Book review: The Mission Song

416D4pOM-ZLMy rating: ★★★★☆

Warning this review contains some plot spoilers.

The Basics: An expert interpreter of the indigenous languages of Eastern Congo, Bruno Salvador, is recruited to help facilitate a meeting of the various warring camps in the region. However, whilst eaves dropping on the meeting’s fringes, Salvador hears troubling plans which tears him between his dual loyalties to his African homeland and the British intelligence services he proudly serves.

In-depth: Aside from John le Carré’s most famous books, based on the Cold War and it’s spies, there is also a lesser known body of work which are just as able to thrill their readers. The Mission Song is an excellent and central part of this body. It focuses on the profession of language interpreters, who act as “a bridge” between those who otherwise would have little way of communicating. Le Carré’s journey into this profession is through his creation of Bruno Salvador.

Salvador (aka Salvo) is a languages expert of Central Africa, including several “dying” languages, whose skills garner profitable work for British corporations, law firms and eventually it’s Government.

A physical manifestation of Catholic original sin, Salvo’s father was a Catholic missionary and his mother, an unknown (to him) Congolese woman, gives him a hybrid nature which leads to his racial description by several characters as a “zebra”. This description soon comes to represent Salvo’s central struggle between his loyalties to his romantic childhood homeland of Africa and his adopted home of Europe.

Recruited by the British Government to aid negotiations between several opposing parties from the Eastern Congo, Salvo is dragged into a world of intrigue well beyond his understanding. Flown to an unknown island in the North Sea, with a comic rabble of public schoolboy crusaders, ex British special forces and cockney ‘fixers’, Salvo unwittingly becomes a part of arranging a military coup in Congo.

This aims to install a populist leader for the benefit of the shadowy multinational corporate “Syndicate” which is the organising force behind the negotiations. Vast profits from the many valuable natural resources bestowed on Congo are the motivation, but are loosely masked by high minded promises of the figurehead leader to prioritise all of the Congo’s people’s needs, rather than just it’s elites.

Salvo, and indeed possibly the reader, is initially convinced of the righteousness of this seemingly benevolent mission. It’s most naïve, but gripping defence, is from the chief mercenary tasked with delivering the coup, the wonderful character of Maxie, who monologues the Congo’s bloody history of exploitation:

“Fucked by the Arab slavers, fucked by their fellow Africans, fucked by the United Nations, the CIA, the Christians, the Belgians, the French, the Brits, the Rwandans, the diamond companies, the gold companies, half the world’s carpet-baggers, their own government in Kinshasa and any minute now they’re going to be fucked by the oil companies … Time they had a break, and we’re the boys to give it to ’em.”

However, whilst listening in on the fringes of the bugged meeting, Salvo discovers the true corrupt aim. He also hears the torture the Syndicate are prepared to inflict to secure their desired ends. Pushed to his breaking point, Salvo’s instinctive good drives him into the dangerous act of stealing evidence of this planned coup and pitting himself against his original British employers.

From here The Mission Song moves into the usual le Carré race against time and chasing authorities. However, keen to avoid spoiling the book’s entire plot and finale for any potential readers, I will conclude that the characters and story telling devices le Carré uses to get here means The Mission Song is a part of his wider work well worth reading. It is also a superbly paced novel which is easy to race through in a very short space of time and forms one of his several novels based primarily in Africa. Next up for me in this trip is The Constant Gardner.

Thanks for reading and please do leave any comments below.

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Book review: Project Fear

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Project Fear by Joe Pike

My rating: ★★★★☆

The Basics: A blow by blow account of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum campaign, focussing on the inner workings of the Better Together side and the effects of the result.

In-depth: Joe Pike’s Project Fear is a fascinating and very readable account of the 2014 referendum campaign. With another referendum on independence being mooted in Scotland it is worthy reminder of the campaign, it’s main events and just how much has changed since and because of it.

Focussing first on the inner workings on the Better Together side, particularly it’s staffing, media strategies and political leadership. The book’s title takes it’s name from the label which was originally self attributed to the No campaign. However this soon became a derogatory term for it’s relentlessly negative campaign based on highlighting the risk, especially economic risk, of voting yes to independence.

The incredibly fast pace of this account, as written by a journalist caught up in the events, is a thrilling insight into the exhausting and relentless democratic process of a major referendum campaign. Individual characters within Scottish Labour make up much of the cast, with the reluctant leader of the campaign Alistair Darling, coming under the most scrutiny.

