Absolute Friends by John le Carré (2004)

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

For three quarters of its length this is the best, the most compelling, gripping and psychologically rewarding le Carré novel for years: for excitement and plausibility I would recommend this one over all its predecessors as far back as A Perfect Spy. It is a return to the full-blown world of Cold War spying, but now continued on into the more uncertain, violent and scary post-9/11 world and also, for the first time in his fiction, gives a real sense of age and frailty and remorse.

Then bizarrely, right at the end, the narrative turns into a rant against George Bush, Tony Blair and the US invasion of Iraq, our heroes get assassinated by the wicked, imperialist Americans and the whole thing is covered up in a finale that’s reminiscent of 1970s conspiracy thrillers, only without the wit or style.

Absolute Friends

Absolute Friends feels like yet another channeling of le Carré’s own life story. Like the author, the main protagonist Ted Mundy is brought up by a braggart father – this version is a British Army Major who stays on into post-Independence Pakistan, all bristling patriotism and military lingo, his mother having died in childbirth. When his father is cashiered from the Army in the 1950s, young Ted returns with him to grey, rainy England and, like the young JLC, is packed off to a succession of boarding schools which he hates, before – exactly like JLC – discovering a liking for German language and literature and so going abroad to study, in this fictional instance, to Berlin (le Carré went to study in Basel in Switzerland).

As with A Perfect Spy, the closer le Carré is to his own life, the more grounded the text and the language feel. Granted the entire childhood in Pakistan, the food and Muslim prayers and Urdu words for things, are not directly autobiographical but the product of research – nonetheless, the character’s feelings of being puzzled, isolated, seeking escape from a childhood world which is both smothering and the only support he knows, are powerfully conveyed and give the novel more psychological conviction than its four or five predecessors.

The plot

At Oxford Ted had taken a lover (le Carré heroes are never short of women, they luxuriate in an atmosphere of sustained sensuality – the ease with which Jonathan Roper or Oliver Single or Andrew Osnard or Ted Mundy attract and bed posh totty is one of the defining characteristics of these books).

Strident young Ilse introduces him to sex and radical politics, packing him off to Berlin with a letter of introduction to the city’s top student radical, Sasha (we never learn his last name).

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

Here we come to one of le Carré’s most irritating mannerisms – the way so many of his protagonists are in awe of super-famous, notorious, legendary figures. Thus everyone in Berlin knows Sasah, just as everyone in Panama knew Harry Pendel, everyone in the City knew ‘Tiger’ Single, and so on and so on.

Sasha is a small, intense, broken-looking chap but, again, like all le Carré leading men, the smirking ‘conqueror’ of numberless women – as well as being the much-admired brains behind radical student politics in the seething Berlin of 1969.

It’s rather a relief that, for the first time in five or six novels, the books features scenes which don’t involve chaps from Eton and Winchester pointing out to each other how legendary and/or what total rotters each other are, in that insufferably self-congratulatory public school way.

Indeed, the scenes set among the free love and ‘smash the system’ radical students of late 1960s Berlin felt powerful and persuasive – helped no end by being set among foreigners who don’t end each sentence ‘old boy’, and therefore sound like normal people, not the self-regarding ‘legends’ of Eton or Harrow or Shrewsbury who populate his other post-1990s novels.

Ted enjoys free sex with, inevitably, the most beautiful and aloof of the many beautiful young women in the squat. All women in le Carré novels are young and beautiful and carefree, personally I find this thread rather creepy.

They go sticking up posters calling for the workers to overthrow the system etc, and then there’s a big demonstration in which 6-foot-tall Ted a) rescues Sasha from a beating by the police b) is himself arrested, soundly beaten, handed over to the British Consulate and deported.

Time passes during which Ted does not resume his degree at Oxford but tries various life experiments and the narrative gives a good sense of the confidence and open horizons so many people experienced in the early 1970s.

Ted teaches at schools (inevitably he has affair with one of the other master’s wives), lives for a while in the stoned writer’s colony in Taos, USA (obviously has an affair with a painter’s wife), tries his hand as a radio reporter and newspaper journalist, before drifting back to London and getting a homely little job at the British Council.

He also lowers his sexual sights from artists and free spirits and falls in love with a practical young woman, Kate, teacher in a local state school (that is, not a fee-paying boarding school – crikey, there are a few around, apparently) who also happens to be an activist in the local Labour Party.

In his new British Council role Ted is tasked with accompanying a youth theatre group across north Europe and then around the Eastern bloc countries. This meandering account all leads up to the seismic moment when Ted is hailed by Sasha backstage in an Eastern European capital. Yes, Sasha, Sasha from the old days in the Berlin commune!

Quickly Sasha makes a rendezvous with Ted at which he tells the incredulous Englishman what’s happened to him in the decade since the glory years in Berlin. Briefly, he was lured by radical colleagues to cross the Wall into the East where he was at first interrogated and grilled in the notorious ‘White Hotel’ interrogation centre, and then, finally, rehabilitated, on condition that he became a lowly employee of the State Security Police, the Stasi.

Now, by the time of this backstage meeting with Ted, Sasha has become completely disillusioned with life in the East, whose authorities he dismisses as ‘red fascists’. He has begun copying incriminating documents and building up an archive of the State’s criminality against the long-awaited day, far in the future, when the communist regime will collapse. And then he was amazed to see his old friend Ted’s name on the manifest of a travelling theatre group. And hence this meeting…

Sasha tells Ted he wants to spy for the West. He has access to files and documents and information all of which he will give to the West, for nothing, just out of anger and hatred of the regime. Ted doesn’t know what to think, and has the latest of many out-of-body experiences he has throughout the novel whenever he finds himself out of his depth. However, Sasha stipulates that he will only hand these goodies over to Ted, in person, no-one else. To manage this, Sasha explains, to cement their bond, Ted must offer himself as a spy to his Stasi masters. This will provide the perfect excuse for their meetings.

Ted becomes a spy

Sasha even explains to Ted who to get in touch with when he gets back to the West, a drawling, upper-class Intelligence officer in West Berlin, Nicholas Amory, who becomes his case officer. Ted now undergoes training in a) how to collect Sasha’s information b) how to present himself as a candidate for recruitment by the Stasi, not being too earnest, playing hard to get, then ultimately giving in and agreeing to become a double agent.

This central part of the novel is familiar territory for le Carré, but fascinating nonetheless. His classic spy novels from the 1960s and 70s emphasised the human cost of the trade and this is no different. Ted has married Kate and they have a young son, Jake, but all of them find it wearing to cope with Ted’s more and more frequent trips to Eastern Europe, ostensibly attending conferences promoting British Culture, but in every instance a) pretending to the Stasi that he has vital espionage material to feed Sasha b) in fact collecting and transporting back Sasha’s top secret information to his British handlers.

The narrative makes a deal out of the multiple versions of himself Ted has to navigate: Mundy One, his ‘true self’, Mundy Two the British spy, Mundy Three the pretend Stasi spy. Throw in playing the roles of good father and dutiful husband, and you have a very confused public schoolboy, who wishes he could just go and play cricket. I found the narrative’s portrayal of this slightly hallucinatory sense of managing multiple selves very convincing.

Amidst all the spying Ted is introduced by Amory to a tall, shaggy, comfortable American, who interviews him in depth over a number of days, and who he grows to like, one Orville J. Rourke (‘call me Jay’), whose dear old mother, like Ted’s, is of Irish descent.

Then, one day, Jay disappears, without a goodbye or anything. Amory explains to Ted that he has just been vetted by ‘the cousins’ (i.e. the CIA) and passed clean. Good for him.

Over the years Ted and Kate drift apart. She finds herself promoted within the Labour Party and put forward as the PLP candidate for her home town of Doncaster, which requires her to move up there, along with Jake. Because of his work Ted remains in London, and is often abroad anyway. The inevitable happens and, some years later, they have a summit meeting where Kate announces she’s leaving him, for a shadowy man in the background, Philip, something to do with the shiny New Labour Project.

(Le Carré, who gives every sign of loathing Tony Blair, is heavily sarcastic about Kate and her steady rise in the New Labour hierarchy).

What rings most true from these sequences is Ted’s heartfelt sorrow at missing out on his son’s childhood, sadly meeting up with the teenage Jake and realising he is a stranger to him.

Then one day they all find themselves watching on TV the Berlin Wall being hammered to the ground, while the East German police look on in bemusement. Ted has a moment of concern for his friend Sasha, liable to be lynched by the mob in the anti-Stasi reprisals; and then panic for himself, as he realises his own Stasi file, proclaiming him a communist spy, might be published. But it doesn’t happen…

The present

All le Carré’s post-Cold War novels start in media res, i.e. in the middle of the complete sequence of events they describe. After establishing the situation in ‘the present’, they then go back to explain the often long and convoluted backstories which led up to this moment. Thus Absolute Friends opens soon after the Allied invasion of Iraq (March to May 2003) to find Ted adrift in Europe again and explains everything I’ve just summarised in a flashback.

Having lost his family in England around the same time the Cold War ended and his career as a spy came to an abrupt end, Ted has returned to Germany and set up a school for teaching English to corporate executives.

So as ‘the present’ of the novel opens, this school has shut down, bankrupted by the (possibly) criminal activities of Ted’s business partner Egon, and Ted has drifted down to Munich, where he has fluked a job as an English-speaking tour guide to one of the castles of mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, giving chummy, unfunny lectures to bemused tourists.

He has also fallen in love with a poor Muslim immigrant, Zara, who approached him one night in a bar offering to prostitute herself. The decent public schoolboy and soldier’s son in him turns this down and insists on buying her a nutritious dinner. She explains that she is the victim of an arranged marriage made back in Pakistan to a man who turned out to be a crook and wife beater, and who smashed out her front teeth among other assaults, before being arrested and sent to prison. Now she prostitutes herself to support her proud little son, Mustafa.

Ever one for a lost cause (and leaking a fair bit of sentimentality), Ted becomes Zara’s protector, paying for proper food, buying the suspicious Mustafa toys, behaving honourably for he is, like so many le Carré characters, at heart a jolly decent chap, an honourable schoolboy.

