16 October 2010

John le Carré, 'Our Kind of Traitor'

I had the amazing good fortune to read the new John le Carré novel, Our Kind of Traitor, as a relative innocent. (I say 'relative' because those of us old enough to remember the first publication of his breakthrough novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold [1963] all lost some of our innocence the day we read it.) What I mean is that I was able to approach Our Kind of Traitor without having read or heard anything about its plot. When 'the reader' finds out, fully 20% of the way into the novel (Kindle readers track their progress through a book in percentage points, not pages), what sort of 'operation' Traitor will depict, that was my first knowledge of it; similarly with the question of what particular issues or forms of criminal activity form the thematic backdrop for the novel. I'm determined not to spoil your innocence in these regards, if you're fortunate enough to have it  still intact. I'll reveal nothing more than that I liked the book, like it even more upon reflection--but feel very much that, especially where this book is concerned, liking or not liking can be something of a red herring: in the rush to judge, we can easily trip over our own feet. I do think that every reader will appreciate in Traitor the voice of a master storyteller (and master narrator, which is not quite the same thing: Traitor is an example of le Carré at his most overtly Conradian)--even if we don't have the good fortune of hearing le Carré voicing his own prose--and I strive to give even 'lesser' writers than le Carré the benefit of the doubt in this sense: instead of dismissing a work (or issuing demerits to it) when it doesn't meet ordinary expectations, I try to 'give it its head' (like a horse) and appreciate (as carefully as possible) where it takes me. Readers may not expect espionage novels (if that's what Traitor is) to linger as long as this one does getting out of the gate or (trust me on this) to cross the finish line with such a burst of speed--but we all choose at such moments whether to stop reading or whether to start. There will be readers for whom the greatest interest of Our Kind of Traitor will lie not in its panoply of often surprisingly sympathetic characters or its treatment of 'issues' but in what in it runs counter to commonly held beliefs about narrative. The choice is yours.

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