Book Review: Le Carre at his shadowy best in spy thriller
As the title suggests, John le Carre's newest gem is about traitors. It's a virtual anatomy of betrayal, from self-betrayals to the political, institutional and family varieties.
Inevitably it is also about loyalty, honesty and bravery, and their often crucial roles in traitorous acts. The deliberately ambiguous first words of the title invite us to look carefully at the characters, both present and absent, involved in a plot inspired by a little noticed but deeply troubling news item (included at the end of the novel).
Perry Makepeace, a 30-year-old tutor at Oxford University and his longtime girlfriend, Gail, an up-and-coming barrister in London, were visiting a resort in Antigua to sort out their lives and relationship. They are good liberals, idealistic, strong in doing what's right and good. At the resort they meet Dima, a rich money launderer for the Russian mafia, and his large, dysfunctional family. They don't know what he does, but he's always shadowed by bodyguards. Later they learn he possesses valuable information about high-ranking businessmen and officials involved in trading drugs and other illicit operations.
Dima is a Dickensian creation, a comic innocent, yet mysteriously menacing. He embraces the couple in a rough bear hug, literally and figuratively, which is humorous yet hints at desperation.
Members of his family are a bit off-kilter, too. His second wife Tamara is perpetually silent and mournful, except to occasionally speak about God. Then there are a bunch of young kids, some from the second marriage and some cousins, who have secrets and problems of their own.
Perry and Gail, despite their social discomfort and lingering doubts, are taken with Dima and his crew.
When they return to England they are debriefed by the Secret Service, an experience as unsettling in its way as their island encounter. The couple is put off by the dirty operations of the criminals and the agents, yet they feel a personal affection for the Russians and are fascinated by the intrigue and the possibility of cleaning up British and European corruption.
They decide to go back to Europe to become the agents of a transaction, which could give Dima and his family asylum in exchange for his information.
So, with trust and the best intentions, Gail and Perry are drawn into increasingly surprising, complicated and dangerous situations. They move from place to place in Europe trying, desperately at times, to cope with unexpected problems, some personal, some bureaucratic. More than anything, we sense how much they don't know, how powerless, once they are "agents," they become.
They are not alone, of course. Dima and the British agents they know also cannot control events. Or so it seems. There are always those absent presences, powerful individuals among the criminals and in governments and ruling circles who stick in their oars, change their terms or their minds. Or so it seems. Has Perry and Gail's trust been betrayed from the beginning?
All this makes for exciting reading. Mr. LeCarre adds to this well-paced plot a novelist's exploration of Gail and Perry's moral and emotional dilemmas and some wonderful characters: Dima and his family are constantly surprising and entertaining. This is no cynic's tale. Certainly Mr. Le Carre gives us a look at the worst, but one has the sense that there are personal redemptions and accidental successes.
He is a master of irony, the dominant attitude of our time. But it is a provisional irony, aware of its own contingency. He's our kind of novelist.
First Published October 17, 2010 12:00 am