Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson (1994)

‘Many tricky dicks walk the trail.’ (Jean-Baptiste Porteur, p.88)

I saw this book in several second-hand bookshops before I picked it up for a pound and thought, from the packaging, that Davidson was one of the new, young generation of thriller writers.

How wrong I was. Davidson was born in 1922 and published his first novel, The Night of Wenceslas, in 1960, the year before John le Carré made his debut. I.e. he is very much one of the old, old generation of thriller writers.

After Wenceslas Davidson regularly published a novel every couple of years through the 1960s and early 70s until 1978 when he disappeared from view. After a gap of 16 years he published Kolymsky Heights, his last novel, to considerable acclaim.

Is it any good? What’s it about? Does it make me want to go in search of his other seven thrillers?

Kolymsky Heights

Kolymsky Heights is relatively long at 478 pages and its dominant quality is a drawn-out and frustrating, round-the-houses approach.

We are introduced to a fusty old don in Oxford, Prof Lazenby. His secretary, Miss Sonntag, opens a letter from Sweden which turns out to be empty. Until he roots around in the bottom and finds some cigarette papers. These contain indentations. He calls in a pupil of his who now works in ‘Scientific Services’ and who, a few years earlier, had called on the Prof and asked him to do a little gentle spying – more ‘alert observation’ – when he was attending a conference in the Eastern Bloc.

Lazenby calls up this man, Philpott, to come and interpret the cigarette papers. They realise the bumps on the surface contain a message, a set of numbers. These relate to books of the Bible, then give chapter and verse numbers. By piecing together the fragmented quotes they arrive at a message which, in an elliptical way, refers to a dark-haired man from the north who can speak tongues and who the writer wants to visit him.

If you like crosswords, I think you’d like this book. Or railway timetables. Precise hours and timings are given for everything, and become vitally important in the later stages of the book.

Philpott passes the message up to a level where it’s shared with the Americans. They have spy satellites patrolling the earth and photographing every inch of Russia, especially secret installations. Recent satellite photos indicate that a well-established camp in the heart of Siberia has had an explosion and fire, and shows figures tramping amidst the ruins. The guy in charge of monitoring this, W. Murray Hendricks, calls in a second opinion, a naturalist who confirms that… the figures walking around appear to be… ape-men! They have the stance of men but… their arms and legs are the wrong shape!

This chimes with the opening section of prose right at the start of the book, a (characteristically unexplained) preface which appears to be a message written from someone working at a Russian security base, writing to a colleague who is about to join him. It describes the way a baby mammoth was found deeply embedded in ice, chipped out and transported back to the base, where it turned out to be a human, a woman lying on her side, who had fallen into a crevasse along with some bags and a tusk, and was heavily pregnant (hence the initial mistaken diagnosis that the body was a mammoth).

Hmm. A 40,000 year-old frozen pregnant woman is brought to top secret Russian research base. Some time later, American satellite photos show ape-like men at top secret Russian research base. Are we dealing with a 1990s version of The Island of Dr Moreau?

If we are, it takes a bloody long time to get there, because first Philpott and Lazenby have to interpret the coded and elliptical cigarette-paper message, until it dawns on the Prof that the reference is to a dark-haired native American from British Columbia, a man known by his clan name of ‘Raven’, a man he met at a scientific conference in Oxford some 15 years back, which had also been attended by Russians.

About the Raven

The novel then switches to give us Raven’s complicated biography. Christened Jean-Baptiste Porteur, he was brought up in the matrilinear society of the Gitksan people in the Skeena river region of British Columbia, north-west Canada, before being dumped on a local missionary, taught English enough to excel in his studies, ran away to sea for a few years, but then returned to settled society and took up serious studies, becoming known as Johnny Porter.

Porter is a super-gifted linguist, one of the few people to be in a position to make academic studies of the families of languages spoken by the natives of the Pacific North-West from the inside. He publishes, is awarded a PhD and prizes, but remains, nonetheless, a surly non-player of the academic game.

Lazenby remembers getting really drunk with Raven and another man, a Russian research scientist named Rogachev, at a conference in Oxford years ago. This man, Rogachev, then disappeared off the grid some 15 years ago, rumoured to have joined some secret research facility. They have (through a series of deductions which I found too obscure to follow) decided that the man sending the cigarette messages is Rogachev. And that he wants Raven.

So then the CIA track down Johnny Porter to a remote fishing village in British Columbia. Lazenby flies out there accompanied by Philpott who hands him over to a fresh-faced young CIA man  named Walters. The CIA are now heavily involved. At least I think it’s the CIA. Langley is referred to (world-famous headquarters of the CIA, but the agency itself not so much. Davidson prefers to keep things shadowy and refers to ‘the plan’.)

They finally track down Porter to a backwoods cabin, and present him with all the evidence. Rogachev wants him to travel to a top secret Russian research base in deepest Siberia. In fact, its precise location is still unknown (I found this a little too obscure to understand: I thought they had satellite photos. Like most of the novel, these early passages required rereading to try and figure out what was going on).

Raven becomes a Korean seaman

A vast amount of effort then goes in to describing Johnny’s trip by tramp steamer from Japan up into the Arctic Ocean.

As soon as he said yes to the mission, Raven (shall I call him Raven or Porter? Raven has more mystique) was taken to some kind of camp where he was trained in spying and spycraft.

This experience, which took several months, is not actually described in the book, simply referred back to as and when necessary. During his time in ‘the camp’, the surly, secretive multilingual academic Raven has been rather magically transformed into a kind of superspy, a man who will turn out to be capable of carrying out numerous secret rendezvous with other agents, picking up new outfits and passports and changing identities and carrying himself off as a whole range of different people, fluent in an impressive array of languages (English, Japanese, Korean, half a dozen tribal languages and Russian) which I found increasingly unbelievable.

Thus the next chapter skips over the entire camp and all the training, to give us Raven flying into Tokyo where, with typical stubbornness, he refuses to do what the Japanese CIA agent, Yoshi, tells him.

The CIA plan is that Johnny masquerade as a Korean merchant seaman aboard a Japanese tramp steamer, Suzaku Maru, which is scheduled to puff up along the northern, Arctic coast of Siberia, till it gets to the nearest port to the fabled research base. But I didn’t understand how they know where the base is, or how Johnny will know that, or how they know it will stop there, or anywhere nearby. Probably I should have reread the first hundred pages again, to try and piece together the elliptical clues.

Davidson keeps his cards very close to his chest and only tells the reader the relevant bits of the plan, just before they fall due, and are about to kick in, sometimes only after they’ve happened.

Thus it was only a hundred pages later that the reader learns that ‘they’ (presumably the CIA) had approached one of the crew of this tramp steamer, Ushiba, and bribed him with a lot of money to take a pill which mimics the symptoms of yellow fever. He becomes extremely ill just as they dock in Japan. The captain transfers the sick sailor to an ambulance, and Raven just happens to be hanging round and have contacted the ship’s manpower agencies, as it arrives. So he is quickly hired, masquerading as a rough Korean merchant seaman, Sun Wong Chu, complete with pigtail, speaking the language with a slight speech impediment to the Japanese crew, who despise and ignore Koreans anyway.

There’s some tough sailor stuff, in particular a brutal fight with the bosun, who breaks his nose, but Raven works his passage and is gruffly accepted by the others. The ‘plan’ is for he himself to take a yellow fever pill so that, as the ship approaches Green Cape on the Arctic coast of Siberia, it is forced to put in to port and unload him. This he does, and the captain and bosun think he has somehow picked up the earlier sailor’s disease, maybe from infected sheets, mattress etc.

He is treated at Green Cape hospital by several doctors including a woman, Dr Komarova. Then, in a move which bewildered me, Dr Komarova hands him over to the Russian militia who put him on a flight to Yakutsk, where he is transferred to an Aeroflot flight to Murmansk – because that is where the steamer Suzaku Maru, was heading and where, they assume, he will want to rejoin his ship once he is well.

Except that, after recovering for a day or two at a seaman’s mission, Raven goes to a rendezvous with an agent, picks up from him a suitcase containing new clothes and identity papers, goes to the gents loos and shaves off all his hair and Korean pigtail, and emerges with a new identity as Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan, a member of the Chukchee people from the Siberian east, and catches a plane to Irkutsk, changes to one to Yakutsk, then another local flight on to Tchersky, the nearest airport to Green Cape.

Hang on. If it was so easy to get there, to fly there – what was the point of the scam about him pretending to be a Korean sailor? Why the enormous complication of bribing the seaman he replace to take a pill giving him fever (and trusting that the feverish sailor wouldn’t give away the plan) – and then making Raven grow a ponytail and pretend to be Korean for weeks, and get beaten up by the bosun and nearly crushed by dangerous equipment and then take the same damn pill and seriously endanger his health when… he could have just flown there in the first place?

I read all this carefully, but remained completely puzzled. I am obviously missing something and I would say that that sense – the nagging sense of missing some vital piece of the jigsaw – is the permanent and frustrating feeling given by reading this book.

So Raven is now Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan. As planned, he proceeds to the vacant apartment of one Alexei Mikhailovitch Ponomarenko. It turns out that this man was on holiday in the Black Sea when he was approached by the CIA who knew he was a drug smuggler. They threatened to tell the authorities unless he extended his stay on the Black Sea and let his apartment in Tchersky be used by their man Raven. More, it turns out that Khodyan is a friend of Ponomarenko’s, whose identity they have borrowed to create a ‘legend’ (fake identity) for Raven.

Raven discovers Ponomarenko had a gossipy old housekeeper, Anna, and a big brassy girlfriend, Lydia Yakovlevna, both of whom we are introduced to, and both need careful (though very different) handling. Our suave superspy is up to both challenges.

Once unpacked and settled in, Raven goes straight to the Tchersky Transport Company and get a job as a long-distance lorry driver. A great deal of description goes into detailing the work of truck companies in the frozen north of Siberia, and the organisation of this particular company, and the shouty director, Bukarovksy, and various foremen who Raven has to sweet-talk into getting a job – and then we learn a great deal about the different types of trucks.

Davidson very powerfully transports us to a completely strange world, with its language, customs, slang, prejudices and the sheer, backbreaking nature of the work. In summer everything melts, the ships can bring in goods but they can’t be distributed because the countryside is a bog. In winter the ocean freezes over – no more ships – but so does the landscape and so trucks can now drive across it. Especially, it turns out, along the rivers, whose flat, deep-frozen-ice surfaces make perfect highways.

(Davidson gives historical background to the economy of the area, which began as appalling forced labour camps in the 1930s and 40s, but was transformed by the discovery of gold and other minerals in the 1960s to something like a viable, if gruelling, mining economy, pp.188-189)

Raven of course knows how to drive all the trucks (including the small, all-purpose ‘bobik’). He has – by impersonating a Korean seaman, surviving a brutal fight with the bosun, surviving a bout of yellow fever, carrying out a secret rendezvous in an airport and completely transforming his appearance and emerging a fluent Chukchee-speaking truck driver – established himself as a kind of spy superman, speaking as many oriental languages as required and capable of blending in anywhere as a member of the minority Siberian native peoples.

Raven is signed up as a driver and does the work well, earning respect and friendship among the rough crews. At a party of truck drivers Raven is horrified to notice the woman doctor Komarova, who treated him as the sick Korean seaman a few weeks earlier, taking an inordinate interest in him. (Didn’t anyone writing this grand plan foresee that he would meet one set of people as sick Korean and then, returning in a completely different guise, risked bumping into the same people again?)

She comes over and talks. She is interested that he is a Chukchee. She invites him to come and meet her mother who lives in a community of Chukchee. Raven goes and we meet the little old lady and her Chukchee friend who, it turns out (the Chukchee community being so small) was present at his birth!!

Luckily, Raven has memorised the ‘legend’ prepared for him so immaculately that he is able to talk to this old lady about his numerous relatives and their mutual acquaintances (all the time, obviously, speaking in Chukchee). I found this wildly improbable.

On the way back from the little tea party, Raven determines to kill the doctor who has been asking more and more suspicious questions about his background. He gets as far as putting his arm round her neck and is on the verge of snapping it (he is a big, strong lad) when she squeals that she is in on The Plan, she is part of The Plan, she is his contact with Rogachev!

After that they go back to her place, she explains some of the background (her father and Rogachev were in the same labour camp together; she knew him as a kindly uncle when she was a girl), and the big revelation that it was she who bribed a merchant seaman who she was treating to take the coded cigarette papers which Rogachev had smuggled out to her, placed in a letter and addressed to Prof Lazenby, the fateful letter which was opened by his secretary in her calm Oxford office all those months earlier.

Then they have sex. Obviously. Most women I know like to shag a man who’s just tried to murder them.

She was not as well found as Lydia Yakovlevna; lankier, less yielding. But she was lithe, controlled, and quite used, as she said, to getting what she wanted. She was also very much more genuine, arching without histrionics when her moment came, and he arched at the same time, and afterwards she kissed his face and stroked it. (p.247)

Now they work together to smuggle Raven into the research base. This new plan stretched credibility to breaking point and beyond. It turns out the research base is very heavily patrolled and guarded (of course), but is serviced by a rotating squad of native Evenk people, selected from the large Evenk tribe which makes a living herding reindeer nearby. The Evenk are honest and reliable and deeply clannish i.e. don’t talk to outsiders, and, anyway, don’t do anything more secret than laundry, cooking, humping heavy equipment about. None of them has any idea what the research going on at the base is about.

Dr Komarova will smuggle Raven in by using a ruse. The ruse is this:

Rogachev, head of the research station, is attended by one of the Evenk tribe, Stepan Maximovich. Stepan inherited the job from his father. He never leaves the base. Raven will be taken to meet the clan leader of the tribe, Innokenty, and pretend to be one of them, an Evenk, but who moved as a boy to Novosibirsk in the distant south (to explain his rickety accent). He will then give a long complicated story about how he met down in the south some members of a white (Russian) family, worked for them, got to know and admire them, but how the father, some kind of scientist, was sent by the state off to some kind of ‘weather station’ in the north 15 or 16 years earlier. Money was sent the family, but no letters, Then the mother of the family died young, but the daughter survived, grew up, got married and is now pregnant. But she herself is now ill. A few months ago he got a letter from the daughter begging to see him. Raven goes sees her and she begs him to track down her father for her, name of Rogachev. He poked around in local offices and got a hint that M. Rogachev was posted somewhere in the Kolyma region. This woman begged Raven to travel to the north to find her father, and ask him to give her unborn child a name, it being the role of parents to name new babies.

This sob story will persuade the Evenk to smuggle Raven into the top secret research facility, hand him on to the personal assistant Stepan, who is the only one who can gain him admittance to the presence of the legendary scientist, Rogachev – so that Raven can hand deliver to him the letter written by his daughter.

And this is what happens. Dr Komarov takes Raven to a meeting with Innokenty and the tribe (flying there by helicopter on the pretext of making a routine medical visit). The Evenk elders completely accept Raven’s long cock-and-bull story (pp.262-268). They offer to give him all the help he needs (incidentally, also accepting his use of the Evenk language, which is different from the Chukchee Raven has been using in his persona as Kolya. He is, it will be remembered, a super-linguist).

There then follows the cloak and dagger business of smuggling Raven into the site. Raven poses as the driver of a lorry full of parts and goods which Dr Komarova is taking to the base. They pass through the security barrier, the guards checking her and her Chukchee driver (Raven)’s passes and wave through. Then, as is usual, some of the Evenk porters come out into the snow to help unpack the truck in the sub-zero conditions.

Komarova chooses a moment when the guards’ backs are turned and Raven swaps clothes with one of the Evenk tribesmen. This Evenk dresses as Raven, then accompanies Pomarova back to the truck, heavily swathed in scarves and muffles and is signed back out of the complex, while Raven, also heavily muffled, is accepted on the inside by the cohort of Evenk tribesmen currently working there – because they are all in on the conspiracy of him smuggling the letter from the pregnant woman to Rogachev, as agreed off by headman Innokenty. In fact they are almost too much in on the conspiracy as they all smile and grin and wink at the doctor and Raven so much they become tensely afraid the Russian guards will notice something is wrong. But they don’t. They think the native peoples are nuts, anyway.

There follows yet more cloak and dagger as, late that night, when the Evenk have gone to bed in their dormitory, Stepan the personal assistant comes and smuggles Raven out of the Evenk dormitory, through secret passages in the research base, and finally into an enormous luxury underground library, with a gallery running round the bookshelves dotted with masterpiece paintings by Picasso, Rembrandt and so on, and leaves him there.

There’s a whirring of motors and Rogachev, the man who started this whole preposterous series of events, whirs into the library in his wheelchair. Wheelchair. That explains why he couldn’t have gone anywhere to meet a western representative.

First Raven explains the subterfuge which has got him this far, i.e. that he’s delivering a letter to Stepan from his pregnant but ill grand-daughter, and they get an envelope and scribble on a blank sheet which Raven can show to the Evenks as the grateful father’s reply.

That out of the way, Rogachev can at last explain to Raven, and to the impatient reader, what the devil the whole thing is about. What it’s about is this:

The mystery at the heart of Kolymsky Heights

Rogachev tells Raven that the Russians have been experimenting for generations to try and breed a type of intelligent but hardy ape who can function as labour in this bleak, sub-freezing terrain.

(I blinked in disbelief at this point. We know that during the 1930s, 40s and 50s they used slave labour to work these areas. If Russians don’t want to do it nowadays, why not pay the local tribespeople, or do what the rest of the West does and import cheap immigrant labour? Breeding an entire new species seems a rather costly and unpredictable way of solving your labour problem, the kind of fantasy idea which only exists in science fiction novels.)

Rogachev tells a cock-and-bull story (this novel is full of them) about his predecessor, Zhelikov, being in a labour camp, but being plucked out and flown to Moscow after the war to meet the great Stalin because the dictator had read a scientific paper about hibernation. This planted the seed in Stalin’s mind that he might not die but be preserved alive. Zhelikov listened to Stalin’s musings and realised they were his passport out of the labour camp, and so nodded wisely, and agreed to set up a research base to bring suspended animation / hibernation/ cryogenics to the peak of perfection which would be required before they could try it on the Great Leader. Stalin rang up Beria and told him to make it so.

Zhelikov asked that the existing weather research base at Tcherny Vodi, near the labour camp of Tchersky, be greatly expanded. They’d have to dig down into the small mountain it was built on, to build multiple levels below the surface, levels for scientists, for ancillary workers, all the laboratories and so on. Stalin said, Make it so.

With the result that the best of Soviet engineering built the James Bond-style secret underground base which Raven now finds himself in, quaffing sherry amid the bookshelves, surrounded by masterpieces by Mondrian and Matisse. All quite bizarre. I didn’t know if I was meant to take this as a parody of a James Bond movie, where the mad scientist reveals his plan for world domination amid symbols of uber-wealth and corruption. All it needed was for Rogachev to be stroking a white cat. Are we meant to take it seriously?

Once the base was established Zhelikov wrote to Rogachev describing the work they were doing and inviting him to join. So he came and had been there ever since.

Now the mad scientist in the wheelchair introduces Raven to his star patient. It is an ape named Ludmilla, lying in bed in a dress, wearing lipstick and glasses and reading. She says hello to Raven. Raven says hello to Ludmilla. The reader wonders if he is hallucinating.

Rogachev explains that the research program to breed intelligent apes made great advances but suffered a fatal flaw: they found they could produce either intelligent apes, or hardy apes, but never the two together. They had been exploring all aspects of the problem including brain circuitry. The discovery of the pregnant neolithic woman and her foetus led to a breakthrough, but not the one they were expecting.

By a series of accidents the research stumbled across discoveries to do with eyesight. Davidson goes into mind-numbing but incomprehensible detail as Rogachev describes the step-by-step progress made, first with rats, then with experimental apes, by which they blinded the subjects – but then used a ‘harmonic wave’ which they had accidentally stumbled across, and which turned out to ‘restore eyesight’ (explained from page 315 onwards).

This ‘harmonic wave’ had several practical applications and Rogachev shows Raven one of them. Turns out Ludmilla the talking ape had been badly injured in the explosion at the research lab which had been detected by American satellites all those months earlier. Her eyes had been damaged and infected (the explosion released some kind of contamination, we aren’t told what).

The point is that Russian grasp of this harmonic wave technology is so advanced that they were able to build a) glasses which convert light into digital information which is then b) transported along wires in the wings of the glasses to electrical contacts which c) interact with contacts embedded behind the subjects’ ears, contacts which they have wired up to the optical regions of the subject’s brain so that d) the blind can see through their glasses!

All this is taking us a long, long way from the initial idea of ape-men and H.G. Wells. Now we are curing the blind. But even this turns out not to be the secret at the book’s core.

Because tests of the harmonic band wave had another unforeseen consequence: it completely disrupts the electrical signals which are used to direct guided and intercontinental missiles. By accident, the base has stumbled over a perfect defence system against all kinds of missile attack!

Rogachev now hands Raven two of the shiny square plates which we used to call computer floppy disks, back in the early 90s (p.326). These floppy disks contain all the information needed to recreate the Russian experiments and build harmonic wave machines and so develop their own anti-missile defences. But they must be opened in laboratory conditions, at lower than 240 degrees below freezing, or they will self-destruct.

I will die soon, Rogachev says (he, too, was infected in the explosion and fire). These will be my legacy. Goodbye. And he turns and whirs out of the room in his wheelchair. Raven goes back to the main door and a few minutes later Stepan opens it and lets him out, they retrace their steps to the Evenk dormitory and smuggle him in. In the morning Raven tells the Evenk that the grateful father has given him a letter and a ring to hand on to his beloved daughter. the Evenk think he is a hero and grin at their own involvement in the kind-hearted plot. A few days later Dr Komarova returns for more medical treatment and Raven is again swapped for the Evenk driver, this time the other way round, the Evenk returning to the dormitory, Raven reverting to his role as driver, driving Dr Komarova out of the complex and away, back to Tchersky. Mission accomplished. Well, first part anyway.

Complications

Unfortunately, there are two complications. One, at a literally very high level, is that the Chinese launch two test rockets during this period, designed to fly the length of China. Both fail due to direction mechanism failure. Davidson takes us into the nitty gritty of the designs and the failures but the upshot is they’re being interfered with by Russian satellites which hover in fixed position way up over the Asian landmass. Is this going to become important? Are the Chinese going to interfere in the story somewhere?

Closer to home, the drug dealer Ponomarenko, unhappy by the rainy Black Sea, hears on the radio that the state is announcing an amnesty for drug dealers. He checks with a lawyer and the cops and then comes forward to report that he has been blackmailed into lending his flat in Tchersky to some dodgy operators, who also wanted to know all about his friend Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan.

The Black sea cops contact the small police office in Tchersky. They put out a warrant for Kolya/Raven. Dr Komorova hears about it in her capacity as a senior government official in the region. She warns Raven. One escape plan had been for Raven to fly out of the region. Or maybe take another ship. Both now impossible with the authorities checking all papers. Good job he had made a back-up plan.

The bobik

The whole Siberian section of the story has taken several months, during which Raven has wormed his way into the good books of the Tchersky Transport Company, undertaking long distance and countless short distance drives for them. The ‘plan’ had made provision for ‘extracting’ him from the location once the mission was accomplished. But Raven is stroppy and contrary by nature and had begun to make an independent escape plan. Just as well.

This plan is to a) cosy up to the chief engineer at the Tchersky Transport Company and b) persuade him to let him have all the component which make up a bobik light truck so he can build one himself from scratch.

On one of his many delivery trips around the region Raven has discovered a big cave, hidden by frozen bushes, big enough to turn into a workshop where he can secure a block and tackle to the ceiling, instal lamps around the place, store food, a sleeping bag and blankets – and then, slowly steadily, week after week, persuade the head engineer at Tchersky, to let him have more and more pieces of bobik and drop them off at the cave, and build a truck from scratch, by himself!

Implausible doesn’t seem an adequate word to describe how wildly improbable and unnecessary I found this. Why not just pile Dr Pomarova and a load of food into one of the existing bobiks he gets to use perfectly legally, set off on a long, perfectly legal trip, and just keep going? No. In Davidson’s story, he has to build his own!

The Tchersky militia led by Major Militsky become more officious and search every house. Raven hides in Dr Komarova’s cellar. Then she drives him out to the cave with food and he does back-breaking work constructing the bobik. She is due to come next night at midnight. Is hours late. He goes out to watch. Tension, stress.

She turns up with food and the battery, the last component needed to complete the bobik, and news that the hunt is getting serious. In fact it has become a region-wide hunt and a general from Irkutsk has flown in to take charge of it. Pomorova tells Raven how much she loves him. Oh darling. Oh sweet man. Yes, yes, says Raven, but realises that she is the only official allowed into Tcherny Vodi. They will interrogate her. They go over her story, trying to plant red herrings. Then kiss goodbye. ‘I will see you again, won’t I, my love?’ She asks. ‘Of course,’ he replies, lying.

She leaves. He tries to sleep. He can’t. He gets up and starts the bobik and inches out onto the frozen river. Half an hour later a military patrol passes by. He has got out just in time.

Raven on the run

Raven drives east. On the map there is a tributary of the main river-highroad which the map says is impassible. It is certainly strewn with rocks embedded in the ice, but he drives slowly and carefully and the bobik is designed to be indestructible. After several hours Raven comes to a hump-backed bridge which carries the highway from Tchersky to Bilibino (p.377). At a succession of Road Stations, Raven cruises in silently with his lights doused, parks and siphons petrol from the tanks of other bobiks in the car parks, the drivers tucked up inside the warm lodges. Not weather to be outside. He is heading east into a big range of mountains known as the Kolymsky Heights. Aha.

In parallel, a security forces general flies into Tchersky from Irkutsk and takes charge of the search. Having interrogated Ponomarenko, he realises this is a sophisticated spying project mounted by foreign powers. He realises the agent will have left the area. He orders all transport within a 500 mile radius to be frozen and checked.

Basically these last 100 pages turn into quite a nailbiting chase, Raven a clever resourceful fugitive, pitted against the General who is also a very intelligent and thorough investigator. While Raven drives East in a bobik the General is misled by several false clues into telling his forces to search to the south for a missing rubbish truck. But when that avenue runs dry, follows other clues, until he is right on the tail of our man.

The cold calculation of the fugitive, and the clever deductions of the general (I don’t think we’re ever given his name) reminded me strongly of the similar set-up in Frederick Forsyth’s classic thriller The Day of the Jackal. A chase.

Raven drives on on on through the snow, hiding under bridges for snatched sleep, surviving on bread and salami, driving over a thousand kilometers, with a number of close shaves, and just squeezing past security barriers along the way, until he arrives at a tiny settlement named Baranikha which has an airport sure enough, but no flights in our out due to a fierce blizzard.

Raven hooks up with a drunk Inuit who he lets drink all his vodka till he passes out, whereupon Raven takes his coat and boots and backpack and skis and identity papers and hustles himself onto the first plane which is now leaving the airport as the snow lifts, to a tiny place out east, towards the Bering Strait, named Mitlakino.

Here he signs in with a jostling noisy scrum of other workers but in the dead of night retrieves his papers, backpack and steals a snowplough. The geography now becomes crucial. Baranikha and Mitlakino are way out at the easternmost tip of Siberia, on the blocky peninsula which sticks out into the Bering Strait and faces on to Alaska. Raven hadn’t planned it this way, it was pure fluke that the only plane flying from the airport was heading here. But now he’s here he conceives the plan of crossing the Bering Strait from the Russian side to the American side, and freedom. (Although Davidson nowhere explicitly explains this, the reader eventually deduces that at this time of year – the winter solstice – the Bering Strait is completely frozen over. Since it is only 50 miles wide, a man could walk it, admittedly hampered by the fog, snow and frequent blizzards.)

To cut a long story short, the security general has caught up with Raven’s trail, they’ve found the drunk Inuit at the airport as he sobers up and complains that someone’s stolen his papers, they’ve followed the trail to the workers dormitory at Mitlakino, the general yells down the phone to the dopy head of the Mitlakino settlement who does a search and discovers a snowplough is missing. They deduce Raven must be heading to the coast and the general dispatches helicopters from a nearby military base.

The border between America and Russia runs down the middle of the Bering Strait. There are two islands there, the Greater Diomede Island is on the Russian side of the sea border, the Lesser Diomede Island is on the American side.

Raven drives his snowplough through a blizzard along the coast till he gets to a settlement called Veyemik. He hides the plough and knocks on the door of the biggest house, waking the headman of the local tribe of native peoples, Inuit. Here he pretends to be an Inuit on the run from the authorities. The people take him in. Next morning they all go out fishing to iceholes they cut in the deep frost covering the sea. Raven asks to go with them. They take him in a motorised ski-bus out to the hole where the Inuits split up to fish different holes. Raven has asked a series of questions establishing that they are almost within sight of Greater Diomede Island. He slips away from the Indians and sets out on skis.

But there is unusual helicopter activity overhead. The general has figured out where he is, and even has men at Veyemik interrogating the inhabitants, and now knows the fugitive is out on the ice. The general mobilises the defence forces on Greater Diomede who turn out in ski busses, little ski scooters and on skis. Plus the helicopters overhead.

After some complicated hide and seek, during which Raven, in the ongoing blizzard fog, isolates and knocks out a security soldier and steals all his equipment, he eventually realises the general has created a solid wall of trucks and soldiers with headlights and torches on, 250m from the border. Raven climbs up a cliff on the eastern side of Greater Diomede and hides in a cave, but then a helicopter flies slowly low along the cliff, guiding a truck of soldiers which uses a mortar to fire gas mortars into every cave. Raven tucks himself back against the wall but the mortar which shoots into his cave bounces on to his chest and explodes leaving him deaf and half blind. Only a little later do we discover it blew out one of his eyes.

Half-blinded he crawls to the cave entrance and shoots down the militia in the jeep, then half climbs half falls to the ground, crawls to the jeep, and half drives it. The chase becomes horrible now, as the militia close in and shoot out the tyres and lob mortars at the engine (the general has shouted down the phone to the local commander that the fugitive must be taken alive). A mortar detonates on the bonnet which blows shards of metal into Raven’s body. He cannot hear and barely drive or think. The wrecked jeep slews in circles but…

Once again and for the final time I was confused by Davidson’s elliptical descriptions and by the way he intrudes into this vivid description, parallel accounts of the aftermath and what the Russian authorities discovered in the cave and along Raven’s trail. All of this fooled me into thinking he made it just to the edge of the international border but was captured by the Russkies.

