Book review: Our Kind of Traitor

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Our Kind of Traitor – John le Carré

My rating: ★★★☆☆

The Basics: Whilst on holiday, a young British couple meet a charismatic Russian and quickly befriend him and his family. However his intention to reach out to British intelligence leads them into a dark world of industrial scale money laundering involving the Russian mob, Swiss banks and prominent members of the British establishment.

In-depth: Another month passes and another big screen production of a work of the prolific author John le Carré has come. Upon the recent cinematic release of Our Kind Of Traitor, and being another post Cold War book of his I hadn’t come across, I was keen to see how this story from le Carré set in current times holds up. (I have recently read and reviewed his excellent The Night Manager).

This book is set in 2009, in the immediate aftermath of the recent great financial crash, a topic which not only indirectly influences the plot but also springs up in conversations throughout the novel.

The story is made up of four acts. First a young British couple; Perry, a restless 30 year old professor at the University of Oxford; and Gail, a high flying and beautiful lawyer at a prestigious London law Inn; are on a luxury holiday in Antigua. Through an impromptu game of tennis they meet the wealthy, charming and outspoken Russian called Dima. Dima quickly builds a bond with the young couple, particularly by introducing them to his slightly bizarre family, which includes his religious mute of a wife, Tamara, and among others, his sad, but beautiful young daughter, Natasha, who is constantly hiding in her books.

Dima’s intentions in befriending Perry and Gail have clear intentions from the start however. He wrongly assumes the young couple as British spies and asks them to contact their masters to help him move to safety in London. Describing himself as”the world’s number one money launderer,” Dima believes his secrets will secure him the safety of the protection of the British intelligence services.

Here begin the second act. Shocked, but equally intrigued, by Dima’s assumption of him as a British spy, Perry returns to Oxford and meticulously draws up a document of all Dima has told him. He then seeks out an talent spotting Oxford colleague for a doorway to British intelligence. Suddenly Perry, and Gail, are in the basement of a Bloomsbury town house explaining Dima’s words to two agents.

Their minder and interrogator, Luke, is a young agent with a not so distinguished past. Married with a young son, he feels he is rapidly growing apart from this young family due to past infidelities and the emotional distancing his career has brought. Keen to repair and rebuild his life, and field record, Luke takes Dima’s story to his superior, Hector. With Hector’s arrival an operation to meet and fully hear out what Dima has to offer is hastily arranged through Perry and, at Hector’s insistence, Gail.

This operation is the book’s third act, and takes place at the 2009 Roland Garros tennis final in France. Meeting at the final, which Roger Federer runs away with, Perry and Gail rekindle their friendship with Dima. A tennis rematch between Perry and Dima is arranged for the next day, with Dima being secretly introduced to Hector in the massage rooms. Hidden within the steam, Hector learns of Dima’s reasons to flee and what exactly he has to offer.

This is that Dima has fallen from the favour of a man called the Prince, the head of his Russian mob (the vory). Fearing for his life, after his close friend was murdered in proxy by the Prince, Dima is being strong armed into signing over his substantial banking assets to the Prince and his likely murder. These assets reveal information on money laundering on an industrial scale, involving the vory, Swiss banks and members of the British establishment including the fast rising Audley Longgrigg MP.

Convinced of Dima’s worth as a asset, Hector returns to his masters in London to win the support to move Dima and, as promised by Perry, his entire family to the UK. In the meantime Hector authorises the lifting of Dima, and his family, to a safehouse in the Swiss mountains until his passage to London can be secured. Perry and Gail’s skills in managing Dima and his family become crucial here as tensions rise as London stalls.

Finally Hector succeeds, although not after upsetting a number of interests in politics and high finance. London wants Dima, but at first only him. To tease out his information and story, before granting the leverage of his family safe haven. Struggling to convince Dima, and himself, that this is how British Intelligence services work, Perry escorts Dima to the airport, and leaves him with Luke, boarding an empty, chartered plane.

Here the book dark conclusion arrives. The plane explodes in the sky, killing Luke, Dima and the pilots. Who instigated this remains unexplained, as does the fate of the rest of the stories characters, which is a troubling but effective end to the story.

Overall Our Kind of Traitor is a harsh tale full of growing tension with the feel of an impending and dark conclusion. However I was not expecting such an abrupt one. Le Carré’s earlier masterpieces of course depict the Cold War, but it is refreshing to read a story such as this which doesn’t require this setting. Dipping his toes into the recesses of modern financial crime, the Russian mob and of course, Roger Federer’s backhand, this is a welcome departure from what you’d expect from le Carré.