And now we realise the reason why le Carré had his protagonist born and raised in Pakistan. It makes him sympathetic to Muslim culture, it makes him ready to be taken along by Zara and Mustafa to their impoverished mosque in the backstreets of Munich, it contributes to his anger at the short-sighted stupidity of the Allies for invading Iraq on a trumped-up pretext.

But despite the naked contrivance of all this, the actual descriptions of Ted’s childhood in dusty Pakistan, of playing with the native children and the sweet memories which elude him in later life, are genuinely moving.

Above all, it is a relief not to be among the braying diplomats and their bitchy wives who have dominated JLC’s past few novels. It feels a little bit like actual modern life, in its poverty and anxiety and multi-cultural confusion. And it feels like an achievement for le Carré to have reached beyond the bubble of his age and class and grasped that.

The counter-university

And so all this brings us to the final act. Out of the blue Ted gets a letter from his old comrade in arms, Sasha, who makes his third great interference in Ted’s life. This time, when they meet, Sasha introduces him to a mad new scheme: there is a secretive billionaire who is so incensed at the West’s invasion of Iraq, and by the stranglehold the new, more virulent military-industrial complex is exerting over all aspects of Western media, culture and education, that he has a magic plan at hand – he wants to set up a Counter-University, which will provide a safe space for voices speaking out against the Complex, where alternative discourses and theories can flourish.

Sasha drives Ted out to an aircraft-hanger sized barn in the countryside outside Munich, where they transfer to a 4-by-4 driven by a stern female operative, and then up hill and through a maze of forests and valleys to a remote mansion.

It is like a James Bond lair, immaculate and clean in every detail, and Sasha leaves Ted to be processed by several sets of slick young receptionists and security guards before being admitted to the vast room of Mr Big, who turns out to be a tracksuited, twinkly old man of 70, who gives his name as Dimitri and delivers a long monologue about the evils of the US military-industrial complex. He outlines his plans to set up the Counter-University and even produces a reading list of the kinds of books they should be teaching, a list which could come straight from the pages of the Guardian:

  • Naomi Klein
  • Arundhati Roy
  • George Monbiot
  • Mark Curtis
  • John Pilger
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Joseph Stiglitz
  • Susan George

I’ve read articles or books by all of these authors and even attended lectures by some of them (Klein, Stiglitz). I am broadly sympathetic to their views, but I found le Carré’s decision to promote their views via the mouth of a wizened, old James Bond-style villain, bizarre.

‘I am speaking of something even more important to the development of western society than the ballot box. I am speaking of the deliberate corruption of young minds at their most formative stage. Of the lies that are forced on them from the cradle onwards by corporate or State manipulation, if there’s a difference any more between the two which I begin to doubt. I am speaking of the encroachment of corporate power on every university campus in the first, second and third worlds. I am speaking of educational colonisation by means of corporate investment at faculty level, conditional upon the observation of untrue nostrums that are advantageous to the corporate investor, and deleterious for the poor fuck of a student.’ (p.276)

In the fiction, Ted is driven back to his flat where he agrees the whole deal with Sasha. However, Ted is not that naive and the next night hops into a car and drives back out to the aircraft hanger, only to find it full of farm equipment, and then continues up to the James Bond mansion in the forest, only to find it stripped and bare. Spooky!

Stumbling back through the woods he is aggressively captured by a large force of armed and trigger-happy Austrian security police, stripped, hooded, bundled into a jeep and interrogated before it all comes to a halt with the reappearance of Jay, the CIA man from years before.

Jay reveals to Ted that they have their eyes on Dimitri and have traced his money back to Riyadh. The Saudis. Muslims, Ted. Has it crossed Ted’s mind that Dimitri might not be a peace-loving philanthropist but part of the new web of anti-Western terrorists spreading around the world?

Ted is cleaned up and dropped home where he is paid another visit by his old MI6 minder Nick Amory. For the first time since Ted’s known him, Nick is himself at a loss and puzzled. He reveals MI6’s uncertainty about Dimitri’s background and motives: is it to found a grand new liberal university in the venerable university city of Heidelberg? Or is that the facade for some evil ‘spectacular’ like blowing the city up?

And Nick tells Ted that Jay is no longer with ‘the Company’ i.e. the CIA: he’s been a freelancer, advising big US corporations for four years or more. So whose interests does he have at heart? Ted is right to feel confused, and the reader along with him. Thirty pages from the end Ted loads Zara and Mustafa onto a plane back to Turkey, to attend her sister’s wedding, glad to have them out of the way of whatever happens next.

The big shoot-out

What happens next is Ted drives to the big, empty school building where he’s made an appointment to meet Sasha. Sasha is late. After a few drinks, Ted takes a jemmy and opens the crates of books which have started arriving as preparation for the big new university and are piled up in the big main hall.

Sure enough, he finds lots of books on philosophy etc, but then… some on how to make home-made bombs, tips on arson, and then some crates full of hand grenades and guns. Oh. OK. In a very cinematic moment he sits back in the armchair in the big unlit atrium of the schoolhouse staring at the pile of cracked-open crates in utter silence, wondering what the hell he’s got himself into.

Then he hears the moan of a motor car, a screech of brakes and all hell breaks loose – the doors and windows are smashed in by black-clad US Special Forces firing machine guns in all directions and letting off small explosions. Ted runs to the stairs and stumbles up them despite being hit in the leg and shoulder. He makes it up to the attic where he swings open the skylight, looking down into the road in time to see Sasha being shot to pieces outside. At which point half a dozen SWAT troops burst into the attic followed by a balaclava-ed, tall, shaggy guy with a smooth Boston accent – God, it’s Jay! – who takes careful aim with a sniper’s rifle and shoots Ted through the head.

The cover-up

Exactly as in The Constant Gardener a) the hero is killed by the forces of evil b) le Carré embarks on an elaborate explanation of how a completely fictional cover story is manufactured by the State and media c) one good man speaks out in a bid to tell the truth but is stifled.

So official sources give out that US forces only just managed to prevent a major terrorist atrocity right in the heart of Germany. Huge stockpiles of ammunition and guides to terrorism were seized and two of the hardened terrorists shot dead but not before an intense firefight. Ted’s life is completely rewritten to make him look like an embittered loser who has turned to Islamic radicalism (even marrying one of them, godammit!) while Sasha is characterised as a former Stasi spy and failed radical. So much for the cover-up.

We go on to learn that Dimitri was a conman and actor hired to deceive both Sasha and Ted, who has taken a big payoff and retired to the States. We learn that Zara was arrested on arrival in Ankara and is being tortured until she corroborates the official story. We learn that a high-ranking British official published a ‘true’ account of Mundy’s life on an anonymous website (this would be Nick Amory), an account which was comprehensively rubbished by the powers-that-be and gullible journalists who, in le Carré’s view, are always easily impressed by the glamorous world of ‘intelligence’.

And the motive behind this elaborate and murderous scam? Germany had refused to join the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ which invaded Iraq. This entire incident and the deaths of Sasha and Ted were engineered to terrify German public opinion, helped along by paid articles from America-friendly journalists, designed to bring pressure to bear on the German Chancellor to fall into line with US foreign policy, with the American military-industrial hyperpower which, in le Carré’s view, has gone mad, and is undermining the whole world.

A spot of biography

Le Carré’s father, on the evidence of his own interviews and the recent biography of him, was a world class con-man, who gathered round him gangs of collaborators and conspirators who all agreed with the Chief and supported his mad schemes. Within this small world, tightly knit together by its secrets and conspiracies, to the growing boy John all the adult characters around him seemed larger than life figures, with superhuman qualities.

This sense of a small, claustrophobic world in which everyone is a legend to everyone else is one of the hallmarks of le Carré’s fiction. A Perfect Spy is a great novel because it has the force of a barely fictionalised recap of le Carré’s odd childhood. The same sense of a magic circle of large-than-life characters is strongly felt in Single & Single where the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single lords it over his gang, and also in The Night Manager where ‘the worst man in the world’, Richard Roper, lords it over another close-knit bunch of cronies.

The narrator of le Carré’s fictions is always an interloper into these secret worlds, an outsider, attracted and repulsed by their phony charisma, who ends up overturning them. Thus Tiger’s son, Oliver, betrays his father, and Roper’s protégé Jonathan Pine, betrays his slick arms dealer chief.

As part of his odd childhood, young le Carré was packed off to a series of boarding schools where he encountered another self-enclosed, self-regarding world full of ‘legendary’ masters and ‘fabled’ young stars of the cricket pitch or concert hall or whatever.

From which he progressed to Oxford University, also notorious for promoting its members, either undergraduate or faculty, to mythical status.

And then, after a spell of teaching at Eton (another institution not shy of turning its masters and pupils into legends) on to the Intelligence Service, another inward-looking organisation, also not slow to lionise its leading lights, such as good old Kim Philby, solid chap.

This background of a whole series of cliqueish little worlds full of people telling each other how terrific they are, I think, explains the often smothering cliqueyness of much of le Carré’s fiction, which consistently concerns itself with small groups of figures who all regard each other as legends and stars.

The Constant Gardener is ostensibly about criminality in the worldwide pharmaceutical industry and takes the hero (the Old Etonian Justin Quayle) from Africa to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and back in his quest for the truth. But in his mind he never leaves – and the narrative never really shakes free from – the small number of People Like Us in the Nairobi High Commission where we first meet him, their secrets and lies, all conveyed in dialogue dripping with the privileged slang and superior attitude of their gilded circle.

Use of the word ‘our’ in the fiction of John le Carré

Thus, in these later novels, all too many of the characters are ‘legendary’ and ‘fabled’, larger-than-life super-characters who simply everyone knows, darling. This verbal habit is like a chummy arm round the shoulder of the reader pushing you to buy into these cliquey circles, an over-familiar embrace which le Carré’s many fans eagerly welcome or don’t notice, but which this reader, for one, coldly resists.

