Author turns polemi­cist in a world of cor­rup­tion and lies

A Del­i­cate Truth

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Si­mon Cater­son

By John le Carre´ Vik­ing, 311pp, $29.99

JOHN le Carre´ ’ s new novel sug­gests an author at war with him­self as well as en­raged by the state of Bri­tain to­day. The sub­lime touch of the mas­ter of es­pi­onage fic­tion is ev­i­dent in the set-piece ac­tion scenes at the be­gin­ning and end of A Del­i­cate Truth but over­all the book sug­gests the artist within le Carre´ is in con­flict with the polemi­cist and the lat­ter is gain­ing the up­per hand.

The plot fol­lows the le Carre´ tem­plate in which a closet rebel in the Es­tab­lish­ment embarks on a pri­vate cru­sade to un­cover the truth in a world of power, cor­rup­tion and lies.

Toby Bell, a ris­ing star in the For­eign Of­fice, joins forces with Sir Kit Probyn, a re­tired min­is­te­rial pri­vate sec­re­tary, to ex­pose an ap­par­ently botched counter-ter­ror­ism op­er­a­tion con­ducted in se­cret on Gi­bral­tar by the Bri­tish govern­ment in col­lu­sion with an Amer­i­can pri­vate mil­i­tary con­trac­tor.

Were in­no­cent Mus­lim refugees — a mother and her daugh­ter — slaugh­tered in an at­tempt to abduct an Is­lamist arms dealer? If any­one can un­cover the truth, it is Toby, who, be­cause he is in a po­si­tion to be a whistle­blower, is an ex­am­ple of that ‘‘ most feared crea­ture of our con­tem­po­rary world: the soli­tary de­cider’’.

The mis­sion is re­counted in flash­back and le Carre´ has lit­tle ev­i­dent in­ter­est in de­vel­op­ing his char­ac­ters. His main pur­pose seems to be to rail against what he sees as the un­der­min­ing of the in­tegrity of the Bri­tish state sig­nalled when Tony Blair joined the US in­va­sion of Iraq.

The Bri­tish govern­ment to­day, le Carre´ be­lieves, is un­duly in­flu­enced by cor­po­rate in­ter­ests as­so­ci­ated with the Amer­i­can far Right, and as a re­sult the abil­ity of Bri­tish cit­i­zens to speak out is be­ing cur­tailed.

Like the most re­cent James Bond film, Sky­fall, A Del­i­cate Truth is techno­pho­bic — Bond has a vin­tage ra­dio trans­mit­ter, Toby an old-fash­ioned tape recorder — and nos­tal­gic for a by­gone age of Bri­tish im­por­tance in world af­fairs.

Le Carre´, who in a re­cent in­ter­view re­vealed he still writes manuscripts by hand, ap­pears cir­cum­scribed in out­look by his class and gen­er­a­tion, that of the pub­lic school, Oxbridgee­d­u­cated rul­ing elite. Yet the old pa­tri­otic cer­tain­ties of this world are less mean­ing­ful in an era where the de­fend­ers and the en­e­mies of life as we know it are state­less in­di­vid­u­als with ad­vanced IT skills.

Le Carre´, who has pub­lished more than 20 books in a ca­reer span­ning a half cen­tury, re­mains one of the ma­jor nov­el­ists of our time, even though the qual­ity of his out­put varies. For ex­am­ple, in be­tween two colos­sal achieve­ments in fic­tion of the 1970s, Tin­ker Tai­lor Sol­dier Spy and Smi­ley’s Peo­ple, is sand­wiched The Hon­ourable School­boy, a bloated epic that for mine is al­most un­read­able.

I turned to A Del­i­cate Truth af­ter one of my reg­u­lar re-read­ings of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which is among the great­est of

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