Which turns out to be wrong. The first the reader realises of this is when we are told that Raven is being rushed to hospital in Anchorage. I.e., although it is nowhere explicitly stated that he crossed the border, and there is no description of anything the American troops did on their side or how his body was recovered or anything – next we know we have entered a different type of register as the book becomes like an official record of events, describing at high-level the transport of the body. Then we are told that Raven’s severely injured body packs up and he dies. Lost one eye, blinded in the other, shot through one knee, chest cluttered with shrapnel, lost one lung, it packs up and Raven dies. His funeral is attended by officials from Russia, who apologise for this sorry incident and for how a confused native must have wandered by accident into a military exercise. And who, naturally, make a note of everyone who attends the funeral.

Which is why none of the CIA officials attend, obviously. In fact no-one attends except the mortician and coroner.

But another reason no-one attends is that Raven isn’t dead. Davidson’s last trick in this very tricksy narrative is the not-altogether-unexpected revelation that the agency spirited the heavily-wounded Raven away to a super-advanced hospital, and swapped his boy with that of an unknown vagrant who had been – very conveniently – run over and trashed. That’s the heavily-bandaged body which is placed in a coffin and whose funeral the Russkies attend and who is cremated.

Meanwhile, Raven recuperates, given the best medical treatment the agency can provide.

And, in the final pages, there is the ring. You may recall that Rogachev gave Raven a ring, supposedly a blessing to his ‘daughter’, part of the cover story which got Raven into the compound. The ring was in fact Rogachev’s weeding ring which, knowing he is soon to die, he gives to Rogachev. Inside is engraved the motto As our love the circle has no end. After he’d been extracted from the base, among many other things Raven showed the ring to Dr Komarova, who has fallen deeply in love with him. Later, after he has fled the tightening net, Komarova goes to check out the cave where Raven had built the bobik. He has very professionally completely emptied it of every trace of his presence (loading it into the bobik and disposing of most of it in faraway ravines on his escape drive east). But she finds a small scrap of paper scrunged up. Inside is the ring with its motto.

Now, on the last page of the book, Dr Komarova has quit her job in Kolymsk and moved west to Petersburg (despite a shrewd interrogation by the general, she managed to throw the investigators off her trail and survived the whole episode without reproach). And three months later she receives a letter, containing an open-ended air ticket to Montreal, an immigration department slip bearing her correct name and passport number. And tucked away at the bottom of the envelope a tiny slip of cigarette paper bearing a single line of writing: As our love the circle has no end.

As love stories go, it has to be one of the weirdest I’ve ever read, but then the entire novel is meticulously detailed, powerfully atmospheric, often completely preposterous, sometimes incomprehensible but despite everything, exerted a very powerful tug on my imagination and memory.


Maps

There are four maps in the novel (more than you sometimes get in history books). Good quality ones, too, showing

  1. the whole of northern Asia (pp.32-33)
  2. the coast of British Columbia, where Lazenby and the CIA man go to find Raven (p.76)
  3. Cape Dezhnev and Bering Strait region (p.158)
  4. the Kolymsky Region (p.417)

But there is the same sense of oddity or something wrong about these as theres is over the whole book. Very simply, the two latter maps should be reversed.

The central section of the novel is set in the Kolymsky region, so the detailed map of the area – which shows Cape Green where the ship docks, Tchersky where the doctor lives and Raven gets his job on the lorries, the location of the research centre and even of the cave he discovers and uses to build his bobik – quite obviously this map should go at the beginning of that section instead of where it is actually positioned, well after that whole section has finished (?)

Whereas it is only on page 410 that we first hear of the small settlement of Mitlakino and Raven decides to take the plane there. At which point the precise geography of the area becomes vital to his plans for escape, and for the final nailbiting descriptions of his escape across the ice – and so this is where the map of Cape Dezhnev and Bering Strait should go – not 250 pages earlier, where it was completely irrelevant and didn’t register as important. It wasn’t important, yet.

Is this an editorial mistake, a mistake in the printing of the book? Or yet another subtle way of blindsiding the reader and keeping us puzzled, as the suppression of so many other key facts in the narrative succeeded in puzzling me all the way through.

Style

Flat descriptions Although the book is set in some dazzling and awe-inspiring landscapes (the seascapes and frozen landscapes of Siberia) Davidson is not that at descriptions. He gives the facts, but they rarely come to life. Here’s an example of his prose.

He got up and walked about the room. In a recess beside the stove an icon was on the wall. The stove was cold, the house now electrically heated, very stuffy, very warm. Books were everywhere, on shelves, tables. He couldn’t make out the titles in the dark. (p.243)

You can see the bit of effort Davidson has made to create something more than flat factual description in the use of the verbless phrases ‘very stuffy, very warm’. Not very inspiring, though, is it?

Martin Cruz Smith’s sequel to Gorky ParkPolar Star, finds his Moscow detective, Arkady Renko way off his beat, working on a factory ship in the Bering Sea. It’s the same location as the coastal scenes of Kolymsky Heights, at about the same time (Polar Star 1989, Kolymsky Heights 1994). Smith’s book is sensationally vivid in description and atmosphere. I think it’s the best of the eight Renko novels because you can feel the icy temperature, the salt spray in your face, the harshness of frozen metal.

None of that is captured by Davidson’s prose. It is flat and functional. Eventually, by dint of repetition of the facts, you get the powerful sense of brain-numbing cold, of ice and snow and blizzards. But it is done rationally, by repetition of factual information, not by the style.

Instead of jazzy and vivid description, Davidson has a few mannerisms of his own.

Echoing One is a kind of dumb, blank repetition of events. Very often he’ll end a paragraph saying so-and-so plans to do x, y or z. And then the next paragraph begins with ‘And so-and-so did x, y, or z.’

‘I have thought how this could be managed’.
He explained how this could be managed. (p.306)

He was contacting them himself immediately.
Which, immediately, he did. (p.443)

It’s a kind of rhetorical echolalia. It doesn’t add to atmosphere or even tension. The opposite. I found it helped harden the colourless carapace of Davidson’s prose, often making it even harder to work out what was happening and, in particular, why.

I suppose, it also creates an effect of inevitability. Someone says something is going to happen. And that’s what happens. Maybe the effect is to create a subtle sense of fatefulness and predestination, to give the narrative a very slightly mythic quality.

‘Sure, Kolya. You’ll take the job – just when we get the call.’
And they got the call, and he got the job. (p.197)

It all falls into place, more as if it’s a myth or legend or fairy tale, than an ordinary sequence of contingent human events.

Phrase reversal Another tic is reversing the usual structure of an English sentence, from subject-verb-object to object-subject-verb.

His present job he greatly disliked. (p.281)

With his security chief Beria he had discussed this idea. (p.299)

This idea he suddenly found himself discussing in the most bizarre circumstances… (p.300)

The route to Anyuysk she knew, and he stayed under a blanket in the back while she drove. (p.348)

This ridiculous situation he had promptly ordered Irkutsk to deal with… (p.385)

It’s a stylistic mannerism, a not very successful attempt to jazz up Davidson’s generally flat prose.

I suppose it might be argued that playing with the word order of conventional English like this goes a little way towards mimicking the various foreign languages that are spoken in the book, and maybe creating a sense of the ‘otherness’ of Russia and the Russian-speakers who the second half is set amongst. Maybe.

Her intense nervousness she covered with an air of impatience. (p.386)

To Zirianka a long-distance helicopter was required… (p.404)

Italics In the extended account of Raven’s meeting with Innokenty and the Evenks, Davidson used an excessive amount of italics to make his points, often rather unnecessarily. This reminded me of John le Carré’s nugatory use of italics to try and make his dialogue more dramatic.

Since they started their careers at almost the same time, this made me wonder if it’s a feature of the fiction of the time: was there something about emphasis in the late 1950s, a historic idiolect from that period which lingered on in their prose styles.

If they merely hovered over his route, they would catch him now. How far, in three or four minutes, could he have gone? (p.444)

For me, the random use of italics didn’t intensify the reading experience but created a rather annoying distraction.

Gaps and absences

I read the book with a permanent sense that I kept missing key bits of information about who was going where, and why.

Unless this is simply part of Davidson’s technique: to leave key bits of information and motivation out of the novel so as to leave the reader permanently off-balance.

Possibly, a second reading of the book, knowing in advance information which is only revealed later on in the text, would help you make sense of all the hints and obliquities early on in the narrative. Maybe the pattern only fully emerges after several readings. Maybe this is why Philip Pullman is liberally quoted on the front, the back and in the short introduction he provides for the book, describing it as ‘the best thriller he’s ever read’. In the introduction he says he’s arrived at this opinion after reading the book four times. Maybe that’s the amount of effort required to see the full pattern. But certain inexplicabilities would still remain: why did Raven undertake the long sea voyage if he could just have flown to Tchersky any day of the week? And nothing can eliminate the truly bizarre scene where Raven shakes hands with an ape in a dress named Ludmilla. The final hundred pages of fast-paced chase revert to something like conventional thriller style. But shaking hands with a talking ape? I still have to shake my head to be sure I actually read that. Did someone spike my drink?


Related links

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut (1962)

‘People should be changed by world wars,’ I said, ‘else, what are world wars for?’ (p.86)

Mother Night purports to be the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr., born 1912 (p.17) who goes to Germany in 1923, along with his family when his dad gets a job with the Berlin branch of General Electric (p.18) and so grows up fluent in German.

The three-page introduction by Vonnegut uses the hokey old strategy of claiming that the author is merely presenting the authentic papers of a genuine historical figure, which he has edited and corrected in various detail. This is both designed to give hokey plausibility to the narrative’s provenance while drawing attention to its artificiality. Just one of the numerous meta-fictional devices Vonnegut uses here and throughout his career.

Howard W. Campbell Jnr

The main text starts bluntly enough and very much in the tradition of much 19th century fiction

My name is Howard W. Campbell Jnr. I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination. (p.3)

As he came of age in Nazi Germany (he turns 21 in 1933, the year Hitler comes to power) Campbell set out to make a living as a writer, producing so-so plays and poems throughout the 1930s and marrying a German wife, the actress Helga Noth, daughter of Berlin’s Chief of Police. The glamorous young couple find themselves invited to society parties and so meeting, among others, many of the leaders of the Nazi Party, notably Joseph Goebbels.

The text purports to be a memoir written in 1961 in prison in Israel where Campbell has recently been brought after living quietly in Greenwich Village, New York since the end of the war, because Howard W. Campbell Jr.’s main achievement in life was to become a traitor to his country and a war criminal by broadcasting hard core, anti-Semitic, anti-American Nazi propaganda from Berlin right till the end of the war. Although we are not told till the end of the book how he ended up there, he is now in the custody of the Israeli authorities who are about to put him on trial for war crimes.

The memoir uses Vonnegut’s familiar approach of not giving a chronological approach to Campbell’s life, but ranging far and wide over his former life, to pick out key moments and scenes. Thus, in what is effectively a series of fragments, we learn that:

In Israel

  • Campbell is writing the memoir for Mr Tuvia Friedmann, Director of the Haifa Institute for the Documentation of War Criminals.
  • He describes the characters of the four very different Israeli guards who do the different shifts of guarding him – Andor Gutman who spent two years in Auschwitz, Arpad Kovacs who survived the war by pretending to be a good Aryan and joining the SS.

In Nazi Germany

  • It was Campbell who introduced Goebbels – and through him, Hitler – to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
  • Half way through the war Helga was entertaining the German troops in the Crimea when the Crimea is overrun by the Russians. She was never heard from again, presumed dead.
  • Towards the end of the war Campbell borrowed the beloved motorbike of his best friend Heinz Schildknecht and went to visit his father-in-law, Werner Noth, in his big house on the outskirts of Berlin. Werner was having all the contents loaded on a cart and sent with his wife and other daughter, 10-year-old Resi, to Cologne. Werner asks Campbell to shoot the family dog, which Campbell did. 10-year-old Resi says she loves him (Campbell). Fine. He gets on his motorbike and tries to escape the advancing Russians.
  • In 1945 Campbell was captured by Lieutenant Bernard B. O’Hare of the American Third Army who drives him to the nearby and newly-liberated concentration camp of Ohrdruf, where he is photographed in front of the camp gallows (now full of former camp guards), a photo which makes the front cover of Life magazine and makes Campbell notorious.

In New York

  • Campbell is released by the American authorities and goes to live in New York. His mother and father had gone back to America just before war broke out, but they both die within 24 hours of each other of heart disease before the end of the war, and Howard has inherited their fortune.
  • Campbell’s downstairs neighbour in Greenwich Village is a young doctor named Abraham Epstein; he doesn’t care about the war, but his mother was in Auschwitz and recognises Campbell, who plays dumb.
  • In his loneliness, Campbell gets to know another neighbour, George Kraft, by playing chess with him. Little does he know that Kraft is in fact a Russian spy, real name Colonel Iona Potapov.
  • The beginning of the end comes when Campbell finds his mailbox stuffed with neo-Nazi literature, namely The White Christian Minuteman edited by the reverend Lionel L.D. Jones, D.D.S.
  • There’s also a letter from the American soldier who arrested him 16 years earlier, Bernard B. O’Hare, who threatens to pay him a visit and administer the punishment he so richly deserves.
  • How did they track him down? Kraft, the Russian spy. Over the months Campbell got to trust him and spill parts of his story. It was Kraft who contacted the neo-Nazis and O’Hare. Why? In order to force him to flee, so that he can be kidnapped by Russian security forces (see below).
  • Dr Jones comes to visit along with a couple of other American Nazis and… to Campbell’s amazement, his long-lost wife Helga. He gets rid of the others and he and Helga have riotous sex, just like back in the good times in Berlin. It’s only when he takes Helga shopping for a king-sized double bed like the one they used to have, that she drops the bombshell that she is not Helga – she is the kid sister, Resi, all grown up 🙂

Throughout the memoir Campbell claims he is innocent. He claims he was recruited for American intelligence by a Major Frank Wirtanen, who taught him how to leave pauses, gaps, coughs etc during his radio broadcasts, which conveyed valuable information to the American intelligence.

Trouble is the American government now (1961) refuses to confirm or deny Campbell’s story, and there are no records anywhere of this Major Wirtanen.

The deeper trouble is that Campbell himself is torn by his schizophrenia. Although he may have been an American agent he did, nonetheless, say those things over the radio. In his memoir he damns himself even more by pointing out various anti-Semitic ideas and pictures which he also contributed to the Nazi cause. He has no doubt that he was guilty of doing those things. Although he is also certain he was working for the Americans.

A book of two halves

Mother Night represents a drastic change from the mind-bending science fiction of The Sirens of Titan, coming freighted, as it does, with a lot of historical research, and a feel for the German language and German society (presumably drawing on the fact that Vonnegut himself was of German stock).

When the story is close to the Nazis and wartime Europe it is interesting. When it is more about the eccentric neo-Nazis in modern New York it feels like bubblegum comedy, like an early draft for Mel Brooks’s gross-out comedy, The Producers (‘Springtime for Hitler and Germany’).

The tone changes significantly and, in my opinion, for the worse, after Campbell is confronted and beaten up by an American soldier as he returns to his apartment building from that bed shopping trip with Resi, now that his identity is out. He is beaten to the ground and kicked in the head and loses consciousness.

When he wakes up it is in the house of Dr Jones, in the company of Kraft the Russian spy, along with some other grotesques, Father Keeley, a Catholic priest and Fascist, and the improbable figure of the ‘black Führer of Harlem’.

Somehow the book has turned into something like an episode of the Man from U.N.C.L.E., utterly implausible and unserious. When he was describing Campbell’s brief meeting with Dr Goebbels he was, I think, on his best behaviour. It is slyly satirical (the idea that Hitler would actually admire the Gettysburg Address) but at bottom serious.

Now it feels like an episode of Scooby-Doo with brightly coloured cartoon characters running round abandoned buildings.

Jones and Kraft tell him they’ve got a plan which is to abandon America completely and all fly to Mexico City.

In a farcical scene they invite Campbell to address a cohort of six-foot blonde American boys who have formed ‘the Iron Guard of the White Sons of the American Constitution’.

Campbell is giving a little speech from the stage in the basement of the building when the lights go down and he is disconcerted to hear one of his own wartime broadcasts being played (which gives us, the readers, an opportunity to savour his anti-Semitic Nazi rhetoric in full).

While the lights are down someone slips a message into Campbell’s pocket. Later he sneaks a look and it is a message from the elusive Major Frank Wirtanen to come meet him in a shop opposite.

Campbell makes his excuses for going for a stroll and suspiciously approaches the shutdown shop opposite but Wirtanen is waiting for him, alone and unarmed.

Here Wirtanen informs him the Kraft is a Russian spy and so is Resi. They will all fly to Mexico City where Campbell will immediately be kidnapped and flown to Moscow. Why? So the Soviets can try a high-profile war criminal and show how such criminals are allowed to live freely in the West.

Wirtanen warns Campbell that the safe house they’re all in is about to be raided. Back on the street, Campbell realises he has nowhere else to go and so walks back to the house. Here he confronts Resi and Kraft with their plan which they immediately admit – at which point American FBI agents burst in.

Now, John le Carré’s novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was published just a year after Mother Night and even a moment’s mental comparison shows you that Vonnegut is not really interested in being serious. He is not interested in plot or suspense or dramatic climaxes.

If you call to mind the fiendish elaborateness of Carré’s plot and the depth of psychological duelling which it describes, and behind it all the sense of something really important at stake i.e. the survival of a high level Western spy in the East German security machine – it throws Vonnegut’s bubble gum cartoon into vivid relief.

There is nothing remotely like that here.

The entire idea that Campbell was somehow transmitting secrets in his Nazi broadcasts is nonsense. Via a set of coughs and pauses? Rubbish. Vonnegut makes a half-arsed attempt to clarify it by having Wirtanen say that no fewer than seven women agents died getting him the information, but we never understand how that information reached Campbell or how it was codified into this nonsensical idea of coughs and pauses. He himself never explains how it was done, how he met these ‘agents’, how he turned their messages into code, the difficulty of staging the alleged coughs and pauses. It’s rubbish, a flimsy pretext.

When Campbell tells Resi that he knows she is a Russian spy she makes a rubbish speech about how she really, genuinely loves him and had asked Kraft to change the plan to protect him. But now she sees his love is dead she has no reason to go on living. So she takes a cyanide pill and collapses dead in his arms.

This isn’t serious. It is The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The novel dissolves into fragments. While the others are arrested and taken away, Campbell, on Wirtanen’s permission is released.

He doesn’t know where to go and only a cop asking him to move along prompts him to drift back to his old apartment building. This has been trashed by various American patriots.

Campbell has a disconnected conversation with another cop, who tells him his own father was killed at Iwo Jima and how he reckons it’s all to do with chemicals in the brain, which affect our moods, can make us feel up or down, and maybe explain the different behaviour of different cultures. It’s call chemicals (a subject to be developed at length in Vonnegut’s later novel, Breakfast of Champions).

Upstairs in the ruins of his apartment (comprehensively trashed by American patriots once news about who he was has spread) Campbell is confronted by Lieutenant Bernard B. O’Hare of the American Third Army. He is drink but has dressed very correctly in uniform as he thinks he is fulfilling the military duty of killing Campbell which he should have performed 15 years earlier.

Vonnegut gives a good little cameo to O’Hare, having him admit how disappointing post-war life has been with his wife producing baby after baby and all his business plans coming to nothing. Vonnegut makes us see how O’Hare hopes to redeem all his failures in life and business by beating up Campbell, maybe killing him. But O’Hare is out of shape and drunk. As he lunges towards Campbell, our man beats down hard with a pair of fire tongs and breaks his arm. After some ineffective dodging and weaving Campbell forces O’Hare out into the hall where the latter copiously throws up, then staggers back down the stairs.

Campbell stands there, his life reduced to ashes. No wife, no lover, no friends, no cause, no help, and the entire country against him.

He has a brainwave and goes and hands himself into his young neighbour Abraham Epstein. Except it’s by now quite late at night and Epstein doesn’t know what he’s talking about and doesn’t care. Campbell insists he wants to hand himself over to the Israeli authorities. Epstein replies, well go along to the embassy tomorrow. But Campbell wants something decisive to happen now.

I suppose this is farcical but it didn’t strike me as very funny. Eventually Epstein’s mother phones three Jewish men friends who turn up and keep ‘guard’ on Campbell till the morning. She understands his need to confess, to come clean and for someone else simply to take over his life.

Suicide

And so the final pages cut to Campbell in the Israeli prison. There is a comic recap of the various witnesses for and against him, plus his lawyer who, like all lawyers, is costing him a fortune. He wakes up and has got three letters, two of them farcical (one from a company called Creative Playthings wanting his financial support).

But the third is from the elusive Major Frank Wirtanen who says he does exist, he did work for the American army, Campbell really worked for him and is an American patriot, and he will say so in court under oath.

Campbell looks up from the letter.

So I am about to be a free man again, to wander where I please.
I find the prospect nauseating.

And so in the remaining seven pages of the book, he decides he will hang himself for crimes against himself. The book’s last words are:

Goodbye cruel world.
Auf wiedersehen?

By this stage I had completely stopped taking Campbell or his fate seriously.

Thoughts

1. Vonnegut’s wisdom

As the 1960s went on Vonnegut gave in more and more to the temptation to lard his books with insights and wisdom and sayings. In this, his third novel, this tendency is mostly reined in, though various morals and meanings and precepts and proverbs about life and the world still slip through:

Oh, God – the lives people try to lead.
Oh, God – what a world they try to lead them in!

In the preface he tells us that ‘the moral of the story’ is:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Although it might also be:

When you’re dead you’re dead.

And another one springs to mind:

Make love when you can. It’s good for you.

This tendency to buttonhole us with his folksy wisdom – and not to be able to stop – was to run riot through his books as the 1960s progressed.

2. The Nazis and leading a double life

As to any serious thoughts about the Nazis, or Eichmann, or the nature of evil, or patriotism, and the separate theme of living a double life, epitomised by the figure of ‘the spy’ – Mother Night prompts none. It is a kind of comic fantasia without thoughts or consequences.

There are serious books on these subjects and if you seriously want to understand them, you should read those.

Reviews of anti-Semitism and Holocaust literature

3. Eichmann

The main thing it left me thinking was this: at one stage Campbell says he is being kept in the same prison as Adolf Eichmann, and several times they have brief conversations, in which Eichmann comes over as calm and serene.

Now Eichmann had been kidnapped in Argentina by the Israeli secret service Mossad, and was brought back to Jerusalem to undergo a very high-profile trial, before being found guilty and hanged in 1 June 1962.

The trial was widely followed in the media and was later the subject of several books, including Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe Eichmann. (Wikipedia)

Serious commentators around the world, politicians and philosophers, were writing long earnest articles about the Eichmann trial. I’d love to know how many of them even noticed this half-comic novel by a little-known American novelist, and what – given the seriousness of the issues being discussed – any of them thought of his rather shallow, comical treatment of them.

My opinion is: Mother Night starts promisingly but then disintegrates into cartoon capers larded with two-penny, ha’penny folk wisdom. In his later novels Vonnegut would find subjects and a form (more fragmented and studiedly meta-fictional, more open-ended and gossipy) which were much better suited to the kind of writer he is obviously, even in this early book, straining to be.

Credit

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut Jnr was published in 1962 by Fawcett Publications/Gold Medal Books. All references are to the Vintage paperback edition.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré (2013)

Conspiracy thrillers

I started reading grown-up books and watching movies in the mid-1970s, which happened, among other things, to be the golden age of conspiracy thrillers. After Watergate and the debacle in Vietnam, a wave of disillusioned American film-makers produced gripping and chilling movies based on the premise that wicked, money-grabbing corporations had fatally corrupted government, and that any naive young government operative who stumbled on these secrets would be eliminated by their own side.

Thus films like Three Days of the Condor (1975), The Conversation (1974), and The Parallax View (1974) still deliver a paranoid thrill today – and they have a legacy in the ongoing Bourne franchise, where yet another fresh-faced, young white man is shocked to discover that his worse enemies aren’t the Russkies or the terrorists – they’re his own superiors carrying out corrupt and covert operations which are sanctioned at the highest levels.

40 years later le Carré has, rather belatedly, woken up to idea that the same thing could happen in Britain. The plot of this novel – conscientious civil servants try to expose government-corporate cover-up – feels old, very old. And instead of the handsome Robert Redford (Condor) or Warren Beatty (Parallax), we have as ‘heroes’ the very British paring of a timid young civil servant and a fogeyish retired diplomat.

Quite apart from the dusty plot, what’s really striking about the book is the garish prose style and stilted dialogue through which it’s told, a tortured style which comes from a strange parallel universe where Jason Bourne has been rewritten by P.G. Wodehouse.

The plot

British civil servant Toby Bell uncovers the evidence that his Minister, the bullying Fergus Quinn, helped arrange a hush-hush ‘mission’, Operation Wildlife, to be carried out by an American corporation – Ethical Outcomes – involving US mercenaries, four British soldiers, and a Foreign Office observer, supposedly to capture a high-value terrorist on Gibraltar.

But there was no terrorist: the apartment he was meant to be hiding in turned out to be empty, and instead a Muslim woman and her baby, probably illegal immigrants who were squatting there, were mistakenly shot to ribbons.

Three years later, retired British diplomat, Sir Christopher (‘Kit’) Probyn, is approached out of the blue by Jeb Owen, one of the British soldiers who took part in Wildife and has been haunted ever since by what he saw. Jeb has identified Kit as the FO man sent to witness the operation (Kit did so under an assumed name and was spirited away moments after it ended in confusion), and now Jeb has tracked Kit down to his genteel retirement in a manor house in Cornwall.

Kit was never sure exactly what happened that night, having observed it all from a distance in the squaddies’ ‘hide’, but Jeb now confirms his worst fears that something went badly wrong, and backs his story up with black-and-white photos of the dead woman and baby.

They make a date to meet again when Jeb will produce more evidence, but Jeb not only fails to keep this meeting with Sir Kit, he turns up dead in the back of his own van, in what the authorities claim is a ‘suicide’, though his wife knows this isn’t true. The evidence in hand, and Jeb’s dodgy demise, determine the honourable Sir Kit – backed by his charming lady wife Suzanne, and with the support of his feisty doctor daughter Emily – to inform the proper authorities.

So he goes up to London, to the Foreign Office, naively and stupidly to tell the very people who covered up the fiasco in the first place that he has evidence to prove there was a fiasco and a cover-up. To Kit’s amazement – and the utter unsurprise of anyone who’s ever seen or read a conspiracy thriller – the powers-that-be not only brush aside the incident, but end up blaming him for the deaths – seeing as he was the ‘responsible officer’ on the spot – and make it clear that if he breathes a word to anyone, he will be the first one to be prosecuted. Does he want that to happen? Does he want to put his wife – in remission from some unspecified illness – through that? Or his daughter? ‘Go home, Sir Kit.’

Meanwhile, in a separate thread, we flash back three years to the build-up to the botched mission, to the period when fresh-faced young civil servant, Toby Bell, was private secretary to New Labour bruiser and Foreign Office minister, Fergus Quinn.

Toby dutifully fetches and carries for Quinn but is puzzled by the bruiser’s secretiveness – a new safe is installed in the office, his door is always closed, secret phone calls abound. Toby’s concerns reach a peak when he is told to organise a hush-hush meeting in private rooms, and to ensure that even the CCTV on the side entrance into the building is turned off, so there’s no record of the attendees.

Intrigued, Toby digs up an antique reel-to-reel tape recorder which has been mouldering in his office, plants it in the meeting room and sets the timer to record the ‘secret’ meeting. Listening to it later, he hears Fergus conspiring with a renowned shady operator who floats on the periphery of Whitehall, a certain Jay Crispin, to organise the mission, and so first hears the words Operation Wildlife.

Aware that he’s breaking various protocols and possibly the Official Secrets Act, Toby transfers the tape recording of the meeting to a computer memory stick and seeks the help of his mentor within the service, Giles Oakley.

Lofty, insouciant Giles explains that Crispin is the smooth English front man for a US mercenary outfit known as Ethical Outcomes. In fact, Toby himself briefly meets Crispin and his partner and fundraiser, introduced in characteristic JLC ringmaster fashion as ‘the one and only Miss Maisie from Houston, Texas’. Quinn introduces them to Toby in his office for what might just have been an interview to be recruited into the mission – but Tobym with his Bertie Woosterish innocence, fails the audition. And just as well, as things turn out.

Toby discovers that the FO man referred to in the plans is Sir Kit, gets his address, and so travels down to the diplomat’s big house in Cornwall. Here the pair share their discoveries and, with the latter’s forceful GP daughter Emily, they form an alliance to ‘uncover the truth’. Tremble in your boots, oh baddies.

Toby travels on to Wales to meet Jeb in his crappy, post-industrial town, only to hear from his distraught wife that Jeb ‘committed suicide’ just a few days earlier – despite having just expressing new confidence that he’s finally exorcised his post-traumatic demons by meeting and talking to Sir Kit. Plus, Jeb shot himself with his left hand, which is odd because he was right-handed. Almost as if dark forces might have bumped him off and made it look like suicide. Crikey.

1. Kit takes the dossier of evidence he’s compiled up to London and, after some effort, forces his way into the Foreign Office and an interview with some creepy lawyers. These slick operators magically twist everything round to show him that the only person named for sure in the entire operation is himself, backed up by his own admission that he was senior man on the spot. Since all the others deny any involvement, this means that if his dossier is published, he, Sir Kit, would be the prime suspect and legally held responsible. A broken man, he catches the train back to Cornwall.

2. Jeb’s widow gives Toby the phone number of one of Jeb’s army colleagues who was involved in the mission. But when Toby meets this fellow, ‘Shorty’, in a North London café, instead of having a discreet chat he finds himself being briskly escorted to a car which then drives him to a very secure, guarded house in St John’s Wood, where he is received by the smooth, handsome, posh Jay Crispin he has heard so much about. Like all baddies in thrillers, Crispin is immensely urbane and polite – ‘more coffee, Mr Bond’ – before asking if he’d like to join Ethical Outcomes – sign a confidentiality agreement and immediately double his salary? No? Oh dear. That is unfortunate.

Toby walks out and walks home, opens the door to his Islington flat and is immediately gagged, hooded and given an extreme beating by professionals wearing knuckle dusters. As he lies vomiting on the floor, one of them mutters, ‘This is just for starters’ – such a cliché it made me laugh out loud. When Sir Kit’s daughter Emily phones, Toby groans into the receiver enough to make her come round and clean him up. Feeling slightly more human, he insists on getting dressed, finding his hidden memory stick and all the other evidence, and hobbling with her help to the nearest internet café, from where he emails all the evidence he has to the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 news, Guardian and so on.

