John le Carré, Agent Running in the Field. Viking Penguin hardback, 2019
This was another novel passed on to me by Mrs TD. She thought I’d like something less arduous after the rigours of Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries.
She was right, I did; Agent Running is an entertaining, tautly plotted spy thriller by the master of the genre, still doing the business in his 88th year. But its complex, twisting, hall-of-mirrors plot takes some attentive reading or the thread is lost. The Iron Curtain has gone, but Moscow centre remains a threat to western interests. The cold war has become a cold world, where enemies and friends are no longer distinguishable.
It’s been described as le Carré’s Brexit novel. True, Britain’s controversial departure from the EU after a contentious referendum three years ago, the result of which, a narrow victory for leave, has divided the country catastrophically, is a central theme in the novel. Interestingly, le Carré puts the most forthright, angry response to the result into the mouth of one of the more annoying, unattractive characters.
This is Ed, a callow, awkward young man who challenges the protagonist, the former ‘runner’ of agents in the field, the half-Russian half-Scots spy, Nat, to a game of badminton at Nat’s Battersea sports club. Nat is forty-seven, just back from what seems to be his swan-song in the field (excuse my hideous mixed metaphor): running agents under diplomatic cover in Estonia. Back in London he’s been given the kind of job he dreads: unexciting, low-status bureaucracy in a dingy Camden house, base for a subsection of ‘the Office’ (it’s no longer Smiley’s Circus) unflatteringly described as ‘a home for lost dogs’. Nat’s been put out to pasture, and he hates it.
So he’s not entirely unhappy when things hot up. The novel takes a while to get going, I found, but there are some stirring set pieces and an exciting last third.
One of the most bracing sections takes place in Karlovy Vary (formerly Carlsbad) in the Czech Republic. I wonder if this is a phonetic nod at one of his most famously ambivalent villains, Karla? Nat goes there to meet the former double agent he once ran to pump him for information on the complex plot he’s beginning to uncover. Arkady is now a stereotypical former Soviet agent turned crook, living in a heavily guarded enclave to protect his stash of ill-gotten loot and even dodgier lifestyle.
Other dramatic scenes involve what le Carré does so well: codenamed projects and (double- or triple-) agents, dead-letter drops and covert operations in crowded urban locations, surveillance with a hundred field observers in disguise, field craft carefully observed ‘by the book’ enacted by the participants being watched, secretly filmed and listened to. Their conversations are as encoded as their encrypted, invisibly palimpsest written communication.
The main weak point for me were the not-too-convincing characters of Nat and his wife Prue, a rather cardboard cut out liberal-left pro bono lawyer, a supporter of anti-Big Pharma and other noble lost causes. The other was Nat’s obtrusive, present-tense, first-person narrative that gives the game away from the start about the main plot twist.
He’s the typically morally compromised le Carré hero, but far less engaging or sympathetic than that long line of jaded, spiritually and emotionally wounded spooks, from Leamas to Smiley, all looking for some kind of meaning in the murk. And why does Nat hint that the beautiful young probationer agent Florence working with him might have been a lover of his had he put his mind to it? Come on, Nat. You shouldn’t believe all that Richard Burton stuff you like to muse on in the HR file you obviously scrutinise carefully.
Nat’s is a world of duplicitous motives, state-sanctioned mendacity, shifting loyalties, multiple betrayals and evanescent morality. It’s now everyday life in Brexit Britain.