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Le Carre's "A Delicate Truth"

Critics say that there has been a falling off of John Le Carre's books since the Smiley novels. His plots are supposed to be less complex than they once were and the execution of his plots less dazzling. That may be the case, but there are still fresh insights and new turns of plot left in the old master's bag of tricks. Le Carre actually leads off his new novel, "A Delicate Truth", with an extraordinarily well done opening chapter of a special ops mission gone wrong. It is up to his highest standards. He deploys his knowledge of night goggles and communications intercepts. Those technologies had not existed during the Cold War. He also displays the knowledge of tradecraft long familiar to both Le Carre readers and to spying in general, techniques that presumably were used back in the time of  Deuteronomy when spies were sent to see how things were in the Promised Land that was about to be invaded. There are safe houses that may turn unsafe. Remember what happened to the angels secreted away in Lot’s house in Sodom? There are key conversations that turn people from adversaries into confederates. That happens in Shakespeare as well as in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. These situations still have their dramatic impact in this novel where some people are “turned” and some people resist being “turned”. Le Carre is also still able to make the reader think that the way he describes things in the world of the hush-hush is the way things are done. I understand that some of the terminology he invented for the Smiley novels passed into the jargon of secret agencies, and I wonder whether some recent coinages, such as “boys and girls” for the people who provide walk-by surveillance of targeted people and places, will follow suit.


That opening chapter sets the scene for the problem posed in the rest of the novel. Had things gone wrong because hired mercenaries rather than reliable hands had been put in charge of the operation? Is the objection to the operation that it went wrong or that it was illegal and wrong even if it had secured the high value terrorist that was its target? There would certainly have been misgivings and retrospective questioning of the operation as a whole and in its particulars if the mission to capture or kill Bin Laden had gone wrong. That would probably have cost Obama his re-election, and in this Le Carre story it is only two dead civilians who pay the immediate price that leads to all the soul searching about ownership and control of stealth operations. Many more civilians die all the time in Afghanistan but those deaths are supposedly “legitimate” because the NATO operations in Afghanistan have all been approved by relevant political bodies. So Le Carre is inquiring into how authorization itself can get bungled. That is a problem for operations imaginary and real, small and large. Was the Iraq War properly authorized if it was authorized on the basis of distorted and false information?


One of the criticisms of most of Le Carre’s more recent books is that they are too politically correct. Back in Cold War days, Le Carre was endorsing the conventional wisdom held then by both Liberals and Conservatives, Labor and Tories, that our side wasn’t perfect but that the other side was considerably worse. After the Cold War ended, Le Carre ventured off into dealing with more suspicious causes. He was out after multinational arms dealers (as in this book he is after putatively multi-national corporations in the business of selling secrets for cash). He even seems, for a while, to have championed Chechnya rebels until they turned out to be terrorists, just as the Russians had claimed.


But this time the headlines seem to have caught up with his anti-Establishment sentiments. He is portraying a relatively small scale venture into security activities done by non-national entities when it is clear from the Blackstone Group mercenaries that were made famous during the Iraq War that there were a great many operations conducted by corporations not responsible to military authority but under contract to do exactly what was never made clear in that their employees were not subject to military orders nor military justice. There is no reason to think that such activities are not carried on at least on a small scale in smaller scale operations and that they might be the offspring of Texas money and Texas Evangelicalism. Was not that the case with Charlie Wilson’s War to supply those who warred against the Soviets in Afghanistan?


Nor is it so implausible that there is still deep resentment in England against the Neo-Conservative influenced Laborites who were a bit too cooperative with the Bush Administration in the run up to the Iraq War and in the pursuit of it. The United States is in a period of amnesia since that war as is customary in ventures gone bad and so it is good to have Le Carre to scratch away at the scab until we make our own accounting with what happened in the first decade of this Millenium. Le Carre did not invent the background history onto which he places his story of the consequences of a rogue operation.


“A Delicate Truth” also brings out narrative gifts the author had not previously sufficiently exploited. The book gives a very well crafted sense of Great Britain itself, rather than of some far off place, even though he opens with a very deft portrayal of that rogue operation taking place in Gibraltar. Each chapter supplies another sense of the British national character and why, for all of its absurdities, it is worth fighting for and why it is worth keeping distinct from the national character of the Americans. There is a scene at a village fair where the social classes mix and defer to one another with all the overdone bonhomie we grew familiar with in “Mrs. Miniver”. Attention is paid to the stalwartness of Brits in battle, to an outspoken pride in honor and doing the right thing, as well as to those less attractive aspects of British life, such as the awful food and the poor lodgings and the awful stuff on the tele that doesn’t make its way to American high brow television. These peculiarities may be tolerable for the Brits because they are so familiar and so signs of being home. The Brits come across as being rational but not very pragmatic, more allied to high principles that they try to put into practice or which they knowingly betray than are Americans who are always out for a solution—except when they are not and only living in that reputation when in fact they are just acting out ingrained sentiments. If in America, John Wayne is always in a contest with Henry Fonda, in England John Bull is always in a contest with David Hume, and the unenlightened guy wins most of the time.