At which point they hear sirens. Lots of sirens. Sirens coming from all directions and converging, with a screech of tyres, just outside the café. Almost as if his blackberry, phone and even the memory stick are tagged and monitored and that, by using them, he has drawn down on himself the forces of darkness!

Just because you’re paranoid…

This ‘powerful’ ending reminded me of the 1988 movie Defence of the Realm, in which investigative journalist Gabriel Byrne and the fragrant Greta Scacchi come together to reveal the massive official cover-up of a near-nuclear accident – which ends with them, also, posting all the documents they have to the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, the Guardian etc – before the forces of darkness ensure that they meet a very sticky end.

The sticky end, after all, the time-honoured ending of the paranoia thriller (cf Warren Beatty getting killed at the end of The Parallax View) – just the final thrill in a sequence of shocking revelations.

Moreover, the downbeat climax repeats the fatalistic endings of le Carré’s other late novels – the whistleblower ‘Salvo’ unjustly extradited in The Mission Song, the innocent refugee Issa brutally kidnapped by the CIA in A Most Wanted Man, the defecting Russian mafiosi (and his innocent Brit minder) blown to pieces by the forces of darkness at the end of Our Kind of Traitor.

The ‘clean-cut-heroes-against-the-corrupt-Establishment-cover-up’ plot is an old and venerable one, one I quite literally grew up with 40 years ago. So how is it handled here? What about its style and presentation?


Le Carré land

From the first pages we are in le Carré land, where posh, naive white men talk to each other in superannuated 1950s slang, are tyrannised by modern, go-getting types who show how up-to-date they are by saying ‘fuck’ a lot, who are in cahoots with dastardly foreigners – not Islamic terrorists or Russians, no, the worst foreigners of all – Americans! – and where all the characters and the omniscient narrator are indistinguishably soaked in the same heavy-handed, lumbering, facetious tone of voice.

Le Carré’s response to every aspect of the modern world, especially in its bureaucratic and organisational forms, is one of unremitting sarcasm. He has a particular bee in his bonnet about the way ‘Personnel’ departments have been renamed ‘Human Resources’ in big organisations, a bugbear which crops up in several books. Here is Sir Kit meeting the head of HR at the Foreign Office right at the start of the novel:

‘So how’s your poor dear wife?’ asks the not-quite-superannuated ice queen of Personnel Department, now grandly rechristened Human Resources for no reason known to man, having summoned him without a word of explanation to her lofty bower on a Friday afternoon when all good citizens are running home. The two are old adversaries. If they have anything at all in common, it is the feeling that there are so few of them left.
‘Thank you, Audrey, not poor at all, I am pleased to say,’ he replies, with the determined levity he affects for such life-threatening encounters. Dear but not poor. She remains in full remission. And you? In the pink of health, I trust?’
‘So she’s leavable,’ Audrey suggests, ignoring this kindly enquiry.
‘My hat no! In what sense?’ – determinedly keeping up the jolly banter. (p.4)

The whole book is written in this phony, mock heroic voice. The passage contains examples of several JLC mannerisms:

  • The way public schoolboys use condescending tags and clichés to indicate their superiority over the great unwashed – ‘when all good citizens are running home’ – like the poor miserable rabbits that they are, presumably.
  • And is it really a ‘life-threatening encounter’, chatting to the head of HR? No. Then why make out that it is? Ironic hyperbole, old chap. All part of the ‘jolly banter’.
  • Antiquated slang. How many people, in Britain, in 2016, in a moment of surprise, exclaim, ‘my hat’? Anyone?

The HR thing gets le Carré’s goat so much he repeats it later:

‘Were the Personnel people – or Human Resources or whatever they call themselves these days…’ (p.172)

Yes, why do people keep bloody changing the words for things all the bloody time?

Jeb might be psychotic, he might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or any of the other big words we throw around so easily these days… (p.187)

As Colonel Blimp might have put it: ‘Bloody confusing big words: what’s wrong with the short words we used in the good old days – dago, darkie, pansy boy?’ To my surprise, Sir Kit does actually use the expression ‘pansy-boy’:

Said one of the Americans was a little fat bastard with effeminate mannerisms. Pansy-boy, according to Jeb. The pansy-boy was the worst.’ (p.213)

Well, who could possibly disagree? ‘Bloody Americans. Bloody fat Americans. Bloody fat American pansy-boys, they’re the worst, oh definitely the worst, old boy.’

The reader thinks: ‘Well, we better not tell the confused old buffer that we no longer use pounds, shillings and pence or that we’ve put a man on the moon. His head might explode.’

And this character – Sir Christopher ‘Kit’ Probyn – with his ailing wife, his devoted labrador and his manor house in good old Cornwall – this is one of the two ‘heroes’ of the book. He is held up as a gold standard of old-fashioned morals and conscience – but comes over as an ineffectually blundering buffoon.

Our Le Carré’s use of the little word ‘our’ is symptomatic. He deploys it in a way which radiates public school, upper-class facetiousness; a pally-pally, knowing condescension:

‘our dear young queen… our stoical defenders… Mr Jay Crispin, our corporate warlord and intelligence provider… And the secret pulse of our great nation, Laura?… a reliable has-been from the ranks of our own dear Service… our intrepid friend… our selfless volunteers… [at his village fair Sir Kit enters the] roped-off enclosure of our Rustic Crafts section… [Sir Kit is referred to as the] leader of our gallant British detachment…’ and so on and so on

Far too intelligent to simply refer to people by their names or functions the narrator – and Le Carré’s characters (interchangeably) – use ‘our’ to indicate their mocking familiarity with the personage in question, advertising their lofty height above the great unwashed.

Your fine family Similarly, family and loved ones or careers and places – especially funny foreign places – are routine targets for upper-class exaggeration and elaborate hyperbole, or for the public school habit of using religious tags and mock pomposity in a tone of permanent sneering:

‘should an unfortunate crisis afflict your fine family… given to him by his beloved wife… Manila, Singapore, Dubai: these are but a few of the fine cities where you have attended conferences… Paul, you are now and for evermore family… My beloved wife Hermione tells me… his beloved La Rochefoucauld… the fabled castle that is Prague’s pride… My beloved ex-partner…’ and so on and on.

Ye olde English Toby’s mentor, Giles, tries to reassure him that everything’s been sorted out, but cannot say anything without using the same facetious upper-class banter, with the same mock Shakespearian rhetoric, that all the other characters use:

Just listen to me, dear, will you? The scandal at Defence is dead, and Jay Crispin is henceforth and forever banished from all ministerial and government premises on pain of death.’ (p.74)

Is he, though? Banished? On pain of death? No. That is deliberate hyperbole and exaggeration because posh Giles – imprisoned, like so many Le Carré characters, in the lofty tower of his expensive education – just can’t speak like ordinary people. He can’t say, ‘Listen, Crispin is finished, it’s official. No-one is allowed to contact or do business with him,’ because that is how ghastly oiks speak.

When Toby gets a new job as Private Secretary to Quinn, the narrator can’t state this as a simple fact, but has to describes him as ‘newly anointed’. In one of their long conversations, Giles goes into ecstasies of sarcasm about ‘Man of the People’ Quinn: I counted him using the ironic phrase ‘your nice new master’ five times in as many pages.

Almost all the character speak in this insufferably mannered upper-class style. There’s only so long you can listen to these smug wankers with their insufferable smugness and superiority before wanting to hit something.

Telegraphese Too posh to say complete sentences? Bark them out like a retired colonel:

  • ‘Man’s a liar.’
  • ‘Hell are you doing with my daughter anyway?’

Music hall compère I particularly relish the occasions in Le Carré novels where the narrator introduces his characters with the pomp and moustachioed bombast of an old-time, music hall compère:

And who is the guiding light in London who presides over this pragmatic trade in human destinies…. – None other than Giles Oakley, Foreign Office intelligence broker extraordinaire and mandarin at large. (p.61)

‘Tobe, kindly pay your respects to Mrs Spencer Hardy of Houston, Texas, better known to the world’s elite as the one and only Miss Maisie.’ (p.86)

The first quote is the narrator speaking. The second one is ‘Man of the People’ Fergus Quinn speaking. The mock heroic phraseology is identical in both. That’s why I say the narrator’s voice and the characters’ voices are interchangeable: they all radiate the same kind of condescending, mock heroic, upper-class grandiosity.

This inability to find any other voice than a pompous Old Etonian is particularly noticeable when le Carré tries to do colonials. Just as the Australian tennis coach in Our Kind of Traitor didn’t sound remotely Australian, so Elliot the allegedly South African character doesn’t sound remotely South African – he sounds just like all Le Carré’s other elaborately facetious characters – although in these two particular cases, rather more like an elaborately ironic butler than the lord of the manor:

‘Sir, I believe I have the singular honour of welcoming Mr Toby Bell of Her Majesty’s Foreign Office. Is that correct, sir?’ (p.316)

Really? Is that really how a tough bastard South African mercenary would talk?

1950s slang Is there anyone of working age who routinely says ‘old sport’ and ‘old chap’ at the end of every sentence? Or ‘what?’ Or exclaims ‘My hat’? In a remarkable moment, the smooth-talking New Labour-era creep Jay Crispin, manipulator of American billionaires and Whitehall ministers, while trying to buy Toby off, tells him that Jeb, the soldier he was due to meet is a bit, you know,

Not quite himself, ‘twixt thee and me. (p.319)

‘Twixt thee and me’?

Sarcastic descriptions Similarly, when le Carré wants to ridicule characters he does it with very heavy sarcasm, lumbering them with elaborately ironic adjectives and descriptions. In particular, in all these later novels, le Carré can barely contain his anger at the way Tony Blair’s New Labour betrayed all its promises, instigated the appalling ‘corporatisation’ of the state (in this case the civil service, with its outliers in the military and intelligence services – renaming perfectly good Personnel departments Human Resources, for chrissakes), and rubber-stamped America’s mad invasion of Iraq.

This anti-New Labour animus adds such malevolence that posh Giles can only bring himself to refer to Toby’s minister – ‘your nice new master’ Quinn – with arch facetiousness:

‘…your distinguished minister… appears determined to outdo the militarist zeal of his late great leader, Brother Blair…’ (p.97)

(I’ve never seen this formula – ‘brother X’ – with its air of smothering but simultaneously contemptuous familiarity, used in this way by any other author. It’s a le Carré trademark.)

The first half of the book amounts to a satirical caricature of a New Labour minister, Fergus Quinn, who bulks large in the first half of the novel as Toby’s bullying master, helping to arrange the ill-fated mission, presumably in expectation of some back-handers or a transition to a nice, corporate position when he leaves government. With characteristic New Labour emphasis on slick media presentation, Quinn hypocritically puts on a smile for the cameras and likes to present himself as a straight-talking Glaswegian. And so gets skewered with the same withering descriptors throughout:

‘Fergus Quinn, man of the people… Quinn the People’s Choice… the Champion of the Working Classes… Fergus Quinn, MP, white hope of the powers-that-be in Downing Street (p.191)

A politician who puts on a fake smile for the cameras but is really a hectoring bully in private? Golly. A politician who helps high-level business contacts while in office and then moves smoothly into a related directorships when he leaves? Crikey. This isn’t really new. It isn’t even New Labour new. Weren’t Trollope and other Victorians aware of the canting posturing of politicians. Isn’t 18th century literature awash with corrupt political figures? What is The Beggar’s Opera (1728) but a satire on the deep-dyed corruption of the Prime Minister?

Bluster instead of insight As per usual, when key players in a le Carré novel try to get to the heart of the matter, they prove incapable of intelligent analysis – instead they bluff and bluster. The first meeting between the good guys, Sir Kit and Toby, has them discussing the situation and leads up to Sir Kit summarising for Toby his understanding of the military cock-up which is at the heart of the whole plot:

‘Operation Wildife,’ he barked. ‘Roaring success, we were told. Drinks all round. Knighthoods for me, promotion for you – what?’ (p.198)

Days later I am still reeling from the imbecility of this moment. The man is meant to be a seasoned diplomat. Toby, who he’s talking to, is meant to be a fast track civil servant.

When I worked at the Department for International Development, I had contact with some of the heads of directorates and once with the Secretary of State himself. What came over was their immense workload and the brisk, professional way they dealt with it. I was impressed by the speed and incisiveness of their fact-processing and decision-making. By contrast, almost all le Carré’s Whitehall characters come over as dim and slow – really slow, much, much slower than the reader, who is always streets ahead of them. By about half way through I was really hoping the entire crew of dim duffers would be arrested, extradited, or simply blown up, as the only fitting way to respond to such irreparable denseness.

Humour Le Carré is probably the most humourless writer I know. But his narratives act as if they’re hugely funny. Take Elliot, the dodgy South African mercenary handling the British soldiers during the ill-fated mission. Here he is explaining to Sir Kit that the aim of the mission is to kidnap a terrorist, codenamed Aladdin.

‘Aladdin is basically a mixed-race Pole who has taken out Lebanese citizenship… Aladdin is the Pole I personally would not touch with a barge, to coin a witticism…’ (p.23)

Ha. Ha ha. Le Carré is so proud of this joke that he repeats it a few pages later. And to be fair, it is probably the funniest joke in the novel. There’s another cracker when Sir Kit asks one of the yokels in his village, Ben, the owner of Ben’s garage, if he can borrow some metal cutters, prompting this sparkling exchange:

‘You off to prison?’ Ben enquires.
‘Well, not just at the moment, Ben, thank you,’ replies the same Kit, with a raucous hah! of a laugh. (p.142)

Because, you see, Ben the yokel is making a humorous suggestion that Sir Kit might want metal cutters so he can break out of prison, and Sir Kit pretends to find this frightfully funny. Ha ha ha. Oh, my hat!

Italics Why so many italics in the dialogue? Scattered so randomly? After as little as one page the reader begins to wonder whether the characters are mentally ill, afflicted with a version of Tourette’s Syndrome which makes them emphasise words with no logical reason, like a pub drunk jabbing you in the chest with his finger according to no discernable logic.

As a tiny example, when Sir Kit goes up to London to (naively and hopelessly) put his case to his former employers at the Foreign Office, he has to pass through several layers of security but then is gladdened to see a familiar face:

‘Molly, my God, of all people, I thought you’d retired aeons ago, what on earth are you doing here?’
‘Alumni, darling,’ she confided in a happy voice. ‘I get to meet all our old boys and girls whenever they need a helping hand or fall by the wayside, which isn’t you at all, you lucky man, you’re here on business, I know. Now then. What kind of business? You’ve got a document and you want to hand it personally to God. But you can’t because he’s on a swan to Africa – well deserved, I may add. A great pity because I’m sure he’ll be furious when he hears he’s missed you.’ (pp.282-283)

Partly it’s standard upper-middle-class class gush: ‘Oh Lavinia, how simply marvellous to see you’ etc. But it’s been turned up a notch, beyond the comprehensible, to become a mannerism, a compulsion.

The suspicion arises, not for the first time, that when le Carré tries to do clever dialogue between people who are assessing and probing each other – dialogue which ought to be subtle, measured and understated – he can’t. So he has his characters either swear a lot ‘for fuck’s sake’, or randomly emphasise every other word to make it sound somehow more forceful and intelligent.

Both of which tactics fail.

Conclusions

Whereas the outcomes of, say, a Robert Harris thriller are genuinely unexpected and sometimes terrifying, the outcomes – in fact most of the plots – of le Carré’s later novels are entirely predictable variations on the dominating obsession of his post-Cold War books, all emanating from the, to-him, shocking revelation that the modern world is corrupt.

The key text to understanding his attitude is his 2003 article ‘The United States of America has gone mad‘, which perfectly captures the way he can barely contain his white-hot anger at the American government’s stupid, blundering, imperialistic invasion of Iraq – so much so that the tone spills over into sarcasm, facetiousness and barely controlled hysteria.

(Note particularly the final section which abruptly switches from outraged journalistic diatribe to a spooky dialogue between an earnest lickle child asking innocent questions about the war and a reassuring Daddy telling him the it will all be over quickly and everything will be alright.)

The same runaway anger informs these later novels – anger that:

  • transnational corporations get away with murder (The Constant Gardener)
  • a rogue America can trample roughshod over individual and national rights in its obsessive ‘war on terror’ (Absolute Friends, A Most Wanted Man)
  • and worst of all, how Britain has also fallen into the mire [since some imaginary romantic past of chivalrous idealism] so that senior politicians, businessmen and even elements of ‘our dear Intelligence Service’, are in corrupt collusion with shady foreigners like the Russian mafia (Our Kind of Traitor), or are paid agents of dastardly international arms dealers (The Night Manager) or are helping to plan coups to impose corporate-friendly rulers on helpless Third World nations (The Mission Song)

Anger that is only barely contained beneath a simmering surface of withering sarcasm, of fake joviality and spurious bonhomie littered with the bizarre remnants of the almost-forgotten, upper-class banter of the 1950s.

The movie

If you dumped the entire bombastic narrative voice, changed the characters from 1950s throwbacks to make them 21st century people, rewrote the dialogue so it is intelligent and snappy rather than sweary public school chaffing, and trimmed down and focused the plot – in fact if you dropped everything about the book except the core idea – Foreign Office hero uncovers conspiracy to cover up UK involvement in US-led extraordinary rendition cock-up – then it would make a cracking movie or TV series, just like A Most Wanted Man or The Night Manager which, once they’d been extracted from le Carré land, and comprehensively rewritten, proved to be very successful.


Credit

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré was published in 2013 by Viking books. All quotes are from the 2014 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

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 – but 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.

Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré (2010)

‘Well, fuck, said Hector happily.
‘Fuck indeed,’ Perry agreed, bemused. (p.88)

Plot

Perry and Gail

Thirty-something Oxford tutor, Peregrine ‘Perry’ Makepeace, and his girlfriend, the beautiful, rising star barrister, Gail (immediately reminiscent of the beautiful, rising star journalist, Penelope, in The Mission Song), are on holiday in Antigua.

Gail is a stunner (‘Men fell in love with her all the time’, p.181). Perry, we are told, rather adventurously, went to a State school – gosh – but seeing as he is a famous tennis player, and a famous mountain climber, who is also passionate about cricket, looks good in his Oxford bags, and says ‘chaps’ and ‘fellows’ a lot, he actually sounds like all le Carré’s other public school heroes. In fact, the characters’ lexicons quickly transport us back to the 1950s of the black-and-white St Trinians movies.

As a small example, there’s an Australian tennis coach at the resort who takes Perry under his wing but sounds like no Australian I’ve ever met, more like a diamond geezer from a 1950s crime caper.

‘Thank you, Perry, no doubles for Dima, I’m afraid,’ he interjected smartly. ‘Our friend here plays singles only, correct, sir? You’re a self-reliant man. You like to be responsible for your own errors, you told me once. Those were your very words to me not so long ago, and I’ve taken them to heart… Perry, I do not believe you should be reluctant to take this gentleman on,’ Mark insisted, ramming his case home. ‘If I was a betting man, I’d be pushed which of you to favour, and that’s a living fact.’ (p.9)

Australian? Similarly, the maitre d’ at the hotel is named Ambrose but since, in le Carré land, no character goes without a facetious nickname or adjective for very long, he swiftly becomes ‘the venerable Ambrose’ (p.48).

This habit of giving every character a larky adjective (‘the immaculate Gail’,  ‘Ace Operator Perry’ p.77) and then making them speak with improbably plumminess or butler-like servility, quickly makes the whole book feel like a P.G. Wodehouse novel with, admittedly, a lot of modern swear words thrown in. As if aware of this, JLC has the characters explicitly reference PGW on p.94:

Precisely, Bertie,’ Perry agreed in his best Wodehousian, and they found time for a quick laugh.

Dima

It is Perry’s demon tennis-playing which gets him introduced to a stocky, charismatic, over-friendly Russian named Dima. Perry and Dima have a sweaty singles match, with Dima effing and blinding all the way through, as he goes on to do throughout the rest of the novel.

Next day the couple find themselves invited to join Dima’s extended family on the beach, getting to know his reclusive, religious wife Tamara, the stroppy twin boys and the beautiful, pubescent Natasha. Ice cream and cricket on the beach are followed by an invitation to a party at Dima’s villa that evening.

Here Perry and Gail are surprised to find themselves ushered into a remote room up in the windy attic of the building and handed a piece of paper while Dima signs them not to speak and they realise he is worried about being bugged and recorded.

On the paper, Dima has written a long message claiming that he has invaluable information he wants to give to the British government in return for asylum in Britain for him and his family. Gail is taken aside by Tamara, leaving the men alone, and Dima gives Perry a small package which turns out to contain a tape cassette to give to ‘the right people’ back in England. Then they all go on to the party.

After the party, back at their holiday apartment, a bewildered Perry and Gail decide to cut short their holiday and return to Britain. Being a lecturer at Oxford, Perry has heard about a fellow tutor who, rumour says, makes ‘approaches’ to his undergraduates on behalf of the security services. Perry goes and tells him his story; the don listens, then gives Perry a phone number. Perry rings it and is put through to ‘Adam’ who instructs him to a) write his own account of the proceedings b) expect a taxi driven by ‘Ollie’ who will collect him and Gail and drive them to a basement flat in Bloomsbury.

Perry and Gail’s debriefing

Here the couple undergo an immensely detailed ‘debriefing’, in which their ‘handlers’, Luke and Yvonne, force them to relive every word, every inflection, every facial expression of every single exchange they had with Dima and with each other during the Antigua trip.

This is le Carré’s forté, the detailed presentation of the debriefing and recruitment process, a process we know from his biography that he actually carried out himself when he worked for the security service in the 1950s. But whereas in, say, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, the reader is only slowly and cannily allowed insights into the cunning conspiracy being carried out by the disgruntled spy, Leamas, and so is on tenterhooks throughout his interrogation by East German security – here, we don’t yet know how much, if anything, is at stake, and so these long opening pages contain no tension.

Lacking this, we are left with the characters of the posh young couple and quickly become irritated by their bickering and nerviness, especially Gail’s bitchiness. Her feminist unhappiness that Dima chose to speak to Perry alone, and that Perry then refused to reveal what was said at that private meeting, comes out in the sustained use of italicised emphases:

‘It’s true. I felt appointed by him. Over-promoted is more like it. Actually, I don’t know what I felt any more.’ (p.50)

In her leaden sarcasm:

‘You listening, Gail?’
What the fuck d’you think I’m doing? Singing ‘The Mikado’? (p.75)

And her improbable mimicking of the voices of everyone concerned – Dima, Tamara, Perry himself – so that she comes across as a rather demented Mike Yarwood. Not helped by her mannerism of ending almost every paragraph with the tag, ‘didn’t we, Perry?’ Gail is meant to be a rising star barrister but quickly comes across as a petulant, spoiled 14-year-old.

‘Perry! Stop! Come back! Stay here! I’m the fucking lawyer here, not you.’ (p.75)

Hector Meredith

At the end of these sessions, disgruntled Gail is told to go (again), leaving Perry with Luke and Yvonne. At this point they reveal that their boss has been listening, upstairs, to the couple’s debriefing. Now he pads downstairs to meet Perry in person.

The boss is called Hector Makepeace and he is an extraordinarily old-fashioned, 1950s type of fellow, who overwhelms the text with his blustering, hail-fellow-well-met manner, his bolshy, anti-modern Britain attitude, and his copious, ceaseless swearing.

‘Well, I’ll tell you what you are, Mr Perry Makepeace, sir,’ he asserted, as if he’d reached the conclusion they had both been waiting for. ‘You’re an absolute fucking hero, is what you are’ – seizing Perry’s hand in a flaccid double grip and giving it a limp shake – ‘and that’s not smoke up your arse.’ (p.87)

‘Smoke up your arse’? ‘And that’s a living fact’? On every page the prose is studded with heroically out-of-date slang. Although the narrative is set in the Noughties, the lexicon is a combination of Dixon of Dock Green livened up by The Sweeny. The monotonous, continuous use of ‘fuck’, many times on every page, quickly becomes wearing. Pages 75 to 77:

‘Jesus Perry. I’m fucking scared…I’m the fucking lawyer here…For fuck sake, it’s me, Gail…What the fuck is going on between you two…What the fuck d’you think I’m doing… what the fuck are you trying to tell me… Tamara didn’t speak, Perry. Not one solitary fucking word… absolutely fuck-all passed between Tamara and myself… either mind your own fucking business or tell me what Dima said to you.’

I laughed out loud when Hector is described as a ‘maverick’ (p.124). Just like the swearing, blustering ‘maverick’, Bachmann, in the previous novel, Hector is the ‘legendary’ subject of the same kind of ‘rumour mill’ (p.125) and ‘ground-floor gossips’ (p.145) and ‘office wits’ (p.163) that all JLC’s sweary mavericks inspire. He even has devoted ‘Hector-watchers’ (p.126), as there are ‘Bachmann-watchers’ and watchers of each of this character type in all the novels going back to Tinker, Tailor (and even turn out to be ‘Perry watchers’, on page 180). It’s as if every JLC character comes trailing a retinue of adoring followers, like a supermodel or film star.

Hector explains himself:

‘You’re on record as believing that our green and pleasant land is in dire need of saving from itself. I happen to share that opinion. I’ve studied the disease. I’ve lived in the swamp. It is my informed conclusion that we are suffering, as an ex-great nation, from top-down corporate rot. And that’s not just a judgement of an ailing old fart. A lot of people in my Service make a profession of not seeing things in black and white. Do not confuse me with them. I’m a late-onset, red-toothed radical with balls. Still with me?’ (p.119)

No, frankly. This is worthless as any kind of political analysis, and it just confirms your opinion of Hector – who is the lynchpin and centre of the plot – as, well, an ailing old fart. Is this how the author sees himself – a late-arriving radical, a maverick, the man who tells it like he sees it, damn the consequences and that’s not smoke up your arse?

There is a bit of sub-plot thrown in whereby Hector, a few years earlier, took leave from the Service to fight off the aggressive takeover of his family firm by dastardly corporate raiders. His battle made the press, in which he is described as ‘a doughty lone warrior’ fighting off ‘vulture capitalists’ (p.126), depicted as the kind of gentlemanly, paternalistic, tweedy business owner that went extinct in the 1950s. So the reader is not at all surprised to learn that the doughty warrior is ‘a stubborn technophobe’ (p.145).

A man, in other words, completely unsuitable for the 21st century world he finds himself in, who is not trusted or respected by his superiors and who, as we shall see, embarks on a ramshackle security mission which completely fails.

With Hector we get our first introduction to the office politics of the security services, insofar as this wild ‘maverick’ has trouble getting his superiors on-board for his projects (just as Bachmann had trouble with his bosses in the previous novel).

This is especially true of the Head of his Department, William J. Matlock. Since no le Carré character goes un-nicknamed (just like back at prep school), Matlock is immediately referred to as Billy Boy Matlock or plain ‘Bully Boy’ (p.130). From the start Hector conveys the sense that there are wheels within wheels at the security service, and that he is struggling against official scepticism, bureaucratic inertia, and worse, to get the Dima project signed off.

Dima’s career

Through all Hector’s bluster and swearing, it emerges that the security services know about Dima and have a good record of his career. For Dima is currently the finance officer for the seven brotherhoods which dominate the Russian crime underworld. As a youth he was imprisoned in the harshest possible labour camp in the Kolyma region of Siberia. He was sentenced to 15 years hard labour for murdering a military administrator who frequented his horrible state-built family apartment, and who ushered him and the other kids out of the apartment while he screwed their mother, very noisily, so that the rest of the floor could hear it all. Until teenage Dima snapped and stabbed him to death. (As with Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels, every reference to ordinary life in Russia makes it sound unbearably awful.)

In the Kolyma camp Dima got covered in underworld tattoos, and became a vor or member of a criminal brotherhood. Once released and back in Moscow, his natural aptitude for figures, and the contacts he made in prison, saw him rise through the ranks of his particular brotherhood, before becoming financial manager for the Big Seven, going on to create a vast international money-laundering operation of which he is now the lynchpin.

But now things are going wrong for Dima. A shadowy underworld figure referred to only as ‘the Prince’ (p.147) is taking over the brotherhoods and he wants to replace Dima with his own man. Dima is being forced to sign over his control of all the gangs’ finances, in two separate tranches which are coming up very soon, whereupon he knows he will be ‘whacked’.

The net is closing in very fast and violently. A protege of his, a vor he mentored named Misha, who had married Tamara’s sister (an ex-hooker) and so became family, was assassinated just a week before Perry and Gail met Dima. Hence the air of tension about the whole family which they both noticed, the bodyguards, the silent meeting in the attic of the villa. And why Misha’s newly orphaned children were among the large family group Gail, in particular, found herself entertaining on the beach.

All this explains Dima’s desperate approach to the first half-reputable Englishman he could find – the unfortunate Perry. And clarifies the whole following sequence of events – Perry approaching his fellow tutor, phoning Hector, writing his account and now, meeting Hector.

What Perry hadn’t told Gail – and part of the reason for her resentment at his secrecy – is that Dima insists that, when he meets representatives of British security, Perry and Gail are present as a guarantee for his safety. Hector now offers Perry his proposition: do he and Gail want to work for him, and British intelligence, on a dangerous mission, namely to help smuggle Dima and his family away from the Russian mafia, out of the Continent, to safety here in Blighty?

Perry returns to Gail’s flat and puts the proposition to her. She thinks of Dima’s girls. She thinks of the beautiful Natasha. She says yes.

Conspiracy at the highest levels

Dima has insisted that Gail and Perry rendezvous with him in a box to watch the French Open Tennis championship at the Roland-Garros stadium in Paris on June 7. So the team must be in place by then.

Hector meets with his boss, Matlock and plays him Dima’s tape, which contains hot information about the far-reaching criminal activities of the seven brotherhoods, some of which include British officials.

Then, a whole new arena in our understanding of the situation opens up, with the screening of video footage taken by British security agents of a party held aboard a luxury yacht given by ‘the Prince’ and featuring a rogues gallery of crooks AND a senior figure in the British Opposition (ie Labour) party, who happens to be charged with overseeing banking reform and regulation, AND Aubrey Longrigg, Matlock’s predecessor as senior executive in MI6 itself!

Once again in a le Carré late fiction, Britain’s darkest enemy seems to be inside the ranks of its own ‘Establishment’: as in The Night Manager where the evil arms smuggler was shown to have supporters within the security services, as in The Mission Song where an illegal African coup was mounted with the help of ‘elements’ of the British security services.

Same here. Hector is playing a ‘dangerous’ game by trying to secure Dima’s defection, since the Russian’s confession will implicate some very influential people indeed, people who will pull every string to make the mission fail or to silence Dima.

