Imperfect spies

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O U R  K I N D  O F  T R A I T O R
b y  J o h n  l e  C a r r é

Prospect, September 2010

Just short of his 80th year, John le Carré is a prodigy, producing his last five novels in less than a decade, a higher average even than his more youthful years of output as our nonpareil spy novelist. Perhaps it’s partly anger that supplies his energy, for he gives the impression of having got more wrathful as he’s got older: of having become, to borrow the self-description of a character in his latest novel, “a late-onset, red-toothed radical with balls”. In the past decade he has stepped outside the cloisters of espionage to take shots at dirty capitalism (The Constant Gardener), the Iraq war (Absolute Friends), Western neocolonialism and the war on terror (The Mission Song, A Most Wanted Man). This summer, at the moment of the US spy scandal and swap at Vienna, he wrote a piece for the Guardian that quivered with contempt for Russian and American attitudes.

As a result his late novels have mostly returned to a story model perfected by his mentors, Graham Greene and Eric Ambler, a story of innocence abroad whose generic title might be “The Accidental Agent”. So it also turns out in Our Kind of Traitor, his 22nd novel.

The target this time is the City of London, whose indiscriminate thirst fails to baulk even at the billions derived from organised crime. The reluctant agent is Perry Makepiece, a bored thirty-year-old leftist Oxford academic on a once-in-a-lifetime tennis holiday in Antigua with his barrister girlfriend. His foil is a middle-aged Russian from Perm named Dima, “a muscular, erect, huge-chested, completely bald man wearing a diamond-encrusted gold Rolex wristwatch and grey tracksuit bottoms”, who demands a game of tennis. Dima is a banker of a type swiftly identifiable to anyone familiar with the extra-legal structure of post-Soviet capitalism (which means all of us by now): a structure so successful for the winners that almost its only inconvenience is the size of its profits.

Dima’s task is to clean these profits for Russia’s biggest syndicate of vory v zakonye, “thieves-in-law” or criminal brotherhoods. He is an acknowledged genius at his job but has fallen out with the syndicate’s unscrupulous new boss, “the Prince”, who recently ordered the drive-by murder of Dima’s protégé and his wife. Glimpsing that there is no longer honour among thieves, and suspecting that he may be next, Dima seeks sanctuary for his extended family in London in return for full disclosure of the syndicate’s crimes and billions.

The syndicate’s portfolio covers the usual frauds: rebranding and trading embargoed Middle East oil, illegal logging, conflict diamonds, phoney medicines and so on. He also implicates British, EU and American officials and corporations. (To support his point, le Carré reprints as an afterword an interesting 2009 article from the Observer by Rajeev Syal, claiming that during the height of the global financial crisis $325bn of “drugs money” was the only liquid investment available to keep the banking system afloat, funds that were then absorbed without ill conscience into the banking system.)

After their tennis match, Dima elects Perry and his girlfriend Gail as go-betweens. Perry contacts British intelligence. He and Gail are ushered with celerity into the orbit of “Special Projects” and its director, a hard-swearing ascetic named Hector Meredith. Meredith, who has the brains though not the subtlety of George Smiley and a rather worse mouth than Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, recruits them, and they are sent to a reunion with Dima, first at Roland Garros in Paris, then at Bern where Dima’s banking headquarters and family are based, and from where they are to be sprung.

There is a great deal more plot flying around than that, most to do with a crooked British MP, first sighted on a Deripaska-style yacht in the Adriatic, who is supporting the foundation of a new City of London bank to be capitalised by the Russians’ fortunes. There are some nice sub-plots. Delay dogs Perry’s and Hector’s project while the desk spies debate the value and implications of Dima’s revelations, Gail becomes involved with Dima’s children. The mechanics too are exciting. In a typically complex le Carré narrative, the author expends restless energy on both pace and detail. There can be few novelists who have informed themselves to the extent that le Carré (or his researcher) has about, for example, the intricacies of the vignette system for vehicular access to Swiss mountain tracks.

