Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Book Review: Our Kind Of Traitor, by John le Carré (2010)

John le Carré's 22nd novel is a modern-day spy tale of international money laundering, Russian oligarchs, and the multifarious ties between Britain's big banks and government officials. But since this is le Carré, Our Kind Of Traitor is really about characters bleakly struggling to fulfil their role in an increasingly complex world, with desperation often comprehensively winning over well-intentioned determination.

While on vacation Antigua, British university lecturer and amateur tennis player Perry Makepiece and his almost-fiancée Gail Perkins meet Dima, a colourful, loud and close-to-obnoxious Russian banker and esteemed money launderer. Whether by design or simply seizing the opportunity, Dima, whose protégé has just been murdered in Moscow, cozies up to Perry, and requests that Perry make contact with British intelligence to arrange asylum in England for Dima's entire family. In return, Dima will provide proof of close ties between members of Britain's ruling elite and Russian mobsters.

Back in London, Perry, a left-leaning idealist with lingering belief in the glory of Britain, and Gail, a more grounded lawyer, make contact and are debriefed by British intelligence agents Luke and Yvonne and their fixer Ollie. Luke's boss Hector, a renegade intelligence officer with a chequered history, eventually takes over. With Dima insisting on dealing with Perry, Hector deploys Perry and Gail into the field to help Luke and Ollie arrange Dima's extraction in a tense spy dance that starts in Paris and glides to Switzerland. But Hector has his own battles to fight, with the leaders of Britain's intelligence services and their political masters dubious about the value of Dima's revelations, or otherwise eager to keep certain secrets quite secret.

Le Carré presents most of the story through the eyes of his main characters, with Gail and Luke the most prominent commentators. Our Kind Of Traitor is not bereft of action, with the final 100 pages picking up the chase, but the focus is firmly on the actors. Gail struggles with Perry's opaque stiffness but nevertheless loves him deeply and never loses sight of his many positive attribute. Having blotted his copybook in a botched South American misadventure, Luke is a damaged agent and eager to do well for Hector, who rescued Luke's career from administration hell.

In addition to Perry, Gail, Luke, Yvonne, Ollie, Hector, and Dima, all of whom are fully humanized,Our Kind Of Traitor is brimming with secondary characters fleshed out by le Carré in lovingly mysterious detail. Dima has a large entourage of family members, bodyguards and hangers-on, all given prominence and a few later contributing crucial moments of drama to the unfolding escapade. Hector's bosses are career-oriented spy masters now more interested in profiting from a dirty world and settling personal scores than confronting the world's endless stream of evil.

And as the plot develops, le Carré layers on the British and European puppet masters, ex-intelligence chiefs, politicians, lawyers, and deal makers unconcerned with national interests or the source of their ill-gotten wealth, and demonstrating allegiance only to their pocket book.

Keeping track of who's who and individual motivations is of course the challenge and the fun in a le Carré book, but he keeps the main threads of the plot visible within the sometimes dense personal stories of ultimately small people entangled in a ruthless race of global profiteering. Our Kind Of Traitor ends with the kind of treachery that makes money-laundering appear quaint, le Carré having lost neither his ability to weave intricate tapestries out of shadowy international games, nor his abject pessimism that any amount of clever heroism will ever make a difference.

306 pages.
Published in harcover by Viking Canada.

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