|John le Carré|
Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré review – thriller laced with Brexit fury
The master of the spy genre takes aim at Brexit and Trump in a classy entertainment about political ideals and deception
Thursday 17 October 2019
His new novel contains several delicious set pieces of this kind, and each time one gets going there is the sense of a master enjoying himself hugely: the characters themselves seem to become cleverer and wittier as their puppeteer’s dialogic invention takes flight. It can sometimes seem, indeed, as though the rest of the book comprises merely the stuff that has to be efficiently moved into place, just so, in order that these charged conversations become possible.The publicity for Agent Running in the Field has emphasised the fact that this is le Carré’s Brexit novel, and so it is, laced with fury at the senseless vandalism of Brexit and of Trump, and the way the one is driving Britain into the clammy embrace of the other. Cunningly, though, le Carré wrong-foots the reader to a degree by making the character who is a mouthpiece for this criticism a rather annoying, monomaniacal, friendless geek. This is the twentysomething Ed, who befriends our narrator at his badminton club and then, after their weekly games, discourses furiously on the state of the world.
Our narrator, of course, is a spy: Nat, 47, a member of what le Carré used to call “the Circus” but in this book has become “the Office”. Recently returned from running agents under diplomatic cover in Estonia, he is now put out to pasture in an obscure subsection of the service that keeps an eye on Russian affairs but is separate from the powerful Russian desk itself. Nat’s new berth, the Haven, is a decrepit building in a Camden back street, “the Office’s home for lost dogs”. That phrase, and the building’s air of shabby irrelevance, are pleasurably reminiscent of the “slow horses” consigned to Slough House in the excellent modern spy novels about a group of MI5 failures and troublemakers by Mick Herron. Perhaps le Carré is keeping a fond eye on his younger apprentices.
Nat is indulgent of his new friend Ed, partly because he enjoys their badminton games and partly because he feels a fatherly fondness towards him. “I knew the breed,” Nat reflects. “I’d recruited a few. He was geopolitically alert. He was young, highly intelligent within the margins of his fixed opinions.” But Ed’s fury at Brexit is dwarfed by what Nat finds leaking from the higher echelons of the Office: a desperate plan, code-named Jericho, for Britain to retain the good graces of a rogue American administration by doing some very bad things to its former European friends.Lest this all sound too much like a hardcore remainer conspiracy theory, be assured that the novel also contains, like any good James Bond film, a Russian femme fatale. (A veteran spymaster named Valentina, she does all the work with her seductive voice.) Nat, meanwhile, takes a tremendously atmospheric trip to the Czech Republic to meet an old agent of his: Arkady, whom Nat had temporarily turned as a double agent against Putin’s FSB. Their brief reunion is another spectacular set piece and Arkady is one of le Carré’s wonderful cameos: now a self-made kleptocrat living in maximum-security retirement, he sweats and weeps affection, but also hatred, for his former spymaster. Winningly, on Nat’s return home le Carré punctures the rich, nostalgic melodrama of this encounter with a touch of bureaucratic bathos: “London … has reimbursed my travel expenses, but questioned my use of a taxi to the lakeside hotel in Karlovy Vary. It seems there was a bus I could have taken.”
At 288 pages, Agent Running in the Field is a miniature compared with le Carré’s great cold war novels, and it lacks the ruthless clockwork precision of, say, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. But it is a very classy entertainment about political ideals and deception. There is a terrific scene set in a park, in particular, in which we gradually realise that all the bystanders are part of a huge team of “watchers” marshalled by the spies to observe a secret conversation. The author leaves the reader to draw the disturbing inference that this – in the age of ambient corporate and state surveillance by ubiquitous technology – is simply the way we all live now.
• Agent Running in the Field is published by Viking (£20).