Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Book Review: Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carre

John le Carre's been a bestselling author for twice as long as I've been alive. By itself, that doesn't mean much: Michael Crichton, whose novels are marginally more intellectually stimulating than repeated punches to the head, published the breakout-hit The Andromedea Strain in 1969, just six years after le Carre's career-establishing bestseller The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Popularity is no guarantee of quality.

But neither does popularity preclude it. (Witness JK Rowling, William Shakespeare, and Salmon Rushdie.) While it's easy to presume le Carre's work to be standard 'page-turner' pulp like John Grisham or Dan Brown--in which cardboard characters and shallow cliches are hitched to a fast-moving plot--the fact is that his novels are of a different order than the rest of the bestselling thrillers he's shelved with. Le Carre, above all, is a master of psychological motivation: his spy stories show us characters whose talent at dissembling wreaks dysfunction on the rest of their lives. His spymaster George Smiley is the anti-James Bond: a humble, thoughtful, slow-moving investigator whose success at espionage is matched only by his incompetence at real life.

Le Carre is also one of our best social prophets.
He began writing while he worked for British intelligence in the post-WWII period, and his insider's perspective produced sympathetic and complex portraits of Cold War maneuvering. The fall of the Berlin Wall made his writing no less astute: with end of Soviet communism, le Carre accurately perceives that the greatest threat to liberal democracy today is the creeping influence of private capital. He displays this marvelously in The Constant Gardener, which is based upon a real case of corporate malfeasance in the developing world. In 2003, at the height of war-fever, he published this editorial denouncing the Iraq invasion as the duplicitous, destructive stunt which it was (and is now, in hindsight, widely recognized as).

Our Kind of Traitor is le Carre's most recent work, published in 2010. It's no coincidence that it came out two years after the 2008 financial crash; at the center of Traitor's plot is the influence of capital itself. For le Carre, black markets are to global capitalism as the repressed Id is to the Super-Ego for Freud, or as the Dionysian is to the Apollonian for Nietzsche. Considering that about half the world's jobs are in black- or grey-markets (and that about a seventh of humanity are squatters, and thus necessarily excluded from the legitimate economy), Traitor's basic conflict between the noble true-believers in old-fashioned liberalism vs. the amoral omnipotence of market forces is deeply relevant. In an age when the legitimate economy is on its knees, is it any wonder that our leaders make loud noises about their humanitarian ideals while slyly collaborating with representatives of the shadow market?

Le Carre is a master of plot, character, and social criticism. His latest novel should be on your bedside table.

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