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The Lying Game

The Tailor of Panama

by John le Carré
Knopf, 332 pp., $25.00

It is wonderful how the conception of honour alters in the atmosphere of defeat,” Graham Greene wrote, thinking of German officers he had known in Lisbon in the later years of the Second World War, when a German defeat seemed more and more likely. These men “spent much of their time sending home completely erroneous reports based on information received from imaginary agents. It was a paying game, especially when expenses and bonuses were added to the cypher’s salary, and a safe one.” The conception of honor here allows for elaborate deceptions, but perhaps has not entirely vanished, and Greene used this instance as a starting point for Our Man in Havana (1958) having shifted the scene from Lisbon to Estonia, and added some memories of his own from West Africa, before settling on Batista’s Cuba. Novelists from Melville to Mann have thought of the artist as a confidence man. But that is not quite the same as thinking of the secret agent as the creator of extravagantly imagined worlds.

In The Tailor of Panama, an exiled English tailor is recruited as a spy, and discovers, almost instantly, a formidable talent for invention. Of course, the tailor has a murky past, which is why he can be blackmailed into the job; and of course an English tailor like Harry Pendel, of Pendel and Braithwaite, affectionately known as P & B, a firm so dusty and traditional that it appeals to every snobbery in the Americas, must seem to have plenty of opportunities for spying: the fitting sessions with the president of Panama, with the US general in charge of Southern Command; the visits of all the local bigwigs to P & B’s comfortable, gentlemanly premises, which Harry, never one to pass up a cliché which might be good for business, likes to think of as “an oasis of tranquillity in a bustling world.” Harry is also fond of the word “irregardless,” and would want us all to avoid what he calls “laze majesty.” No wonder the man sent out from England by the British Secret Service thinks he has found the perfect patriot—or at least the fellow with the perfect patriot’s cover.

But Harry is an even finer fabulator than he is a tailor, and no sooner is he asked about goings-on in Panama than he produces not the inside information, which he doesn’t have and may in any case not exist, but what the inside information ought to be, the full scenario of the movie that a place like Panama ought to offer. “Panama’s not a country,” Harry says, “it’s a casino.” Is that a Panamanian judge who has just come into the bar? Harry tells his visitor the story of the way the judge disposed of a rival, and then of the man who performed the disposal for him. Harry is probably just peddling gossip at this stage, and for all he or we know some of it may be true. Le Carré then writes an extraordinary phrase, telling us that Harry was “very excited by an omniscience that stretched well beyond his knowledge of the case.” Harry is not just making things up, padding out the gossip; he has become the author of the judge’s crimes; the judge’s real life has disappeared into Harry’s fiction. This is what le Carré, with slightly too knowing a glance at his main metaphor and his own art, calls tailoring, and what Harry himself calls fluence:

It was tailoring. It was improving on people. It was cutting and shaping them until they became understandable members of his internal universe. It was fluence. It was running ahead of events and waiting for them to catch up. It was making people bigger or smaller according to whether they enhanced or threatened his existence…. It was a system of survival that Pendel had developed in prison and perfected in marriage, and its purpose was to provide a hostile world with whatever made it feel at ease with itself.

Perfected in marriage” is peculiarly horrible, coming where it does in that sentence. Harry’s wife is American, a child of the Panama Canal Zone, which was under US jurisdiction from 1903 to 1977. There are a lot of things she doesn’t know about Harry, including the fact that he has invented Braithwaite and the whole English ancestry of his business. She is stiff and anxious, and taking to drink, and she loves him greatly, although she doesn’t know how to stop nagging and sounding edgy. Harry realizes it’s too late for their relationship to get better, in spite of their deep mutual affection, “in spite of all the care he had put into composing it.” He knows that’s wrong too: “We shouldn’t compose relationships, but if we don’t, what else do we do?” “Harry has a dream for everyone,” the Panamanian woman who is not quite his mistress thinks. “Harry dreams all our lives for us, and gets them wrong every time.”