Some of the books most interesting passages come on the TV debates held between Darling and Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP. Here the preparations of the media and press attaches of the No campaign make for a great read, especially with Pike’s personal insights of who exactly was playing Salmond in the mock preparations for example.

Ultimately, as the books full title documents, the No campaign won – just – but the result had some very divisive effects. The second half looks at the soon realised legacy of the referendum: the near extinction of Scottish Labour at the 2015 General Election. Here the focus of Pike’s account shifts from Darling to Jim Murphy, the Leader of the Scottish wing of the Labour Party tasked with navigating the election. The incessant plotting, infighting and unawareness of just how bad it was going to get makes this second half in fact the more interesting part of the book – but on an admittedly very niche topic.

On the whole this is a highly readable account of a referendum campaign which seems like it was an age ago, given recent events, as well as highly relevant due to the possibilities of a rerun of an independence referendum.

Book review: We

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We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

My rating: ★★★★☆

Warning: this review contains plot spoilers.

The Basics: In the future dystopian ‘One State’ D-503, the chief engineer on a space programme, begins a journal of his experiences. He soon comes into contact with I-330, a woman who he immediately falls madly in love with. Struggling with uncontrollable emotions D-503 is brought into conflict with the principles of the nightmarish urban society of One State and its mathematical dictates for ‘happiness.’

In-depth: We is often touted as the first great dystopian novel of the 20th century and it’s influence upon the later, and more famous, novels Brave New World and 1984 is not difficult to see. Also the fact that the book was banned upon its completion in 1921 by a fledgling Soviet Union (until the late 1980s) adds to its mythical allure and its satirical and historical value.

We‘s setting is an urban society many centuries in the future where the equalitarian One State has cut it’s self off from the natural world with a walled city of people only identifiable by numbers. Led by ‘the Benefactor,’ a supreme leader ‘elected’ unopposed every year, all citizens wear the same clothes, called unifs, and live in glass buildings where their every moment can be monitored by the state police known as the Bureau of Guardians.

The level of detail Zamyatin imagines in We is astonishing, down to the daily timetables where every hour of the individuals day is dictated by One State. Even sexual intercourse is regulated with individuals having pink tickets which they clock in with their sexual partners at allotted times. Only during this hour is the all out assault on privacy relieved by blinds to cover the glass buildings which house all inhabitants of One State.

D-503 descent into a love fuelled obsession with I-330 brings him into the embrace of a growing revolution within One State. This aims at smashing down the Wall which separates the state from the rest of the world, an Eden like natural wonder full of other human coated in thick hair, and to overthrow the Benefactor.

Some of We‘s most terrifying moments are when D-503’s emotionally instable actions are assigned by One State logic as a symptom of their greatest threat to happiness: possessing a soul. The official solution of One State is a lobotomy of the brain to remove the imagination and any misguided conception of freedom which threatens the happiness of One State’s mathematical logic.

However, even with this, We is no where near as brooding or dark as Orwell’s 1984. The Benefactor is a much more human figure than the omnipresent Big Brother of 1984, even telephoning D-503 at one point demanding him to get to his office. One State’s surveillance, whilst widespread and pervading, does not carry the same malicious threat present on every single page of 1984.

We is also a rather clunky novel, naturally dominated by its arrangement as a diary by the central character, which is sometimes difficult to follow. Its plot is also at times quite muddled with the consequences of some of D-503’s actions often merely disappearing for narrative ease.

Despite this We is above all a fascinating novel for any reader interested in dystopias. It also offers an insight into the thinking behind the twentieth century’s descent into authoritarian dictatorships written just before this history occurred.

What is your favourite dystopian novel? Please leave your comments below.

Book review: John le Carré The Biography

41nopbf0hjl__ac_ul320_sr210320_John le Carré: The Biography by Adam Sisman

My rating: ★★★★★

This book is a unlikely triumph. It sees the life of one of the most famously secretive authors of the last fifty years, John le Carré, documented in extensive detail by the unrelenting biographer Adam Sisman.

It is a warts and all look at David Cornwell’s (his real name) life, which naturally looks at each of his volume of books but also delves into highly personal areas such as his troubled and lonely childhood, extra marital affairs and financial arrangements to avoid large tax payments.

The main figure who dominates Cornwell’s early life is his father, Ronnie, who was a charming, but manipulative, conman regularly in severe financial trouble often fleeing from one part of the country to another to avoid the authorities.

The most insightful element of this biography comes from the tension Cornwell experienced in his public school days between his elite (and in his opinion, abusive) education, which was aimed at upholding the social and moral values of a British upper class still then ruling an Empire, and the underhand and morally dubious lifestyle he’d experienced growing up under his father’s tutelage. For an individual capable of putting on the cloaks of different characters to emerge from this is hardly surprising and these behaviours are presented as the reasoning behind his entry into the world of intelligence and spying.

It is at times easy to forget this is actually about the real life of the author, and not one of his many wonderful, self deceiving plots which his life has so clearly influenced. Sisman drawing of parallels between these Cornwell’s life and art is very insightful for any fan of le Carré’s. His drive to write began when he was working at MI5 where he quickly realised that the world of intelligence was not all it cracked up to be. In his own words:

“I began writing because I was going mad with boredom … not the apathetic, listless kind of boredom that doesn’t want to get out of bed in the morning, but the screaming, frenetic sort that races round in circles looking for real work and finding none.”

After his early books, written whilst still working at MI5 with their permission to publish, Sisman looks at the worldwide success of le Carré’s most famous novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, and how it utterly changed his life beyond recognition. Fame, wealth and the freedom from a day job gradually led to his estrangement from his wife Ann and a much needed distancing from his overbearing father.

Sisman casts a sceptical eye over the life of a man all too ready to reinvent situations and stories from his own life for dramatic effect. Often Cornwell’s version of events are contrasted to other’s views or, where possible, the facts.

Each book is analysed via the author’s writing process, development of the plot and characters and his surprisingly sensitive reactions to the critical receptions to them. Some of the best parts are little hints to Cornwell’s past in character’s name and habits as well as more substantial analysis such as the men who lie behind characters as famous as George Smiley.

There are also excellent insights into the field work le Carré carries out, when he travels to the setting of the story and essential imagines himself as his lead character to help research and write the book. He first tried this for The Honourable Schoolboy, the second book of his famous Smiley-Karla trilogy, travelling to Hong Kong. There he was put in touch the Washington Post journalist David Greenway and posing as his photographer shadowing around the region researching his lead character Jerry Westerby, a journalist. Assumingly during this period photos taken by Cornwell accompanied Greenway’s pieces in the Post attributed to ‘Janet Leigh Carr’ to which Greenway received an angry letter from his editor saying that he was married and shouldn’t be travelling around Asia with a young female photographer.

What emerges from this biography is a picture of an author who is addicted to writing, quelling his restlessness through it, and blending his own life with his art to dramatic effect. Delving into this most interesting of lives, brilliantly documented by Sisman, is a journey well worthwhile for any le Carré fan.

You can read my reviews of a number of John le Carré novels here. Please leave your comments below.

Book review: Gorky Park

417fqcppgzl-_sx326_bo1204203200_Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

The Basics: Three frozen bodies, mutilated beyond identification, are found in Gorky Park in central Moscow. Chief Homicide Investigator, Arkady Renko, is handed the case which quickly begins to grow into dangers beyond his comprehension.

In-depth: One of my favourite genres is the last year has been historical fiction. Whether it be full on alternate history, such as the nightmarish rule of Britain by a victorious Nazi Germany, in C. J. Sansom’s wonderfully detailed Dominion, or the violent paranoia of the Soviet Union in Tom Rob Smith’s excellent Child 44 series, such ideas are breeding grounds for great fiction. It was a happy accident then when I stumbled upon Gorky Park, which in all honesty I thought was a new novel, but was actually first published in 1981, as it helped to lay the ground for this type of exhilarating, historical fiction.

Gorky Park sees a beleaguered, chain smoking detective, Arkady Renko, setting out to find the killer behind a brutal triple murder in Moscow’s Gorky Park. It is 1979 and the run-down, paranoid and austere nature of Moscow is offered in frankly amazing detail. As are it’s many brilliant characters. However it is Renko that is the main attraction with his deep personal flaws, including his waning health, rapidly deteriorating marriage and lack of faith in party dogma, which are starkly contrasted with his professional brilliance at his job as a homicide investigator. Think Cracker, but in the Soviet Union in the ’70s.

