Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré

I'd forgotten the delicious thrill of a novel by John le Carré.

There was a time when I glutted on his books - and reported all to this very blog. I read The Secret Pilgrim and The Constant Gardener in August 2005, shortly before seeing the film of The Constant Gardener, I read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in April 2006, The Honourable Schoolboy the following month and Smiley's People the month after that, The Mission Song in January 2007 and The Looking-Glass War in December 2008. (I also read - and loved - Call for the Dead at some point in that period, but seem not to have blogged about it; and I'd read le Carré in the far-off days before this blog, too.)

His newest novel, A Delicate Truth is all very familiar: an intelligence job goes wrong and is hushed up, but three of the people involved won't let it go. As they attempt to uncover what happened - and who is to blame - the establishment closes around them...

As always, le Carré creates distinct and real characters, most drawn from the country's best schools, all conjured with names and quirks that seem effortless, as if he's copied them down from real life.

For example, former ambassador Sir Christopher 'Kit' Probyn, is diligent, keen and, moving to a new home, deftly learns his new neighbours' names and habits and history, weaving himself into the community. His wife's illness - sparingly mentioned - adds an extra note of grace to a character we quickly warm to, which makes it all the more effective when he's dismissed by his masters as a 'low-flyer' and used in their wretched scheme.

Le Carré's brilliant at building tension as the story plays out. The plot hinges on the privatisation of intelligence work, and the inevitable blunders - and deaths - that result from applying a payment-by-results approach to such uncertain work. The prose is elegant, full of choice detail and often witty, but this is an angry book, the intelligence sector just one further target of a general policy to open up public service to carpet-baggers and zealots. That policy is sociopathic, as he fumes late on (I've redacted the names so as not to spoil the story):
"In a half-hearted effort to find excuses for [character 1], [character 2] even wondered whether, deep down, the man was just plain stupid. How else to explain the cock-up that was [event]? And from there, he wandered off into an argument with Friedrich Schiller's grandiose statement that human stupidity was what the gods fought in vain. Not so, in [character 2]'s opinion, and no excuse for anybody, whether god or man. What the gods and all reasonable humans fought in vain wasn't stupidity at all. It was sheer, wanton, blood indifference to anyone's interests but their own."
John le Carré, A Delicate Truth (2013), p. 296.
As always, there are no easy answers or happy endings, and making a stand against the villains means facing appalling consequences. Le Carré conjures a complex, nasty world, one recognisable from the daily news. But the power of the book is in the simplest of concoctions: good people we feel for, struggling against overwhelming odds to do the right thing.

No comments: