Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carre

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Okay, I have been so involved in Giller Prize intrigues (winner’s book not available, Ali Smith abusing the judging process) that I have been neglecting other issues. Regular visitors here will be aware that Prize reading has dominated the KfC blog for the past three months — first the Booker, then the Giller. I make no apologies for that; I like contemporary fiction and even if I don’t agree with all the juries’ choices, I am willing to explore them.

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.

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28 Responses to “Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carre”

  1. lizzysiddal Says:

    “What literary reader wants to admit to a fondness for a plot-driven, spy novelist?”. Me! I love them and plot-driven crime novels and plot-driven thrillers too. No closets involved in my pleasures and I refuse to accept any feeling of guilt. In fact, there’s a thriller coming up on my blog tomorrow. I needed a palate-cleanse after 3 literary novellas.

    P.S The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is a belter!

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lizzy: Maybe we could substitute “palate-tease” for “palate-cleanse”? And the guilt is entirely self-inflicted.

  3. leroyhunter Says:

    I second lizzy’s “me!”
    Le Carre’s a fine writer, under-rated as such I reckon. I haven’t bought this yet as I have The Mission Song unread, and it only seems to be available presently in the dratted trade paperback format.

    “It is not his best — not even close”
    Which is your pick, Kevin?

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    leroy: I’m delighted to see that others are coming forward. le Carre is an excellent writer, but doesn’t quite hit the “literary” scale even if we all enjoy him.

    I actually don’t have a written favorite, because I like different books for different reasons (so The Russia House would hit my short list). Having said that, the Smiley books would be at the top, if only because I could pull up the DVDs and watch them on the screen. Which, of course, makes me even more shallow.

    I did think throughout this book — where the weaknesses are more a product of the times than the author — that le Carre is always good. The issue is how good is his subject.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Did he do an Irish book? And was it any good? I’ve looked through the list, but not the books, and can’t remember.

  6. leroyhunter Says:

    No, he never did Kevin, an interesting gap now you point it out.

    I wouldn’t put him on a literary scale either, but I’d have him somewhere between Chandler and Cormac McCarthy and that’s not bad company from my point of view. To stretch a point you could argue he’s the closest thing to Graham Greene in the last quarter-century, albeit without Greene’s range. Many of the skills are the same though – I think you could profitably compare The Tailor of Panama to either Our Man In Havana or The Quiet American for example.

    As to “best” or “favourite”, yours is a fair response to an unfair question. For some reason The Honourable Schoolboy has particularly stuck in my mind, I must admit.

  7. Lisa Hill Says:

    I didn’t like the spy thrillers, but I enjoyed The Constant Gardener.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: I have avoided The Constant Gardener because the reviews put me off — I’m up to Russian oligarchs, not sure about corrupt drug companies. And my favorites are the spy thrillers, although I can understand why others would avoid them.
    Leroy: I’d say Chandler would be my comparison — although with the understanding that both are addressing very different issues. I agree that some aspects of Greene are comparable, but I do think he is a much more literary novelist as opposed to story-teller. I also had never thought about the absence of an “Irish” le Carre novel — my hypothesis would be that he was fully aware there were just too many good ones written by Irishmen.

  9. kimbofo Says:

    Oh god. We were made to read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold at school and I’ve never picked up a le Carre novel since. I break into a cold sweat just thinking about it…

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    As much as I like le Carre, I can’t imagine setting him as a school text, whatever the grade level. And if you didn’t like him then, you probably wouldn’t like him now — surely one of the characteristics of “escapist” reading is that you have to enjoy it.

  11. Gavin Says:

    Kevin – I admit it, I love le Carre and I agree, those who wish to be introduced to him should start with The Spy Who Came In From The Cold along with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People. Thanks for this great review. I am waiting for Our Kind of Traitor to arrive at my library!

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Gavin: As Kim’s comment indicates, he isn’t for everyone but if you can put up with his premise, he does deliver excellent entertainment.

  13. leroyhunter Says:

    I don’t mean a direct comparison between Le Carre and Chandler, Kevin; more that they are both examples of the very top of genre writing and both manage to transcend that label. McCarthy is clearly not a genre writer, but it’s a comparison I like as I think there’s something similar in the skill with which both convey scenes of action, movement or physicality.

    Vis a vis Greene…well, I did say I was stretching a point. On the “Irish question”…yes, maybe it’s as you say. Or maybe there were a few too many shades of ambiguity there even for Le Carre?

    kimbofo – like Kevin I find your experience of studying The Spy Who… inexplicable. Do tell more….

