I had a pretty good reading month, but the book that provided the most knock-your-socks-off pleasure was A Delicate Truth by that skilled master of international intrigue and the subtle increase of paranoia, John le Carre.
I wasn’t sure at first I would enjoy this latest novel from the man who invented the modern morality-play espionage novel. It has a slow fuse. The story opens as an undistinguished career foreign office paper-pusher is dispatched to the field to oversee a joint terrorist operation in Gibraltar. There, a reluctant Welsh military officer looks to him when ordered to take action that seems precipitous and unwise. He tut-tutts ineffectually and something happens, but we’re not sure what. It’s all behind a curtain of confidentiality – but the official is assured everything went well.
Another official, young and brash and with highly-honed instincts, gets wind of the botched operation a few years later and begins to sniff around, soon realizing his career trajectory will take a sharp turn into obscurity if he carries on. But he does (at which point the story takes off like a rocket) because lurking under those political instincts is a stubborn belief in doing what’s right. Eventually he, the now-retired tut-tutting diplomat, and the Welsh soldier, drummed out of the army, his marriage, and mainstream society, join forces to expose what actually happened when mercenaries, supplied by a right-wing American firm that has made a killing on the amorphous, unending “war on terror,” blundered on a small remnant of Britain’s empire.
In the post-cold-war novels of le Carre, his weary spooks playing an endless geo-political game of chess have given way to a game where the rules are worked out in secret and the players are not so much governments as individuals in government positions who will benefit if they align their fortunes with those of giant corporations. He often uses a kind of parody that tastes like bitter laughter but which also refuses to bow to the “life is stranger than fiction, which has to be more plausible” rule. I think he’s given up on trying to portray his enemy with the sympathy he had for his cold-war Communist characters, and I don’t blame him. You can make this stuff up, he seems to be saying, and you must if you want to depict with any accuracy a threat that feels more powerful and destructive than Communism. Now the moles occupy sites of power and those who object, those who hold old-fashioned notions about the national interest and the value of public service – old fashioned patriots, in other words – are entirely on their own. The banding together of these three individuals in a hopeless situation is moving and couldn’t be more topical. It’s depressing that these decent characters who le Carre has crafted with his usual depth and detail are so isolated and in such an impossible position, but it’s thrilling to be in their company.