When I was younger, my father told me that it is important to read the classics, the old masters. However, a person who only reads old stuffy tomes, tends to be a bit pretentious and what is worse, often boring. To avoid this worse-than-death fate, my father advised me to also be sure to read silly, weightless books, junk food for the mind he called it. And so when I was a child I picked up authors that would never be taught in any literature department, Pratchett, Agatha Christie, Le Carre. Little did I realize at the time my father was trying to inoculate me against the sort of thinking that categorizes books into classics and junk, he was trying to teach me that there are no small books, only small minds.
And so Le Carre became an old favorite of mine and I was pleased to see that even at the age of 80, he hasn’t lost a step. The novel centers around two protagonists, both British civil servants, one recently retired and one an up and coming young buck. The main lynch point of the story is a botched joint British-American military operation in British territory. The operation at first called a success, the older civil servant, Probyn (kit) given a commendation and an ambassadorship position for his small part in facilitating the operation. The younger civil servant, Toby, at the time of the operation the personal assistant to Labor MP Fergus Quinn realizes his boss is hiding information from him and starts to uncover what really went down. Before he can get far his employment is terminated and he is transferred to a position in the British foreign office.
The story picks up three years later when a British special agent who took part in the operation and can’t stomach the guilt, finds Kit and accuses him of collaborating with the conspiracy. It turns out the operation wasn’t a success at all, instead of a master terrorist, the special forces killed a young refugee mother and her infant daughter. What is worse, the operation was not a joint British-American operation, but rather a corrupt deal by the MP with a private security corporation, adroitly called Ethical Outcomes. Kit, a not to bright gentleman diplomat, who was until this point rather proud of his participation in the operation, what he felt was his daring moment defending king and country, is appalled by what really went down. His inept attempts to register a complaint with the foreign office, because surely this is all a misunderstanding, alert Toby who still has just enough integrity and ideology to try and do what’s right.
The cold war over, the west won. Russia, for all of Putin’s bluster is a failed oligarchical and corrupt country, it’s populace barely getting by on fumes of old soviet day glory. The new enemies are corporate greed, class disparity, mediocrity of public servants and a disdain for the poor. The new heroes are not the secret agents, oh they are still there, but they serve the bottom line now, not any grand ideal of freedom and peace. The new heroes of our time are the whistle blowers, those who are shocked when innocents are discarded without a thought or prayer and try to fight against the beast of corporate and bureaucratic complacency. Even if they are themselves being eaten inside its belly.
Le Carre seems to have looked on the west that won the cold war and not liked what he saw. To him the rich dining in high rises while the poor eke out a meager living at best, or are sacrificed with out a thought at worst, is an ugly sight, one he cannot stand. In the “spy who came in from the cold”, poor Liz Gold dies near the Berlin wall. She was a civilian, not a spy or an intelligence agent, simply an average girl who fell in love with the wrong guy. Her sacrifice deemed a necessary evil, a means to an end. I suspect the modern Le Carre would have written that story differently, he would not have tolerated her death or the death of any innocent in pursuit of the “a global war on terrorism”.