It also explains why le Carré has a funny relationship with the word ‘our’. ‘Our’ is a ‘possessive determiner’ (according to linguistics) which, when used factually, simply conveys that something belongs to two or more people, one of whom is me. Our car, our house, our country.

But in le Carré’s hands it is used in a number of ways to compel the reader into the myth-making world of his ‘legendary’ characters, to pressure the reader into seeing things his, and their, way, to acquiescing in their overblown heroic status and the generally bombastic mind-set which surrounds them.

Thus JLC characters are regularly over-sold as ‘our’ hero this, ‘our very own’, ‘our dear old’ so and so. I noticed it prominently throughout this text:

… our own dear Neville Chamberlain… our beloved British monarchy… Ted Mundy, our Hyde Park Corner orator… our poor King Ludwig… our recently appointed misanthrope…

It is part of the general tone of smothering, over-familiar, hugger-muggerness, the sense that you are being jostled and coerced into a gang of upper-class twits who you would normally cross the road to avoid, which can make reading his novels feel more like an endurance test than a pleasure.

He uses the word ‘our’ to do a number of things:

1. To be vastly patronising – ‘… the photograph of our dear old queen…’ (p.148) conveys a sense that ordinary people like the Queen but you and I, dear boy, ha ha, we are so much more sophisticated and worldly wise, eh.

2. Appropriating historical or eminent figures to our cause or discourse, while simultaneously looking down on them – ‘our poor King Ludwig..’ (p.18)

3. To pour scorn and derision on political leaders – ‘Bush and Blair, our two great war leaders…’

4. To show how superior one is to history by mocking it – ‘When our Dear Führer came to power..’ (p.75) ‘… our dear Führer’s old Olympic stadium..’ (p.147) ‘our gallant British forces liberating the imperilled Suez Canal..’ (p.255)

5. To conceal anger beneath mockery – ‘As a young woman she [Sasha’s mother] was of course repeatedly raped by our victorious Russian liberators’ (p.78) Referring to the Stasi interrogation centre in East Germany as ‘… our White Hotel in East Prussia..’ (p.189)

6. To puff up his characters in that mock heroic, facetiously superior upper class drawl – ‘our very own hero of the hour’; one of the teenage actors is described as ‘Lexham, our Jamaican Macbeth…’ (p.136)

7. Loftily mocking the act of communication – ‘… for the benefit of our British and American readers…’ (p.86)

8. Normal, standard use of ‘our’, striking for its rarity – ‘Our targets for tonight are…’ (p.84) ‘our fellow activists..’ (p.90)

9. ‘Our’ as a dialect usage of working class people – Kate’s working class, northern father always refers to her as ‘our Kate’ (p.204)

10. Most of all for a self-mocking exaggeration of his own characters, as if the whole novel is a witty in-joke among public school People Like Us:

  • Ulrike our moral angel, our leading leftist, high priestess of the Alternative Life… (p.83)
  • Sasha our charismatic orator, our coming man for the leader’s throne, our Quasimodo of the social genesis of knowledge… (p.90)
  • Sasha our charismatic Socrates.. (p.119)
  • Sasha the great double agent (p.264)

This kind of pompous, overblown, superior, knowing mockery stands in for analysis throughout the book. What underlies all its forms is the breezily arrogant superiority of the true public school article, the upper-class disdain for the ordinary view, for normal phrasing, for anything which isn’t detached and ironised.

Cartoon characterisation

Something similar is going on with the tendency not just to name a character, but repeatedly to blow him up to mock-heroic proportions. We see and hear a lot of Ted’s thoughts and actions, but the narrator also overblows and mocks him in a series of comic, third-person cartoons as if he was a cardboard cutout of a human being:

  • First thing in the morning the chaste English boarding-school boy and as yet unbruised recruit to the cause of world liberation springs forth from his field bed… (p.71)
  • The good soldier is not fazed… The aspiring novelist likes to spread his notebook… (p.72)
  • ‘Ted Mundy, life’s eternal apprentice…’ (p.100)
  • ‘The former head prefect and cricketing hero signs up with a rural preparatory school…’ (p.106)

Why describe a character’s emotions when you can big him up with bombastic, if self-mocking, grandiosity? This mockery owes more to P.G. Wodehouse than the thriller tradition.

Endless comparisons to boarding school

So many English public school-educated writers seem never to escape their childhood, with the result that almost everything around them reminds them of their dear old alma mater:

  • Teddy tends to announce himself ‘in his best head prefect voice.’ (p.63)
  • Life in Berlin begins ‘for the chaste English boarding-school boy.’ (p.71)
  • Those students who don’t leave the squat in summer are ‘like uncollected children in a boarding school.’ (p.73)
  • When Ted meets his MI6 controller, his first thought is ‘whether Amory is one of the prefects who beat him in the washroom.’ (p.97)
  • As he starts his career as a spy, Ted is so scared ‘it’s like opening the bowling for the public schools at Lords every time…’ (p.225)
  • ‘To Mundy they look more like cricket umpires than removal men.’ (p.331)
  • When he puts her on the plane to Turkey, Zara clings so tight to Mundy, that ‘he imagines she is his daughter and he is sending her off to boarding school against her will.’ (p.345)

Is that really the most powerful comparison the text can think up for a terrified woman clinging to her only security in the world? This continual drawing of the wider world back into the bubble of upper-class English public school experiences, slang and attitudes, has a reductive effect on the imagination. Although the narrative travels widely across Europe and tells you it is taking in the world-spanning implications of the American military-industrial complex, it is fighting a losing battle against the narrowing impact of the le Carré’s relentlessly public school and cricket mindset.

The big issue

Belatedly, I realised that most of JLC’s post-Cold War novels gravitate around a Big Geopolitical ‘Issue’. (It reminds me a little of Charles Dickens’s early plan to write a novel about each of the vices, starting with Hypocrisy in Martin Chuzzlewit and then Pride in Dombey and Son, before he quietly dropped his plan.) Thus each of the novels deals with a Big Topic:

  • The Night Manager – the international arms trade
  • Our Game – not clear
  • The Tailor of Panama – US intervention in Latin America
  • Single & Single – City institutions laundering money for the wicked (Georgian drug suppliers)
  • The Constant Gardener – multinational pharmaceuticals resorting to conspiracy and murder to protect their profits
  • Absolute Friends – untamed aggression of global hyperpower (America) run riot

The big issue which this long fiction leads up to is the alleged stranglehold on Western culture, education and media exercised by a new, all-pervading and toxic American military-industrial complex.

‘If you tell a big lie long enough everyone will believe it,’ le Carré has Sasha yell at Ted – ‘and then anybody who speaks out against it can be labelled mad.’

Dimitri has a long speech about the evil of Bush and Blair, the wickedness of their war, the stifling of free speech. Ted nods his acquiescence.

Does it matter that a thriller contains or ends on some kind of political message? Not necessarily, no.

Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson novels contain references throughout to the wickedness of the East German state, without denting the novels’ plausibility because the thought is integrated into the narrative.

Similarly, Robert Harris’ terrifying bestseller Fatherland contains harrowing indictments of the Nazi régime, but the indictment is wholly integrated into the plot, and the seamlessness of that integration is a large part of the reason it is so satisfying as a novel.

Martin Cruz Smith’s novels manage to be very exciting but at the same time to shed fascinating light on the repressive nature of the countries and systems he is depicting (Russia, Cuba).

Even a comedy like Tom Sharpe’s Wilt On High can end on a page-long diatribe against the madness of nuclear weapons and not be damaged by it because it arises naturally out of the plot (and is all the more effective because Sharpe and his character Wilt are, on the whole, right wing and ridicule lefty politics so their anger is all the more impactful).

But it fails in this novel because it is simply so unsubtle. If JLC was already angry at the lies and hypocrisies of ‘our masters’ in the 1990s, he goes bananas after the invasion of Iraq. Just before this novel was published he wrote an opinion piece in the Times newspaper, The United States of America Has Gone Mad (link below) which I found embarrassing in its strident simple-mindedness.

If I was Arundhati, George, Naomi and all the rest, I would be flattered to be namechecked in a John le Carré novel, but also embarrassed at the guileless shoutiness of the context.

At key moments, and their central points, all these books lack analytical intelligence. Emotional depth? Often. Colourful ability with language? Yes (if much given to bombast and exaggeration). Cunning plotlines? Certainly. The artful creation of multi-levelled timeframes? Emphatically yes.

But when a character has to explain the exact geopolitical crux, the issue firing the whole narrative, the great wrong which must be understood – time and again JLC gives the speech to a drunk, bombastic, over-the-top or imbecile character: to the moronic Larry Pettifer in Our Game, to the oafish Jonah in Tailor of Panama, to the ridiculously implausible ‘Dimitri’ in Absolute Friends.

It is revealing that the first two characters are bigged up to ‘legendary’ status – ‘the one and only, the irrepressible, the immortal Jonah’ – because in these crux scenes le Carré doesn’t analyse (let alone dramatise): he creates a loud, shouty character and effectively says, ‘Look everybody – this guy is really famous and really clever and he thinks it’s a bad thing, so you should, too.’

It’s also dismayingly characteristic that these Voices of Truth swear a lot as if swearing guarantees the truth o what’s being sworn about:

‘I am talking world domination by the Yellow Man, and the end of fucking civilisation as we know it, even in the fucking Emerald Isle…’ (Jonah, Tailor of Panama, p.290)

‘West’s compassioned out, Timbo,’ he announces to the ceiling, not bothering to stifle a huge yawn. ‘Running on empty. Fuck us.’ (Larry, Our Game, p.138)

Instead of subtle and understated analysis, le Carré has the key explanations of the big theme of each of his post-Cold War novels delivered by over-hyped, swearing drunks.

What’s ultimately so dismaying and demoralising isn’t what le Carré is saying, it’s its complete unoriginality: when you read the long speeches the characters are given telling you that the invasion of Iraq wasn’t justified, that there were no weapons of mass destruction, that the Bush presidency was electorally invalid, that Tony Blair shamelessly sucked up to George Dubya for nothing, that the hysteria around the War on Terror was cranked up by the corporate-owned media in order to boost the profits of the arms industry, and so on – who among le Carré’s liberal readership is going to disagree with any of this?

