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Based on the run-up to the publication of John LeCarré's first non-series novel in a number of years, the reader would be forgiven for thinking that it would amount to little more than a book-length rant against the decline in political morality represented by Donald Trump on the one hand and Boris Johnson on the other. While the two oddly-coiffed politicians are a chief concern, in the actual book attention is focussed on how the political shambles they inspire affects a reasonable man, long a servant of the state. Ranting is kept to an appropriate level. In this case, the reasonable man is Nat, a British spy, about to enter his forty-seventh year and on the brink of premature retirement and not for cause. He is, as he says, of "mixed birth," (Scots/Russian) and has been for many years a field operative in Eastern Europe, where he ran various spies and double agents. He does not, as I far as I recall, have a last name, perhaps because in the England to which he has recently returned, "nobody has a surname," though in fact everyone else seems to. Additionally, he is married to a lawyer named Prue and is the badminton champion of his club.
And there it is that he meets Ed, a young man anxious to challenge Nat on the badminton court and then to discharge his anger at Brexit, Trump, and evangelicals over a post-game pint in the club bar. He is anxious to discover if Nat is a kindred spirit as he has no one else on whom to unload his outrage at the "clusterfuck" he sees around him. Nat lends a sympathetic ear, though years of the dissimulation and observation his trade requires (of which Ed presumably knows nothing) has dissipated all passion in these matters. His response is brief and guarded, not least because he cannot be certain that he is not being set up by Ed.
He has reason to be suspicious. He's been recalled too early and offered a dubious post at a moribund Mick Herron-esque London substation called the Haven, where, clearly, Nat is expected quietly to doze until boredom moves him to retire voluntarily. Instead, at the instigation of Florence, a young, relatively new hire, the two develop a scheme to bring down a Ukrainian oligarch code-named Orson. The operation is called, inevitably, Rosebud.
From the opening pages we are insistently told by Nat, who narrates the story, that he has been interrogated by his "chers collègues" regarding some real or misapprehended misbehaviour. But what he has or has not done is left undescribed. It is here that Le Carrè exercises his famous talent for misdirection. Is Nat a reliable narrator or not? Can we trust him when he tells us that Ed had no interest in him other than badminton and a somewhat friendly audience? The answers will only appear at the end of the book.
In the meantime, we observe Nat in various roles - as father to a rather judgmental nineteen-year-old daughter; as experienced runner of agents over a long and successful career, insofar as success obtains in that shadowy world; as astute participant in the bureaucratic struggles of the Office. It is his voice that guides us along these paths and it is a winning, if faintly improbable voice. The character is said to be in his mid-forties, his creator is in his late eighties, and Nat sounds somewhere in the middle of that range. Partly this may be down to the fact that Nat has spent very little time in Britain and rather a lot in somewhat sleepy eastern European cities where he has generally presented himself as a conservative British businessman. London in the throes of the Brexit controversy is a new and almost foreign land to him.
At the very end of the novel, circumstances require that Nat say farewell to Ed, something that he must reluctantly do. As he watches Ed turn away and leave, Nat remarks, "I had wanted to tell him I was a decent man, but it was too late." It is the perfect last line for this narrative, containing the all the regret that Nat must feel at how things have turned out. This is the book of a decent man, but if decency is sufficient when corruption, decline, and dishonesty reign and civil public discourse has all but disappeared remains an open question. It is one that Le Carré quite properly raises and one that he does not quite answer. But it is one to which readers must respond as best they can.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2019
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