Monday, 13 July 1998

John le Carré: The Tailor of Panama (1996)

Edition: Coronet
Review number: 87

As the acknowledgements at the end of The Tailor of Panama, this book owes a large debt to Grahame Greene's Our Man in Havana. Le Carre says that ever since he read that book, he's been fascinated with the idea of the fabrication of intelligence information, which is the central theme of both novels.

Harry Pendel is the tailor of the title; he runs an exclusive gentleman's tailor in Panama City. His past is not the past that people think; the tale he tells of his apprenticeship to his partner Braithwaite in Savile Row, his immense gratitude to one who saved him from being led into a life of crime in the East End by his wicked Uncle Benny, are all fabrications.

Into the life he has built up for himself, which is seriously endangered by a rash investment in a rice farm, comes British diplomat Andrew Osnard. Osnard is actually a spy sent out to gain intelligence about the future of the Panama Canal after its return to Panama from US control on December 31, 1999. He knows the truth about Harry's past - the fact that Braithwaite never existed, the fact that far from being saved from his Uncle Benny, Harry took the blame for a crime he committed and went to prison.

The attraction of Pendel for Osnard is that a tailor has some sort of confidential relationship with his clients, and Pendel & Braithwaite's client list includes most of the rich and powerful men in Panama. Harry promises important intelligence, unwilling to admit that he doesn't have the influence he is expected to have. In the end, his inability to admit his own unimportance leads him to fabricate intelligence, which Osnard then further manipulates for his own ends - he aims to defraud British intelligence by inflating his costs, and makes the made-up intelligence fit in with the things that are not known in London using the convenient list of intelligence items that London would like to know.

As far as the two of them are concerned, everything works out fine until Harry is asked to recruit other people as spies; combining a list of fictional people with some of his friends causes Harry to lose control of what he is doing.

There are not really likeable characters in this book; everyone is deeply flawed. I always find South American settings difficult to empathise with. Aside from that, The Tailor of Panama is well-written, and demonstrates le Carre's flexibility as an author of spy stories (unlike Len Deighton, who seems to be having a great deal of difficulty putting the Cold War behind him).

No comments: