Our Kind of Traitor – John le Carré

28 August 2011
Chapter 1 to part-way through Chapter 4
This seems like a reasonable place to stop: it feels as though le Carré has finished the first part of the set-up and now we’re just waiting for the big thing that we know is about to happen. We know because of the story within the story: some days after what should have been an idyllic holiday in Antigua, a young, attractive academic and his young, even more attractive barrister girlfriend are being interviewed about it all by the Secret Service back in London. So far, almost all of what we know has come from one or other of these two – except, in a kind of prelude, le Carré tells us that the man was certainly innocent of anything before the holiday started. But we can’t really be sure of much else. It’s clear from the internal commentary in the woman’s head whenever she speaks that she’s very aware of how any statement can be spun and interpreted, often wrongly. Le Carré seems to be putting us on our guard: be careful what you believe.

It’s early days yet. What do we definitely know? The 30-year-old Peregrine – not at all as posh as his name suggests – is a clever ex-state-school pupil, now a lecturer at Oxford – which is the universal literary shorthand for measurably uber-intelligent. But, reader, it feels meaningless to him, and he’s contemplating giving it all up to become a teacher in some inner-city school – the universal shorthand for politically right-on (as with Emma in David Nicholls’ One Day, also published in 2009). His parents were committed Christians wanting to do good things, and it’s obviously in the blood. It’s on his birth certificate as well: ‘Peregrine’ was some bible-basher they admired. Gail, the girlfriend, raises no objections to his plan. But they’ve come on this posh holiday they booked previously and, this being a John le Carré novel, they’ve met a mysterious Russian.

It all feels like a set-up – and yet how can it be? Le Carré has told us that ‘Perry’ is innocent, and everything certainly looks like chance. The Russian. ‘Dima’, has seen him playing tennis – something else he’s brilliant at – and the resort professional arranges a game between them. Over the next few days Dima contrives it so that the couple become involved with his family. There are twin boys, a couple of young girls, a beautiful girl called Natasha in her late teens who seems determined always to have her nose deep in a Turgenev novel… and adults, including Tamara the ‘holy nun’ – so-called because of her religious fanaticism – and ‘Uncle Vanya’ who carries a big pistol that Perry has noticed and the Secret Service people question him about….

I can’t remember how all these people are supposed to be related. The twins, aged about fourteen, are supposed to be Dima’s sons, the girls are what they themselves call ‘sort of’’ cousins. None of them seems to want to be there, and the English couple discover the girls’ mother died only a week ago. Eh? Each day, the kids get deposited near the Brits wherever they are on the beach, play games with a kind of desperate earnestness. Coincidentally – as if – it’s the twins’ birthday and the Brits are invited as surprise guests. It’s all hush-hush, and their arrival outside Dima’s big house – a wreck, but about to be renovated, allegedly – turns into something from a spy novel. Dima meets them on the disused ‘nature path’, escorts them towards the house… and that’s as far as I’ve got.

30 August
Chapters 4-9
The twins really are Dima’s sons; Natasha is his daughter by a beautiful lover – he is exactly the sort of womaniser you’d expect a high-roller like him to be – and the lover is the one who’s been killed. Or is Natasha the daughter of someone else? Is it the girls whose mother has been killed​? One thing I definitely know is that the young girls are this woman’s daughters, and that she and her husband were killed in a ‘car smash’ – which, in this book’s lexicon, means routine gangland assassination. Their father was Misha, Dima’s ‘disciple’ – Peregrine’s word, but one that Dima takes up enthusiastically – the one he was grooming in jail to be the next ‘vor’. You know what a vor is, plural ‘vory’. Or, if you don’t, le Carré has Perry confirm to his questioner that he’s read his Solzhenitsyn, knows that vory are the respected elder statesman in Kolyma. You know, the worst of the Soviet gulags. Try to keep up.

