Agent Running in the Field
By John le Carré
Viking. 281 pp. $29
Reviewed by Richard Lipez
John le Carré's 25th novel is so topical it arrives with the beeping urgency of a news alert. There’s one reference to Donald Trump being invited to tea with Queen Elizabeth, and that just happened last year. Trump himself has no speaking part in this dark, sometimes serio-comic, take on Russia’s malevolent role in the turmoil besetting Western democracies. But his name is often mentioned, and his face seems to press against the window of the novel.
The story's hero, Nat (no last name given) is a classic le Carré character, a skilled mid-level field operative in the secret British intelligence services who is underappreciated and sometimes abused by the dunderheads above him. At age 47, after 25 years of running agents in Eastern Europe, Nat is about to be put out to pasture. A final foray running a ragtag houseful of Russia watchers in London leads to the surprise unearthing of separate cunning, ultra-secret plans by two world powers to bust up Europe. One of the two bad actors is Vladimir Putin's Russia, and let's just say the other one is not Argentina.
As usual, the characters le Carré respects, like Nat and his human-rights lawyer wife Prue, are lovingly examined in all their complexities, while his villains (Putin, Trump) are just as lovingly eviscerated. Nat and Prue's marriage has been emotionally off-again, on-again; they bonded best when they were both young agents working for "the Office," as it's called, in Moscow and currently while dealing with their rebellious college-age daughter, Stephanie. The best thing about le Carré's otherwise not-always-convincing narrative is the way Nat and Prue regain their marital mojo when they join operational forces for maybe one last time for the good of humankind.
An unlikely coincidence in the novel does produce another marvelous character: Pushy, opinionated Ed Shannon, half Nat’s age, shows up one fine day at the badminton club where Nat is a champ. The two become regular friendly competitors. Both are vague about who their employers are, but it’s Ed who rants about current affairs despite a sign over the bar that reads “No Brexit Talk Aloud.” Ed, a Germanophile, despises both the Brexiteers and Trump; the American president, he avers, “is presiding over the systematic no-holds-barred Nazification of the United States.” In the opening line of the novel, Nat tells us that his meeting with Ed was “not contrived,” although it will turn out that Ed will come to play a critical role in what Nat sometimes refers to as “the Fall.”
Over the years, so many of le Carré's intel-service characters have been torn as they’re called to perform immoral acts for ends sometimes involving a sliding scale of morality. Filling this role in Agent Running in the Field is a talented young probationer named Florence who quits the service, telling Nat she is sick of lying. Suspicious, Nat asks their sometimes duplicitous supervisor, Dominic Trench, why Florence resigned — “a pretty massive decision if lying for your country is your chosen profession.” The answer is not simple.
The character most emblematic of the rot spread by Putin’s Russia is Arkady, a former agent of Nat’s back in the early post-Soviet era. Arkady once dreamed of a post-Stalinist liberal democracy in Russia. Now, he believes all that is lost. Instead, he has become a cynical rich oligarch with a villa and bodyguards in a Czech resort town. When Nat approaches him for information about a Russian spying scheme, Arkady explains to his old handler that “I love best my Karlovy Vary. We have an Orthodox cathedral. Pious Russian crooks worship in it once a week. When I am dead I shall join them. I have a trophy wife, very young. ... What more should I want from life?” Maybe because Arkady really wants a little more than the items on that list, he helps Nat out.
Nearly all of le Carré's characters in Agent Running in the Field, however confused or misguided they are, have a few redeeming characteristics. But two characters have none. In a memorable scene, Nat peers up at a television set and sees Trump and Putin in Helsinki. “Trump, speaking as if to order, is disowning the findings of his own intelligence services, which have come up with the inconvenient truth that Russia interfered in the 2016 American presidential election. Putin smiles his proud jailer’s smile.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that in a recent interview with the BBC, le Carré (who turned 88 on Oct. 19) said “it would be impossible to write at the moment without speaking from within the state of the nation — we’re part of it, I’m part of it. ... I’m depressed by it. I’m ashamed of it and that I think communicates itself in the book.” It does.