John le Carré, Agent Running in the Field (London: Viking)
WITH a degree of inevitability, the Brexit novel has arrived. Happily, one of the authors is the 88-year-old John le Carré, an articulate Remainer. There are those Le Carré enthusiasts who believe none of his writing quite matches the quality of his Cold War espionage novels, although he has since used as context many of the major political issues of our times. And now, sixty years after his first novel, the main protagonist is again Moscow Centre.
The personal world of George Smiley was riven by ambiguity, but the political background was clear enough: the democratic West versus Russia’s communist empire. Now throughout the West there is a rapid rise of right-wing populism more in tune with Putin’s Russia than its own liberal establishments. As Ed puts it, ‘The British public is being marched over a cliff by a bunch of rich elitist carpetbaggers posing as men of the people. Trump is Antichrist, Putin another.’ A former, disillusioned Russian agent is even more blunt, describing Trump as ‘Putin’s shithouse cleaner … pissing on European unity, pissing on human rights, pissing on NATO … you Brits sold me a cartload of hypocritical horseshit.’ A British mandarin describes his compatriots as a ‘bunch of post-imperial nostalgists who can’t run a fruit stall.’
In this latest Le Carré novel Britain and the USA are plotting to spread fake news and undermine the social democratic institutions of the European Union after Brexit, and Russia is eyeing developments closely. The cast is fairly inevitable: an end-of-career MI6 agent runner and his human rights lawyer wife; an anti-Brexit security service clerk; a Russian sleeper agent; and a female MI6 operative frustrated at not being taken seriously. Surrounding them is the usual cast of the pompous, the professional and the shady who populate Le Carré’s tales of the intelligence services.
He is perhaps not the world’s greatest writer, but a grand master of ambience and authenticity that go back to his own days as a spy. All the details of trade craft are impeccable. Tellingly, one of his characters observes that ‘Nobody trusts electronic any more … It’s all paper and hand-carry, like going back in time.’ A keen observer of the damage wrought by bureaucracy and ideology, Le Carré is a subtle political and social commentator and an enabler of our understanding of both past and present. Smiley long ago summed up his own career: ‘The purpose of my life was to end the time I lived in.’ Sadly, world politics, as this novel highlights, have come full circle and new, more powerful forms of authoritarianism challenge our liberties.
Le Carré has adopted an irritating habit of italicising words in dialogue. We all accentuate our speech, but doing it too frequently in text suggests that the writer does not trust his readers to get the point. Nevertheless, this, if not his best, is a memorable novel and we are left with the awful thought that at his age, it could be Le Carré’s last.
An appreciation of Le Carré’s Cold War writing can be found in the Miscellaneous section of this website under the heading Le Carré as Historical Commentator.