Because, reader, Dima is a criminal. Did you guess? His story, told to Perry alone at the big house on Antigua, is the necessary adjunct to the big thing: Dima wants safe passage to Britain for his family – plus a lot of additional perks – in exchange for information that the British government would love to have. The story is self-serving and sentimental. According to him, he didn’t become a criminal for selfish reasons, but out of a sense of honour: in the former Soviet Union, a party apparatchik was visiting their squalid flat for sex with their mother, in return for food obtained by corrupt means. The neighbours – as in, those who shared the same flat – were appalled and derisive… so what’s a red-blooded young man to do? He uses the official’s gun to shoot him and gets put away for 15 years.

His crime makes him a big hit in the gulag, and soon… etc. By the time he’s out of there he’s in a crime syndicate, has Misha as his disciple – more a son, he insists – and discovers a talent for money-laundering. (Eh? Oh, never mind.) Soon he’s dealing with everybody the West finds most undesirable – i.e. drug barons and terrorists – and, as an example, cites how his informant tells him to sell his Indian stocks just before the Pakistani terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2006. Dima wants to impress upon Perry that he knows a lot of stuff. I suppose le Carré does as well. Ok.

What’s at least as interesting as the story, and where it goes after this, is what le Carré does with the telling of it. At first it’s both Perry and Gail telling all they know – but, reader, by now we’ve found out that Gail doesn’t know everything. Perry hasn’t told her, which accounts for her unease throughout the questioning by Luke and Yvonne, apparently middle-ranking Secret Service officials. She’s out of it entirely by the time Perry is telling us Dima’s story, and he’s telling it to Hector, a much more senior official. Hector takes nothing at face value, even when he pretends that he does. And he has another agenda: he seems to want Perry on board, although we don’t know why at first. So he’s constantly testing him, eventually announces that the questioning is about to get tough and deliberately tries to trip him up. Little Luke – he’s really referred to in this way – gazes on admiringly: Hector is A-list.

What he really tests Perry about is the ‘package’ of information Dima gave to him, which turns out to be a memory-stick. Does he know what’s in it? Has he read it, listened to it, watched it? No, no and no, if Perry is to be believed, and Hector seems to think that he is. But how should I know? One thing that comes out of it is that Dima insists that Perry and ‘the lovely Gail’ be present at any negotiations. Ah. But Hector doesn’t tell him a whole lot beyond that, insists that Gail has to be brought back on board. Tomorrow. She’s busy on a make-or-break court case? So?

Perry’s telling of Dima’s story is not about telling at all. We know from the start that he has written it all – without letting Gail in on it, much to her annoyance – and it has been read by Luke, Hector et al. The telling is about… what? About testing his bona fides, his memory – prodigious, as you’d expect – and his politics. The last of these isn’t as straightforward as we might think, because Hector is a maverick. We find this out later – but first, he has to nettle Perry with a gibe about his male chauvinism: who is he to decide what Gail should and shouldn’t know? The next thing Gail knows comes when Perry arrives at her flat in the early hours: she needs to be in on this, and she needs to be there.

Cue Hector’s back-story, or some of it – which turns out to be preparing us for the next bit of story-telling. He used to be a high-flyer, but is well-known now for his dissatisfaction with almost everything in the Service. He left for a while, and appears to have made a name for himself cleaning up some bad City practices – and making some money with a pet company. Le Carré would have us believe that on his return he has managed to invent for himself a kind of special operations unit, with himself as boss and whoever he likes under him, so long as he disguises their roles as something else. Cue the story of his spiriting Luke out of some pre-redundancy dead-end – after sterling service in Russia and Colombia, among other places – and into a made-up job clawing back wasted money. (This is the only sort of new post that can get approval from the Treasury paymasters in these straitened times. How we laughed.)

Er… Cue next patch of narrative – patch as in collage: le Carré likes to make a fairly straightforward story, so far, not straightforward at all. There’s back-tracking, different narrators who know different parts of it, different listeners. The next one to be told what’s going on is William ‘Billy’ – or Bully – Matlock, a Service chief who has the power to make or break Hector’s plan to do some kind of deal with Dima. He’s scepticism personified, carries a lot of baggage regarding Hector, and his maverick ways…. And if the reader might have been wondering where this tale told by yet another Russian crook might be going, well, so is Billy Matlock. He’s read Perry’s document, and Hector has played him some new stuff on the memory stick. He recognises some of the names, clearly considers them no more than an assortment of usual suspects. Why on earth should he care? Luke is uneasy as his hero’s pitch seems to be getting nowhere.

