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 …