Friday, July 31, 2015

the last book I read

Our Kind Of Traitor by John le Carré.

Perry Makepeace and Gail Perkins have got precious little to complain about, on the face of it. He is an Oxford University lecturer, and she is an up-and-coming-lawyer, and they've no problem affording to swan off for a holiday in Antigua, which is where we find them when the book opens.

Perry is a pretty good amateur tennis player, and has inadvertently caught the eye of a possible opponent, a mysterious, bald, portly Russian called Dima, who challenges him to a match. While Dima is quite a lot better at tennis than one might have anticipated, Perry still wins, at which point it turns out that the tennis match wasn't really the point of the whole exercise - the point being that Perry seemed to Dima like a quintessential fair-play English gentleman type to make his big confession to: that he wants to defect to the west and bring his extended family with him, an exchange sweetened by the usual handover of secrets, principally secrets relating to his extensive criminal activities as a money-launderer for the Russian mafia, and, who knows, maybe the Russian government as well.

Of course Perry isn't an actual spy, he's just some guy, so he's got to find a way of communicating what he's found out to the British intelligence services. He seems to find this remarkably easy, considering they don't exactly advertise in the Yellow Pages, and so he and Gail are placed in the care of Luke and Hector who are supposedly going to organise Dima's transit to the UK and freedom, as well as a similar escape route for his family, comprising his wife, two grown-up sons, teenage daughter Natasha, and the two young daughters of his protégé Misha, recently murdered by the Russian mafia. And of course the Russian mafia would have an interest in a bit of the old murdering if they ever got wind of Dima's intentions.

An elaborate plan is cooked up which involves Gail and Perry meeting Dima again in Paris, as if by chance, including attending the 2009 French Open final, while he is there to sign over some of his money-laundering rights to some younger successors, and thereby quite likely his own death warrant as well. The challenge for the spooks (and for Perry and Gail) is to spirit away Dima before the Russian mob can get to him, and park him and his extended family in a safe house in Switzerland where they can await the official summons to come to the UK (Dima first, then the rest once it's been established that he has useful knowledge to offer) once the relevant groundwork has been done. However, getting the official ticks in the appropriate boxes turns out to be a bit more challenging than the spooks had hoped, and even when the official word has apparently been given there's still the chance of the whole operation being sabotaged by an intervention from the Russian mafia. Or was it the UK government?

Comparing this book with the only other le Carré in this list, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, is quite instructive: that one was written at the height of the Cold War (1963) and for all its moral ambiguity and the grubby moral compromises of the major characters there's still a pretty robust certainty that the Brits are the good guys and the Russians are the enemy. By the time Our Kind Of Traitor was published (2010) the Cold War is over and those moral certainties have fallen away, indeed the whole idea of loyalty to one's own country up to the point of sacrificing one's own life for it seems faintly ridiculous. So instead what motivates the major characters here is more prosaic things like money, sex, self-interest and the desire to protect one's family.

It seems to me that le Carré is a bit more interested in people here, too - apart from the two big set pieces at Roland Garros and in the hotel in Berne, most of the narrative interest is with the characters and their background and motivations. There is a bit of a jarring shift of viewpoint after the first hundred pages or so, which have focused on Perry and Gail, to a whole load of background information about Luke, which is fine but brings the plot to a bit of a halt while it's happening. And I was left somewhat unsatisfied by the ending - I like a bit of ambiguity as much as the next man, but this left too many unanswered questions for me. It's a bit like Infinite Jest in that there's a dawning realisation, as the reader contemplates the slim number of pages remaining, that the narrative arc isn't going to be completed and the loose ends aren't going to be tied up in the way you might want them to be.

I'd say, those caveats aside, that this is a bit warmer, more welcoming and easier to read than the Cold War era novels like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, since it doesn't have that book's grim East German setting or its focus on the minutiae of espionage, although le Carré can't resist throwing in a bit of cloak-and-dagger stuff in the subterranean spa at Roland Garros. He's probably less highly-regarded as a writer than he should be, which is almost certainly down to the same sort of genre snobbery that regards science fiction writing with a snort of sniffy disdain. For all the excellence of some of the novels which have won the Booker Prize, for instance, over the years, there's a certain kind of novel which gets on the shortlist, and science fiction and espionage novels aren't it.

There have been a lot of films of le Carré novels over the years, and apparently Our Kind Of Traitor is soon to join that list, as there's a film scheduled for imminent release starring Ewan MacGregor as Perry, Naomie Harris as Gail and various other big names. Variety, in their inimitable style, describe it as a "contempo spy suspenser", which I suppose is about right.

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