Like all his readers I know al this already because I read about it in the papers all the time. I just don’t care very much because:

a) There is nothing I can do about it.
b) It is the way of the world. Which war in the past 150 years wasn’t good for the arms industry? Which British Prime Minister of the last sixty years hasn’t sucked up to an over-mighty America?
c) That was then. Things have moved on a lot since 2004.

Either le Carré’s arguments should be made much more forensically, analytically, dispassionately, and zero in on precise wrong-doings; or they should be woven much more cannily into the narrative (à la Robert Harris’s much more canny novels). But they do neither and feel too simple minded to be effective, too bolted onto the main plot to have as much dramatic impact as they should.

The combined effect, in this novel especially, is to make le Carré’s views look childish and shallow.

My little pony

I have a bet with my son that every post-Cold War le Carré novel will contain a reference to a private school character having a little pony. In his previous three novels key characters have shared memories of their first ponies or of competing in the local gymkhana (Oliver in Single & Single, posh totty Francesca in The Tailor of Panama, Quayle finds a photo of Tessa’s first pony in The Constant Gardener).

Disappointingly, the main character in Absolute Friends does not have a my-little-pony memory but… the receptionist at the Bedford Square house where Ted goes to see his back-up team during his spying days, is ‘a jolly girl called Laura with freckles and a pony club smile’ (p.210).

So I’m still just about winning my bet. I just need there to be a pony reference in his last four novels and I win a pound.


Absolute Friends by John le Carré was published in 2004 by Hodder and Stoughton. All page references are to the 2004 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – 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.
1962 A Murder of Quality – 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.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – 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.
1965 The Looking Glass War – A peculiar, downbeat and depressing spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover – His one attempt at a ‘serious’ novel and, allegedly. his worst book.
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – 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.
1979 Smiley’s People – 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.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – 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.
1986 A Perfect Spy – 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.
1989 The Russia House – 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.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
1993 The Night Manager – Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
1995 Our Game – Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – the legendary Larry Pettifer who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia – and that Larry has also seduced his girlfriend, Emma – in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but eminently dislikeable upper-class twits.
1996 The Tailor of Panama – Old Etonian conman Andrew Osnard flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, the legendary Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based in a fictional revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced with a sick and jaundiced world.
1999 Single & Single – Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically ‘the Orlov brothers’ from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Astonishingly posh diplomat’s wife, Tessa Quayle, discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results among its poor and powerless patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining the events leading up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s prolonged quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – Former public school head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage. This in turn comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha contacts Ted again and unwittingly lures him into a Machiavellian American sting operation, whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, a set-up which climaxes with them being shot down like dogs. First ‘historic’ part good – second part overblown anti-Americanism.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school boy Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, a half-Congolese translator, is invited by British intelligence to lend his knowledge of arcane African languages and dialects to an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions. These have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, ostensibly in the name of negotiating peace, but who are actually planning to engineer a coup and impose a compliant leader who will allow his Western backers to plunder the country’s mineral resources. When Salvo learns this he sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man – Posh Hamburg-based British banker Tommy Brue and posh refugee lawyer Annabel Richter find themselves involved in a conspiracy by German security services to frame an apparently innocent Muslim refugee and, along with him, the moderate organiser of Muslim charities, as ‘terrorists’. But this dubious German plan is itself trumped by the CIA who betray all the characters in the book, violently kidnap the two Muslims, and take them away for indefinite incarceration and torture.
2010 Our Kind of Traitor – An Oxford don and his barrister girlfriend on holiday in Antigua get involved with a Russian mafiosi who wants to ‘defect’ to the British, exposing ‘corruption in high places’ – and end up playing crucial roles in the mission to rescue him and his family which, however, does not go according to plan.
2013 A Delicate Truth – British civil servant Toby Bell uncovers evidence that his Minister helped arrange an extraordinary rendition, involving US mercenaries, British soldiers and a Foreign Office observer, supposedly to capture a high value terrorist on Gibraltar except there was no terrorist. Instead a Muslim woman and her baby were shot to ribbons. Three years later, the retired FO man, Sir Christopher (‘Kit’) Probyn is approached out of the blue by one of the British soldiers who’s been haunted by the debacle, and this triggers a joint attempt by him and Toby to present the evidence to their superiors, to confront the architect of the fiasco, and then to inform the Press – in all of which they miserably fail.

The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré (1996)

‘In Panama everyone knows Harry Pendel.’ (p.68)

Le Carré’s narrative technique

Le Carré is masterfully cunning at releasing his information in dramatic instalments, deploying the constituent parts of the plot with great rhythm and timing. In its predecessor, Our Game, and in this novel, le Carré opens by selecting a key scene from his narrative, choosing it to be ‘the present’, portraying it at great length to establish setting and characters – and only once this static island in time is firmly anchored, then arranging a kaleidoscope of flashbacks and memories in the rest of the text to paint in all kinds of elements of backstory, characters’ history and psychology, memories, re-enactments and so on – simultaneously moving the story forward to tell us what happened next.

Quite often the amount of ‘what happened next’ narrative is smaller than, or less vivid than, the ‘flashback’ material, so that reading the book feels more like watching a tree or bush grow in a nature programme, with tendrils moving out in all directions – completely different from the much more straightforward linear narrative of a Deighton or Forsyth.

Thus the first hundred pages of the Tailor describe a day in the life of the eponymous tailor, Harry Pendel, leading up to his appointment to measure a new customer, Andrew Osnard. Except that Osnard is quickly revealed to be no ordinary client. He spends the measuring session probing Harry extensively about his past – before revealing that he knows Harry’s carefully cultivated front as a partner in a posh tailors’ firm is rot; his firm never existed on Savile Row, the sadly deceased partner he likes to spin long yarns about is a complete fiction.

No, Osnard knows that Harry grew up in poverty in the East End of London, went to work for his Uncle Benny in the rag trade, was caught burning down Benny’s warehouse in a plan to defraud the insurance company, was convicted of arson, imprisoned and, immediately upon his release, fled England with guilty Uncle Benny’s help to Panama, where he married a local American woman whose parents had money.

Osnard says he knows that Harry has used up that entire inheritance to buy a rice farm out in the countryside, but that the water has dried up, it will never be viable, and he is losing money fast on the loan he took out to buy it at an extortionate rate of monthly interest. In fact, Osnard reveals to a stunned Harry that he was stitched up by his banker ‘friend’ (Ramón Rudd), who was the one who tipped him off about the opportunity in the first place and encouraged him to make the purchase and loaned him the money, but who is in cahoots with the rice farm estate manager (Angel) to drive it into the ground, then buy it at auction for a song, restore the water, make it a thriving concern and sell it off at a big profit. He’s been had.

Having reduced Harry to speechlessness by the depth and devastating content of his knowledge about him, Osnard then reveals that he is a spy for Her Majesty’s government and asks Harry if he wants to work for him. Osnard has done his research and knows that Harry, as a snobbish tailor to the great and good of Panamanian society (including, believe it or not, the President himself) gets to hear a surprising amount of gossip and confidential information. ‘Report it back to me and there’s money in it for you, old boy,’ drawls Osnard. Harry’ll be able to repay the loan which is threatening to bankrupt him. Harry hesitates, but can’t really say anything but yes.

A kaleidoscope of flashbacks

All this – a man has a fitting session for a new suit – takes up no fewer than 100 pages.

And from this slender incident in the present opens up a flood of memories and backstories from the past, which come in numerous fragments, sometimes less than a page long, sometimes just a few, or even one, paragraph. These paint rapid sketches of Harry’s miserable childhood in the East End of London; him finding out he’s illegitimate; what it was like working for kindly Uncle Benny; getting caught setting fire to Benny’s warehouse to claim the insurance; the police beating the crap out of him; his miserable experiences in prison and Uncle Benny seeing him onto the boat to Panama, complete with a letter of introduction to his old friend form London who’d emigrated there, Mr Blüthner.

It is Blüthner who finds Harry a shop, loans him material, puts customers his way. Harry falls in love with the American woman, Louisa, but it is always a troubled relationship, then has an affair with the Panamanian girl, Marta. The US Air Force comes to bomb General Noriega out of power but ends up destroying the poorest slums in Panama City and killing hundreds of civilians including all of Marta’s family, while Harry and Louisa watch terrified from their house up the hill.

Later, in the febrile post-air raid atmosphere, Harry is driving Marta home when they are stopped by Noriega’s fascist Dignity Brigades and, because she is wearing a white t-shirt associated with the resistance to Noriega, Marta is really badly beaten with baseball bats, leaving her face permanently disfigured, Harry pinned down by the cops and forced to watch, begging them to stop.

When the Dingbats walk off, Harry drives the bleeding Marta to the apartment of his friend, Michelangelo ‘Mickie’ Abraxas, who takes them both on to an undercover doctor, who makes a mess of trying to fix Marta’s face, and the next day reports them to the cops, but only knows Mickie’s name and address. So it is that the cops arrest Mickie and send him to prison, where the beautiful young man is repeatedly raped and brutalised, emerging a shattered shadow of his former self.

All of this comes out in a tumble of vivid, often lurid, flashbacks, not necessarily in the correct order, sometimes repeated with variations of new facts or phrasing, building up a mosaic or kaleidoscope of Harry’s life and the back stories of the novel’s main characters, with key moments – like the bats smashing Marta’s face, the roar of the flames in Uncle Benny’s warehouse – emerging and re-emerging like gold strands in a tapestry.

