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John le Carre's 'A Delicate Truth' isn't gentle with war on terror

Book Review

The novelist takes on the idea that sins committed in pursuing national goals will be forgiven and forgotten.

May 16, 2013|By Richard Rayner
  • The cover of "A Delicate Truth" and author John Le Carré.
The cover of "A Delicate Truth" and author John Le Carré. (Viking; Anton Corbijn /…)

John le Carré's novels have responded brilliantly to the absence of the Cold War, which was, from 1963's classic "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" to "The Secret Pilgrim" in 1990, their traditional domain.

In one sense, though, whether set before or after the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, the subject of Le Carré's fiction has never changed. A theme always was, and remains, the question: How can the individual hope to take any effective action in the murk of politics?

Le Carré's most famous (and best loved) character, George Smiley, plodded through the shifting sands of counterespionage with a sad decency that belied his authority. More recent heroes, like Justin Quayle in "The Constant Gardener," are insiders who go rogue and find themselves pursued even as they try to penetrate the labyrinths of modern-day truth.

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Le Carré is now 81, and in his latter years he's become a crusader. The enemy in "The Constant Gardener" was big pharmaceuticals. Now, in "The Delicate Truth," a new novel, his 23rd, it's the idea that, in the war against terror, any sin will necessarily be not just forgiven but forgotten and obliterated from history. Le Carré champions the fragility, and intricacy, of memory.

"A Delicate Truth" opens in 2008, and the action lands us with somewhat heavy-handed irony on Gibraltar, the Rock, onetime refuge for Nelson's fleet and all that was great about Britannia, where a hapless though well-meaning civil servant, code name "Paul," observes Operation Wildlife, a clandestine intervention designed to extract a high-level target: a jihadist arms dealer.

Paul is there as the "eyes and ears" of an ambitious politician, a bully named Fergus Quinn, and to provide a sheen of spurious legality for an op involving both British special forces and mercenaries employed by the U.S. Paul crouches in front of computer screens as if he were "watching Saturday afternoon football" (high-tech shades of the Bourne movies, not to mention "Homeland") and is told that the rendition is a spectacular success — though in the blur and sheer speed of it all he gets no accurate sense of what actually goes down.

The novel then flashes back in time and finds its true tone, introducing its hero, Toby Bell, "a thirty-one year old British foreign servant earmarked for great things."

With typically aphoristic wit, Le Carré shows Bell moving upward through the diplomatic ranks, trading intelligence in Berlin, and then Cairo and Madrid, before landing a plum appointment as personal watchdog to a rising junior minister, the aforementioned Fergus Quinn.

Bell hears of Quinn's scorn for "Whitehall's sprawling intelligence octopus, which he holds to be bloated, elitist, self-regarding, and in thrall to its own mystique." Quinn favors a leaner, meaner approach, and outsources work to a Blackwater-style American company with the splendid name Ethical Outcomes. "War has gone corporate," and while the outcomes may be lucrative for all concerned, they are far from ethical.

Bell, by keeping his ear close to the ground and doing what he does best (i.e., spying), learns of something particularly dodgy that Quinn, in cahoots with the right-wing ideologues behind Ethical Outcomes, is planning on Gibraltar. It's Operation Wildlife, and it all sounds a bit bogus, not to mention dangerous. Toby tries to blow the whistle, whereupon he finds himself expelled from Quinn's office, and posted to Beirut.

These two hefty chunks of back story, occupying more than a third of the novel, prefigure the main plot strand, in which Paul, now revealed to be a recently retired diplomat, Sir Christopher Probyn, lives in remote comfort in North Cornwall (Le Carré's own turf) where "[t]he weather was foul and the mood of the village to match: a dank February day dripping sea-mist, and every footstep clanking down the village street like a judgement."

Probyn has medals to show for services to Queen and Country; but the coziness of his final days vanishes like that Cornish sea-mist with the reappearance of Jeb, a soldier who was part of the team that fateful night on Gibraltar back in 2008. Jeb reveals that the ultra-secret op was not such a big success after all but a scandal that has been covered up and buried.

Le Carré has long been an absolute master of story and structure. "A Delicate Truth" shifts tenses, darts to and fro, drops adroitly in and out of the consciousness of its characters, and feels in fact almost postmodern (or like Homer, and who was more modern in such matters than he?) in its technical juggling, while moving with speed that is both grooved and deft. It's left to Toby Bell, together with Probyn's daughter Emily, a tough-minded doctor, to stay ahead of a manhunt and put together the pieces of what Operation Wildlife really did and did not achieve.

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