John Le Carre
Coronet Books. First published 2004.
This is one of the finest (and angriest) of Le Carre's novels. I must have read it at least once earlier, when I bought it about a decade ago. But when I read it again now I did not remember anything about either the characters or the plot line. It was like reading the book for the first time, and that made it suspenseful and thrilling. Of course, no matter how many times one repeats, Le Carre's writing style, like that of PGW, is always good to read, and the content always thought-provoking.
When he started writing his outstanding spy fiction, Le Carre kept away from politics, and concentrated on psycho-sociology of the individuals involved. Thus, in the first of his great novels, 'The Spy Who Came In from the Cold', the chief character Leamas is manipulated by his bureaucratic handler, George Smiley, to overcome his cynicism and despair and undertake a last mission for his country. As part of this intricate plan he is deliberately betrayed to his enemies and ends up a corpse on the Berlin Wall. In the trilogy that followed, Le Carre, explored the thoughts and feelings of Smiley, as he kept seeking moral justification for all the nasty things he does in his job. There is, however, a degree of anti-Americanism visible in the writing even then, especially in the second of the trilogy – 'The Honourable Schoolboy' – in which, at the end, the British intelligence service, which does all the hard work, is robbed of the fruits of its labour by the Americans.
His later novels have become increasingly political, always taking sides against globalized American corporates, which control most established political activity and discourse in the US and try to do so all over the world. In this book, written even as the first phase of the war in Iraq in the noughties was coming to an end, he describes the way in which two rather naive and idealistic men, who are 'absolute friends', are drawn into serving as victims of a bizzare, cynical and dastardly plot to discredit the voices of moderation in Europe, who were exposing the Iraqi war for what it was – a coldly calculated plot to use the unfortunate events on 11th September 2001 in New York, and grab control of the oil wealth of the people of Iraq. The story moves from radical European student politics of the late fifties and the sixties, to cold war espionage back and forth across the 'Iron Curtain', to final denouement in about 2003.
Le Carre's politics during this time has become increasingly left-liberal, but he is not therefore, and never was, a supporter of the totalitarian systems of Eastern Europe, the erstwhile Soviet Union and Asia. He deplores the tendency of the neo-cons to lump together all the ideologies that are hostile to their idea of Christian fundmentalist, libertarian, free-market corporate political economy. And indeed, in this book he addresses just the lengths to which those interests would manage and even create events that their drum-beaters can frenziedly work up into mass support for their project of bringing 'Freedom and Democracy' to the world. Any and every dissenting voice, even the most reasonable and most rational of them, must be discredited and suppressed. In a passage he mentions a few of those voices, ones he obviously admires: 'I have in mind', says one of his characters, outlining a project to create a platform to bring together writers and thinkers who speak out against neo-conservatism, 'such thinkers as the Canadian Naomi Klein, India's Arundhati Roy who pleads for a different way of seeing, your British George Monbiot and Mark Curtis, Australia's John Pilger, America's Noam Chomsky, the American Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, and the France-American Susan George of the World Social Forum at Porto Alegre.'
In another such passage he talks about 'the encroachment of the corporate power in every university campus in the first, second and third worlds.... the educational colonisation by means of corporate investment at the faculty level, conditional upon untrue nostrums that are advantageous to the corporate investor, and delterious for the poor fuck of the student.' I, myself see this happening in my own University. It is not possible to question the current wisdom, more specifically even the current regime, without inviting serious repercussions. Academics are also now considered government servants, and are expected to abide by all the rules that the colonial British government imposed on its slaves, and left behind for our current lords and masters to insist we follow. Elsewhere Le Carre asks: 'How do these corporations achieve their stranglehold on our society? ' And answers: 'When they are not shooting, they are buying. They buy good minds, and tie them to their wagon wheels. They buy students wet from their mothers and castrate their thought processes' [the IT industry in India]. 'They create false orthodoxies and impose censorship under the sham of political correctness' [A.K. Ramanujan's essay removed from Delhi University syllabus]. 'They build university facilities' [not in India they don't – they get the government to do it for them] 'dictate university courses, over-promote the professors who kiss ass, and bully the shit out of the heretics'.
The story ends tragically, as all of Le Carre's later novels do, with the defeat of the idealistic dreamers and of innocent bystanders. The last one I remember which could be said to have had a 'happy' conclusion was 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy'.