“He’s Putin’s shithouse cleaner. He does everything for little Vladi that little Vladi can’t do for himself: pisses on European unity, pisses on human rights, pisses on NATO…”
A character is speaking, of course, of the current American president. This particular rant is just getting started. There are many others. Whether it’s savaging Trump or Brexit or the entire Western capitalist system in its present state, the assessments in John Le Carré’s latest novel are brutal – and very often, hilarious.
As he’s done with scary consistency for the last half-century, Le Carré has, yet again, delivered a wise and prescient novel that somehow deconstructs the most byzantine of world affairs with utter clarity. Agent Running in the Field (Viking) could not be more timely, not only in its portrayal of the embarrassing political disorder in the U.S. and the UK, but also with regards to the Ukraine’s outsized role in our geopolitical madness.
This is what we’ve come to expect from Le Carré. He’s one of the world’s finest living novelists, genre be damned. Time and again, his insights force a reader to stop on a sentence and reach for a pen. He nails cultural moments as few writers have in the last century.
This time out, though, it’s his humor that leaves the most lasting impression. A few days ago, Le Carré turned eighty-eight years old. The fact that his lucidity has not diminished one bit at this advanced age is astonishing. It’s an added delight that he seems to have become a funnier writer than ever. Maybe it’s a product of reaching enviable late age – a time when you can deliver lines without the slightest care of offending.
‘So, what are you?’
‘A patriot, I suppose.’
‘What of? Facebook? Dot-coms? Global warming? Corporations so big they can gobble up your broken little country in one bite? Who’s paying you?’
Or perhaps these devastating one-liners:
His life is a sideways advance between things he can’t face.
Who in this whole fucked-up universe is rich today and not a thief?
Sometimes we’re bastards, sometimes we’re Samaritans and sometimes we get it plain wrong.
Just a few examples, probably ample. Does it reflect a cynical world view? Perhaps. Are they spot on? Oh yes. One gets the impression that Le Carré wrote most of this book with a knowing smirk, laughing to himself as he delivered these jabs.
The plot is driven by Nat – a 47-year-old British spy who sees the horizon on a fading career with the British Secret Intelligence Service. He’s spent most of his marriage apart from his wife and daughter and has just returned home after too many years on foreign assignments. Nat is navigating the domestic situation with delicacy. At work, he’s been offered what appears to be a beneath-him post in a has-been department. He derives most of his pleasure not at home or office, but rather on the badminton court. Though he’s nearing fifty, Nat remains the top player at his club – until he’s approached by a young, eccentric sport named Ed, who’s on the verge of hysteria whenever he speaks of the political climate on both sides of the Atlantic.
It is Ed’s unbound anger and despair that will raise the stakes and drive each character to their reckonings. In Nat’s conversations with Ed, simmering with impotent rage, we’re treated to many of Le Carré’s best barbs. Like this one:
Trump might be the worst President America has ever had, I said, but he was no Hitler, much as he might wish to be, and there were plenty of good Americans who weren’t going to take this lying down.
At first he didn’t seem to hear me.
‘Yeah well,’ he agreed in the faraway voice of a man coming round from an anesthetic. ‘There were plenty of good Germans too. And a fat lot of bloody good they did.’