Monday, 15 February 2021

A Delicate Contrivance

A Delicate TruthA Delicate Truth by John le Carré
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Cold War is a very real memory for me: living under the permanent shadow of a mushroom cloud, CND marches, Greenham women, those massive North Korean shows of arms that used to trundle through Red Square before the waxwork mannequins of the politburo welcomed them with their robotic, pathetic applause. But the dark recesses of the spy networks that spread like mycelium were hidden, intentionally, behind the biff-bash bravado of James Bond. Although I admire le Carre's Smiley novels for their craft, enjoy them for their plot and engage with them as wonderfully written entertainments, I don't quite have the same personal investment as I do, say, for the ideas behind shady, state-sponsored arms deals (The Night Manager) or, as in this case, the ethically abhorrent notions of private security and extraordinary rendition. Add to that another extraordinarily well-crafted plot (ok, with one or two rather remarkable - and fictionally necessary - coincidences) and you've got another cracker of a book from a master storyteller with a ventriloquist's way of inhabiting a wide range of characters. A plan goes wrong, as it was almost destined to: another fuck-up not, this time, by "the service" or as the result of treachery but plain old, simple stupidity. But that's not the end of the story. Because things then slowly unravel like so many loose threads then, as events move on, unspool with all the rapidity of a roll of film unhinged from the projection apparatus.

I see from other reviews that many people found the ending of this novel unsatisfying. It’s ambiguous, sure. But that’s fine by be: I enjoy being given the freedom to fly at the end of a book like this, if only because it staves off the disappointment of not agreeing with the author’s chosen ending. That happens, even with a Master of le Carré’s stature. The end of "Tinker, Tailor” certainly qualifies: I want Bill Haydon to get away to Russia on some agent exchange and be condemned to live an alcoholic half-life in a dreary Moscow apartment: this is what your treachery was for, this, your promised land. A swift (and merciful?) death at the hands of Jim Prideaux is too good for him; he deserves the death-in-life of a dismal exile. There are no such problems here: far from it. And I like that. What I found harder to credit were the odd (and slightly less-than-credible) plot twists. How did Kit find Toby? And who delivered the letter at 3am in the morning? And would Toby have travelled to Cornwall so readily? Other characters conveniently disappear: the corrupt junior minister; the Foreign Office senior mentor (in the latter case to reappear almost as conveniently). It’s all a bit too contrived, and although I can’t not say I liked the book, it had just a few too many irritants like this for me to love it.

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