A Delicate Truth

Whistling in the shadows

Alexander Matthews reviews John le Carré's latest novel


How many times have you heard it? “Dear John was great in the Cold War. But that’s really where he belongs – he’s irrelevant now.” And yet the truth (is it too indulgent to call it a delicate one?) could not be farther from it. The Cold War might be long gone, but espionage, secrecy, intelligence are very much still with us. And who better than the Master to explore their current manifestations?

I’m happy to concede that le Carré’s output since the Berlin Wall came crashing down has been a little erratic. There have been flashes of brilliance (Single & Single), and minor disappointments (The Mission Song). But he nails it with his latest, A Delicate Truth. It is haunting and urgent. And it explores, profoundly, this strange, contradictory, confusing age. Invariably in his Cold War novels, the West’s establishment — however flawed — was something largely good, noble – fighting a fiendish, evil enemy. Now le Carré is not so sure. The establishment has been hijacked, co-opted, rife with greedy buggers in smart suits that put self long before country.

A Delicate Truth recounts a botched extraordinary rendition executed by a private intelligence firm that was cosy with a leading New Labour minister. The minister’s private secretary catches wind of it, is powerless to stop it. Three years later, though, his quest for answers will have extraordinary results.

This is a novel about the corporatisation of government. It’s about the far-too-comfortable relationships that members of the public sector have with the private sector. This novel is about searching for truth in the fog of official secrecy, about blowing the whistle, about Doing the Right Thing – at great cost, potentially, to yourself.

Written with le Carré’s trademark ease and poise, his characters, however marginal, are conjured boldly, honestly on to the page. Having been released shortly before defence contractor Edward Snowden emerged as The Guardian’s source about PRISM, the US mass electronic surveillance programme, it is eerily prescient. It is a novel for now.

Le Carré’s prognosis is bleak. With terrorism as a handy excuse, secrecy has increased, and with it, abuses of power that can be concealed by it. Civil liberties are increasingly under strain – even in the mighty states that fought so hard in the Cold War to protect them. And yet how can we forget (The Guardian, Wikileaks and others might care to remind us): that while the veil might be tightening, in the age of the web it is getting harder to keep it fully drawn than ever before.

A Delicate Truth is published by Viking Penguin, R210, and has been selected as one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of A Delicate Truth. To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the subject heading the same as the book’s title. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and full physical address (including area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 August.



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