Monday, February 14, 2011

Our Kind Of Traitor - John Le Carre

Our Kind of Traitor moves like clockwork, i.e. slowly, mechanically and all too predictably. There are few surprises in the book and the frequent flash backs and iterations of scenes that we struggled through the first time do nothing to help with the glacial pacing. Le Carre is obviously fascinated by his characters (dim witted British public school boys on the one side and heavy drinking boisterous Russians on the other) but I doubt that anyone else will be. We've seen these people before in every other Le Carre novel and perhaps they were intriguing once, but that once was at least five or six books ago. 
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Basically the story centers around a posh lecturer who meets a Russian mafia chieftain at a posh tennis resort in the Caribbean, and the Russian is so impressed by the lecturer's Hugh Grant act that he decides he wants to defect to Blighty because he likes the "English sense of fair play" (no, I'm not kidding.)
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There are only a few flashes of the old JLC brilliance in Traitor (some nice similes, a wonderful agent handler called Hector, and a sly attack on Harry Potter) but depressingly it looks like Le Carre's glory days of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People are far behind him. Reading JLC one is reminded of the Henry James critic who said that James was oddly obsessed by the tittle tattle and gossip at English tea parties while completely missing the rise of America on the other side of the Atlantic. Le Carre is still obsessed by Russian spies and Russian defectors while Russia slips down the great power rankings year after year so that now (in terms of GDP) it is at #10 in the world behind Canada. The rise of China of course has been the big story of the last decade but Le Carre has hardly noticed. In any case he has already done a Chinese novel, The Honourable Schoolboy, his worst book, set in Hong Kong (but actually still, drearily, all about Russia).
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President Obama picked this as the second of the two novels he took on his Hawaiian vacation. The other was The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet which has everything this book doesn't: intrigue, drama, experimentation and a left field craziness that keeps you on your toes. Our Kind of Traitor, I'm sorry to say, is strictly for Le Carre completists and perhaps for people (you know who you are) who really enjoy long sweaty descriptions of tennis matches.