Friday, October 5, 2018

Review of The Cypher Bureau by Eilidh McGinness (2018, The Book Guild)

Marian Rejewski is a gifted Polish mathematician and fluent German speaker. He’s recruited from university and tasked with trying to crack the German Enigma machine. Aided by a commercial enigma machine, a set of user manuals, and some intelligence from a German intelligence officer working for the French he sets to work, eventually devising a mechanical machine to help crack the frequently changing cypher. As war breaks out, Marian and the rest of the Polish Cypher Bureau head for the Romanian border hoping they can continue to provide the intelligence that will eventually free Poland and allow him to return to his wife and two children.  

The Cypher Bureau charts the life of Marian Rejewski, the Polish cryptographer who was the first to break the German Enigma codes before the outbreak of the Second World War. Essentially, it is a biography in novel form. And while it tells the fascinating story of Rejewski’s life from his childhood to his death, concentrating on the period from the early 1930s to late 1940s, this its weakness – it is neither an in-depth biography that is situated within the wide social and political context of the time, or the work of Cypher Bureau pre- and during the war, nor a particularly compelling novel. With respect to the latter, the story is told through a series of scenes from across Rejewski’s lifespan. These scenes are short and there is often months or years between them. Key moments are often dealt with in quite a cursory way, for example, the fleeing of Warsaw, entering Romania, the journey into Spain. And some bits jumped over entirely, such as getting from Spain to England, or how Bertrand got from a prison cell to England. The result is a partial set of scenes that form a loose story arc, rather than creating a compelling narrative. Moreover, the dialogue is wooden and staged. What saves this history as story is finding out about Rejewski’s eventful and impactful life, but I can’t help feeling that the tale would have been better told as a straight biography.  

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