A wry political satire and thriller rolled into one, this departure from the usual le Carre fare had me laughing and wincing in equal turns. The story revolves around Harry Pendel, a British ex-pat and tailor living in Panama in 1999, just prior to the end of American occupation of the Canal, who is blackmailed by Andy Osnard, a newly-arrived agent of Britain’s intelligence service, into spying on the post-Noriega Panamanian ruling elites that he services. The fundamentally racist and imperialist British plot behind Osnard’s deployment is to fake a “democratic opposition” to a “corrupt government” in Panama, and thereby force the Americans to retake control of the geopolitically crucial Canal rather than allow the “slothful” Panamanians—or even worse, the “power-hungry” Japanese—to capture it.
Our tailor in Panama isn’t all that he appears to be, however, but an “ex”-con who did time back in England, and he fabricates intelligence on a scale that even he didn’t think possible. Osnard isn’t what he appears to be either, but the corrupt tail end of a played-out line of British gentry who is primarily interested in rapidly accruing a personal fortune under cover of his deployment. In fact, Le Carre depicts the entire British diplomatic corps in Panama as mostly incompetent and venal fools, which Osnard and Pendel both strive to take full advantage of, ultimately at the expense of the innocents around them. Le Carre’s skewering of the old boy network in British intelligence with their imperial aspirations, and his depiction of such parasitical newcomers to the foreign intelligence service as Osnard, is brutal and unforgiving, deservedly so. His presentation of the Panamanian ruling elites as mostly corrupt, with a few exceptions, is equally brutal. The Americans are treated with less fury by le Carre, but perhaps only because he hardly deals with them at all except as the manipulable chess pieces of the British.
The only ones who get a pass from le Carre are the victims of the imperial games: the workers, the students, the farmers, the fisherman, the ordinary people who end up paying the ultimate price, time and again. Le Carre’s writing is sarcastic, biting, angry, and sometimes howlingly funny, but behind his black humor is the painful political truth about the self-righteous shits who run our world, or want to.