“Our Kind of Traitor,” John le Carré’s Modern Spy Story
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Back in the Cold War Years of the ‘60s, David Cornwell was a British spy. He worked for MI6 under the cover of being a diplomat to run agents and lure defectors in Germany. When he tried his hand at writing an espionage novel, MI6 would not allow him to publish it under his own name. So he adopted a pen name -- John le Carré. “God alone knows why, or where I had it from,” he says. In French it translates as “the squire,” a young nobleman apprenticing to become a knight.
He describes his work as a spy: “It was in those days most definitely a calling and for all that I’ve written about it, it was a pretty decent calling, in the sense that we were very patriotic people in ways I don’t think we are anymore.
Le Carré’s third book on the subject, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” became a worldwide bestseller. When a British newspaper revealed his identity, he was forced to leave the service. Turns out, he had been betrayed by Kim Philby, a Russian double agent who he describes as a “bad lot, a naturally bent man.” Betrayal is a constant theme in his books.
His 23 novels include “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “The Honourable Schoolboy,” “Smiley’s People,” and “The Constant Gardener.” Written with great verisimilitude, they explore the world of espionage, money-laundering and moral ambiguities. Even the Russian KGB was required to read them to learn spy tradecraft.
Graham Green described “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” as “the best spy story I ever read.” Philip Roth called “A Perfect Spy” (le Carré’s most autobiographical work) “the best English novel since the War.”
Now in his mid 80s, le Carré displays a tall, ruddy-faced, patrician demeanor, with expressive eyebrows and floppy white hair. His view of the Cold War has faded, but he still sees the world of espionage in shades of gray.
Rather than portraying the Soviet bloc and the western allies as “two sides of the same grubby coin,” Le Carré’s writing has shifted to “the new multilateral world.”
An example is his 2010 novel “Our Kind of Traitor,” a thriller about a British couple caught in a tug of war between the Russian Mafia and MI6.
That book has now been made into a film, directed by Susanna White (TV’s “Parade’s End”). “Our Kind of Traitor” is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.
In it we meet a nice young British couple -- Peregrine Makepiece and Gail Perkins -- having a tennis holiday in Marrakesh. There, Perry (Ewan McGregor) and his girlfriend (Naomie Harris) bump into a charismatic Russian named Dima (Stellan Skarsgård) who latches onto them. Dima has a hidden agenda: He wants to defect.
A high-ranking member of the Russian Mafia, Dima is concerned for his and his family’s lives after a gangster known as The Prince (Grigoriy Dobrygin) comes to power. Dima knows too much about the money-laundering schemes. “I know where the money comes from; I’m a threat to Moscow,” he explains.
He gives Paul a thumb drive to deliver to MI6, a list of corrupt British politicians taking money from the Russians. Next thing Paul knows, he’s involved in a complicated spy plot. As it happens, the head of British intelligence (Damian Lewis) has his own agenda concerning one of the bigwigs on Dima’s list.
Nobody is safe.
In “Our Kind of Traitor,” John le Carré returns to his old theme of betrayal. But this time he gives us younger, more up-to-date protagonists than George Smiley, his world-weary old spymaster from earlier novels.
“They are for me a kind of Bildungsroman,” he refers to his new characters, using a term from German Romanticism. It describes naive youths who survive a dangerous world, thanks to hard experience and good fortune.
Question is: In le Carré’s world is anybody really an innocent?