Our Kind of Traitor
John le Carré
Writing about actions and their consequences was never David Cornwell’s thing. It was his navigations into the slippery, clockwork-sprung zone in between that made readers recognise that the writer under the nom de plume of John le Carré was at his finest when dealing with human psychology under extreme conditions, which made for that soup best served cold: the spy novel.
Le Carré found his ideal grazing grounds in the Cold War years, with characters like George Smiley and Alan Turner, heightened by their ordinariness in extraordinary situations in novels like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, A Small Town in Germany and Smiley’s People, playing out their inner turmoils in a world that used them in a giant ideological experiment. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Le Carré’s gaze had moved to the big, bad world of multinational corporations. He was still engaging, but sounded increasingly like an op-ed page writer in a novelist’s clothing concerned about highlighting an immoral universe than an amoral one.
It was only after 9/11 that another field of moral ambiguity and human terror unfolded. The moral uncertainty returned in the 2003 Absolute Friends, but it’s in his latest novel, Our Kind of Traitor that Le Carré returns to the inner workings of men. Picking up themes of post-Putin Russia, the international ‘war on terror’ and money laundering from his last book, A Most Wanted Man, Le Carré has us meet a young English couple, engaged and very much still pre-nuptial, on a holiday in Antigua. He, Peregrine Makepeace aka Perry, an academia-hating acadamic who’s tired of being the perennial man of thought, wanting to kick off his Oxfords and become a man of action; she, Gail Perkins, good-looking “sparky barrister on the rise” — that they together form a classic New Labour opinionated pair with a conscience they wear on their sleeves and with that potent mix of being irritating and cute. In essence, 2009 Londontown people.
There in the Caribbeans, quite by chance, Perry is invited to a game of tennis with the “number one money launderer in Russia”. This loud, gregarious, made-to-type character is Dima, the subject of the title of Le Carré’s novel. Perry and Gail are actually sought out by Dima, who believes (correctly, considering cliches are cliches because they are based on truth?) that all English Oxbridge academics are intelligence operatives, and he seeks their help to relocate to Britain with his family and, in essence, to turn Bibhishan, in exchange of information that the British government will definitely find precious.
The first half of the book has the couple telling two British secret service agents in an undisclosed location about their meetings with Dima. I know that the detailed, pointillistic descriptions that Le Carré puts on paper for 80-odd pages have the genuine flavour of a debriefing. But as a novel, it gets a bit tiring in this back-and-forth between the recent past in Antigua and a basement room in London. Sparks do fly though. In a meeting with the foul-mouthed, Lutheran-sounding Hector, a renegade in the secret service to whom Perry and Gail offer themselves as raw ‘operatives’ for the British government, the exchange is granular and precise:
“Now it was Hector’s turn to reflect. ‘You’ll just have to take our word for it.’
‘Your Service’s word?’
‘For the time being, yes’.
‘On the strength of what? Aren’t you supposed to be the gentlemen who lie for the good of the country?’
‘That’s diplomats. We’re not gentlemen.’
‘So you lie to save your hides.’
‘That’s politicians. Different game entirely.’
Le Carré’s Hector may be the heroic Achilles with a vulnerable heel in this semi-epic story. But it’s Luke Weaver, who along with Yvonne, his almost Stieg Larsson-ish partner, is the real interesting character, if not the protagonist of this book. Luke’s inner world consists of a bad marriage, of being besotted with women, of him as a father trying to be a good father, and as British operative in Colombia where tortures have left him scarred.
There can be criticism about the way the book ends, in a bang and not in a whimper the way ‘literary’ fiction prefers it to end. But the truth is that in between Dima’s story — about Russian money launderers (and their tangential involvement in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks mentioned in the book) — and Luke’s inner coils and counter-coils as someone toying to wriggle out of the System, Le Carré has fleshed out a tale of human hope and longing couched in a spy novel.
The climax, of Dima meeting Perry and Gail, is supposed to take place in the venue of Roland Garros at the 2009 French Open final in Paris between Robin Soderling and Roger Federer (the actual match described in pages 200-202). But the real friction and frisson takes place elsewhere, in Luke’s mind and in the tangible world surrounding him later.
It takes a while for the reader to realise that Le Carré is back at what he does best — get inside the human heart’s palpitations. But then, he is back, gnawing inside a suffering human’s head.
Gomorrah: Roberto Saviano is in Naples, busy noting down details of mutilated bodies, drug dealings and contract killings. It’s Italy as you wouldn’t have imagined.