I’ve been using John Le Carré for a while now. This is how it goes: I’ll be on a panel somewhere, in one city or another, or in front of a crowd in a bookstore — I’m using the word “crowd” in the loosest possible sense — and the genre question will come up. It comes up because I write the kind of novels that are sometimes called crime fiction and sometimes called literary fiction, whatever that is.
It’s no doubt lazy of me to use more or less the same answer every time, but in all fairness, it’s always more or less the same question and my opinion on the matter hasn’t changed. Someone will ask whether I consider myself a crime writer, or if I consciously set out to write crime fiction, or if I think people who don’t usually read crime fiction will like my books, or some variation thereof, and I’ll trot out the response, refined over several bookstores and festivals.
I’ll talk about the permeability of the borders between genre, the subjectivity of it all, the way my books are literary fiction in North America but thrillers in France, and at some point I always find myself citing Le Carré’s The Russia House. The Russia House is a straight-up Cold War spy novel. It’s also a beautifully written story about love and loyalty. It’s my opinion that it’s as literary — whatever that means — as anything out there. My belief is that if we put up an arbitrary wall between books like The Russia House and books that are more traditionally thought of as literary fiction, we do so to our detriment. Le Carré is worth reading whether you think you like genre fiction or not.
In A Delicate Truth, Le Carré skirts the shadows of the military-industrial complex. The plot concerns a top-secret counter-terrorism operation mounted on Gibraltar. A terrorist — or “high-value target,” in the euphemistic language of the modern age — is meeting a contact in a house by the beach. The plan, code-named Operation Wildlife, involves a two-pronged approach: a small force of British soldiers out of uniform will approach by land and seize the target. They’ll deliver the target to American mercenaries waiting on the beach, who will spirit him to a ship waiting just off shore and out into international waters.
In other words, extraordinary rendition. The plan is so foul that it can only be sold by means of gymnastic moral contortions and assurances of non-responsibility. As the newly appointed Junior Foreign Office minister Fergus Quinn puts it, in an explanation to one of the men who will shortly be on the ground, the British team will merely be apprehending a criminal on British territory, at which point the British team’s orders will require handing over the criminal to the non-British force waiting on the beach, and “[S]hould this non-British seaborne team,” Quinn explains:
of its own volition, elect to abstract or exfiltrate that target and remove him from the jurisdiction — i.e., out of British territorial waters — neither you personally, nor any member of your team, will be complicit in that act. To recapitulate… you are a landborne protection force exercising its duty of defending sovereign British territory in a totally legal and legitimate manner under international law, and you have no further responsibility whatsoever for the outcome of the operation, be you clad in military uniform or civilian attire.
You don’t know that the target is going to be tortured, in other words, or at least you can tell yourself you don’t know, and this sliver of uncertainty should be enough — just barely — to allow you to sleep at night. You’re just doing your duty.
This sort of sales pitch is sometimes all it takes to get more-or-less decent people to slip into morally questionable territory, and the territory here is very questionable indeed. Fergus Quinn has aligned himself with a shady private defense contractor, Jay Crispin, and his companion, Maisie Hardy of Houston, Texas, a CIA agent with ties to the American far right.
The plan unfolds under extraordinary secrecy. Even Toby Bell, Quinn’s private secretary, is not cleared for it. Quinn recruits a reliable has-been of a Foreign Office agent, the decent but not terribly sharp Kit Probyn, and dispatches him to Gibraltar to be the Foreign Office’s man on the ground. On the night of the operation, Probyn waits alone on a hillside while the British team approaches the target. Here as everywhere in this book, ambiguity reigns, and even on the ground it’s difficult to be certain what, exactly, is going on:
Above the clatter of the wind came a clicking sound like dominoes collapsing: two sets of clicks, then nothing. He thought he heard a yell but he was listening too hard to know for sure. It was the wind. It was the nightingale. No, it was the owl.
Probyn doesn’t see the British team again. He is told that everything went according to plan and whisked out of Gibraltar. He moves on to a cushy posting in the Caribbean, while Toby Bell is assigned on short notice to Beirut.
Three years later, one of the ex-soldiers involved in the Gibraltar operation appears in Probyn’s village. Not only did Operation Wildlife not go at all according to plan, the ex-soldier insists, but innocent people were killed.
It’s possible that this ex-soldier is mentally ill and delusional, as the defense contractor Jay Crispin insists. It’s also possible that the ex-soldier’s telling the truth, that the intelligence was flawed and the operation went terribly wrong. Or perhaps the success or failure of the mission was never the point. Whether the mission went exactly according to plan or didn’t, Jay Crispin would presumably have made a great deal of money as a private contractor on an operation of this scale.
In the post-Cold War era, Le Carré has found a reliable cast of villains in the men who deal privately in weaponry and war. Jay Crispin isn’t terribly far removed from Richard Onslow Roper, the arms dealer who stalks through The Night Manager. These are men of a certain class and education, well-dressed and impeccably mannered predators, the beauty of their possessions matched only by their disinterest in the human cost of their products and services. It’s just business.
A Delicate Truth presents an exceedingly dark vision of an increasingly privatized world of intelligence and warfare. Toby Bell has always been troubled by the shadiness of the Gibraltar affair. When Kit Probyn contacts him, disturbed by the ex-soldier’s revelations and eager to figure out what happened, Bell decides to help.
