Our kind of traitor
by David Finkle
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Most of us who aren't spies, who have never been spies or who don't know any loose-lipped current or former spies learn whatever we know about spies - or think we know - from movies, television and books. If books are our main source of lowdown, one of the most informative authors (possibly the most informative) is John le Carré. In 1963 with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, he upended Ian Fleming's James Bond-established givens on contemporary espionage. Since then he's dispensed nearly two dozen eye-opening novels, many adapted for the big and small screens, full of seemingly reliable info.
At the time le Carré (born David John Moore Cornwell) made his leap to fame, what was known about him was: he'd served time with MI5 and MI6. The understandable assumption was that - as a spook "handling traitors" in Germany until exposed by double-agent Kim Philby - he knew what he was talking about.
It's an assumption he belittles. Go to his elaborate official website and you find this brief note to visitors: "Let me tell you a few things about myself. Not much, but enough. In the old days it was convenient to bill me as a spy turned writer. I was nothing of the kind. I am a writer who, when I was very young, spent a few ineffectual but extremely formative years in British intelligence."
Well, hmmm. How much self-effacement - one of a spook's signal talents, according to le Carré's stories - are we to credit when poring through another of the master's efforts. In an interview this September trumpeted as his last, the now-in-his-80th-year author admitted to (the UK's) Channel 4's Jon Snow, that for his newest effort, Our Kind of Traitor, "I did pick up a few rumors."
Perhaps that's the way le Carré modestly acknowledges he remains well-informed. In the jovially candid Snow tete-a-tete, the reticent writer also recalled that about the time the Berlin Wall fell and people figured he'd run out of material, he had anti-hero George Smiley mention in print that the next problem facing the globe would be "the excesses of capitalism." Moreover, le Carré also confided that in bygone days, he'd noticed in himself and in colleagues "a sense of loyalty towards the people you helped betray."
The last two comments go a long way to explaining the Our Kind of Traitor origins. It's a narrative set as recently as 2008 in which capitalism's excesses assume the portly frame of a busy and successful money launderer called Dima who in his fifties tires of his behind-the-fallen-Iron-Curtain life. He wants something better for himself, his wife and children - for the youngsters he wants Eton and Roedean educations.
Vacationing in Antigua, he befriends Perry Makepeace, who's resisting an Oxford fellowship, and Perry's drop-dead-gorgeous fiancée Gail Perkins. The persuasive Dima manipulates tennis-playing Perry into a few matches and then uses the newly forced friendship as leverage for his entire clan's defection. Though not spies, Perry and Gail soon become involved in the procedures by which the Dima entourage will be airlifted to England so long as whatever intelligence Dima spills proves significant.
Soon they're all emerged in a transfer engineered by agents Hector, Luke and an accomplished gofer Ollie and requiring Perry and Gail to sign a declaration under the Official Secrets Act. The defection process is underway, but will it end successfully - with the Dima bunch safely in England and Perry and Gail, who've developed a sense of loyalty to their participant in capitalism's excesses, satisfied with the outcome?
That's le Carré's latest fictional rub, and the drawback to Our Kind of Traitor is that he stretches it out long enough for the reader to supply the answer before he does. No problem, though, with le Carré's writing, which includes John Updike-worthy details like "The windshield wipers groaned and sobbed as they tried to keep up." The result is that, as usual, le Carré transports readers, but less far than in his best works.
And now for something not quite completely different. Picture a chilblain-weather London Sunday some years back on a flat Hampstead Heath field just north of Parliament Hill. Watch two whippets racing each other towards the eastern end and then returning just as fleetly to a tall, gray-haired man leaning into the wind as he trudges through the field.
See another man walking north and about to cross paths with the dogs' owner. Imagine the second man recognizing the first as David Cornwell and thinking this is what Cornwell must look like striding along his beloved Cornish hills coastline. Imagine the second man addressing the first, as if in this otherwise unpopulated spot they're two spies who've gone out in the cold.
Full disclosure: The second man is this reviewer; the first is the man who between hard covers calls himself John le Carré. And let it be known that as of the impromptu encounter, the second man could never betray the first man by saying anything more than in his writing the first man is constitutionally unable to fall below a certain exalted level. With Our Kind of Traitor, he hasn't.