Have you seen the new film of this novel? Or what is your favourite John le Carré novel? Please leave your comments below.

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Review: Waterloo

Waterloo: The history of four days, three armies and three battles by Bernard Cornwell.

My rating: ★★★★☆

The Basics: An enjoyable and gripping account of one of the most famous battles of the Napoleonic era, which reads so much like a thriller it is at times easy to forget this was Cornwell’s first non-fiction book.

In-depth: The Royal Gallery in the Houses of Parliament is adorned with two giant paintings which depict two major moments in British history and the Napoleonic Wars: the death of Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar and the meeting of the Duke of Wellington and Field Marshall Blücher at the battle of Waterloo. Although I’m late to the bi-centenary anniversary of the battle, it was on June 18 last year, it was after a long look at the latter painting one lunchtime last autumn that I decided I needed to catch up and read an account of this most famous battle. I’ve finally got round to doing so.

Considering many readers will be aware of the battle’s result and its historical consequences, Cornwell still manages to instil an overwhelming sense of drama into this account. The author explains this: “No matter how often I read accounts of that day, the ending is still full of suspense … We might know how it ends, but like all good stories it bears repetition.” Perhaps unsurprisingly from the author of the adventures of Sharpe, Cornwell dramatically charts the proceeding days build up to Waterloo, and the entire battle itself, including the many times where victory seemed so close for l’Empereur.

Cornwell brilliantly brings the historical characters to life. Be that the generals of the armies or the soldiers fighting on the battlefield through their private correspondences. The battle is presented by Cornwell as the first meeting of Europe’s two finest soldiers, the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon. These figures are wonderfully brought to life through tales such as, “He (the Duke) could be sharply witty; long after the wars were over some French officers pointedly turned their backs on him in Paris, for which rudeness a woman apologised. “Don’t worry, Madame,” the Duke said, “I’ve seen their backs before.” Also the leader of the Prussian army, whose eventual arrival on Napoleon’s right flank was central to the outcome of the battle, is introduced as the 72 year old Prince Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher who was famously prone to “bouts of mental illness during which he believed himself pregnant with an elephant fathered by a French infantryman.” Fortunately this delusions did not inflict him on the day.

With Cornwell’s deep military knowledge there is naturally plenty here for military buffs. He makes much of the importance of the geography of the battlefield to its outcome, particularly how it was scouted months before by the Duke of Wellington. The northern, deceptively steep, ridge which the British led forces held throughout the day enabled the Duke to station most of his infantry just behind the top of the hill, thereby shielding them from the murderous artillery of Napoleon’s ‘Grand Battery.’ These were known as Napoleon’s “beautiful daughters” and the sound of their barrages going overhead were wonderfully described by one solider as “being like the noise of a heavy barrel of ale being rolled across a wooden floor above his head.”

The nature of the square formations of Anglo-Dutch infantry is also brought to life in a chapter covering the disastrous mid-afternoon cavalry charges by the French. By forming a square, with sides four men deep, the infantry was able to have a square of bayonets filled with reloading and firing troops which “spat musketry” at the terrified horses. This decimated the French cavalry, which struggled massively in the deep mud caused from the previous evenings heavy rain, for almost no gain and is largely told through the violent memoirs of the soldiers.

In conclusion Cornwell charts the race against time that the battle ultimately became. Napoleon’s forces came remarkably close to overwhelming the British line, victory and winning the road to Brussels but needed to do so by the time the reinforcing Prussian armies fully arrived. The desperate last throw of the dice by Napoleon was to order the advance of his famous Imperial Guard, who were rumoured to never have been defeated and were thus known as ‘the Immortals’, against the supposedly ‘Unbreakables’ which was Wellington’s infantry, whose reputation Napoleon had arrogantly dismissed early in the day. Although these extremes are extenuated by Cornwell this final section, like most of this book, is a real page turner.

Best Quote: “… long after the wars were over some French officers pointedly turned their backs on him (The Duke of Wellington) in Paris, for which rudeness a woman apologised. ‘Don’t worry, Madame,’ the Duke said, ‘I’ve seen their backs before.'”

Have you ever read an account of the Napoleonic Wars? If you have you may also like my review of Andrew Robert’s Napoleon the Great.