Harry is not, I think, a projection of the novelist’s guilt about fiction’s betrayal of reality, although the very idea of a novelist feeling such guilt might be refreshing. Kafka, for example, was distressed by the subservience of writing, its dependence on a material world it could only name. Harry represents something like the converse worry: the possibility of the terminal invasion of the material world by rampant fictions. Harry’s Panama, like the Central America of everyone’s dreams and some people’s reality, has a faceless government, a silent, but powerful middle-class opposition, radical student groups ready to rise, restless fishermen, boundless anti-American sentiment. It also has—but here Harry is pandering to the fantasies of the lunatic right, the frantic old Yellow Peril haters he has glimpsed in a Masonic lodge—incursive Japanese and Chinese and Southeast Asian businessmen, clearly plotting some kind of takeover when the West finally fails to safeguard its own manifest interests. Finally? Well, on December 31, 1999, among the many other events of the millennium, the state of Panama, by treaty, will assume full control of the Panama Canal. In Harry’s Panama, this date and this place form a vacuum into which everyone is rushing. “Remember you are not a country but a canal,” is how a personified US is imagined as speaking to this friendly power. Not a canal, the plot of this novel suggests, but a catastrophe.

A friend of Harry’s commits suicide for personal reasons. But since this man, in Harry’s scenario, is the charismatic leader of the moderate left, his suicide can only look like a murder, and this is where Panama cannot be left to look after itself. The man’s death, or rather the interpretation of this death which follows from Harry’s fantasies, provides the peg for another US invasion of Panama. When what we have seen to be the truth is confirmed by “three Panamanian pathologists”—that Harry’s friend “was an inveterate alcoholic who had shot himself in a fit of depression after drinking a quart of Scotch whisky”—the report is “greeted with the derision it deserved.” Everyone knows the truth is never that simple.

For of course fictions get about only because someone wants them. There are so many conspiracies in the world that a world without conspiracies seems unreal. “No two bluffs are the same,” le Carré writes in The Night Manager (1993), “but one component is necessary to all of them, and that is the complicity between the deceiver and the deceived…” It is at this point that the British, and especially the English, who have been le Carré’s real subject for such a long time, enter The Tailor of Panama. “I’m a spy,” Harry’s recruiter says. “Spy for Merrie England. We’re reopening Panama.” We? A newspaper tycoon, a businessman, a minister, a civil servant, and the little operation they have set up: a secret service within the Secret Service.

What does Merrie England want with Panama? It wants a flicker of old empire or at least a revival of the special relationship with the US; better still, a foot in the backyard of the Monroe Doctrine. It wants enough turbulence in Panama for the US to intervene, keep the Japs out, make sure the Latins know their place, and silence the liberal wimps of the West. The scenes in which le Carré sketches this conspiracy are broad comedy, very funny but not angry and not all that serious. What is serious is the eagerness with which the British spymasters believe the fictions they are fed, because they are just the fictions they want to hear. When le Carré, in The Night Manager, describes London as “the land of make-believe power …its hallowed headquarters,” he is not only saying that British civil servants and politicians and spies imagine they have power that they no longer possess. He is saying that make-believe power is morally one of the most dangerous forms of power there is, and that London is where we find it at home.

When we ask what happens to the cold war novelist when the cold war is over—as le Carré himself cannily asks in The Night Manager and in Our Game (1995), and indeed in this new novel—we need, I think, to take le Carré’s cue and push the question one stage further. What was it the novelist found in the cold war, and is perhaps now finding in other places? The world has changed, and le Carré has changed with it. But he is faithful to his old questions too. He began publishing, we may remember, with classical English detective stories, set in closed space: Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962). In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), he discovered a world of almost infinite betrayal, a kind of charade where good and evil kept swapping masks and God himself might be just another alias; and in the series of novels from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) to Smiley’s People (1980), he unfolded the horrible pleasures of treachery at the heart of security, the spies who spied on spies. In the detective novels the complicity between the deceiver and the deceived takes place between writer and reader; in the spy novels too, but then there are also complicities within the fiction itself. No spy without a story, we might say; but also no mission for the spy without the need for some sort of story.

In le Carré’s recent novels, the villains have gone in for drugs and guns, and Dickie Roper, the art-loving, fun-loving dealer in everything illegal in The Night Manager, is repeatedly described as “the worst man in the world.” But then the hyperbole becomes a kind of compliment, and we are delighted to see him escape the comeuppance he so thoroughly deserves. Our actual enemies, the figures for whom there is no forgiveness in le Carré’s world, are not the world’s monsters but those creatures, often and even mostly English, who used to know what justice or goodness were and have recklessly or greedily thrown them away. “We are honorable people,” a character thinks in The Night Manager. “Honorable English people with self-irony and a sense of decency, people with a street spirit and a good heart. What the hell’s gone wrong with us?”

Le Carré presumably doesn’t know the answer, but the question is not merely nostalgic, and he returns to it again and again. Where Greene speaks of what happens to the conception of honor in an atmosphere of defeat, le Carré writes—and this was already true in his cold war novels—of what happens to decency in an atmosphere of sleaze. The loss of real power, accompanied by much expertise in the exercise of the power you used to have, is central here. The world of power has all kinds of mutants, but it is in the world of make-believe power that le Carré’s favorite horrors thrive.

