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It's been fifty years since THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD appeared and transformed the British spy story once and for all. No longer the playground of the morally stainless English hero up against decidedly dodgy foreigners, in Le Carré's hands it began to explore a relativistic moral universe lit by an uncertain light, where the heroes (if that's what they were) were flawed and operations might result in the sacrifice of the relatively innocent on the altar of a perceived greater good. But one thing was certain, at least. There were clearly two sides in the conflict, and, however reluctantly, one had to support what had to be done in the service of our own.
Fast forward half a century. The Cold War over, the distinction between friend and enemy, indeed between nation and corporation, is crumbling. As A DELICATE TRUTH opens, a British diplomat in the latter stages of his career is being enlisted to be the man on the ground for a junior Minister named Fergus Quinn, a New Labour politician, and oversee a clandestine operation that will take place on Gibralter. The object? To kidnap a notorious Muslim terrorist. Or so our diplomat, now renamed Paul for the occasion, is led to believe. But whose operation is this? That is not so evident. A Blackwater avatar called Ethical Outcomes, its CEO a Texas widow of enormous wealth and right-wing proclivities, is involved as is a dubious CIA operative. In time, the operation takes place and is declared a total success. Only much later will "Paul" learn that it was a disastrous failure. In the meantime, he is rewarded with a knighthood and a plum posting in the Caribbean with which to round out his career.
At the other and early end of the career arc is Toby Bell, newly assigned to assist the same Fergus Quinn. Although his new post is supposed to be a leap up the ladder, there is something distinctly fishy about his new boss, fishier still as no one will tell him what it is, even though Toby is supposed to keep Quinn on the straight and narrow. But the name Jay Crispin keeps bobbing up and it appears that whatever Quinn did in the past, Crispin was not only involved, but the prime mover. When Toby finds himself increasingly shut off from his minister due to Crispin's distrust of him, he resolves on a potentially career-ending, perhaps prison-worthy tactic. He secretly records a meeting between Crispin, and two other participants in the operation being planned, code-named Wildfire - a military man named Jeb, and "Paul," whom we have already met. This is the runup to the first section of the book, where the exploit these men are planning is described. Tellingly, the recorder he uses is a Cold War relic of the Nixon era, overlooked in storage all this time.
We learn soon enough what a disaster the operation was, how shockingly it transgressed the ethics even of the Foreign Service, and to what ends all will go to suppress public knowledge of it. If silence cannot be bought, then murder might be called for. In the midst of all this are Toby and "Paul," now revealed to be Sir Christopher Probyn, who will risk everything to bring the truth to light.
The pair are both idealists in very different ways. Sir Kit is of the (very old) school of British civil servant. He believes in gentlemanly standards, honour, ethical behaviour. Two central scenes are set in his club, an old-fashioned affair where women are permitted only on certain days and speech forbidden save in designated areas. But these are only trappings - late in the book it transpires that the club secretary has betrayed him, something that would never have occurred in an earlier age. He talks in a kind of jaunty boffin-speak (which can be a bit wearing), a style and idiom that harks back also to a much earlier time.
The much younger Toby, who comes from a middle-class and Methodist background, believes in his country and has entered on his career in the hope of doing some good. But his country has succumbed to the lure of what Le Carré calls Big Greed and is rotting from within, consorting with the Jay Crispins of this world in pursuit of money and power. The failed operation that Toby uncovers is only a part of the pervasive corruption spreading throughout the corridors of power.
So what started out as a sort of spy story is transformed into a kind of morality play with a new kind of hero - the whistleblower. Whether this is altogether successful is another matter. There is something a bit forced about Toby's reaction to what he uncovers. Certainly it is a dirty business, but his shock seems excessive - he is after a young man in a world in which assassination has become state policy, "enhanced interrogation" a defensible activity, and unmanned drones regularly kill not only their targets but whoever else has the misfortune of being in the vicinity. In such a context, Operation Wildfire seems almost small potatoes.
This is not to say that Toby is wrong to be shocked nor is Sir Christopher wrong to be outraged. And both are, of course, thoroughly praise-worthy in their efforts to reveal the "delicate truth" that extremely highly-placed government members and civil servants are placing their own greed ahead of the nation's interest, that the entire political structure of Britain is shot through with corruption. The problem lies in Le Carré's difficulty in getting the reader to share the shock and outrage - sadly most of us have known it all along. And so, much as we cheer on Toby and sorrow over Sir Christopher's disillusion, we know exactly where this will all lead - where it always has.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, June 2013
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