Author turns polemicist in a world of corruption and lies
A Delicate Truth
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