The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Though Denis Hillier identifies himself as “a void, a dark sack crammed with skills,” his long-imagined letter demonstrates his youthful concern with free will, guilt, and evil, which continue to preoccupy him in his adult life and which lead to his (and Burgess’) central determination of life as “a bloody Manichean mess.” He sometimes employs religious terms for relatively mundane circumstances, but with increasing seriousness as the novel develops. His story is literally a pilgrim’s progress. He is branded, like Cain, from an earlier encounter, is leadingly described as “fallen Adam,” and on the Polyolbion drinks Old Mortality: Such associations are pointed.

When Hillier instructs Alan and Clara about his function as their father is dying, he also observes that “ultimate reality is a dualism or game for two players,” a contest between good and evil of which his agent’s activities are but a shadow: The old demarcations are blurred in contemporary life. Yet, sustained by a beatific and nearly sacramental concept of Clara, he also recognizes that “he was creaking towards a regeneration,” toward “that blessed world beyond politics” and the rituals of the espionage game. After Clara, he craves tenderness.

Hillier’s derogatory annotation of Roper’s memoir is part of his post-Yarylyuk determination to end his impostures and identify neutrality as evil, as residing “in the uncovenanted powers.” His three days’ wait for Theodorescu in Istanbul is his symbolic time in Hell before his resurrection. His heroic self-denial and self-purification before becoming a priest under a regimen of “work, discipline, obedience” complete his respiritualization, so that he can ultimately clarify good and evil to the grown Alan and Clara as “God and Notgod. Salvation and damnation of equal dignity, the two sides of the coin of ultimate reality,” and confidently claim that “the real war goes on in heaven.”

Edwin Roper has apparently defected from a profound but quixotic disillusionment with Great Britain, and his idealism and naivete are frequently assailed by Hillier. As a Catholic schoolboy Roper argued for a unified universe and the scientific approach to life; Hillier instead saw him becoming a thing, “a highly efficient artefact crammed with non-human knowledge.” This state precipitates...

(The entire section is 964 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Denis Hillier

Denis Hillier, a British secret agent in his mid-forties. His final assignment before retirement is to travel to Yarylyuk, in the Crimea, where he is to persuade or compel the defector Edwin Roper to redefect. Coincidentally—or perhaps not—Hillier and Roper were schoolmates at a Roman Catholic public school, continued to correspond during World War II, and remained friends afterward. As a secret agent, Hillier is sophisticated, capable, and skeptical; he is also overtly sexual and combative. Unlike most spy heroes, however, he keeps discovering his limitations. Traveling aboard the Polyolbion, a Black Sea cruise ship, for example, his cover is penetrated by a thirteen-year-old whiz kid, he is seduced and drugged by a Eurindian sexual prodigy, he loses a stupid eating contest, and he discloses major secrets to a double agent. Furthermore, in his attempts to regain the initiative and realize his objective, he keeps learning that things are not as they seem and that dividing the world into “us and them” is a reductive absurdity. By the end of the novel, having “disappeared” himself, he has become a priest.

Edwin Roper

Edwin Roper, Hillier’s former friend, a rocket-fuels scientist who has defected to the Soviets. From the beginning of their friendship, Roper is a doubter of conventional explanations. He begins by rejecting the orthodox Catholic doctrine of his public school chaplain, progresses to questioning the innocence of German culture in the atrocities of World War II, and ends in finding the Cold War a convenient political contrivance for both sides. Although assertive in intellectual confrontations, Roper is hopeless socially. In Germany, after the war, he falls in love with Brigitte, a prostitute by nature. Led apparently by his hormones, he pliantly accepts her excuses for German complicity and marries her, only to find her continuing her trade. When Hillier succeeds in separating them, Roper temporarily adopts the platform...

(The entire section is 823 words.)