The Little Drummer Girl by John le Carré (1983)

This is a brilliant novel. In some of le Carré’s early novels – The Looking Glass War and A Small Town In Germany and even in The Honourable Schoolboy – there’s a sense of mounting hysteria at the climax which I found forced and strident. But here the sense of delirium is really justified by the mind-boggling events of the previous 500 pages; they’ve only covered the events of a few days but seem to have lasted a gruelling lifetime.

Background The Little Drummer Girl was John le Carré’s 10th novel, a deliberate departure from the English setting and characters of the Smiley trilogy. It is set on the Continent (Germany, Greece) and the Middle East (Lebanon, Israel). But more of a radical break than the settings are the dramatis personae – the lead characters are Israeli intelligence operatives and Palestinian terrorists.

The book is absolutely drenched in all aspects of the highly contentious Arab-Israeli conflict and displays a breath-taking confidence at describing the intimate thoughts and speech patterns of characters far removed from the stuffy clubland or Anglo journalists of the Smiley books. It demonstrates a boggling level of familiarity with the methods of the Israeli secret service and a terrifying portrait of the complexities and suffering of the Palestinian rebels.

Plot After an opening section describing the terrorist bombing of a diplomatic quarter of Bonn, the scene moves to a Greek island where a troupe of ‘radical’ actors is resting between tours, and describes the character of Charlie, an attractive middle class ‘gel’ who’s been to various boarding schools but whose parents split up and who has drifted into ‘radical’ politics.

Turning Charlie The central part of this long (522 pages) book is a minutely detailed and convincing description of how Charlie is picked up by an Israeli agent then abducted to a safe house where she undergoes an immensely thorough breaking-down of her personality and building up again as a double agent for the Israeli security service.

Detailed brainwashing At first it seems ludicrous that every word of every exchange between the head of the Israeli group, an old timer named Kurtz, and innocent young Charlie, are described in such detail. But as 20 pages turns to 50, turns to 100, turns to 150, the reading experience becomes more like a gruelling movie, as you find yourself living every moment of Charlie’s brainwashing, becoming persuaded that this rootless, but clever and directionless actress could be turned into a spy in 24 hours because you yourself are experiencing the conversion process in real time.

It is exhausting and thorough and Le Carré triumphs over initial scepticism. By the time Charlie is ready for her double agent mission, to be picked up by the Palestinian terrorist group and trained as one of them, you are prepared to believe she can do it.

Palestinian terrorists The last 100 pages or so describe Charlie’s transportation through the hands of various Palestinian middle men to a training base amid a squalid refugee camp in Lebanon. Here she experiences with shocking immediacy the squalor and suffering of camp life made all the more terrifying by the repeated air raids of Israeli planes indiscriminately killing women and children. If the middle section of the book dwells at length on the Israeli perspective with heavy reliance on the Holocaust and the Israelis’ unwillingness to be victims ever again, this final section is a no-holds-barred depiction of the terrible injustice to which the exiled Palestinians have been subjected.

Schizophrenia It is here that the really elaborate preparations the Israelis have made to create Charlie’s identity as the lover of the playboy agent who was co-ordinating the terrorist attacks in Europe pay off; but it is not just an act: what she has seen and experienced in the camps gives her a genuine burning hatred of Israeli injustice which she uses to convince her Palestinian abductors of her sincerity but which at the same time she is using to hide the fact that she is working to the Israeli plan and that plan involves the betrayal and execution of all the Palestinians she is vowing sisterhood with.

It is here that the book really transcends anything I’ve read in this area, as it paints an increasingly powerful and disturbing portrait of a double-minded human being, simultaneously an impassioned agent for the Israelis and an increasingly outraged convert to the cause of the Palestinian refugees.

Shattering When the climax of the book comes Charlie is left absolutely shattered, turned inside out, devastated, obliterated as a human being and we are left just as upset, confused, devastated by what we have seen and heard and known. I felt shaken, really upset and tearful and confused, as few books have made me feel.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)
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