Please leave your comments below.

Napoleon the Great

51+Py0MgnYL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_My rating: ★★★★☆

Roberts’ account centres on a romantic account of Napoleon, from modest backgrounds to Emperor, who represented the Enlightenment ideals of rationality, progress and meritocracy. Whilst remarkably realist in painting Napoleon as the socially conservative, middle class, army man that he was, it also takes a positive view of the individual genius that possessed him which briefly awed all of Europe. Another of Roberts’ central points throughout is that many of the legal, cultural and administrative policies of Napoleon, particularly the Napoleonic Code, have endured and long outlived him.

Whilst Roberts’ account of Napoleon as the embodiment of enlightenment ideals is what you would expect from this book’s title, it is often at it’s best when demonstrating the Machiavellian flexibilities Napoleon was capable of.

This is first visible in his acceptance and embracing of the power of France over his native Corsica. His family’s connections to the native Corsican insurgency, from his upbringing in Ajaccio, briefly appears as the most obvious avenue to him, but eventually pales into insignificance against the opportunity afforded to his ambitions by the meritocratic atmosphere of the French Revolution & the chaos of the revolutionary wars.

The book largely centres on Roberts’ painstakingly meticulous analysis of the vast archives of letters that Napoleon produced during his career; and there is also plenty for military buffs with in-depth military studies of each of Napoleons battles and campaigns, something you’d expect from a grand history project such as this. Roberts gives engaging accounts of the near constant wars of the Napoleonic era, demonstrating Napoleons’ often-genuine reluctance for war, but ultimately his own firm belief in his abilities to pull off increasingly audacious victories.

Roberts also excellently captures the many personal relationships Napoleon enjoyed and endured through his life. The most interesting is that between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I of Russia, which verges on looking like a 19th century blueprint for the ruthless games between US President Frank Underwood and his Russian counterpart in series three of House of Cards.

Immediately taken in by the Tsar’s first words of “I shall be your second against England,” Napoleon forever clung to the idea of a possible truce with Russia through out his many battles with her. After a brief friendship forged from the grand summit of Tilsit, and a later attempt by Napoleon to marry into the Romanov bloodline, the Tsar’s appetite for alliance soured dramatically. Roberts pinpoints this largely to Napoleon’s trade-strangling Continental system and his Machiavellian tactics of fostering local support in the East by encouraging a nascent Polish nationalism.

Tsar Alexander I’s biding of time to destroy Napoleon hangs over much of the book and early glimpses of the hubris upon which most popular interpretations on Napoleon are built upon begin to appear. The most obvious comes with the French Emperor’s statement in a letter that French armies could surely overcome any climate or arduous environment, noted during an early pursuit of the Duke of Wellington in the mountains of northern Spain.

Although what is most interesting about Roberts’ account is it’s definitive break with the common mode of interpreting Napoleon as an absolutist ruler with a hubristic ego.

The infamous 1812 Russian campaign is the best example as it receives analysis that goes much further than merely painting the Emperor as hell bent on invading the known world, but is presented as a logical reaction to a long chain of events and influences, many of which were beyond Napoleons’ control. The horrific nature of the campaign, through its never ending marches, murderous weather, ravaging diseases are also masterly captured, culminating in the grand spectacle of the burning of Moscow by it’s inhabitants to snatch it from Napoleon’s grasp, from which his fortunes do not really recover.

Ultimately then this book is a traditional addition to the ‘great man’ canon of history but manages to achieve a remarkable amount of balance. Whilst clearly having a positive view of Napoleon’s un-doubtable achievements and legacy, Roberts’ is obviously not blind to his massive shortcomings. The most central are a lack of appreciation of naval power, particularly after the destruction of the French fleet at Trafalgar, fed by a self-centred belief in the prestige of land armies and battles. This, coupled with the continental system he constructed from the Baltic States around the European Continent’s coastlines to the border of the Ottoman Empire, formed the master plan for a French dominated Europe which strangely ignored the naval, commercial and economic might of his gravest foe against the channel.

It is this balance that makes this book a must, although very long, read for anyone interested in moving their understanding of such an important historical figure like Napoleon beyond the understandably popular bias of him merely as a crazed dictator as well the central point of Roberts’ admiration for Napoleon: that his dramatic rise, fall and legacy demonstrate the ability one individual can have upon history.