Our Kind of Traitor

It’s hard enough when presidentsyounger than you get elected. Imagine the day in almost every popular writer’scareer when he starts writing heroes younger than he is. That day came long agofor John le Carré, who used to write about older men, like his famous spymasterGeorge Smiley. Now, turning 79, le Carré creates mostly more youthfulprotagonists, like the brilliant, idealistic, naive amateur spy Perry Makepiecein his twenty-second novel, Our Kind of Traitor.

Perry—and he’s always, fondly, Perry, more like ason than a hero—is likable enough, but there’s something unformed about him. Wedon’t want to suspect commercial motives in a writer as strong as le Carré, anymore than we care to suspect lechery in a friend’s May-December affair. Butthere’s something less than seemly when a writer of le Carré’s pedigree andmaturity keeps writing main characters playable by movie stars instead ofcharacter actors. It’s as if the author of The Perfect Spy, after acareer spent making literature out of espionage, has decided he wants to be IanFleming after all.

To be fair, no one would ever mistake Our Kindof Traitor for Thunderball. It’s too well-written for that,and too structurally tricky besides. Like his beloved touchstone Joseph Conrad,le Carré tells his story here through nested narrative filters. Roughly thefirst third of the book recounts how a lapsed academic like Perry came to bebrokering the defection of a billionaire Russian money launderer named Dima toGreat Britain. At first we find them in Antigua, as a friendly tennis matchwith the comically boorish Russian evolves into the makings of an internationalincident. Gradually we learn that we’re getting the story secondhand, recappedalternately by Perry and his plucky girlfriend, Gail, to their MI5 debriefers.At first this is complicated verging on baroque, but le Carré has the nuancesof their interrogators’ separate voices down perfectly, and it’s all tidyenough in retrospect.

The middle third of the book focuses on Perry andGail’s indoctrination into the ways of the British Secret Service. They learnthe finer points of tradecraft from experts who can only dream of the accessthat our heroes have blithely lucked into. A defection in Paris is planned, andwe learn more about the destabilizingly massive amounts of money that Russianoligarchs have been shunting around the planet lately.

Shining a spotlight at corners of theworld we ignore to our cost is where le Carré usually excels, but Russianbillionaires aren’t exactly untrodden ground in recent fiction. (Martin CruzSmith, in particular, has been doing a sturdy job of translating thoroughresearch into palatable thrillers.) Even if a certain freshness of subject islacking here, le Carré can still write circles around most novelists, spy orotherwise. The climax partakes of the author’s signature nonchalant authorityabout espionage, with excruciatingly tense vigils punctuated by absurdly brief,confident action. It all invites credulity, though by now whatever we do or don’tfind believable in such an esoteric profession owes a lot to previous work inthe genre, the best of it le Carré’s own. If it’s hard for him to sound a falsenote, it may be because he tuned the piano himself years ago.

Repeating himself is harder for le Carré to avoid.We’ve met and loved his overmatched naïfs before, and seen many of themintroduced, as here, playing at some innocuous pastime: riding a wonky bicyclein The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, docenting antically for boredtourists in Absolute Friends, doing a birthday-party magic actin Single & Single, and now playing boyishlyenergetic tennis in Our Kind of Traitor. A le Carré hero exists to becomeupped by the world for his innocence.

Dima, too, for all the blood on his hands and therubles in his Swiss bank accounts, cherishes some endearingly childlikeillusions about the superiority of a British public-school education. Alas,like the infighting spymasters back in London, he registers more strongly thanle Carré’s hero. Perry’s nice enough, but as readers we’d much rather hear Dimastipulating about his daughter, “My Natasha go to Eton School, OK? Tellthis to your spies. Or no deal.” Over Perry’s demurral he adds, “Ipay good. I give swimming pool. No problem.”

No problem is right, either with le Carré’s assureddialect comedy or his usual fine, understated internal monologues, tightlyclipped as a military mustache. A veteran novelist’s wee impatience with themundane bricklaying of fiction is detectable in a paragraph that reads, in itsentirety, “Business with the bottle and water jug”—but let it stand.

THE problem, what there is of it,lies with a focus so ripped from the headlines that the author concludes withan actual 2009 story reprinted from the Observer. Time was, we looked tole Carré for next year’s news, not last year’s. Over the last few books, sadly,le Carré’s grown more reactive. As a result, many of his fans have gone fromrabidly anticipating his next effort to more respectfully marveling at hisundiminished productivity.

It’s a measure of how much longtime readers owe theman that we keep returning to le Carré’s work expecting revelations instead ofhis usual simple, undervalued proficiency. For him to astonish us again, as heonce did with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold or Tinker, Tailor,Soldier, Spy, he may need a fresh story moreworthy of his gifts, his energy, and his doughty outraged liberalism. Isit too greedy to hope that this precise anatomist of the world’s most ruthlessbureaucracies might yet turn his twilight powers to the great slow crisis ofour time—the one that, by its very incremental pace, has so far bested allattempts to turn it into bracingly cautionary fiction? In other words, wouldn’tit be just too perfect if the arch-poet of the Cold War could yet perform theservice of writing us the great unwritten novel of global warming?

Former book editor/critic of the San FranciscoChronicle and director of literature at the National Endowment for the Arts,David Kipen recently opened Libros Schmibros, a lending library/used bookshopfor the once majority-Jewish, now majority-Latino Los Angeles neighborhood ofBoyle Heights.