Le Carre finds villainy in the British bureaucracy as well as the arms trade



John le Carre


428 pages; $24 In his 14th book, "The Night Manager," John le Carre demonstrates once again that he is not only the pre-eminent espionage writer in the world but one of the important contemporary English novelists. Although the Cold War provides the ostensible subject of much of his fiction, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism have by no means diminished the power and relevance of his work. Unlike most of the hacks who toil in the field, he doesn't need the cheap paranoia of a Red under every bed -- he can write a compelling and eloquent spy novel without resorting to mawkish jingoism, easy oppositions and simple melodrama.

"The Night Manager" continues Mr. le Carre's study of the secret world of intelligence organizations and his interpretation of their symbolic meaning for his country and, by extension, ours as well. In the new book he explores the international trade in military hardware, the illegal transport and sale of weapons and equipment by wealthy and respected capitalists to Third World nations, drug kingpins and assorted terrorists. The narrative of the efforts of a small intelligence department and one gifted agent to defeat a rich and powerful arms merchant becomes both means and metaphor for examining the absolute failure of British power, traditions and values.

The novel echoes some of the author's previous work, at times with a sense of summation, finality and closure. Most immediately, some of its people and themes grow out of such recent books as "The Secret Pilgrim" and "A Perfect Spy," for example, while other elements reach as far back as the work that propelled him to international fame, "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold." Perhaps more important, it alludes to numerous other writers, such as Dickens, Hardy, Evelyn Waugh and Fitzgerald in the long tradition of fiction about the evil behind great fortunes and great names, and the cruelty behind distinctions of wealth and class.

The title refers quite literally to Jonathan Pine, who enters the story in the position of night manager of the grand Hotel Meister in Switzerland. In that capacity, he encounters Richard Onslow Roper, a charming multimillionaire arms dealer whom Pine regards as "the worst man in the world," in part because of his involvement in the brutal killing of a woman Pine had loved. A department of the British secret services enlists Pine in an immensely complicated scheme to bring Roper to justice; the agent's extended preparation and training, the elaborate creation of background, the careful attention to detail, satisfyingly provide much of the novel's substance.

The author writes knowledgeably about dozens of subjects, from the sale of arms to the preparation of gourmet meals, from the habits of plutocrats to the behavior of bureaucrats (in fact, he coins a term, espiocrats, for those who administer intelligence agencies), and paints scenes of all sorts of geography, from Luxor to Panama, Cornwall to the Caribbean. He writes most persuasively and movingly, of course, about those themes that haunt all his books -- love and loyalty, identity and betrayal, the pettiness and venality of governments, the utter corruption of the British ruling classes.

Jonathan Pine's fidelity to a dead woman impels him not only toward revenge but to another love and a full sense of his own identity; he discovers that in the secret world "the last secret is yourself."

Aside from following the difficulties of Jonathan Pine's adventures, the novel reveals the Byzantine complexities of governmental infighting among the espiocrats, who account for as much of the villainy as the arms dealers. The author suggests that Western governments, controlled by bloated capitalists, provide the weapons that are then used against the military services of those same governments -- a proposition most recently proved by the gulf war. He further suggests that the people who rule England, whether through hereditary privilege or governmental office, have betrayed their nation, not to some external enemy or ideology but simply out of their own apparently limitless capacity for corruption.

One of the "good" (and quite naive) characters in the novel, a dedicated civil servant, espouses the traditional belief in his nation: "This is still England. We are good people. Things may go amiss from time to time, but sooner or later honor prevails and the right forces win." That statement sums up as well as any the tacit assumptions of English fiction, which John le Carre shows no longer operate in today's world.

The author continues to display penetrating insight and broad sympathy for virtually all his characters. He understands the loneliness of the abandoned child, which he has written about with compassion in several novels, including this one. He can evoke a little pity for a sneaky informant and even a touch of admiration for his hateful villain; he sees people, even bad people, all the way around, and has the courage to present them fully.

After nearly 30 years and 14 books, Mr. le Carre continues to express both sadness and outrage at the actions of governments of all kinds, particularly his own, against their people. He maintains the perception that enabled him to build so distinguished a career and he continues to write beautifully about the possibilities and failures of love and humanity in a world hostile to both. In the greatest traditions of British novelists, he wonders who will inherit England and realizes that the nation has already been won by the worst, the dullest and the most corrupt. He has aged and developed, but he has not, thank goodness, mellowed.

Dr. Grella teaches English at the University of Rochester. He has written extensively about the thriller.

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