“Agent Running in the Field”
Author: John Le Carré
Price: $29.00 (Hardcover)
When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, presumably ending the Cold War, readers and critics feared for the careers of spy novelists like John Le Carré. What would these fellows write about now?
No problem, really.
There is always plenty of crime, rottenness and misery in the world.
At first, Le Carré moved to other subjects, such as the Palestinian dilemma in “The Little Drummer Girl” and the international illicit arms trade in “The Night Manager.”
But now, as Le Carré’s narrator puts it: under Putin, “Post-Communist Russia, against all hope and expectation, emerged as a clear and present threat to liberal democracy across the globe,” determined to restore the glory and perhaps the territory of the old Soviet Union. The Cold War is quietly back on stage.
A first-person narrative, the story is told to us by 47-year-old old Nat.
He has served the crown for over two decades, officially as a diplomat in Moscow, Prague, Bucharest, Tbilisi, Trieste, Helsinki and Talinn, but he is and always has been a spy, recruiting and running agents.
Nat is married to a highly successful lawyer, Prue, and they are, like many others, the baffled parents of a daughter who agrees with nothing they represent, overtly or covertly: “Boys, drugs, screaming matches—all the usual modern-age problems, you might say, but Steff has turned them into an art form.”
Nat does not understand his daughter or the British culture of the last 20 years which has produced her.
Much of this new novel seems, as they say of “Law and Order,” ripped from the headlines. Putin has met with Trump in Helsinki. Russia has moved on Georgia. One of Nat’s Eastern European operatives describes Putin: He “had always been a fifth-rate spy. Now he was a spy turned autocrat who interpreted all life in terms of konspiratsia. Thanks to Putin and his gang of unredeemed Stalinists, Russia was not going forward to a bright future but backwards into her dark, delusional past.”
In the opening scene, Nat is at his London badminton club, where he is the reigning champion. He is challenged, in an irregular fashion, by Ed Shannon, a newcomer. Ed is a brash young fellow who plays a wicked game of badminton.
Evenly matched, they will play on Monday evenings over a dozen times. Chatting after the games, over a couple of pints, Nat tells Ed vaguely, he is a “consultant.” Ed tells Nat, equally vaguely, he is in “research.” The reader’s ears stand up.
Ed is from the North. He is plain-spoken, even vulgar, and announces his politics to Nat, whether Nat wants to hear or not.
Without preamble, Ed declares Britain’s departure from the European Union to be “self-immolation.” “Britain’s unqualified dependence on the United States in an era when the U.S. is heading straight down the road to institutional racism and neo-fascism, is an unmitigated cluster [-f-word], bar none.”
Nat is startled by Ed’s outbursts. The English don’t usually express themselves so plainly, but as Nat admits, he has lived so long in “foreign parts,” he is no longer tuned in to British culture.
Ed goes on, demanding to know if Nat agrees: “Do you or do you not regard Trump, which I do, as a threat and incitement to the entire civilized world, plus he is presiding over the systematic, no- holds-barred Nazification of the United States?”
Regarding Trump, Ed goes on: The man’s a pure hater. Hates Europe, he’s said so. Hates Iran, hates Canada, hates treaties. Who does he love?”
Of course, Nat does mostly agree, but does not say so.
We then follow Nat to his new post, running some not very productive agents in London in a unit called the Haven, fearing he will be made redundant but hopeful that if there are some successes, he may be posted to the prestigious Russia House, now recently more active and vital.
In a play, if you show the audience a pistol in act one—“I say, Roderick, why is this pistol in your desk drawer?”—the pistol has to reappear in the third act.
So it is with Ed Shannon. He disappears for a while, and then he’s back.
Some readers will notice the homage to Henry James’s “Daisy Miller,” with Nat as Winterbourne and Ed as Daisy. Winterbourne is puzzled by Daisy: is she an innocent flirt who is merely headstrong and stubborn, in short, a modern American girl, or is she a wily coquette, someone he doesn’t want to know? He can’t tell, because he “had become dishabituated to the American tone.”
Just as Winterbourne doesn’t understand Daisy, neither does Nat comprehend Ed. Because he is out of touch, Nat fails to see the depths of Ed’s powerful political rage and unhappiness.
And young Ed, strangely, like Daisy Miller, is so dangerously innocent, driven by true conviction, “not by motives of gain or envy or revenge or self-aggrandizement,” he has reached the point of culpability—no one is permitted to be that innocent, that thick. Innocence and ignorance finally coalesce into responsibility. One has an obligation to “know better.”
That idealistic and impulsive young man gets himself entangled in some very complicated clandestine international adventures and, because they were badminton partners, has entangled Nat as well.
The story in the second half is complex, almost as intricate as “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” and Nat, our narrator, doles it out to the reader bit by bit, which is OK since I was barely able to follow it.
There are Russian spies involved, and Czechs, and Germans. The world today is as tangled and dangerous as ever, if one has the eyes to see.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.