The Lying Game

The Tailor of Panama

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

John le Carré
John le Carré; drawing by David Levine

“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…

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