Friday, July 01, 2011

A great author's perspective

For the first selection in my vacation reading I picked a new John LeCarre novel, Our Kind of Traitor, which I found at Heathrow Airport. It was, to say the least, troubling, and it got me thinking, as his books so often do, about the tendency of recent history. (The book has just appeared in paperback in the US as well, but I do not remember seeing a single review of it, and Amazon doesn't include any from newspapers.)

John LeCarre will be 80 years old later this year. He made his name at the height of the Cold War with the extraordinary and relatively short and gripping thriller, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, whose denouement so thoroughly shocked me, at the age of 17, that it took me about fifteen minutes to realize what the book had actually said. The hero of the book, British spy Alec Leamas, was so shattered by the personal betrayal he experienced for the greater good that he effectively gave up his own life, as well as the Cold War, at the end. In the flush of youth I concluded that although Leamas was worn out, LeCarre was telling us that the broader struggle had to go on. It was about twenty years later that I realized the real point of the book, as well as of the whole Smiley series: that the intelligence battle between "the Circus" and the KGB, and perhaps the broader Cold War as well, was of very little interest to anyone other than its practitioners; that the Cold War was, in a sense, a fraud. LeCarre's books remained hymns of praise to rare men of integrity such as George Smiley. When Le Carre published A Perfect Spy in the 1980s and explained that the protagonist's criminally irresponsible father was a portrait of his own, I realized that Smiley--of the Second World War generation himself--was probably the father LeCarre would have liked to have had.

The end of the Cold War started a professional crisis for LeCarre. He had already detoured into the Middle East, angering Zionists like Norman Podhoretz, in The Little Drummer Girl,, but now he had either to write about the past or expand his horizons. He has quite successfully done the latter and he has not shrunk from what he has found. In the last ten years he has emerged as a violent critic of recent American foreign policy and of the "war on terror," and Our Kind of Traitor is a devastating commentary on contemporary Britain, which seems in his telling to be little if at all better off in its political culture than the United States.

I shall not detail the plot of the new book, which turns on the attempted defection of the leading money-launderer of the Russian mafia. His character is colorful but not inspiring. The protagonists are a young pair of British idealists, the woman a barrister, the man a successful Oxbridge academic who has (appropriately enough) become disillusioned with his profession. (LeCarre does not go into that very deeply, but take it from me,there's plenty to be disillusioned about.) The Smiley figure is a British Boomer named Hector, another man with a conscience who recently took a kind of leave from "the Service" to fight off a corporate raider's takeover of a family firm that would have done away with several hundred well-paying jobs. What Hector discovers, however, is that the Russian Mafia has managed to buy extraordinary influence in British financial, economic and political circles, and that, in the end, its allies are quite strong enough to prevent anything from happening that might jeopardize this valuable alliance. The book is obviously carefully researched, and indeed I suspect that a savvy British observer might be able to put real names on some of its characters.

The power of Russian oligarchs and Russian money--as well as Mideast oil money--was brought home to me in striking fashion early this year, when Dubai and Russia were awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Brazil will deservedly host in 2014: they are both the greatest soccer nation on earth, and a rising third world economic and political power. Dubai has no soccer tradition worth mentioning and will be a disastrous place to play--they won, presumably, with promises of money--money for FIFA, the international soccer federation, whether or not they actually bought votes. Russia has some soccer tradition--although even the Soviet Union's national team never, as I recall, managed to reach the semi-finals of a World Cup--but its political and economic life are a disgrace, and its prestige simply did not deserve this boost. In our world, however, money talks.

And that, sadly, is the real legacy of the end of the Cold War. It was not "the end of history" in a utopian sense, but rather, as it turns out, the end (for the time being) of history as a struggle among competing world principles. In the first half of the twentieth century, Fascism, Nazism, and Communism had helped move the United States, Western Europe and Japan to create genuinely more just societies, organized in many ways around the common good. Now that no longer strikes us as necessary. Britain and the United States are both on the verge of dismantling their welfare states. The whole western political world has failed to respond effectively to the excessive financial power of the banks, even in the wake of the world crisis. All over the world, practically, inequality is reaching heights not dreamed of for about a century. Only further and greater catastrophes seem likely to bring this process to an end.

I have never met LeCarre, much as I would like to, but his almost complete inability to find anything hopeful on the contemporary scene suggests to me that he would understand that last paragraph very well. Hector, the older hero of this book, is fighting a losing battle for civic virtue. Perry and Gail, his young heroes, are looking for a worthy cause. (They may return in later novels.) But LeCarre, like his contemporary George Soros, has been disappointed by the events of his old age. I can't blame him. Perhaps he, like me, now has more respect for our parents' and grandparents' generations, who did indeed leave behind something of a heroic tradition for his generation, and mine, to squander.

p.s. A regular reader has just provided this link to a long interview with LeCarre discussing aspects of the state of the world.


Ed said...

Was it Dubai or Qatar that was awarded the World Cup? While all of the Gulf Emirates are hellholes, and slave states to boost, Qatar is arguably the least hellish and Dubai the most. Qatar has hosted the PanAm games and actually has suitable facilities for these types of events. Nonetheless FIFA turned itself into a joke with these moves. One trend that seems to have emerged is competitive shark jumping by established institutions.

Gerald Meaders said...

Many thanks for this very enlightening post.

Very few people it seems, outside a smallish circle, recognize that the Cold War was perhaps mainly a fraud, as you advert to Smiley's view.

That has emphatically not been the official view of the American establishment, for a long time now...too bad....and now too late.

all the best,

Anonymous said...

I just finished this wonderful LeCarre novel while traveling in southern Spain the last couple of weeks of June and was in Sevilla on the 19th to see a "manifestacion" (street protest) of the M-15 movement. It was striking to see the vigor that seems to be sapped out of the Anglo-American body-politic manifest in Spain. I couldn't help but reflect that the problems in Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Greece are in large measure the creation of the likes of the character Dima and his ilk (IMF, World Bank and Wall Street) LeCarre hits the nail on the head pointing out that even they can't stop the beast they have created.

Thanks for your insight,

David White
Longview Texas

Tinky said...

Excellent post.

As a somewhat trivial aside, I have long been struck by the superb writing ability of LeCarre. I say that because he has been a very successful and widely read author, yet the quality of his prose easily matches that of writers considered, superficially of course, to be more 'serious'.

Anonymous said...

Germany honours Le Carré with Goethe Medal

Spy novelist receives top award for developing
'coalescence, peace and creativity in Europe'

Anonymous said...

Do you think Le Carré fashioned Hector after the Trojan character profiled by Homer in the Illiad? Same kind of guy?