The plan

While these high-level machinations trundle on, Gail and Perry undergo a detailed preparation for their role in the great Dima defection, an abbreviated course in spy skills given by Ollie and Luke. (Throughout the book we hear more and more about Luke, about his unhappy marriage and his multiple affairs and indiscretions. He is quickly ‘little Luke’ and moves on to being described as ‘randy little Luke’, not least because he rather too overtly fancies Gail, another string in her bow of permanent irritation.)

Gail and Perry are flown to Paris, put up at a hotel and the next day, as arranged, accidentally-on-purpose, bump into Dima in one of the shopping malls outside the Roland-Garros stadium.

Dima is accompanied by a large group of Russian mafiosi, including the Prince himself, and a number of western courtiers, including the over-the-top ‘queen’, Bunny Popham, the sinister Italian fixer, Dell Oro, and a former Royal Navy officer, de Salis, now PR man for the Prince in the City of London.

Dima is being kept under the beady watch of sundry heavies but gaily invites Gail and Perry to join him in their luxury box for the big game featuring Roger Federer (since all the best Society events nowadays have special boxes for the Russian mafia).

Out of all these courtesies and invitations, it is somehow agreed that Dima and ‘the Professor’ will play a little amateur match (after everyone has enjoyed the big one with Federer) on one of the small, private courts. It is pouring down with rain, but they decide to proceed anyway and the group of criminal VIPs, their hookers and hangers-on, as well as the armed hoods watching his every move, don’t seem to find this suspicious.

But in fact this match is an elaborate excuse for Dima to go with Perry down to a subterranean ‘massage room’ where Hector is waiting – to introduce himself to Dima, and ask him vital questions about the timing of his signing over of his fiduciary powers, to explain how they’re planning to snatch him, to quiz him about his family who are still back in Switzerland and how they will be brought to safety.

Hector and Dima shake hands on the deal, then Dima and Perry sally out to play their rather silly game of tennis in the rain. Once it’s over, both players return to the ‘massage room’, where Hector and Dima make final arrangements – before both players return, showered and changed, to the hoods drinking champagne in their box.

The snatch

Next day our team are in place – as in an episode of Mission Impossible – at the Bellevue Palace Hotel, which is where the Russian contingent is staying.

Luke is in the lobby, posing as an innocent bystander tapping away on his laptop. When Dima comes downstairs with the Prince and other heavies he asks to go for a pee in what happens to be the downstairs toilet. Down he goes, followed by Luke, who none of the Russkies know or suspect. As they turn a corner and are hidden from view of the mafia, in one fell swoop Luke clobbers one of Dima’s two minders with his laptop, while Dima turns, punches and savagely kicks the other one to the ground.

They flee out the back door – carefully unlocked in advance – jump into the car stashed in a nearby car park, roar out onto the street and are well on their way to the remote Alpine village of Wenden, before the Russkies realise anything is wrong.

Collecting the family

Meanwhile, Gail and Perry have been driven by Ollie, in a horsebox as a disguise, to Berne, where Dima has told us his family are staying. Here they hurriedly load up Tamara, the boys et al. Except that the beautiful teen Natasha is not there! That morning she had asked her bodyguard, Igor, to drive her to the station. Gail – who had formed a close bond with Natasha on the beach and then carried on exchanging messages by text and phone – volunteers to track the teenager down and bring her to the safe house.

Reluctantly, Perry and Ollie leave her and drive the rest of the family direct to the house in Wenden. What Gail knows that none of the others do – because they’ve discussed it in text messages – is that Natasha is pregnant by her ski instructor, Max. Gail knows the ski resort where Max lives and has a shrewd idea that’s where Natasha has gone.

After taking the train there, Gail asks around and quickly finds the house of the dashing instructor, and there finds a miserable Natasha cowering on the sofa. She has discovered that her Alpine Adonis is in fact married with a child of his own and is being offered tea by his kindly wife, all unawares of the situation. Ah. Teenage love. Gail gently removes Natasha and transports her via a series of trains towards the safe house and to the rendezvous with the main party.

Tension

Now that the 250 pages of meetings and interviews are over, and that something is actually happening, these last forty pages of the novel become genuinely tense. For a start the various cars driven by Ollie et al – and Gail and Natasha on their train – seem to be stopped and asked for their tickets or their passes or their car permits, more than is strictly necessary.

They become convinced that some kind of alert is out for them, even though no law has been broken. The text powerfully conveys the strong suspicion that the Swiss authorities have been tipped off by – might even be collaborating with – the Russian mafia. At each stopping, as the police kick the tyres and ask for the boot to be opened and then stare at them for a long time as they drive off, JLC very effectively builds up the tension and the certainty in the reader’s mind that one or all of them will be arrested, assassinated, blown up – that something terrible is going to happen.

Delay

Gail, Perry, Luke, Ollie, Dima and his family are now all holed up in a remote Swiss chalet awaiting the signal for them to be shipped to England. And wait. And wait.

Because the running thread through the book describing Hector’s struggles with his superiors – with his boss Matlock, and the people above him, and also the baleful influence of Longrigg and other shadowy figures – now comes to the fore.

Hector phones the team from London, bitterly reporting delays, with the Home Office, passport, immigration, HMRC, all putting blockers in the way. Meanwhile, the hours turn into days, day after day, of tense waiting and diminishing hope for Dima, his family and the team.

In their conversations, JLC is at pains to bring out the theme of all his post-Cold War fiction, that the Enemy Within, the greed and corruption inside the so-called ‘Establishment’, which infects the higher reaches of British society – Parliament, the banks, corporate lawyers, multinational corporations – is at least as bad as the Enemy Outside, terrorism or international crime.

Thus it is strongly implied that a cohort of 40 or so MPs, a number of buyable Lords, the Financial Services Authority, parts of the Press guided by PR consultants, have all been bought and paid for by the Russian mafia. As one character puts it, at a period of crippling credit crunch, any money – even Russian mafia money – is good, especially if it comes in billions.

Eventually, Hector tells Luke and Perry that he’s got conditional approval to fly Dima to London and that, if Dima’s information satisfies the security services and other stakeholders, then the family can follow.

Perry accompanies Luke and Dima to the tiny private airport at Belp, near the safe house, and there are last hugs and handshakes. He notes that Dima seems a shrunk, lost man, having abandoned hope over these last soul-sapping days.

Fin

Dima and ‘randy little Luke’ board the plane and Perry watches it take off, bank and then blow up. BOOM. The flaming fragments falling to the snowy earth. That’s the end. There’s a page giving an impartial record of the ‘official enquiries’ held into the ‘incident’ which speculate about ‘instrument failure’ or ‘pilot error’. Oh well. Nothing at all about Perry or Gail or Ollie or Yvonne or the rest of Dima’s family or Hector.

Just a cold bleak end.


Reader response

So a high-level Russian mafiosi is murdered. Do I care? Nope. Will Gail and Perry go back to their normal lives, sadder and wiser? Yes. Will Hector the maverick’s career be damaged, maybe finished? Probably, but he is ‘an ailing old fart’, anyway. Is it sad to see ‘randy little Luke’ blown to pieces? Yes, but he was as tiresome as all the other characters.

In fact, the only people I felt anything for were the two unnamed pilots of the plane who were, presumably, totally innocent of any involvement in anything and are the most genuine victims of the whole book.

Am I scared or concerned that ‘senior figures’ in the Establishment are somehow ‘in cahoots’ with possibly criminal elements of the Russian mafia? Once I’ve put the book down and the sense of fear generated by the clever writing towards the end has faded away – No. I can well imagine MPs and Lords working as consultants for companies which are ‘fronts’ for dubious activities – they’ve done that for centuries.

All of us know that our banks have been involved in countless criminal activities, from selling us PPI to laundering drug money – so no surprises there. Do I believe that the British Security Services engage in illegal and criminal activities? Well, we know they bugged and burgled their way across London for decades, and Edward Snowden’s revelations proved the astonishing degree of their surveillance over us, and we’ve known about the US-UK policy of extraordinary rendition for some time.

So, although JLC is outraged at these travesties, he seems to have discovered them a long time after the rest of us. The one claim that stands out from these books, is that some elements of the British Security Services actively conspire against other elements in the same services, to collaborate with international criminals and to quash investigations into their activities. But again, since 9/11 and the decision to invade Iraq, it’s become common knowledge that different security organisations don’t talk to each other, withhold information, are poorly co-ordinated, and so on. That this sometimes crosses the line into actively criminal behaviour would require more proof than a novel.

No matter how serious, complicated and well-documented many of these issues are, in imaginative terms, I’d say these books fail to convince you because – whatever the facts of the matter – the style of these novels all too often makes the characters seem absurd.


Style

This is because every aspect of the style is overblown.

Legendary characters

From the get-go the characters are ‘legendary’, ‘fabled’, ‘famous’, much talked-about, the subject of the ubiquitous ‘gossips’ and ‘rumour mills’, with sets of ‘watchers’ devoted to monitoring their every move, as if they are film stars or celebrities.

Where are they legendary? In the world they move in? Or in the author’s mind, where he creates theatres of overacting?

  • … Perry says, parading his fabled powers of recall. (p.35)
  • Perry on guard over his celebrated memory. (p.47)
  • He was renowned for his ability to quote tracts of English literature on the strength of a single read. (p.58)
  • His surprise had been all the greater therefore when a month into his sentence he lifted the phone that hardly ever rang to hear himself being summoned by Hector Meredith to lunch with him forthwith at his famously dowdy London club (p.123). ‘Forthwith’?
  • Was it because Longrigg and Matlock had for years been famously at daggers drawn? (p.163)
  • Hector’s fabled nerve (p.152)
  • a view of the fabled Lauterbrunnen Valley (p.276)

The ringmaster presents!

The narrative introduces characters with the facetious over-ripeness of a circus ringmaster – the eminent this, the legendary that, introducing for your deelight and deelectation none other than the one and only, world famous Mr Mafia Himself!!!! Or, as Dima’s become by page 277:

The world’s number-one money-launderer.

The circus master idea is made explicit late in the novel, when the text refers to ‘Giles de Salis, ringmaster of the media circus’ (p.282). Is le Carré consciously parodying this bombastic manner? Why? It’s one of the many ways in which there is no subtlety or nuance in these late novels. Everyone is performing grand, larger-than-life roles.

Another aspect is the way all the characters accumulate a large number of descriptors:

Perry the English tutor (p. 35) Perry as capsule historian (p.109) Perry the puritan (p.48) Perry the climber of north face overhangs (p.54) Perry the devoted mountaineer (p.299)

Gail the actress’s daughter, Gail the barrister (p.184) the immaculate Gail (p.94)

Little Luke, randy little Luke, Luke the conciliator, adept little Luke, dapper Luke, little B-list Luke, Luke the habitual worrier (p.276), Luke the good man on a rope (p.304)

Mocking sobriquets

Giving all the characters facetious tags is very double-edged. Sometimes the tone is one of reckless over-promotion; but at least as often it smacks of public school mockery. The tags which attach themselves like limpets to the characters, are often mocking, knowing, superior, dismissive.

  • Nine p.m. approx. Supper arrives, wheeled in not by any old room-service waiter, but the venerable Ambrose himself. (p.32)
  • ‘This very fine bottle of champagne comes to you folk courtesy of the one and only Mr Dima himself.’ (p.32)
  • the hallowed archives (p.140)
  • Yvonne, our Iron Maiden (p.138)

These larky adjectives don’t help the plot at all. Maybe they’re intended to add depth to the characters but they do the opposite, turning all of them into caricatures:

  • Deft little Luke papering over the gaps (p.38)
  • Genial Ollie the driver (p.40)
  • Little Luke ever the conciliator (p.49)
  • Perry the innocent (p.146)

Two of the Prince’s entourage are never named but Gail immediately makes up nicknames for them – Peter and the Wolf – which everyone agrees are jolly apt, and that’s how they’re referred to for the rest of the book. Similarly, one of Dima’s minders is a lean lanky man and Gail nicknames him ‘the cadaverous philosopher’, which is how he’s referred to for the rest of the book.

Everyone is infected with the same kind of facetious public school banter. For example, Hector is referred to as the team’s ‘supreme leader’ (p.85), the head of HR is referred to as ‘the queen of Human Resources’ (p.124).

Because Gail is not going to be available for work during ‘the mission’, she texts her chambers to get a colleague to cover for her. The colleague is named Helga, but these facts aren’t enough for the narrative, which immediately caricatures her:

Helga her bête noire? Man-eating Helga of the fishnet stockings who played the Chambers’ male silks like a lyre. (p.214)

JLC doesn’t just show his characters – he is continually poking you in the chest, nudging your elbow and crowding you into accepting his caricature estimation of them. And I intensely dislike being bullied by a book, instead of being allowed to judge and work out for myself. It is condescending. It insults the reader’s intelligence to be continually nudged and reminded that Luke is little or randy, that Yvonne is stern, that Gail is immaculate, and so on and on and on and on.

Italics

The overblown effect of the characters is reinforced by the liberal use of italics to emphasise random parts of the characters’ dialogue.

  • Perry wasn’t signing when he signed the form, he was joining. (p.34)
  • ‘After picking her way delicately over the sand for all eyes to see, she then settles herself languidly under the furthest sunshade of the row and begins her terribly serious reading. Right, Perry?’ (p.35)
  • ‘Her whole body was like a warning sign in black and red. Forget Dima, I thought. This is really something. And of course I was still wondering what her problem was. Because boy, did she have one.’ (p.57)

There are scads of italics on every page, which so often emphasise trivial and insignificant details that they not only become dreadfully wearing to read, but eventually teach the reader to ignore half the things the characters are saying.

Public school tags

Adding to the tone of heavy-handed public school facetiousness, the text is sprinkled with tags from the Bible or popular classics, knowing references to clichés from hymns or the Bible or Shakespeare.

  • The Lord is in his heaven (p.122)
  • in heaven or on earth (p.139)
  • ‘our green and pleasant land’ (p.119)

It is a recurrent habit for the most pompous characters to add ‘Amen’ to the end of any grand or definitive sentence.

Humour

Similarly, the text tries to bully you into thinking things are funny when they aren’t. Every one of these later novels has a scene where protagonists discourse in a restaurant or lecture room or bar to an audience which falls about ‘hooting’ with laughter, who interrupt the speech with gales of hysterical mirth, who explode with laughter – when nothing funny has actually been said.

  • [Dima] ‘You know Jack London? Number one English writer?’ [Perry] ‘Not personally.’ It was a joke. (p.23)
  • [Niki the driver] ‘To cut undergrowth you got to have big knife.’.. ‘I wish we had, Niki,’ Gail cries, still in her father’s skin. ‘I’m afraid we English never carry knives.’ What gibberish am I talking? Never mind. Talk it. ‘Well, some of us do, to be truthful, but not people like us. We’re the wrong social class. You’ve heard about our class system? Well, in England you only carry a knife if you’re lower-middle or below!’ And more hoots of laughter.. (p.74) Hoots.
  • ‘Is this the Men’s Singles Final or the Battle of Borodino?’ [Dima] shouts gaily, pointing at Napoleon’s troops. She makes him say it again, lets out a hoot of laughter, and squeezes his hand. (p.197) Hoot
  • ‘Do I sound like a scoutmaster?’ ‘I’ll say you do,’ said Perry… ‘Good,’ said Hector complacently to jolly laughter (p.209) I’ll say
  • Dell Oro was asking Bunny Popham whether it was too early for champagne and Bunny was saying it depended on the vintage. Everyone exploded with laughter (p.220) Exploded
  • Bunny Popham, queen of the roost, is addressing the unwashed. ‘Our brave gladiators have finally agreed to grace us with their presence. Let us all immediately adjourn to the Arena!’ A patter of knowing laughter for Arena. ‘There are no lions today, apart from Dima. No Christians either, unless the Professor is one, which I can’t vouch for.’ More laughter. (p.227)

Humour is difficult in a novel, but this novel’s consistent promising of humour and consistent failure to deliver it, adds to the sense of untrustworthy over-reaching, of a book which says it is a subtle indictment of corruption at the highest levels, but feels like a collection of posh caricatures swearing and doing funny voices.

Dated

The characters either sound like 1950s servants or 1950s debutantes.

  • [Gail] ‘And I mean honestly, try buying decent wrapping paper in St John’s, Antigua.’ (p.51)
  • If they had been looking for adventure, the Nature Path alone would have provided it. They must have been the first people to use if for simply years. (p.52) Simply years.

Dixon of Dock Green servility:

  • ‘All the same,’ said Luke, ‘If you don’t mind, sir.’ (p.58)
  • ‘And you an experienced lawyer, if I may say so.’ (p.60)

Posh

JLC emphasises that the two lead characters went to State school (golly, the daring). But in imaginative terms they are just the same upper-class, pukka characters as swan around all his late novels. Gail has a nice flat in Primrose Hill, her brother likes shooting pheasants in the country with his rich friends, she talks about her and Perry’s ‘Brideshead look’, how good he looks in flannels, and says ‘daahhling’ as liberally as Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. The text is more at home with Luke who went to Eton (are there any other schools, darling?) and his wife, the French aristocrat. She’s the one who gives the MI6 building at Vauxhall the terrifically funny nickname of La Lubyanka sur Tamise (p.141), the Lubyanka on the Thames. It’s so terrifically funny because it’s in French, you see.

The fact that Perry’s an Oxford don doesn’t shed much light on teaching English at Oxford, but it does mean that:

a) he is comfortable in JLC’s own posh, pukka, upper-class milieu, and so can confidently discuss Dima’s unrealistic request to get his children into Eton and Roedean schools
b) his supposedly ‘flawless’, academic memory is a naked authorly contrivance which enables him to repeat vast stretches of his initial conversations with Dima to Hector verbatim, allowing the scene to be told in the book’s long opening flashback
c) it allows all the characters to refer to him, in typical cartoon style, as ‘the Professor’, and for the narrative to make plays on his profession: thus Hector jokes that Perry’s written account of the meeting with Dima is an ‘alpha plus’ essay, Hector refers to his retelling of events as his ‘recitation’ and ‘lecture’, his interview is referred to as his ‘viva voce‘ and so – leadenly – on.

Conclusion

All these elements, taken together, amount to a tone of permanent overemphasis and exaggeration which can accurately be described as ‘bombast’ – defined as ‘speech or writing that is meant to sound important or impressive but is not sincere or meaningful’.

The sustained use of sarcasm and facetiousness, the shouty italics and the overselling of every character, the use of swearing and bluster where there should be thought or analysis, all give the impression that someone is shouting at you for hours on end. It becomes very wearing and dulls any interest in the storyline which – once abstracted from the bombastic style and improbable dialogue – is actually quite gripping.

You can see why a lot of these later novels have been successfully turned into TV dramatisations or movies. By changing medium you at a stroke remove the intolerably mannered style; all you have to do then is completely rewrite all the dialogue, as if it’s spoken by real people living in the 21st century – and the resulting storylines emerge as very compelling.

My little pony

Almost all John le Carré’s post-Cold War novels contain a my-little-pony moment, where a lead character reveals their ineluctably upper-class childhood with a sentimental reminiscence about the little pony their parents bought them. The reference in  this novel is shorter than usual, but still works as a marker, indicating the pukka nature of Gail’s character and – by extension – of the text as a whole.

Early on in the story Gail is on the beach with Dima’s extended family, supervised by an older man who Gail has, of course, given a nickname – in this case ‘Uncle Vanya’ after the Chekhov play:

Uncle Vanya from Perm is up his ladder with the family-sized pistol in his belt and Natasha – whose name is a challenge to Gail every time she approaches it; she has to gather herself together and make a clean jump of it like horse-riding at school – Natasha is lying the other end of the beach in splendid isolation. (p.41)

‘Like horse-riding at school’.

The subject matter of this novel is very 2010, with its vision of a crime-infested Russia whose money has reached out to corrupt western banks and politicians and even the security services.

But the style and the text itself keep reverting to a jolly hockeysticks mentality and prep school phraseology which are more reminiscent of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers novels, with added swearwords.


Credit

Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré was published in 2010 by Viking books. All quotes are from the 2011 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

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
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 –

A Most Wanted Man by John le Carré (2008)

Le Carré’s default prose setting is pompous, preening, self-dramatising grandiosity, heavy-handed jocosity, leaden jokes and facetious 1950s dialogue. These traits are to the fore in this novel the character of Tommy Brue, owner of Brue Frères, a private bank in Hamburg. Like other JLC leading men, Tommy is in thrall to the memory of his ‘legendary’ father, the bank’s founder, remembered via the old boy’s embarrassingly bad quotes and dimwit aperçus, which I assume we’re meant to take seriously.

‘Tommy, my son, arithmetic is the one part of our business that doesn’t lie.’ (p.27)

Really? In banking? Who knew?

‘Never trust a beautiful woman, Tommy. They’re a criminal class, the best there is.’ (p.42)

Rather than a suave banker, Brue père, like so many JLC characters, sounds like a 1950s spiv. And his lumpen, unfunny humour has, alas, rubbed off on his son.

It wasn’t bull markets, bear markets, hedge funds or derivatives. It was cock-up. It was the persistent, he would go so far as to say the permanent sound, not to put too fine an edge on it, of excrement hitting your proverbial fan. (p.30)

The text all too often presents this kind of elaborate facetiousness as howlingly funny, whereas it makes large stretches of le Carré’s later novels almost unreadable.

Another JLC technique / vice is to describe or build up a character by inventing an imaginary chorus of colleagues, fellow worker and associates to comment on him – the rumour mill, the office gossips, fans, devotees, the so-and-so-watchers – who are then made to comment and elaborate on the characters, as if they are pop stars or celebrities, topics of continual observation and amazement.

[Bachmann] cooled his heels after fathering a near-epic scandal of which only the sketchiest outlines had ever reached the gossip mill: excessive zeal, said the rumours… (p.58)

According to rumour they had given sex a try and declared it a disaster area. (p.67)

Related to the technique of making characters the centre of worlds of rumour, gossip and intrigue, is to describe characters, their qualities or rooms or possessions, as legendary, fabled and generally tremendously well-known.

The outsize mahogany bookcase that filled the whole of one wall was similarly the stuff of family legend… Had [Tommy’s father read all the books it contained?] Legend said not. (p.25)

Big Melik, as he was also known to his admiring neighbourhood… (p.1)

Edward Amadeus OBE had been a legend in his lifetime and was a legend still. (p.186)

What had happened to the rebel in her, to her fabled powers of argument and resistance so valued by her family? (p.244)

In the hands of a legendary woman researcher called Frau Zimmerman… ‘As with decoding, so with invisible transfers, the legendary Frau Zimmerman resumes in her schoolmarm’s South German. (pp.318, 320)

One of the saddest moments in his life had been standing before the bonfire in his garden in Vienna with his first wife Sue on one side of him and Georgie the other, watching the fabled Brue Frères card index go up in smoke. (p.401)

Günther Bachmann was a famous chancer and nothing was ever going to change that. (p.406)

‘A legend in his lifetime.’ Another element in the over-selling of the characters is when they or the narrator (interchangeably) use ‘our’ to refer to them – as if we’ve adopted them, as if we are all part of the same nice snug gang, as if the whole narrative is taking part among members of the sixth form of a pukka public school.

Nobody should be interested in Mr Findlay. Mr Findlay should be relegated to oblivion forthwith and forever, is what should happen to our Mr Findlay,’ she said, adopting a furious nursery-rhyme voice. (p.267)

… where Lisa and Maria, our in-house Arabists, were already sitting… (p.211)

As to our gallant president and managing director… (p.343)

… assigning his grandfather’s chair to Our Esteemed Interpreter… (p.387)

Even more minor characters, who don’t happen to be legends in their lifetimes, still often merit facetious adjectives, indicative of the knowing mockery of superior public school banter.

… followed by an hour talking to his revered solicitor in Glasgow… (p.335)

And yet another way in which the whole tone of these later novels is over the top – over-egging the characters and overselling the action – is its addiction to italics, just to ram home the vehemence of the characters’ feelings and the importance of what they’re saying.

This scattering of italics happens on every single page so that after a while you feel that you’re reading the ravings of a man with the italics version of Tourette’s Syndrome given to utterly random outbursts of inexplicable emphases.

‘I was extremely young,’ she reported, in a tone of unsparing self-diagnosis. ‘Younger than my years by far, remember. If I compare myself with modern youth, I was a total infant. I came of a poor family, and had no experience of the larger world whatever.’ (p.261)

Scores of times, on every page. Becomes very irritating.

The plot

Issa

Issa is a Chechen refugee: he has escaped from Russia to Turkey, getting beaten and tortured along the way, before being traded across Europe into Copenhagen, and then by container lorry to Hamburg where the novel is set.

Issa follows, then imposes himself on Big Melik, a Turkish weight-lifter, boxer, footballer, and his kindly mother, Leyla, who are both hoping to claim citizenship in Germany. Out of pure good Muslim kindness, they put him up and contact the refugee charity, Sanctuary North, and its attractive young refugee lawyer, Annabel Richter. Annabel visits to interview Issa, who is obscurely convinced that the British banker Tommy Brue, who runs a small private bank in Hamburg, can somehow help him.

It turns out that Issa’s father was a Russian Red Army colonel who commanded some of the forces which went on the rampage during that country’s wars with tiny Chechnya. Obviously the Russians raped and killed lots of Chechens – their standard modus operandi – but after the colonel raped Issa’s mother (aged just 15), he kept her round long enough for her to show that she was pregnant, and then to bear the colonel a baby boy.

Issa’s mother was then murdered by her own family, who infiltrated a brother into the enemy camp who killed her for shaming the family. Somehow the baby Issa survived all this and was brought back to Russia by the colonel. What I couldn’t figure out was how a baby brought up by a Red Army general turns into a fanatically devout Muslim, committed to saying his prayers five times a day, carrying a locket of the Koran on his wrist, and insisting nobody need help him because Allah will provide.

After the colonel’s death, Issa fell foul of the Russian authorities but escaped to Turkey, was again imprisoned and still bears the scars of his beatings and torture. But he was helped to escape by the colonel’s old fixer, Anatoly, ‘a fixer extraordinaire and straightener of everything’ (p.259), who gives him cash and also – crucially to the whole plot – a scrap of paper with details of the colonel’s German bank account.

The bank of Brue Frères

It is this which has brought Issa to Hamburg and prompts him to ask Annabel to find for him the banker Tommy Brue. For it was with Tommy’s legendary father that the legendary colonel made his legendary agreement. Back in the 1980s, Colonel Grigori Karpov (p.258) was recruited by British Intelligence and began passing secrets to our side. We paid him for his ‘product’, and put the money into a safe account with the discreet and obscure private bank of Brue Frères. Run by Brits. Trustworthy chaps.

So a Soviet colonel was an agent for MI6. We paid his fee into a private British bank. He had a natural child by a Chechen girl who somehow got brought up as a hyper-devout Muslim. Who has now travelled across Europe to claim his father’s fortune. OK.

Günter Bachmann

Günter Bachmann works for the Foreign Acquisitions Unit of Hamburg’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution i.e. their secret service, which is soon informed of Issa’s arrival and that he making interesting enquiries. (Right from the start it is made clear that Germany has a number of security forces which all compete with each other, squabbling and fighting for resources, with final decisions being taken by a senior committee of bureaucrats in Berlin.)

Bachmann is, of course, like so many JLC protagonists, a maverick. He is the subject of a busy ‘rumour mill’, the target of excitablee ‘gossip’, there are apparently countless Bachmann-watchers, he is a legend in the service. And so on.

In a really bizarre scene, we see Bachmann giving a speech to his staff about the history and function of German’s security services in the aftermath of 9/11. Puzzling,y, we are told he gives this speech to the staff so regularly that it has acquired a nickname: with characteristic leaden humour we are told that it is ‘inevitably’ known as Bachmann’s Cantata. Because Bachmann sounds like Bach, you see. Bach Cantata. Bachmann Cantata. Hilarious, no?

But why does he have to give the same speech at regular intervals to his staff? So frequently that it has acquired a nickname? Are they particularly forgetful secret agents?

Bachmann’s Cantata consists of him hopping from one leg to the other, mimicking the voices of idiot politicians or the press, running the length of the meeting room to pop up behind people, appearing in different parts of the room to carry on hopping and doing funny voices, as he mimics and enacts various conflicting points of view about post-9/11 security issues in Europe.

This extraordinary and bizarre scene is, I think, meant to depict Bachmann as somehow funny, a wit, a diamond geezer, a legend in his lifetime. But it actually makes him come over as a half-wit and, like so many other aspects of the novel’s style and dialogue, completely undermines its claims to seriousness.

‘Okay, we all know the bad joke: you can’t buy an Arab, but you can rent one. We couldn’t even rent one, for fuck’s sake! With a couple of noble exceptions I won’t bore you with, we had shit for live sources then. And we have shit for live sources now… Oh sure, we had any number of gallant German journalists and businessmen on our payroll.. But they’re not live sources. They’re not venal, disenchanted, radical imams, or Islamist kids halfway to the bomb belt. They’re not Osama’s sleepers, or his talent-spotters, or his couriers, or his quartermasters or paymasters, not even at fifty removes. They’re just nice dinner guests.’
He waited till the laughter had subsided. (p.71)

JLC assures us that this entire humourless rant is punctuated by howls of laughter from Bachmann’s adoring audience, as if he’s Lenny Henry Live at the Apollo. But JLC’s inability to judge what is genuinely funny and what he is merely telling us is funny, further undermines any authority the author has with us, further distances us from this peculiar, contrived text.

The majority of the later novels suffer from the further flaw that, at the key moment where there should be insightful analysis of the historical and geopolitical setting of the fiction, when you expect one or more of the less ludicrous characters to give a half-decent summary of the geopolitical issues which JLC obviously cares about so passionately – what you generally get is sweary ranting by a blustering buffoon. This novel is no exception. When I read ‘Bachmann’s Cantata’ to my son (18) he said it sounded like a talent contest in a lunatic asylum.

The general upshot is that Bachmann and his assistant Frey (now I would have laughed if she’d been called Robin) begin hatching a plan to keep tabs on Issa. Maybe they could ‘recruit’ him as a ‘source’ for the service, eyes and ears in Hamburg’s Muslim community.

Recap

To recap the characters so far: the German spymaster comes across as an imbecile, his assistant Erna Frey as a permanently sarcastic chorus, the English banker a pompous prat, the Chechen-Muslim hero as the Lost Child in a fairy tale, Big Melik a lumbering idiot, the narrator an orotund windbag.

