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Still the Spymaster

The week I opened up John le Carré’s latest bitter excavation of the spiritual affinities of criminal Russians and their Western counterparts, ten Russian spies under deep cover for somewhat indeterminate purposes were rounded up in America. Meanwhile, in Siberia, the mayor of a fishing village on Lake Baikal was on trial at the behest of the FSB, the country’s chief domestic security agency, charged with abuse of power for having filed suit (on public safety grounds) against a resort under construction. (The resort in question happened to be owned by the FSB.) I could practically hear le Carré chuckle offstage. The Cold War may have ended in ambiguous triumph, but the new world is not running short of sinister material for the master transnational moralist of our time. In le Carré’s world, apparent coincidence is only a conspiracy yet unmasked. He is, like the British agents who pull strings throughout his latest adventure in unintended consequences, “professionally disposed against the workings of chance.”

It is not altogether surprising—but it is good news for literature nonetheless—that le Carré’s flair for the gut-wrenching drama of betrayed honor has survived as handily as Moscow’s nomenklatura-oligarch complex. Soviet Communism may have been swept into the septic tank of history, but “dark forces” have the run of East and West alike. Russian ruthlessness remains a given, and criminal rackets—some incorporated, some not—now arrange the double and triple crosses. There are still apparatchiks who try to disentangle themselves from their wicked organizations. They are still at risk when they try to take refuge with their putative allies on the other side of the looking glass—who have, as it turns out, permanent interests of their own.

Le Carré is in excellent form with his latest variation of the formula. It is hard to spell out the particulars of his new novel without spoiling the surprises, including the micro-surprises coiled within the macro ones. Plot summary is worse than a bore—it amounts to theft of a reader’s experience. Suffice it to say that some of the good guys are so hard to distinguish from the bad guys in his new thriller that this reader was left with a sublime chill. Don’t jump ahead, but the last page of the book purports to reprint an Observer article of last December on the role of very dirty money in bailing out the global financial system during the recent unpleasantness. Our Kind of Traitor being fiction, I wasn’t positive what to make of this piece, so I checked. The piece is for real. 

Le Carré has been accused of moral equivalence, but in truth he is doggedly if astringently romantic. He thinks that vicious crooks who aim to cleanse themselves deserve protection. He thinks it ought to be possible for innocents to come out somewhat unscathed—that is to say, only somewhat scathed—as they fend off the most villainous of villains. He is professionally interested in how hard it is to clean dirty hands, and his sympathies are always with those who make the effort, even if they are doomed. Le Carré’s world of moles, traitors, and stacked decks, however subterranean, is in the end sharp-edged. Betrayals may be delicious for readers, but le Carré is not taken in.

The hero of the hour, Peregrine (Perry) Makepiece, is an Oxford don so revolted by the present-day “stifling” of Britain that his own rhetoric alarms him into a giddy plunge into “the hard centre of life.” “Would Orwell have believed it possible,” he asks, “that the same overfed voices which had haunted him in the 1930s, the same crippling incompetence, addiction to foreign wars and assumptions of entitlement, were happily in place in 2009?” Never mind that “addiction to foreign wars” was not exactly what was keeping Orwell awake in the 1930s—he happily signed up for his own foreign war in Spain. In any case, Makepiece has grown sick of “hammering on about Byron, Keats and Wordsworth to a bunch of bored undergraduates whose highest ambition is to get a degree, get laid, and get rich.” In a quandary about how to proceed, Makepiece goes on vacation with his brainy, beautiful heartthrob, Gail Perkins, an accomplished London lawyer willing to couple her moral as well as worldly ambitions with his.

Vacations for le Carré are, of course, networking opportunities for creeps and naïfs of various and dubious loyalties. Perry and Gail’s trip to Antigua lands them on the tennis court with, and in the good graces of, a burly-chested and, as it turns out, desperate Russian businessman named Dmitri Vladimirovich Krasnov. His business card identifies him as “European Director, The Arena Multi Global Trading Conglomerate of Nicosia, Cyprus,” which is a “consulting company” (trouble!) “specializing in providing help for active traders” (double trouble!). “Dima,” who would have been beautifully played by Anthony Quinn, is actually a money-laundering supremo looking to defect in the name of some impressive family values. He spots Perry as his conduit for spilling the beans to British intelligence in return for protection. For well more than a hundred pages, the saga of Perry and Gail’s debriefings with London deskmen alternates with the saga of the Antiguan alliance, in the sort of braided back-and-forth narrative le Carré does better than just about anyone else, as, for example, The Russia House shows.

I have no idea whether le Carré is as realistic a writer as he is a colorful one, but he is certainly a radical one. In what is possibly a first in the annals of Secret Service fiction, one of le Carré’s British spy-handlers approvingly cites what he calls the “very stern views on good and evil” of Leszek Kolakowski: “Evil is evil, period. Not rooted in social circumstance. Not about being deprived or a drug addict or whatever. Evil as an absolutely and entirely separate human force.” This is le Carré’s credo. No wonder his career has outlasted the Soviet Union and the Cold War. 

Todd Gitlins most recent book, written with Liel Leibovitz, is The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election (Simon & Schuster, September).