Sunday, February 20, 2011

Book Review: Our Kind of Traitor (John le Carre)

Is a spy novel relevant in this age?  In fact, are spies themselves relevant?  And - boy, things are getting seriously ridiculous now - are British spies relevant?  The Brits?  What are they, like the Rishi Kapoor of global politics?  Once a proud and dominant member, reduced now to roles of fat, middle aged funny men in marginal films?  So here is an author whose stock in trade has been this personality - now turned fat, middle aged and irrelevant.  How, I ask myself, does le Carre go on?  How does he write when his subject matter is getting from the front pages of global newspapers to the 'style' section?  Trust the great man not to leave this question unasked.

Perry, an academic from Oxford, a man most unsympathetic to spies, is one of our protagonists in Our Kind of Traitor, and in this scene below, is meeting for the first time with Hector, master spy-runner.

A mutual inspection ensued.  The two men were of equal height, which for both was unusual.  Without his stoop, Hector might have been the taller.  With his classic broad brow and flowing white hair tossed back in two untidy waves, he resembled to Perry's eye a Head of College of the old, dotty sort.  He was in his mid-fifties, by Perry's guess, but dressed for eternity in a many brown sports coat with leather patches at the elbow and leather edges to the cuffs.  The shapeless grey flannels could have been Perry's own.  So could the battered Hush Puppy shows.  The artless, horn-rimmed spectacles could have been rescued from Perry's father's attic box.

Finally, but long after time, Hector spoke:

'Wilfred bloody Owen,' he pronounced, in a voice that contrived to be both vigorous and reverential.  'Edmund bloody Blunden.  Siegfried bloody Sassoon.  Robert bloody Graves.  Et al.'

'What about them?' the bewildered Perry asked, before he had given himself time to think.

'Your fabulous fucking article about them in the London Review of Books last autumn!  "The sacrifice of brave men does not justify the pursuit of an unjust cause.  P.Makepiece scripsit."  Bloody marvellous!'

'Well, thank you,' said Perry helplessly, and felt an idiot for not having made the connection fast enough.

The silence returned while Hector continued his admiring inspection of his prize.

'Well, I'll tell you what you are, Mr. Perry Makepiece, sir,' he asserted, as if he'd reached the conclusion they had both been waiting for.  'You're and absolute fucking hero, is what you are' - seizing Perry's hand in a flaccid double grip and giving it a limp shake - 'and that's not smoke up your arse.  We know what you think of us.  Some of us think it too, and we're right.  Trouble is, we're the only show in town.  Government's a fuck-up, half the Civil Service is out to lunch.  The Foreign Office is as much use as a wet dream, the country's stone-broke and the bankers are taking our money and giving us the finger.  What are we supposed to do about it?  Complain to Mummy or fix it?'

Did you see that bit?  The sacrifice of brave men does not justify the pursuit of an unjust cause.  You know right then, dear reader, that you are in good hands.  The best in the spy business, in fact.

This passage came back to my mind recently when I was reading news coverage of the Tahrir Square revolution.  This past Friday, Mint, in its Quick Edit section had a piece called 'The Trials of the Spies'.  Here is what the piece said:

John le Carre would not have blundered so badly.  After Egypt, it's the third time in as many decades that US spooks have been caught napping while major political upheavals and secret operations have passed "undetected".  A Reuters report on Thursday said that US director of national intelligence James Clapper has told a Senate committee that spies were "not clairvoyant".

One advertised reason for such failures is the paucity of "human intelligence" (read:  real spies) in places where there's trouble.  There is little evidence of learning from past mistakes.  Central Intelligence Agency director Leon Panetta has said that his agency will pay more attention to social media for signals of trouble, as if the "other" side will merrily continue to use Facebook and Twitter.  Le Carre's men (George Smiley for sure) would have posted more spies on the ground, instead of following Twitter.
So, it turns out, spies continue to be relevant.  Hmm, there is a thought.

[By the way, unrelated note - is there any other newspaper in India that is half as good as Mint?  Not even close my friends, not even close.]

So, past 80 now, is le Carre, the master of the spy novel, the man who single-handedly pulled up a whole genre of fiction from cheap thriller category to convert it into fine literature, still up and with it?  Is the writing, in other words, still any good?

But then Luke had always been a worrier.  From infancy, he had worried indiscriminately, rather in the way he fell in love.

He could worry as much about whether his watch was ten seconds fast or slow, as about the direction of a marriage that was null and void in every room except the kitchen.

How great is that?  'A marriage null and void in every room except the kitchen.'  Oh yes, the man's writing is still sharp.  The melancholic spy at the center of his world still very much alive.

Our Kind of Traitor is a short read.  The tale of a young couple from Oxford whose path crosses that of a large family from Russia, with unexpected and far-reaching effects.  In his most recent book before this one, A Most Wanted Man, le Carre showed rare form, evoking memories of his best days past.  With Our Kind of Traitor, he keeps the faith alive, even if the flame doesn't grow much brighter.


  1. The sacrifice of brave men does not justify the pursuit of an unjust cause.
    This line makes no sense. Read it again. Carefully, this time.
    No one will try to reason that because they are sacrificing brave men they are justified in pursuing an unjust cause.
    It would make sense if the author had written:
    The sacrifice of brave men cannot be justified by the pursuit of an unjust cause!

  2. Liked the snippets you included in your review. Need to read something by Le Carre. Yes, I know - terrible, I haven't read anything yet.

  3. @ Paroma: Great to see someone really thinking about the excerpt. Actually, the sentence appealed to me precisely because of the way it is phrased. The war in Iraq, which is clearly the inspiration for this sentence, was started as something driven by a 'just cause', say destruction of the WMDs, freeing Iraqis from a ruthless regime etc. Over time, more and more brave soldiers kept dying there, and their lore got stronger and stronger in American politics. At some point in the debate over years, as the original 'just causes' have failed to materialize, there has been a tendency in the debate to evoke the memories of 'all the brave men and women who died in uniform so we could be free' ... and not even mention the fact that the reason the nation went to war in the first place was never realized. The sacrifice of brave men does not justify the pursuit of an unjust cause.

  4. you see the tree you miss the wood if British are good spy s humm let me see in which planet are you locate it!? A 80 year old fellow can make such a book ! Only by personal experience what else as for the word # fiction # try to find who and for what has be use it for!........