Books

'A Delicate Truth', An Ugly Business

The moral outrage felt by the Foreign Service whistleblowers in John le Carré's 23rd novel isn't matched by their corrupted superiors.


A Delicate Truth

Publisher: Viking
Length: 320 pages
Author: John le Carré
Price: $28.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-05
Amazon

The dirty business of modern espionage gets a glancing look in John le Carré's 23rd novel. Le Carré has long operated as a shadow Ian Fleming. For all the lone-man heroics of the Bond stories, with their (of late) painted-on world weariness, le Carré's men and women operated in murkier territories. They root about in cavernous bureaucracies where the deadly game of spying, information-trading, and executive actions are handled by committee meetings no more dramatic than a gathering of insurance sales executives. The only glamour came from the occasional grim satisfaction of a task well handled. In A Delicate Truth, there’s even less for the characters to hang on to, or readers. The world has gone foggy.

The story starts with an unnamed middle-bencher from the British Foreign Service who has traveled to Gibraltar under the assumed alias of Paul Anderson to help with something called Operation Wildlife. Diffident and eager to please, but rather hapless in all ways, Anderson waits in his hotel room for instructions and wonders what the hell he’s doing there. The operation itself is only vaguely described to Anderson, but seems to involve a snatch-and-grab of some high-interest target, with various Special Forces, mercenaries, and shadowy Americans involved. It appears to end badly, with Anderson as baffled as ever.

Years later, glimmers of what transpired in Wildlife start to surface. Toby Bell, secretary to a Foreign Office minister who sent Anderson to Gibraltar, is uneasy with what he’s discovered. Bell is something of a blank, like many of le Carré’s protagonists, though not without some shred of the moral fiber in short supply around Whitehall. Moral fiber or not, his desire to voice the truth could end in prison:

"No evil genius controlled him, no paymaster, provocateur or sinister manipulator armed with an attaché case stuffed with hundred-dollar bills was waiting round the corner, no activist in a ski mask. He was in that sense the most feared creature of our contemporary world: a solitary decider."

If le Carré’s story had been merely that of the upright Bell doing his best to uncover the possible scandal that was Wildlife, then A Delicate Affair wouldn't have quite the grit and staying power that it does. The world Bell operates in isn't a Manichean one of right and wrong, legal and unlawful. His is that of modern England, and the slippery, privatized liberalism of New Labor (whose Clintonian squishiness seems to be a particular bête noire of le Carré's). In that world, it’s not enough to simply know of a wrongdoing, and have the evidence to prove it, somebody like Bell needs to find somebody to tell it to; somebody who will care.

Much of A Delicate Affair is wrapped up in this quest, as Bell tries to join forces with Anderson, later revealed to be the retired Sir Kit Probyn, who has himself just had a run-in with one of Wildlife’s other veterans, who was just as haunted as he by what went down that night. Arrayed against them is a vast political-corporate structure that couldn't care less, and a blithe security contractor, Jay Crispin, who embodies all the stateless and amoral greed of the modern West. It’s a dispiriting enterprise, and one that almost makes one recall with fondness the clarity of the Cold War-set dramas that le Carré made his name with.

In books like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, le Carré never pretended that the East-West conflict was anything less than a messy and frequently pointless exercise. Unlike many of his thriller brethren, le Carré didn't try to show that the institutions running those conflicts were much more than the collective enterprise of many fallible humans. But in this novel, those government edifices seem, if anything, even more thin on the ground and corrupted in nature. There’s nobody here who it seems can’t be bought. It’s an England that seems about five minutes away from collapsing in on itself.

As with many of his post-Smiley works, from A Constant Gardner and Our Game, A Delicate Affair is an angry novel, infuriated by the moral cowardice the author sees all about. Like Graham Greene, le Carré is a world-traveled British man of letters with a deeply abiding moral sensibility and dour-trending outlook that has left him deeply skeptical of all power structures, most particularly the jaunty, corrupting militarism and corporatism of the Americans.

This anger keeps the book afloat when le Carré’s skillfully-rendered but somewhat plodding drama cannot. He retains the touch for noting the day-to-day difficulties of the spy’s tradecraft. In one scene, Bell tries to ascertain whether there are any operatives outside his apartment. Like a good spy-novel hero, he looks for the telltale signs: bystanders with cellphones, men in overalls who don’t seem to be doing any work. Le Carré then slyly punctures the scene with one droll observation: “As usual, his street contained all of these and more.” He knows better than most that all of the professional spy’s knowledge is frequently useless when run up against the chaos of everyday life.

It’s an exhausted book, for an exhausted world.

6

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image