And also interspersed among them are the ‘now’ parts of the narrative, as Harry drives home from his session with Osnard thoroughly confused and anxious, worrying about Osnard, worrying about the rice farm, worrying about his wife. The structure, the use of these scattered flashbacks, is very effective:

  • with its repetition of key scenes it builds up a powerful sense of the important memories and elements of the characters’ personalities
  • with its repetition of descriptions, it takes you deep into a thoroughly imagined world, into the humid Panama of hotels and drug barons, roadside militia and brothels
  • above all it allows le Carré to get right to the point: to give just a snapshot of a moment, to describe the key moment or phrase or word, which defines a situation, a decision, a narrative turning point – bang! – and then move on.

Osnard ‘recruits’ Harry

Around page 200 le Carré finally gives us a lengthy description of Osnard’s back story. Although employed by MI6, he is basically a crook on the make. He went to Eton and has used his connections to cruise through a number of unsatisfactory jobs before being recruited into Intelligence. When he is offered Panama, he senses the possibilities and, within days of arriving he’s shaping a plan: he realises that he will get to handle large amounts of non-attributable slush money if he can persuade his bosses there’s a big underground liberation movement in Panama which needs supporting.

Some research brings him to Harry, a well-connected liar and ex-convict, and the long opening scene is there to demonstrate Osnard’s technique of coercion and the way his plans begin to fall into place as he realises how scared and malleable Harry is.

Thus Osnard prompts and encourages Harry to invent out of thin air a network of spies with members among the student movement, the fishermen and workers and to concoct the so-called ‘Silent Opposition’ of political rebels. Osnard winks at Harry nominating his best friend, the ex-convict and down-on-his-luck drunk Mickie Abraxas, as head of this fictional SO. In a typical piece of wit, Osnard christens his imaginary source BUCHAN, which allows all concerned to make jokes about the ‘brave Buchaneers’ etc.

Political background

The background to all this is that the Americans commissioned, funded, ran and kept military watch over the Panama Canal from its opening in 1914. In 1977 the Democrat US President Jimmy Carter (roundly despised by all the right-wing characters in the book) signed a treaty promising to hand the canal over to the Panama government in 1999.

As a result, US authorities, the US Army and – to a lesser extent – allied governments are all anxious that some other foreign power might take control of this vital gateway of world trade, maybe not militarily, maybe just doing favourable trade deals with the Panama government. Osnard knows he can screw money out of his employers back in London – and maybe even out of the Yanks – if he can convince them some big conspiracy is afoot.

Once the ‘spy network’ is up and running, and Osnard is feeding entirely fictional reports from Agent Buchan back to base, he finds himself under pressure to provide more factual detail, and so it is he asks Harry to commit the ultimate ‘betrayal’, and spy on his wife (who works for the Panama Canal Authority, another factor which helped Osnard decide to approach Harry in the first place). Harry embellishes the resulting documents, and then Osnard embellishes them a bit more – including accounts of the Panama President’s recent trip to Japan and South-East Asia – to make it seem as if the Panamanians (or ‘Pans’ as they are dismissively referred to in the neo-colonial slang of the white protagonists) are about to flog the Canal to the ‘Japs’.

[Historical note: back in the early 1990s the expert view was that the West was about to be economically and militarily overtaken by the Japanese and the other South-East Asian Tigers. So much for the geopolitical ‘experts’.]

The media mogul

Osnard’s boss back in London, Luxmore, a canny Scot, encourages Osnard in his wild fantasies, which seems puzzling until we discover this is because he is on the payroll of a wicked media mogul, the potty-mouthed Ben Hatry – not unlike the wicked media mogul played by Jonathan Pryce in the Pierce Brosnan-James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies. Hatry wants to engineer an American takeover of Panama in order to rally round the forces of reaction, to galvanise his audience and sell newspapers and make money. But he is pushing at an open door of right-wing conspiracy theories, xenophobes, bigots and at the paranoid door of the US Army.

Thus, as the novel climbs to dizzier and dizzier heights of unreality, Luxmore flies to the Pentagon where he has a meeting with ‘senior generals’ who he persuades that BUCHAN’s ‘intel’ is the real McCoy and, ‘Gentlemen, we must move swiftly to protect our vital interests’. Luckily, the Americans have both a very big army and air force which, at the bloody climax of the novel, they send to bomb the crap out of Panama City. Again.

Mickie kills himself

While all this has been happening, rumour and gossip about Mickie Abraxia have leaked out and spread, not least via a vile gossip columnist ‘Teddy’. The police arrive on Mickie’s doorstep, threatening to send him back to prison, the same prison where he was brutalised and gang-raped. With Harry’s help and money, Mickie leaves Panama City and drives to Guararé, another Panamanian town, which is having a carnival – lots of fireworks, lots of bangs. One of the bangs is the sound of Mickie shooting himself in the head; he couldn’t face being sent back to gaol. Mickie’s girlfriend, Ana, rings up Harry in hysterics, and he honourably decides to drive to the town to calm the distraught woman, smuggle Mickie’s body into his 4 by 4, and drive it to an ancient religious site, out in the woods where, heart-broken, he arranges and leaves it.

Louisa gets drunk

Meanwhile, Harry’s wife, Louisa, suspects from all his furtive behaviour that he is having an affair. When he gets a phone call from a hysterical woman and insists on driving off into the night with no explanation, she becomes convinced of it and first of all drinks a lot, far too much, crying, shouting and swearing against her unfaithful husband. In this state she breaks into Harry’s desk and finds all the documentation about the made-up spy network, including the paperwork incriminating her as a major source.

Appalled, she drives over to confront the man who seems to be at the root of all the problems, Osnard. She interrupts his meeting with Luxmore where Luxmore had been explaining about the small fortune he’s brought from London to fund the uprising of the ‘Silent Opposition’, and how it’s to be co-ordinated with the US attack. Osnard farcically smuggles Luxmore out the back way, then lets in the extremely drunk Louisa. Unfortunately, she is wearing only a flimsy housecoat and in their tussle all its buttons ping off so she is naked and, well, guess what happens next.

In the morning she awakes humiliated and ashamed in Osnard’s bed to find him packing. Osnard realised his number was up when Luxmore arrived in Panama City and he and the Ambassador announced they wanted to take over the running of BUCHAN. The secret of the con will be out in days, if not hours. Osnard takes the bags full of money which Luxmore had brought with him and left the night before, and absconds. Louisa borrows underclothes, t-shirt etc and makes her way home.

But they are not reconciled. They hear the drumming of the American helicopters overhead and know that history is repeating itself: once again they will stand on their hillside balcony and watch the quarters of the poor be carpet bombed by the warlike Americans. Disgusted with himself and the world, Harry sets off down the hillside, past the injured and screaming people fleeing in the other direction, walking into the bomb blasts and the flames.

If the novel was ever intended to be a comedy, this fatalistic, doomed, heart-broken savage ending is a very sour note to end it on, and eclipses whatever levity preceded it.

After the Cold War

Decades ago critics wondered what spy novelists like Len Deighton or John le Carré would do when the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed and – according to Francis Fukuyama – history ended. The orthodox answer is that le Carré seamlessly transferred the mind set and worldview of the intelligence agencies over into the numerous other issues and conflicts which carried on troubling the world – regional conflicts, the iniquity of multinational corporations, drugs and arms smuggling.


My impression is that le Carré’s response was to go posh.

The world of his early novels, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is cold and shabby, down at heel, a world of losers.

Around 1990 the feel of le Carré’s novels changes, they start to feel considerably buffed up and to focus on formidably posh circles of chaps who went to major public schools, are members of the right clubs, and bonk foxy gels fresh from finishing school. There’s more sex, a lot more sex, in these later novels, and the business of espionage, of recruiting your own agents and persuading chaps from the other side to cross over, is described more and more in the language of love and seduction. There are more warm bedrooms in South America with naked women in them, than cold alleyways in Berlin with armed guards.

Above all, the figures at the centre of the novels increasingly talk in a distinctly posh, upper crust manner, complete with public school slang and Oxbridge banter.

Thus Ned, the retiring intelligence officer narrator of The Secret Pilgrim, appears at first to be a caricature of an old posh buffer – except I think we’re meant to take him seriously. The circle of friends, lovers and fixers surrounding the British arms dealer, Richard Onslow Roper, in The Night Manager are extraordinarily posh, from his jolly hockeysticks girlfriend to his sideman, a gin-swilling retired colonel, what, what. The narrator of Our Game is another unbelievably posh bloke whose CV reads ‘Winchester, Oxford, British Intelligence’, who inherits a pile from a rich old aunt and a West Country vineyard from Uncle Bob, terrific fellah, did you know Uncle Bob? A long way from the back alleyways of Berlin.

Now, whatever the location, be it Panama or the Caucasus, le Carré’s characters carry the indelible mark of upper crust, élite, public school and Oxbridge attitude and locutions along with them.

In his earlier novels the fact that he spent five years working for the ‘Foreign Office’ is probably the most relevant part of le Carré’s career, giving him unparalleled insight into the realities of interviewing, vetting, interrogating suspects; in these later novels, by far the most important fact is that he taught at Eton.

Lots of people have made up spy stories, but not so many have drowned them, like le Carré does his later stories, in torrents of public school slang and banter. For Eton isn’t just a school. It is the apex of an educational system devised to run the greatest empire on earth, and still has extraordinary cultural and political dominance in this country. As the Evening Standard pointed out the other day, if actor Damien Lewis is selected as the next James Bond, it will be the first time that the current Prime Minister, the Mayor of London, the Archbishop of Canterbury and James Bond all went to the same school. Eton. Where le Carré was socially, intellectually and culturally distinguished enough to be acceptable as a master and to teach our future rulers.

The author’s experience at the heart of British snobbery and elitism seems to me to underpin the dominant tone in these later novels, where almost all the characters not only went to public school, but soak their talk and dialogue and thinking in confident, arrogant public schoolboy banter and slang.

Posh English

So although The Tailor of Panama is indeed set in Panama and although – in its first hundred pages or so – it contains convincing descriptions of the buildings, layout and geography, of the roads and rush hour traffic jams, the street beggars, the heat and noise of Panama City, the characters are strangely insulated from it all, carrying everywhere with them the class-conscious attitude and argot of the public school-educated Englishman.

