When the Cold War ended, a lot of espionage/thriller writers didn’t know what to do with themselves. Tom Clancy, in particular, invented new villains and resurrected old ones for the US to shadowbox with. We were the last remaining superpower and there really wasn’t anything threatening us.
And then 9/11 happened.
It was like plugging in an electrical socket. Overnight, there emerged a raft of anti-terrorist fiction that both purports to understand Islam (it does not) and/or the Middle East (ditto). It continues today, a veritable cottage industry of anti-brown and anti-Black Islamophobic garbage. If the War on Iraq and America’s many follies in the middle east should have taught us anything, it’s that we knew nothing. But we’re America (F YEAH!). No one will tell us otherwise.
Enter John Le Carré.
A cynical old school Cold Warrior who occasionally blessed us with his cynical lyricism penned in espionage form, no one knew better than he how the rot of the western world worked. A native of a hollowed-out post-empire that was ceding power to a new giant unaware of how the world worked, Le Carré’s fiction both before and after the fall of the Iron Curtain was poignant for its time and cutting in its examination of how the west wins battles and loses wars post-WWII.
This one is a tragic exploration of how the War on Terror impacts people in ways big and small. How players of an old order could not find their footing in the shifting sand of Bush/Blair’s boneheaded maneuvering. The book, like many of Le Carré’s works, is the slowest of slow burns, perhaps too slow at times.
And then the ending.
I cannot talk about the ending. But it did reify a belief I had: for all the lauding Le Carré received in his lifetime for being a master of the spy genre, he was really an expert at subverting it.
This one will stick with me for a long time and as we prepare to observe the 20th anniversary of 9/11, with the Biden administration waffling on a troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, I’m reminded once more that we learn nothing and we learned nothing. It’s the lesson Le Carré was teaching all along.