Without spoiling the plot, Renko’s initial enthusiasm to palm the case off to a notoriously violent rival at the KGB on procedural grounds, is replaced by his increasing obsession with it due to progress in his investigation. The build up of the plot is dark and brooding. Renko is subtly drawn into a dangerous world of institutional rivalry and vested cross border political and economic interests to the detriment of his own personal relationships and safety.

The second part of the novel, which follows the case and abandons the terrifying darkness and loneliness of communist Moscow to move abroad, does admittedly stretch the plot’s creditability almost to breaking point. However the sheer imaginative depth of this novel and its characters is quite something as is, I imagine, is the 1983 film based upon it. That’s now my next to watch.

What is your favourite historical fiction novel? Or how you read any of the other ‘Renko’ novels by Martin Cruz Smith? Please leave your comments below.

Citizen Clem: A biography of Attlee

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The Basics: John Bew’s epic biography of Clement Attlee looks at what drove a shy man from London’s suburbs to transform the Labour Party and post-war Britain.

In-depth: Bew’s brilliant book focusses on Clement Attlee the man and not just the famous, radical 1945-51 Governments he led, which have dominated other historical accounts due to their monumental achievements, including the creation of the NHS and the modern welfare state.

Despite achievements such as these, Attlee was always very reluctant to speak of his personal ideology or belief systems and was a remarkably shy, awkward man with limited public speaking skills. The author therefore notes there is no real legacy of an ‘Attlee-ism,’ stating:

“It is hard to think of another politician who reached such prominence and gave so little away.”

The author takes aim to discover the central ethos which drove Attlee through his long, illustrious and successful life. Bew’s identification of this is, like Attlee himself, rather simple at face value: a strong attachment to patriotism, a desire to improve the health and goodwill of all of the population and an emphasis on citizenship and civic duty in maintaining this.

The methodology behind this book focusses on analysing Attlee’s reading habits at any given time to gain an insight into his thoughts, ideas and actions. This takes us through the patriotism of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry, the socialist utopianism of William Morris and H. G. Wells and most intriguingly, during his overseeing of the ending of British imperial rule in India, Attlee’s immersion in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Initially some of the insights into Attlee’s private readings seem a little tenuous, but it is a methodology which Bew persists with due to the innate privacy of Attlee.

These readings take us through his upbringing in a comfortable, middle class home in Putney, through his service in the horrors of the Gallipoli campaign in the First World War, to his induction in Labour Party politics on the streets of Limehouse campaigning against communist agitators and Oswald Mosley’s fascist brownshirts. Attlee’s stint as a junior minister in Ramsey MacDonald’s minority Labour government is also shown as being vital to his eventual success. Although Labour was nearly wiped out in the 1931 election, Attlee survived in his Limehouse seat and took on great responsibility in the parliamentary rump which remained before becoming the party’s leader, undoubtedly due to his rivals underestimating him, in 1935.

Naturally the chapters on the Second World War, and Labour and Attlee’s contribution to the coalition government which led Britain through it, dominate much of this book. It is here where one of the chief criticisms of Attlee identified by Bew feels most tangible: that he was merely a  lucky man caught up in massive historic events which he benefited from being around but did not necessarily influence. Bew convincingly challenges this interpretation head on.

This decision to take Labour into a national government with Churchill at Britain’s hour of need was Attlee’s proudest achievement in his life as a “volunteer, soldier and politician” and one that he saw primarily as a patriotic responsibility, rather than through the narrow gaze of party politics which quickly disappeared in the life and death circumstances of 1940. It was this honest patriotism, as well as the excellent personal and working relationships between Attlee and Churchill during the war, which helped to secure Attlee’s popularity and trustworthiness which became so appealing to the country in 1945.

The chapters of the 1945 election, where Attlee unexpectedly swept away Churchill and the Conservative party, are a real treat. Bew identifies the infamous party election broadcast when Churchill suggested that a Labour government and “state socialism could not be established without some form of Gestapo to enforce it,” and Attlee’s typically calm and measured dismissal of it, as a key deciding factor for the war weary electorate. Bew even cites, “A young conservative supporter called Margaret Thatcher, a student at Somerville College in Oxford, later recalled listening to the nation’s hero and thinking, ‘he’s [Churchill] gone too far’.

The themes which Bew focuses on during Attlee’s radically reforming Governments are the constant infighting within the Labour Party which he expertly managed and nullified, as well as the dire economic circumstances of post-war Britain, memorably described by J. M. Keynes as a ‘financial Dunkirk, through which he still was able to lead genuinely sweeping changes. A key trait of Attlee’s, married to his patriotism and arguably un-socialist like prioritisation of Britain’s national self interest, was his firm attachment to the importance of Anglo-American relations. Interestingly this worked both ways as he was able to secure Britain’s place as a world power, with his incessant lobbying of America to share its nuclear weapons secrets with Britain, as well as constructing a welfare state as a new social contract for Britain’s citizens broadly along the lines of Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ for the USA in the 1930s. This moved his Labour Government away from European models of state socialism and communism.

The books ends with a historiographic look at Attlee’s legacy within the Labour Party. The author observes that many in the Party no longer attempt to understand Attlee and his popularity due to a left wing bias or “sneer” against his rather simplistic, but popular, patriotism. Another common gripe, visibly demonstrated in the Party throughout this book, was that he was ‘not left wing enough’ and missed the historic opportunity for a full socialist revolution in England in 1945. Such purists had little time for Attlee’s moderate social democracy. This eerily brings Bew’s account up to the current internal conflicts, regarding a sense of socialist purity or the importance of compromise, within the Labour Party.

What are your favourite books on 20th century British history? Please leave your comments below.

Review: The Silent Deep

cover_jpg_rendition_460_707The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945 – Peter Hennessy & James Jinks

My rating: ★★★★☆

The  UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent, delivered by four Vanguard-class submarines, is a hot topic that was recently debated and scheduled for renewal by Parliament. This has reopened deeply passionate and dividing debates which centre around the nuclear deterrent’s morality, cost, operational worth and its reflection of Britain’s place in the world. Within today’s increasingly fear laden global security arena these complex debates are afforded an emphatically thorough historical perspective by this behemoth of a book which looks at the history of the Royal Navy’s Submarine Service since the Second World War.

The book opens with the authors observing the Royal Navy’s famous “perisher” training course, renowned for it’s low pass rate, for potential Commanding Officers of submarines. It largely consists of war games off of the Scottish coast, where the recruits are pushed to their mental and physical limits by carrying out fictional missions with the main aims to evade capture and survive unnoticed. One memorable passage sees a senior officer, who observes and evaluates the officers performances, recognise the deadly trait of hesitation. His reaction is to send for the chef to bring in a raw steak from the kitchen and suggests the recruit should “eat more red meat” to improve their decision making.

After this humorous introduction the book then moves into its main focus on the history of the U.K. Submarine Service. The biggest shift identified since 1945 is the transfer of responsibility for the UK’s nuclear weapons from the Royal Air Force to the Royal Navy. This was born from the increasingly important role submarines played in WW2 and the subsequent race of the superpowers to develop nuclear powered submarines in the 1950s. This revolutionised them into highly effective weapons able to operate undetected for very long periods of time in the ‘silent deep’ of the oceans.

The so-called ‘Special Relationship’ between the USA and the UK is a key part of this history. In 1958 the head of the Royal Navy, Lord Mountbatten of Burma, secured a bilateral nuclear treaty which saw the US give Britain all of its nuclear submarine technologies as well as the sale of a nuclear reactor kit to Rolls Royce and their customer the Royal Navy. This was achieved by Mountbatten’s courting of the “father of the nuclear US navy” Admiral Hyman Rickover, who was famously rude to his British counterparts, but was ultimately tolerated due to the need for his cooperation for the British to become a nuclear power.

Another common incidence through out this book is that by the time expensive, once cutting edge technology makes it into service it is almost obsolete due to the long term nature of constructing nuclear submarines and their weapons. The lifetimes of the UK’s submarines are planned for decades in the future, but this cycle obviously then has to restart to keep the deterrent credible and crucially for the UK ‘independent.’

One of the most thrilling passages of this book centres on the summit where this independence was stretched to its breaking point. In December 1962 the UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and the youthful US President John F. Kennedy met in Nassau, Bahamas for tense negotiations over the sale of the new Polaris missile system, which enabled nuclear warheads to be stored and fired from submarines, to the UK. Macmillan managed to secure a generous price for Polaris but was met with the American request that the deterrent be placed under the ultimate control of NATO causing great political unease to the British government. After much negotiation and playing with words, brilliantly charted by the authors,  Macmillan secured the last minute qualification which maintained British national control in “severe national emergencies” akin to 1940. British Sovereignty, in a way, was upheld.

