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In the Defense of Mr. Harry Pendel

November 12, 1996|DAN COLLINS

NEW YORK — John le Carre's new novel, "The Tailor of Panama," has received generally glowing reviews, but the author reacted with anger to the treatment of his book in the New York Times Book Review.

Norman Rush, the novelist who reviewed the book, seemed to accuse Le Carre of a kind of anti-Semitism, a charge that the author vigorously disputes.

The lead character in the novel is Harry Pendel, a British expatriate working as a tailor in Panama. The son of a Jewish father and an Irish mother, Pendel is abandoned by his mother and raised by Jewish relatives in London. He becomes a minor-league con man who spends time in jail for setting fire to his Uncle Benny's warehouse in a scheme to collect insurance money.

"Here we have, however little Mr. Le Carre may have intended it, yet another literary avatar of Judas," Rush wrote of Pendel. The reviewer mentioned three examples of what he believed to be Judas parallels, including instances in which Pendel defamed Panama's only honest political leader and endangered his wife's "utterly innocent" Christian study group.

Rush said his sense of "unease" was intensified by elements of Pendel's background. "Pendel's Uncle Benny, a specialist in insurance arson, survived under the Nazis by becoming a tailor to the high command of the Wehrmacht. As you read, the phrase 'rootless cosmopolitans' scratches at the doors of your mind."

Le Carre, who was in New York when the review appeared last month, interrupted a reading of his new novel at the 92nd Street Y to protest Rush's review.

In a subsequent interview with the Los Angeles Times, Le Carre said the Pendel character was based on his own childhood.

"I was brought up to a mixture of religions; high church, low church," he said. It was also a childhood that featured "total hedonism, social snobbery and, on my father's side, immense egalitarianism, because he lived in the underworld partly. I tried to translate that into conflicting cultures in Pendel. It had nothing to do with anti-Semitism."

In a letter to the New York Times, Le Carre said: "The whole point of the character--which should be plain to a blind hedgehog, as the Russians say--is that he is an unshaken cocktail of differing, and sometimes conflicting, cultures."

The author complained that Rush "tars me with the anti-Semitic brush" on the basis of "bizarre imaginings" about the Pendel character.

In a reply to the letter, Rush said: "I have not said or implied that Mr. Le Carre is an anti-Semite, and I do not think it. Nevertheless, Pendel-Judas parallels, however inadvertent, are inescapable. Step back and what you have is 'a person of Jewish family background' betraying, for money, the saintliest people (among others) available."

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