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Self-deception amid the War on Terror

Published May 31, 2013 11:06 pm

Fiction • At 82, John le Carre shows he's still in full control of his literary talents.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

From The Spy Who Came in From the Cold to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to The Constant Gardener, John le Carre's novels have been just as concerned with the lies we tell ourselves as with the secrets we keep from each other. Too often existential clarity comes to his characters late and at too high a price.

His latest novel, A Delicate Truth, further explores the human capacity for self-deception, this time in the context of the War on Terror. The narrative opens as a midlevel Foreign Office functionary, alias Paul Anderson, frets in his hotel room in the British crown colony of Gibraltar, waiting to play his role in Operation Wildlife. Paul is acting as a "red telephone" for MP Fergus Quinn, reporting to London as a witness to a plan to abduct a putatively high-value jihadist arms dealer. Although Paul doesn't actually witness much of anything on the Rock, he is assured that the mission is a complete success.

The narrative then backtracks to the planning stages of Operation Wildlife, with the focus shifting to Toby Bell, Fergus Quinn's young private secretary. Alarmed by the way he's been shut out of some dodgy negotiations, Bell plans the unthinkable, recording a conversation between his boss and a private defense contractor.

When he discovers that the operation will be based on Gibraltar, "the notion that it was on the point of becoming the scene of an extraordinary rendition mounted by discharged British soldiers ... and American mercenaries who were legally inviolate was so monstrous, so incendiary, that for a while Toby, for all the Foreign Office instruction he had received in measured, non-judgmental responses at all times, could only stare stupidly at the kitchen wall before listening to whatever was left."

Three years later, when one of the participants of Operation Wildlife comes unhinged and begins to disclose the tragic consequences of that misbegotten mission, Bell finally meets "Paul Anderson," better known as Sir Christopher "Kit" Probyn, a retired diplomat lately returned to Cornwall after a cushy posting in the Caribbean. Together, Bell and Probyn struggle to unearth the truth — without destroying their own careers or even losing their lives.

The spycraft that served George Smiley so well before the fall of the Berlin Wall proves to be ridiculously outmoded in A Delicate Truth. Now the ill-considered use of the BlackBerry in your own pocket can be your undoing, leading to imprisonment and worse. And the secret keepers seem both less imposing and more ruthless than Karla, Smiley's Soviet nemesis. Counterterrorism has become a rationale for the worst abuses by so-called democracies.

At 82, le Carre is undoubtedly near the end of his literary career. But even if he's unlikely to produce another masterpiece like The Honorable Schoolboy or A Perfect Spy, he has maintained full control of his prodigious literary talents and kept the flame of his anger alive. He handles A Delicate Truth with a remarkably assured touch.