In John le Carré’s fiction, personal morality collides messily with the grimly cynical expediencies of global politics.
In John le Carré’s fiction, personal morality collides messily with the grimly cynical expediencies of global politics. Loyalty is never something to take for granted. That is the issue at the heart of his new novel, his 22nd, as it is in so many of his other ones.
The plot centres on a pair of innocents abroad, both literally and figuratively — Perry, a left-leaning Oxford don who yearns to replace the dreaming spires with what he thinks of as real life; and his girlfriend, Gail, a young barrister hesitating between her career and the possibility of six children with Perry. A holiday in Antigua leads to life-changing decisions they hadn’t anticipated. Perry — a gifted amateur tennis player — plays a match with Dima, a neighbouring Russian tycoon, whose entourage includes an extended family and a bodyguard named Uncle Vanya.
Perry’s sense of fair play so impresses his opponent that Dima, perhaps a little improbably, decides to use Perry as his go-between with the British secret service. For Dima is in fact the world’s ‘number-one money-launderer’, as well as a murderous career criminal. Now he wants to liquidate his assets, settle in the UK and send his sons to Eton and his daughter to Roedean (if Eton cannot be persuaded to stretch a point and take girls). Dima’s one problem is that, once he liquidates his assets, his former associates will liquidate him. So he proposes a deal: if MI6 will guarantee him a safe haven, he will spill the rotten beans about what turns out to be an enormously lucrative deal involving Russian mafiosi, venal MPs, City moghuls, the solvency of the British nation and sinister Surrey oligarchs.
So far, so good. And then of course everything goes wrong for just about everybody. Perry and Gail are forced to confront their own limitations, as well as those at the heart of the British establishment, while trying to keep Dima and his unhappy family out of harm’s way. The novel ends, rather abruptly, with a dying fall.
Le Carré gives us the flattering illusion that we are eavesdropping at the spooks’ top table. His themes — money-laundering, the long consequences of the recession and the need for hard choices — are nothing if not topical. He is a skilled observer of how people interact.
For all that, the novel belongs on le Carré’s B-list. Though Dima and his entourage are both poignant and surprisingly funny, Perry and Gail are a little too glossy to be sympathetic or even believable. Their idiom is curiously old- fashioned: Perry (aged 30) lives in ‘digs’, and wears what the rather younger Gail refers to, without a trace of irony, as his ‘grey bags’ on his lower limbs. They both appear to have perfect recall, which comes in handy when they are unburdening themselves to their MI6 minders. Nor is the narrative as smooth and streamlined as it might be; it lurches to and fro in time and place, which sometimes confuses as much as it intrigues.
That said, perhaps part of the problem has more to do with us than with le Carré. This novel isn’t Smiley and it isn’t the Cold War, either; and many of his readers have an irrational nostalgia for both. Le Carré deserves credit for trying to move with the times. Yet somehow the result doesn’t seem to matter enough: money-laundering certainly has its moments, but it’s a long way from the Great Game.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 18, 2010Tags: Crime, Fiction, Politics