It’s such an odd melange of contemporary setting with fairy tale plot and ludicrous characters that I shouldn’t have been surprised when the posh charity lawyer, Annabel, with wild improbability, decides to throw all her professional standards to the wind and fall in love with the skinny refugee man-child:

She must have known a moment would come – a client would come – that would cause her to abandon every professional and legal principle she had ever reluctantly embraced. (p.155)

Maybe this is meant to be serious and not as laughable as I, personally, found it.

The wider conspiracy

Meanwhile, the legendary maverick Bachmann is revealed to be even more of an idiot than he first appears, when he is paid a visit by the head of Hamburg Station, who reveals that the wider organisation has been keeping tabs on Issa for weeks, with informers at the local mosque, taped phone conversations, spotters watching his every move and so on.

In other words, the imbecile Bachmann – who works, remember, in the intelligence service – doesn’t even have a clue what’s happening in his own wider organisation. But still – very good at hopping from one leg to the other and doing funny voices to his staff who roll around the floor emitting hoots of laughter. That’s what counts.

MI6

But it’s not only Bachmann who finds himself outflanked. Brue is surprised to be visited by two dodgy Brits who identify themselves as Foreman and Lantern from the local branch of MI6. They knew his father; they know about Karpov; they’re here to question him about Issa.

Are these, finally, the reader hopes, going to be characters we can believe in? No. They are afflicted with the same facetious, lumbering style as all the other people in the book. For example, Foreman doesn’t refer to Lantern as his assistant or partner, but his ‘partner in crime’. Oh dear. The same jaunty banter that all the other characters us. Thus Lantern’s opening sentence is:

‘It’s a privilege to meet you, Tommy, and that’s a fact.’ (p.187)

Does anyone talk like that in 2016? These two jolly cards didn’t just know Tommy’s dad – they knew his ‘revered late father’ (p.191). They needed a quiet bank into which to pay the rewards to the old colonel, bless his cotton socks, which they started to do when Brue Frères was based in ‘dear old Vienna’.

‘I would have to consult my chief cashier. Lipizzaners are something of a world apart at Freres,’ he said. ‘That was how my father wished it to be.’
‘You’re telling me he did!’ Foreman exclaimed. ‘Your proverbial grave was a bloody chatterbox where E.A. was concerned! Exactly what I said to Ian here before you showed up. Didn’t I, Ian?’
‘His words, Tommy. Literally,’ said little Lantern with his pretty smile. (p.199)

They sound like they come from a starchy, British 1950s black-and-white crime movie. Much of the dialogue sounds like an Ealing comedy, with unnervingly random emphases dropped in along the way, all dished up with a liberal sprinkling of modern swearwords. Dixon of Dock Green might walk in at any moment, saying ‘Evening all, his words literally, Ian, that’s what he said to  me, and that’s a fact, me old matey.’

If Annabel – scion of a whole family of upper-class lawyers, father a judge, mother a judge and so on – falls in love with skinny, poverty-stricken wretch of the earth, Issa – then with equally gruesome inevitability, posh Tommy (unhappily married, a timid 60 year-old, but recipient of a jolly good public school education) falls hopelessly in love with lovely Annabel.

Presumably, for some readers, it is this ‘characterisation’ which lifts JLC out of the spy genre and makes his books contenders to be ‘serious fiction’. For me, though, it’s the exact opposite: Lthese grotesquely posh caricatures form the 1950s are precisely what undermines his later novels, makes them read like predictable cartoons.

Annabel’s flat

Annabel takes Issa to her flat to pack some stuff and then on to her other flat (it’s soo handy coming from a wealthy family) bought with a windfall from a recently dead relative. After all, the author has to park Issa somewhere and if he and Annabel shared the same flat that would create unwanted sexual frisson. For Issa is portrayed as so devout that he won’t touch, or even stand near, a woman.

This second hidden flat is down by the harbour and being done up by decorators. Here Issa hides out and Annabel comes to visit him daily and hear anecdotes about the different countries he’s been tortured in. She listens to him reciting heroic Chechen poetry and falls in love with him, like all wealthy civil liberties lawyers fall in love with all their poor sexist Muslim clients.

For his part, Issa confidently tells Annabel she will soon convert to Islam, at which point he will marry her and she will bear him many children. Some women dislike having the door held open for them because it’s patronising. Others appear to fall in love with beaten-up refugees who threateningly promise they will turn them into religiously indoctrinated baby machines. Each to their own.

German security intervenes

German agents visit Annabel at the refugee centre and question her hard in front of her boss, Ursula, though she’s tough enough to refuse to say where Issa is being hidden. She then goes to great lengths to get her beloved brother, Hugo the psychiatrist, to sign Issa into a private clinic in the country (her money will pay – wealthy family). But when she tells Issa this is what she’s arranged – to smuggle him out to this safe clinic – Issa refuses to go. With irritating rectitude, he tells her Allah will provide for his future. Cycling back from this last visit, she is kidnapped off the streets by German security.

Carried to a safe house, Annabel is slowly and steadily intimidated into playing along with German Intelligence, and forced to agree to their plan. It’s for his own good, they assure her. JLC describes the detail of her ‘interrogation’ in minute detail. This process, the process of how an interrogator slowly and carefully inveigles their way into the mind of the interviewee, has always been at the core of JLC’s novels, so it comes as no surprise to learn from his biography that it was in fact the function he himself performed when he worked for the security service in the 1950s.

The psychological to and fro of an interrogator trying to win over an informer, and the surprising revelations and confessions the informer can eventually be coaxed into making, obviously impress him 50 years later, and something of the fervour and precision and excitement of the experience comes over in these scenes.

Frau Ellenberger

Meanwhile, Bachmann goes and ‘interviews’ i.e. questions in depth, Tommy’s ancient secretary, Frau Ellenberger. He discovers

a) She had an affair with Tommy’s dad, although he was married – goodness, what a surprise – young impressionable secretary having an affair with much older, filthy rich employer, my word.
b) She disapproved of the Lipizzaner i.e. black, criminal accounts
c) She speaks in random italics like all the other characters in the book
d) Rather than retell the gist or summary of the conversations she’s recalling, she insists on impersonating the voices of all those involved, in wildly improbable detail, and thus comes across as nearly as much of an idiot as Bachmann, with the absurd impersonations and impressions of his legendary Cantata.

MI6 lean on Tommy

Then MI6’s man Lantern returns to visit Tommy Brue, making it clear that the service is very unhappy that Tommy wasn’t candid with them about the old colonel’s account or the presence of the colonel’s illegitimate son during their first conversation, and extra unhappy that he and Foreman had to learn about it from German security. ‘Embarrassing, old man.’

Lantern makes Tommy sign the Official Secrets Act with its various draconian clauses, accompanied by dire threats about what will happen to him, and his bank, for aiding and abetting terrorists. For everyone is now talking about Issa as if he is a certified terrorist, each of the security people accepting each others’ valuation of him as a dangerous radical, and tending to up the anti and increase their collective paranoia. Issa has even been given a codename, FELIX, and the conspiracy to incriminate and arrest him is now called Operation Felix.

Now they know where Annabel’s hidden him, Bachmann and his assistant Erna Frey set up base in the apartment below, and brief Annabel before and after every visit she makes about what to tell the boy. As in a lot of JLC novels – for example, the first hundred pages or so of Our Kind of Traitor – it becomes a question of her acting a part under the guidance of security service minders, who go on to analyse every word and inflection of every exchange she has with Issa, in mind-bogglingly minute detail. Either this is psychologically compelling – or very boring, depending on your taste.

Enter the CIA

At this point we are witness to a high-level conference of German security chiefs to discuss what they’re going to do with the man they have now all convinced themselves is a dangerous terrorist. To Bachmann’s dismay, a CIA agent he knows from his time in Beirut is also present. Mr CIA is introduced by the narrator as if by a circus ringmaster:

And sidling after Martha and so close on her heels that he could have been using her bulk for cover, none other than six-foot-something Newton, alias Newt, one-time deputy chief of operations at the US Embassy in Beirut. (p.306)

‘None other than…’ Are we meant to applaud?

Like all the other characters, Newt’s dialogue is sprinkled with random emphases and aggressive swearing.

‘Holy shit, Gunther, I last saw you stretched out in the bar of the Commodore! What the fuck are you doing in Hamburg, man!’ (p.306)

Probably designed to be a satire on a certain type of brash virile Yank, this characterisation is just tiresome.

Entrapping Dr Abdullah

At the meeting it becomes apparent that the assembled security agencies want Issa to a) cash in his legacy b) contact a certain Dr Abdullah, a pillar of the moderate Muslim community in Hamburg and organiser of many charities c) so that they can entrap Abdullah for receiving money from a ‘known terrorist’. So Issa and Abdullah are going to be entrapped.

Bachmann is assured by his bosses that he can then pick up Abdullah and take him to a safe house, there to recruit him as a uniquely well-placed source embedded in the Hamburg Muslim community. OK. He is mollified. He hardly does any hopping fro one leg to another. And hardly any funny voices.

As with all late JLC it is made very clear that the western security services are far more dangerous than any terrorists: it’s western security services who implicate innocent people, arrest them without cause, fly them round the world for torture and indefinite confinement, blackmail and intimidate anyone they feel like. They act above any laws or restraints.

In accordance with the plan, Annabel is tasked by her minders with persuading Issa to meet with Dr Abdullah (now codenamed SIGNPOST) and donate his legacy to the many good Muslim causes which Abdullah manages – while Tommy is sent to meet Abdullah in person and gently introduce him to the idea that a mystery-money-donating stranger wants to give him the biggest bequest of his career. The plummy banker and lawyer have become pawns in the wider intelligence plan. They are entrapping the two good Muslims.

At Abdullah’s institute, Tommy meets his minders and his worthy family, the daughter studying to be a doctor, the honourable and devoted son. Abdullah is a Good Man. When he is told how much he stands to gain – by now we’ve been told that Issa is set to inherit $12.5 million from his dead father’s investments – Dr Abdullah’s face lights up. Oh, all the good and noble charitable causes he will be able to endow!

Never had [Tommy] seen a more radiant picture of innocent rapture than the good doctor now. (p.346)

Still, Abdullah is no fool and Tommy has to work hard to persuade him to accept the tainted money. Abdullah is tentative and hesitant throughout the rest of the book. Issa for his part, explains to Annabel that he has some plausible ‘conditions’ before handing over all his legacy to Dr A. For a start Chechen charities must receive first tranches of the money – and he wants enough to fund his own training as a doctor so he can go back to his country and heal the sick – but the rest is Abdullah’s to dispose of as the wise and good man thinks best.

Brue had demanded of his MI6 minders a) a passport for Issa b) guarantee of no prosecution for Annabel. He meets her at the Atlantic restaurant to show them both and assure her of his good faith. He is hopelessly in love with her. She notices but can’t help. She is hopelessly in love with Issa. The reader notes with relief that there are only 50 or so pages left till the end of the book.

So Annabel goes off to collect the domineering, patriarchal Issa, still working away at converting her to the True Faith so she can start bearing his children. She persuades him – still pretty suspicious – down into the limousine which will take them to the bank. Unbeknown to the two saintly Muslims, the meeting between Abdullah and Issa at the Frères bank is incredibly staked out, with two competing factions of German security and British Intelligence taping it and watching from a van outside.

Big Melik and Leyla

We periodically revert to the characters we met right at the start of the book, the gentle giant Big Melik and his mother Leyla, the Turkish Muslims who were hoping to get German citizenship and were kind enough to take Issa into their home before introducing him to Annabel.

Half way through the book, we had seen Bachmann assure his assistant Erna that Melik and Leyla would be able to fly off to her niece’s wedding in Turkey and then return to Germany where their citizenship application would be supported. Now Bachmann embarrassedly admits that the powers-that-be above him have decreed that Melik and Leyla will be refused return to Germany on the grounds of harbouring a known ‘terrorist’, and in all likelihood imprisoned, and probably tortured, in Turkey.

Erna isn’t impressed. Bachmann’s team aren’t hooting with laughter now at his uproarious antics. His prattish ineptitude is coming home to roost.

Shocking climax

Now Bachmann is disguised as a grumpy taxi driver parked outside the bank. The plan is that Tommy will supervise the transfer of Issa’s funds down in the vault, then ring for a taxi and hey presto Bachmann will appear – fully prepared to whisk an unsuspecting Abdullah off to a safe house where he can set about interrogating him.

Over the closed circuit TV we watch Tommy take Abdullah and Issa and Annabel down into the bowels of the bank, there to open an ancient deposit box and extract the bonds which represent the colonel’s legacy and Issa’s fortune. With a few strokes of the pen the $12.5 million is legally signed over to Issa and Tommy has transferred it into an active account. He and Abdullah then pore over the list of Abdullah’s charities and systematically dispose of the fortune in batches of payments to worthy causes. Allah’s will is done.

Much shaking of hands and congratulatory laughter, as they get their coats and emerge into the gravel drive outside the bank smiling and happy. And here is Bachmann driving the taxi Brue ordered and ready to carry out his plan of whisking off Dr A to a safe house. Abdullah is at the door and about to get into the cab when — there is a screech of brakes and a huge van careers into the back of taxi, with two black Mercedes appearing out of nowhere to block it off at either end of the drive.

Out of the van leap half a dozen big men in balaclavas who seize Issa and Abdullah and throw them into the van, lock the doors and drive off. Bachmann is still dazed, having been thrown against the steering wheel, Annabel is holding the door handle of the van shrieking ‘let him go let him go’ till forced to let go herself, and the van has gone. Wow.

They were all betrayed. Bachmann’s tidy little scheme has been swamped by American heavy-handedness. He limps down the road and round the corner to where he knows his boss, Mohr, is waiting. Mohr, embarrassed, fakes receiving a call on his mobile leaving Bachmann to furiously confront six-foot-something Newt, the CIA man.

And here, on the penultimate page, le Carré lets rip, depicting the American as a brutal war-on-terror monster. (It would be interesting to hear something intelligent at this point but, as usual in these late novels, the key speeches, the vital analysis which underpins the entire plot, consists of blustering, shouting swearing.)

‘Where have you taken him?’ Bachmann asked.
‘Abdullah? Who gives a shit? Some hole in the desert, for all I know. Justice has been rendered, man. We can all go home.
He had spoken these last words in English, but Bachmann in his dazed state failed to get his mind round them.
Rendered?’ he repeated stupidly. ‘What’s rendered? What justice are you talking about?’
American justice, asshole. Whose do you think? Justice from the fucking hip, man. No-crap justice, that kind of justice! Justice with no fucking lawyers around to pervert the course. Have you never heard of extraordinary rendition? Time you Krauts had a word for it.’ (p.415)

So that’s that then. As near as we get to an explanation or analysis. ‘American justice, asshole.’

Thoughts

The Yanks are portrayed as doubly stupid: first for cruelly and unjustly ‘rendering’ two men who have been painted as totally innocent and harmless, but secondly for devastating Bachmann’s much cleverer and more practical plan to recruit Abdullah and have him work as an agent on the inside – giving us a potential lifetime of tip-offs and inside information from the heart of the Muslim community.

On another level, the Americans’ devastation of Bachmann’s plan is in effect a repudiation of the technique of slow, patient interrogation and recruitment, which we know le Carré himself carried out during his time as a security service employee, and which is at the core of so many of his books: think of the many long, patient questionings undertaken by the calm and thoughtful George Smiley. The violent abduction represents a kind of rape of everything JLC thought valuable and insightful about his own intelligence work.

(A tiny extra insult is the way that, standing in the lee of six-foot Newt as he delivers his tirade to the ‘liberal’ Kraut, Bachmann, stands the British Intelligence man, Ian Lantern, repeatedly described as ‘little’, short, and, in these final scenes, depicted as hanging round the tall, virile Yank like a lapdog, a poodle, a bully’s hanger-on. Much, one imagines, as JLC sees his pathetic country under the leadership of ‘Brother Blair’ sucking up to the bully boys of the USA.)

This final speech merely expresses more forcefully the various sarcasms and aspersions which JLC had cast on German and British security, on their supposed ‘standards’ and ‘integrity’, throughout the novel. His contempt for his old employer grows more tangible – and is expressed in fiercer terms – in each of these late novels.

There is, of course, a very strong case to make against America’s use of kidnapping and the illegal transport of prisoners, limitless imprisonment without trial and the use of terrible and illegal torture techniques. A case which is lucidly made by countless pressure groups, charities and journalists (some of which are referenced in the afterword to this book).

And, overall, in summary, the plot is a dramatisation of this kind of lawless abduction. But as well as its plot, a novel is also about its style, about its use of language. And, for me, le Carré’s laboured, heavy-handed, facetious, sarcastic and overblown tone make his later books almost unreadable. And this fatally undermines the undoubted passion and anger he feels for his ideas.

If causes were judged by the anger, passion and sarcasm they arouse, then social media would be an academy of geniuses. But they also carry weight according to the clarity and insight their proponents bring to them. And too often, alas, le Carré brings nothing but sweary bluster and schoolboy sarcasm to what are, undoubtedly, very serious issues which should concern us all.

P.S. My first pony

Early into JLC’s post-Cold War novels I began to notice that every one of them is so unwittingly posh and features such pukka upper-class characters, that they all contain a reference to the characters’ first little pony. Since I noticed this I’ve been on the lookout for each novel’s my-little-pony moment. This one comes when the privileged lawyer Annabel – the one ‘possessed of fabled powers or argument and resistance’ – is reflecting on her ‘relationship’ with Issa.

She was reminded of a pony she had once had. He was called Moritz, and Moritz was a delinquent. He was unbreakable and unrideable. Not a family in Baden-Wittemberg would have him – until Annabel heard about him and, to exert her power, overrode her parents and raised money among her schoolfriends to buy him. When Moritz was delivered, he kicked the groom, kicked a hole in his stall, and broke his way into the paddock. But next morning when Annabel in trepidation went out to him, he strolled towards her, lowered his head for the halter and became her love for ever more. (p.244)

Probably le Carré wants his books to move us with their deeply drawn characters and their passionate dramatisation of contemporary issues. But, although I am politically sympathetic to all his beliefs, I remember the books mainly for their bombastic style and the unwitting poshness of his helplessly upper-class characters.


Credit

A Most Wanted Man by John le Carré was published in 2008 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 2009 Hodder paperback edition.

Related links

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
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 – 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 dislikeable upper-class twits. (414 pages)
1996 The Tailor of Panama – 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)
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 before he, too, is killed.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Posh young free-spirited diplomat’s wife Tessa Quayle discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results for the poor patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining events up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s long quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – 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, which comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha unwittingly lures Ted into a Machiavellian American sting whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, climaxing with them being shot down like dogs. First part good, second part overblown.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school boy Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, a half-Congolese translator, gives a first-person narrative of an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions who have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, who are planning to engineer a coup and impose a ‘middle of the road’ leader, ostensibly to bring ‘peace’ to Salvo’s troubled homeland. Salvo learns that the real plan is to allow the leader’s Western backers to plunder the country’s mineral resources and 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 the moderate organiser of Muslim charities, as ‘terrorists’. But this dubious plan is itself brutally trumped by the Americans who, in the form of the CIA, betray all the characters in the book, and violently kidnap the two Muslims, taking them away for indefinite incarceration and torture.
2010 Our Kind of Traitor –
2013 A Delicate Truth –

The Mission Song by John le Carré (2006)

I don’t like le Carré’s later fiction. The Secret Pilgrim (1990) set the tone, a series of tales told by a self-important retirement-age security bore which revealed le Carré’s most famous character, George Smiley, to be a pompous ass. The series of novels from The Night Manager onwards seem to me:

  • to almost exclusively feature repellently posh, upper-class, public-school-educated ‘heroes’
  • who have no trouble ‘bagging’ lots of posh totty, with James Bondish ease
  • who form self-regarding cliques in which everyone is a ‘legend’ – the incomparable X, the well-known Y, the notorious Z – our loyal A, our famous B, our legendary C
  • but who also enjoy sensitive and doomed love affairs with one spectacularly beautiful, incomparably intelligent etc etc love object (whose epitome is the saintly Tessa in The Constant Gardener)
  • with each novel dominated by a Major Contemporary Issue (the wickedness of arms dealers in The Night Manager – the wickedness of big pharmaceutical companies in The Constant Gardener – the wickedness of the ‘war on terror’ in Absolute Friends)
  • and all told in repetitive, bombastic prose

For the first few pages, The Mission Song seems like it’s evaded these dangers. Unusually, it is

a) told in the first person
b) and – in a bold experiment – told by the orphaned, illegitimate son of an Irish Catholic missionary and a native Congolese woman, one Bruno Salvador, known as Salvo.

However, the all-too-familiar features of le Carré’s fiction soon comes flooding back in. For Salvador, it turns out, was raised by highly educated Catholic missionaries before being sent to an English public school where, like all le Carré’s later protagonists, he has picked up the irritatingly pompous turns of phrase which dominate his style and, therefore, the entire book. Far from attempting ‘black’ speech rhythms, Salvo’s half-caste nature and public school background do the reverse, with the result that le Carré’s naturally overblown prose style is actually turned up! Half the time Salvo sounds like Bertie Wooster.

It is a known fact that the thoughts of the most loyal raw recruit on the eve of battle stray in unforeseen directions, some of them downright mutinous. And I will not pretend that my own were in this regard exempt… (p.88)

Not exactly ‘street’, is it, nor particularly African. The extraordinarily PG Wodehouse style is matched by the high class circles Salvo moves in by virtue of having married a journalist. Being le Carré, she is of course the famous, the legendary female journalist, Penelope, described as the shining star in the firmament of her famous Fleet Street proprietor, and consorting with her gives him access to high-toned parties and eminent movers and shakers. The book becomes posher by the minute.

Adultery being a standard le Carré theme, it is no surprise to learn that the legendary Penelope is in fact having an affair with her boss, Thorne, nicknamed with characteristically leaden humour, ‘Thorne the Horn’. Feeling thus released from his marriage vows, the novel opens with Salvo energetically screwing the new love of his life, a black Congolese nurse named Hannah, who he’s met while interpreting at a local hospital.

For, like so many of the later novels, this one drips with sex sex sex sex – the hero thinks about sex on almost every page. This opening scene sets the tone and thereafter, almost every page recalls Salvo and Hannah ripping each other’s clothes off, her cry as she climaxes, her scent on his clothes and his mobile phone, memories of her startled open mouth, her wide eyes as he penetrates her, her lips moving down from his, the bed sheets revealing her breast, falling between her parted thighs, and so on and on, a leitmotiv through the rest of the text.

Claiming to believe I am not taking her seriously, she wilfully flings back the bedclothes and sits up. And you have to know how beautiful she is… (p.122)

Salvo’s general lecherousness is to the fore when he is escorted round the British Intelligence offices by a functionary, Bridget, while Salvo admires her tight jeans and imagines undressing her. When, a lot later, he packs and leaves his flat, he is button-holed in the hallway by his wife’s best friend, Paula, wearing only a dressing gown, who asks if he wants to have sex with her, then begs him to have sex with her (p.280). Truly, he is a babe magnet and a stud muffin.

In summary, then, within a few pages, the reader has been introduced to yet another public-school-educated protagonist, who moves in swanky London circles, beds women with effortless ease, but is also a sensitive soul, in love with his ravishing new belle, Hannah, who he describes in the same sentimental terms as the beautiful, uniquely intelligent love objects of the previous six novels, and whose story is going to be told in pompously self-important prose.

And the Major Contemporary Issue without which it wouldn’t be late le Carré? The endless war in the Congo.

If you read the Wikipedia article or any contemporary reporting from Congo, you will find this conflict has been raging since about 1995, if not before, and has claimed more casualties than the Second World War. It is a vast panorama of death and atrocity and rape, which most of us don’t read about because the papers don’t write about it much. All of which – the Western hypocrisy and the media indifference – make le Carré very angry.

But burning anger isn’t enough. Social media and online newspaper comments show the world is full of incoherently angry people. The ability to analyse the problem out into readable prose is what a reader has a right to expect of an author.

The plot

Part one – the conference

After public school Salvo has made a career in England as a translator, translating from a range of obscure African languages in which he is expert, into English or French. It was doing a translation job for Penelope (translating an African claiming to have a great scoop, but who turned out to be a con-man) that so impressed her that she took him to bed, where he was so impressed by her sexual technique that he proposed to her and so – to shock her Surrey parents – she married a black man.

He also, we learn, has done work from time to time for a Mr Anderson, from Britain’s Security Services. The following passage gives a good feel for Salvo’s rhetorical magniloquence, his self-importance, and for the entertaining lack of self-awareness with which he refers to himself as a sexual stud.

Did I bubble out the rest to Bridget? Appoint her my substitute confessor in Hannah’s absence? Unveil to her how, until I met Penelope, I was a twenty-three-year-old closet virgin, a dandy in my personal appearance but, underneath my carefully constructed facade, saddled with enough hang-ups to fill a walk-in cupboard? – that brother Michael’s attentions and Père André’s before him had left me in a sexual twilight from which I feared to emerge? [he was abused by Catholic missionaries in Africa] – that my dear late father’s guilt regarding his explosion of the senses [late in life, Salvo’s Catholic priest father discovered sex] had transferred itself wholesale and without deductions to his son? – and how as our taxi sped towards Penelope’s flat I had dreaded the moment that she would literally uncover my inadequacy, such was my timidity regarding the female sex? – and that thanks to her knowhow and micro-management all ended well? – extremely well – more well than she could have imagined, she assured me, Salvo being her dream mustang – the best in her stable, she might have added – her Alpha Male Plus? Or, as she later put it to her friend Paula when they thought I wasn’t listening, her chocolate soldier always standing to attention? (p.66)

En route from his clandestine fuck with the African nurse Hannah to the VIP party for his wife, this Alpha Male Plus is waylaid by a mobile phone call from Mr Anderson, asking him for a meeting. Anderson persuades him to ditch the party and come do some really important work for the old country, the ‘Britain’ to which Salvo feels ludicrously, naively, attached. And so he gets a taxi to South Audley Street where, in between ogling Bridget in her tight jeans, Anderson gives him a deliberately vague outline of the mission and he finds himself Bertie Woosterishly agreeing to do it, for the Old Country.

The Alpha Male Plus is given casual clothes (all the time lecherously imagining the beautiful assistant’s clothes magically falling off and them making love there and then), then taxied across London to a helicopter, which flies to Luton airport where he is taken aboard a secret flight.

On board the plane Salvo meets some rough mercenary types – Maxie, Anton, Benny, Spider – who shout and swear a lot and give him further vague info about the ‘conference’ he’s booked to translate at. For the first time he learns it’s something to do with his ostensible homeland, the Congo. The plane lands at an isolated airstrip and they all drive in the dark to an old, castle-style mansion on a coast somewhere, maybe Scotland? Denmark?

Here Maxie (aka the Skipper) explains that a big peace conference is taking place in Denmark between various interested parties in the Congo conflict. Some combination of British interests have arranged a ‘side meeting’ to the conference, to take place at this isolated and discreet location. Here they have invited three representatives of the Congo’s warring tribes and factions to be brought together with a charismatic Congolese leader, the Mwangaza. The Mwazanga allegedly represents some ‘third way’ for the country, although when we meet him, his expository speech is so blustering and bombastic – as is almost all the dialogue in this terrible book – that it’s either difficult to understand or childishly crude:

‘I am the Mwazanga, the messenger of harmonious coexistence and prosperity for all Kivu. I think with my head, not with my gun, or my panga, or my penis.’ (p.150)

The central 150 pages of this novel claim to describe this meeting of the leaders of political factions from a war-torn country. You would expect there to be cunning and wheeler-dealing, gambit and counter-gambit, a subtle exposition of the situation and possible areas of agreement – the kind of thing, for example, I heard when I worked at the Department for International Development at around the period this novel was published. These kind of meetings are generally well prepared in advance, and even if the talk is frank, there are identifiable positions and interests at stake.

Swearing instead of analysis

But if you expected analysis of the situation in Congo, or a clear-headed account of the history which led to the current shambles, or an explanation of the various peace plans on the table – you will be sorely disappointed by this book. Instead of cool analysis you get people swearing: first the mercenaries on the plane deliver an insultingly crude and sweary account of the situation. Fair enough, they are military hard men. But the (lengthy) scenes with the three political leaders and their aides is a farrago of effing and blinding.

Haj: Holy shit! My dad warned me the old boy was heavy duty, but this is something else. Aw, aw, aw. Why does he talk Swahili like a Tanzanian with a paw-paw stuck up his arse?’ (p.175)

It’s like being in the men’s toilet at a football match. The foul language goes on for scores of pages. It is interspersed with Salvo’s weirdly out-of-date and preening prose. And his fuck-filled accounts of the ‘negotiations’ are themselves interspersed with his memories of fucking young Hannah just before he left England. Taken together, this brew creates the most revolting pages of prose I’ve read in years.

This book represents an incredible come-down from the author of the brilliantly cunning classic, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, or who gave us the under-stated, coolly calibrating spy-master George Smiley. That author is long dead and now le Carré’s characters routinely swear and shout and grandstand – the more some kind of intelligence is required, the more the reader expects analysis and information – the more foul-mouthed the dialogue becomes.

Here one of the delegates, Haj, is ridiculing the Mwazanga’s lofty rhetoric:

Allies in what, for fuck’s sake? To achieve what? A united Kivu? North and South? My friends. Let us seize hold of our resources and thereby control our destiny. Humph humph. They’ve been seized, arsehole! By a bunch of Rwandan crazies who are armed to the eyeballs and raping our women in their spare time! Those interahamwe guys up there are so well dug in, the fucking UN doesn’t dare to fly over them, without asking their permission first. (p.179)

It is like this for page after page.

As to the plot, Salvo, as official translator during the ‘sessions’, is given free rein of the multiple bugs and microphones hidden everywhere around the building and its grounds in order to report to his superiors, Maxie and the new arrival, the posh upper-class (of course) Englishman, Philip.

But (predictably) Salvo also hears ‘things he shouldn’t’. With incredible naivety, he appears to have expected everyone to behave nobly and virtuously, to be motivated by love of their country and humanity. So he is horrified to discover that the Brits appear to want something out of the deal, and the three delegates are demanding up-front payments for themselves.

The deal

The plan being proposed by ‘our guys’ is that before Congo’s next elections – due to be held in just two weeks time – the ‘Syndicate’ ie British interests – will, with the three leaders’ help, foment disorder on the streets. This will prompt armed intervention which will instal ‘our redeemer’, the Mwazanga, as a moderate middle-of-the-road leader who will restore peace. In other words the Brits are planning to stage an undemocratic coup.

The ‘Syndicate’ will station mercenaries at air bases in each of the three leaders’ territories for six months, during which they will be able to extract ore from conveniently nearby mines and sell it on the world market at a tidy profit.

