Note: this review was originally published at www.earthlightbooks.blogspot.com.
John le Carre's been a bestselling author for twice as long as I've
been alive. By itself, that doesn't mean much: Michael Crichton, whose
novels are marginally more intellectually stimulating than repeated
punches to the head, published the breakout-hit The Andromedea Strain in 1969, just six years after le Carre's career-establishing bestseller The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Popularity is no guarantee of quality.
neither does popularity preclude it. (Witness JK Rowling, William
Shakespeare, and Salmon Rushdie.) While it's easy to presume le Carre's
work to be standard 'page-turner' pulp like John Grisham or Dan
Brown--in which cardboard characters and shallow cliches are hitched to a
fast-moving plot--the fact is that his novels are of a different order
than the rest of the bestselling thrillers he's shelved with. Le Carre,
above all, is a master of psychological motivation: his spy stories show
us characters whose talent at dissembling wreaks dysfunction on the
rest of their lives. His spymaster George Smiley is the anti-James Bond:
a humble, thoughtful, slow-moving investigator whose success at
espionage is matched only by his incompetence at real life.
Carre is also one of our best social prophets. He began writing while
he worked for British intelligence in the post-WWII period, and his
insider's perspective produced sympathetic and complex portraits of Cold
War maneuvering. The fall of the Berlin Wall made his writing no less
astute: with end of Soviet communism, le Carre accurately perceives that
the greatest threat to liberal democracy today is the creeping
influence of private capital. He displays this marvelously in The Constant Gardener, which is based upon a real case of corporate malfeasance in the developing world. In 2003, at the height of war-fever, he published this editorial
denouncing the Iraq invasion as the duplicitous, destructive stunt
which it was (and is now, in hindsight, widely recognized as).
Our Kind of Traitor
is le Carre's most recent work, published in 2010. It's no coincidence
that it came out two years after the 2008 financial crash; at the center
of Traitor's plot is the influence of capital itself. For le
Carre, black markets are to global capitalism as the repressed Id is to
the Super-Ego for Freud, or as the Dionysian is to the Apollonian for
Nietzsche. Considering that about half the world's jobs are in black- or grey-markets (and that about a seventh of humanity are squatters, and thus necessarily excluded from the legitimate economy), Traitor's
basic conflict between the noble true-believers in old-fashioned
liberalism vs. the amoral omnipotence of market forces is deeply
relevant. In an age when the legitimate economy is on its knees, is it
any wonder that our leaders make loud noises about their humanitarian
ideals while slyly collaborating with representatives of the shadow
Le Carre is a master of plot, character, and social criticism. His latest novel should be on your bedside table.
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