Novel: A Delicate Truth by John le Carré

Late in John le Carré’s new novel A Delicate Truth (2013) comes a passage that, for me anyway, illustrates a thematic difference between his more recent books and his earlier ones.

And from there, he wandered off into an argument with Friedrich Schiller’s grandiose statement that human stupidity was what the gods fought in vain. Not so, in Toby’s opinion, and no excuse for anybody, whether god or man. What the gods and all reasonable humans fought in vain wasn’t stupidity at all. It was sheer, wanton, bloody indifference to anybody’s interests but their own.

This passage crystallizes a general shift in his work, from the traditional moral ambiguities of spy fiction, to the less traditional, but perhaps more relevant, moral certitudes of  the twenty-first century. This shift may have started with The Constant Gardener —  I might claim as much if I were a more careful reader with a better memory – but it’s certainly true of Our Kind of Traitor, and now A Delicate Truth. Le Carré has grown more certain in his voice, and these recent books don’t shy away from taking sides. They pick their heroes, brand their villains, and pit them against each other, making no bones about it. This probably disappoints readers who prefer the gray areas of the Cold War, and particularly those who disagree with le Carré’s leftist ideology. But to me, it still succeeds at a high level, and le Carré remains an eloquent critic of our leaders and institutions, and the perils of standing up to them.

A Delicate Truth opens with an operation in Gibraltar: the apprehension of a suspected jihadist terrorist, mounted by a private-sector security force with nominal British oversight. The mission, supposedly, comes off without a hitch. But years later, the truth starts to come out when now-retired British diplomat, Christopher “Kit” Probyn, is approached by one of the British soldiers who carried out the op. Probyn sees the operation as the crowning achievement of his career, but was it really a success? Meanwhile Toby Bell, an idealistic young politician who worked for the Minister responsible for the job, cottons on to its unseemly nature, and wrestles with how to pursue it. The two men unravel the mystery, their separate paths destined to intersect in a confrontation with an international conspiracy.

While the first chapter felt a bit muddy to me, le Carré’s sure-handed storytelling asserts itself soon after. Once his heroes and their dilemmas are introduced, the plot escalates briskly, leading to a perfectly clocked, chilling conclusion. Le Carré the political critic is definitely in incisive form again, rightly vilifying the British and especially American intelligence worlds and policy-makers. But it’s equally, if more sympathetically, critical of its well-meaning heroes, who for all their bravery and honor come across as naïve, reckless, and short-sighted. They’re no less heroic for it, but the sad truth is that their heroism is even needed.

I don’t think it’s quite le Carré in perfect form. There is the murky opening, and some broad villainy. Also, some late, over-explicated reveals make the mystery resolution somewhat anticlimactic…although part of me wonders if that’s a deliberate point. Have we become so jaded that shocking secrets no longer matter? Does revealing them even lead to meaningful change any more? A Delicate Truth raises these questions masterfully, and leaves one contemplating the dark answers.

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