Monday, November 15, 2010

What Hides in the Dark? Tragedy -- and Love. A cry of loss and wonder, for John le Carré's OUR KIND OF TRAITOR

U.S. cover
We learned it first in The Godfather -- probably the film version, even more than the book: The tension and horror of living on the criminal side of life can turn family into the most precious necessity of all. Murder, blackmail, and abuse can all be accompanied by a blinding love that engulfs people and binds them together. And self-sacrifical human love tastes like redemption, even when there's a police officer waving a WANTED sheet with your face on it and the face of your child, your father, your mother.

In OUR KIND OF TRAITOR, John le Carré presents a vivid overview of global politics of the day, braided as it is with billions of dollars, vicious forms of trafficking, and petty jealousies among bureaucrats. But he opens brilliantly with a young English couple who are as close to innocent as one can be in the 21st century: Perry Makepiece (yes, assume the pun is intended), who has just decided to leave his posh Oxford life and devote himself to ordinary teaching. And his Significant Other (together five years but not married), Gail -- a young lawyer just attaining effectiveness in her career, but also a woman who can't walk away from two little girls who've just become orphaned, or from their teenaged half-sister, pregnant by a Swiss-German cad who'll never do the right thing by her. In this, Gail's tenderness of heart is echoed by the compassion and loyalty that Perry is about to experience toward a man seeking his help.

The trouble is, the man seeking Perry's help -- for him and his extended family -- is a top-tier Russian criminal who's been laundering money for the mob for a lifetime, and whose newly personal betrayal by his Russian mob brotherhood is realistic, grief-stricken, and compelling. And as Perry and Gail are forced to admit to the British intelligence agents who eventually grill them: It's irresistible to get involved. It's not just the clinging arms of the little girls, or the Russian tears of Dima the money-laundering head of his fractured family -- it's the importance that Perry and Gail now have. Because to Dima, Perry represents the most important aspect of Britain: fair play. Dima even entrusts to Perry his plea for sanctuary, along with a tiny cassette of proof of his value to the British, to the entire Western world, to the forces of goodness and justice:
'Dima sank into himself for a while, woke up, seemed puzzled I was there, resented my presence, then decided I was all right, then forgot me again and put his hands over his face and muttered to himself in Russian. Then he stood up, and fished around in his satin shirt, and yanked out the little package I included in my document,' [Perry] went on. 'Handed it to me, embraced me. It was an emotional moment.'

'For both of you.'

'In our separate ways, yes, it was. I think it was.'

He seemed suddenly in a hurry to go back to Gail.

'Any instructions to accompany the packade at all?' Hector asked, while little B-list Luke beside him smiled to himself over his neatly folded hands.

'Sure. "Take this to your apparatchiks, Professor. A present from Wold Number One money-launderer. Tell them I want fair play." Exactly as I wrote in my document.'
Perry turns his life and loyalty over to Hector and Luke, in their roles as potential rescuers of the grieving Russian super-criminal. Gail isn't quite as trusting -- but she'll do it all, anyway, for the sake of the pregnant teenager who needs a wise mother/older sister so desperately.

And then, through chapter upon chapter of attentive, caring, detailed interrogation -- reminiscent of the loving labors of le Carré's earlier masterful character George Smiley, even to the point of similar phrases and cadence -- what Dima actually needs and what Perry and Gail pledge themselve to obtain for him unfold.

Le Carré embeds so much love, parental, brotherly, and sacrificial, in the novel that the powerful ending insists on being read as a tenderness too, even though it's as hopeless and disastrous as the notion of "fair play" always appears to be, in the face of Big Bucks and pervasive bullying and misinformation. I was touched especially, after finishing the book, to find a review from the Scandinavian master of modern crime fiction, Henning Mankell, praising this powerful novel. Mankell wrote in The Telegraph: "John le Carré’s fury and his ability to put into words a story about our world are sharp. But he does it in a subtle and intimate way. His intention, perhaps, is to make us slow down, so that we can and will reflect upon what he has to say."

British cover
It will help if you've read the earlier work of this British spy-turned-novelist, John le Carré, because you may then appreciate even more the masterwork here, reading with a sense of awe and terror and hope. But the book is a stand-alone, and in spite of the desolation it reveals, it also speaks to the best in all of us.

How much will each of us sacrifice, to make sure there is "fair play" in our world?

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