It's hard enough when presidents
younger than you get elected. Imagine the day in almost every popular writer's
career when he starts writing heroes younger than he is. That day came long ago
for John le Carré, who used to write about older men, like his famous spymaster
George Smiley. Now, turning 79, le Carré creates mostly more youthful
protagonists, like the brilliant, idealistic, naive amateur spy Perry Makepiece
in his twenty-second novel, Our Kind of Traitor.
Perry -- and he's always, fondly, Perry, more like a
son than a hero -- is likable enough, but there's something unformed about him. We
don't want to suspect commercial motives in a writer as strong as le Carré, any
more than we care to suspect lechery in a friend's May-December affair. But
there's something less than seemly when a writer of le Carré's pedigree and
maturity keeps writing main characters playable by movie stars instead of
character actors. It's as if the author of The Perfect Spy, after a
career spent making literature out of espionage, has decided he wants to be Ian
Fleming after all.
To be fair, no one would ever mistake Our Kind
of 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 the
first third of the book recounts how a lapsed academic like Perry came to be
brokering the defection of a billionaire Russian money launderer named Dima to
Great Britain. At first we find them in Antigua, as a friendly tennis match
with the comically boorish Russian evolves into the makings of an international
incident. Gradually we learn that we're getting the story secondhand, recapped
alternately by Perry and his plucky girlfriend, Gail, to their MI5 debriefers.
At first this is complicated verging on baroque, but le Carré has the nuances
of their interrogators' separate voices down perfectly, and it's all tidy
enough in retrospect.
The middle third of the book focuses on Perry and
Gail's indoctrination into the ways of the British Secret Service. They learn
the finer points of tradecraft from experts who can only dream of the access
that our heroes have blithely lucked into. A defection in Paris is planned, and
we learn more about the destabilizingly massive amounts of money that Russian
oligarchs have been shunting around the planet lately.
Shining a spotlight at corners of the
world we ignore to our cost is where le Carré usually excels, but Russian
billionaires aren't exactly untrodden ground in recent fiction. (Martin Cruz
Smith, in particular, has been doing a sturdy job of translating thorough
research into palatable thrillers.) Even if a certain freshness of subject is
lacking here, le Carré can still write circles around most novelists, spy or
otherwise. The climax partakes of the author's signature nonchalant authority
about espionage, with excruciatingly tense vigils punctuated by absurdly brief,
confident action. It all invites credulity, though by now whatever we do or don't
find believable in such an esoteric profession owes a lot to previous work in
the genre, the best of it le Carré's own. If it's hard for him to sound a false
note, 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 them
introduced, as here, playing at some innocuous pastime: riding a wonky bicycle
in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, docenting antically for bored
tourists in Absolute Friends, doing a birthday-party magic act
in Single & Single, and now playing boyishly
energetic tennis in Our Kind of Traitor. A le Carré hero exists to be comeupped by the world for his innocence.
Dima, too, for all the blood on his hands and the
rubles in his Swiss bank accounts, cherishes some endearingly childlike
illusions about the superiority of a British public-school education. Alas,
like the infighting spymasters back in London, he registers more strongly than
le Carré's hero. Perry's nice enough, but as readers we'd much rather hear Dima
stipulating about his daughter, "My Natasha go to Eton School, OK? Tell
this to your spies. Or no deal." Over Perry's demurral he adds, "I
pay good. I give swimming pool. No problem."
No problem is right, either with le Carré's assured
dialect comedy or his usual fine, understated internal monologues, tightly
clipped as a military mustache. A veteran novelist's wee impatience with the
mundane bricklaying of fiction is detectable in a paragraph that reads, in its
entirety, "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 with
an actual 2009 story reprinted from the Observer. Time was, we looked to
le 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 from
rabidly anticipating his next effort to more respectfully marveling at his
It's a measure of how much longtime readers owe the
man that we keep returning to le Carré's work expecting revelations instead of
his usual simple, undervalued proficiency. For him to astonish us again, as he
once did with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold or Tinker, Tailor,
Soldier, Spy, he may need a fresh story more
worthy of his gifts, his energy, and his doughty outraged liberalism. Is
it too greedy to hope that this precise anatomist of the world's most ruthless
bureaucracies might yet turn his twilight powers to the great slow crisis of
our time -- the one that, by its very incremental pace, has so far bested all
attempts to turn it into bracingly cautionary fiction? In other words, wouldn't
it be just too perfect if the arch-poet of the Cold War could yet perform the
service of writing us the great unwritten novel of global warming?
