December 17th, 2020

My Homage (sort of) to John Le Carré

Single & Single, John Le Carré,

Viking, pp.345

A victim not of the cold war but its demise, John Le Carré, in this, his 17th novel, again seeks the magic that has often eluded him since the Berlin Wall was reduced to items for collectors. However disappointing were his recent novels, with this effort he succeeds.

One need not be a brilliant cipher clerk to detect in his recent works a nostalgic yearning for the bad old days: a world on the brink, clashing ideals, angst-ridden British double agents sorting out their lives as they play mind games with machiavellian Kremlin spymasters.

With Single & Single, Le Carré seems finally to have grumpily accepted that Russia will not turn back the political clock; the seeming mismatch between the growling black bear of Dzherzhinski Square and wimpy George Smiley is just not on any more.

We still have former Soviet spies, but now they are blackmarketeers trading in bottled blood, laundering money instead of bribing Whitehall moles with it. The British secret service has been resurrected as (however banal its image may seem) Her Majesty’s Custom and Excise Investigations Service.

We are comfortable among friends: the weltschmerz-ridden hero (Oliver Single) who has been called back into action; the politely sardonic spymaster (we remember him from Cambridge Circus; now he’s Brock of Customs), the cheating wife, the younger and ultimately more desirable lover-to-be, the grizzled Kremlin spymaster (now the proud but corrupt godfather of a Georgian Cosa Nostra), the scheming Cassius, and the usual spear-carriers - unflappable agents and glowering bodyguards and women on offer. (Le Carré, sadly, has not made it unscathed through the gender wars.)

Single & Single is a respected brokerage house that middles multi-million-pound deals in international commodities. For some reason, Le Carré has saddled the senior partner with the name Tiger Single; despite that, he’s a character who engages, a detestable empire-building entrepreneur with the gift of blarney.

The second partner is the hero, Oliver, his son – a commercial lawyer and uneasy heir to the Single & Single throne. He is most unlike his father: tall and husky and honourable, versus short and frail and venal. (Mr. Le Carré would have been most helpful had he offered some tangible clue as to why Oliver had not inherited any of his father’s attributes other than a certain doggedness of spirit.)

Almost-incorruptible Oliver is by turns aghast and depressed at his father’s borderline dealings, and so conscience-stricken that he finks on him to Customs: Tiger has become too chummy with the Georgian Mafia. Oliver’s inner war, pitting ethical beliefs against filial loyalty, is the central subtext of the story.

Having put himself at risk by assisting Her Majesty in her inquiries, Oliver undergoes a name change and seeks refuge in a small Devon town, emerging from his boardinghouse only to play the clown: he and Rocco the raccoon entertain at children’s functions with magic and slight of hand.

The discovery in Turkey of the tortured body of Single & Single’s lead corporate lawyer drives Oliver from hiding and he is again pressed into service by the customs branch, ultimately taking his own bullheaded journey.

En route, he makes various stops in England, then to staid Switzerland, to exotic Istanbul, and finally to the desolate Caucasus mountains and their warrior fiefdoms: it is this kind of environment which Le Carré, despite a recent side trip to Panama, has had a long-standing fascination.

The story is not, however, told so linearly: flashbacks are interposed in a style seamless enough, though readers may feel they have been put unnecessarily to the task of sorting through Le Carré’s exotic cast before being allowed to settle upon a lawyer-turned-clown as the unlikely protagonist.

Oliver is as the author prefers his heroes: jaded, ridden with ennui, unable to cope with relationships, but decisive in crises and entertainingly introspective. He hates and loves his father, and can barely say his alcoholic mother’s name. They loved Jeffrey more, the first-born who died of leukemia. Vaguely neurotic, often depressed, he seeks love through his clowning. He is certainly one of Le Carré’s better creations.

It is skill at subtle delineation of character that has truly become the author’s forté, rather than the brilliant, twisting plots that were the glory of his early novels. His dialogue has grown snappier, and he has polished to a gleam the coolly delivered, understated voices of his British civil service snobs. He could write the bible on how not to torture a foreign accent, and he loves his jerky couple-of-word sentences: “Knowing you. Got homesick. Dose of the guilts.”

Le Carré continues to deserve his reputation as literary lion of the spy-thriller-mystery genres. Oliver has just survived a searing duel with his former wife: “Sitting up here in the van with the window down, he would wait for his breathing to settle, listening to the prickle of pine trees and the mewing of night gulls and the rumble of other people’s worries coming up from the valley.”

He can also, with a few deft strokes and splashes of colour, propel you quickly into foreign worlds: “A skinned sheep hangs from a tree. Wood smoke billows from a pit. Rich handwoven carpets of pink and crimson lie in the grass. Drinking horns and wine gourds are stacked on a table. Villagers crowd around.”

Though the bugles have faded in the battle between good and evil empires, and though Le Carré must now downsize his encounters and scramble about for lowlier villains, he’s worth reading for the writing.

William Deverell

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