But Prize season is now over and for the next six months I get to investigate other contemporary works, books of the last few decades that I have overlooked and revisit some classics — and I look forward to that. I was looking for a “transition” book between the Prize contenders and that other world and John le Carre’s new novel, Our Kind of Traitor, immediately rose to the top of the list.
First, a confession. I have long been an under-the-radar fan of le Carre’s, dating back to the Smiley novels from his early days (and I absolutely love the Smiley DVDs). I will admit that the end of the Cold War (and le Carre’s traditional spy plot) led to a lapse, but I have always retained a fondness. It has been a hidden one — what literary reader wants to admit to a fondness for a plot-driven, spy novelist? It was a discussion on a literary forum last year, where a number of other contributors confessed to a similar taste, that caused me to re-evaluate. le Carre always offers enough plot to keep you going, but you have to pay attention. And there is always a substantial cast of characters, even if some are caricatures. And usually some very good global wandering (Antigua, London and Switzerland are the starters in this novel).
And so, Our Kind of Traitor, as my escapist entry back into serious literature reading. The central character from the narrative point of view is Peregrine Makepiece, an Oxford English literature don who is thinking another career might be more attractive (hey, this is le Carre) and who is on holiday in Antigua with his live-in mate and maybe fiancee, Gail, when the oil and flour are dumped into the saucepan to begin creating the roue that will be developed into a very filling sauce.
Perry is a pretty good tennis player, as the resort pro has noticed, and a match is arranged with Dima, the elusive Russian emigre who has bought the Three Chimneys’ property “up the point” from the flashy resort where Perry and Gail are staying (we would say “up the road”, but we don’t live on an island). Dima may, or may not, also own the resort.
Perry’s played for Queens, so he is no slouch. Dima is heavy and awkward, so the match seems strange. Things get stranger when the match approaches — Perry and Gail are picked up in a black people-mover with heavily shaded windows, deprived of their mobiles and asked to open their athletic bags before being searched by a couple of thuggish security guards. (It is no spoiler to say that they will shortly be “invited to sign a declaration under the Official Secrets Act” back in London.) Gail, a lawyer, is outraged: Perry the don just goes along.
When the tennis match starting time arrives, things get more fascinating. The match is private, but there are people in the stands, as Gail discovers and later recounts to a pair of equally shady London minders a few weeks later.
But Dima, to Gail’s surprise, was not, at the moment of her entry, the main event, she said. Arranged on the spectators’ stand behind him was a mixed — and to her eye weird — assembly of children and adults.
“Like a bunch of gloomy waxworks,” she protested. “It wasn’t just their overdressed presence at the ungodly hour of seven in the morning. It was their total silence and their sullenness. I took a seat on the empty bottom row and thought, Christ, what is this? A people’s tribunal, or a church parade, or what?”
Even the children seem estranged from each other. They caught her eye at once. Children did. She counted four of them.
“Two mopy-looking little girls of around five and seven in dark frocks and sunhats squeezed together beside a buxom black woman who was apparently some sort of mind,” she said, determined not to let her feelings run ahead of her before time. “And two flaxen-haired teenaged boys in freckles and tennis gear. And all looking so down in the mouth you’d think they’d been kicked out of bed and dragged along as punishment.”
And I haven’t mentioned the bewitching 16-year-old Natasha. But then again, what would le Carre be without a version of her?
I’m cheating — the quote above comes from the second part of the novel, but it is essential to understanding the first, and the rest. We are moving into familiar le Carre territory here and all of those children (and a couple more) will be a factor. Perry wins the tennis match, but the action starts later in the dressing room and extends into a surreal dinner party at the Three Chimneys. Dima confesses that he is a banker/money launderer for the seven titans of Russian crime. While the West may view him is an entrepeneurial capitalist bringing investment money into Western economic society, his money bosses view him as a transferer of corruptly-generated funds into legitimate enterprises. They have decided he is no longer reliable; he has decided he wants to defect, since that is his only route to survival.
There is absolutely no reason to go on with any potential spoilers of the plot; veteran le Carre readers can probably fill in the remaining blanks for themselves (and that does not make them any less interesting when they happen). The beauty of his work is in the digressions when the plot unfolds (like that example of the children at the tennis match) and I am not going to share any more.
The result of all this, in the post-Soviet, Russian-oligarch world, is entirely predictable, but don’t in any way let that dissuade you from the novel. If you haven’t read, John le Carre, don’t start here — go back to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and get to know George Smiley. That will introduce you to a score of novels, of which this is the latest example.
And if you have been a le Carre reader, however guilty or reluctant, don’t hesitate to pick this one up. It is not his best — not even close — but it is still a damn good read. And, for me, a perfect transition into some of the more challenging works of the next few months.