Thus the novel opens with the tailor of the title, half-Jewish Harry Pendel, waking, breakfasting with his wife and kids before driving to his shop, and here he is visited by a new chap in the country, one Andrew Osnard. And although it is set in Central America, the reader is transported to a timeless scene – the seigneurial relationship between a posh Englishman and his canny tailor, a scene that could be from Thackeray.

Pendel regards his quiet and civilised shop and fitting room as an oasis of calm in a busy world. But it is much more than that. It’s an oasis of old-fashioned pukka Englishness, with its cucumber sandwiches, copies of the Times and Country Life strewn about, and the servile tailor serving the insouciantly superior cad, who murmurs on in his upper class drawl:

‘Bravo… thing is, old boy… little local difficulty… splendid… frankly, a bit of a facer… good show …’

Which public school did you go to?

My heart sank and I began to withdraw even more from the novel when, around page 150, we’re introduced to the (senior) staff at the British Embassy in Panama who are, at first, annoyed by the imposition of an Intelligence agent on them. In thumbnail portraits of the Embassy staff we learn that the ‘Ambass’ went to Harrow, the first secretary, Stormont, to Shrewsbury (then Jesus, Oxford: a disappointing Second in History). They are both a bit jealous of Osnard who, we now find out, was educated at Eton. Eton. Harrow. Shrewsbury. It’s a broad social mix, I suppose.

The only woman on the team, Francesca Deane, is depicted from word go as a sex object (‘A body to kill for, the brains to go with it’ -p.138. Or, as Luxmore describes her, ‘That prim Sassenach virgin with large attachments and come-hither eyes.., Is she what in my young days we called a cock-teaser?’ p.393)

Fran is lusted over by the Ambassador, and most other men who meet her, but resists all offers until she is swiftly seduced and bedded by Osnard. She is the daughter of a Law Lord and ‘in London she had spent her weekends with a frightfully handsome hunting stockbroker named Edgar.’ (p.218). She knows a bit about Osnard because her simply weird half-brother, Miles, went to Eton too, and tells her about old Andy’s chequered career there. Apparently he doesn’t like to talk to his time there and refers to England’s most prestigious public school as ‘Slough Grammar’. What a wit. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Luckily for Francesca, fat, sweaty Osnard turns out to be a demon lover, tactfully not referring to his previous ‘conquests, although ‘many and varied’, and touching her in a special way only he knows how, taking her

without a word, endlessly, wonderfully, tirelessly, hours, years on end, his thick body skimming weightlessly over her and round her, one peak after another, something that till now had only happened to Fran in her schoolgirl imagination. (p.222)

Yes, as Stormont tells Maltby, ‘He’s shagging Fran’. Lucky old Andy, eh.

Public school comparisons

One of the most tedious thing about people who went to prep school and then a bloody good boarding school is the way the total institutionalisation of their childhood and youth follows them to the end of their days so that whenever they think of their childhood they think only of their odd and unusual circumstances as if they are common. In these books, when comparisons and similes are made, so so often the old schooldays are the ones that come to mind.

Chance favours only the prepared mind. It was the favourite dictum of a science master at  his prep school who, having flogged him black and blue, suggested they make up their differences by taking off their clothes. (p.230)

Osnard had assumed his head prefect tone, though he had only ever been on the receiving end of it, usually before a beating. (p.257)

His voice had acquired the saw-edge of schoolboy sarcasm. (p.258)

‘Gave him the carrot, then waved the stick at him, sir,’ he reported in the Boy Hero voice he kept for his master. (p.268)

[All Fran can think of when Osnard takes her to a casino] was her first gymkhana when her pony which like every other pony in the world was called Misty took the first fence perfectly then bolted down the main road to Shrewsbury. (p.327)

‘We shall need an enormous amount of stuff,’ Maltby went on, with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy looking forward to a new train-set. (p.356)

‘Intelligence is like exams. You always think the chap sitting next to you knows more than you do.’ (p.365)

Maltby, sitting like an obedient schoolboy at Mellors’ right hand… (p.376)

For a moment Fran is in her old school chapel, kneeling in the front pew and watching a huddle of handsome young priests as they chastely turn their backs to her… (p.381)


Now in this kind of school, everybody is famous for something, for being top at games or lessons or having a Duke for father or a Princess for a mother or being heir to some great business fortune. This attitude carries over into these later novels, where all the main characters are the well-known this or the legendary that. It is one of the strategies of the books to make you think that, in a country of 60 million people (Britain), only about 200 or so people really count and they all know each other and they’re all frightfully clever; that in Panama there may be swarms of blacks and half-breeds cluttering up the place, but there are only really a handful of chaps like you and me who appreciate the finer things of life, who understand the value of a well-made alpaca suit, appreciate buttons made from genuine tagua, wear shoes hand made by Ducker’s of Oxford (or possibly Lobbs of St James’s, p.120), who enjoy cucumber sandwiches and a spot of tiffin.

The scuffed leather porter’s chair, authenticated by local legend as Braithwaite’s very own. (p.42) [Braithwaite being the other partner in the tailoring firm of Pendel and Braithwaite, a legend in Savile Row and then a legend when they came out here to Panama.]

[Pendel’s assistant Marta made the cucumber sandwiches.] ‘I don’t know whether her renown has reached you.’ (p.44)

[When approaching the brothel where he is to meet Harry, Osnard finds ‘the fabled pushbutton’ of room number 8] (p.251)

[Rafi Domingo and Mickie Abraxas make] ‘a famous playboy pair’. (p.313)

Allow me to introduce a Brother who needs no introduction, so a big hand, please, for our wandering sage and longtime Servant of the Light, diver of the deep and explorer of the unknown, who has penetrated more dark places – dirty laughter – than any of us round this table today, the one and only, the irrepressible, the immortal Jonah! (p.287)

Now we are in the tailor Pendel’s cutting room, known to customers and employees alike as the Holy of Holies. (p.385)

Of course, simply everyone in Panama knows who Harry Pendel is. Similarly, he introduces his friend, jailbird Mickie Abraxas, as ‘one of Panama’s few real heroes’ (p.85) and later as ‘Mickie Abraxas, the great underground revolutionary and secret hero of the students’ (p.121). We know the important people. We know what’s really going on. For the simple reason that we ourselves are the only important people: the only people who went to Eton or Winchester or Harrow or Shrewsbury…

Thus, Stormont is appalled when he hears that the committee back in London in charge of the project is being chaired by a certain Geoffrey Cavendish. Of course he knows him. They all know each other, that’s the point.

Cavendish the influence-peddlar, he was thinking. Cavendish the defence lobbyist. Cavendish the self-styled statesman’s friend. Ten per cent Cavendish… Boom-boom Cavendish, arms broker. Geoff the oil. (p.213)

And Luxmore doesn’t prepare one-page reports for his colleagues in Intelligence, he prepares ‘his famous one-page summaries for submission to his mysterious planners and appliers.’ (p.333)


‘Hell did the G stand for?’… ‘Hell’s the crest o’ the Prince of Wales hanging outside for?’… ‘Hell happened to that woman?’ (p.48) … ‘Hell did they give him that for?’  (p.51) … ‘Hell d’you do that for?’ (p.65) … ‘Hell did he swing it?’ (p.76) … ‘Hell’s that mean?’ (p.77)

Breviated words. Breviated sentences. Omit pronouns. Sound more pukka. ‘No time to dawdle, old man, Got an empire to run. Crack on. One more for the road? Won’t say no.’ Fat drunk merchant banker Jamie Pringle talks like this in Our Game. Most of the horrible drunks in The Honourable Schoolboy ditto. And this is how the central figure in Tailor talks, all the time – 458 pages of top hole, old chap, good fellah, hell you up to?

Public school tags & quotes

Like over-educated public schoolboys, characters in these later novels dress up their trite chatter and banal insights with tags and quotes, bits of Latin, rags of Shakespeare, religious stuff fondly remembered from morning chapel and the Founders Day service back at the old alma mater, what, what. Clichés. They talk in clichés.

‘Great wheel of time, eh?’
‘Indeed, sir. The one that spins and grinds and tramples all before it, they say,’ Pendel agreed. (p.47)

‘As I’m sure your good father will have told you many a time and oft.’ (p.54) Shakespeare.

‘For all the people to come to eat your sandwiches. So they increase and multiply and order up more suits.’ (p.110) Bible.

No gilded porticos or grand staircases to instil humility in lesser breeds without the law. (p.136) Kipling.

Pendel waited, as must all who only stand and wait. (p.155) Milton.

The quotes make the people using them feel and sound clever. But their real point is to emphasise that you’re one of the club, one of the chaps who’s at home with all these quotes and references and in-jokes and tags, one of us, people like us, properly educated at a bloody good traditional school, on the inside!


In the 1990s le Carré’s characters passed through some kind of threshold of restraint and good manners and now all his characters liberally say ‘fuck’. At first in the novel it is just the sweaty middle-aged men, then a so-called expert on international affairs says ‘fuck’ in every sentence for 3 or 4 pages, then the media mogul Hatry says ‘fuck’ in every sentence (‘Let’s fucking do it’ p.334) as does his creature ‘Cavendish’ and by the end of the book it seemed like everyone was saying ‘fuck’ in almost all situations: Louisa says ‘ Fuck you, Harry’, Osnard says ‘fuck’ all the time (‘Fuck do I care?’ p.201), even Harry ends up saying ‘fuck’. The repellent gossip columnist Teddy, viciously tells Harry, ‘How you can fuck that faceless half-breed is beyond me.’ (p.324)

[Policeman] ‘He fucks you, doesn’t he?’
[Marta] ‘No, he doesn’t fuck me.’ (p.384)

Louisa asks Marta whether Harry gave her money ‘for fucking?’ (p.387)

So ‘fuck you’, ‘fuck this’, ‘fuck that’ it is, then. (‘Do you mind putting that fucking thing out, please.’ p.341) Not really very funny. (‘This is my fucking patch, not his.’ p.378) In fact, quite wearing after a while.

