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The Secret Sharers

The Little Drummer Girl

by John le Carré
Knopf, 429 pp., $15.95

With The Little Drummer Girl, John le Carré has thrown off his winter cloak and let his limbs flex. Unlike the Smiley novels, which have a burrowing, circumspect determination, The Little Drummer Girl doesn’t read as if it were written with mittens. The book feels as if it were dashed off with the zealous haste of a reporter filing for a deadline. Once the dread Karla had been flushed from his lair like a sick, shivering animal at the close of Smiley’s People (“…in the halo Smiley saw his face, aged and weary and travelled, the short hair turned to white by a sprinkling of snow”), le Carré must have sensed it was time to strike down the tents of the Circus and push on to a larger, more turbulent arena—the Middle East.

Yet this novel is far from a severe break from le Carré’s previous preoccupations. Waiting on the bridge for Karla to show, Smiley “hung back, like a man refusing to go on stage,” and once Karla moused into view, victor and victim had a brief moment in which to measure each other’s depths—“They exchanged one more glance and perhaps each for that second did see in the other something of himself.” With its secret sharers and frequent stresses on terrorism as the theater of the real, The Little Drummer Girl is a rugged elaboration on that moment when Smiley and Karla met as mirrors. Newsy as the novel is, it’s also le Carré’s go at writing a meditative adventure saga in the tradition of Joseph Conrad, and it’s hardly a fluke that one of the characters here is named Joseph; another, Kurtz. A concealed bomb is this book’s heart of darkness.

Not that le Carré succumbs to Conradian mystifications. The Little Drummer Girl is very bold colored, very pop; it pares away the brooding ruminations of a Conrad adventure to reach instead the sinews of heroic romance. Reviewing The Honourable Schoolboy in these pages, Clive James lamented the “tone of myth-making portent” in le Carré’s later fiction—the increasingly heavy tread of Smiley’s legend. ” ‘For nobody…quite dared to challenge Smiley’s authority.’ In just such a way T.E. Lawrence used to write about himself. As he entered the tent, sheiks fell silent, stunned by his charisma.”* The Little Drummer Girl, too, rolls out legends capable of awing the sheiks.

The quarry is a Palestinian terrorist mastermind named Khalil who swims in the shadows, seldom surfacing to boggle the ordinary. “He was broad-shouldered and sculptured, with the rarity of a precious object kept from sight. He could not have walked into a restaurant without the talk dying round him, or walked out of it without leaving a kind of relief in his wake.” On Khalil’s trail is an Israeli intelligence operative named Gadi Becker (known through most of the novel as Joseph), who’s also capable of hush-making entrances; unlike Khalil, who’s movie-star smooth, Joseph bears the scars of history in his very flesh: scoured vertebrae, exit wounds, ridged flesh—all souvenirs of battle. Joseph and Khalil are twin rivals, as wed in their warring obsessions as Smiley and Karla, and the woman that they share is an English stage actress named Charlie, recruited by Joseph to snuff Khalil from the wings. She bears witness to their spectral brotherhood. “Khalil drove past [the house] twice before he turned into the drive, and his eyes as he scanned the roadside were Joseph’s eyes, dark and purposeful and all-seeing.”

Charlie is being touted by le Carré’s admirers as a gal with gumption, his first feminist heroine, but she really serves as more of a plaything (a pawn, a baited hook) of these virile gods. Her eyes are not all-seeing; she is, as the author himself admits, “a blinkered rider, being conveyed through events and emotions too great for her to encompass….” Like all of le Carré’s novels, The Little Drummer Girl abounds in well-choreographed set pieces; a description of a bomb explosion knocking flowers out of vases, and vases against the wall; an account of how the bearings of a prisoner are psychologically stripped by Israeli intelligence through the use of time distortion, white light, forged documents, and sound effects (screams, gunfire, chain rattles, even the forlorn tootle of funeral bagpipes); a tour of a Palestinian guerrilla camp, where the stone battlements suggest a set for a remake of Beau Geste and the figures for target practice are “brutish man-sized effigies of American marines, with painted grimaces and fixed bayonets….” But the gut of the novel is the recruitment, auditioning, and rehearsing of Charlie in her new role as counterinsurgent lure—the applying of her blinkers. And it takes an awfully long time to get a secure fit.

To slip the hook into an unsuspecting Khalil, Joseph concocts a tempestuous, doomed romance between Charlie and Khalil’s slight, black-curled brother, Michel. Charlie, known to her chums as “Charlie the Red” because of her hair color and hot leftist sympathies, is groomed by Joseph to be Michel’s “saviour and liberator, his Saint Joan, his body-slave, his star.” With meticulous, unbending care, Joseph leads Charlie through the details of a phantom romance with Michel, drumming made-up memories into her head until she can almost hear the creak of the bedsprings, the swish of windshield wipers.

So, Charlie? You are ready? he enquired, as brusquely as if she had been keeping him waiting. And resumed his narrative.

At first, they were still in Nottingham, their frenzy at its height. They had spent two nights and one day in the motel, he said, and the register bore this out….

Most of their time they had spent in bed, he said, talking politics, exchanging lives, making love. The only interruptions, it seemed, were a couple of flips into the Nottingham countryside, but the lovers’ desire soon got the better of them and they hurried back to the motel.

