Thursday, 3 June 1999

John le Carré: Our Game (1995)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995
Review number: 265

Le Carré, like Deighton, has built his entire writing career on an obsession with deception and treachery, exploring its nuances through the shadowy world of espionage. In Our Game, there are two betrayals central to the plot. The large one, the treatment of the North Caucasus by the Soviet Union and then by the Russian state forms much of the background. Their policy in this region was not so much to "divide and conquer" but to foster existing divisions and enmities to maintain control: Osset against Chechen, Ingush betraying Osset, Osset massacring Ingush (with the connivance of the Russian military). The resulting conflicts and terrorism were largely ignored in the West, even during the Cold War, except when Western citizens became involved, as happened when journalists and businessmen were kidnapped by Chechen rebels.

A Somerset vineyard and Bath University may seem far from this background. Friends since school, Tim Cranmer and Lawrence Pettifer share a secret: they are retired spies. Pettifer had been a double agent, passing on false intelligence to the Russians while pretending to be head of a network of agents with the cover of a left-wing academic career; Cranmer was his British contact, who had originally recruited him for this task. Pettifer's Russian controller, Checheyev, was in fact an Ingush, one of the few allowed to hold important overseas posts under the Soviet regime. Under his influence, Pettifer became fired up by the injustices committed against the Ingush, and laundered money stolen by Checheyev from his hated Russian masters - thirty seven million pounds over a period of years.

Now that all these people have retired with the end of the Cold War, Pettifer devotes his time to campaigning on behalf of various lost causes (as a cover for maintaining contact with Checheyev) in between his academic commitments in Bath. Cranmer grows grapes on his inherited manor. Bet then Pettifer goes missing with Cranmer's mistress, an apparent betrayal which masks what he is really up to.

So Pettifer betrays his friend, and both of his employers, in the pursuit of a dream made unattainable by the bigger betrayal of the Ingush by their rulers and those they seek as allies.

The major character, the narrator Cranmer, dominates the book with his obsession with Pettifer (several hints being given of thwarted homosexual passion). His surroundings, full of people and institutions he cannot trust, are vividly portrayed, and he himself is a convincing personality. The main place this novel falls down is when the action reaches the Caucasus. This, as described in the book, could be any one of a number of mountainous, war-torn regions: Kossova, Afghanistan, anywhere where a Kalashnikov is a standard item of clothing.

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