Only an idiot would be surprised to learn all the players in this squalid meeting are in it for what they can get, instead of bringing Peace and Freedom to Congo – but Salvo comes across, throughout, as just such a preening, sex-mad imbecile. Every aspect of his character is literally unbelievable: the absurdly Wodehousian diction; the absurdly unironic references to himself as a sexual stud; the absurdly unthinking British patriotism; and the naivety with which he approaches a political conference.

Salvo is disillusioned

Not only is Salvo disillusioned at the participants’ motivation. To his amazement he hears, on headphones in the ‘control room’, one of the delegates, Haj, during a break in the negotiations, apparently being tortured with some kind of cattle prod. It becomes clear Haj is being tortured by Maxie, the hard man in the plane over, into admitting that he represents not only his father’s tribe and interests, but a French corporation which, on closer examination, turns out to be run by a group of Halliburton-type American corporate executives. He also appears to confess that the 30% of takings from the Syndicate’s operations which were pledged to the Mwazanga – and which the Mwazanga had pledged to improving the Congo’s lost – schools, hospitals etc – will in fact go directly to this US corporation. Tut tut. Secret deals. At a diplomatic conference!

Then Haj, once they’ve stopped torturing him and he’s recovered, himself demands $3 million before he’ll sign the ‘agreement’ drawn up by the team’s slippery lawyer, Monsieur Jasper. (I found the way Haj was tied down and electrocuted, and then only ten minutes later is making deals with his torturers, a little hard to believe.)

So upset is he at this bitter disillusionment that Salvo makes the stupid decision to smuggle the tapes which have been recording the conference, and the notebooks he’s been scribbling it all down in, back to Blighty. At the conclusion of the ‘conference’, the delegates sign the ‘contract’ with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The coup is set for a few weeks time. Can Salvo stop it?

Part two – back in London

The ‘contract’ signed, the Africans fly back to their big conference in Denmark and our boys drive back to the little airport, get their charter plane back to Luton, and this is where Salvo is dropped off. He makes his way, guiltily laden with his bag of contraband tapes and notebooks, back to the up-market Battersea flat he shares with the Top Journalist Penelope. Here he makes the decision to leave her for the new Love of His Life, Hannah. So he packs a few belongings, takes off his wedding ring, skips past his wife’s friend, Paula, who chooses this moment to offer to fuck him – and goes look for the beautiful African nurse.

They rent a room in a flop house kept by an Asian couple, the Hakims, and have sex. Quite a few times. And in between discuss what to do. In among all the conversations and hurried phone calls during the conference, Salvo had heard Philip put one through to one Lord Brinkley in London, a character he (conveniently) happens to have met through his wife’s high society contacts. From what Salvo could hear,  posh Philip was on the phone to Brinkley giving feedback on the conference and asking Brinkley for the go-ahead to the coup.

Salvo very stupidly decides that if he can only confront Lord B, the latter will realise that he has – oh dear – been led astray and will immediately call the wicked plan off. So, with stupefying naivety, he goes to visit Lord Brinkley and his terrifically posh wife Kitty – ‘We’re in the drawing room, dahling‘. To nobody’s surprise except stupid Salvo, they both deny ever having met him before or having had the phone conversation he alludes to or knowing the people he mentions.

But now the conspirators know that Salvo has gone loco on them. Bad. To nobody’s surprise except his own, the apartment he shared with Penelope is comprehensively turned over. If Salvo had read any kind of thriller, or seen a movie, or ever watched a TV detective series, Salvo would have known this is absolutely par for the course. But he hasn’t, and he doesn’t, because he’s an idiot. It is impossible to belive in a thriller whose protagonist is an idiot.

Baptiste

Hannah says she knows a true Congolese patriot, Baptiste who can help so they arrange a meeting. Here Baptiste – all wraparound shades, gold bling and aggressive attitude – listens to the chocolate soldier’s story but alas, he is as potty-mouthed as all the other characters.

‘Let’s do facts. Here are the facts. Your friend here fucks you, right? Your friend’s friend knows he fucks you, so he comes to your friend. And he tells your friend a story, which your friend repeats to you because he’s fucking you. You are rightly incensed by this story, so you bring your friend who is fucking you to me, so that he can tell it all over again, which is what your friend’s friend reckoned would happen all along. We call that disinformation.‘ (p.329)

Do we? Is that a shrewd summary of disinformation? Despite the idiotic swearing, Baptiste claims to be some kind of sophisticated political mover and shaker – but in the next breath he also is revealed as a naive fool, because he point blank refuses to believe that his hero, the Mwazanga, has sold out to the West, to the White Man, to the fat cats in Kinshasa. So he simply refuses to believe Salvo’s story that the conference is a stitch-up and tells him and Hannah to get the fuck out.

Well, that wasn’t very helpful.

Mr Anderson

Next, Salvo catches a train to Sevenoaks where he tracks down his ‘control’, the man who represents ‘the Security Services’, who has given him various jobs in the past and gave him this particular job just a few days ago, the man he trusts most in the world, Mr Anderson. He tracks Anderson down to the very fine public school (is there any other type, old boy?) where he is rehearsing with his choir, and interrupts the practice.

They go to a quiet room and Salvo hands him the 20-page dossier he has written about the whole affair named, with stunning unoriginality, J’Accuse. Salvo naively tells this Security Service high-up that ‘we must stop the coup’. Guess what? Go on. Mr Anderson hears him out, then very politely says he has gone out of his way to help Salvo in the past and now is very saddened that in exchange Salvo has betrayed his trust and broken the Official Secrets Act. He gets out his phone to call someone ominous, maybe some heavies to come collect Salvo. Imbecile that he is, Salvo is surprised and stunned that someone high up in British Intelligence doesn’t want to betray or cancel a top secret operation. Salvo stalks out.

The only thing surprising in this sequence is what being back in a public school setting does to the already antiquated prose.

Seconds later Mr Anderson himself squeezed his bulk round the door and, looking past me as if I wasn’t there, addressed his womenfolk in tones of command. ‘Mary, I’ll trouble you both to go home and await my return.’ (p.339)

A lot of le Carré’s prose is like seeing a rare animal in a zoo – you didn’t realise stuff this pompous, stuffy and out of date was still alive.

Thorne the Horn

Fergus Thorn is nicknamed ‘Thorn the Horn’ because he’s notorious for screwing women. The horn? Sex? Gettit? (If you think that’s a hilarious nickname, this book is for you.) He is Penelope’s boss at the high-end newspaper where we are repeatedly told she is the rising star. Sometime in the past they had a run-in with Lord Brinkley who sued them for defamation and nearly bankrupted them. So Salvo phones a sceptical Horn and asks for a meeting. Here in a darkened wine bar, Salvo hands over the 20-page dossier and says he has phone recordings of Brinkley’s voice authorising the money for the coup.

Unfortunately, the Horn is another character who le Carré thinks will sound modern and thrusting and contemporary if he’s made to think crudely and swear a lot. And talk in italics. Thus, taking Salvo up on his offer, the Horn briefs the hacks who’ve come with him:

‘Sophie. Flash your tits at the security firms. Who’s MaxieColonel Maxie? Maxie who? If he’s a mercenary, he’s ex-Special Forces. How ex? Who does he fuck? What schools did he go to?’ (p.356)

Presumably this must be the approach which bags him so many women. But when Salvo rifles in his bag to find the incriminating tapes, he finds them gone. The Horn becomes progressively more sarcastic as Salvo’s search becomes more desperate, until the latter finally gives up and is forced to leave with his tail between his legs, the deal unconcluded.

On the way back to the hostel, Salvo realises what must have happened. Hannah stole the tapes. (For a moment I thought Hannah would turn out to be MI6’s woman all along and only having the affair with Salvo to monitor him in case he turned out to be unreliable; that would have been a bit clever. But no. She is every inch the high-minded social warrior Salvo and le Carré paint her as. She took the tapes for her own purposes.)

Turns out Hannah has transferred them to a sound file and emailed them, but to who, exactly? Salvo tries phoning her to find out but Hannah has decamped on an ‘outing’ to the seaside with her friend Grace, which they thought would give Hannah a good cover and protection, and her phone doesn’t answer.

So Salvo lies on his own in their room back at Mr Hakim’s boarding house, with the radio and TV on, and is astonished when reports start coming in of how an attempt at a coup in Eastern Congo have failed. To his consternation, the TV news shows pictures of Maxie, Anton, Benny, Spider shackled and shuffling under the guard of their captors, along with the twenty or so other mercenaries they were leading. The apparent leader of the coup, the man they call ‘the Enlightener’ (p.367) – ie the Mwazanga – has disappeared.

So the coup failed after all. Salvo calls Hannah’s friend Grace’s mobile to tell Hannah to discover Grace is hysterical, because Hannah was arrested as they walked down the street in broad daylight. At this point it finally sinks into Salvo’s head what he has set himself up against. For the first time he loses the will to fight. Up to then he’d been careful about using his own mobile phone in case it was traced. But it had been a kind of patriotic love for Hannah which had kept him going through all this. Now he turns on and uses his own mobile for the first time, not caring if the call is traced, not caring if he is arrested, beyond caring.

He finds an answerphone message from smooth-talking Philip, who had masterminded events at the mansion, suggesting a meeting.

Climax

And so Salvo goes to the house of posh, silver-haired Foreign Office-type Philip, where he is let in by two tough young bodyguards. As soon as he enters his presence, in the stylish drawing room, Salvo tries to attack him, but is knocked unconscious by his bully boys.

When he comes to, the baddy – suave and posh, English upper class, like most of the baddies in le Carré’s later novels (the ‘worst man in the world’ Roper in The Night Manager, the head of the FO who covers up Tessa Quayle’s murder in The Constant Gardener, and so on) smoothly tells him that Hannah has confessed all and is being deported to Kampala.

It turns out that once the authorities start digging, they’ve discovered that he, Salvo, has a fake identity, presumably concocted all those years ago to protect his priest father from charges of impropriety. Having entered Britain on a false ID, he also is now being deported. Bye, old chap.

Epilogue

The last ten pages are the only good thing in the book. It consists of a long letter written by Salvo to Hannah’s son, Noah, back in the Congo somewhere, describing conditions in the internment camp where Salvo is being kept – surrounded by barbed wire and beaten up by the police from time to time, where he is waiting to be deported.

There’s a letter within a letter as Salvo unexpectedly gets a missive from Haj, the wide boy political leader he overheard being tortured, who gives a last cynical but exuberant vision of contemporary Congo, with its shootings, rapes, corruption and disease. Haj confirms that in the end nothing Salvo or Hannah did had any significance. It was he, Haj, who alerted the authorities to the coup the moment he got home, and thus had it forestalled and defused.

Now there will be elections in Congo, ramshackle and corrupt, ‘they won’t deliver solutions but they’re ours.’ All Hannah and Salvo’s efforts were for nothing.


Blustering explanations

As in all the other late le Carré novels, when the time comes for some kind of explanation of the political situation, what we get instead is the drunken loudmouth bluster of sweary braggarts. (Exactly the same happened in the Night Manager, Our Game and The Tailor of Panama.) Le Carré likes to ‘tackle’ big geopolitical issues but, when push comes to shove, seems to lack the analytical intelligence to write anything interesting about them. Even entry-level explication of the situations is beyond his characters. This is how the organiser of the team flying Salvo to this mystery mansion – Maxie aka the Skipper – explains the situation.

‘We’re sorting the place, Sinclair, for Christ’s sake!’ he expostulated in a pent-up voice. ‘We’re bringing sanity to a fucking madhouse. We’re giving piss-poor, downtrodden people their country back and forcing ’em to tolerate each other, make money get a fucking life. Have you got a problem with that?’ (p.125)

This is pathetically inadequate. But it’s not just Maxie. The ‘delegates’ to the micro-conference, instead of putting reasoned arguments for their respective parties, all sound like swearing teenagers and their ‘discussions’ are just rants. I worked for three years on Channel 4’s international affairs TV show. Nobody who is the leader of a political party or group talks like this.

‘So it’s a coup, right?’ the Dolphin [one of the delegates] demands, in the shrill, hectoring French of a Parisian sophisticate. ‘Peace, prosperity, inclusiveness. But when you strip away the bullshit, we’re grabbing power. Bukavu today, Goma tomorrow, Rwandans out, screw the UN, and Kinshasa can kiss our arses.’ (p.167)


Appalling style

The poshest African

On paper having an African narrate the story might seem a bold experiment. Alas, in the event, the ‘African’ character comes out sounding even more phenomenally posh than the usually posh le Carré product. Not just posh, but out-of-date, stilted posh.

I was surprised to register the presence of a recording angel in the room, for such as I construed him, male. He was ensconced at a desk in the bay window, which I briefly confused with the bay window in our bedroom at Mr Hakim’s. Sunlight was streaming over him, making him divine. (p.375)

I well understand that it is a deliberate ploy to make Salvo’s English more orotund than usual, in order to give him a verbal style, and to convey his odd background – Africa and public school. But it is murder to read.

Our

As in all the late novels, the word ‘our’ used to create the rather smothering sense of a ‘gang’ – our boys, our lady of the night, our saviour, our flying ace. The ‘our’ in these sentences doesn’t refer to the character’s relationship to the other characters. It refers to the character’s relationship with the author and with the reader. Le Carré uses ‘our’ to hustle the reader into reluctant agreement, to shoulder him into being one of ‘the gang’ – like a bully in a pub – you’re one of our boys now, you’re one of our gang now.

Our ace crime reporter… our supergrass (65)… our neophyte secret agent… our great enterprise (93) our great venture (106)… Monsieur Jasper Albin our specialist lawyer from Beançon (144)… our Mission’s self-appointed and rascally protector (144)… our Enlightener (216)… our Redeemer (250).. the Great Coming… our distinguished notary (251)

At the same time it is also tremendously facetious; it tends to be used in an ironic and deliberately grandiose way. It sounds like a Victorian music hall maestro bombastically introducing our very own, the one and only, the stupendous, the once in a lifetime etc:

big Benny our gentle giant (259)… Haj our French-trained Bukavu wide boy and nightclub owner (278)… our skipper Maxie (365) … our gallant Canadian allies (382)…

He seems unable to mention any of the characters without facetiously over-describing them. For example, Salvo identifies one of the voices on the tapes he’s stolen as belonging to ‘none other than my long-time hero and scourge of Penelope’s great newspaper, Lord Brinkley of the sands’ (p.272). ‘None other than…’ It is ostensibly a serious novel treating a serious subject, and yet the narrator consistently treats all his characters like cartoons.

The narrator sounds like a circus ring-master introducing a series of world-beating acts, rather than human beings. Everything feels like it’s shouting at you – the way the characters are over-hyped, the way they swear at each other in all the dialogue, and the narrator’s plentiful use if italics to really emphasise when something important is happening – or just when he’s astonished that people seem to be behaving really badly.

Isn’t the advice they give in all the creative writing courses, Don’t tell – show? Le Carré always tells, repeating again and again how wonderful, eminent, clever, successful etc his characters are, whereas in fact – like Smiley when he actually says something in The Secret Pilgrim – they are all-too-often revealed to be tiresome, self-important bores.

He sets characters up as if they’re about to reveal some especially acute insight into the geopolitical situation, the reader is dying for intelligence and insight, but – all too often what we are actually given is a bunch of characters swearing like chavs at chucking-out time. A lucid introduction to the dire political situation of the Congo would have been useful. Instead we get this summary from Maxie the mercenary leader, telling Salvo how the Congolese have been:

‘Fucked by the Arab slavers, fucked by their fellow Africans, fucked by the United Nations, the CIA, the Christians, the Belgians, the French, the Brits, the Rwandans, the diamond companies, the gold companies, half the world’s carpet-baggers, their own government in Kinshasa and any minute now they’re going to be fucked by the oil companies … Time they had a break, and we’re the boys to give it to ’em.’

England versus America

I came to this novel from reading Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant Wolves Eat Dogs. The comparison really highlights how Cruz Smith is a poet, a nimble magician of prose, whereas le Carré’s style has gotten more clotted, more pompous and convoluted, as he’s gotten older.

It is frankly a conundrum to me, observing these events from where I sit today, that as I followed Bridget down the stairs and back onto the pavement of South Audley Street, attired as I was in the garb of a secondary-school master up from the country, and with nothing to attach me to the world except a bunch of bogus business cards and the assurance that I was about to endure unfamiliar perils, I should have counted myself the most blessed fellow in London that night, if not the whole of England, the most intrepid patriot and civil servant, but such was indeed the case. (p.61)

I know the style is meant to reflect the peculiar heritage of the frankly unbelievable character, Salvo. But it must have been painful to write and it is excruciating to read. The comparison of MCS with JLC makes you think the Yanks represent the future of English as a flexible expressive tool and the Brits represent a sclerotic past.

I will not deny that I was a touch nervous following Maxie down the cramped cellar steps, albeit the sight of Spider, Welsh eyes twinkling with honest mischief as he doffed his cap to us in humorous salutation, eased my apprehensions. (p.115)

I read novels less for the plot than for the style, and I thought the style of this book was almost unreadable. Maybe this would be redeemed if the story held up, but the plot is silly, based as it is entirely on the central character’s unbelievable stupidity and naivety, and there isn’t even the saving grace that book offers any insight at all into the very real, ongoing tragedy of the Congo and its long-suffering people.


Credit

The Mission Song by John le Carré was published in 2006 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 2004 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

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
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 – 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 dislikeable upper-class twits. (414 pages)
1996 The Tailor of Panama – 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)
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 before he, too, is killed.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Posh young free-spirited diplomat’s wife Tessa Quayle discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results for the poor patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining events up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s long quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – 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, which comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha unwittingly lures Ted into a Machiavellian American sting whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, climaxing with them being shot down like dogs. First part good, second part overblown.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, who happens to be half-Congolese, gives a first-person narrative of an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions who have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, who are planning to engineer a coup and impose a ‘middle of the road’ leader, ostensibly to bring ‘peace’ – but in reality to plunder the country’s resources. Salvo is there to translate, but ends up hearing more than he should about the brutal behind-the-scenes deals the syndicate and the delegates are cutting, and sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man –
2010 Our Kind of Traitor –
2013 A Delicate Truth –

Absolute Friends 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, it 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 style.

Absolute Friends

Absolute Friends feels like another channeling of le Carré’s own lifestory. 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 – like JLC – discovering a liking for German language and literature and so going abroad to study, in this fictional iteration to Berlin (the author 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 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 prolonged sensuality – the ease with which Jonathan Roper or Oliver Single or Andrew Osnard or Ted Mundy attract and bed posh totty is a defining characteristic 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)

Of course they do – just as everyone in Panama knew Harry Pendel. Sasha is a small, intense, broken-looking chap but – like all le Carré leading men – the happy ‘conqueror’ of numberless women, and the much-admired brains behind radical student politics in the seething Berlin of 1969.

For the first time in five or six novels, there were scenes which don’t involve chaps from Eton and Winchester pointing out to each other how legendary or what total rotters they are. These scenes set among the free love and ‘smash the system’ radical students of late 1960s Berlin felt powerful and persuasive – helped 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, there’s 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 to be found in the early 1970s. Ted teaches at schools (he has affair with one of the other master’s wives, natch), lives for a while in the stoned writer’s colony in Taos, USA (has affair with a painter’s wife, natch), 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 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 he 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! 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 becomes a lowly employee of the State Security Police, the Stasi.

By the time of this backstage meeting Sasha has become completely disillusioned with life in the East, whose authorities he dismisses as red fascists. He had 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. Then he is amazed to see his friend’s name on the manifest of a travelling theatre group. And hence this meeting…

Sasha 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 when 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 us. 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 shaggy, tall, 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 he’s gone, without goodbye or anything. Amory explains that he has just been vetted by ‘the cousins’ (ie 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, ie 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-May 2003) to find Ted adrift in Europe again. 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, he returned to Germany and set up a school for teaching English to corporate executives.

As ‘the present’ opens this school has shut down, bankrupted by the possibly criminal activities of his 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 is 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 her protector, paying for proper food, buying the suspicious Mustafa toys, behaving honourably for he is, like so many le Carré characters, at heart an honourable schoolboy.

And now we realise the significance of having had Ted 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 the description of his childhood in dusty Pakistan, of playing with the native children and the sweet memories which elude him in later life, are genuinely moving. And 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

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 to be heard, for alternative discourses and theories to 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. 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, but the next night hops into a car and drives back out to the aircraft hanger, to find it full of farm equipment, and on 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’; he’s been a freelance advising the 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 he gets 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 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. Alright.  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 leg and shoulder, and 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 in after him 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 and is stifled.

It is given 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, goddamit) while Sasha is characterised as a former Stasis spy and failed radical. We 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 – 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. 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, 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 by its secrets and conspiracies, to the growing boy 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 in The Night Manager where ‘the worst man in the world’, Richard Roper, lords it over another close-knit bunch of cronies.

The narrator is always an interloper in these secret worlds, the outsider, attracted and repulsed by their phony charisma: thus Tiger’s son, Oliver, betrays his father, and Roper’s protégé Jonathan Pine, betrays the slick arms dealer Chief.

As part of his odd childhood, the 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 – not backward in promoting its members, either undergraduate or faculty, to mythical status – and then, after a spell of teaching at Eton (possibly the most famous school in the world) 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, I think, explains the often smothering cliqueyness of much of le Carré’s fiction, which 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, 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 his 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 in with 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 – ‘our dear old queen’, conveying 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 – ‘… the photograph of our dear old queen…’ (p.148)
  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 dismiss serious characters and issues with mock affection – ‘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.2550
  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 – ‘… our White Hotel in East Prussia..’ (p.189)
  6. to puff up his characters in that mock heroic, facetiously superior drawl – ‘our very own hero of the hour’ ; one of the teenage actors is ‘Lexham our Jamaican Macbeth…’ (p.136)
  7. mocking the act of communication – ‘… for the benefit of our British and American readers…’ (p.86)
  8. normal standard ‘our’ – ‘Our targets for tonight are…’ (p.84) ‘our fellow activists..’ (p.90)
  9. ‘our’ as a dialect usage of working class people – ‘our Kate’ is how Kate’s dad always refers to her (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 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.

Cartoon characterisation

Something similar is going on with the tendency not just to name the 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?

Like 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, the breadth of the subject matter is fighting an often losing battle against the narrowing impact of the mindset.


The big issue

Belatedly, I realise that most of JLC’s post-Cold War novels gravitate around a Big Geo-political ‘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 quietly dropping it.)

  • The Night Manager – 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 (here, Georgian drug suppliers)
  • The Constant Gardener – multinational pharmaceuticals resorting to conspiracy and murder to protect their profits
  • Absolute Friends – untamed aggression of global hyperpower run riot (America)

The big issue 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,’ he 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 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).

But it fails in this case because it is simply so unsubtle. If JLC was angry at the lies and hypocrisies of ‘our masters’ in the 1990s, he goes incandescent 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 et al 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 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 geo-political 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: the moronic Larry Pettifer in Our Game, the oafish Jonah in Tailor of Panama, 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, alright, so you should, too.’ It’s also characteristic that these Voices of Truth swear a lot.

‘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 key explanations of the big theme of each novel delivered by over-hyped, swearing drunks.

So 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 – and you don’t disagree with any of it.

Like most people I am aware of all this, read all about it in the papers at 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 the over-mighty Superpower?
c) Things have moved on a lot since then.

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). But they are neither: 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 them look a bit 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 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 here doesn’t 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…


Credit

Absolute Friends by John le Carré was published in 2004 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 2004 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar, 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.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
  • 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 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 dislikeable 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) 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 before he, too, is killed.
  • The Constant Gardener (2001) Posh young free-spirited diplomat’s wife Tessa Quayle discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results for the poor patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining events up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s long quest to discover the truth about her death.
  • Absolute Friends (2003) 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, which comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha unwittingly lures Ted into a Machiavellian American sting whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’ climaxing with them being shot down like dogs.
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

The Constant Gardener by John le Carré (2001)

‘It’s time educated men and women had some balls to speak out for truth instead of cringing in the shit-house like a bunch of craven cowards.’ (p.424)

This is a long novel at 560 pages in the paperback edition. It deals with serious social, medical and political issues, and also includes sections of great suspense and tension, but I found it very difficult to read because, like most of le Carré’s later novels, the focus is very much on a handful of terrifically upper-class chaps and chapesses.

The main protagonist is blessed with the ‘good manners and ancient chivalry that were bred in him from his Etonian cradle’ (p.439) – and the relentlessly upper-class patois, speech rhythms and habits of thought evinced by him and almost all the other characters (unless foreigners or servants), almost made me throw the book away more than once. But I’m glad I soldiered on to the end because there are lots of good, and even brilliant, things in it.

Part one – the High Commission

Like most late le Carre’s novels this one starts in media res, in the middle of the plot, and then cunningly interweaves multiple flashbacks and memories to paint in the backstory and build back up to ‘the present’ while also moving the action moving forward, with the result that multiple timeframes interpenetrate each other. This always makes for a satisfyingly complex and interesting reading experience.

The Constant Gardener opens by introducing us to Sandy Woodrow, Head of Chancery at the British High Commission in Nairobi and his gossipy wife Gloria. Sandy has been lusting after Tessa, the young, free-spirited wife of Justin, the Old Etonian British representative on the East African Donors’ Effective Committee (EADEC) at the Commission. But Tessa appears to have been having a long-term affair with a black doctor, Arnold Bluhm, and now – the central event in the novel which triggers everything else – she has been found dead, murdered in a jeep on a trip into the back country along with Bluhm, who is missing, apparently on her way to visit the (real life) Dr Richard Leakey.

Posh characters

In these early pages we realise with a sinking feeling, that we are, once again, among the very posh. All the main characters went to private school:

– When Sandy goes to the hospital to identify Tessa’s body it reminds him of the dormitory at his boarding school, the trestle the corpse is lying on like ‘matron’s ironing board’. Sandy’s father was a British Army General and he reads his two young sons bedtime stories from Biggles (p.144).

– His wife Gloria keeps in touch with her old boarding schools, likes to play act the school prefect, channeling her inner ‘head girl’ (p.472), and her thoughts – which we are given far more of than we could possibly want – are peppered with jolly hockeysticks expressions – Well played, that man! (p.52) Singing at Tessa’s funeral reminds both of them of chapel back at boarding school (p.138). And Justin is not just an Old Etonian, he is ‘the right sort of Etonian’ (p.98). (It is taken for granted that we all know how beastly it can be having to deal with the wrong sort of Etonian.)

– The High Commissioner’s jacket labels still say ‘P. Coleridge, Balliol’, to remind him of his jolly days at Oxford. Bernard Pellegrin, the Permanent Secretary, is always referred to as ‘the Pellegrin’ in that ho-ho public school drawl they all use, but he is always ready to take a chap to lunch at his club.

In other words, all the main characters dress, speak and think in the tones of Britain’s white, public school élite.

Part of their superior attitude is looking down on the lower classes. The impertinent secretary to the High Commissioner, Mildren (with typically mirthless ‘humour’ nicknamed Mildred, ha ha) has, in Sandy’s view, ‘the insolence peculiar to lower class secretaries’ (p.128). The police who arrive to interview Sandy also display tiresome characteristics of the lower classes, such as expecting their questions to be answered. Tut tut, what can one do about such ghastly people, darling?

I laughed out loud when Sandy drifts off during the church service for Tessa and a stained glass depiction of St Andrew reminds him of ‘Macpherson the gillie that time we drove the boys to Loch Awe to fish the salmon’ (p.139). Like the older Richard Hannay in John Buchan’s later novels, le Carré’s very pukka protagonists are only really comfortable with members of the working classes if they are servants or Victorian-style retainers. (Of the peasant fisherman who ferries Justin across the lake at the novel’s end, Justin thinks ‘this fellow was your born family retainer, which was why, to be honest, it was easy to confuse him with Mustafa’, p.564 – to even categorise the wily old peasant as a family retainer seems patronising and narrow-minded, and then to say it’s so easy to muddle up these helpful old black chaps…).

Because of course, here in Africa, each High Commission official has a large house staffed with plenty of servants who they forge sentimental bonds with. Justin in particular is held up as some kind of paragon for his close paternal friendship with his houseboy and his head servant Mustafa et al. The characters pour lofty scorn on their Victorian imperialist ancestors (and everything else) but their patronising self-regard, and their fondness for servants, seems absolutely unchanged since 1870.

The plot

Wayward young diplomat’s wife uncovers corporate misdoings in Africa, namely a pharmaceutical company recklessly trialling an experimental drug on Africa’s poorest. Big corporation bumps her off. Husband goes on quest to discover reason for her murder, uncovering conspiracy which includes FO staff and high-ups back in London. Just as he has satisfactorily dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s, he is himself murdered and everything he’s discovered rubbished in a corporate cover-up.

Father a judge, mother a contessa, sent to boarding schools and Cambridge, Tessa Quayle showed her spirit and independence by rebelling against her privileged upper-class background. (I think she is meant to be a great romantic heroine – the stern Lara is made to say Tessa was ‘very beautiful and very tragic’, p.435 – but her breath-takingly privileged background and 100% saintly character made me laugh more than once.) Tessa falls in love with dry-as-dust Justin Quayle, an Old Etonian, who reminds her of her father (natch) and accompanies him as a ‘diplomatic wife’ on his next posting to Nairobi, capital of Kenya.

Here her rebellion takes the form of feeling sorry for the miserably poor Africans around her and angry at the outrageous corruption of Kenya’s ruling class and disgusted by the pusillanimous failure of the British to highlight their failings or hold them to account.

She harangues Sandy for his cowardice while he can only think about her firm young breasts. She has a more respectful relationship with her husband Justin, who lets her go off doing her charity work all day then spend all night tapping feverishly away at her computer, denouncing corruption and wrong-doing. It is understood that he maintains a presence inside the system while she is free to do whatever she wants outside it.

Tessa gets pregnant and insists on showing her solidarity for Africa’s impoverished women by having the baby in a local hospital, where it is promptly stillborn. Such is her commitment that she suckles the baby of a Kenyan mother, Wanzi, so poor and malnourished that she can’t herself produce milk. It is the wasting away, death and disappearance of this mother under the treatment of sinister Europeans in white coats, and then her complete erasure from the hospital records, which sets Tessa suspecting the drug she was being treated with in fact poisoned her, and Tessa’s strong-willed determination to get to the bottom of it which triggers the fateful sequence of events described in the novel. Tessa (and loyal black doctor and aid worker, Arnold Bluhm) become convinced that the mother was maltreated, was given some kind of experimental treatment by the sinister pharmaceutical conglomerate, ThreeBees, who dominate Kenya’s economy and sell everything from petrol to pills.

After burying her stillborn son, Tessa returns from hospital with a new determination to name the guilty men, and so she sends countless letters to various bodies, and tries to personally buttonhole the fat CEO of ThreeBees, Sir Kenneth K. Curtis. (He is a baddy and a symbol of corrupt Westerners bleeding Africa dry, so he is ‘vastly overweight’, p.186.)

Before, during and after the stillbirth she is accompanied everywhere by the legendary Dr Bluhm, godlike African activist, hero of Médecins sans Frontières, who has himself suffered, having been arrested and tortured in Algeria. Their relationship is so close that idle tongues in the ex-pat community (is there any other type) speculate that they are lovers and even that the baby was his.

Part two – a thriller

Elba

But around page 250 the novel emerges from the stiflingly posh atmosphere of the High Commission and develops some real pace. The main protagonist is still an Old Etonian with a network of posh friends, his wife is still the daughter of an Italian contessa, but the novel acquires the speed and nerve-racking edginess of a genuine thriller, something le Carré’s previous half dozen novels have (for me, at any rate) mostly lacked.

Justin goes on the run. He is recalled by the Foreign Office to London where he has what is clearly intended as a satirical debriefing from a senior woman in Personnel, who offers counselling, a rest break and other support for the bereaved husband. But Justin has his own plans. He gets his posh lawyer friend, Ham, to validate a fake passport, name of Peter Atkinson. Then he catches a ferry to France, travels incognito down to Italy and across to the island of Elba, where Tessa’s family own several ‘estates’ (handy). Here he greets the loyal old retainer (how nice to have these old retainers to smooth your passage through life) who manages the estate and unpacks. Now he has time and space to go through the haul of Tessa’s files and letters, piecing together the story of her investigations and, in the process, sharing it with the reader, namely:

The experimental drug Dypraxa is effective against multi-drug-resistant (MDR) tuberculosis. The novel claims (with unfounded alarmism) that MDR TB will arrive in the West in the near future and that a handy treatment for it will make its owners a fortune. Dypraxa was discovered and developed by scientists in Canada working for a Swiss drug company, KVH (Karel Vita Hudson). Tessa’s documents identify the two women and man who worked on it. However, as it was rolled out for field trials in the developing world, reports began coming in of severe side effects, including blindness and death. Nonetheless large scale trials went ahead, although at least one of the drug’s inventors protested. KVH licensed the drug for distribution in Africa, and in Kenya, to the multinational, ThreeBees. Tess and Bluhm uncovered a trail of trials whose results have been systematically suppressed, patient deaths removed from the records, entire villages terrified into silence. Kenyan politicians were so corrupt they were happy to take the bribes from ThreeBees and ignore the deaths. KVH and ThreeBees insisted full and proper clinical trials had established the drug’s safety. Tessa and Bluhm had assembled an extremely detailed dossier of evidence and were travelling to northern Kenya to hand it over to Dr Richard Leakey, who they considered the only safe and independent voice in the country who could publicise their findings, when they were ambushed and murdered and all their documents disappeared.

The incorporation of different document types – magazine articles, newspaper reports, scientific papers, emails, letters, scribbled notes – though hardly a new device, gives the narrative a welcome sense of urgency and pace.

Holed up in one of the old buildings on the estate, Justin asks the 12-year-old son of the estate manager, Guido, to hack into Tessa’s computer. But when they open Tessa’s email program something has been sent to it which wipes the computer completely. Spooky.

Posh neighbours turn up unannounced with wine and commiserations, and peer over his shoulder, trying to see what old Justin is up to and old Justin is by now so spooked that he suspects they’ve been sent to spy on him. All good paranoid stuff.

In an interlude back at the High Commission we see Sandy Woodward struggling with his conscience, but not too hard, before delivering a speech to the assembled staff in which he has been ordered to lie for his country, and promote the official ‘line’, namely that the Kenyan police have issued an arrest warrant for Bluhm, who is obviously going to be made the scapegoat for Tessa’s murder, and going on to inform his staff that Justin has gone rogue, disappeared and, suffering from shock, appears to have concocted some cock and bull conspiracy theory. If he contacts anybody at the Commission, they must let him, Sandy, know immediately. Meanwhile part of him is sweating at the lies he knows he’s telling:

Who did this to me? he wondered while he talked. Who made me what I am? England? My father? My schools? My pathetic, terrified mother? Or seventeen years of lying for my country? (p.346)

Throughout the book the Foreign Office is depicted as populated by lickspittles, liars and corrupt politicians. It’s an amazing indictment from a man who once worked for it.

Bielefeld

Justin travels incognito to the little town of Bielefeld, near Hanover, in Germany. Here he arranges to meet someone mentioned in Tessa’s correspondence, Birgit, who works for a pharmaceutical-watching charity called Hippo. She tells Justin their charity was burgled a week before – the computer, all disks, and files of correspondence were taken, no money or valuables. More importantly she adds detail to the portrayal of Dypraxa and the scientists involved. First of all she explains the roles of its inventors, Dr Lara Emrich and Dr Kovacs overseen by a man named Markus Lorbeer, an odd character much given to quoting the Bible. Then she explains how big pharma companies bribe and seduce doctors with free trips and goodies, and other techniques of persuasion. But then she adds an important caveat:

Not all doctors can be seduced, not all pharmaceutical companies are careless and greedy. (p.370)

And more words to the effect that pharmaceutical companies contain many good and noble men and women researching the medicines that save all our lives. Maybe passages like this had to be put in at the insistence of lawyers, because the fictional indictment, the imaginative power of the novel, is so monumentally anti-pharma.

Convinced now that every passing car or pedestrian is spying on him, Justin makes it back to the hotel and walks into his room – only to be abruptly assaulted, have a hood slipped over his head, and be badly beaten up. A foreign voice warns him to lay off. His attackers eventually leave, allowing Justin to slowly recover and set about trying to untie his bonds…

Ghita’s quest

A junior member of the High Commission is Ghita Pearson, who Tessa had taken under her wing. Revolted by Sandy Woodward’s lecherous approaches, and then by his blatant lying about Tessa, Bluhm and Justin in the Big Speech he gives the Commission staff, she decides to find out what happened to them for herself. She makes an excuse to fly north to the same place Tessa visited, but under the pretext of having been asked by the WHO to check out a feminist support group. She flies to Lokichoggio, where she finds the aid camp where Tessa and Bluhm stayed. (Here – incidentally – there is lots of detail about what it’s like to be white people running this kind of place, designed to help African women be more independent, and the white women characters she meets, Sarah and Judith, are vividly described.) And Ghita is able to flesh out the Tess and Bluhm’s precise movements in their last days…

Switzerland

Justin just has the energy to stand, clean himself up, catch a cab to the station and a train to Zurich. It reminds him of childhood visits with his parents. He recuperates in a hotel with a trip to a medical clinic to be patched up. Then catches a train to Basel, home of many big pharmaceutical corporations. He struggles across town to the site of the huge gleaming KVH headquarters building.

Throughout this 250-page quest, Justin imagines that Tessa is with him. He jokes with her, shares his discoveries, asks her questions and, when he is dispirited, she spurs him on. His sections of the novel are marinated in her (fictional, hallucinated) presence. This is often very powerful and affecting.

Saskatchewan

Suddenly he is in Canada, in the town of Saskatchewan. This is one of the research centres of KVH pharmaceuticals (Canadian HQ in Vancouver) and he has come to meet one of the women involved in the original research, the fierce, humourless Dr Lara Emrich who, he discovers, has been hounded out of the university science department for criticising Dypraxa. KVH funds all kinds of research programs at the university, and so her out-spoken criticism a) jeopardises that b) leads quickly to her dismissal.

Emrich had done extensive research on the adverse side-effects of Dypraxa on 600 patients, submitted it to a learned journal where it was rejected, but the (supposedly independent) peer reviewers tipped off KVH and a) her contract was cancelled b) she received threatening notes in the post c) she started being followed. Emrich gives a summary of the situation:

  1. Dypraxa’s side effects are being concealed in the name of profit
  2. the world’s poorest communities are being used as guinea pigs by the world’s richest
  3. legitimate scientific debate is being stifled by threats and intimidation (p.429)

She and Justin are both so paranoid that they arrange to meet at neither her house nor his hotel but at the house of a third party, who turns out to be the fat, straight-talking Amy and her grumpy husband Ralph (p.423). As so often in a le Carré novel, it is this secondary character, a rumpled, foul-mouthed old geezer, who delivers the sweary ‘message’ of the book, that it’s time for all good men to speak out against corporate wickedness (see epigraph at the top of this review).

As they walk to Justin’s car, they see its wheels have been slashed. Two prowling cars approach, then one accelerates and tries to run them over. They jump into the car and drive off, the two flat tyres flumping against the road, just managing to evade the pursuing men long enough to make it to the ambulance station at the hospital. Here Emrich introduces Justin to an old Russian ambulance driver who has a soft spot for her, as a fellow Eastern émigré. This old man agrees to drive them back to Emrich’s house, where they are safe for the night and Justin sleeps.

Donohue and Curtiss

A creepy character who has appeared at the edges of various scenes is the tall, gaunt, childless Tim Donohue who is what the diplomats refer to as one of the ‘Friends’ ie works for British Intelligence. In a central scene we witness the head of ThreeBees, the obese very sweary Sir Kenny Curtiss yelling at Donohue, and the nature of their relationship is laid bare. Donohue of British Intelligence helps ThreeBees. This is made very explicit: Curtiss supplies good intelligence about dodgy arms deals or drug trading or other wrong-doing, and in exchange expects protection and support from the Commission and Donohue. He is, therefore, from his point of view, justified in being furious to discover that the High Commissioner, Porter Coleridge, has gone back to London to in person, to deliver a folder of Tessa’s evidence and demand a parliamentary enquiry into Dypraxa and ThreeBees. This scene would be a lot more plausible if Curtiss hadn’t been made into an obese monster who says ‘fuck’ in every sentence. The CEOs of big pharma companies are slender, well groomed and very clever men, to judge from their pics in the FT.

Leaving Curtiss with his threats to stop helping MI6 ringing in his ears, Donohue encounters his side-kick, Crick, a scary ex-soldier who says he has a friend who has a friend who heard a little something about a contract being put out on Tess and Bluhm. Donohue has a bad feeling that Crick might have been directly involved himself.

Part three – death and cover-up

With a hundred pages still to go the reader has now got a very good sense of the story. Tess and Bluhm were murdered by contract killers hired at a remote distance by ThreeBees and/or KVH because they had created a detailed dossier proving that Dypraxa, although a potentially good drug, was being trialled irresponsibly which was leading to unreported deaths among its African patients. And the generally ominous, tragic atmosphere of the book (when it is not being laughably posh and legendary) strongly suggests that Justin himself will come to no good. Therefore, the book has little sense of the unexpected or of suspense.

Kenya

In the final hundred pages Justin returns to Kenya under a false passport for the last part of the tragedy.

Dismayingly, this section returns to the point of view of the sweatily lecherous and duplicitous Sandy Woodward as he hosts a gala party organised by his wife, part of his bid to replace the High Commissioner who – as far as he and the staff know – is on an extended trip to London (only we know, because of the previous scene, that he is arguing with the people at the top about the enquiry into ThreeBees and Tessa’s murder.)

Sandy is busy eyeing up Tessa’s young Asian assistant, Ghita, who has returned from her trip up north with information about Bluhm and Tessa’s last movement – when Tessa and Justin’s loyal servant, Mustafa, hands him a note asking him to come to the gate. Here he is hussled into a car containing the well-disguised Justin, who proceeds to make it clear that he knows all about the conspiracy, all about Dypraxa. Devastatingly, he knows that Tessa entrusted a copy of her findings to Sandy to give to someone trustworthy to publicise, but that instead Sandy simply handed them over to his boss, Coleridge. Justin takes Woodward to an empty house and gets him to confess everything, blubbering like the cowardly reptile he is. Above all, he confirms that the evidence Tessa and Bluhm had collected was ‘massive’ – interviews, dates, places, scope of trials, secret documents, and then full documentation of the cover-up, dead bodies disappearing, whole villages intimidated into silence.

These pages confirm the corrupt intertwining between the ThreeBees corporation, British officials in the High Commission, the corrupt Kenyan government and powerful forces back in London. All of them have a vested interest in hushing up the story and thus are, to some extent or other, complicit in Tessa’s murder.

Immediately following this Justin has a final interview with Donohue, who fills in the rest of the picture. At some risk to his own career, Donohue fills in the gaps about the links between Curtiss, Crick and the murderers. But he also emphasises that Curtiss is himself in big financial trouble. The City has got wind of bad news about Dypraxa, ThreeBees shares are falling, Curtiss is in financial meltdown.

Lokichoggio

In the last act of the novel Justin takes a plane up to the northern outpost from which where Tessa and Bluhm had gone on their ill-fated drive, Lokichoggio, where Ghita had earlier visited. He meets the tubby man Brandt – ‘everyone loves him, everyone knows Brandt’ – who manages the arrival of food aid and its distribution. But Justin confronts him because now he knows that Brandt is also the villainous Lorbeer, who oversaw the development of Dypraxa, who is in cahoots with KVH. In fact, now Justin recognises him as the furtive figure in a white coat who sometimes attended on the dying African mother Wanzi, when Justin was visiting Tessa in the maternity hospital

In a hot sweaty African tent Justin confronts him with all the evidence and Lorbeer collapses in tears, weeping and wailing and calling on God to forgive his sins etc. Along with Ghita’s earlier visit to the Women’s Refuge, this long section gives the reader a good feel for the nitty gritty, for the dusty outhouses and drops of food aid from twin-prop airplanes, for the pride of local tribesmen and the appallingness of the never-ending feuds and tribal wars which underpin African poverty, and for the pressures such aid officials are under. But its main purpose is for the chivalrous Etonian Justin to confront the wicked Germanic baddy. Buried beneath the modern trappings, is the spirit of John Buchan.

In the final sequence Justin flies in the little propellor plane further north and is dropped at a remote outpost, from which he charters a peasant fishing boat to take him across the lake, the only way of getting to the very remote location of Tess and Bluhm’s murder – where Tessa’s car was ambushed, where she was raped and murdered, and the driver killed and Bluhm dragged off into the desert to be tortured and killed.

While sitting there he hears, first the little fishing boat tactfully putting back across the lake, abandoning him – and then the sound of vehicles drawing up. He knows it is the same collection of mercenaries. He hears them scrabbling towards him over the loose sand and rock and knows he is going to die.

The cover-up

In a nifty bit of structuring le Carré has actually described the aftermath of Justin’s death before it happens. He gives a dismaying account of how, following his death, Justin is systematically rubbished by the system, how the press & PR ‘machine’ makes sure a consistent message is broadcast from the High Commission, the Foreign Office back in London and by ThreeBees, carefully co-ordinated to portray Justin as an irresponsible loner, sadly unhinged by the murder of his wife, who had rejected help from the FO, shown signs of mental disturbance, disappeared on a faked passport to visit a number of discredited ex-employees with a grudge, before making a raft of wild and unfounded accusations against ThreeBees etc. Porter Coleridge – who, we are told, tried to present Tessa’s case – is ‘retired’ early. Bernard Pellegrin, the Foreign Office’s Head of Africa, takes early retirement and slips very neatly into a place on the Board of ThreeBees.

A court case is launched using the documents Justin had, throughout his investigation, been posting to a safe house in Italy, where his lawyer friend Ham could access them. But it is quickly silenced by powerful lawyers acting for ThreeBees which will ensure the case drags on forever. Nobody escapes the corporate ‘monstering’, or uncrushed by the courts or discredited by paid-for journalists and corporate spokespersons. Or murdered. Evil wins.

The novel is designed to leave you terrified at the power of Big Pharma, at the scale of the links between big business and government, at the ease with which they can repress the truth.


Issues raised by the novel

1. Third World corruption Nobody reading the novel can be unaware that corruption is endemic throughout the developing world. It comes as no news that some African rulers are corrupt, that a lot of the foreign aid given to Third World countries is siphoned off by corrupt officials, that white ex-pats in Africa live like kings while the majority of Africans around them subsist in squalid shanties and die like flies. And, a little closer to the content of this novel, no surprise that multinational corporations screw profits out of the poorest of the poor, that drug companies have not always behaved charitably in Third World companies, nor that Britain’s embassies and high commissions are stuffed with upper class twits.

2. Neo-imperialism Throughout the book JLC’s white, upper-class characters routinely look back at the folly of their Victorian forebears, with their arrogant assumption that they could run African countries. Yet they just as routinely deplore the corruption and inefficiency of the current regime, reflecting, by implication or overtly, on how much better they would run the damn place. Tessa is on a one-woman mission to save Africa, especially all African women. If only African women could be empowered to run the place, what a better job they’d make of it than the men (a sentiment powerfully echoed by Lorbeer in his isolated aid station).

Doesn’t she realise she is the latest in a long line of do-gooding Imperial wives, from the same kind of lofty background (the contessa mother, boarding school, Cambridge), with the same exuberant idealism and with the same burning conviction that something must be done which, in the end, doesn’t change anything.

3. Big pharma, bad pharma The most controversial aspect of the novel must be the central claim that one or some pharmaceutical companies unscrupulously trial new drugs in developing countries, happy to use poor Africans (who were going to die anyway, as Sir Kenneth Curtiss angrily points out) as guinea pigs to establish safe dosages which will then be used back in the Western world. Could such things happen? I know various scandals about pharma behaviour in Third World countries have been documented, especially around the pricing of life-saving drugs (particularly for AIDS). The second accusation is that these companies, or high-up people associated with them, could have a word with someone who has a word with someone who puts the word out that so-and-so public critics of said company should meet with an unfortunate accident. Could such things happen? No doubt. Have I ever read of such a thing? No, but then I haven’t spent a career following the behaviour of large pharmaceutical companies.

British physician and academic Ben Goldacre has made such a study, resulting in his book Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients. That would be one place to begin an exploration of the subject, and I don’t doubt it’s full of hair-raising stories. But it was published. And he’s still alive.

Unlike in this novel, where the central whistleblowers die horrible deaths.

Issues in the novel

The novel, with its baggy definition as a long piece of prose fiction, can include any amount of fact, history, politics, denunciation and journalism. The question is – or a question is – do these accusations work in the context of this novel? For a young person who is new to these issues I can imagine this book might be a devastating wake-up call. As a grown-up who’s spent thirty years reading about the wickedness of multinational corporations and the hopeless plight of the Third World I don’t think I read anything I hadn’t read before. In fact the one thought which I hadn’t seen expressed so well, is where one of the High Commission officials angrily tells the idealistic Tessa that it is not the job of the Foreign Office to save the world, it is not the job of the High Commission to set itself up as judge and jury over its host government and spend all its time carping and criticising. Their job is to protect the persons of the 30,000 or so British citizens living in Kenya and their business interests. What else would you expect? What else would she expect?

If these issues were new to you, maybe you would be drawn into the sense of horrible dark revelations and the ominous atmosphere the novel is, presumably, setting out to create. But for me:

  • I’d heard a lot of the ‘big issues’ before
  • in a sense the plot was given away early on – Tessa is dead and I felt we learned that she was bumped off by someone acting in the pharma company’s interests also very early, and so it didn’t come as any surprise that Justin himself ends up being bumped off – it didn’t create the frisson of fear which, I think, was intended
  • the style – the upper class cant of most of the characters – kept me repelled, or amused, or distracted so continuously that I never had any real sympathy for them

Is the thriller a suitable vehicle to make serious political points?

No, is the short answer. The thriller genre takes for granted scheming baddies, evil drug dealers or arms dealers, Blofeld or the KGB. The idea that the good guys themselves turn out to be penetrated by corruption and evil goes back at least as far as the 1970s and the outburst of conspiracy thrillers following Watergate, in fact probably back to the Kennedy assassination in the 1960s, maybe to the McCarthyite paranoia of the 1950s, or possibly to John Buchanite concerns about communists and Jews in the government of dear old Blighty. In a thriller, you expect there to be assassins in doorways and mystery cars trying to run over our hero, and all the computers to be hacked, and the government to deny any knowledge of your devastating findings because they’re in fact part of the dreadful conspiracy.

In other words, le Carré is writing his serious indictments of great social evils (the arms trade in The Night Manager, bad pharma here, American hyper-power in Absolute Friends) in a genre which teaches you not to take its grandiose conspiracies seriously; which is based on the idea that you thrill to the scale of some absurd conspiracy (like the computerised plan to invade and conquer Russia in Len Deighton’s Billion Dollar Brain), then put the book down and completely forget about it.


Thoughts about style

Legends

As usual, the characters are all legends in each other’s minds, routinely hyped up and overegged by the myth-making narrator. Sandy’s wife, Gloria, is ‘famously loquacious’ (famous to who?), Tessa’s aristocratic mother and sister were ‘fabled beauties’ (p.198), Justin visits ‘that fabled valley of the upper Rhine where pharma-giants have their castles’ (p.412), the repellent Kenny Curtiss turns on ‘the fabled charm’ (p.461), when Donohue refers to Tessa’s killers, he offensively calls them ‘the celebrated Marsabit Two’ (p.510), we read of Foreign Office mandarin Bernard Pellegrin’s ‘fabled skills at networking’ (p.549). And Tessa’s co-conspirator, Bluhm, is not just a doctor, he is:

Bluhm the Westerner’s African, bearded Apollo of the Nairobi cocktail round, charismatic, witty, beautiful. (p.35)

His colleague in an aid camp in the north of the country is ‘Reuben the legendary camp organiser’ (p.392). And so on.

Tessa, who the plot rotates around is – as you are continually reminded – the daughter of a High Court judge and an Italian contessa! She has a ‘teasing, foxing, classy voice’ (p.57). She comes from the same ‘thoroughbred stable’ as her husband, Justin. She isn’t, in other words, any old totty. She is phenomenally posh totty. She is a legend to everyone who’s met her.

God forbid le Carré’s stories should happen to ‘ordinary’ people. His characters come from Britain’s social élite and are gods and legends in their own minds. If you like this exalted atmosphere of privilege and entitlement, if you like characters talking like they are still at Eton and Harrow and Winchester and convinced they are the only people in the world who matter, then you will enjoy this book, old boy.

Lechery

Sandy Woodward is a middle-aged man with wife and children, but the opening of the novel is drenched in his unrequited leching after Tessa.

I tried not to notice her naked silhouette… trying to wrest the lower half of his gaze from the shadow of her breasts through the puff of her dress… shoulders back, dress stretched across her breasts… her naked silhouette still taunting his memory… (pp.58-63)

She is cradling the child to her left breast, her right breast free and waiting. Her upper body is slender and translucent. Her breasts, even in the aftermath of childbirth, are as light and flawless as he has so often imagined them. (p.83)

Bit of a boob man, old Sandy.

This is before we get on to Justin’s memories of meeting Tessa. How it happened is he was called up at the last minute by a chap in the FO who he knew at Eton, asking if he could deliver a lecture at Cambridge at short notice. Tessa is there, half his age, asks feisty questions, they go for a stroll by the Cam, then a spot of punting, then she takes him back to her little apartment for heady ‘sexual delights’ (p.164). She is sick of boys her own age and looking for a kindly father figure; and he, a confirmed bachelor (although with an impressive track record of affairs, of course) is blown away by her life and enthusiasm. And body. They make a pact that Justin will carry on being Mr Dull and Conventional on the inside of the diplomatic service, giving Tessa a free hand to do her thing.

Fuck

All the characters say ‘fuck’. The High Commissioner, Head of Chancery, Foreign Office Personnel, Permanent Secretary, the police, all say fuck and shit a lot.

‘You try,’ Amy said. ‘If you don’t try, you’re fucked.’
‘Fucked if you try, fucked if you don’t.’ (p.424)

As far as I can remember this is the first le Carré novel to use the word ‘fart’ (the Permanent Secretary at the FO takes Justin for lunch at his club and explains that the fish makes him fart). The opening words of the first scene in which we finally meet Sir Kenny Curtiss, head of the villainous ThreeBees pharma company, are:

‘What the fuck does your man Quayle think he’s playing at, Tim?’ (p.451)

What made George Smiley a totemic character was his quiet dignity, his restraint, his subtle intelligence. In these later novels all the characters roar:

‘This is Turkana we’re talking about, not fucking Surrey.’ (p.452) ‘I’m Sir fucking Kenneth Curtiss! I have subscribed – last year alone – half a fucking million quid to party funds. I have provided you – British fucking Intelligence – with nuggets of pure gold.’ (p.457)

Italics

This loss of self-restraint (either in the characters or by the author) is mirrored by another, which is the eruption of italics throughout the text. For some reason everyone starts emphasising every third or fourth word they say in order to really ram home the importance of what they’re saying. Get it?

‘I’m sure Justin would like me to write to him… I mean I wouldn’t tell him anything that was going to hurt him… I mean Justin knows that Tessa and Arnold were travelling together… Whatever was between them, he’s reconciled to that… There must be something you remember that she did or said… Well, I won’t say she did contribute to that discussion…

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper le Carré spoke about how angry he’s become as he grows older. It’s unfortunate that this wrath and frustration at the wicked world spill over into continual emphasis of almost everything that everybody says.

‘I just don’t see how you could survive like that… Would that be your feeling, basically?… You negotiate with other countries, don’t you? You cut deals with them. You legitimise them through trading partnerships… We really like Bluhm… Bluhm’s as close as you’ll ever get to a good man… With those big fireplaces she always had an eye for soot! And no, Mr Justin, the chimney sweep certainly didn’t have a key… Don’t tell me you’ve abandoned your computer, Guido!… But that’s awful, Guido!… You cover this bit up, then out pops another bit. So you cover that bit up… I am quite sure there was nothing of the kind on either side… What were the side effects?…

The excessive use of italics throughout the text becomes quite wearing quite quickly, but is also indicative of characters – and a narrative – which are increasingly shouting to get your attention.

‘But why did you sign the wretched contract in the first place?’…
‘Because I trusted them. I was a fool.’ (p.426)

Timeframes

If we accept that the main characters are off-puttingly posh and privileged, and that the love triangle at the heart of the novel is described with a lachrymose sentimentality that would make Mills and Boon blush, that the ‘political’ insights about the book are the kind of thing my son learns in school (Africa poor & corrupt, big business bad etc), then the most interesting thing left about the book is its structure.

In a way which reminds me of his major influence, Graham Greene, le Carré is very canny, very clever about the way the narrative of his novels are constructed from multiple timeframes. The ‘present’ of the book is the High Commission as news of Tessa’s murder comes in, followed in forward chronological order by Justin coming to stay with Sandy, both being questioned by the cops, then flying back to London.

From the vantage point of this stretch of ‘present’ narrative, both Justin and Sandy scan back over the past, remembering key moments in their lusting after or marriage to, Tessa. The plot, what happened, is relatively straightforward – but the sophisticated flashback structure allows le Carré to move at will between different key moments, building up their emotional resonance by repetition of scenes or phrases, or to suddenly reveal a previously unsuspected past of the puzzle, taking the reader by surprise with a new twist.

Interview

The interview or interrogation is a key location for this kind of timeshift and for a long stretch at the start of this novel, both Sandy and Justin are questioned at length by the two police officers who’ve flown out from London to investigate Tessa’s death. The official interview is such a handy device for an author because it allows him or her to insert long sections of narrative and plot dressed up as reminiscence, memory or just answers to the interviewers’ questions. Thus Justin replies to the cops’ persistent questions about Tessa, but also drifts off into reveries, remembering their meeting and courtship etc. Very handy, very effective.

The way a beautiful, wilful young woman falls into bed with a dowdy old diplomat I found laughably like middle-aged male wish-fulfilment, as I found the revelation that Big Pharma employs dodgy business practices in the Third World tiresomely familiar – but the structure of the narrative, the way moments and scenes from multiple moments in the past are juggled and ordered to create a multi-layered timeframe, I found immensely skillful and rewarding.


The movie

If only there was some way to enjoy the structure and pacing of this well-thought out and dramatic story without having to wade through le Carres’ highly mannered and irritating prose, without having to endure the smug self-satisfaction of his intolerably posh characters… How about – making it into a movie?

Released in 2005, the film at a stroke removes the pukka prose style and upper-class twit dialogue (what a relief, darling) to make it acceptable to an audience which was not lucky enough to attend one of England’s top public schools. It converts the long-winded, multi-levelled and circuitous text into a fast-moving action thriller with a heart-stopping soundtrack à la Bourne Identity.

It was directed by Fernando Meirelles and the timid, old bachelor Justin Quayle is transformed by the magic of the movies into the impossibly handsome Ralph Fiennes, while Rachel Weisz perfectly recreates the gorgeous, headstrong heroine, a performance which won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and a Golden Globe award.


My little pony

Rummaging in the dead woman’s room, Sandy finds a photo of Tessa as a ten-year-old riding her first pony (p.69). In his previous two novels key characters have shared memories of their first ponies and gymkhana (Oliver in Single & Single, posh totty Francesca in The Tailor of Panama). I am winning a bet with my son that all le Carré’s later novels will turn out to have a my-first-pony moment.

Credit

The Constant Gardener by John le Carré was published in 2001 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes are from the 2005 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar, 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.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
  • 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 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 dislikeable 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) 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 before he, too, is killed.
  • The Constant Gardener (2001) Posh young free-spirited diplomat’s wife Tessa Quayle discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results for the poor patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining events leading up to her murder, with her husband’s long quest to discover the truth about her death.
  • Absolute Friends (2003) 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, which comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha unwittingly lures Ted into a Machiavellian American sting whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’ climaxing with them being shot down like dogs.
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

Single & Single by John le Carré (1999)

Public school hero

Just like the narrators of The Secret Pilgrim and Our Game and the protagonist of The Tailor of Panama, the central figure in Single & Single, Oliver Single, attended a number of private schools and speaks and thinks – and is emotionally stunted – accordingly. He was bullied and harassed by the home tutor his parents hired with a view to getting him into the Dragon (preparatory) school, and his name was down for Eton from birth (where Andrew Osnard of The Tailor went, and where le Carré himself was a teacher, whoops, Master). But in the end Oliver disappointed his father, passing through a string of second-rate boarding schools before only just scraping into law school.

Back story

His father is the ‘legendary’ ‘Tiger’ Single (almost all the characters in these later le Carré novels are ‘legendary’, along with legendary tables, legendary inner sanctums and even legendary haircuts), in fact on his first appearance in the book he is introduced as ‘the one and only Tiger Single himself’, rather like a clapped-out comedian at the London Palladium in the 1970s.

