Our Game by John le Carré
My rating: ★★★★☆
Warning: This post contains plot spoilers.
The Basics: Tim Cranmer’s life, of an idyllic retirement winemaking in Somerset, is turned upside down when the love of his life and a spy who he used to ‘run’ in the Cold War disappear. Cranmer’s search for them becomes increasingly desperate and drawn into the dangerous nationalist politics of post-Soviet Russia and the Caucasus.
In-depth: Our Game pits Tim Cranmer, a former intelligence officer of ‘the Office’, in a fraught and brooding chase of the former cold warrior spy Larry Pettifer. Their long supposed friendship, starting at Winchester College and then Oxford University, is revealed to have produced Cranmer’s eventual recruitment of Larry and sees their lives dangerously and confusingly overlap.
When Larry disappears from Bath University, where he had been consigned to retirement from operations after the fall of the Berlin wall, Cranmer receives a late night visit from detectives digging into his whereabouts.
However it not only Larry who has disappeared. Cranmer’s love, the young and beautiful Emma, has also fled with him. Flash backs reveal an unpleasant love triangle where Larry’s eccentric intellectualism attracts the malleable Emma away from the dull practicality of Cranmer. One of the darkest quotes of the book is when Larry explains this by merely stating “You stole my life, so I stole your girl.”
Throwing the police off the scent by pleading ignorance, Cranmer visits his former secret service ‘Office’ to discover that Larry has also disappeared with £37 million of Russian money, in cahoots with a Russian operator he previously deceived on behalf of the Office. This raises misplaced, but uncomfortable, questions for Cranmer about whether he was part of this theft, forcing him into a race against time and authority to get to the bottom of the disappearance.
One of the most intriguing elements of this novel is the fact that although the book is written from the first person perspective of Cranmer, his interpretation of himself is of multiple men and often slips into the third person. The reader feels that the character’s grasp of himself is slipping. This become more pronounced as Cranmer follows Larry’s dangerous footsteps.
The trail leads Cranmer to Bristol, where he identifies Larry and Emma’s abandoned love nest, re-discovering his idealism for downtrodden national rights in the Caucasus. Larry’s theft to fund a radical group of Ossetians rebels in their cause is identified as a punishment for the weak willed West, who refused to intervene or help in this higher cause, as much as for Russia’s brutal history of persecution in the region.
These memories lead Cranmer through a bloody trail via Macclesfield, Paris, Moscow and eventually to the Caucasian mountains. This journey has consequences which detach Cranmer from any possible return to a free or happy life. In Paris he finally acknowledges Emma no longer cares for him and has returned to her previous life, whilst waiting lovingly for Larry to return. However Larry himself is discovered to have been killed as part of a rebellion which leads to Cranmer lament:
“A dead man is the worst enemy alive, I thought. You can’t alter his power over you. You can’t alter what you love or owe. And it’s too late to ask him for his absolution. He has you beaten all ways up.”
It is at this point when Cranmer, with nothing but a vacuum of a life, completes his journey in becoming the man he has been chasing and taking up arms to join the rebellion he has infiltrated. The perplexing question this ending left me was whether this was a journey, to essentially become Larry, Cranmer wanted to make from the beginning?
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