Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carré
Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
Some writers have but a few stories to tell — think of Joseph Heller or John Irving, whose reputations would have been far better served by a Salingeresque retreat into silence than by their painfully pointless later works.
Other manage to keep working at or near the levels at which they made their reputations. Think of Mordechai Richler, whose final novel, Barney's Version was his masterpiece. Or consider John le Carré, now in his 80th year and still producing work of a very high level indeed.
If not quite as savagely powerful as 2003's Absolute Friends, his newest novel is significantly more controlled — and so more powerful — than his previous offering, A Most Wanted Man, which suggested a writer whose moral outrage had got the better of his novelist's instincts.
If Our Kind of Traitor isn't, quite, a masterpiece, it is a solid, subtle and (yes) thrilling novel that is vintage le Carré, almost without violence or action, but still a story that finds the reader anxiously awaiting its resolution right up to its final three paragraphs.
The spy-master returns to form
A one-time agent with Britain's MI5 and MI6 in the 1950s, John le Carré's first novel was published in 1961. He soon became known as a sort of anti-Ian Fleming and quickly transcended the genre's conventions entirely. In particular, his George Smiley novels marked le Carré as an unofficial chronicler of the decline and fall of the British imperium, and that country's rebirth as more-or-less reliable sidekick and yes-man to the new empire rising on the far side of the Atlantic.
Le Carré's novels were psychologically convincing, politically sophisticated and ever-more critical of the very institutions — the British (and American) intelligence services for which his protagonists laboured). By the time of the Soviet Union's unexpected evaporation into history, and George Smiley's (presumable) final appearance in 1990's The Secret Pilgrim, it seemed clear that le Carré, harboured grave doubts that the espionage industry he had for so long observed was of any real value at all.
Having made his career chronicling the rivalry between the Cold War super-powers as seen from the shabby sidelines of Britain, no one would have been surprised had the writer either retired or gone looking to the past, like an aging nostalgia band on perpetual tour, to tell more stories from the era he had made his own.
He did neither.
|Our Kind of Traitor,
by John le Carré
Viking Canada, 12 October 2010 — 288 pages
Instead, he changed with the times and was, arguably, liberated by the dissolution of the East-West divide. To put it baldly, novels like The Russia House, The Constant Gardener and, especially, his bitterly clear-eyed condemnation of the so-called War on Terror in 2003's Absolute Friends, were as powerful works of fiction as any he wrote in his Cold War prime.
Leaving behind the relative simplicity of East vs. West, le Carré turned towards other realms touched upon by espionage. Banking and organized crime, the diamond trade and gun-running, all provide backdrops to his later books, and behind those, obvious, malefactors are the corrupted organs of government. Le Carré's is a harsh and unrelenting appraisal of the no-longer cloaked alliance between Western business and government for which democracy, and human freedom and dignity are but inconvenient cloaks for the important business of making money.
Le Carré has often been called "anti-American" (for a more or less random and, I suspect, typically stupid example, see this piece from the January 11, 2004 edition of the New York Times by Geoffrey Wheatcroft), but he is better described as disillusioned believer. Le Carré really believes in the values his detractors claim to espouse: values like freedom of speech and of conscience, of democracy and the right to self-determination, of old-fashioned right and wrong. As such — call him a naïf if you will —, he becomes most righteously indignant at the sins of his own side, when the "the good guys" prove to be anything but.
If that moral outrage has fuelled the best of le Carré's post-Soviet novels, its excess has weakened others, perhaps most acutely A Most Wanted Man which, while very readable (a "bad" le Carré is quite a bit better than most writers' good books), suffers from a lack of auctorial discipline.
Not so with Our Kind of Traitor. If it is not quite classic le Carré, it comes very close. Story-telling is back on centre stage, having relegated polemics to the wings, where in fiction they belong.
