Friday, August 30, 2013

Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré

Source of book: Book on CD borrowed from the library.

Originally, I wanted to listen to one of le Carré’s earlier works, preferably The Spy Who Came In From the Cold or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Unfortunately, our library didn’t have these checked in when I need them, and really only had a few of his most recent works. This particular book was published in 2010, and is the author’s next-to-most-recent novel.

A bit about John le Carré. (Pronounced like “carry.”) His real name is David Cornwell, and he did indeed serve in MI6 before his books sold well enough for him to write full time. He draws on his experiences in intelligence work; a few books are believed to be partly autobiographical.

In contrast to Ian Flemming’s James Bond books, le Carré’s are morally ambiguous, and tend to feature everyday people. His spies wrestle with the ethics of what they do, and truly untainted good guys are pretty hard to find. These books are not really action books either. Sure, action does occasionally happen. Sometimes the action even involves the main characters. But they are not superhumans like Bond.

These books are also completely different from those written by another author believed to have spent time in the intelligence world, Patrick O’Brian, whose novels are set in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, rather than the present time.

I’m not sure how representative this book is of le Carré’s other works. After reaching the thoroughly abrupt and unsatisfying ending (more on this later), I did a little poking around on the web, and it appears that it has some unique characteristics. Also, the time difference between this book and the most famous works of the author is significant. Le Carré was a much younger man when he started writing. (He is now 81.) The world has changed dramatically from the height of the Cold War, alliances have shifted, and politics look much different. Certain social morés have changed as well, and I wonder if this book reflects that. I’m sure that, even in England, an unmarried couple would be less likely to vacation together in the 1960s; but the language may or may not have been different in a book set in those earlier times.

With respect to the language, there is a significant amount of vulgarity and profanity in this book. (See note below for the difference. Yes, I care about this.) It is mostly limited to two main characters, but it is pretty constant with them. There is also some (non-graphic) sexual content. Less, in my view, than in James Bond.

The basic plot is this. (No significant spoilers.) English professor (actually a don, but that is a British distinction) Perry Makepeace is vacationing in Aruba with his girlfriend Gail when they meet a mysterious Russian, Dima. (Short for Dimitri.) After a tennis match with Perry, Dima decides to take Perry into his confidence. Dima is a big time money launderer, who has decided to cooperate with British intelligence after his friend and protegé is whacked by his fellow Russian mobsters. He thinks that Perry either is a spy, or knows one. Perry is talked into seeing what he can do.

Dima’s information implicates several important banking officials in England, including a member of parliament. Thus, the case is assigned to Hector Meredith on a semi-unofficial basis. Perry and Gail assist in the attempt to provide Dima and his family protection in exchange for his information. That much of the plot is on the back of the book, so I don’t mind revealing it.

Even from that bit of summary, it is pretty clear that the moral issues are as murky as they are in the real life version of intelligence. Dima is clearly a criminal, but he is also oddly sympathetic. His family, particularly the minor children, are even more so. They will likely be collateral damage if Dima’s gambit fails. One could certainly dislike the British government for multiple reasons. Its complicity with the big banks that were largely responsible for the near-collapse of the Western financial system is loathsome, of course. (Not that our own government was innocent - or that much of any government was. Is it okay to hate them all?) The dithering and political infighting that delays everything while lives hang in the balance. Actually, it is details like this that are the most realistic thing about this book. Anyone who has had to deal with an unresponsive bureaucracy will recognize the difficulties.

The two truly likable characters are Gail and Perry, the innocents who get in way over their heads in the whole caper. Unlike the others (the apparatchiks, as Dima calls them), they care about the humans involved as people, rather than just cogs in the machine of statecraft. (Not that the actual spies are callous, just that one can’t let personal stuff cloud one’s judgment.)

Things I liked about this book? Le Carré is a good, skilled writer. He has excellent command of the language, a great feel for pacing, and the ability to draw the reader into the world. I also loved that he is able to differentiate his characters using their dialogue. Each person has his or her own voice, vocabulary, favorite words and phrases, and so on. He is able to sustain pages of dialogue without identifying each speaker more than occasionally, but you always know who is speaking, because of how they talk. (All it takes is a book where the author fails to do this for one to realize how difficult yet crucial this is.)

I also thought that the events of the plot were interesting (and relevant). Russian capitalism and Russian gangsterism have been enmeshed since the fall of the iron curtain, and dirty money will always need to be cleaned in such situations. Even decades after his stint in the intelligence world, le Carré is able to capture the feel of the situations that develop.

Things I didn’t like as much? I thought that the first part was very strong, but that it got bogged down a little when the author had to fill in the backstory on the international stage and also on the agency’s internal politics. I suspect that it would have been easier to follow if I hadn’t been driving, or if I were British myself. Still that one is a minor quibble.