After this the book looks at the Cold War and the constant underwater battles with the USSR. A notable anecdote recalls an operation in 1964 where there were strong disagreements between the Foreign Office and the Admiralty about how close patrolling submarines should go to Russian waters. In light of this one officer describes his Commanding Officer, “a man with no respect for the Russians who patrolled as close to the coast as possible preferably with the radio aerial up so he could listen to the test match.” Breathtaking, but hilarious, arrogance in retrospect.

However the Submarine Service become much more covert and through out the 1970s and 80s the warfare evolved into cat and mouse like battles of nerve. The best description of this Cold War is from a former UK submariner:

“Since using even conventional offensive weapons could easily precipitate horrible and uncontrollable geopolitical consequences, undersea warriors measured victory in terms of surveillance, detection and constant monitoring. If you knew your enemy, his vehicle or ship, his location and capability and you could follow or ‘shadow’ him without betraying yourself, you claimed victory by Cold War standards.”

This style of Cold War does however beg the ultimate question are these fantastically expensive machines actually worth the money? The obvious answer to this question is that these weapons deter. It is at times difficult not to come round to this viewpoint under the relentless analysis from the authors and the historical commitment to this principle within the British establishment. However in the Cold War there was an obvious aggressor to deter, the Soviet Union armed to the teeth, but this argument meanders in the latter chapters when such a foe is no longer present.

The history is brought up to the present day. The potential nuclear threats of the 21st century are briefly analysed, with an increasingly hostile Putin-led Russia the main focus, which indicates a prevalence for an effective nuclear deterrent. However this is no overt conclusion on the worth of the deterrent’s renewal but as the authors are historians, and not politicians, this comes with little surprise. The real worth of this book lies in its remarkable levels of detail and breadth of a definitive historical account of Britain’s nuclear deterrent.

Book review: A Murder of Quality

51DygOSAPmL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_A Murder of Quality by John le Carré

My rating: ★★★☆☆

The basics: A strange letter, penned under the fear of death, from the wife of a teacher at a prestigious English private school find its way to the editor of a weekly magazine in London. When this woman is then found brutally murdered, rocking the ancient school and town of Carne, the editor enlists her old friend, George Smiley, to investigate.

In-depth: A Murder of Quality is a welcome change to the more famous le Carré spy novels and I read this in a few short sittings. My attraction to it is its focus on the greatest character le Carré has created: George Smiley. It sees Smiley outside of his role in British Intelligence and instead acting as a quasi-detective. This feels slightly like a impersonation of a Sherlock Holmes story, but it does work and as one of le Carré’s earlier novels it is frightfully direct and short. The chapters are short and end with quick, neat cliffhangers. Any fan of Smiley will enjoy and race through it.

Smiley is without doubt one of my favourite fictional characters. He is epitome of the now perhaps outdated British virtue of understatement. Behind Smiley’s less than impressive physical appearance, he is forever described in novels as a short, “plump” man, lies a razor sharp intellectual prowess. One character in this story captures this perfectly by describing him as:

“Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for.”

What then makes Smiley, a man described as the most “forgettable” they have ever come across, so forgettable that they at times do not realise they are in-fact talking to and confiding in him, so interesting?  The answer is perfectly expanded upon in a small section in A Murder of Quality.

“Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession. The byways of espionage are not populated by the brash and colourful adventurers of fiction. A man who, like Smiley, has lived and worked for years among his country’s enemies learns only one prayer: that he may never, never be noticed.”

This desire to go unnoticed is paired with his remarkable abilities to read human desires and characters. He uses these skills to discover the truth behind the violent murder at the heart of this novel, and it is this unswerving nature which makes him one of the most realistic depictions of a spy.

Smiley’s investigation takes him to the ancient town of Carne with its famous private school. This is a very traditional place, much in the mould of a number of real English public schools which quickly spring to mind, with an overbearing and pervading emphasis on the need to preserve it’s ways and customs. The school’s inhabitants are viciously judgemental of one another and le Carré’s account of them at times verges on satire. Even charitable initiatives, such as the local church providing clothing for refugees from Hungary, is almost comically depicted as a jealous, life and death game of power politics.

My favourite passage sees Smiley taking an evening stroll to take a look at the house where Mrs Rode was murdered. The events are brilliantly depicted as a terrified Smiley stumbles upon a dark figure milling around in the house who then approaches him. The simplicity of the terror of the passage is its strength and it turns out to be a local homeless women with severe mental health issues who is widely suspected of the murder.

