The ‘war on terror’ has sunk many writers – of fiction and non-fiction. We have had all the usual gung-ho garbage with the convenient new villains. We have had endless hand-wringing from non-fiction writers who really have no idea what they are talking about and bought into the world-changed-on-911 rhetoric of the most rightwing government the US has ever had. The result has been a terrible muddying of the waters.
Finally we get a book that knows what it is talking about. John le Carré has always remained relevant and his work has always been well-researched. True, we are on familiar territory, but that is because this new ‘war’ is being fought by people who have yet to adjust to the modern world. They were brought up, taught, and mentored by a generation that thought it won the Cold War and which has since been dazzled by technology.
Yet in the end, the conflicts of today are the same as they have always been. They are about people and the sense that some are bullying others. And when the victims fight back the bullies cry ‘foul’. And in this volatile mix are the psychos – on both sides. This is all presented in a gripping story set in Hamburg when a Chechen refugee arrives illegally in order to claim the contents of a safe deposit box.
The passion and the anger of the author at the absurdities of the world and at the crass assumptions made by some are evident. Yet he presents the story and its background in clear detail and has the courage to allow his readers to make up their own mind.
le Carré’s writing continues to improve. He has always been a good writer, but his work has become increasingly fluent. The writing is simple, spare, and yet it manages to be rich at the same time. His characters may, at times, seem like refugees from earlier works, but that is only because this is a small world affecting only certain types of people. For all that, he manages to create convincing portraits that leave enough uncertainty to make them prey to all the frailties of humanity.
The novel ends on a gloomy and downbeat note, which is perhaps the most telling indication of the author’s feelings of the current situation. It is also a general reflection of the world in which we live and a particular reflection of the shady world in which these events are played out. Nothing is certain. Nothing ends. There is never any opportunity to tie up loose threads.