"When Andrew Osnard barged into Harry Pendel's shop asking to be measured for a suit," begins John le Carré's 16th novel, "Pendel was one person. By the time he barged out again Pendel was another." With that, we're off to the races -- 332 pages of nuanced drama and tragicomic wit from one of the masters of modern storytelling. If anyone thought that le Carré was tiring, or still casting around for his role now that the Cold War is over, The Tailor of Panama will quickly set all and sundry straight.
An orphan brought by up his Jewish uncle in London's East End, Harry learned his sewing skills while doing time for arson. He later perfected them as the Pendel in the house of Pendel & Braithwaite Co. Limitada, tailors to royalty, formerly of Savile Row, and now of Panama City. The trouble is, there never was a Braithwaite, or royal appointments, or even Savile Row. Pendel simply has an extraordinary talent -- a "fluence" -- for making things up. "It was improving on people. It was cutting and shaping them until they became understandable members of his internal universe."
The one true thing about Harry is that he is indeed the tailor to Panama's rich and famous. This fact makes him an ideal "joe" for Osnard, a young, amoral operative on the make -- a Nick Leeson of the MI6 -- and for the moribund British secret service, which has persuaded itself that running a covert operation to reassert Western control of the Panama Canal is just the thing to get it back into America's good graces.
Harry, a '90s version of Our Man in Havana, gives the idiot Brits what they want to hear, even though it is almost 100 percent confabulation. As in Graham Greene's classic novel, the fantasies rebound, and le Carré's ebullient satire suddenly becomes the stuff of deep tragedy. We are not entirely surprised; interleaved with le Carré's hilarious descriptions of fat English bums struggling to emerge from Panamanian taxis, there are ever-present hints of darkness, from the "dead eyes" of the spoiled children of the Panamanian rich, with their plump necks and gold chains, to the mutilated face of Pendel's Panamanian assistant, beaten mercilessly by Noriega's Dignity Battalions prior to Operation Just Cause.
Le Carré's major post-Cold War concern, the nexus of drugs, guns and adrift intelligence agencies (addressed more directly in "The Night Manager"), is evident here. He also lays into decaying, corrupt institutions, like the British Conservative party, manipulative press barons on both sides of the Atlantic and the thoughtless manner in which the United States applies military force. But in The Tailor of Panama, unlike his more recent books, le Carré writes from the inside out. His characters emerge in all their folly, grandeur and ambivalence. And the author's shrewd ear for the vernacular is worth the price of admission alone. At 65, le Carré is still, as he remarked a couple of years ago, "fizzing with fiction." His fans, and English literature, are the better for it. -- Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Le Carré himself acknowledges the debt to Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana as the inspiration for this tale of a man who is taken far more seriously as a spy by those around him than he takes himself--and who makes things up as necessary. The world has become a much darker place since Greene's comparatively light-hearted entertainment, however, and, though there is much brilliant comedy in le Carré's latest, there is also a despairing sense of how the very rich, powerful and cynical are toying with history. The tailor of the title is Harry Pendel, a former convict (he torched his Uncle Benny's tailor's establishment in the East End for the insurance) who sets up in Panama with an imaginary (deceased) partner in his past, a spurious coat of arms and a suggestion of Saville Row. He is a fine tailor, and since he measures most of the significant men in Panama (including the president and the local American commander), rogue spymaster Andy Osnard thinks he would be an ideal source of gossip and background. Harry, in debt to his ears, is only too happy to put his imagination to work, and in no time is supplying Andy with superb information for his London masters--not your traditional MI5 but a particularly unsavory collection of right-wing press lords and arms manufacturers anxious to stir things up in Panama as the date for the end of the Canal Treaty with the U.S. approaches. It's little short of brilliant the way le Carré has caught the febrile corruption of the little country, an uneasy blend of tropical backwater and late 20th-century money culture. All the characters--Harry and his long-suffering "Zonian" wife; ruthless, greedy Andy and his slimy bosses; and the comic-opera British Embassy staff--are rendered with breathtaking accuracy; and the careening plot, by turns uproarious, cynical and ultimately tragic, is brought off with seemingly effortless virtuosity. Le Carré remains far in front in his field, a startlingly up-to-date storyteller who writes as well about the shadows around the power elite as anyone alive.
Harry Pendel is the "Tailor of Panama," a haberdasher whose clients include the Panamanian president, the commanding American general, and most of the country's powerful and influential men. Harry is happily married to Louisa, daughter of an American engineer and devoted staff member to a liberal Panamanian politician. But Harry's life is a lie; he has invented the person whose life he lives. He is also badly in debt, the result of having been double-crossed by his own bank. That debt, and knowledge of the jailbird he once was, are what make Harry prey to a smarmy British agent who believes Harry knows or can learn the deepest secrets of Panama. Harry doesn't, but he's adept at making up what people want to hear, even if it is a geopolitical conspiracy on a grand scale. By turns comic and tragic, this is the kind of reading experience we have come to expect from le Carré (The Night Manager, LJ 7/93). Surely nobody writes this kind of novel better than le Carré, not even the late Graham Greene, whose Our Man in Havana (1958) was the inspiration for this novel. For all collections.Charles Michaud, Turner Free Lib., Randolph, Mass.
The fate of nations hinges on an inoffensive bespoke tailor in this archly ironic parable out of Graham Greene.
Except for being hopelessly in debt over a rice farm he's unwisely purchased, there's nothing untoward about Harry Pendel, the sole survivor of Pendel & Braithwaite, late of Saville Row. Nothing, that is, except that every detail of Harry's history has been fabricated as lovingly as one of his alpaca suits. Harry's checkered pasta secret even from his proper wife Louisa, daughter of an esteemed American engineer and personal assistant to incorruptible Canal planning advisor Ernesto Delgadomakes him the natural prey of Andrew Osnard, the new man at the British Embassy. Osnard's brief from conspiracy-maven Scottie Luxmore, who's convinced that the American giveaway of the Canal in 1999 will bring world shipping to its knees, is to conscript as intelligence sources on the coming power vacuum some savvy banker, tycoon, or journalist, but he settles for Harry instead. Whatever might have made this seem like a reasonable choiceLouisa's connections, Harry's ear to the floor of the Presidential fitting roomevaporate in a roar of corrosive laughter (not Osnard's or Harry's), as Harry, eager to please and to earn his way out of debt, begins to tailor his intelligence to order. Does Whitehall fear a Japanese plot to cut a rival canal? Harry's only too happy to provide confirmatory rumors. Do Osnard's masters require evidence from other agents? Under appropriate code names, Harry will enlist Louisa, his shop assistant Marta, and a growing army of nonexistent informants. Naturally, this house of cards can't stay aloft forevereven Luxmore realizes that Osnard's dispatches are toshbut it's a mordant pleasure to watch the structure collapse, along with the fate of nations, in exquisitely choreographed slow motion.
Le Carré goes back to the spy story's rootsOur Man in Havana, with a touch of Conrad's Secret Agentto amuse frazzled millennialists with the refreshing news that we've all been here many times before.