Thursday, June 30, 2011

Our Kind of Traitor

John le Carré is such a good writer it's hard to know if you actually like his books. The smoke and mirrors of the intelligence world have become fused with the smoke and mirrors of his style. His indirectness, his archness, his preciousness sometimes seem almost over the top. In this case, too, he seems to revel in his Englishness, pairing a don and a barrister, British yuppies to the core, as his protagonists, so that he can do his best comedy of manners in almost Wildean fashion. His description of Perry uses everything but the name Hugh Grant to conjure the British actor in all his stuttering glory.

Le Carré can do it so effortlessly, you think much of the time nothing is happening as you turn the pages. He flits back and forth in time for the first half, setting the stage for the long denouement.

The big question is always whether the writer who invented the Cold War spy thriller successfully made the transition out of the Cold War, and I think, as this novel again demonstrates, the answer is no. Who knows, maybe the intelligence games is actually played in the way le Carré describes here. Perhaps it is as realistic -- or unrealistic -- as it always was. But for sure it's harder to suspend disbelief now. His characters have too much character, bordering on satire or even a parody of the Cold War le Carré. The novel is moody, atmospheric, wry, but not really thrilling. The set-up is too artificial, the characters too pat for the reader to be really interested in their fate.

Late le Carré is coming to resemble late Picasso. The master has perfected his art, his works look like the original and he can dash them off now apparently effortlessly. But there's a certain grit, or intensity, that's just missing. My favorite post-1989 book of his is still The Constant Gardener, because of the intensity and passion he brings to this anti-drug company plot. Tailor in Panama also has some staying power. But this novel, like the banker stories before it -- Single & Single, A Most Wanted Man -- is readable but forgettable.

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