Not a bad spook book

Jeremy Gordin reviews "Agent running the field" by John le Carré

Agent running in the field by John le Carré. Penguin Random House UK. 2019. Electronic edition.

When I was a boy and a bit, most of my friends and I reacted to the publication of a new book by John le Carré like junkies without a fix. We’d steam out to the bookshop to buy his latest and, having purchased it, would beam like cats who’d got the cream or junkies who ....

Alternatively, if Peter “Big Pete” Wilhelm, then books editor at the Financial Mail, and probably the last fully literate journalist to grace the SA profession, had received a review copy – we’d make Wilhelm’s life a misery until he passed it on. Le Carré was de rigueur.

But “tempus fugit, fuggit,” as Norman Mailer once observed. For one thing, who can afford hard backs these days? Second, are there any competent book reviewers left in the local media? Well, maybe one that I can think of. Third, Maestro Le Carré, now 88 years young, is perilously close to being what’s known as a DWM (dead white male) and therefore to be shunned. Do those under 40 read books anyway? 

Having said which, however, if you saw the BBC’s brilliant six-part mini-series of The Night Manager (2015/6) – in which Le Carré played a cameo role – and in which the original text was obviously sliced to the bone for TV – you’d be unable, I think, to sidestep the painful realisation that the Great Author did tend to write a bit on the er long side. But which great writer doesn’t?

Fourth, no matter how open-minded and tolerant one is, one also must admit that since, say, The Night Manager (1993) and especially The Constant Gardener (2001), Le Carré has grown increasingly – and some say tediously – didactic and prone to proselytising.

He wears his liberal/leftie heart on his sleeve, as evidenced by his obvious disgust with amoral arms dealers with whom various governments connive (The Night Manager), Big Pharma (The Constant Gardener), Islamophobia (A Most Wanted Man), murderous western-backed Capitalist fiddling in Africa (The Mission Song), and so on.

But if life and/or even Le Carré gives you lemons, best make lemonade. To put it another way, given that Le Carré’s latest book is so palpably “political,” I can at last review a Le Carré on Politicsweb.

Agent running in the field is indeed political. One mean reviewer writing in the Financial Times, Adam LeBor, himself a first-class journalist and writer, said this book is “in part an undisguised Remainer screed, an anguished howl of Hampstead (where le Carré has a house) angst and fury” (see here). By “Hampstead,” LeBor means of course leftie/liberal/intellectual/Remainer, etc.

LeBor’s spot-on. One of the main characters, known as Ed, though he’s not the main protagonist, says the following: “Britain’s departure from the European Union in the time of Donald Trump, and Britain’s consequent unqualified dependence on the United States in an era when the US is heading straight down the road to institutional racism and neo-fascism, is an unmitigated clusterfxxk bar none” (p 55).

There’s even juicier stuff. For me, the best part of the book is when the main protagonist, Nat, an ostensibly “discarded” MI6-er (now known as the Secret Intelligence Service, SIS – tempus indeed fugits), travels to the Czech Republic to visit one of his former double-agents, Arkady, now a wealthy but embittered Russian oligarch – embittered because, like Nat, he too (notwithstanding having betrayed his mother-land, the USSR) doesn’t like the way the world’s gone.

This is what Arkady says to Nat: “[Donald Trump] is Putin’s shxthouse cleaner. He does everything for little Vladi that little Vladi can’t do for himself: pxsses on European unity, pxsses on human rights, pxsses on NATO. Assures us that Crimea and Ukraine belong to the Holy Russian Empire, the Middle East belongs to the Jews and the Saudis, and to hell with the world order. And you Brits, what do you do? You suck his dxck and invite him to tea with your Queen. You take our black money and wash it for us. You welcome us if we’re big enough crooks. You sell us half London. You wring your hands when we poison our traitors and you say please, please, dear Russian friends, trade with us. Is this what I risked my life for? I don’t believe so. I believe you Brits sold me a cartload of hypocritical horseshxt. So don’t tell me you’ve come here to remind me of my liberal conscience and my Christian values and my love of your great big British Empire. That would be an error. Do you understand me? (140)”

Well, if the above soliloquy doesn’t get Polweb readers rushing out to buy this book (I just hope it doesn’t cause any conniption fits), I’ll be an m-word’s uncle.

Yes, Agent running in the field is largely Le Carré’s heartfelt Ciceronian cry of “O tempora o mores” (“Oh what times! Oh what customs!”). But don’t underestimate the maestro. Le Carré remains first and foremost a brilliant storyteller with an impeccable ear for the cant the English sometimes (often?) speak and a hawk’s eye for their frailties and hypocrisies.

At nights, before sleep, to succour my troubled soul, I forego the more serious stuff (Politicsweb, “political” books, history, science, medieval philosophers, feminist books, and so on) and pursue my 50-year-old researches into the thriller genre. For example, lately I’ve been reading (in translation of course) Norwegian writer, Jo Nesbo, whom I think is excellent – and has more to say, about issues other than crime, than one might think.

Yet when I turned to Le Carré, it was as though an electric current had been switched on. Le Carré is so well organised (the intemellectuals call it “structure”), knows precisely what he’s doing, writes such crisp English, is (as LeBor notes) one of the most astute and acerbic observers of the British class system, and in this book keeps it short-ish (282 pages, electronically). Above all, our hero Nat clearly has clay feet – he has been and remains a bit of a twit – and Woke Ed is a pain-in-the-proverbial.

Still, Le Carré sometimes does commit peculiar gaffes. Nat, for example, is apparently washed-up and waiting anxiously for the HR department to tell him he’s sacked and will be replaced, doubtless on a smaller salary, by some obtuse whippersnapper with excellent cellphone and social media skills. (It’s happened to many of us.) Yet Nat is 47 years’ old. Read it and weep: 47. Surely then Le Carré’s got Nat’s age wrong? Isn’t 47 the new 27, especially in England?  Or maybe Le Carré knows exactly what he was doing ...

Arkady is “the illegitimate street-child of a Tbilisi prostitute of Jewish origin and a Georgian Orthodox priest” (127). Tbilisi – ah, Stalin was a Georgian and studied in a church school. So, pretty cute, nê? But maybe too cute. Why couldn’t he simply be an ordinary Russki who opted to be a spy?

Also, I read somewhere that if you introduce a pistol in act one of your play, something’s got to happen with that pistol in the final act; you can’t just forget it. Well, one of the sources of tension in Nat’s life is that Stephanie, his daughter, just started at university, thinks he’s a spineless creep, as one’s children often do, especially when he reveals to her that he’s been a spook. Yet by the end of the book, Stephanie’s been largely forgotten.

Not War and Peace, not even The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, but a wonderfully refreshing read. And though I am fond of Le Carré’s “political” sentiments, you don’t have to be.