator to show how memory can be fluid and unreliable. However Frayn’s most important presentation of memory is that it is subject able to perception. The way adult Stefan remembers the events that took place, is different to way he saw them when it all happened, this is shown through the use of the second narrator Stephen- who is Stephen as I child (this is highlighted through the different names).
UnreliableThe narrator Stefan reconstructs his memory like a jigsaw puzzle, as if random pieces have been scattered all over his mind as the years have progressed. This is shown through his stream of consciousness at the beginning of the novel when he is initially trying to recognise the smell of the privet. The smell of the bush sparks off a random memory of ‘…Someone coughing trying not to be heard…’ This quote is actually a synopsis of the end of the story, but Frayn uses syntax by placing this passage at the start of the novel to show the metafiction of the novel.
The memory is initially brought to Stefan through his sense of smell, which leads him to the privet, which then leads him to his childhood, which then takes him to the Barns, which then brings him to the tramp ‘coughing trying not be heard’- however at the start of the novel we do not have the missing links of the narrators childhood or the Barns.
The ellipsis marks signify the missing links and the fact that the narrator himself is not omniscient in this novel, and therefore unreliable and fallible. Frayn uses an unreliable narrator to present the theme of memory as being unreliable. Even as Stefan reconstructs his childhood throughout the novel, he has to frequently question his accuracy on certain details. When he is recounting the visitation of the policeman, midway through the account he asks himself ‘wait, did that happen then, or was it before’. This causes the reader to question whether we can trust what the narrator is telling us, if his memory is so uncontrolled, unstructured and indeed fallible that he does not know the chronological order of it. This again shows that memories cannot just be accessed like a book, but are fluid and random, they must be stimulated by, for example our sense.SensesThe only reason Stefan is on this journey of rediscovery as he attempts to piece together these chunks of memory, is because of the ‘sweet and luring reek’ of the privet that haunts him every year and the badgering feeling of ‘something, somewhere [being] left unresolved…waiting to be discovered’. Frayn demonstrates that the narrator is confused about many of his memories by his use of oxymorons. Stefan describes the smell of the privet as a ‘sweet and luring reek’, however something that reeks can not be sweet, and this juxtaposition demonstrates Stefan’s ambivalent feelings because of his unclear memory.The fact that Stefan gets this feeling every year shows that memories can be haunting if they remain unresolved and not understood. Frayn is also showing that memories can be stimulated by our senses, in this case the smell of the privet. These points are also made when Stefan revisits the Lanes and ‘once again …hear[s] the…high cries that Keith and Stephen uttered’. This shows that it is not only a recurring memory for him that never really stopped, but also the fact that the sound of the trains triggered the memory of himself and Keith in the tunnels together links back to the Frayn’s point of memory being tied to our sense.PerceptionStefan struggles to remember most of what he thought he knew and what he understood as a child. He repeatedly poses rhetorical questions, questioning what he really understood, and the many contradictions he seems to find. The problem Stefan has with reconstructing the story is that he can only remember what happened: the actions, he then tries to work out what he must have felt and thought from the evidence of these actions, unfortunately they can only tell him what happened, not why it happened: what motivated people to act as they did. Most novels have a narrator who knows the answers to every question and can clarify all aspects of the other characters, Frayn uses a narrator who not omniscient to present the theme of memory as being reliant on perception. Stephen only knows what he felt and thought, not other people.During the novel Stefan has a moment where he questions the nature of knowledge, and poses an epistemological question on ‘what it [truly] means to understand something?’ Frayn is really trying to pose the question to the reader: is knowledge based on perception? And therefore is there any true knowledge? As the narration of the novel switches between young Stephen and Stefan the reader can see there is a change in the perception, and by asking these questions, it links the reader back to the theme of memory, and whether memory is also reliant on perception, and if there is therefore any truth in memory.As Stefan looks back into the life of Stephen, he sees him as a separate person, this is shown when he refers to his younger self Stephen, in the third person. This seems strange to the reader, because they are in fact the same person, however Frayn does this to show that the distinct differences about Stefan and Stephen all stem from their age difference. Frayn highlights this by giving them different names. When Stefan revisits England, the place of his childhood, he repeatedly says ‘everything is as it was; and everything has changed’. He uses this paradox to try and explain that his memories are the same, but how he views the incidents are somehow different. The things that once scared him no longer do, for example when Stephen first realised that he was one day going to die a ‘blind terror swept through [him]’, but as he stood reminiscing on his childhood and the outcomes of the people he grew up with, he realises that he is not longer afraid, and that ‘the imagination ages, like everything else.The intensity fades. You don’t get as scared as you used to’. Stefan’s perception has changed; his age brought wisdom has had a big impact on how he remembers events. This is shown when Stefan even has to ask himself, ‘Is memory being overridden by hindsight once more?’ Similarly, Frayn allows Stephen’s imagination and at times blatant exaggeration to interfere with Stefan’s memory of the story, to show that imagination and memory can not be separated, and that again, perception is central to deciphering the truth of memories. Frayn is also therefore questioning whether there is any truth in memory, and that its fluidness throws the nature of memory in unreliability.