An Ordinary Rendition
A Delicate Truth
By John le Carré (Viking 310pp £18.99)
Joseph Heller was once asked by an interviewer, an impudent fellow, surely, how it was that after Catch-22 he had never managed to write anything on a par with that first book. Heller in his reply displayed the chutzpah and sense of timing of an old-style Jewish comedian: 'Who has?' he shot back. It was a good answer, and neatly dodged addressing the dilemma of any writer who at the start of his career produces a masterpiece. Early success is sweet, no doubt, but as the years go on it frequently turns sour. There is the burden of trying to match up to the strengths of one's younger, more exuberant self, but also to be contended with are the public's fickleness and tendency to rancour. Goethe ruefully observed that when the world grants you a triumph such as he had enjoyed with Young Werther, its next step is to ensure that you never have another like it.
John le Carré had written a couple of stylish and tautly constructed novels before the appearance in 1963 of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. This story of Cold War espionage and betrayal was an immediate bestseller, deservedly so. In the opinion of Graham Greene, among others, it was, simply, the greatest spy novel ever written. Le Carré was fortunate in publishing it when he did. The world at the time was in a state of extreme nervous tension. There had been the Berlin crisis in 1961, culminating in the building of the Berlin Wall, and a year later came an even more dangerous confrontation between the West and the Soviet Union over Russian missiles in Cuba. And 1963, of course, saw the death of John F Kennedy in what was only the first of a dire series of assassinations that would later include the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
Before The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, espionage novels had been for the most part works of light entertainment, although Graham Greene and Eric Ambler had written well about the calamitous politics of the 1930s. Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, the first of which was published in 1953, and especially the films that were made from them, anticipated and later helped to define the so-called Swinging Sixties. It would be hard to imagine a hero any less of a swinger than le Carré's protagonist, Alec Leamas, failed spy-master and Cold War dupe. The Spy probably is the greatest novel of espionage ever written, and part of its greatness lies in the fact that, although it is the work of a master plot-maker and storyteller, it transcends its genre by placing its three main character - Leamas, his lover, Liz Gold, and Fiedler, the East German spy-catcher - at the centre of a drama the proportions and weight of which would have been acknowledged by the Greek tragedians. As well as being a wonderful entertainment and a revealing study of Cold War savageries, The Spy is a moving work of art.
Over a long career that has so far produced a score of novels, le Carré has never hit that high standard again. To echo Joseph Heller: who could have? The popular success of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy almost eclipsed the earlier book, mostly because of the BBC dramatisation, but in its looseness of plotting and the implausibility of its characterisation - Alec Guinness's absurd and almost comically mannered BBC performance as George Smiley blew a very loud whistle - it is not a patch on The Spy. After Tinker, Tailor came a clutch of deeply flawed and increasingly shrill works in which le Carré's political prejudices and sense of moral indignation repeatedly impeded the narrative drive. And without that drive, le Carré's flaws became more and more apparent.
His new novel, A Delicate Truth, begins with a bravura le Carré set piece. In a long and mesmerisingly exciting opening chapter we are in Gibraltar, where a team of undercover soldiers is on a mission to capture a notorious Islamic terrorist, codenamed Punter - or Punter, as the author insists - who in terms of past and potential deeds 'is stratospheric', as one of the characters says in the somewhat feverish tone that marks all late le Carré. The crack team is led by 'little Jeb', a tough nut who speaks with a 'gentle Welsh lilt' and is 'compact, calm, nobody's man but his own', and at whose appearance one imagines the veteran le Carré reader breaking into a smile of happy anticipation and settling down comfortably for a good long vintage read.
The mission to the Rock has been instigated by a 'dynamic young junior minister called Quinn', who as well as being young and dynamic is something of a maverick: for instance, he spends most of his working day sequestered in his Westminster office with classical music playing loudly on a specially installed sound system. The unlikeliness of a government minister, and a junior one at that, being free to conduct himself as if he were Howard Hughes is one among many fancies that stretch our credulity to breaking point. It is Quinn who early on situates us in the new, murky world of international conflict:
Private defence contractors. Where've you been? Name of the game these days. War's gone corporate, in case you haven't noticed. Standing professional armies are a bust. Top-heavy, under-equipped, one brigadier for every dozen boots on the ground, and cost a mint.
The person into whose ear this vital piece of information is being dinned - these days an increasingly lazy le Carré feeds us wads of necessary information by way of extended and loudly creaking dialogue - is a harmless minor Foreign Office official and a 'seasoned member of the Service', codenamed Paul. Quinn sends Paul to Gibraltar as his liaison, his own 'red telephone', accompanying the counterterrorist team on the trail of Punter. Needless to say the operation goes disastrously wrong - where would be the fun if it went right? - although the fact of the disaster is kept from Paul, who is bundled off home to Blighty.
Now we meet the true hero of the book (who but le Carré has true heroes any more?), one Toby Bell, 'a thirty-one-year-old British foreign servant earmarked for great things' who is 'decent, diligent, tousled, compulsively ambitious'. Toby works for Quinn and, rumbling the frolic that Quinn has embarked on in Gibraltar, secretly records his boss in conversation with the villain of the piece, Jay Crispin, one of those new 'private defence contractors' and a 'trader in small wars'. Listening to the tape, Toby learns that Gibraltar is to be 'the scene of an extraordinary rendition mounted by discharged British soldiers out of uniform and American mercenaries', a thing he regards as 'so monstrous, so incendiary' that it leaves him staring in mute stupefaction. Really? Young and tousled though he is, Toby has knocked about quite a bit in the world of spies and counter-spies, terrorists and counterterrorists, yet we are required to believe that revelations of a politician's perfidy can shock him to his quivering core. Come off it.
A Delicate Truth overall pits light against darkness, as all adventure fiction does, or used to, anyway. We are told at one point that 'for Toby's money, what the gods and all decent people fought in vain was indifference'. There is a kind of pathos in the way le Carré labours to keep the flag of decency and positivity flying. Later in the narrative, when we encounter 'Paul' again, this time under his true name, Sir Christopher - Kit - Probyn, we learn through his wife that he is 'kind and trusting and loyal', just as Welsh Jeb, the leader of the assault on the Rock, was 'honourable too'. And honour, of course, in the cold world of spies and their masters, will inevitably be betrayed.
In many of his books after The Spy Who Came in from the Cold le Carré lamented the beating down of honour with strident outbursts of righteous indignation. In A Delicate Truth he shows no signs of mellowing, but here, refreshingly if not entirely convincingly, he adopts a lighter tone, sounding more ironical than outraged. In places he makes gentle fun of the spy-novel genre and, by implication, of his own work - 'Flash forward to visions of Toby Bell on the run, arriving panting at the counter of Edinburgh main post office with the forces of darkness hot on his heels' - but it does not quite wash.
Essentially the book marks a return, or at least a long, regretful backwards glance, to the days of Sapper and John Buchan, when black was black and white was white, when heroes were straightforward and shockable and girls were like Emily, Kit Probyn's daughter, as she is seen by Toby Bell, 'Emily the runner, the freed wild child, her raincoat billowing, dark hair streaming behind her against a slate-grey sky'. All this is charming, and makes for a wonderfully entertaining read, but in the end one is left pining for the harsher and more plausible realities of John le Carré's early, one and only true masterpiece.
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John Banville is the author of many novels, including The Sea, winner of the Man Booker Prize, and, most recently, Ancient Light. As Benjamin Black, he has written six crime novels.