The Tailor of Panamaby John le Carré
Seldom has the weight of politics descended so heavily on such a tiny and unprepared nation. And seldom has the hidden eye of the British Intelligence selected
Le Carre's Panama is a Casablanca without heroes, a hotbed of drugs, laundered money and corruption. It is also the country which on December 31, 1999, will gain full control of the Panama Canal.
Seldom has the weight of politics descended so heavily on such a tiny and unprepared nation. And seldom has the hidden eye of the British Intelligence selected such an unlikely champion as Harry Pendel - a charmer, a dreamer, an evader, a fabulist and presiding genius to the house of Pendel & Braithwaite Co. Limitada, Tailors to Royalty, formerly of London and presently of Panama City.
Yet there is a logic to the spies' choice, for everybody who is anybody in Cental America passes through Pendel's doors. He dresses politicos and crooks and conmen. His fitting room hears more confidences than the priest's confessional. And when Harry Pendel doesn't hear things as such - well, he hears them anyway, by other means.
Le Carre once again effortlessly expands the borders of the spy story to bring us a magnificent entertainment straight out of the pages of tomorrow's history.
"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
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.
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Meet the Author
John le Carré was born in 1931. After attending the universities of Berne and Oxford, he taught at Eton and spent five years in the British Foreign Service. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, his third book, secured him a worldwide reputation. He divides his time between England and the Continent.
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Writing in the mid-1990's, as the West was celebrating its accidental victory in the Cold War with the careless swagger of sophomores greeting the incoming freshman class, le Carré adapted his method to the times. Turning away from the earnest style of his previous spy novels, le Carré surprised his readers with a comic approach. His unlikely protagonist, an expatriate tailor with a good heart and a questionable past, is recruited by a novice spy of uncertain virtue. Together they set out to prove the existence of conspiracy fabricated from whole cloth. True to his craft but inept in spycraft, the tailor weaves selective data with imaginative storytelling to flatter the careless and comfort the powerful. The institutions charged with analyzing and verifying his reports fail to question false information that suits their narrow interests. Let loose in a benign environment, the misdirected agents of change wreck havoc. See Writing in the mid-1990's, as the West was celebrating its accidental victory in the Cold War with the careless swagger of sophomores greeting the incoming freshman class, le Carré adapted his method to the times. Turning away from the earnest style of his previous spy novels, le Carré surprised his readers with a comic approach. His unlikely protagonist, an expatriate tailor with a good heart and a questionable past, is recruited by a novice spy of uncertain virtue. Together they set out to prove the existence of conspiracy fabricated from whole cloth. True to his craft but inept in spycraft, the tailor weaves selective data with imaginative storytelling to flatter the careless and comfort the powerful. The institutions charged with analyzing and verifying his reports fail to question false information that suits their narrow interests. Let loose in a benign environment, the misdirected agents of change wreck havoc. See http://tinyurl.com/ydeld8e
The thing that has struck me about recent political events was how clearly John LeCarre predicted them. When there is not a strong balance of power in the world, he saw how the US and GB could run away with some untruth they wanted to hear. It is how everyone had a vested interest in believing this lie and start a war for fictitious reasons. It is frightening and I'm not sure why more pundits did not refer to it. I re-read it after the Iraq war reasons were exposed as easily undone lies. It is chilling.
I won this book from volunteering in a literacy fundraiser and truthfully, didn't pick it up for years. I was so glad I got the notion to read it this week! I finished it in 2 days, it was so good. I mean, the tailor to the rich & famous would make a perfect spy, right?
The Tailor of Panama was described as a spy story. After three quarters of the first tape, the story had yet to get to anything to do with spying. It talked about a tailor¿well at least the name of the book was right¿and described all the customers of the tailor, from British Royalty to Communistic Leaders. It talked of the politics and even had a customer come in to get fitted for a suit. It described the receptionist and how she had gotten the scars on her face. But it never set the scene for a spy story. The book, which was compared to Casablanca, would make interesting reading for someone that enjoys the intricacies of politics and lots of in-depth details. It is a very dry read.