Harry Pendel is not a horror. He is a troubled and guilty man who wants to keep a hostile world off his back; who discovers a talent for imaginary spying, and provokes real death and damage in the process. The horrors are Harry’s recruiter in Panama and his master in Whitehall. The master is all imperial arrogance and complacency, fully convinced of his own subtle understanding of worlds he does not know, starting with the Malvinas and ending in Panama, and le Carré’s satire is at its most withering here. It is at its most complicated in the portrait of the recruiter, one Andrew Osnard, a pudgy old Etonian with a clipped and lazy accent, a swindler who has found his way, through a Dickensian declension of English institutions, to the secretest, most disavowable part of the Secret Service. Osnard is not just a rotter, to use a now-faded term, but a specialist in rot.

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. His first thought was Fleet Street. He was semi-literate and quite unfettered by principle. He had scores to settle. On the face of it he was perfectly cut out to join the new rich media class.

He is too indiscreet about his sources, though, and turns to animal charities, where he does very well until the Serious Fraud Office takes an interest. He thinks the Anglican Church might be suitable, since it “traditionally offered swift promotion to glib, sexually active agnostics on the make,” but realizes the Church’s funds are too low for his purposes. After contemplating the BBC and the National Trust, he finds his vocation in espionage. This account is very funny, and the touch is light enough. But we shouldn’t miss the connection to le Carré’s continuing concerns. If Andrew Osnard is not as despicable as his master, it is because of the frankness of his sleaze. He is taking the world as he finds it, not wrecking a world he could have preserved. One of the satisfying enigmas in this book is that we cannot know whether Osnard believes Harry’s stories or merely likes the sound of them. Certainly he edits them, touches them up.

The British Embassy in Panama is, in the novel, a place where tired and cynical diplomats, the people on the spot when the louche Osnard arrives, see a chance to make a fortune. They believe that the fantasies offered by Harry must be nonsense, or tosh as they call it, but they support the whole conspiracy theory as a way of getting their hands on some of the funds. In an author’s note, le Carré says, I’m sure truthfully, that this is “the sheerest fantasy. The British diplomats and their wives whom I met in Panama were uniformly able, diligent, and honourable. They are the last people on earth to hatch wicked conspiracies or steal gold bars, and they have nothing in common, thank heaven, with the imaginary characters described in this book.” This seems straightforward, although “the last people on earth” is ambiguous and “thank heaven” seems a bit much. And le Carré’s “fantasy” about the diplomats is curiously entangled in Harry’s fantasies about Panama. Yet even if we see no irony at all here, we have to ask about the world le Carré’s fantasy mimes or addresses. If not the embassy in Panama, which embassy? would be one way of putting the question. Or if not an embassy at all, then what other (rotting) office or institution? The sleaze is real enough in the historical world, and at bad moments it looks as if the resistance to it, or even the recognition of it, is the fantasy.

It is hard, in these moral regions, not to keep thinking of Graham Greene, and when le Carré writes of “an acceptance of defeat that in a poor light could have passed for nobility,” he seems almost to be paraphrasing Greene. He comments in his Acknowledgments that “after Greene’s Our Man in Havana, the notion of an intelligence fabricator would not leave me alone.” Le Carré can’t quite do the sadness Greene is so good at, the sheer charm of dingy despair; and his characters get a little talky, even when they are talking to themselves: “The sane are madder than we’ll ever know, he thought. And the mad are a lot more sane than some of us would like to think. And suicides have got it right.”

But le Carré evokes as no one else can the eerie territory in which truth and lies cross over and sometimes cross back again. In The Night Manager, for instance, the very lies which are used to set up our hero as a credible collaborator for Dickie Roper, the worst man in the world, are later used to discredit him as a source: the fake murderer becomes a real psychopath, entirely untrustworthy. And here, in The Tailor of Panama, Harry’s stories not only take on a life of their own, they hint, as spy stories often do, at a shadowy theology. Consoling himself for some of his lies, Harry says, “Not every god has to exist in order to do his job.” But what is a god’s job, and who does it when the god is dead? What happens when non-existent gods turn out to do the job just as well as the real ones? Can this be? The cold war, in such a context, might be another name for the continued worship of dead gods, a practice not likely to be confined to only one period in history. In such ceremonies the “complicity between the deceiver and deceived” goes beyond bluff, and may rest upon the deepest need.

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