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'Our Kind of Traitor': A gentleman and a spy

OUR KIND OF TRAITOR, by John le Carré. Viking, 305 pp., $27.95

It's fitting that one scene in John le Carré's latest novel, "Our Kind of Traitor," takes place at Roger Federer's historic win at the 2009 French Open. Fedheads and le Carré completists - I'm a member of both clubs - have to resign themselves to the reality that their heroes' best days are behind them. Le Carré can still hit with devastating precision and come up with the awe-inspiring passing shot, but putting it all together in a novel that seizes its historical moment, the way his Cold War books did, seems beyond his post-perestroika powers.

That said, le Carré is still the literary master of the spy genre. Alan Furst digs deeper into history, and Olen Steinhauer has a more contemporary sensibility, but no one can match le Carré for the graceful sweep of his prose. How better to set up the story of a young Oxford academic wishing for a more purposeful life than this: "Seated head in hands at eight o'clock in the morning in his modest Oxford rooms, after a seven-mile run that had done nothing to ease his sense of calamity, he had searched his soul to know just what the first third of his natural life had achieved, apart from providing him with an excuse for not engaging in the world beyond the city's dreaming spires."

Perry "Peregrine" Makepiece is one of le Carré's innocents. As Dima, the Russian money-launderer who befriends him, says, "You're a goddam fair-play English . . . gentleman like in books." Dima is almost at the other end of the spectrum, a criminal who knows where all the bodies are buried in the intertwined world of Russian politicians and mobsters. He even knows of connections between the Russians and international men of standing, and he wants to make a deal to get his family to the mythic England he adores.

Makepiece is only too happy to shake off the Oxford dust and become Dima's unlikely go-between to George Smiley's successors in "the service" - namely Hector and Luke, two men determined to do the right thing, if only they can figure out how many wrong things they have to do before getting there. Makepiece has a beautiful girlfriend, Gail, who also becomes entangled in the Free Dima campaign, partly because of her maternal interest in the Russian's daughter as well as a pair of orphans in his care.

So far so good. The prose is crisp, the action moves along, and one gets the sense that le Carré is sizing up the new Russia - and Western collusion with it - as deftly as he sized up the Soviet Union and the Anglo-American forces lined up against it.

But here's the difference. In the world he limned so accurately between "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" (1963) and "The Russia House" (1989) he was basically saying, You might believe that the world is made up of good guys (England/America/Israel) and bad guys (the Soviets/the Palestinians), but I'm going to prove that it's a morally ambiguous place made up, as he wrote in "Smiley's People," of "half-angels fighting half-devils."

In the nine novels since, his thesis is more like: The world is a basically corrupt global village that sucks the soul out of anyone who tries to change things for the better. And that would be fine - if le Carré proved that it were so, rather than just saying it.

Dima is an interesting-enough character, but the Russians he works for are shadowy stick figures. The four main English characters - Perry and Gail, Hector and Luke - also seem stuck in a vacuum. It's obvious that American and English politicians and businessmen walk on eggshells when dealing with the egregious human rights violations in Russia, and le Carré assumes the worst kinds of collusion behind it. But those assumptions need to be woven into the fabric of the story more than they are here.

Le Carré, of course, does not live in this world the way David Cornwell lived in the Foreign Service before he became a novelist. Perhaps we should just be content to bask in his still-sharp prose: "His Midlands accent, according to the ground-floor gossips, had become more noticeable under New Labour, but was receding with the prospect of electoral defeat." Le Carré's characters still call to us. They just don't grab us by the lapels the way they used to.

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