Saturday, June 1, 2013

A Delicate Truth (Book Review)

The Cold War was clay in his artisanal hands.  But after the fall of the Soviet Union, his devotees had begun to wonder whether John Le Carré, like his country forty years earlier, had lost his place in the world and not yet found a role which fit his considerable skills.  He tried his dextrous hand at a number of themes, testing them in a way that only a brilliant author who always transcended the ‘spy’ genre could.  The Constant Gardener and Single & Single provided satisfying one-offs, but Le Carré was clearly after material more epochal. 

In my view, A Most Wanted Man and Our Kind of Traitor (particularly the former) brought him back onto his home turf, and his most recent book, A Delicate Truth, has given one of our most enduring living writers an opportunity to demonstrate his skill at disembowelling the grotesque follow-up act to the Cold War—the War on Terror.

Le Carré’s game has changed with his raw material.  In his Cold War novels, ranging from Call for the Dead up through The Secret Pilgrim, he was content to display a magisterial canvas on which a richly-plotted parable unfolded, comprising all manner of moral quandaries which would be obligingly laid out for readers, sans authorial judgement.  There was real power in that art, in illustrating the apparent moral impossibility of positions generated by competing loyalties and rival demands.

I have heard fellow Le Carré readers question whether his more recent novels are lacking some of the morally abstemious, aloof sophistication of the earlier novels that drew generations of readers to his works.  His recent ones are certainly shorter than the likes of A Perfect Spy or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  Indeed, in A Delicate Truth, the plot is slightly less complex, and the action unfolds at a slightly less lugubrious rate.  But the mandarins are no less cloying, the powers that be no less dextrous in exercising moral suasion on the young and innocent.

But something has definitely changed.  With The Constant Gardener, something had begun to smoulder in Le Carré’s writing, and he now reads like a man on a mission.  Like A Most Wanted Man, A Delicate Truth crackles with outrage.  Now it is less the right and the wrong which are so open to question than it is the ability of individuals operating within or without of what tortured Foreign Office operative Toby Bell refers to as the “deep state” to influence events. 

At every turn, representatives of the unholy alliance of capital, the secret state, and the industry of death are leagues ahead, anticipating the efforts of would-be whistleblowers who, in their efforts to shed light on the participation of the British government in a shoot-from-the-hip rendition effort, never get so much as an opportunity to raise the whistle to their lips. 

In this typically tragic tale, Le Carré eviscerates the logic wielded so casually by the national security establishment and illustrates the dangerous intertwinement of corporately-sponsored elected representatives with a savagely blinkered security apparatus and those who trade in and profit from death.  Far from finding the literary quality of his work diminished by his frontal assault on British and American terrorism, I feel that the newfound urgency in his writing if anything improves on his canon.

But after all, I’m biased, because in common with much of the public (I hope), I ascribe to an increasingly quaint-sounding view that there is such a thing as the public interest, and that this interest is not well-served by our government’s embrace of fundamentalism and fanaticism and ferocity in its dealings with other human beings in our name.

Chinua Achebe famously wrote, “Writers don’t give prescriptions.  They give headaches!”  I hope that Le Carré’s latest contribution gives both our quiescent public and our complicit politicians some discomfort. 


John Le Carre, A Delicate Truth.  New York: Penguin Group, 2013.

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