Popular opinion has it that this is the weakest of the three Karla novels. I thought it was a masterpiece, and a more ambitious novel than Tinker, Tailor
It is very different from the last book: suddenly there is this unexpectedly huge scope of Southeast Asia to go alongside the muted meetings in grey London office rooms. I can well understand how some readers might have felt it was two books jammed together, but for me the contrast worked perfectly and I was riveted by how brilliantly Le Carré unfurls the story. The writing here is simply incredible. I can't think of another writer who could have me on the edge of my seat with a twenty-page description of an interdepartmental meeting, but somehow that's what we get here. Here's the halfway point of the meeting, after several pages of close, detailed description: just admire how easily he suddenly slips into this spare, witty style:‘Lunch,’ Martindale announced without much optimism. They ate it upstairs, glumly, off plastic catering trays delivered by van. The partitions were too low and Guillam's custard flowed into his meat.
The Southeast Asia sections are wonderfully accomplished. We have thumbnail sketches of the Laotian capital, the Cambodian Civil War, rich descriptions of pre-handover Hong Kong. Jerry Westerby, the hack reporter who doubles as an occasional stringer for British Intelligence, is a character who will ring true to anyone who's worked in journalism. As a reporter myself, I've never yet read a better description of why journalists do dangerous things for so little money – why they get out of the car, cross the road, head towards the gunshots:Sometimes you do it to save face, thought Jerry, other times you just do it because you haven't done your job unless you've scared yourself to death. Other times again, you go in order to remind yourself that survival is a fluke. But mostly you go because the others go; for
machismo; and because in order to belong you must share.
This comes in a long, virtuoso section which sees Jerry digging up information on a contact under cover of writing a story on frontline fighting in Cambodia. The book is full of such delights: everything from tiny foreign airline lounges to fashion shows to opium dens have an air of truth to them. I don't know if Le Carré is drawing on personal experiences, or if he just writes so well that I believe anything he says. Either way it makes this book a pleasure.
There are flaws. The final third is less good than what comes before, and the one main female character is too much of a damsel-in-distress, who has really no reason except convention for falling for our antihero. But I'll take that, for the joys of reading a spy novel I can actually believe, with some descriptive set-pieces of ‘The East’ that are unmatched.