Time for Hector – and le Carré, obviously – to up the ante. He plays a video and adds two more people to the list of messengers conveying all this to us: a different couple on a different holiday who happened to film a party on a big yacht somewhere in the Med. Unlike Perry, they tried to sell the explosive contents to the media, and got a big police raid for their trouble, in which all copies were seized. Somebody, apparently, doesn’t want this to be made public. Various crooked international A-list players can be seen, including a Swiss national known as Emilio dell Oro – and so can some more interesting people. The most high-profile of these is an ex-Secret Service player, Aubrey Longrigg, now a Tory MP and ‘minister of state-in-waiting’ to lead the agency charged with cleaning up the banks after the next election. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Matlock didn’t, and Hector has him hooked: Matlock has his own New Labour agenda, feels betrayed by Longrigg, and isn’t happy about the way things are looking.

Is le Carré recycling the old espionage plot, of corruption going right to the top? It looks like it. What makes it more interesting is le Carré’s insistence on making it – or making it appear to be – character-driven. Perry, left-leaning activist that he is, has his reasons for rocking the Establishment boat. Gail’s motives aren’t clear – and they’ve been made more complicated by conversations we’ve found out about that she’s had with Natasha. It turns out this girl is as naïve as she is beautiful: she thinks she’s pregnant by a ski-bum in Switzerland – who she thinks is her soul-mate. Gail knows otherwise…. Hector has his reasons for wanting to make his mark by giving everything a good shake-up before he retires: he hates the way things operate in the Service. As for Billy Matlock​…. I’m not sure about him, but Hector hasn’t finished his pitch yet. Time to read on.

2 September
Chapters 10-13
I was finding it hard to decide whether le Carré has some serious purposes lurking inside the thriller plot, or whether all the seriousness is just the wrapping for what is, well, just a thriller plot. In other words, are the purposes driving the plot or vice versa? For a while I thought the plot was secondary…. Silly me.

These serious purposes. Le Carré really does make them seem important, as though by reading this novel we’re somehow gaining insights into the ways that things work. There are so many insiders in it, sharing their privileged insights based on decades of experience that, well, we feel privileged too. We’re not some ordinary joes leading humdrum lives of no importance, we’re in with the sort of people who really know how the crappy world really operates. Take national and international ethics, from the trustworthiness of politicians – le Carré must have been writing this during the expenses scandal of 2009 – to the question of whether money-laundering might not be a good thing because it brings ill-gotten gains back into the legitimate economy. (This is Matlock’s idea as he becomes slightly desperate to line up whatever guns he can muster against Hector’s irrefutable arguments.) Ok – but this kind of stuff is the bread and butter of this genre of fiction, and the cynic in me is thinking that le Carré is simply plugging into a rather world-weary consensus in the first decade of the 21st Century: politicians are like this, international trade is like this, and so on.

But there’s another driver to the plot, and it’s to do with real, or surrogate, family relationships. I should have seen this coming: on Antigua we find out more about Dima’s family – and that relationships within it are complicated – than we do about the man himself; Perry and Gail become rather close to the Russian kids – implausibly close, I thought…. And what Dima is demanding in return for dishing the dirt on the enemies who want him dead is a safe future not primarily for himself – he’ll be lucky to survive – but for members of his family. Later we hear about the family humiliation that drove Dima to murder in the first place.

There are British families as well. In the first three chapters of the novel there’s a strong hint that Perry and Gail – especially Perry – are the way they are because of their parents. Hector seems to be motivated mainly by the fate of his son, turned into an addict and criminal through the drugs trade that helps to drive the black economy. Luke is married, but he’s not good at it: he’s had a lot of affairs – including one with his boss’s wife in Colombia that might have contributed to the end of his career – and his own marriage became an empty husk once his wife found out. He constantly worries about Ben, his son, is convinced Ben has reached that adolescent stage where boys find their fathers useless.