Tiger had made good as a barrister in the mean chambers of Liverpool before coming down to London and setting up a brokerage and investment company named Single & Single. Despite his academic failings, Oliver manages to get his law degree and his father takes him into the firm as a partner, where he quickly uncovers the web of money laundering, offshore deals and criminal banking facilities which the firm offers to all kinds of unsalubrious characters.

The main partners in crime are a pair of very shady Georgians operating out of Moscow, the Orlov brothers, Yevgeny and the retarded Mikhail, accompanied everywhere by a sinister Polish lawyer, Dr Mirsky and a blond psychopath, Alix Hoban, who spends almost all his time creepily whispering into a mobile phone.

It is Hoban who, at a charged meeting in 1990 between the Orlov brothers and Tiger, outlines three sure-fire get-rich schemes. They are each based on the brothers bribing high officials in post-communist Russia in order to:

  • secure a monopoly in selling off Russia’s rusting scrap metal
  • seize control of Russia’s creaking oil infrastructure
  • and – sickest of all – to help set up a national Russian blood transfusion service whose real purpose would be to sell surplus blood at a profit to the West. The sums involved are hundreds of millions of pounds

So far so cynically crooked. However, all these schemes come crashing down with the Russia coup attempt of August 1991, which removes their high government contacts from power. Only after a hiatus of further trips to the East, many mysterious phone calls and some time later, do the brothers re-emerge with a new scheme which will make them and Tiger into billionaires – taking over the Asian opium and heroin trade.

While the business relationship has been deepening Oliver has made numerous visits to the Orlov family homestead, in a remote valley in Georgia, only half-jokingly referred to as ‘Bethlehem’. Prompted – or rather taunted – by one of Yevgeny’s daughters, Zoya, on one of these trips, something snaps inside Oliver when he discovers the full iniquity of this latest project. He is sickened and, in a strange mood of anxiety and disorientation, when he passes through Heathrow Customs on the way back from Georgia, makes the decision to request an interview with a senior Customs official. He wants to come clean and unburden himself.

Oliver is introduced to the sturdy, incorruptible Nathaniel Brock and confesses everything to him, forging with him that close, very personal relationship between controller and ‘joe’ which le Carré so often refers to simply as ‘love’. Olive tells Brock everything he knows about his father’s shady dealings with various international crooks.

However, even with Oliver’s confession, Brock doesn’t have evidence enough to prosecute anyone and asks Oliver to keep spying on his father and colleagues for a little longer. Eventually, when he can’t cope with his double life any longer, Oliver is spirited away, given a new name and identity in the West of England. Here he unwisely rushes into marrying Heather, a nurse, and has a baby daughter, Carmen. Years pass and their relationship collapses, and Oliver ends up separating from her and taking a room at a small hotel (reminiscent of the comfy boarding house in the West Country where Magnus Pyke retreats to in A Perfect Spy and the similarly isolated West Country house of Jonathan Pine, protagonist of The Night Manager). We learn through all the flashbacks that Tiger, faced with the evidence of his son’s flight / disappearance, ignores it, telling everyone Oliver is on an extended business tour of the world, scouting out new opportunities, occasionally returning home for personal meetings with Tiger…

But five years later, one fine day, one of his father’s fixers, the lawyer Alfred Winser, is taken from a run-of-the-mill business meeting in Turkey, to a bleak isolated spot on the coast, interrogated at gunpoint, then shot in the head – all of it recorded on video by the terrifying Hoban.

In media res

And this is where the novel actually starts, with the scene of a sobbing Winser begging to know what he’s done wrong, before he is executed. Bang. It then cuts to Oliver, labouring away at his (humiliating) new occupation as an entertainer at children’s parties. In among blowing up balloons and working a gruesome glove pocket, Oliver gets a series of phone calls which, it slowly transpires, are from his minder Brock, calling to let him know that his bank account has just had a huge amount of money paid into it and Brock and the police want to know why.

The whole of the backstory outlined above is told only after these rather puzzling opening scenes, recounted in flashbacks and memories, often shuffled out of chronological order and often told in very short snippets or scenes, which the reader has to piece together. (It is only on page 109 that Brock quietly but dramatically confirms that Oliver’s last name is Single – and we begin to make the connections with preceding scenes featuring Tiger and the firm.) It makes le Carré’s novels a lot more interesting that they’re structured like this and that they make you work hard to understand what’s going on.

Going forward

It is Winser’s execution that prompts the central crisis of the story. In one strand of the narrative it turns out that the murder has prompted Oliver’s drunk, irresponsible mother, Nadia, to tell Tiger where Oliver’s been hiding all these years: that explains the sudden payment of millions of pounds into the trust fund Oliver had set up for his baby daughter, the payment which was monitored by the authorities and prompted Brock’s calls to Oliver. It is a generous gesture by his father but also a way of communicating with him – and a threat.

But in the central strand of the story, it appears that Tiger himself has gone missing at the news of Winser’s murder… Why? And why was Winser murdered in the first place? In the execution scene, Hoban had said something about a ship being intercepted by the authorities, something Winser, even at the point of being shot, tearfully claimed to know nothing about.

Brock persuades Oliver to come out of hiding and track his father down: he is best placed to do so since he has a far better feel for his father’s behaviour and his network of crooked deals than any of Brock’s fellow officers.

And so the second half of the novel follows Oliver on an odyssey to find his missing father, which forces him to confront the ‘ghosts of his past’ (eg his miserable childhood), the terrors of the present (eg the hair-raising psychopath Hoban) and the wrath of the father he betrayed.

(This is all very similar in structure to Our Game, which opens with a hundred pages or so of puzzling events ‘in the present’ before the narrator reveals clues about the backstory, till it just about all makes sense, and then spends the second half of that book on an odyssey to find his missing friend / agent / betrayer, Larry, an odyssey which – just like here – takes the protagonist deep into the badlands of the Caucasus.)

The quest

The quest or journey is one of the oldest narrative structures in existence. Typically, the quester meets a range of people who shed light on both the world at large and his own identity, before arriving at some overwhelming truth. And that is exactly what happens here. Oliver:

  • confronts his mother at his parents’ massive country pile, Nightingales, a scene which inevitably unlocks scores of childhood memories, mostly unhappy, all those high expectations he was unable to fulfil
  • breaks into the Single & Single offices where he meets his father’s most devoted servant, an Indian called Gupta, before opening the safe in the ‘inner sanctum’ and finding incriminating paperwork which he passes on to Brock
  • flies to Zurich undercover with Aggie, the only woman on Brock’s team (‘straight-eyed and long-legged and unconsciously elegant’ (p.57) – in other words, a model, and sure enough, later on Aggie is described as looking like she should be in advert for smart rainwear, p.321). It comes as the opposite of a surprise that Oliver ends up having an affair with her
  • in Zurich interviews the Swiss lawyer Single & Single deal with, who reveals that his father also visited a week before (ie he’s on the right trail) and was terrified

Oliver is about to sneak out on Aggie from their Swiss hotel when she catches him red-handed and insists they fly together to Istanbul. Here Oliver goes to the heavily-guarded house of the crooked lawyer, Dr Mirsky. He is out but Oliver is grudgingly admitted, accompanied by heavies down to the pool, where he meets the leggy, flirtatious Mrs Mirsky. After some flirting Mirsky himself arrives, sweeps Oliver up into his office, and explains the double cross which is at the heart of the novel.

The reveal

Tiger’s right hand man in London is ‘Randy’ Massingham, who has long been restive at his subordinate position. On the Orlov side the psycho Habon is obviously a threat. Between the two of them they have cooked up a scheme. Fragments of the Orlovs’ smuggling operations will be leaked to the Russian authorities, who will pick off bits and pieces. The aim will be to attach the blame to Single & Single in such a way as to a) discredit Tiger b) persuading the Orlov brothers to demand compensation money out of him using threats and menaces c) ultimately destabilise the Orlov operation enough for Hoban to take over and eliminate the brothers.

So Hoban gets Massingham to tip off the British authorities who will tip off the Russian authorities about a ship – the Free Tallinn – arriving in Odessa carrying tons of heroin. The Russians duly storm the boat, and in the resulting firefight Yevgeny’s beloved brother, Mikhail, is shot dead.

It is this – the death of his brother – which tips Yevgeny over the edge, which ages him decades overnight, which reduces him to a pawn in the hands of the manipulative Hoban. Hoban persuades Yevgeny that, since the tip-off came from London, Tiger must be behind it, the double-crossing b*stard. And it is this which leads to the outrageous demand Oliver has learned about on his odyssey – a demand hand-delivered to Tiger at his office along with a video. The demand was for the immediate refund of all moneys invested with Single & Single, plus punitive damages and costs and interest: £200 million in total! And the video is the film Hoban shot right at the start of the novel – a video of Alfred Winser begging for his life before having half his head blown off. No wonder Tiger emerged shaking from his office, drove straight to his country house to load a travel bag, flew on a fake passport to Switzerland and then…

For a heartless amoral crook, Mirsky is disarmingly frank with Oliver and doesn’t harm him, driving him back into town. Oliver reports back to Brock then takes Aggie to the house where he had previously met the Orlovs and their extended family. It is empty and abandoned, the only person left in it the now-almost-demented Zoya, cradling an armed Kalashnikov. They manage to talk her down, get the gun off her, make her soup and discover the family has returned to Mingrelia.

It is at this point that Oliver does finally succeed in eluding Aggie, setting off on a motorbike for a long night-time drive to an airfield in eastern Turkey. Here he charters a plane at an outrageous rate which flies him to the remote valley in the Caucasus which he had visited so many times in happier days. When he arrives everyone is very unfriendly, though he is allowed to make his way up to the Orlov family mansion on a hill.

Although he knows there is a price on his head, although he knows he could be shot dead at any moment, Oliver braves it out, talking to the shrivelled, shadow-of-his-former-self Yevgeny and his wife as if nothing has happened, trying to raise everyone’s spirits. Hoban enters and Oliver begins shaking with fear inside but hides it, insisting on making tea and then helping cook the evening meal for everyone, just like normal. Eventually they let him see his father, Hoban taking him out back to a filthy stable where Tiger is lying half-naked in the straw, prisoned in a massive chain and manacles.

The Massingham plotline

While Oliver’s odyssey across Europe has been going forward, it has been interspersed by a parallel plot strand based in London. Here the imperturbable Brock is in possession of Randy Massingham, formerly arrogant globe-trotting representative of Single & Single, now trying not to quake with fear in a seedy safe house in south London since he, too, received a letter and a copy of the video which said that not only he, but his gay lover, William, would meet the fate of Alfred Winser.

Thus Oliver’s adventures are interspersed with the much less glamorous, much more slow-burning, psychologically tense interrogation of the evasive, arrogant Massingham by calm, persistent Brock. In the end Massingham breaks, reveals the whole story and prompts Brock to realise he has to act now to save both Tiger and Oliver.

Bloody climax

Novels must end. Narratives must reach a conclusion. And endings are notoriously difficult.

The actual events in this one are as violent as any action movie. Brock and a team of SAS-style hard men fly to south Russia, where they meet up with Russian Special Forces and take helicopters to the Orlovs’ isolated valley. Thus Oliver is back in Yevgeny’s living room, pleading for Tiger’s life, trying to explain that they were stitched up, Tiger would never kill Mikhail, indeed he would never tip off the authorities and he never did, someone else has concocted the whole thing… when they hear the sound of helicopters flying overhead and, only minutes later, the room explodes as gas grenades detonate everywhere and the windows and doors are suddenly full of black-clad special forces men rushing in, throwing Oliver and the dazed Tiger to the ground, coshing Yevgeny and his old wife and then, as the wicked baddy Hoban goes for his gun, there is the ‘plop’ of a silenced gun firing and a red rose blossoms in his forehead. Cool, leggy Aggie, dressed in figure-hugging black, stands over the prostrate Ollie, having saved his life – Modesty Blaise come to life, an S&M princess. There stood:

Aggie, brandishing a submachine gun and wearing a panther suit and Apache warpaint. (p.413)

But what really distinguishes this violent ending from hundreds of others like it is the eerie detachment of the protagonist whose eyes we see it through. As his quest has continued Oliver’s consciousness has become increasingly overloaded with memories, dizzied by the complexity of his father’s scams and the conspiracy against him, and unsettled by the clashing of the two lives he’s been living, his old life and the new identity, wife and child he has ended up abandoning, not to mention trying to keep track of all the women he’s sleeping with.

It is in this heightened, almost delirious, mood that Oliver had bluffed his way into Yevgeny’s house and tried to persuade the sceptical hosts that nothing has changed, that they’re still all old friends, that good old Tiger wouldn’t hurt a fly, come on Yevgeny… And when the bombs suddenly explode and the guns start firing his mind collapses away from the chaotic present and his last thoughts are for his daughter, Carmen, 5,000 miles away in a suburban bedroom, and  his only worry that all the crashing and banging might wake her up.

The grail

And the immortal wisdom which is won at the climax of the quest? As in so many modern quests, the knowledge at the end of the rainbow has the taste of ashes, as he stands over the body of his short, shrunken, dirty, powerless and humiliated father, realising:

You have revealed the full scale of your immense, infinite nothingness. At the brink of death, you have nothing to plead but your stupefying triviality. (p.407)

Seen in a simple Freudian light, the whole book has led up to this moment of crushing insight, as Oliver realises he has triumphed over his father, reducing him to a nullity, travelling all this way not to rescue him – but to witness his utter humiliation.


Themes and style

Mingrelia

The Orlov brothers are not in fact Georgians, they are Mingrelians, a sub-ethnic group of Georgians, who live in the Caucasus. We learn quite a lot about their culture and history as we accompany Oliver on several business trips where he is shown around the stunning landscape and peasant culture by his proud hosts, the Orlov brothers. The novel is set in very much the same part of the world as Our Game, which gravitated around the protagonists’ involvement in the independence movement of the nearby Ingush people. Given all of Russia (or the world) to choose from, why the attraction of this tiny out-of-the-way part of it?

What’s interesting is the way that, in two long novels set in this small area, le Carré mentions but doesn’t make much of the Chechens, the not-much-larger ethnic group and nation neighbouring the Ingush and Mingrelians, but which caused Russia much more trouble in the 1990s, triggering two major wars, waves of terrorism, and the proliferation of the Chechen mafia inside Russia (as described in, for example, the opening scenes of Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant thriller, Red Square).

Maybe it’s because the Chechen situation is complex and big, whereas the Ingush who feature in Our Game and the Mingrelians who feature in this novel, are tiny minority groups who le Carré is free-er to handle fictionally. Rather than take on the large and complex socio-economic-political issues of the Chechens, the relative obscurity of the Ingush and Mingrelians allows le Carré to focus not on big picture politics, but on the psychology of just a handful of individuals, doing what he does best, which is build up in-depth profiles of a small group of players, who are described in such a way as to become looming, unreally outsize avatars who, in their psychological potency and exaggerated style, drift loose of their ‘historical’ settings to become almost allegorical figures.

Easy sex

In the opening pages Oliver is described by his landlady as strong and silent (p.27), like a medieval hero striding out of a cave in his armour (p.33), with the ‘strong, upright, officer-class voice’ like the actors in courtroom melodramas (p.34).

He is six foot something and built like an ‘Alp’. When he’s finished doing a clown performance at a party of pukka mums, the one paying him begins to flirt with him. Rather like legendary Larry in Our Game and caddish Osnard in Tailor, poor Oliver is a babe magnet.

When he arrives in Mingrelia and is introduced to Yevgeny Orlov’s extended family, Oliver immediately notices Yevgeny’s fourth daughter, Zoya, sitting apart from the rest, nursing her sickly son, Paul, and something passes between them. Unfortunately, she is married to the psychopath Hoban. Partly to distract himself Oliver agrees to have lessons in Mingrelian back in London with one Nina, and after a day or two they’re having sex (‘Soon she shares his bed, p.175). In fact his father asks him how many times a day he’s screwing her? ‘Twice at night and once in the morning,’ as per family tradition? Archie from the Trading Floor asks, ‘Gave her one for breakfast, did we, Ollie boy?’ (p.209) She leaves bite marks on his shoulder.

However, it doesn’t last and when the initial plans with the Orlov brothers fall through, so does the affair (although Nina’s mother recommends an older male tutor if he still wants to learn the language, a man who was once, inevitably, Nina’s mother’s lover). Anyway, sex with Nina had never eliminated thoughts of Zoya out of Oliver’s mind and the next time he returns to Mingrelia the readers isn’t surprised when there’s a knock on his door late at night and it’s Zoya ready to be ‘taken’.

On the bed they fight until they are naked, then take each other like animals until both of them are satisfied. (p.188) Flinging herself round to him, she traps him between her thighs and lunges at him with ferocity, as if by taking him inside her she will silence him. (p.196)

(Very like the way Osnard ‘takes’ the drunk Louisa in The Tailor of Panama.) At dinner with the Orlovs, ‘The scent of Zoya’s juices is still on him. He can smell it through his shirt’ (p.189).

Much later, when he is driven to a safe house, and when he then flies under an assumed identity to Zurich, it is with the only woman on Brock’s team, ‘Aggie’. There is a thumping inevitability to the way they end up having an affair, she falling in love with him, him adding her to his list of ‘conquests’.

He saw a stalky girl appear, tall as himself but fit. High cheek bones, long blondish pony-tail, and that thing that tall girls have of putting all their weight on one leg while they cock the other hip. (p.118) [Sounds like a blonde Modesty Blaise.]

After Winser’s murder and Oliver has come out of hiding, he visits the penthouse apartment where his father used to live, now abandoned. First he stops at an apartment in the same building where Kat Altremont lives, his father’s long-time mistress and owner of a high-class restaurant near the Singles’ office. He is there to quiz her about his father’s movements but she immediately starts flirting with him.

She stepped forward, drawing the whole length of him against her, which was how she greeted all her men, chest to chest and groin to groin… (p.262)

And while he tries to get a straight answer out of her about why his father so suddenly fled, all she wants to do is rub her legs against him. In the lift up to his father’s penthouse room, she falls into his arms.

‘She feathered her tongue against his while her hands skimmed and dived around his crotch.’ (p.270).

When Oliver’s finished searching the flat, she says he’s more than welcome to come and share her bed.

When he visits the frightened lawyer, Conrad (‘our gallant doctor, our wizard of offshore’ p.288), in Zurich, he makes a point of flirting with the secretary in a bid to see whether she knows whether his father ordered a taxi or where he went after his meeting. She immediately starts to respond.

When Oliver talks his way into the heavily guarded compound of the crooked lawyer, Dr Mirsky, in Istanbul, Mirsky is not there but his wife is. She is ‘blonde, long-legged’, Swedish, and wearing a bathing costume as she lounges by the pool and it is no surprise that she too begins to flirt with this uninvited intruder, criss-crossing her legs, stretching, showing off her assets. Basically, wherever he goes women start melting, swooning, flashing their breasts and grabbing his crotch.

And it’s not just Ollie. Even in the opening pages as the poor lawyer Alfred Winser faces his end, he has time to remember having sex with his reluctant wife, being tied to the bedstead of a house in Chiswick by ‘a chubby friend’, the deep white thighs of young Swedish women and once seeing a young woman topless in a field of poppies.

Oliver’s landlady remembers visits to the randy local bank manager who suggests they discuss her loan in bed (p.37).

Ollie’s ex-wife’s boss is remembered roaring with laughter and winking at ‘the husbands he was cuckolding’ (p.84).

When Brock’s homely wife rings him at work and tells him the local gossip, she includes the recent tale of one neighbour telling another neighbour to stop her husband standing outside her window with ‘his nasty nature in his hand.’ (p.100)

There is, in other words, a kind of permanent sense of arousal about this novel. Almost all the men are thinking about sex, and almost every female character begins to melt into the hero’s arms, whether he wants them to or not, in a way it’s difficult not to find a little ludicrous, more Bondish than Bond, like a kind of soft porn male fantasy.

It is a welcome relief that Oliver’s ex-wife, Heather, really hates him and, when she finds out that he lied to her about his entire past, hates him even more. At least there’s one woman in the novel not in a hurry to get her kit off, but she is very much in the early parts of the book, before Oliver assumes his odyssey and begins to transform into a mythical figure.

Bombastic style

For the first hundred pages I thought we’d shaken off the phenomenal poshness of public school characters, the upper-class slang and schoolboy jargon which bombard the reader of Our Game and The Tailor of Panama – I thought it might be a normal spy thriller with normal people who talk like the people you know and meet and hear on the radio and see on TV.

But as the book progresses it becomes more dominated by bombast and hyperbole. Characters – especially the father figure, Tiger, with his rather laughable nickname – are ‘legends’, they benefit from multiple epithets like Greek gods, they are referred to as the Famous X or the Fabled Y or the Legendary Z, people pepper their speech with quotes from literature or the Bible or Shakespeare and generally sound like Mr. Cholmondley-Warner from the Harry Enfield sketches.

Repetition Why describe something once when you can describe it three times? Thus Heather calls Oliver ‘her gentle giant, her lord and schoolmaster’ (p.84) We are introduced to Brock’s assistant, Tanby, ‘Brock’s emaciated shadow’.

Cadaverous Cornish Tanby who drives Brock’s car for him when he needs to catch an hour’s kip. Fetches Brock’s Chinese take-in for him when he can’t leave his desk. Fronts for him, lies for him, hauls me upstairs when my feet are lame from drink. Tanby the calm voice in the storm, the one you want to throttle with your sweating hands. (p.90)

Whether this works or not depends on whether you prefer analysis and statements of fact, or whether you enjoy the rhythm of repetitive rhetoric.

Brock was putting names to Oliver’s worst apprehensions, raising unsleeping ghosts from his past, adding new fears to old ones. (p.113)

Tiger claims that S&S’s wealth is down to ‘Our own sweat and tears. Our intuition, our flair, our flexibility. Our merit.’ (p.191). Repeat repeat repeat is the mantra of this style.

Grandiosity Why refer to someone by name when you can inflate their importance using portentous abstract nouns? Thus Oliver the whistleblower becomes ‘The lonely decider. The idealist. The walk-in of all time.’ (p.230)

Why describe a scene when you can turn it into a kind of fairground show, complete with circus-master twirling his moustache and booming through a loudhailer? When Tiger phones down to Oliver and asks him to come up to the big office, to be officially made a partner in the firm:

It is not Elsie Watmore calling Oliver to arms but Tiger himself on the internal office telephone. It is not Pam Hawsley our fifty-thousand-a-year Ice Maiden, nor Randy Massingham our Chief of Staff and raddled Cassius. It is The Man, live on stage, impersonating the Voice of Destiny… it is springtime in the young life of our budding junior-and-only partner fresh from law school, our Czarevitch, our Heir Apparent to the Royal House of Single… (p.125)

Single & Single isn’t a company, it is ‘a magic kingdom of which his father is benign and absolute ruler’ (p.128). Tiger is accompanied by:

The fabled Yevgeny Orlov, Moscow’s patriarchal fixer, power broker, travelling plenipotentiary and cupbearer to the Throne of Power itself. (p.129)

Why does le Carré do this, submit his characters to this sustained facetious exaggeration? Is it meant to be funny? It has the effect of distancing the reader and making the characters, and the entire text, seem fatuous and a bit stupid.

Famous We read of the ‘famous Wedgwood double doors’ into the ‘divine glow’ of Tiger’s presence (p.127). The ‘fabled Yevgeny Orlov’ (p.129). At the Kat’s Cradle restaurant, our guys take ‘the famous round table in the bay’ (p.150). ‘The Orlovs are family men. Famous for it.’ (p.152) The lift to the top floor isn’t a lift – ‘the famous gilded cage stood open to waft distinguished visitors to the top floor’ (p.210). When Oliver enters his father’s office – aka ‘the Tiger’s lair’ – it is to find him ‘standing in the fabled rotunda’ (p.215). Oliver isn’t forgetful; he is afflicted ‘with his legendary vagueness’ (p.306).

The expression ‘a legend in their own mind’ was coined to describe the pompous self-importance of various types who rose to prominence in the 1980s, not least the merchant bankers who liked to think of themselves as Masters of the Universe or Big Swinging Dicks. That’s who the bombastic self-importance applied to all the characters in this novel – and their lifts and offices – reminds me of.

Religion Why say the lift is going up when you can say it is going to ‘Heaven’? Why say Tiger had a private office, when you can refer to ‘the inner sanctum’ or ‘the holy of holies’? Thus Aggie’s mother was a GP ‘and visiting angel to the poorer Glasgow suburbs’ (p.60). Brock has ‘an almost religious sense of Oliver’s rarity’ (p.95). Brock ‘allows himself a pause for prayer and contemplation’ (p.98). Meetings of the Joint Crime Prevention Team which Brock attends are ‘informal prayer sessions’ addressed by ‘a wise woman from Research’. Brock is confident that by interrogating Oliver he has ‘committed no sin against Oliver’s soul’ (p.104). Brock tells him:

‘Alfie Winser was his life-long friend and comrade-in-arms, you’ll be pleased to learn. They trudged the same hard road, shared the same ideals. Amen’ (p.116)

Why Amen? What does that Amen do except make Brock’s dialogue sound like the humourless parody of a sermon?

The crowd of coppers hanging round a meeting room are a ‘congregation’. Oliver hugs himself ‘in some private ritual of prayer’ (p.122). Tiger’s smile ‘bestows a saintly purpose’ over his colleagues (p.128). Anyone who likes Georgia is ‘a true believer’, says one of Yevgeny’s people, ‘with the authority of the pulpit, ‘in holy confirmation of his faith’ (p.133).

‘Yevgeny’s office is a chapel of calm’ (p.158). ‘Tiger himself has chosen the path of solitude and contemplation’ (p.180). The helipad at Tiger’s country house ‘is a secret altar’ (p.233). When talking to Oliver’s ex-wife, Heather, Brock ‘had a priestly tone for these occasions’ (p.250). When Oliver tells Conrad the lawyer what they think has happened it is not his version of events, it is ‘the Gospel according to Brock’ (p.290). ‘The room was a chapel of remembrance’ (p.309), and so on…

Bereft of any actual spiritual or religious content, the use of religious vocabulary is one of the many tactics used to heighten and exaggerate the language and create a permanent effect of ironic and facetious exaggeration.

Private school comparisons A really hard core English private education seems to mark its benficiaries for life, so that they refer everything in later life back to it, everything sparks memories of your prep school, or boarding school, or public school.

Thus the ‘wise woman’ who addresses the Joint Crime Prevention Team about modern crime speaks ‘with the firmness of a head mistress addressing her school leavers.’ (p.102) The Customs room at Heathrow where Oliver is questioned ‘reminds him of a boys’ changing room in one of his many boarding schools.’ (p.104) When Oliver sneaks off from Aggie, it isn’t as an adult, aware of his betrayal – instead he feels ‘like a schoolboy playing truant’ (p.383).

Oliver is seven years old. It is his first pony class and he is wearing a stiff bowler and tweed jacket. (p.232)

I’m sure we all remember our first pony class. (In fact this moment is a repeat of the memory of her first gymkhana which comes back to the leggy, posh totty Francesca, in The Tailor of Panama. Maybe there’s a first-pony memory in each of le Carré’s post-Cold War novels. But can you imagine Alec Leamas from The Spy Who Came In From The Cold reminiscing about his first pony? Or George Smiley? These aren’t just minor details, they are symptomatic of the completely different mindset and milieu of le Carré’s novels of the 1990s compared with those from the 1960s and 70s.)

The fact that most reviewers never refer to the phenomenally posh nature of his characters, the dialogue and the narrative prose is testament to the way most people working in publishing and book-reviewing themselves went to prep school, boarding school and Oxbridge, and regard this extraordinarily pukka, ironically superior diction as normal.

Great turns of phrase

Dealing with all the above on a page-by-page basis is so disappointing because le Carré is still very much capable of great turns of phrase and vivid descriptions which take you right there, in really well-imagined scenes.

The air inside the mortuary stank of putrefaction and formaldehyde. It nipped at the consul’s larynx and turned his stomach like a slow key. (p.47)

The Kurd dumped the fresh ice into the bathtub and withdrew, his mules slapping the wet stones. (p.51)

There are more firmly imagined moments and magical use of language in this book than in the previous few and for the first hundred pages or so it feels like it might be a ‘normal’ novel without le Carré’s usual barrage of bombast. He has a great way of shaping a sentence, lots of pithy encapsulations, a wonderful throwaway precision, which reminded me of his classic period in the 1970s.

…the pleasure cruisers and glass-bottomed safari boats, the little trawlers in their fishing-net mantillas.. (p.56)

A pink moon hung above him, cut to pieces by the razor wire coiled along the courtyard wall… A strained silence followed while Pode fiddled with papers and Lanxon gardened at  his pipe, gouging sodden tobacco onto an ashtray. (p.65)

The moon hung ahead of him making a white ladder of the sea. (p.83)

But…

Schoolboy prose

It is obviously a grown-up story. It is about a grown-up world and features lots of grown-ups. They have sex. They say ‘fuck’ a lot. They concoct wicked schemes. But one particular paragraph pulled me up short.

In the House of Single the tension is audible. The primly clothed typists tread gingerly. The Trading Room, barometer of morale, is buzzing with rumour. Tiger has gone out there for the big one! It’s boom or bust for Single’s! Tiger is poised for the kill of the century. (p.174)

It made me realise that a lot of this and the previous novels’ over-excited prose is more than schoolboyish, it’s actually childish. Not just the references to the characters’ jolly public school days. Not just the overgrown schoolboy banter and slang. But the actual mind-set which the prose conveys is like something out of Just William or Biggles. OK, there’s a lot of swearing and guns and sex to fool you into thinking it’s a book for grown-ups. But somewhere at the core of these texts is a gleeful adolescent rubbing his hands and yelling, Yes! the Great Spy has entered the Enemy Camp! The Master of Ceremonies awaits in the Holy of Holies! The Black-Clad Heroine stands over the Fallen Hero, Gun in Hand.

As the novel progresses the brilliant phrase-making diminishes and the bombast and exaggeration take over. And the louder the prose shouts the more the underlying mentality seems that of a 1950s boys’ comic. At a deep level, for all its geopolitical earnestness, and although le Carré is an often brilliant writer, this feels like it’s not really a serious book.


Credit

Single and Single by John le Carré was published in 1999 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 2000 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent 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 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 dislikeable 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) 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 before he, too, is killed.
  • 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)

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.

Posh

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)

Legendary

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

‘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!

Fuck

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.

Religion

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?

Conclusion

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)

Lovely.

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.


Credit

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.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent 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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