Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Delicate Truth.  John Le Carré.  2013.  Viking (Penguin).  Pp 310.  $37

Ken Strongman

‘A Delicate Truth’ is Le Carré at his best.  He poses moral dilemmas of the type that only the English can face with the right degree of intellectual and emotional squirming.  No quick wild west decisions here; rather, hours of agonizing about what to do as the balance between ‘what is right’ and self interest changes from moment to moment.

Some three years before the main ethical delicacies play out, a clandestine night-time mission is mounted in Gibralter, which is still, perhaps anomalously, part of English soil.  Involved are some American mercenaries and some British operatives on loan from special forces in that ‘we will disavow all knowledge’ way.  The mission has been mounted by a Junior Defence Minister who’s ambition has put him in the pocket of a very shady private defence contractor and some American muscular Christians.

The group is in the nominal charge of Kit Probyn who has been plucked from government department obscurity precisely because he is obscure and hence manipulable.  Meanwhile, not even the Minister’s private secretary, Toby Bell knows what is going on, although, having a sort of generalized suspicion that all is not right, he makes a nefarious tape-recording of an otherwise secret meeting involving his Minister.

Three years on and Kit Probyn has become Sit Christopher Probyn, having had a wonderful pre-retirement posting to the Caribbean and now lives in Cornwall with his wife.  Toby has risen in the civil service ranks to a fine position having spent the three years in overseas postings.  Then one of the British operatives involved in Operation Wildfire surfaces to say that all was not as it might have been; far from being successful, the mission had tragic consequences that have been covered up.

Toby is summoned to the Cornwall manor house by Sir Christopher and the moral dilemma fills his head.  On the one hand, his career and Probyn’s reputation is at stake.  On the other hand is the truth.  Overseeing all are some very powerful governmental forces.

Nobody does the confrontations between good and evil better than Le Carré.  This is a far cry from ‘The Spy who came in from the Cold’ and its many sequels, but very similar forces are at work.  The vast machinery of the British state manipulating the human cogs that make it function.  The assumption is that everyone is essentially self-seeking, but it is sometimes a misplaced assumption.

The language in which ‘A Delicate Truth’ is written exactly matches the subtlety of the intricacies it portrays.  This makes for a most satisfying few hours of reading.  There are even memorable, almost Shakespearian, comments the import of which lasts beyond the book.  For example, “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue”.  Le Carré is a very fine writer and this is one of his best.

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