What makes England distinct is what makes it worth fighting for. That is what the mole in Tinker had lost sight of: that the world is not divided only between the Americans and the Russians. There is a British point of view as well. The more limited hand Britain has to play vis a vis its enemies and its allies has been to the fore in British history ever since Churchill acknowledged to himself and his staff that he had become a junior partner to FDR but would play his hand as best he could. Le Carre sees the same thing happening in the relationship between British and American intelligence people. There is no way the Brits can do anything but play junior fiddle to the Americans. What is their alternative? Throwing in with the Europeans? Not likely.


The best praise of “A Delicate Truth” is that Le Carre delivers such a good read, his action just moving along so that a reader can get through the book in one long sitting, that Le Carre has a reputation as not being a serious novelist, which means that he does not get bogged down in his own insights. Le Carre is an old fashioned novelist because it is the plot that carries the reader along. A nice job by the old man.

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Issue No. 77
December 22, 2013

"The Moonstone" as an Aesopian Novel- Part I
"The Moonstone" as an Aesopian Novel-Part II
Earlier Issues

List Articles by Topic

The Political Ticker
The Hillary Coalition
  - November 19, 2014
Obama's Win in the Ukraine
  - April 5, 2014
"House of Cards" Politics
  - February 14, 2014
Birenbaum: The Day the President Struck Out
  - January 29, 2014
The Debate Over Inequality
  - January 27, 2014
Temporary Issues: "Stop and Frisk", Climate Change, Inequality
  - January 21, 2014

Previous Political Tickers

The Administrative President
  -January 12, 2014
Three Chronic Problems
  -December 19, 2013
Obama the Transformational President
  -December 13, 2013
"Homeland", "Alpha House" and the Tea Party
  -November 27, 2013
Off Year Election Post-mortem
  -November 7, 2013
Kathleen Sibelius and the Iliad
  -October 31, 2013
Political Impasses: 2013 and 1936
  -October 7, 2013
Birenbaum on The Tea Party
  -October 6, 2013
Fifty Years Later: The Anniversary of the March on Washington
  -September 18, 2013
The Principled Obama
  -September 10, 2013
Obama Thinks About Syria Freshly
  -September 5, 2013
Syria and the Falklands
  -August 30, 2013
Public Opinion on Syria
  -August 24, 2013
Upward Mobility Through Educational Innovation
  -August 12, 2013
The Anthony Wiener Bubble
  -July 30, 2013
Racial Issues in 2013
  -June 29, 2013
The David Brinkley Era of Journalism
  -June 5, 2013
Republican Scandal Mongering
  -May 23, 2013
Benghazi and Two Other "Scandals"
  -May 14, 2013
Lackluster Politics
  -May 7, 2013

The Cultural Ticker
A Dour Cultural Week
  - February 4, 2014
Colonial Virginia
  - January 15, 2014
Birenbaum: The Joy of Middle European Posters
  - January 6, 2014
A Jewish Nipple
  - November 28, 2013
Birenbaum: My Oral Comprehensive Examination and the JFK Assassination
  - November 27, 2013
"12 Years a Slave"
  - November 12, 2013

Previous Cultural Tickers

Pinter and Shakespeare
  -November 8, 2013
Birenbaum on "I Am Divine"
  -November 3, 2013
The Hearing Impaired Student
  -August 17, 2013
Ideas and People
  -August 10, 2013
The Weekly Roundup of Morning Joe and Chris Matthews
  -August 8, 2013
The Zen of Dishwashers
  -August 5, 2013
The Profundity of the Second World War
  -August 2, 2013
The Trayvon Martin Bubble
  -July 20, 2013
Eliot Spitzer
  -July 9, 2013
The Study of Everyday Life
  -July 5, 2013
The Zimmerman Trial
  -July 3, 2013
Le Carre's "A Delicate Truth"
  -July 1, 2013
Zucker: A Madeleine (A Memoir)
  -June 23, 2013
Von Trotta's "Hannah Arendt"
  -June 7, 2013
The Armchair View of War and Disability
  -May 30, 2013
Birenbaum's Summers
  -May 24, 2013
Old Neighborhoods
  -May 21, 2013
Jackie Robinson
  -May 20, 2013
Barbara Spun's Catskill Vacations
  -May 16, 2013
An Old Friend in Her Eighties
  -May 11, 2013


A new issue of “w. end ave.: an e-journal of culture and politics” is published once every three weeks or so. It is edited, owned, and where not indicated as otherwise, written by Martin Wenglinsky. The rights to all materials published here are copyright © 2008 by Martin Wenglinsky