But when was the last time you believed in a character described like this? “A sparky young barrister on the rise, blessed with looks and a quick tongue, sometimes a little too quick for her own comfort…. Nature had provided Gail with long, shapely legs and arms, high, small breasts, a lissom body, English skin, fine gold hair and a smile to light the gloomiest corners of life.” Or this? “Without his stoop, Hector might have been the taller. With his classic broad brow and flowing white hair tossed back in two untidy waves, he resembled to Perry’s eye a Head of College of the old, dotty sort. He was in his mid-fifties, by Perry’s guess, but dressed for eternity in a mangy brown sports coat with leather patches at the elbow and leather edges to the cuffs. The shapeless grey flannels could have been Perry’s own. So could the battered Hush Puppy shoes.” English skin? In his mid-fifties? Gail sounds more like a Bratz doll than any barrister I have met; and Hector Meredith, by that caricatural collection of attributes, is at least seventy-five.

Le Carré’s strength has admittedly lain in the depiction of “cold” labyrinths – of plot; of intelligence and the neural dispositions of those involved in it, of corporations, systems, institutions – rather than the warm labyrinths of human character. His novels are vulnerable to being reduced to their author’s love-hate obsession with institutions, their sense of belonging and their secrets: boarding schools, universities, offices of state, corporations, covert agencies. He has said that from childhood he invested institutions with those qualities he hoped to find in his parents, but that because his early education was so brutal the institutions he later described were cruel and unpredictable.

Yet his early fiction answered the serious reader’s need for existential depth. Poor, cynical Alec Leamas and his East German interrogator Fiedler are psychological portraits of sympathy as well as sophistication (even if begotten in their world-weariness from  Greene characters: Fowler of The Quiet American, Querry of A Burnt-Out Case).

Inhabiting such characters demands empathy and imaginative exertion. In Our Kind of Traitor only the compromised Russian, Dima, elicits that effort, in the “conflicting grimaces of [his] sweated face in the half-darkness, how he pours himself another vodka, chucks it back, mops his face, grins, glowers indignantly at Perry as if questioning his presence, reaches out and grabs him by the knee in order to hold his attention while he makes a point, relinquishes it, and forgets him again”.

The novel’s British characters have few of these “conflicting grimaces”. They are distinguished instead by a ruling quality – Hector’s swearing, his sidekick Luke’s lechery, Perry’s love of sport, Gail’s protectiveness of Dima’s daughter. More worryingly, they talk in more or less the same way. It is very disconcerting when Gail begins to swear like Hector. This cumulative lack of differentiation and creeping cliché are lazy. Expressions such as “drop-dead gorgeous” and “leatherbound tome” recur. Adverbs are everywhere. Even the energising anger comes to feel neither natural nor internalised, but a device. “Goddam”, “bloody”, “fucking” stand in too often for real urgency, real emphasis. There is – from a tonal point of view – far too much swearing.

And I was nagged by an anachronism: that Dima doesn’t simply fly his family directly to London for a holiday. My Russian business friends have generally found themselves rather favoured recipients of British visas. Perhaps, though the Cold War is 20 years over, le Carré finds it difficult to shed the classic defector plot, in which the springing is half of the action.

Herein lies the heart of the problem with today’s spy novel: where there was once ambiguity, fear and moral equivalence between East and West to be laid bare, a sense that the political was always personal, today the East-West novel no longer has an ideology to be batted around. There is no posited good and evil; as Eric Ambler presciently wrote in the late 1930s – and the recent US spy “scandal” showed – good business and bad business are the elements of the new theology. Radicalism, as once understood, is meaningless. To deal with this fictionally, as much attention as was once devoted to labyrinths of power needs to be devoted to labyrinths of motivation. This novel, fast-paced, ingenious, intensely detailed and righteously angry about international crime though it is, carries the ghostly stamp of a genuine fascination with moral compromise  – but one that its author can now communicate only by repetition.

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