Tuesday, 25 January 2005

Len Deighton: Charity (1996)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1997
Review number: 1283

This is the concluding novel not just of the long running Bernard Samson saga but of Len Deighton's fiction as a whole. It brings to a close a series of attempts to deal with the ending of the Cold War - an event with a big impact for an author of spy fiction: different settings tangential to the genre in MamISTA, City of Gold, and Violent Ward, and the story of the downfall of Communism itself in the last trilogy of Samson novels. I suspect that the difficulty Deighton experienced in finding a new theme appropriate to the times was a contributing factor to his stopping fiction writing when he did.

The reader's expectation with Charity is that it will wrap up the remaining loose ends, and leave Bernard and Fiona's future sorted out. Having read Spy Sinker, followers of the series know more about what really happened on the day of Fiona's return to West Berlin than Bernard does - so the big question is really how much does he find out, and how much pain does he bring on himself and those around him by his investigations?

Although Charity is set before the end of Soviet control over Eastern Europe, Deighton makes sure we know what happens after the end of the novel with little ironic reminders - such as describing a falling person as looking "like a toppling statue of a tyrant". The ending itself is rather abrupt; the last chapter comes with something of a jerk. It is really about new beginnings for the characters, starting relationships over again - entirely appropriate, given the huge changes about to impact their world.

Three series characters dominate British spy fiction: James Bond, George Smiley, and Bernard Samson. They are all quite different from each other, even if you could argue that Bernard is very similar to Deighton's earlier Harry Palmer character and something of a mix of the other two. Smiley is all subtle intellectual; James Bond is all brute force action. Bernard does both parts, and this makes him both more exciting to read about than Le Carré's character and more interesting and certainly less unpleasant than Ian Fleming's. More is revealed about Bernard's inner character than about either Smiley or Bond, even though his narration (and neither Smiley or Bond is every allowed the luxury of telling their own story) is written in such a way that it is clear that Bernard is hiding quite a lot. This of course makes him more believable as a character, as does the way that his powers as an intellectual spy master and an action hero are both carefully limited by Deighton, presumably to this end. The series (ten novels in all, including a prequel not involving Bernard personally) is a substantial body of work, intimately connected to the fall of Communist East Germany and thus a major fictionalisation of some of the most important historical events of the last half century.

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