Title: A Small Town in Germany
Author: John Le Carré
Le Carré, John (1968, 2013). A Small Town in Germany. New York: Penguin Books
Date Posted: December 2, 2016
Reviewed by Richard Boston
The short step from Bulldog Drummond to Ian Fleming’s James Bond consisted in giving the hero a sex life. Adam Diment–who with three books published at the age of 24, looks set fair as Fleming’s successor–has once more brought the hero up to date by making him less snobbish and more promiscuous than Bond. Furthermore, he smokes pot (Sherlock Holmes took cocaine). But these are mere trimmings: the basic formula of British fantasy spy-thrillers has changed hardly at all for more than half a century.
John Le Carré is not in this tradition, even if his subject matter sometimes overlaps with it. His works belong rather with the Graham Greene of The Third Man. Le Carré depicts, as Greene does, a seedy world in which violence is ugly, evil is banal, and moral problems come not in terms of black and white but in shades of drabbest gray. Far from being glamorized, the spy is dragged down to the level of the world into which his work takes him. Espionage degrades, compromises and desensitizes. Most of its practitioners are incompetent. Those who are efficient at their jobs are failures in their private lives.
Since the revelations of the Philby affair, all this may seem obvious enough. But Philby merely confirmed what Le Carré readers had known ever since The Spy Who Came in From the Cold burst on a Fleming-sodden world (Le Carré previous books, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality had received much less notice).
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was remarkable not only for its deglamorizing of espionage, but also for its superbly ingenious plot. This ingenuity came from the schemes hatched by the heartless but brilliantly intelligent men in London who gave Leamas, the agent, his orders. In Le Carré’s next novel (The Looking Glass War), the men in London were mostly shown as stupid, incompetent and as self-interested as anyone else. The book was less ingenious– but, even more than its predecessor, it showed the total unreality of the spy’s world.
Le Carré’s new novel, however, is as ingenious as anything he has written. Most of the action takes place in or around the British Embassy in Bonn, the “small town in Germany” of the title. The time is the “recent future,” and the political situation in Europe is not unlike that of the present time.
The British Government, in trouble at home, sees a cure for all its ills in the Common Market, for membership of which it is making another desperate bid. Its ally in this attempt (against continued French opposition) is West Germany –but the German Government has its own problems. Led by a demagogue called Karfeld, the extra-parliamentary opposition has suddenly become threateningly powerful, having taken the form of “an amorphous movement of popular resentments, popular protests and occasional violence–a movement of the resentful mass–unified by its slogans, and fed by its dreams.” As the movement is violently anti-British and looks as though it will soon be strong enough to put real pressure on Bonn, Britain may lose essential backing in the Common Market negotiations now under way in Brussels.
At this crucial point Leo Harting, a Second Secretary in the British Embassy in Bonn, disappears. At the same time, official documents and secret files are found to be missing, and it seems that Harting has information that could reduce British chances in the Brussels talks still further. Alan Turner is the man sent from London to look for Harting and the files.
Turner is tough, unattractive and professional, very much in the mold of Leamas: “A big, lumbering man, fair-haired, plain-faced and pale.” When he gets to Bonn, he is extremely rude and aggressive to everyone he questions about Harting, but his methods achieve results. The incompetence of the Embassy officials soon emerges. More slowly, a picture is built up of Harting’s character and his life–playing the organ in the Embassy chapel, making up to the women on the staff, slowly working his way into positions where he has access to secret information.
The facts that emerge are puzzling–until Turner begins to recognize in Harting a man like himself. They are “of one blood”: one of the diplomats says that Harting is Turner’s “untamed half.” Turner’s tenacity and direct approach bring more and more information to light: as someone says of him, “You’d pull down the whole forest, you would, to find an acorn.” As the Karfeld movement prepares for a huge demonstration in Bonn, the facts about Harting begin to fall into place. It would be unfair to say more about the denouement than that it is as ingenious as the finale of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The final explanation is unexpected–but, when it comes, is immediately convincing.
A Small Town in Germany is an exciting, compulsively readable and brilliantly plotted novel. Le Carré has shown once more that he can write this kind of book better than anyone else around–and he has done so without repeating himself.