After the fall of the Berlin Wall, millions of readers wrung their collective hands: What would become of the spy novelist John le Carré? We needn’t have worried. He ambled from the Cold War into Bill Clinton’s Pax Americanas without looking back, leaving the rain-soaked streets of London for “Greeneland,” the Latin American or African backwaters once mined for material by his forebear, the great Graham Greene.
Then, a second gift: The Bush-engineered, Blair-backed invasion of Iraq, based on a swindle that, as le Carré himself has noted, was unprecedented as it was catastrophic. In what may be the most significant rebuke of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” pronouncement, in the 24 years since the Iron Curtain parted, le Carré has not once had to beg for work.
One does wonder what Greene, who filtered spy craft through the scrim of his conflicted Catholicism, would have made of le Carré’s second life. Both men understood that the personal almost always informs the political – our stance as leftists or rightists is often no more than a result of daddy issues, or a spiritual conviction undone by desire. Politics is the realm in which we lose ourselves: George Smiley’s dour wanderings through the Cold War were doubly tense, because we were never sure how much of himself he would be forced to give up. The streak of heartbreak running through le Carré’s signature character emerged from how desperately he tried to preserve a sliver of himself among the wintry mendacity of those horrible times.
The moral mulch, at least as far as the spy novel is concerned, is no longer so fertile. The Global War on Terror has denied us a thriller writer as astute Greene or le Carré in his prime, and no one proves this better than le Carré himself. His latest, A Delicate Truth, is a story of outsourced corporate warfare set against a hunt for an international terrorist, and it stars an evil politician, his whistle-blowing assistant, a bumbling civil-service professional, and a good ol’ boy Welsh Special Forces soldier, all wrapped up in a hot mess splattered over Britain’s last colonial redoubt – Gibraltar.
Perhaps it’s a side effect of the times, but le Carré is no longer capable of Smiley-era subtleties. He has reduced himself to writing a series of screeds – against big pharma (The Constant Gardener), against extraordinary rendition (A Most Wanted Man), against arms dealing (The Night Manager). These enormous targets are easily hit, but as le Carré himself noted in The Constant Gardener’s afterword, “by comparison with the reality, my story [is] as tame as a holiday postcard.”
Which raises an unfortunate question: Is the spy novel up to the task of explaining how the shadow machinery of the hyper-capitalist present works? “War’s gone corporate, hadn’t you heard?” bellows a New Labour cabinet minister named Fergus Quinn, who seems culled from a PG version of Armando Iannucci’s acidic satire In The Loop. Like that film, the show it’s based on, and so many other current “entertainments” (Greene’s term for his own political thrillers), the critiques ring hollow. Le Carré is simultaneously too naive and too cynical: He doesn’t have the insider knowledge to convincingly portray how British and American retail politics spark the little conflagrations, the drone flare ups, the distant mini-wars being fought every day.
And so he offers us a politician who is in the back pocket of a mercenary group, in turn financed by a right wing evangelical American Southern belle known to the world’s elite as Miss Maisie. Set against these broad stroke baddies (Kim Philby, we never knew we’d miss you!), we have the whistle-blower Toby Bell, whose idealism is prodding him to go public. Le Carré, whose characters were once so precisely tuned to their social standing that his Cold War novels function as documents of Britain’s unreadable (to an outsider, at least) class system, seems lost in a sea of dissonant voices. His latest batch of young protagonists – the fearless pregnant anti-pharma crusader from The Constant Gardener, the veggie human-rights lawyer from A Most Wanted Man, and now Toby Bell from A Delicate Truth – could all belong to a Facebook group page called Handsome Idealists Now! Not a word out of their mouths rings true.
In 2003, after an act of chicanery so awful that we have yet to properly recalibrate our moral compasses, le Carré’s byline appeared under a Times of London headline that screamed, “The United States of America Has Gone Mad.” Had he flayed that psychosis open with the delicacy that he used in dissecting the Cold War, we’d be looking at a single unbroken arc – Cold War to GWOT – that would explain how the world works. Instead, we get a clunker like A Delicate Truth, which just adds to the noise.