Between a Rock and a Hard Place: John le Carré’s Gibraltar-Centric Latest Could Use More Snowden

John le Carré (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

John le Carré (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

In the author’s note to his 2007 book Legacy of Ashes, Tim Weiner begins his history of the CIA with an argument that American foreign intelligence has failed so spectacularly (or has been so corrupt) so often because the U.S. had no history of espionage prior to World War II. America became the postwar default to combat the USSR’s growth, though never having had substantial adjacent enemies, the country had no experience with traditional methods of spying with moles and defectors, and relied instead on electronic eavesdropping and off-the-books military operations. In time, these two stopgap measures became the bread and butter of U.S. spy programs, though they were, Mr. Weiner writes, “no cure for a chronic American weakness: secrecy and deception were not our gifts.”

This was never the case for the British, who once ruled the world through the potency of their naval forces and passive aggression. Since The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John le Carré has explored the tension between the individualism granted by the West and the sacrifices of independence made by those who spy for it, an idea recently brought to light anew in the case of Edward Snowden, whose story happens to mirror that of the author’s new book, A Delicate Truth.

Boiled down to its simplest elements (and it is one of his simpler books), Truth’s plot concerns semi-spy Toby Bell, who works in the Foreign Office. He discovers something embarrassing about the government and then has a series of misadventures until he reveals the situation. Other reviewers have pointed out that he is le Carré’s first patriot traitor, but he is also perhaps one of the author’s noblest and most uncomplicated characters. When the villain offers him a cushy contractor job in exchange for the intelligence MacGuffin, he seems not even to consider it. He also falls in love along the way, and thus achieves another le Carré distinction, in that female love is not a weakness for him as it has been for so many of le Carré’s other protagonists—chief among them George Smiley, blinded to a mole through his wife’s adultery.

The sudden appearance of family values is consistent, though, because Truth is Bush-era through and through. The scandal to be revealed concerns a 2008 raid in Gibraltar, a British-run exfiltration assisted by a PMC postmodernly named Ethical Outcomes Incorporated. (Though Blackwater is apparently called Academi these days, so who am I to judge?) The woman who owns Ethical Outcomes is comically Bushy, not only voted “Republican Benefactress of the Year” but, according to Bell’s Google research, a honcho in the “Americans for Christ Legion,” “the American Institute for Islamic Awareness,” and a few “pro-life and family values organizations.”

In the beginning of the book, Bell is introduced as working for the Foreign Office because he wants to discover his country’s “true identity in a post-imperial, post Cold War world”;  le Carré portrays a British government that is America’s running dog and little else. The hegemonic scandal itself feels Bush-era, too: it turns out an Arab woman and her child were accidentally murdered in the raid.

The overdrawn black-and-white of the book is perhaps a commentary on the moral code that guided Western governments after 9/11. But then the morals of le Carré have always been fairly straightforward, the anti-love, pro-self sacrifice demanded of his spies being not only operationally sound but a necessary stoicism in the face of Soviet dogma. “We’re fighting for the survival of Reasonable Man,” says a Circus researcher in The Honourable Schoolboy. “That’s who we are: reasonable … We’re not just English. We’re reasonable.”

The foul-up in Truth probably would be a scandal if it happened in the real world (if only for the three strikes involved: the murders, the PMC and the fact that it took place on British soil), but in the context of our more recent revelations, it underwhelms. It feels too easy to understand in a world where covert operations regularly feature civilian deaths and where the American intelligence complex has grown to levels of sublimity, as shown by the Snowden NSA programs. George W. Bush would actually listen in on your conversation, but the Obama data hoarding is ominous in a more clinical way. It is a natural extension of the age of desk-ordered drone strikes and Zero Dark Thirty—a movie about yelling at your boss.

There’s an argument to be made that the age of le Carré has passed, that spying has become so wide, bureaucratic and technological that someone like Don DeLillo may be better equipped to handle its stories. In fact, le Carré is extremely well suited to the task. Some of the best parts of his books are not the usual sneaky spy fare of James Bond but rather the office politics. (Fintan O’Toole, in a New York Review of Books essay, posited that le Carré is popular among “men of the professional classes” because he evokes institutions so well.) His books are sometimes hard to get into because of all the Clockwork Orange-like jargon that peppers the chapters set in London: “tradecraft,” “honey trap,” “babysitters,” “janitors,” “lamplighters,” “reptile funds,” “gold seams,” none of it explained, all of it understood to be part of an office subculture where the necessity of such slang is unparalleled.

It is like your office, except every subtle gesture may affect the fate of the free world. For all the violence and exoticism of the Hong Kong scenes in Schoolboy, the more compelling half of the book takes place in London, where Smiley’s shambolic Circus is being slowly taken over by a sleazy Vietnam-era CIA. This begins with a simple telephone that the “Cousins” place on Smiley’s desk, which inspires much gossip. (Small wonder that Renata Adler, master of the severe gesture, recently said she hoped to emulate the tone of that book in her novel Speedboat.) The investigation in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy can seem, at times, a little office manager-y, with detailed personnel profiles offered to the reader and an emphasis on who came into the Circus’s headquarters when and what they did there. One of the bigger action scenes involves finding a certain file and smuggling it out of the office.

So le Carré is the perfect writer for a book about the American age of intelligence, the Snowden era of contractors and gigabytes that stand in for the old spy networks. Truth is not that book, though, and its failure is easy to understand: with its opening action sequence in Gibraltar, a faked suicide and a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, the book is simply not mundane enough.

dduray@observer.com