Friday, 17 February 2012

John le Carré: Our Kind of Traitor (2010)

Since 2000, John le Carré's novels have been rather downbeat, even by the standards of a writer not known for cheerfulness (The Constant Gardener, Absolute Friends, The Mission Song, and A Most Wanted Man). Our Kind of Traitor is much more of a pleasant read, with a rather arch tone shared with some of his earlier novels, The Russia House and The Tailor of Panama in particular coming to mind. The former also shares with this novel a plot in which innocent people are used as intermediaries in secret negotiations. Thus, the story is simple: Russian money launderer Dima wishes to give up the secrets he holds after the betrayal and murder of one of his closest friends by a Russian Mafia boss for whom they both worked, and chooses the British Secret Service as the recipient (asking for a place for his daughter at Roedean school in return).

Dima's chosen instrument for making contact with the British is Oxford English fellow Perry, who is holidaying on Antigua with his girlfriend Gina at the same time as the Russian, with whom he also shares an interest in tennis, which provides a convenient reason to meet up and become friendly. Most of the first part of the novel is taken up by Perry and Gina's debriefing, describing the initial tennis match and the introduction of Dima's proposal to the two of them. Both the description of these sessions and the questioning itself are arch in tone, occasionally to the point of becoming irritating rather than light and amusing. It sometimes reads as though Le Carré is parodying his earlier writing in this vein (in the novels mentioned above).

Myself, I feel that John le Carré peaked a long time ago.  His books from the last decade are still worth reading, but something of the spark has gone out of them, even though he still has something to say, finding new topics after the end of the Cold War. The change of tone makes Our Kind of Traitor more fun to read than, say, The Mission Song, but perhaps too its subject matter is less significant than Le Carré's righteous anger at the way that the poorer nations of the world continue to be exploited by the richer. For the best Le Carré experience, go back to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. My rating: 6/10.

Edition: Viking, 2010
Review number: 1450

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