Why didn’t we just have it off in the car?” she enquired, in an effort to draw him from his dark mood. “I like those unscheduled ones.”

I respect your taste, but unfortunately, Michel is shy in these matters and prefers the privacy of the bedroom.”

She tried again: “So how does he rate in the charts?”

He had the answer to that too.

According to the best-informed reports, he is a little unimaginative, but his enthusiasm is boundless and his virility impressive.”

Thank you,” she said gravely.

On and on they tango, locked in indoctrination. Although these long, intense, semifacetious chats are crucial in nailing down the foundations of Charlie’s “cover,” they’re as taxing to the reader’s patience as they are to Charlie’s—the words fall and blanket like fat motes of dust. For windbag tedium, Charlie’s briefing ranks with those inevitable lulls in the Smiley novels when a stumped Smiley turns up on Connie Sach’s doorstep and, after pouring her a beaker, plants himself in a chair and listens to her carry on like the Ancient Mariner’s wizened bride. The clues she uncovers never seem worth all that ice-rattling fuss.

But if Charlie’s indoctrination gives The Little Drummer Girl a flabby midsection, the rest of the book has a wiry, feisty vigor—a shameless hankering for big wow effects. There are times when le Carré plays the accordion of mystique so uninhibitedly that the book threatens to become an espionage soap opera (“And Gadi Becker, as before, was the stillest of them, staring selfcritically into the gathering dark, like a man examining all the promises of his past life—which had he kept? Which broken?” [tune in tomorrow: same time, same station]), but as Charlie’s mission nears its bloody consummation, the pell-mell rush of le Carré’s narrative carries the reader over these heart flutters of rhetoric. Although The Little Drummer Girl isn’t as tightly plotted as earlier le Carré novels (the trim Call for the Dead remains my favorite Smiley novel), it earns its roominess by presenting a more panoramic view of strife and deprivation. Caught between Joseph and Michel, Charlie is the embodiment of torn loyalties, serving Israeli interests even as she bears witness to Palestinian anguish. In Beirut, she too rocks in the upheaval caused by Israeli aircraft in precision bombing runs. “You bastards, she thought. You rotten, killing Zionist bastards. If I hadn’t been here, you’d have bombed them to Kingdom Come.”

By placing Charlie in the smoke and rubble of Beirut, le Carré is able to drape flesh over sufferings and grievances which for many people remain distant, abstract. The cruel, tolling irony of The Little Drummer Girl is that the success of Charlie’s infiltration only sets off a greater round of ruin and disarray.

Indeed, where The Little Drummer Girl will prove controversial is in its rough thumping of Israeli policies. The Israeli agents in the book are depicted as seasoned, savvy pros with leatherhide skins and a fondness for homey proverbs: “Kurtz said it too. Often. Grinning his pirate’s grin, he said it now. ‘You want to catch the lion, first you tether the goat.’ ” The success of Charlie’s mission triggers a bloodscourge, and these amiably tough Israelis come to seem savagely efficient, almost kill-happy, as the bodies of Khalil’s confederates are knifed, blown up, shot. And le Carré then brings in an event of far wider scope:

the long-awaited Israeli push into Lebanon occurred, ending that present phase of hostilities or, according to where you stood, heralding the next one. The refugee camps that had played host to Charlie were sanitised, which meant roughly that bulldozers were brought in to bury the bodies and complete what the tanks and artillery bombing raids had started…. Special groups eradicated the secret places in Beirut where Charlie had stayed; of the house in Sidon only the chickens and the tangerine orchard remained.

Le Carré has gone on record in the English press against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and in the novel he grafts onto Gadi Becker’s conscience his own indignant qualms. “And [Becker] ended with a most offensive question, something he claimed to have culled from the writings of Arthur Koestler, and evidently adapted to his own preoccupation: ‘What are we to become, I wonder?’ he said. ‘A Jewish homeland or an ugly little Spartan state?’ ” Well, at least le Carré had the presence of mind to label the question “offensive,” but it does seem worth pointing out that if Israel resembles a garrison state it’s hardly because it’s thronged on three sides by imaginary foes.

Of course, the conflict between means and consequences has always been the pricking tangle in le Carré’s work. George Smiley couldn’t savor his victory over Karla because the techniques he used brought him down to Karla’s own level of ruthless cunning. And Becker can’t really savor the snuffing out of these anti-Israel terrorists not only because of the Lebanon aftermath but because this triumph was brought about by the scooping out of Charlie’s sensibilities, the husking of her heart. “I’m dead, she kept saying, I’m dead, I’m dead.”

For all its waywardness, The Little Drummer Girl carries an exhilaration because it’s le Carré’s firmest and most searching exploration of the dynamics of need, and how neediness is used, perverted. Love of his daughter toppled Karla, and love here is betrayal and submission, crippler and crutch. And the absence of love, le Carré seems to be saying in the novel’s fade, is not hate but exhaustion. I’m dead, I’m dead. As in the best Smiley novels, le Carré poeticizes exhaustion in The Little Drummer Girl, and leaves you feeling that there are embers in the ashes of fatigue which will spark new obsessions, new betrayals. Hungry for reckoning, his burnt-out cases never find true rest.

  1. *

    NYR, October 27, 1977, p. 30.

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