Books: Honesty in a world of secrecy


Will John le Carré sue Julian Assange for loss of income? After all, JleC has made a lucrative living out of secrets these forty-something years – and then, horrors, the entire cloak-and-dagger business goes phut. Assange’s WikiLeak revelations of recent months have surely put paid to the whole espionage industry, never mind the spy novel.

Well, no. We Le Carré fans know better than that. And our smug knowledge of his arcane world is confirmed and expanded in the urbane master’s latest – Our Kind of Traitor.

The wide-eyed innocents who imagined that public exposure of fragments from years of clandestine inter-governmental communications would launch a new millennium of sweet honesty in international affairs are in for a teeny surprise. If anything, spy versus spy action is likely to become much more, and much more dangerously, obscure.

Diplomacy does not reside in one-liners. Effective embassies keep up sustained conversations, which, all things being equal, tend to be preferable to actually ripping each others’ throats out. The old “jaw-jaw is better than war-war” theory.  So a rude or exasperated remark by a major player, possibly  significant, is also quite likely to represent nothing more than an aside in the face of endless bloody-minded chats with intransigent “negotiators”.

The envoys’ loss of faith in current methods of communication simply means that new techniques will have to be developed. And fast. Humanity, at every level, needs reliable confidantes.

Which is not to say that the Assange bombshell does not have its merits. On the contrary – the people who play the power games need to know that We the People are on to them. And will continue to keep a beady eye on their machinations insofar as it is possible to do so.

Le Carré’s genius lies in the combination of special knowledge of spookery (he was employed by HM Government in that department, and clearly knows his way around some very mazey corridors indeed) and his evident fascination with fallible humanity. The characters are memorable and sustained. Some are heroic without necessarily meaning to be so. Just like in real life.

He is particularly good at observing the terrible toll that realpolitik often takes on shiny idealists confronted by conflicting definitions of national interest. And he is a mesmerising story-teller.

Traitor is an exciting thriller. Highly intelligent, but always accessible, and essentially humane. The good guys tend to have a hard time – but then, t’was ever thus. There’s not much point in giving away the plot, except to say that it is smack-on-the-nose contemporary and would make a nail-biting movie combining, as it does, derring-do, romance, romantic settings, and foul villains, all of them convincing. There’s even a walk-on part for Roger Federer in a dramatic sequence set at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris.

Le Carré’s magnetic skills have been honed from impressive beginnings (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and all that), but the compelling, non-preachy morality of  his writing  remains a powerful and unusual constant. Those who imagined that the end of the Cold War would stop his stately advance up the best-seller lists were soon proved wrong.

The appeal of every one of his novels is enhanced by a powerfully autobiographical element that flatters the reader with his confidence. And this is accomplished without special pleading. How curious  that a man moulded in secrecy, and clearly the soul of discretion, embodies personal honesty in his writings.

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