Book review: A Delicate Truth by John Le Carré

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IN A recent article marking the 50th anniversary of the publication of his famed novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John le Carré identified that book’s central question as, “How far can we go in rightful defence of our Western values without abandoning them along the way?”

A Delicate Truth

John Le Carré

Penguin Viking, £18.99

A half-century on, he argued, this quandary still stands. Is he right? Is he even being straight-faced?

It’s hard to tell, with a writer who, true to his own espionage training, often seems to be misdirecting public attention away from his true opinions and feelings. Of course, moral compromise in the name of political interests is alive and kicking, but many would question Le Carré’s invocation of “Western values” as inherently superior and desirable, or even clearly identifiable.

Indeed, there is cause to query whether the promotion of “values” of any discernible sort – as opposed to the pursuit of economic power and influence – have ever lain at the heart of what is asked of the British secret services. And our most celebrated chronicler of life inside what he evocatively calls “the secret world” doesn’t seem to have done a great deal himself to promote the idea of a poor, decent, ­noble West struggling to remain upstanding in the face of advancing moral barbarism.

The shudder left in the air by Le Carré’s works – the chill in his Cold War – has generally had more to do with the absence of values, the across-the-board corruptibility of politicians and agents of all ostensible affiliations, than with any supposed desecration of ideology, or “Western values”.

Where his characters are driven by passion, it is more apt to be romantic or sexual than patriotic. Le Carré tends to present himself as a trusting believer in the services for which he’s worked and about which he’s written, rather than their critic – “I had no quarrel with my former employers, quite the contrary,” he’s recalled of his early decision to write about intelligence work – and yet his books (of which this is the 23rd) continue to tell a different and hollower story.

So deep has the rot penetrated in A Delicate Truth that the central act of betrayal is inadvertent, the consequence of a manipulation rather than a conscious choice. Sir Kit Probyn may share initials with Kim Philby, but he’s no traitor – not consciously, in any case. Rather he’s a “low flyer”, as opposed to a high flyer: a safe pair of hands who’s drawn out of retirement from the Foreign Office to oversee Operation Wildfire – a top-secret intervention in a shady big-money arms deal. But by whom, and to what end, has Probyn been recruited? Do left hands know what right hands are doing?

Not that left or right come into it much, in this post-ideological landscape: money talks a good deal louder than political philosophies. We are, in the initial murky phases of Le ­Carré’s novel, even more in the dark than Probyn himself, groping to keep names and codenames straight on minimal plot detail.

We share the quest for clarification with Toby Bell, thrusting young Private Secretary to the Foreign Office Minister in charge of Wildfire. Toby’s quest for answers and Probyn’s growing concerns as to just what he has participated in form the bulk of the book. Le Carré has indicated that the two characters have shades of himself at different stages of his life: smart, ambitious youth ripe to be disillusioned, and bemused veteran observing the steady disintegration of any sense of state responsibility. But as previously observed, one can never be too sure when he’s having us on.

The connections between political and personal values, the correlations between sexual and state secret-keeping, and the ways in which one form of privacy or mendacity can inform and infect another are great fascinations of Le Carré; and the way that he layers these interests is a great strength of his writing. (In fact, it can seem like something of an obsession: no-one here ever seems far away from confessing some secret yearning or inflammatory pecca­dillo.) He is also rather brilliant at evoking extreme mental and physical states: he poignantly reveals the initially brusque and practical Probyn as a man of unstable emotions, and vividly captures Toby’s confused emotions and shattered nerves after he’s brutally beaten up in the course of his investigations.

Weaker, sometimes, are Le Carré’s incidental characters and looming baddies, who can all err into caricature. Mockery of the more eccentric reaches of the American religious right is clearly intended by the characterisation of wealthy zealot “Miss Maisie”, but her brief appearance in the narrative is weird rather than illuminating – and try as I might to picture a contemporary woman clad in “pink chiffon dress and matching hat”, I couldn’t make it hang.

Elsewhere Le Carré evokes the voice of an angry working-class Northern Irish woman via ludicrously frequent recourse to the F-word, which just feels clumsy and silly. But patchy though this novel can get (and mysterious though its author’s ultimate point remains), it’s tense, twisty, and driven by a melancholy insight into human motivation that keep it deeply compelling to read.

Twitter: @HannahJMcGill