And then, most important of all, there is Gail. There’s one slightly odd scene in which she’s described as a sister to Perry, or a mother – anything, in other words, except lover. But it’s her relationship with Natasha that is becoming a crucial in driving the plot. In Paris (tell you later), now that she and Perry are on board to ensure what Dima considers British fair play, they have encrypted Service mobile phones. Hector – because she’s asked – assures her that only Service calls are either encrypted or monitored… which means, we realise, that she can continue to be Natasha’s text buddy. In the three weeks since Antigua, Gail has become a mother-substitute. She is desperately concerned about the pregnancy, which is real, and is desperate for Natasha not to do anything silly as she waits in vain for the imagined soul-mate who is who isn’t returning her texts. The plan had been for Perry to go to Switzerland alone after Paris, but that’s where Natasha is, so Gail is coming along too. (In an earlier chapter, Hector had goaded Perry with the accusation of being chauvinist. That le Carré should make the main attributes of his only main female character her good looks and her maternal nature might tell us something about him as well.)

The plot. Le Carré has to get Perry and Gail to Paris to be present at the deal that Dima wants to make, but I’d left his pitch hanging in the balance: Billy Matlock is interested, but not convinced, even by the bait Hector has fed him about Aubrey Longrigg’s possible involvement. He makes gibes about Hector’s leave of absence from the Service in order to make money, even – and this is a real no-no – refers to his son and his criminal ways. Oh dear. Hector keeps his cool, and brings in some bigger guns. a new bank is about to be floated, with British backing. It’s clearly a front for Dima’s money-laundering outfit – the people involved, the locations of all the international offices, and even the company name are all perfect matches – but still Matlock blusters. Hector makes his own below-the-belt move – he refers to Matlock having a fit, which a later reference to sick-leave confirms is Matlock’s own little secret. But Le Carré has made sure there’s something to clinch it, and it’s Hector’s biggest gun of all: a joke about what the Americans are going to say about the Service when they find out what a chance they have chickened out of.

For the two chapters that the pitch occupies, le Carré has been toying with us. Matlock, as we knew he would in the end, gives Hector everything he wants: total autonomy to meet Dima and make the deal, with two untrained observers along for the ride. Cue a fortnight of hasty ‘Q’-style training – it’s just like the real training Eddie Chapman receives in Ben Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag – and just enough information and rehearsal for our two brave kids to be able to do their bit. Cue Paris, and all the local colour you’d want. Cue tennis match – le Carré seems to be using a real one between Roger Federer and some hapless opponent – at which Dima has arranged a preliminary meeting, Cue… etc. Le Carré lets us in on the comedy butterflies Perry and Gail can’t help feeling, the comedy reminders to each other not to act lie spies in the movies. He even refers to them when they get like this as Milton and Doolittle, their comedy code-names….

They meet Dima, who is just as he was in Antigua, and the real deal (part 1 – Paris) is set up at a posh tennis club. We meet Dell Oro properly – a creep – and the slimy British lawyer, seeker of loopholes for the laundering classes – he’s a gay creep – and they seem to personify a particular kind of wealth: all moneyed façade with no humanity behind the eyes…. The deal is done, before and after the tennis re-match that is the front for it that Gail thinks must be transparent to everybody. Perry is in attendance. Gail isn’t: all she has to do is cope with the embarrassment of absolutely everybody in the club-room – except the lawyer, obviously – falling in love with her. The most besotted of all is Luke, but he has no chance. Or has he? This affair has put strains even on Perry and Gail’s implausibly loving relationship. Nah, I can’t see le Carré letting her stray – she’s too much of a motherly, sisterly, uber-sexy womanly ideal for that. Whatever. Next stop: Switzerland.