‘Fuck you, Harry Pendel! Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you! Wherever you are. You’re a fucking cheat!’ (p.399)

More than that, the novel is in danger of using hyperbole – in this instance a blizzard of ‘f’ words – to paper over the gaps in the plot. In Our Game the academic Larry Pettifer was promoted by the incredibly posh narrator as being the intellectual star of his generation at Oxford, a fountain of brilliant, incisive insights into geopolitics etc etc. But when we actually hear him talk, he says things like:

‘West’s compassioned out, Timbo,’ he announces to the ceiling, not bothering to stifle a huge yawn. ‘Running on empty. Fuck us.’ (p.138)

Which is hugely disappointing, buffoonish, thick and he carries on talking like a crude dimwit to the end of the novel. In this book there are several places where we get to hear the ‘thinking’ of the shadowy powers behind the scenes – and they, just as disappointingly, also turn out to be full of men saying ‘fuck’, as if that makes the ‘arguments’ more powerful.

The first of these scenes takes us to one of le Carré’s characteristic milieus, an exclusive men’s club full of oafish, swearing ex-patriates, one of whom – ‘the one and only, the irrepressible, the immortal Jonah’ – is singled out as some kind of expert about the future of the Canal. But what he actually does is drone on for pages about the ‘fucking Japs’ and the ‘fucking Chinks’ and the ‘fucking Yanks’, as if such dismissive swearing improves his ‘insights’. But there are no insights, no intelligence and, like a lot of other le Carré experts, he sounds from the start like a foul-mouthed, drunken idiot.

Here is Jonah explaining that the Japanese have, supposedly, developed a new technology for converting their poor quality oil sources into good quality oil, thus turning them into a world-shaking threat:

‘I am talking world domination by the Yellow Man, and the end of fucking civilisation as we know it, even in the fucking Emerald Isle… The Nips have found their magic emulsion. Which means that your tenure here in Paradise is scheduled to last about five minutes by the station clock. You pour it in, you shake it all about, and bingo, you’ve got oil like all the other boys. Fucking oceans of it. And once they’ve built their own Panama Canal, which is going to happen in the flick of a very small mayfly’s dick, they will be in the very happy position of being able to flood the fucking world with it.’ (p.290)

Bar room drunk. And, of course, wildly wrong: the Japanese were just about to embark on their twenty-year period of ‘stagflation, during which they have been eclipsed by other up-and-coming powers. ‘Then there are the prolonged scenes with the wicked media mogul Hatry ‘discussing’ his plans with his sidekick Cavendish – which amount to page after page of the crudest bar-room prejudices wrapped up in the coarsest swearing, in which they try to outdo each other with the potty-mouthed stupidity of their shouted opinions.

Quite possibly the men who run everything do shout ‘fuck’ at each other all the time, but as a rule of thumb, the more swearing there is in these novels, the less analysis or insight.


Religious imagery and vocabulary are also dragged in to help inflate events and descriptions, to make everything bigger sounding, louder and more significant.

The rows of ladies’ summer frocks like convent martyrs… (p.115)

The Blüthner household became his secret paradise, a shrine that he could only ever visit alone. (p.128)

In the beginning was the Hard Word, he told himself… Arthur Braithwaite, known to Louisa and the children as God. (p.277)

The Canal smouldered to the left of them and the mist coiled over it like an eternal dew. Pelicans dived through the mist and the air inside the car smelled of ship’s oil and nothing in the world had changed or ever would, Amen. (p.189). [Why the Amen? The opening phrases are brilliantly descriptive: why drag it round to a pointless orotund piece of bombast?]

When Harry goes to meet the US general in charge of the canal Louisa describes it as ‘a pilgrimage’. As he drives up the hillside of the US base he feels as if ‘he had experienced a vicarious promotion on his way to Heaven’ (p.196) When Osnard decides to try for the Foreign Office, he realises he has found his ‘Grail’ (p.233) Luxmore speaks of the righteousness of Osnard’s ‘high mission’ (p.245). When Maltby invites Fran for breakfast, that’s not how he phrases it; he asks

whether it would be an offence against Creation if he took her to the Pavo Real for a boiled egg. (p.382)

The rule of three

Classical authors writing about rhetoric formulated ‘the rule of three’. This is simply that, as a general rule in speaking and in writing, concepts or ideas presented in threes are more interesting, more enjoyable and more memorable than in ones or twos, while four is too many.

Again and again, as you read through the novel, you feel that le Carré doesn’t analyse situations or people: he massages and shapes them, using strings of synonyms, repetitions, high-flown comparisons. The repetition gives the impression of that analysis or understanding is taking place, but it is purely rhetorical. Sometimes more or less, but often in tell-tale threes:

[Harry] was Robin Hood, bringer of hope to the oppressed, dispenser of justice. (p.89)

‘The people the other side of the bridge… the hidden rank and file… the strivers and believers…’ (p.89)

‘The sham, Andy, the veneer, the beneath the surface…’ (p.88)

‘[Louisa] greets, she covers, she papers over the cracks.’ (p.81)

[Harry’s philosophy aims…] To make it tolerable. To befriend it. To draw its sting. (p.78)

A long slow complicitous, insinuating, unnerving policeman’s shrug, expressing false ease, terrible powers and an immense store of superior knowledge. (p.99)

I’m here for ever. Banged up. In the womb. Doing time. Turn off engine, turn off air-con. Wait. Cook. Sweat. (p.115)

Mickie my failure, my fellow prisoner, my spy. (p.315)

My suits are not confrontational. They hint. They imply. They encourage people to come to you. They help you improve your life, pay your debts, be an influence in the world. (p.315)

‘These men of the world understand that. They know what it is to be unseen, unheard, unknown.’ (p.332)

‘All that is being offered here is a helping hand – the counsel of wise heads – a steadying influence upon a brilliantly managed operation.’ Suck of teeth, sad frown of troubled father, the placatory tone raised to entreaty. (p.380)

Here, take this, it’s Osnard’s money, Judas money, Mickie money, now it’s yours… Undertaker money. Police money. Chiquilla money. (p.383)

I am chosen. I am blessed. I walk on water. (p.399)

[Of Osnard sexually ‘taking’ the drunk Louisa] Then he took her very slowly and deliberately, using all his skills and hers. To shut her up. To tie a loose cannon to the deck. To get her safely into my camp before whatever battle lay ahead. Because it’s a maxim of mine that no reasonable offer should ever be passed up. Because I always fancied her. Because screwing one’s friends’ wives is never less than interesting. (p.4110

In these examples the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation of rhetoric is pleasantly satisfying, filling, gives you the sense you’ve learned or grasped something. But you haven’t. It is fine-sounding wind.

‘The Silent Opposers. Mickie’s Boys. Waiters-in-the-Wings,’ I call them. (p.94)

‘We’re not asking her to plant a bomb in the Palace o’ Herons, shack up with the students, go to sea with the fishermen.’ (p.262)

The rule of threes (ie how to pad out your writing but also make it sound weighty and meaningful) also applies to paragraphs.

The imp again. (1) The one that pops up to remind us that nothing goes away; (2) that a moment’s jealousy can spawn a lifetime’s fiction; (3) and that the only thing to do with a man once you’ve pulled him low is pull him lower. (p.90)

It sounds fine. Is any of it ‘true’ or worth a second thought? At other moments the rule is applied to make life choices or situations sound profound and serious. For example, Marta refuses to move back to her old house:

Can’t because her parents had lived where this building now stood.
Can’t because this was her Panama.
Can’t because her heart was with the dead. (p.130)

Interestingly, the rule works fine if the prose is not straining for pseudo-profundity. Simple descriptions often benefit from the rule, when used to create atmosphere, a mood, a scene.

A silence for spies while the waiter replenished their water glasses. A chink of ice cubes like tiny church bells. And a rush like genius in Pendel’s ears. (p.93)

But either way, there is a strong compulsion on every page to exaggerate, over-write, big up, and repeat, repeat, repeat things numerous times in different ways. Which partly explains why these novels feel so very long.

But she didn’t answer, didn’t stir, didn’t turn her head. (p.428)

Like the ‘legendary’ status given to everyone in the books, like the profuse swearing, the tags and quotes and the fake religious vocabulary, the addiction to saying three times what could more crisply and clearly be said once, lends the characters and plot a spurious importance. But these threes are merely one sub-set of the dominating quality of this prose style, which is:

Bombast and exaggeration

Present in and dominating every paragraph, every page, every description and piece of dialogue, is the overwhelming use of bombast, exaggeration and hyperbole – high sounding but empty of information. Rich in attitude – poor in insight.

The Club Unión is where the super-rich of Panama have their presence on earth. (p.73)

This kind of heavy-handed facetiousness was rampant throughout The Honourable Schoolboy, set among the ‘legendary’ hard-drinking journos of Hong Kong, but it becomes really ubiquitous, in fact it is the chief characteristic of the novels after The Secret Pilgrim. The tone of one, very narrow class or type. It is at its most pronounced when le Carré is describing actual upper-class toffs but it isn’t limited to them and in this novel extends, implausibly, to the other not-public school characters, such as half-Jewish Borstal Boy from the East End, Harry. When Harry is deciding whether or not to accept Osnard’s offer, he finds he can’t get into bed with his wife. How is this little decision couched? He

leaves his bed to the pure in heart. (p.124)

When Harry arrives at his office and goes out back to say hello to the girls who sew the suits, he exchanges words with them like ‘a great commander on the eve of battle’ (p.133). At the hotel where he introduces Osnard to his circle, he talks like this:

‘Allow me to present my good friend Andy Osnard, one of Her Majesty’s favourite sons recently arrived from England to restore the good name of diplomacy.’ (p.74)

When Harry really starts embellishing his reports, he is

now genius, now slavish editor of his imaginings, master of his cloud kingdom, prince and menial in one… An explosion, Harry boy, an explosion of the flesh. A rage of power, a swelling up, a letting go, a setting free. A bestriding of the earth, a proving of God’s grace, a settling of debts. The sinful vertigo of creativity, of plundering and stealing and distorting and reinventing, performed by one transported, deliriously consenting, furious adult with his atonement pending and the cat swishing its tail. (p.318)

And when he confronts the body of the dead Mickie, he knows that

Harry Pendel, tailor, purveyor of dreams, inventor of people and places of escape, had murdered his own creation. (p.427)

It is almost like a challenge, like a party game where you have to talk for a minute converting every single phrase you use into the most bloated, pompous, pretentious, overblown, hyperbolic bombast you can think of – and score double if you can slip in an old tag from the Bible, Shakespeare or the more obvious English poets, along with as many public school idioms as possible – ‘good chap, stout fellow, good man, plays with a straight bat, sound chap, wonderful fellah, she’s a bit of alright, shouldn’t mind old boy’.

