It is a spy novel that belongs to the Cold War era. And Le Carre is true to his type – the spy is no hero, he does not have a glamorous life and is not even a winner in life. He comes across as a miserable creäture battling odds and depravity. And if he is to survive, he has to come to terms with a very amoral world.
We have seen shades of this before in narratives of Ashenden by Maugham and spy novels by Graham Greene. In sharp contrast to James Bond, Le Carre holds us a mirror to reflect the grim reality of the shady world, warts and all.
it is the late 60s and Bonn seems to be like a scene of pastoral peace. Yet the political temperature is on the rise – a simmering conflict is the emergence of Far Right politician who wants to move Germany away from the Common Market and engage with Russia instead. The British Embassy is working against time to turn the tide in its favour.
Turner from British Foreign Office turns up in Bonn to look for Leo, a middle rung Embassy official, who is said to be on the run along with key secrets of the Crown. He arrives to foggy, cold and misty weather on the island and finds himself caught in the vortex of people issues. Turner is not popular and certainly not adept at engaging with people. Instead he is one of a kind – a bloodhound who is remorseless in his search for reality. He seems lost for a while as the clues take him nowhere and he is part of a mindless routine. Gradually he senses a fellow being in Leo and becomes ambiguous about his feelings for him.
He ruthlessly exposes inefficiency and sloth in the Embassy bureaucracy but starts to appreciate the tricks that Leo applied to achieve his ends. Leo is an enigma – one without childhood and family, a survivor who doesn’t quite make the cut in the diplomatic circles and one who seems to be a funny man to most people who met him. And yet he has a charmer in him – he successfully seduces sophisticated women to gain advantage. And he is intelligent enough to carry out a professional hunt on the past. Yet he does not get the local political scene at all and is not smart enough to see the turn of the tide. The disconnect must have bothered the writer who chose to paper it over by suggesting that Leo was driven by realism and had no respect for expediency.
Indeed such an attitude would be sheer lunacy as diplomats were looking at the art of possible in straitened circumstances. The inability to cut deals and hedge bets was a sign of pig-headedness and not of being a Statesman. Can end justify means? By the end of the chase, rather than wanting to know the answer we find people do not even want to ask the question.
Turner is in the mould of Le Carre’s character from past novels like Laemas. He comes with the added edge of wanting to survive and live for the next battle. Not much about him is cerebral but he gets full marks for his enthusiasm. Le Carre employs an interesting device to move the story forward – we find Jenny Pargiter, Hazel Bradfield, Cork and Praschko volunteering tons of information to help Turner make sense of the reality. And even Bradfield does a final bow at the confessional to provide us with the parting shot. Indeed it has to be unravelled in this manner for Leo employs skills that seem to be beyond his abilities and Turner has made such a hash of things that we won’t countenance Turner’s divining facts through leaps of faith and reason.