Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré is a novel about a Russian money-launderer (Dima) who seeks the help of a friendly British couple (Perry and Gail) when they meet on the island of Antigua. Dima's need: to reach British intelligence and defect, not from the USSR, but from the Russian mafia he is fatally associated with.
Perry is a dissatisfied academic; Gail is a rising barrister. Neither of them is connected to British intelligence, but Perry hazards a guess that an Oxford associate might be able to put everyone together.
Enter Hector, who leaps at this opportunity to catch a big fish and engineer payback within the "Service." He's been trampled, not enjoyed it, and now, in a semi-rogue fashion, he confirms not only that Dima knows incredible amounts about incredible sums being laundered worldwide but also that there is a pathway to extracting Dima (and his family) from the clutches of the Russian mafia dons (led by someone known as the Prince) who want to kill him.
le Carré is a professional espionage writer who in this book, at least, shifts the focus of the "Service" from intelligence to crime fighting. The ironies, bits of tradecraft, hardened characters, long-lived rivalries of his earlier novels remain more or less the same, though.
At the heart of such writing there's always a competition. It's a competition between proceduralism and character. Intelligence as le Carré portrays it is an elaborate sequence of getting things right; this is what moves the story more than the typical mix of iconoclastic spies, smarmy bad guys, and unwitting accomplices.
As a consequence, Hector, Perry, Gail, Dima and others are somewhat forced. There's "backstory" to each of them, but it doesn't add up to three-dimensional characterization. Why? Perhaps because some features of character development are contingent upon characters in idle moments, adrift, floating this way and that. And in a spy or crime book you need to keep them pointed in a given direction which, again, le Carré works out according to the idiosyncracies of secrecy.
Having said that, I did find the final passages, when finally released from bureaucratic purgatory, somewhat touching. A part of Dima that has been presented earlier in the book emerges with genuine pathos: he realizes that he is in the process of becoming what you might call a free prisoner.
le Carré writes to entertain. He's not a moralist like Graham Greene. But he does do a lot with this theme of the free prisoner (my phrase, not his) because in the end, he seems to be saying, we're all such creatures. No matter how ingenious and persistent a rogue like Hector might be, or idealistic Perry might be, or perceptive as Gail might be, they all (we all) live in a world governed by the abstract collective behavior of vast, intertwined sectors that are called, for instance, bureaucracy, the economy, science, the Internet…impersonal, irritating, not always rational processes that in the 21st century are determinative.
At one point in the novel, Hector's nemesis in the "Service" asks, "So what?" He means so what if there is a black world in which money gets laundered white, just as long as Great Britain and the City of London get their share of it when it's clean.
Again, a Graham Greene would take this question, focus hard on the nemesis, make a psychological study of him in crisis, and give us a true lesson in darkness. Likewise Conrad or Dostoevsky. In le Carré's fictional world, the nemesis is asking a great question that's never answered; le Carré reduces motivation to bureaucratic revenge and criminal expediency. This is what separates someone as talented as he from greater literary talents. He entertains us, he may know enough about espionage and crime to engage us, but his descriptions of existential imprisonment in the modern era are more for fun than enlightenment.
For more of my comments on contemporary writing, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle).
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