The one thing I really hated was the ending. Because it wasn’t an ending! It’s like the author just decided to end the book two chapters before he finished his plot. [Spoiler warning.] A disaster occurs at the end, but it only directly affects two characters. Sure, the fallout will affect everyone. But we never learn how. No loose ends are ever tied up. There are plenty of loose ends, too. What happens? We’ll never know.

Another book that ends like this is Giant by Edna Ferber. I wondered when I read that one if she couldn’t figure out how to end it, or if she just got tired of the book, and decided to stop abruptly.

The worst part of it is that, since both books had characters that I cared about, it was horrible to not know what happened to them. I mean, if you are going to kill them off, kill them off. Don’t just leave them dangling. 

I should mention a few lines worth remembering. (And I had to, since I was driving.)

One is by Gail, after a peculiar experience with Dimo’s wife, who is shell shocked and irrevocably damaged by the torture she underwent in the past, and has become compulsively religious. Gail notes that she has gone from being an Anglican atheist to being an Orthodox atheist.

Another line comes from a very minor character, one of Perry’s academic colleagues, who Perry seeks out when he wants to give his information to MI6, but has no idea how to start. This colleague has connections. He asks for Perry’s cell phone number, and writes it down. He says, “I never commit anything to memory. It’s insecure.” I love that! Paper can be shredded, but memories endure.

The unforgettable Hector gets the final line. Perry is trying to feel out exactly how truthful Hector is being as he tries to recruit Perry and Gail to assist in the case. After Perry suggests that he may be lying to save the country, Hector states that Perry is mistaking him for a diplomat. He then goes on to say that he also would not lie to save his own skin, which is the behavior of a different creature altogether: the politician.

This was an engrossing book. Perfect for driving. Just realize that the ending is missing, and enjoy it, I suppose. (I could also imagine that the author died before finishing it.)

Note on the audio:

This book is read by Robin Sachs, who was in Galaxy Quest and Ocean’s Eleven, among others. I think he did a really fine job with this book. He adopts different voices for each character, male and female, and he is convincing. The sounds fit the language (see above) and the personality in a marvelous way. A truly delightful book to listen to. 

Note on vulgarity, obscenity, and profanity:

Maybe it’s a lawyer thing. It bothers me when people use “profanity” when they refer to vulgarity or obscenity. So here are the distinctions.

Something is “obscene” in general when it offends the basic prevalent morality of its time and place. Thus, obscenity changes from time to time, and from place to place. Generally “obscenity” refers to the sexual, but it could conceivably apply to other things.

Legally speaking (here in the US), something is “obscene” if it appeals to the prurient interest and lacks artistic, literary, political, or scientific value. So, generally sexual.

Thus, references to sexual parts or acts might be referred to as an “obscenity. F---, for example.

An obscenity can also be a vulgarity, but there are vulgarities that are not obscene. Vulgarities can refer to sex, but also to bodily functions. Thus, “crap” is a mild vulgarity, but is not an obscenity.

Profanity, on the other hand, is language that is desecrating to the sacred. References to deities, holy things, and holy symbols are all profanity. (My favorite obscure profanity is “zounds,” which I discovered a few years ago to be an old word referring to “His (Christ’s) wounds. Who knew?)

So there you are. Whether you indulge in “colorful metaphors,” as Spock put it, or not; use the right word to describe it.

In this book, Dima and Hector are the two profane and vulgar characters. Dima’s language sounds menacing, but is also oddly comical. Swearing sounds more sinister in a Russian accent, just as it sounds completely laughable in French. But Dima also hasn’t really figured out the idiom in English. (“Jesus God!” Only Russian gangsters swear like that.)

The other is Hector, whose casual British vulgarity rolls off his raspy tongue naturally. (And, it is much more imaginative than Dima’s version. Nobody does vulgarity like the Brits. Americans pick a favorite word or two, and use it early and often. The Brits occasionally make one gasp with the audacity and creativity of their usage. And then you want to take a shower.)

Note on string bass players:

String bass players? Actually, I thought of this because one of our Symphony players is from Russia. Igor just looks like a gangster, with his bald head and thick neck. Igor is a fun guy, actually, with a delightfully dry sense of humor. He is also a great musician. But, if you needed someone to play a Russian gangster in your play, just paint a tattoo or three, and he would be ready to go.

It’s not just him, though. John looks like the long lost twin of my cousin-in-law Todd, the professor of theology. They could switch places, I’m sure. John just looks like he could be a priest, given a proper cowl.

And then there was Keith, who used to play for the orchestra when I was a new player. I swear, he looked like he belonged in the days of Sir Walter Raleigh. Except he would have been the evil duke. The beard, twirled mustaches, and the curly hair. It was amazing.

So there you go, within one string bass section, we had the Russian mobster, the evil duke, and the priest.

(I hope you guys don’t mind a little teasing. We rely on the bass section to keep us all together…)

1 comment:

  1. I have been really loving John le Carre recently. (thanks for telling me how to pronounce his name!) I'm a big fan of this type of book which I've been calling political thrillers, but I'm not actually sure that is what they are called. Now you have me wanting to read this one.