  14. Trevor Says:

    I’ve been curious about le Carre, but when I see the number of books at the store with his name on them, I don’t know here to begin, or if it will be worth it at all. I’m going to take the advice from some of the comments above and see how it goes. And I’m very anxious to check out the DVDs!

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Thanks for the amplification — it makes sense.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I certainly think it wise to start with the Smiley books (and if you find the first one wanting, there is no need to go on). I’d also say with le Carre that it is vital to spread them out — it has to be admitted that there is a sameness to the plot (Jane Austen might be another example) that I am sure would be annoying if you read one after the other.

    Alex Guinness plays Smiley in the TV series, so in some ways it is like the books — “escapist” fare that has attracted an excellent actor known for anything but that.

  17. kimbofo Says:

    Leroy & Kevin, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was a class text when I was 15. I just remember reading it and not understanding a darn thing. The whole concept of spying and the Cold War was simply beyond my ken. Sadly, it put me off spy novels for life. I can’t even watch spy dramas on TV.

    Fortunately, it’s the only “clunker” I remember from my school days.

    I’m not sure how these texts were chosen. I went to a government school in Oz, and I’m fairly certain that everything we read was chosen by class teachers (ie. not from an official government list). It was only in the final year, what we called HSC (higher school certificate), that state-wide set texts were used.

    I read some tremendous books in English class pre-HSC. I’m sure that whomever chose them did have a bent towards science fiction: we read Huxley, Orwell, Wyndham, Daniel Keye’s Flowers for Algernon and Kenneth Cook’s Play Little Victims. This was in the mid-1980s.

    The only pre-20th century text I remember reading was Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Consequently my knowledge of the classics is pretty woeful.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: Thanks for that report — given the others that you cite, le Carre becomes an even stranger choice for 15-year-old Australians, since that nation hardly seems to be a spy centre. My hypothesis would be that some teacher who loved it got the others to go along (“the boys who never read would like it” — heck, maybe they did, but I doubt it).

    And having put you off both spy books and spy television, consider how much time the experience of reading one book at age 15 has saved you. :-)

  19. Lisa Hill Says:

    Hey, Kevin, I must correct you: Australia now has a seriously BIG, seriously new spy HQ in that hotbed of international intrigue, Canberra. http://www.abc.net.au/news/video/2009/06/05/2590989.htm
    Cheers, Lisa

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: I’m certain le Carre’s next will include Australia in the itinerary.

  21. Lisa Hill Says:

    Oh I hope so! It so important not to be left out…

  22. Tom C Says:

    I read most Le Carré books and will get round to this eventually. You say its predictable in some ways, but suggest that nevertheless the author manages to make something new of it all. British writer Gerald Seymour ploughs much the same furrow and makes a good go of it.

    Thanks for a very thorough review which certainly lets me get the gist of the novel.

    I’m back book blogging after a month away – it all got a bit too demanding what with real life schedules to contend with!

  23. Shelley Says:

    Come out from under that radar! In a world of tweets and texts, any reader ought to be proud of himself for having his nose in a book.

  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: Welcome back to blogging — life sometimes does get in the way of reading. Hope you enjoy this le Carre when you get to it.

  25. Karyn Says:

    Many thanks for your excellent review Kevin. I loved it! Definitely a page turner and a great plot line.

    Interesting that Le Carre does not compete for awards – I wish that he would. He is most deserving. He is in a class of his own.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/mar/30/john-le-carre-booker-honour

  26. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I think Le Carre is quite content to have his bank account as an award. :-)

  27. Edgar Brown Says:

    The build-up to “Our Kind of Traitor” convinced me I was about to enter the company of yet another master-work by the master himself. The hype didn’t quite deliver. Zesty descriptions of tennis matches aside, a great le Carre novel this one is not. I couldn’t wait for the thing to be done and over. Maybe having just come off another reading of the “Secret Pilgrim,” “The Honourable School Boy,” and “Smiley’s People,” my expectations exceeded the delivery.
    Too much build-up gave the game away. It seemed a long slog to getting that twin-engined plane off the ground. The novel, in my opinion, never did.

  28. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Edgar: Well, I did have to re-read my review to remind me what the novel was about — although memories did come back quite quickly.

    I do think Le Carre was better served by the Cold War, which allowed him to create such marvelous characters. His recent books, not just this one, have been okay but not much more.

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