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John le Carre, at it again, offers up 'The Tailor of Panama': wise and intricate as ever

John le Carre is out with a new novel, "The Tailor of Panama" (Knopf. 334 pages. $25). I had been reading big and serious books, the welcome but laborious burden of my craft. I suddenly found myself surfing, sailing, gliding, doing bits of loops over the pure effortlessness and airy beauty of nonetheless intense, nuanced prose.

What makes le Carre the reigning grand master of espionage fiction? Why is his work - including this newest - so remarkable, so memorable, so compelling? Craft, certainly; he maintains an almost magnificent control of material, pace, dialogue, characterization. He also is a great reporter: Details are perfect even when not entirely convenient.

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But there is something else, more deeply powerful. I think it has to do with the fact that le Carre - or here one should say David Cornwell, his real name - has a profoundly affectionate and implacably decent sense of humankind, despite its hideous flaws.

He is now 65, and this is his 15th novel. He served in Britain's MI-5 security agency and MI-6 espionage service until he was 33 years old. Before he left intelligence operations, he published "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold," his first novel, which introduced the complex, benighted hero, George Smiley, who is neither seen nor remembered here.

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In this book and others, le Carre sees clearly and draws upon the failings and flaws and futilities that bedevil perhaps every human creature, and somehow loves us in spite of it - or perhaps, more wisely, because of those very imperfections and imperfectibility.

Magnetic prose

It's a rough, often nasty world out there, his work always ends up saying, but here we all are, so let's make the best of what we've got.

I will restrain from spoiling the tale, but a major delight of his new book is the constant unfolding of little surprises, which cumulatively draw you further and further inside.

The structure is this: At first glance, people, circumstances, surroundings are very pleasant - fairly simple, though not boring, and really quite nice. Very gradually, very subtly, entirely convincingly, these people, circumstances and surroundings are unmasked, peeled, revealed.

The reader is pulled further and further inside. Everything becomes much more complicated, much more human, much more believable - and in most cases either absolutely abominable or unbearably pathetic. A drama of politics and espionage, waged in very mundane, practical manners - with no magic tricks or dei ex machina - is meanwhile building in both intensity and ominousness.

Every bit of this could be said of almost all of le Carre's previous books. But - largely because he is a superb, scalpel-acute reporter - every book is fresh, its own story.

This one is set in Panama, with a few background-sketching dips into London and environs. British espionage agents dominate the foreground, as ever. The object is to put Britain in a position to manipulate, to have its international interests protected, in Panama as the United States' franchise there runs out in 1999. Subplots abound, but that is the armature tale.

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The premise, of course, is that naive, immature America - in this case personified by a hopelessly infantile Jimmy Carter - has given away the Panama Canal. That necessitates raids by sophisticated world interests, since any sentient human being would recognize that Panama itself was not going to turn into a democracy, much less a responsible democracy. So into the face of the inevitable thugocracy must come Canny Britain, world trader, to protect not only its own international commerce but that of the United States as well.

As the senior British "espiocrat" expresses it midway through the book, "We're the last of the Romans. We have the knowledge but they have the power." "They" of course, are the United States - or anybody else who is well armed and in sight.

Le Carre slowly, deftly peels away facades, strips away translucent layers of pretense, formalities, indulgences, hypocrisy. This pursuit of truth reveals a Panama and an expatriate community that is profoundly cruel, unredeemably corrupt, vicious, unforgiving.

Flawed heroes

The central character, Harry Pendel, is proprietor of Panama City's top tailor shop, a sort of tradesman-confidant of presidents and plotters, revolutionaries and rotters.

To tell much more could spoil the tale. But there is no surprise that Pendel is a classic le Carresque hero: dark-fated, intricately flawed.

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A wondrously effective device of le Carre's, which operates in this book as in others, is that as the plot and characterization unfold, most people become less lovable as they become more human. The exceptions are sad heroes, who evolve inversely.

Finally, le Carre writes a furious yet somehow wistful dirge for human competence. He puts that quite beautifully near the end of this book: "Our power knows no limits, yet we cannot find food for a starving child or a home for a refugee. ... Our knowledge is without measure, and we build the weapons that will destroy us. ... We live on the edge of ourselves, terrified of the darkness within. ... We have harmed, corrupted, and ruined, we have made mistakes and deceived."

And yet, hope lies, however latent, in those very failings, in the perception of them, in the indomitability of the human capacity to care.

Late in the book, Pendel, speaking to himself, says: "Everything in the world is true if you invent it hard enough and love the person it is for."

There would be no harm or fault taking that as metaphor for LeCarre's work. If so, intrepid readers, he clearly loves us all.

Pub Date: 10/20/96



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