Title: The Tailor of Panama
Author: John le Carré
Le Carré, John (1996).The Tailor of Panama. New York : Alfred A. Knopf
Date Posted: January 6, 2017
Review by Norman Rush
The British Ambassador is a twit. His military attaché is eager to trade arms for drug money. Universal cupidity reigns, and lechery, too. The weather is sultry. We’re in Panama City, somewhere in the specious present, waiting for the canal to fall into the hands of the Panamanians in 1999–as the current treaty requires–unless somebody does something about it. In fact a plot is afoot, under British auspices, but obscurely so, to get the canal treaty aborted. The political terrain, which is contoured exclusively by doctrineless greed, lacks certain standard features, such as any sort of political left, the local variety having been crushed by Manuel Noriega and its remnants vaporized during Operation Sunrise in 1989. We’re in John le Carré’s new world–the new world of the Americas (The Tailor of Panama is his first book to be set there), the new world of the post-cold-war spy novel and a new world of literary form for him (satire). Be prepared for savage novelty.
Here’s as much of the story as it’s fair to tell: Harry Pendel, 40, a not-so-humble tailor, a transplanted London Jew, is blackmailed and bribed into becoming an informant for British intelligence, on the theory that his professional contacts as a custom tailor to the rich and powerful ought to provide valuable data. Code-named Buchan, Pendel becomes the sole source for the sort of information his local handler especially wants, as Pendel quickly understands.
What the originators of the canal plot fear is that the Panamanians might cede de facto control of the facility to the Japanese or some other objectionable party. Their plan is to dupe powerfully placed irredentist elements in the American military establishment into nullifying the treaty and replaying the invasion of 1989. To ignite such action, a scenario in which it would appear to the world that the Government of the day was bloodily repressing a mildly leftish, but essentially democratic and virtuous opposition, would have to be managed, and fast.
Pendel has little to work with. He invents. He sees that his inventions gladden his handler. He invents more. He revises the most innocent comments of his customers into alarming omens. With the help of Marta, his demi-mistress (their sexual relationship is restricted to episodes of petting), he invents a left. Marta is a former member of the student resistance to Noriega and she enriches the tailor’s construct–the Silent Opposition–with the real names of ex-comrades still hanging around but now politically inert. (If this reminds you of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, you’re right: the author acknowledges his debt to the book and its central trope of a fabulating operative.)
As Pendel’s concoctions are put to increasingly tragic use, the two-tiered moral structure of the narrative shows clearly. On top are the Machiavels, the conscious servants of immoral power, and they are witheringly portrayed. This is how Andy Osnard, Pendel’s handler, the foulmouthed younger son in a played-out line of gentry, decides on a career in intelligence: “He had no craft or qualification, no proven skills outside the golf course and the bedroom. What he understood best was English rot, and what he needed was a decaying English institution that would restore to him what other decaying institutions had taken away.” On the bottom are the pawns in the canal plot. They collaborate and they do evil, but they do so under coercion or out of misplaced love or loyalty to particular friends or lovers. The difference between the two groups is important.
Point of view skips around in this book, but we witness events mainly through the eyes of the Tailor of Panama. He is an arresting creation: “Harry Pendel rose with a sense of his own diversity stronger than any he had experienced in all his years of striving and imagining. He had never been so many people. Some were strangers to him, others warders or old lags known to him from previous convictions. But all were at his side, marching with him in the same direction, sharers of his grand vision.” Nicely conveyed is the intoxication Pendel finds in unfettered lying. The tailor is the book’s deepest character–appalling, likable, then appalling again.
Leftlessness, a world without lefts, was bound to be a problem for the political novel and its robust shadow, the spy novel. From Conrad to le Carré, the left–as looming threat or promise, as kingdom come, as utopia gone mad, as brutal imperium–has provided the armature for the great entries in this stream of literary creation. Readers who were wondering what life in the afterleft might be like for writers like John le Carré now have their answer. What he has done is to venture fiercely into satire, producing a tour de force in which almost every convention of the classic spy novel is violated. If the novel is, in its basic nature, biased toward optimistic outcomes, genre writing is even more inflexibly bound to the tendency. Think of the absolute regularity with which galactic tyrants are overthrown, cattle barons defeated by sodbusters, Heathcliffs domesticated. Even in the most elevated, reflective and somber of the classic spy novels (like Mr. le Carré’s own), where good and evil interpenetrate confoundingly, the underlying drift is toward victory for the forces of light.
Not here. Hold your breath for this one. Here villains are rewarded and the innocent and the least villainous are cruelly punished. Beyond that, this spy novel has no genuine spies, no real spying, no secrets. Over the main course of the action, there is no interpersonal violence among the principals. You may think the phrase “nonviolent thriller” is an oxymoron, but it isn’t. It describes the book fairly.
There are weaknesses in The Tailor of Panama, some less important than others. Getting used to Mr. le Carré doing satire means getting used to sketchier description and scene setting. I found the American characters rather shakily delineated, which might be set down to Mr. le Carré’s famous ambivalence toward Americanity. Here, for example, is Pendel’s wife, an American raised in the Canal Zone, speaking: “Harry,” she says, “I wish you to think about your family. I know of too many cases, and so do you, where men of 40 have suffered heart attacks and other stress-related maladies. . . . If you are truly worried about the future and not just using it as a pretext, we have the rice farm to fall back on, and we would surely all prefer to live in reduced circumstances practicing Christian abstinence than try to keep pace with your rich, immoral friends and have you die on us.” This is off key.
But a more substantial defect for me lies in an aspect of the Pendel character: here we have, however little Mr. le Carré intended it, yet another literary avatar of Judas. It’s reasonable to make an expatriate British tailor a Jew, but does this Jew, for example, have to defame the only decent, “saintly” (Pendel’s own term) political leader in Panama, and then go on to implicate his own wife’s utterly innocent Christian study group to boot? (There’s a striking Judas parallel I can’t mention without giving too much away.)
The touches on Pendel’s background added to my unease over this connection. For example, Pendel’s Uncle Benny, a specialist in insurance arson, survived under the Nazis by becoming a tailor to the high command of the Wehrmacht. As you read, the phrase “rootless cosmopolitans” scratches at the doors of your mind.
John le Carré’s writerly skills are at work in The Tailor of Panama. The pace is nonstop, scenes are cleanly and economically written, and flashbacks are incorporated seamlessly into the narrative. The details of the tailor’s craft are given entertainingly. And the conclusion, which should probably not come as a surprise, resoundingly does.
Historical accident has taken away this author’s great subject, the war of the pretty bad (the West) against the much worse (the East). That’s over, and the outcome is . . . a great question. Certain features of the surreal Politik of our time present the artistic intelligence with an unusual degree of challenge, to use everybody’s favorite word. Now, after this unexpected essay into extreme satire, this rude blast of dismay and disgust, John le Carré’s readers will be eager to see if he can provide the graver pleasures he accustomed them to in his previous mode of work.