I read Mr le Carré’s latest spy novel, Agent Running in the Field last weekend, despite everything.
What do I mean by everything? The answer is, the rather predictable themes of exploitation of young naive idealists, the ruthlessness, pomposity and incompetence of the exploiters, the writer’s unqualified contempt for big business, here and for the second time, Big Pharma – remember The Constant Gardener – the disillusioned and paternal old espionage hand reaching the end of his career, and the treachery of his masters.
There are, of course, variations. The old hand is the narrator, Nat. Nat is a physical more than a cerebral character of the kind that Smiley was. That having been said, Nat makes a clever deduction that gives the storyline an unexpected twist. For a time Nat and his wife had been a husband and wife espionage team. Nobody, certainly not Mr le Carré, does husband and wife spy teams better than Len Deighton. Nat’s wife Prue, a brilliant lawyer, has retired from the service and now works in a large and expensive firm of solicitors as their pro bono lawyer. She is much preoccupied with the class action she is running against a huge and evil pharmaceutical company. I found her impossibly sanctimonious. As dangerous as some of the products of Big Pharma have turned out to be, Mr le Carré does not acknowledge that they have also invented miraculous drugs and devices to prolong and ease the lives of many. Nor does the author recognise that it is only the large fees earned by the other lawyers in the firm that pay for the wife’s pro bono work and her comfortable London lifestyle. Much is made of Prue’s religious reading of the Guardian every morning. It is no wonder that the publisher quotes on the back cover of my copy an extravagant paragraph of a review by that newspaper.
Another not unfamiliar theme is the wickedness of the politicians. Here the villainess is a Tory peeress who happens to be married to Nat’s immediate superior in the branch of the Secret Service to which he has been transferred. The peeress is also a very, very wealthy merchant banker. It would be a spoiler to say more of her machinations and their rather implausible consequences. For the record, it should be pointed out that the former Director of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, and Field Marshal Lord Guthrie both support Brexit on a no-deal basis.
Everything here includes the author’s treatment of Brexit which I thought provocative. Perhaps that is what Mr le Carré intended of his readers. I doubt, however, that he would have wanted them to think him condescending or spiteful, which I at times certainly did. The holy Prue and Nat are both confirmed and dogmatic Europhiles. So much, not least the spy agencies of Britain, is rotten. He espouses a kind of equivalence between them and the clandestine agencies of far less democratic countries. The views and wishes of the Brexiteers are worthless. To borrow from Bertolt Brecht, perhaps the House of Commons and the House of Lords should dissolve the people and elect another.
According to Mr le Carré, 75 years after Hitler, Germany is the great internationalist emollient of Europe. Those who support Brexit are no more than crypto-colonists nostalgic for empire and the great iron-clads that maintained it.
I thought the book a little shallow in its failure to understand the true nature of the form of oppression that tends to concentrate in an unelected remote centralised bureaucracy in even the most well-intended federations. To borrow again from the Left, this time the furthest left, Karl Marx, if religion is the opium of the people, power is the LSD and ice of the high bureaucrats. It appears that Mr le Carré does not mind being hectored and insulted by the highest Euro official who hails from a postage stamp sized country whose principal business is the facilitation of tax evasion. The EU Commission ignores or forgets Tip O’Neill’s famous adage, all politics is local. Cordial and sincere arrangements between nations are essential for peace and prosperity, but do not require relinquishment of control of a nation’s domestic affairs, that is to say, sovereignty.
The recurrent theme of the paternal figure owes much to the author’s own preoccupation with his father, a flamboyant confidence man who spent time in prison but when the going was good entertained Don Bradman and the Australian cricket team in his grand and temporary residence in the country. All of this was laid bare in Mr le Carré’s second last work, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, a memoir which was the subject of a generous review by his near contemporary, Mr Ferdinand Mount, republished in a collection of reviews, English Voices: Lives, Landscapes, Laments. It is interesting that Mr Mount’s own work is permeated by reflections upon and unanswered questions of his father, matters which he too laid bare in his recent memoir of his mother, Cold Cream: My Early Life and Other Mistakes. Mr Mount, as he prefers to be addressed, in both his fiction and non-fiction presents a far more rounded and sensitive view of his characters, including his parents, than Mr le Carré.
It is not to give anything away to say that I found the ending of the novel a little too improbable. I will not spoil it by disclosing it. Mr le Carré’s art does not, however, lie in unpredictability. It lies in tightly written prose, the carefully spaced, occasional vivid image, and the build-up of suspense, not so much about what is to happen to the exploiters and the exploited, but how, where and when it is to happen.
Although there is a touch of the James Bond about Mr le Carré’s narrator, Fleming could not credibly have written a character quite as complex as Nat, and, as exotic as his locations may have been, they were never as credible or as interesting as the secret places in Central Europe to which Mr le Carré takes us in his latest novel.
The book may not appeal to all of those in Britain who voted to leave the EU or for Mr Trump as President in the United States, or indeed for anyone in Australia who may have chosen to vote for some outspoken independent at the last election. If, however, those of them who are immune to provocation have the time to do so, they should read the book as I did, with pleasure and admiration for a master of the genre.
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