October 25, 2010

Into the cold.

You can read John le Carré as the author of spy thrillers -not just today’s gold standard, but the best there ever was -and enjoy his books as escapist fiction.

Or, you can read them -the last few, in any event -as slightly fictionalized but absolutely authoritative news stories you won’t read anywhere else because traditional media sources don’t dare.

How should you read him? Inside copies of his new book, he includes a reprint of a December 13, 2009 piece from The Guardian.

The headline: “Drug money saved banks in global crisis, claims UN advisor.” The subhead: “Drugs and crime chief says $352 billion in criminal proceeds was effectively laundered by financial institutions.”

The inescapable conclusion: Our most respected bankers will take money from anyone in order to prop up their failing institutions. Translation: The fix is in.

But I don’t want to spoil “Our Kind of Traitor” for you. Forget I’ve told you even this much. You can’t? Trust me. You will. Once you start caring about the people, the last thing on your mind will be How It Ends.

Anyway, there’s no mention of money laundering in the beginning. Peregrine Makepiece literally: a foreigner who makes peace is vacationing on Antigua with Gail Perkins, his live-in girlfriend. Perry was, until recently, a tutor in English Literature at Oxford; Gail is a barrister with a future. She’s satisfied with the trajectory of her career; he’s so turned off by academia he wants to teach secondary school in some deprived English slum.

Perry plays a wickedly good game of tennis. The pro introduces him to Dima, “a muscular, stiff-backed, bald, brown-eyed Russian man of dignified bearing in his middle fifties.” Dima and Perry play three brisk sets. An invitation to a party follows. There, Perry and Gail note the presence of an entourage -and bodyguards.

Dima is fond of the young couple - or is it that the guy who describes himself “the world’s number one money launderer” is just very good at sizing people up? Because Dima deputizes Gail and Perry. That is, he hands them this note:

Dmitri Vladimirovich Krasnov, the one they call Dima, European director of Arena Multi Global Trading Conglomerate of Nicosia, Cyprus, is willing negotiate through intermediary Professor Perry Makepiece and lawyer Madam Gail Perkins mutually profitable arrangement with authority of Great Britain regarding permanent residence all family in exchange for certain informations very important, very urgent, very critical for Great Britain of Her Majesty.

In theory, this should be easy. Dima has information. He wants asylum. It’s not like getting him across borders will be a problem -this is 2009, not 1955.

Now we hear the story again. Perry’s version. Gail’s. As told to middle-level English spymasters in London. Who, likewise, deputize Perry and Gail -as short-term spies.

Unlikely? For you and me, perhaps. But Gail and Perry have their reasons, and le Carré drops them along the pathway of the novel like bread crumbs. So they’re off. To a meeting with Dima in Paris at the French Open. And an even more exciting meeting -by now, we understand that Dima believes his Russians colleagues are watching him - that is diabolical in its layers of deception.

The clock ticks. The anxiety mounts. What’s the hitch? Well, perhaps Dima is a bit too big for easy assimilation. His information might lead somewhere. And we can’t have that.

Here’s how it works, an English spymaster explains: “Catch the minnows, but leave the sharks in the water. A chap’s laundering a couple of million? He’s a bloody crook. Call in the regulators, put him in irons. But a few billion? Now you’re talking. Billions are a statistic.”

Getting the idea? At the top the snooty bankers in London, Russian crooks, the Russian government, and Lord knows who else are all connected. Black money turns white.

Do you care how that happens? That it happens? How could you? You don’t know about it. And, if told, you won’t believe it. In which case, just enjoy the ride, just marvel at the writing, which is astonishing.

Spies used to operate on the margins, at checkpoints, in lonely towns with names you can’t pronounce. Then they were soldiers in the Cold War. Now, le Carré tells us, they exist for much darker purposes.

Of all of le Carré’s novels, this is the one that makes me feel like a child. I mean, I know we’re all under surveillance now. Photographed often. Every keystroke, every e-mail, every Tweet saved illegally, but saved. At any moment, the President can declare an American citizen an enemy combatant, a threat to the security of the Republic, and without judicial review or formal charge, he can order that American to be killed. But although I know all that, I hadn’t quite realized that when large amounts of money are involved, none of the old words -honor, truth, empathy -matter at all.

What le Carré is telling us here is that there is something that might be called the country of money. It has no boundaries. There are no “sides.” The government of Russia has made a pact with the Russian Mafia -or is it the other way around? -so criminal fortunes are appropriately shared. (When things go wrong, blame the Chechens.) And the cash-starved West? Our bankers? Our CEOs? Our statesmen? Bought. All of them

How good is John le Carré? Good enough to make you care about Dima, Perry and Gail -and the people they care about. Good enough to make you angry at their difficulties. Good enough to surprise you, no matter how cynical you are, at the end. In short, the best.

Paris Review interview with John le Carré

I am reading...

  • scribble, scribble, scribble, Simon Schama
  • Julia's Cats, Patricia Barey and Therese Burson
  • London, Edward Rutherfurd
  • I'll Drink to That, Betty Halbreich