One of the perks of living in India is early release: some movies and books are released here before they are in the U.S. In our recent pass through the Delhi Airport, I spied John le Carre’s latest in paper for Rs 499 ($9.20). Sold! And I was underway as soon as we plopped down in the plane, having run late with browsing and grazing.
After completing the book, I read two reviews in the NYT. One by resident reviewer Michiko Kakutani, which was critical, and the other in the Sunday Book Review by fellow author Olen Steinhauer, which was much kinder. In a sense, I agreed with both. Le Carre, especially since the GWOT (Global War on Terror), has been almost obsessed with American heavy-handedness, blundering, and worse. As an American reader, I say to myself, “Really, we're not that dumb and brutish—are we?” Even recalling the worst of the Bush years—really? In short, Americans (acting under explicit or implicit government authority) are cast as bad guys. One must admire le Carre’s righteousness and his willingness to confront what he perceives to be the malign powers that should be wearing the white hats: the U.S. and U.K. Such plot attributes will keep Hollywood light years away from producing a film version. Ditto BBC? But there is also an artistic price: I agree with Kakutani that Le Carre creates too Manichean a world for him to reach the heights that he did in the Smiley books that arose out of the Cold War.
Also, as Kakutani remarked, this le Carre book, similar to some of his more recent efforts, takes an almost Hitchcock-like focus on rather ordinary folk pulled into waters far over their heads. Or, as Steinhauer describes it in his review, the focus has gone from spymasters to whistle-blowers. In this case, the protagonists are two U.K. Foreign Service officers, neither of especially high rank. They have been, they both learn, played and marginalized, and they seek to set things straight. In this way, le Carre pulls us into their stories, and here is where le Carre still shines: in setting, character, and dialogue The little things that can make his world of spies so much larger than that of others writing with in the genre occurs because it contains wives, daughters, lovers, mentors, Cornwall, London, among other things, all finely sketched. Of course, it also contains plenty of conversations that record the machinations of politicians and bureaucrats.
In the end, I must say that the Official Secrets Act and le Carre’s description of new star-chamber proceedings (which they hold the copyright to) doesn’t allow for any sense of British superiority over the gung-ho Americans. Steinhauer, by the way, appropriately defends le Carre against charges of anti-Americanism. It is the failure of American leaders to stand up for important values that he deplores, not the people as a whole. Many of us can say “Amen” to opposing many U.S. government actions in the last . . . . well, going back a long time.
In the end, as usual with le Carre, we aren’t awarded a happy ending, but we receive lots of ambiguity. How do these characters continue their lives? In what I must warn as a potential spoiler alert, the story as a whole and the ending especially reminded me of the 1970s Robert Redford-Faye Dunaway flick, “The Days of the Condor”, which C and I had watched not long before we left for India, and which I rate very highly within the genre.