9 September
Chapter 14 to the end
Hands up all those who hate the ending. That’ll be everybody then? And yes, I do know that le Carré strews the text of these final chapters with hints and nudges that things aren’t going to end happily for the Dima project – but in such a way that it’s impossible to tell the red herrings from the real clues, and impossible in the end to know who did him in. All we know is that the light plane taking him and Luke to England doesn’t even get out of earshot of the tiny Swiss airfield before Perry hears something that doesn’t sound very loud at all….

It goes back to that world-weary consensus that I suspected le Carré of plugging into half a book ago. Given the multiplicity of forces ranged in opposition against the plan – crooked Russian oligarchs, crooked international financiers and lawyers, crooked politicians, to say nothing of a Service apparatchik with an axe to grind and a career to think of – there is simply no way that he was going to survive. So you don’t know who fixed the plane? What does it matter? Somebody did, as somebody was bound to. It just makes me a bit weary, that’s all, and not in the way le Carré probably intended. Yes, I’m supposed to nod in that knowing way, it probably is like that. In fact I’m just nodding off.

What can I tell you about these chapters? Aside, that is, from the way that the perfunctoriness of the plotting of it is revealed for what it is: this is the last bit of a plot with not many bits in it at all. Russian meets bright young Brits and likes them. Russian decides to spill the beans with bright young Brits as good-conduct referees. Secret Service go along with this and the deal is done. Brits and Russian need to hide for a while until the thumbs-up from London. And that’s it. The Let’s find Natasha thread is snipped off as soon as Gail finds her: the love-rat is a married man, and Natasha comes quietly, a sadder and wiser person. Still pregnant, but that hardly matters when your barking-mad stepmother already thinks you’re a whore and your dad’s going to be dead soon anyway. The only other thread is, can Dima get away from the second signing and lie low? Answer: yes he can, so that’s all right.

It’s dull. Occasionally le Carré slips in a moment of suspense that is immediately deflated – or so he wants us to think. A cop and a plain-clothes man inspect Gail’s passport very carefully, then (gulp) take Natasha’s – but only give it a cursory glance. Luke spots a couple who pass on different sides of their safe-house, wearing different clothes. Finally, on the way to the airport, two more cops insist on a bureaucratic piece of paper that Ollie – the novel’s necessary fixer so that things can be conjured out of thin air when the plot demands – has to search for. Then he finds it. Phew. All along, Luke has been waking up in a sweat about whether these signs mean anything, while Gail and Perry spend tedious time with the kids. Are we nearly there yet?

Yes. Billy-boy Matlock seems to be entirely on-side now, to the extent that he is in a closed meeting with Hector and a government minister, therefore making three people who are the only men alive who know what dynamite they are sitting on. There have been delays, but now all that is needed is a plane to be got ready, presumably with the requisite geo-positioning device and explosive charge (or whatever) fixed in place. And…

…and that really is it. Who is our kind of traitor? Not Dima, a violent, womanising crook. How about Billy-boy, wanting to make a good impression with his new political masters? And if a hard-working and famously loyal operative gets killed – to say nothing of two pilots, each with a family – well, isn’t that the way of the world?

Oh, is that the time? (Yawn.)


2 Responses to Our Kind of Traitor – John le Carré

  1. Chris Whitehouse says:

    Yes, I did get bored and nearly gave up about two-thirds of the way through. Mainly because of lack of credibility. It was a lot to swallow right from the start: that Perry and Gail would continue to associate with what were obviously criminal and probably dangerous people; that they would go along with the secret service plan to go to France and Switzerland; that Gail should start texting Natasha; that they imagined they could disappear a big family group so easily after Dima’s flight. However, I do enjoy Le Carre’s writing. He is head and sholders above the rest of his genre. Also, because perhaps it wasnt so incredible after all. We know he is an extremely intelligent bloke and got a good understanding of the secret service. Besides, these novels of his are important and serve the purpose of showing the network of vested interests, political opportunists and criminals that make or keep themselves rich to the detriment of society at large. The graphic representation of this saps optimism for a better future but helps to highlight what we are up against.

  2. wecanreadit says:

    I’m glad it wasn’t only me who got bored. I like what you say about that sense of hopelessness Le Carre is able to create — so that we feel, regretfully, that things really are as bad as this!

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