Knowing better than to jump to this easy assumption Smiley’s investigation continues unabated into the murky personal relationships between the senior teachers of the school. Events in Carne see another brutal murder, this time of one of the schoolboys, which leads Smiley to the unexpected killer who I will not ruin the identify of for readers.

Overall this is a pleasantly brief novel of le Carré’s  to read. I’ve also just discovered there was a TV adaption made in 1991 with an early role for the excellent Christian Bale which sounds like it is worth a look.

Please leave your comments below.

Book review: A Small Town in Germany

9780141196381A Small Town in Germany – John le Carré

My rating: ★★★★☆

Warning: this review contains plot spoilers.

I purchased this book in a small craft fair in St Ives of Cornwall last week. It revolves around the British Embassy in Bonn in West Germany, the ‘Small Town’ of the title, in the late 1960s.

An ailing British Government are desperate to join the Common Market in Europe but due to hostility from France are overly reliant on Germany, as their only European ally, to support their membership. Sound familiar? This fictitious context struck me as strikingly similar to what the UK’s near future could soon look like after the recent EU referendum result.

However this novel was published in 1968 with le Carré firmly on his home turf of the Cold War. It sees a junior Embassy staff member, Leo Harting, go missing with a horde of files containing some of the British Government’s dearest secrets at a time of crucial Foreign Office negotiations in Brussels. Keen to prevent any harm to this Brussels bid, London sends Alan Turner to Bonn to investigate where Harting and the crucial files have got to.

His investigations initially find the Embassy and it’s daily, diplomatic life as one of dour incompetence. However through his amusingly indelicate questioning style Turner begins to build a picture of Harting as a man who slowly weeded his way into positions of undeserved trust, often through romance with female staff or even the wive’s of his male colleagues. Turner also begins to see traits of himself in the missing Harting; a man with a strong, and sometimes destructive, desire for the truth. One character describes Turner as “a man who would pull down a forest to find an acorn.”

Throughout Turner witnesses the civil unrest wrought by a German nationalist politician called Karfeld. As the fast rising Opposition leader Karfeld’s emotive speeches generate an atmosphere of violent student led protests across Germany with some uncomfortable parallels to its dark, recent past. Powerful posters of Karfeld’s populist, anti-British and quasi neo-Nazi slogans embellish Turner’s investigation, which runs against the dual clocks of an impending protest march in Bonn and the upcoming British bid in Brussels.

The search sees Turner discover the missing files and Harting’s noble aim to use them to reveal the true past of Karfeld before he gets into power. Karfeld’s past as a German war hero in Stalingrad is actually shown by British files as a cover up to hide his involvement in horrifying medical experiments during the Holocaust.

As the most frightening element of this novel, this resurgence of neo-Nazism is only matched by the ugly and complete moral flexibility of the British Embassy leaders. Despite his assurances to only want to help Turner find Harting the Embassy Head, Rawley Bradfield, is actually less than eager for Harting’s findings to find oxygen. This comes solely down to his cynical hedging of bets; as Karfeld is viewed not only as a potential future partner to be on the right side of, but also for the short term goal of not rocking the boat and upsetting the German intelligence services with Britain relying heavily on their support in their European application.

This dark conclusion builds on a common theme in le Carre’s novels which paints the world of spying as not a glamorous Bond-like jaunt, but rather a truly dangerous world of cold and unpleasant realities and if need be betrayal. Characters in this book with any professional/career success in this world of spying often carry burdens of a failure in many parts of their private lives, particularly relationships.

Overall this novel contains a surprisingly fresh story from le Carre’s early canon, especially as it was published in between the more famous Cold War thrillers The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. It is a foreboding tale with its conclusion, the fate of the elusive Harting, hanging precariously in the balance until the final pages. Because of this it is a natural page turner which grips your attention from first to last.

Best Quote: ‘Then why look for him?’ – Jenny

‘Why not? That’s how we spend our lives, isn’t it? Looking for people we’ll never find.’ – Turner

Have you read this novel or any other of John le Carré’s? What did you think of it? Please leave your comments below.

