Book review: A Delicate Truth by John Le Carre

Le Carr�: getting to grips with the Surveillance State. Picture: AP
Le Carr�: getting to grips with the Surveillance State. Picture: AP
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Government assaults on liberty are at the centre of John le Carré’s latest novel – his best for years

A middle-ranking Foreign Office man is holed up in a wretched hotel in Gibraltar. He is bored and fractious, knows very little about the mission on which he is engaged. Really he shouldn’t be there.

The mission is deniable. It’s been set up by a Glaswegian New Labour junior FO minister, and it’s clear to the reader that it’s a long way from being kosher. The minister is acting off his own bat, in collusion with some evidently dodgy people of the sort styled defence consultants. The Foreign Office man is to be known only as Paul. His conversation with the minister, Fergus Quinn, is full of silences and things not spelled out. It is not entirely convincing. Would a rather thuggish New Labour man say “deem” rather than “think”?

Nothing is very clear, even when the mission is underway, certainly not to Paul. Things seem to be going wrong. It’s murky. Really, it should be called off because the target hasn‘t been positively identified. But it isn’t. The order is given to go in. Shots are fired. Paul is told it was a triumph, with no casualties. Right? This is the line – and besides, everything will be deniable. Cut.

A few years later, we have Toby Bell, FO high-flyer, from a humble background, pr to smooth, polished Giles Oakley, “Foreign Office intelligence broker extraordinaire and mandarin at large.” Experienced le Carré readers might warn Toby to beware of Giles, no matter how devoted to him Giles seems to be, might even suspect the nature of that devotion. But Toby trusts Giles. The man he has come to distrust is his own minister, Fergus Quinn. Toby is his Private Secretary, but Quinn is excluding him from meetings with people who seem to Toby to be not quite the thing. There are rumours about that incident in Gibraltar. Something fishy is going on. Toby does the unthinkable: he bugs his own minister.

Cut to Cornwall… but that’s enough of the plot, enough said to indicate that this is vintage le Carré, the Master on top of his game, moving through the gears as smoothly and confidently as Roger Federer in his Wimbledon heyday. There have been some books since the Cold War ended which were less compelling than the great novels of the George Smiley years, books which somehow echoed Dean Acheson’s famous judgement that Britain had lost an empire and not yet found a role. But, with A Most Wanted Man and this new novel, le Carré 
offers us a splendid late flowering.This may not seem the right word, for both these novels are dark and angry, their picture of the world bitter; yet – such is the magic of art – the books themselves are delightful and exhilarating.

Le Carré taught us a long time ago to distrust the organs of 
the State. (No alert reader of his work could have swallowed the dodgy dossier on the strength of which Tony Blair persuaded the House of Commons to approve his Iraq war.) He has shown us the State engaged in criminality. In the Cold War years the threat of existential danger seemed to justify The Circus’s readiness to be as unscrupulous as the Enemy. Even so, le Carré taught us to regard its operations with a sceptical eye. His great theme has always been betrayal and, from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold onwards, what was betrayed was innocence, trust and decency. In the name of Realpolitik, allies, friends, agents and partners might all alike be victims of betrayal.

Now in his world, with that clear division between Them and Us blurred, with operations contracted out, like this one in Gibraltar, to ruthless mercenary outfits whose chiefs present themselves as expensively-suited business moguls, the willingness of the State to sponsor criminal acts, such as arranging assassinations or seizing suspects for extraordinary rendition, has become common. Anything is permitted, so long as everything may be concealed; and here, the need to cover up what actually happened will lead to new crimes – in this case murder – with the collusion of government ministers, civil servants, and the police.

The odds are heavy against those who seek to investigate what has actually happened, heavier even than they used to be, now that we live in the Surveillance State. Le Carré has gone to the trouble to learn and understand the scope and import of modern technology – a technology that allows the democratic state to know more about its citizens and monitor their activities more effectively than was ever possible for the so-called totalitarian states of the mid-20th century.

The novel turns into a quest or chase as Toby seeks to unravel the mystery of what happened in Gibraltar, an investigation hampered by the blundering of “Paul”, revealed as one of le Carré’s jolly old buffers, horrified to discover what he has been used for. (There is a fine comic scene when he turns up at the Foreign Office seeking clarification so that things may be put right – comic but in its own way, horrifying too.) The ending is agreeably ambiguous.

A Delicate Truth is the best novel le Carré has written for some time. The title, too, is ambiguous.

Speaking the truth to power is something that must be done delicately, but ultimately it is truth itself which is delicate, easily destroyed. In a note of acknowledgements he thanks officers of the legal charity Reprieve “for instructing me in the British Government’s latest assaults on our liberty, whether implemented or planned”.

Fifty years ago he could still believe, or seem to believe, and have us believe in turn, that the Secret Services were protecting that liberty, however deviously and unscrupulously. Now he has abandoned that belief. If the recurrent subject of his novels has been betrayal, to this is now added the misuse and iniquities of power.

John le Carré makes the conventional distinction between genre and literary fiction seem absurd. He is far more serious in his themes than the majority of those who write so-called literary fiction; happily he is also more entertaining. Most of all, he is a novelist who matters.