There are moments when the machinery of plot grinds a little too loudly — if you’re on a mission to uncover the truth, it’s nice when a knowledgeable veteran of the British Foreign Service rises out of the woodwork to offer helpful slivers of background information, but having this happen two or three times seems unusually lucky — but Le Carré remains formidable. Here, as elsewhere in his body of work, Le Carré proves himself a master of character development.
Bell and Probyn are flawed but essentially decent men, trying to do the right thing in a landscape where it’s not at all clear what the right thing to do might be. There is a sketchiness at the heart of this novel, a sense of unobtainable information, the truth always just out of sight. Every answer leads to more questions. It’s all shadow and suggestion, but the shadows are the point.
These are troubled times. The news cycles have seemed particularly dark lately. Knowing that times have always been troubled — was there ever a generation that didn’t suffer from the creeping suspicion that everything’s kind of going to hell? — provides limited solace.
There are always distractions, of course, but sheer escapism is too easy. I’d like to propose something more along the lines of semi-escapism. All of the following books are works of fiction, but there are moments, I’ve found, when fiction conveys nearly as much about the world we find ourselves in as the news does. With that in mind, a reading list:
1. The illegal arms trade
The Night Manager, by John le Carré
Jonathan Pine is an Englishman, a night manager at an expensive Zurich hotel, a man of supreme competence who has worked his way up to the highest strata of his profession. He formerly held the same position at a grand hotel in Cairo, until an indiscretion on his part cost a woman her life; a hotel guest entrusted him with documents detailing transactions between her wealthy Egyptian boyfriend and an arms dealer, Richard Roper, whom she described to Pine as “the worst man in the world.” Pine passed these documents on to a British spy, one of the arms dealers received a call from an interested party in London, and a short time later the woman was murdered. Pine had loved her.
Less than a year later, the worst man in the world arrives with his entourage at the hotel in Zurich, and Pine is presented with an opportunity for revenge. Is this a spy novel? It is, but also it’s a literary exploration of identity, love, and desperation, because this is after all le Carré we’re talking about, and Pine is one of the most fully rendered and fascinating characters I’ve ever come across in fiction.
Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes
A Vietnam War novel that deserved even more attention than it received. Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas arrives in Vietnam as an Ivy League-educated reservist, an aspiring politician hoping to collect a medal or two, in charge of a company composed mostly of teenagers. The novel is part portrait of a company working under impossible conditions, part chronicle of Mellas’s transformation in a world of meaningless butchery, terror, and terrible mismanagement. I think Matterhorn is a masterpiece, and I don’t throw that word around very often.
The Attack, by Yasmina Khadra
Dr. Amin Jaafari is an Israeli citizen of Arab descent, a distinguished surgeon at a hospital in Tel Aviv. His wife, Sihem, is also an Israeli Arab. They are educated, cultured, and sophisticated people, who count the crème-de-la-crème of Israeli society among their close friends and entertain them in their beautiful home.
Jaafari’s at the hospital one day when an explosion rattles the walls. A suicide bomber has detonated in a nearby neighborhood. The bomber struck in the middle of a crowded restaurant where a child was celebrating a birthday party, and of the 19 killed, 11 are children. After a terrible day and half a night of operating on the desperately wounded, Jaafari makes his way home and falls into bed, only to be awoken a couple of hours later by a ringing phone: he needs to come back to the hospital. When he returns to the hospital, he’s given unspeakable news: his wife, whom he’d believed to be out of town, is dead in the morgue, and his colleagues need him to identify her. Not only is she dead, but her injuries strongly suggest that she was the suicide bomber.
The Attack is a refreshingly balanced novel, a work that never slips into the territory of political screed. Khadra is unflinching in his depiction of the agonies suffered by both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
4. Unbelievably creepy corporations with way too much power/food shortages
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
Set in a post-oil near-future where sea levels have risen so high that Bangkok would be deep underwater if not for a system of pumps and retaining walls holding the ocean at bay, where travel to the other side of the world is accomplished in days or weeks, not hours, and where the world’s food supplies are largely controlled by a handful of multinational corporations — calorie companies — who will stop at nothing to maintain and expand their monopolies. Bioterrorism is a favorite weapon.
Anderson Lake is a calorie company man, AgriGen’s agent in Bangkok, keeping up a plausible cover as a factory owner while he searches the markets for new fruits, new vegetables, new genehacked variations on foods believed to be extinct. Emiko is a Windup Girl, not quite human, a creature genetically engineered to satiate the whims of a Japanese businessman and then abandoned to a miserable life in a Bangkok sex club. Their lives intersect at a moment when the survival of Bangkok and of the Thai kingdom itself is threatened.
5. Psychotic family members/completely uncalled-for power grabs
King Lear, by William Shakespeare
If you haven’t read this yet, perhaps you should. Not just to stave off the vague sense of inadequacy that can come over a person when that person hasn’t read quite enough Shakespeare, but because it’s a harrowing and beautifully written piece of work.
Edgar: “Oh gods! Who is ‘t can say, “I am at the worst?”
I am worse than e’er I was. …
And worse I may be yet. The worst is not
So long as we can say, “This is the worst.”
Image credit: Steve Punter/Flickr.