I laughed out loud when Harry is driving back from talking with Osnard, having decided to work for him, and the text therefore describes him as ‘the Great Decider.’ Not an atom of text must go uninflated. The next day, in his cutting room, Harry begins work on a suit and le Carré does – what? – take the mickey? express affection? – when he describes him as:

The Mature Man of Affairs, the Great Weigher of Arguments and Cool Assessor of Situations. (p.134)

A set of three grand abstract nouns, in capitals. Even little details are inflated. The scrambler phone to London is known as ‘the digital link with God’ (p.228). Luxmore has a phone in his office which ‘links him with other immortals on Whitehall’s Mount Olympus.’ (p.241)

There is an explosion of this kind of thing when Harry is called to an audience with the President of Panama to measure him for his new uniform. The capitalised epithets fly so thick and fast I realised that this scene and their use are meant to be funny.

The Sun King himself, the All Pervading, the Shining One, the Divine Misser of Hours…His Sublimity strode forward… the Immortal One.. his Radiance…his Supremacy… his Immensity… His Transparency… the World’s Greatest Leader… the Master of the Earth… the Lord of the Universe, the Grand Master of Panama’s political chess-board… the Keeper of the Keys to Global Power… His Luminosity… (pp.154-57)

So is that why they’re used so liberally elsewhere? Is this kind of laboured facetiousness what my English teacher used to call ‘attempts at humour’? Thus, when Osnard becomes ‘the official Canal Watcher’ is that, in and of itself, supposed to be funny? Or when Cavendish explains that drinking booze at lunchtime is frowned upon these days in America, he doesn’t put it like that, he says:

In today’s Born Again Washington, said Geoff Cavendish, alcohol at lunchtime was regarded as the Mark of the Beast. (p.338)

Why the hyperbole, why the grandiose reference to religion/the Bible? Why can nothing be simply said? If it’s intended to be funny, it isn’t – it’s tiresome.

Mealy mouthed

Defined by the dictionary as ‘not willing to tell the truth in clear and simple language’. Le Carré’s verbosity, his fluency, his unstoppable torrent of lyric descriptions and multiple descriptors, amounts eventually to a sustained evasion of telling it straight. Here he is being characteristically facetious about an important politician in Panama.

The peerless Ernesto Delgado, Washington-approved straight arrow and Preserver of the Golden Past. (p.108)

The prose gets up on stilts and uses capital letters, legendary nicknames, religious quotes, public school banter and exaggeration to such an extent that it eventually becomes quite hard to understand what’s going on. I read the three pages which describe the media mogul, Hatry’s, plan to support the US invasion of Panama several times, but it is depicted in such a sweary, hyperbolical and overblown dialogue that I still don’t really understand his motivation. And at moments like this the suspicion arises that the bombastic style and dialogue is deployed so widely because there often is no reason behind the conversations or the plot. (It is telling that the entire character of sweary, shouty Hatry, his entourage and conspiracy, is dropped from the movie. The plot doesn’t, in fact, need it.)

These later novels are written in such a tone of permanent sarcastic facetiousness that it begs the question: if the author doesn’t take his own characters or stories seriously – if, in fact, he devotes a good deal of energy to taking the mickey out of them, exaggerating, stylising and mocking them – why should we?


Whether you like le Carré’s later novels comes down to whether you enjoy the ponderous facetiousness, the heavy humour, the showy bombast and the slang and banter of the tremendously posh public school characters which they describe. If so, you will enjoy the hundreds of pages in which you are marinaded in their pukka prose style and upper-class attitudes.

The plots are clever. The background research pays off. The locations are colourful. The tradecraft is very believable. The sophisticated structuring, the use of flashbacks, memories and key moments to create depth and colour to the characters, all work really well. And there are felicities of description and phrasing on every page. But for me these achievements are cancelled out by the heavy-handed and over-the-top style, by the permanent boom of the upper-class bombast, which outweighs the book’s many, many virtues.

The movie

The novel was made into a movie, released in 2001, directed by John Boorman and starring Pierce Brosnan as Osnard and Geoffrey Rush as Harry Pendel, with Jamie Lee Curtis as his American wife, Louisa. Interestingly, le Carré co-wrote the screenplay and was Executive Producer.

The most obvious change required by the movie version of any novel is to transform the lead characters so they can be played by bankable stars, and to trim and simplify the plot so it can be understood by teenagers in Iowa. Thus vast swathes of the upper class content and attitude is ditched; Osnard is no longer an impossibly posh, fat, sweating old Etonian: he is Pierce Brosnan. My son watched it with me and made three penetrating observations:

1. Why do they have to swear so much? Brosnan effs and blinds all the way through, setting the tone of the film early on when he watches a pretty girl dancing in a hotel and says, ‘I’d fuck that.’ When Harry is reluctant to go along with his plans, Brosnan says, ‘Don’t be a cunt, Harry.’ And early on, explaining spying, he says, ‘It’s like oral sex – it’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it.’ Funny? No. Embarrassing? Yes. Lowering? Very.

2. It’s a bit ‘rapey’. Both my kids use this word to describe men who are creepily lecherous, constantly making suggestive remarks, touching, looking or talking inappropriately. Thus Brosnan talks about ‘fucking’ more or less every woman he meets and – very improbably – he does. Posh Law Lord’s daughter Francesca is the only woman on the embassy staff and has maybe two minutes of screen time before she is being fucked very hard standing up in his apartment, later on being seen being fucked very hard lying down on his bed. It must be very depressing being a female actor. Two or three moments of rolling her eyes at Brosnan’s suggestive banter and then we are watching her boobs bobble about as he ruts her.

Brosnan tries to chat up Jamie Lee Curtis (as Harry’s wife, Louisa) every time he sees her, creepily stroking her back on a family outing with Harry and their kids, and then grabbing her breasts when she comes to his apartment late at night, before pushing her forcefully onto the bed into a pre-rape position.

Both Francesca and Louisa are supposedly highly intelligent professionals – a senior embassy official and a senior figure in the Canal Administration, respectively. But their main role in the film is to swoon when the male hero comes in sight and then get their breasts out. The ease with which they are both seduced is so unlikely as to make the whole film seem a preposterous male fantasy. When this film was released, the writer (le Carré) and director (Boorman) were both about 69 years old. It seems like a blast from an old-fashioned, much more sexist past, as my son was quick to point out. But it is true enough to the spirit of the book in which various lecherous old men try to seduce young, old, married or single women. At Louisa’s dinner party one of Panama’s eminent men spends his time working his shoeless foot up Louisa’s legs towards her crotch, while ogling the married woman opposite,

squinting down the front of Donna Oakley’s dress which is cut on the lines of Emily’s dresses, breasts pushed upwards like tennis balls and the cleavage pointing due southward to what her father when he was drunk had called the industrial area. (p.175)


3. Is it meant to be funny? Like the book, the film thinks it is funny, but is so heavy-handed, crude and violent as to be gobsmackingly humourless. When Harry measures Osnard for his suit there’s a moment when he asks whether Osnard ‘dresses’ to the left or the right. As in the book, Osnard says, ‘Never know where the bloody thing is. Bobs about like a windsock’ (p.61) and the film pauses there for the audience to laugh its pants off. In fact the film likes this joke so much that it has Harry repeat it down the phone to his wife, Louisa, who laughs like a drain. But is it funny? No. Just crude.

Brosnan insists on having his secret meetings with Harry in a brothel. Here he can lie on a bed and watch porno films while Harry spins his lies. At one moment Brosnan pops a coin in the slot and the whole whorehouse bed starts vibrating and the miserable Harry has to continue recounting his stories while his voice oscillates absurdly. My son and I discussed this: presumably the writer and director thought this made for a funny scene. But in fact Harry’s unhappiness, Brosnan’s coarseness, and the hard core porn film which we see a lot of in the background, are the opposite of light and witty. They are crude and heavy. It is the regular recurrence of scenes of sweaty lechery, interspersed with scenes of sickening violence, which dominate the film’s mood and undermine attempts at lightness or humour.

In the very last scene Brosnan has made his getaway with the money and is on a charter plane flying out of Panama. The pretty stewardess plumps down in the seat in front of him and Brosnan uses the same line he used to chat up Francesca from the Embassy: ‘There are two ways we can do this, wait until the last minute to have a passionate affair and not regret having done it sooner; or go for it now and find out whether we like it or not.’ a) Those alternatives are not really relevant to a short air flight b) presumably we’re meant to smile and tut at the old dog up to his waggish tricks; presumably it is meant to be a sharp, witty ending to the film. And it is an appropriate end to the film, but not in the way its makers intended – instead it tends to confirm the uneasy feeling you’ve had all along that this is an out-of-date, dingily lecherous, middle-aged man’s fantasy.


The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré was published in 1996 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes and references are from the 1997 Coronet paperback edition.

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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 over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. 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) A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
  • The Night Manager (1993) Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
  • Our Game (1995) Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at public school and Oxford and personally recruited – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities of out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia, and that Larry has seduced his girlfriend, Emma, too, in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three, expensively-educated but stupid upper-class twits. (414 pages)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996) Andrew Osnard, old Etonian conman, flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based within an entirely fictional underground revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced at a sick and jaundiced world. (458 pages)
  • 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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