Someone should be screaming, but no one is. At the foot of the stairs, the two men slump across one another in seeming defiance of vory homophobic code. Dima is still kicking Niki, who is underneath, and the cadaverous philosopher is opening and closing his mouth like a beached fish. Turning on his heel, Luke treads cautiously back up the steps and relocks the swing-door, returns the key to his pocket, then joins the tranquil scene downstairs.
Grabbing Dima by the arm — who must have just one last kick before he goes — Luke leads him past the lavatories, up some steps and across an unused reception area until they arrive at the iron-clad delivery door marked EMERGENCY EXIT. This door requires no key but has instead a tin green box mounted on the wall, with a glass front and a red panic button inside for emergencies such as fire, flood or an act of terrorism.
The story starts small and stays that way, no matter that its events depend on the (literally) criminal takeover of post-Soviet Russia, a century of British imperial and post-imperial subterfuge, and the growing corruption of the American hegemony.
Perry Makepiece and Gail Perkins, are a young and romantic (and fundamentally decent) English couple on holiday in Antigua, where they become entangled with the self-described "World Number One money-launder", the Russian gangster Dmitri "Dima" Krasnov and — because they are romantic and decent — later on, agree to work with a brace of tarnished British spies, Hector Meredith and Luke Weaver, both launching late-career bids for personal and professional redemption. Dima has run afoul of his erstwhile vory (Russian mafia) partners and so offers to tell British officials where the literal and figurative bodies are buried in return for asylum for himself and his wife and children.
As usual with le Carré, Our Kind of Traitor moves with the slow, inexorable deliberation of Fate herself, yet it is still a thriller — of sorts. Le Carré's strengths lie in his ability to create tension without melodrama or cartoonish action, and in his use of dialogue to both reveal character and impel the story onward.
'What they tell her, the little girls, how their father die?'
'In a car smash. Ten days ago. Outside Moscow. A tragedy. The father and mother both.'
'Sure. Was tragedy. Was car smash. Very simple car smash. Very normal car smash. In Russia we get many such car smash. Four men, four Kalashnikov, maybe sixty bullet, who givva shit? That's a goddam car smash, Professor. One body, twenty maybe thirty bullet. My Misha, my disciple, a kid, forty year old. Dima take him to the vory, make him a man.'
A sudden outbreak of fury:
'So why do I not protect my Misha? Why I let him go to Moscow? Let bitch Prince's bastards kill him twenty, thirty bullet? Kill Olga, beautiful sister of my wife Tamara, mother of Misha's little girls. Why I not protect him? You are Professor! You tell me, please, why do I not protect my Misha?'
If it was fury, not volume, that gave his voice such unearthly strength, it is the chameleon nature of the man that enables him to put aside his fury in favour of despondent Slav reflection:
'OK. Maybe Tamara's sister Olga, she not so goddam religious,' he says, conceding a point that Perry hasn't made. 'I tell to Misha: "Maybe your Olga still look at other guys too much, got beautiful arse. Maybe you don't screw around no more, Misha, stay home once, like me now, take a bit care of her."' His voice falls to a whisper again: 'Thirty goddam bullet, Professor. That bitch Prince gotta pay something for thirty bullet in my Misha.'
Our Kind of Traitor is a tale told with an apparently casual disregard for the so-called rules of writing fiction. Le Carré shifts effortlessly from second to third person and his narration is almost clinically expository. Yet his characters come to life as fully-realized as any in popular literature; if he does not reveal the full psychological depths of his people it because that is not his intention, not because he could not do so if he wished.
And he makes the whole, slow-moving exercise in story-telling work. In fact, he makes it gripping.
He leads you — reader and willing accomplice — through his tale as if you were sharing a drink with him, hiding no clues available to his characters and you never feel anything but utterly confident that le Carré is, ever and always, telling you the truth, even if that truth comes wrapped in the formal lie that is fiction.
Our Kind of Traitor is a powerful and moving novel; a subtle portrayal of idealistic romance and the quest for redemption that is nonetheless set in our own, very fallen, world. If you know le Carré, be pleased that his latest novel sees the writer in prime form; if he is a new writer to you, Our Kind of Traitor is a fine place to start.