Former book editor/critic of the San Francisco
Chronicle and director of literature at the National Endowment for the Arts, David Kipen recently opened Libros Schmibros, a lending library/used bookshop for the once majority-Jewish, now majority-Latino Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights.
Those readers who have found post-cold war le Carré too cerebral will have much to cheer about with this Russian mafia spy thriller. While on holiday in Antigua, former Oxford tutor Perry Makepiece and his lawyer girlfriend, Gail Perkins, meet Dmitri "Dima" Vladimirovich Krasnov, an avuncular Russian businessman who challenges Perry to a tennis match. Even though Perry wins, Dima takes a shine to the couple, and soon they're visiting with his extended family. At Dima's request, Perry conveys a message to MI6 in England that Dima wishes to defect, and on arriving home, Perry and Gail receive a summons from MI6 to a debriefing. Not only is Dima a Russian oligarch, he's also one of the world's biggest money launderers. Le Carré ratchets up the tension step-by-step until the sad, inevitable end. His most accessible work in years, this novel shows once again why his name is the one to which all others in the field are compared. (Oct.)
Le Carré (A Most Wanted Man) launches his latest exploration into the dodgy world of espionage on a surprisingly cozy note. An attractive couple vacationing in Antigua meet Dima, a hale and hearty Russian businessman, and his charming children. Tennis, then parties, and soon Perry and Gail are trusted companions of the family. Shockingly, Dima asks Perry to be his negotiator with British intelligence. The payload? Dima is a world-class money launderer and can reveal embarrassing and compromising deals at the highest (and lowest) levels of the world's financial brotherhoods. In his inimitable and engrossing way, Le Carré put us right at the 50-yard line of the ensuing desperate brawl as the Brits fight to control this asset. VERDICT As fresh as this morning's dish on Twitter and as nerve-racking as the evening news, this novel is sure to thrill faithful fans and attract newcomers to Le Carré's considerable list of 21 previous novels. A sure bet for all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/10.]—Barbara Conaty, Falls Church, VA
Le Carré uses still another aspect of international relations in the new world order—the powerful, equivocal position of money launderers to the Russian mob—to put a new spin on a favorite theme: the betrayal that inevitably follows from sharply divided loyalties.
In between his hated old life as an Oxford don and his dimly imagined new life as a grade-school teacher, Peregrine Makepiece takes his girlfriend, rising barrister Gail Perkins, on holiday to Antigua. Their prowess on the tennis court is observed by an amiable Russian who presses Perry to play him. But Dima, né Dmitri Vladimirovich Krasnov, wants much more than a game. In return for providing details to Her Majesty's Secret Service about his money laundering for the Seven Brothers, who dominate Russian organized crime, he wants asylum and protection for himself and his family. He wants his children to be placed in top English schools. And he wants Perry to hold his hand through it all. Following their exhaustive debriefing by Luke and Yvonne, a pair of jaundiced spooks, Perry and Gail are sent to Paris, where Dima has asked for a meeting that's clearly supposed to set the stage for his flight from his comrades. Don't try to behave like spies, Perry and Gail are advised—act innocent. That's easily done, because the couple is much more innocent than they realize. Although they know more than they ought to about Dima's family, especially his daughter Natasha, they know next to nothing about his business associates, and nothing at all of Luke's fragile position in the Service, or his boss Hector Meredith's complicated set of conflicts with financiers, lawyers, lobbyists and Members of Parliament whose agendas are quite different from Hector's, Luke's, Perry's or Dima's.
While other novelists are doing everything they can to inflate their tales of cloak and dagger, trust Le Carré (A Most Wanted Man, 2008, etc.) to make his story of international money laundering, political infighting and unwitting treachery into a chamber symphony of exquisite delicacy.
“One of our great writers of moral ambiguity, a tireless explorer of that darkly contradictory no-man’s land…Our Kind of Traitor brims with deftly drawn characters navigating a treacherously uncertain landscape that seems ripped from yesterday’s papers and re-created with an absolutely certain hand.”—Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times
“Part vintage John le Carré and part Alfred Hitchcock…the suspense in Our Kind of Traitor is genuine and nerve-racking.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“I would suggest immortality for John le Carré, who I believe one of the most intelligent and entertaining writers working today.”—The Chicago Tribune.