Book review: Animal Farm

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707 (1)Animal Farm by George Orwell

My rating: ★★★★★

Warning this post contains plot spoilers.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a striking little novel which fuses an easy to follow short story with a savage political satire of the Russian Revolution and its betrayal by the darker elements of human nature. It charts a farm’s descent from the early hope of a better future, after its animals rebel and overthrow their human overlords, to the encroaching and increasingly perverse rule of the all powerful Napoleon in an unnervingly calm, step-by-step plot. With it’s benefit of (unstated) historical hindsight, alongside the artistic use of animals to represent historical individuals, Orwell’s writing demonstrates a brooding authority which marks the self-serving and tragic implications of each plot development as both frighteningly stark and desperately out of the reader’s control.

Many of the animals represent different social institutions, groups or individuals; Mr Jones is the careless, cruel and often drunk man who initially owns the farm who represents the bourgeois enemy of the suffering proletariat that is the animals; Moses, the tamed raven of Mr Jones, represents the Church, with his persuasive, comforting and distracting tale of a country called “Sugarcandy Mountain” in the sky where all animals go to when they die and live in eternal bliss. Two other characters who stand out are Boxer; an immensely strong and unquestioning horse committed wholeheartedly to following his revolutionary leaders, and Squealer; a clever pig who has such a talented way with words that he “could turn black into white,” who acts as the emergent regime’s mouthpiece spewing its increasingly contradictory propaganda.

After overthrowing Mr Jones the animals, led by the pigs who learn to read and write, decree the seven commandments of the ideology of Animalism on the barn wall to which all agree. Attention is then quickly turned to the labour of the hay harvest but it is just before this when the first tangible chink in the armour of what Orwell calls a ‘fairy story’ appears. Before the hard labour of harvest is carried out by the animals, the cows are milked by the pigs which produces buckets full of creamy, tasty looking milk to which the animals eyes lustily fall aware that all farm produce now belongs to all animals equally. However Napoleon, one of the cleverest pigs, tells the animals to forget the milk for now and to concentrate on the vital work of the harvest. However, “when they came back in the evening it was noticed that the milk had disappeared.”

From this dark hint at the future the animals, led by the naturally more intelligent pigs, proceed to run the farm on their terms rather than under the whim of man. However a rivalry between two of the more intelligent pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, rapidly emerges. This is largely based on their very different natures; Napoleon is used to get his own way and adept at quietly gathering support, whilst Snowball is more expressive of his ideas and a great public speaker who is able to eloquently persuade the other animals at public debates. The two also constantly oppose each other’s ideas.

This rivalry undoubtedly represents an analogy of the great power struggle in post revolution, post-Lenin USSR between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. One particularly powerful parallel which stood out to me was the debate around the defence of the farm. Napoleon suggests the animals should be trained in the use of weapons to strengthen their own farm against any human attackers, compared to Snowball’s preference to send pigeon messengers to other farms to spread the word of Animalism to help create unrest and possible rebellion, thereby reducing the amount of enemies. This broadly follows the rival ideas of Stalin’s Socialism in One Country policy which prioritised the internal strengthening of the Soviet Union compared with Trotsky’s ideas of continual international revolution.

Snowball is chased and banished from the farm with Napoleon seizing control and quickly installing fear into the animals. The maxim that Napoleon can never be wrong is adopted and the collective history of the farm’s rebellion is also changed to reduce the prominence of Snowball. Orwell then depicts every stage of the Farm’s descent into a paranoid, violent dictatorship led by the all powerful Napoleon. There are false propaganda campaigns, absurdly fabricated production statistics but yet still famine, show trial purges of former animal allies and blatant compromises of the previous principles of Animalism. Primarily all of these principles are broken but the most obvious are the killing of animals by other animals as well as the emergence of an unequal allocation of labour. This is between most animals having to work like slaves whilst starving and the pigs who very do little other than feast and increasingly live like their former human masters.

The book ends in dramatic and tragic fashion. The remaining ‘lower animals’ take a peek into the former home of Mr Jones where the pigs now live. After inviting the neighbouring human farm owners around to feast the animals outside overhear the pigs discuss their joint interests. Animalism is truly dead with the interests of the privileged few reinforced and the pigs; who sit, talk and drink like their former human enemies, and in fact rule more harshly; are impossible to tell apart from the humans during their heated final words during drunken a card game.

Best Quote: It may be a cliché but it’s hard to look beyond the infamous: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.

Have you ever read Animal Farm or any other novels by George Orwell? If so, please leave your comments below.