Saturday, January 29, 2011

Call for the Dead by John Le Carre

Le Carré, John. A Call for the Dead. New York: Walker and Company. 1962.

Yet again, I approached a Connecticut mystery book club selection with a feeling of trepidation. This is not to say I wasn't very glad Le Carré had been chosen, because Bob has been urging me to read him for years. Others have raved about him to me, too. Still. I think Le Carré, and I think "Spies? Cold War? Yawn!" He probably would have rotted away forever on page 451 of the TBR tome if I hadn't been "forced" to read him.

Channeling the average ninth-grader, I was extremely happy when I went to pick this up at the library, to find that it, Le Carré's first novel, was really more of a novella than a novel. We have others sitting on our shelves that could almost give War and Peace a run for its money in the length category. If I have to cut my teeth on an author who writes something I don't normally choose to read, I'd rather start with a teething ring than a tractor tire.

And now I have to tell you that my fears were completely unwarranted. If you've never read him, what you've heard is true: John LeCarré can write. Damn well. Not only can he write, but he can also tell a very good story. Even if it wasn't the most original of plots, he still told it well. I was "gone" by the end of the first chapter -- still a little worried that all sorts of allusions to technical espionage activities and historical events about which I know nothing would be made, but "gone" nonetheless. Happily, those allusions never came.

Very early on, despite the use of Cold War spies (spies you could call "leftovers" from WWII) as heroes and villains, this book proved itself to be a very standard mystery of the "Did he or didn't he commit suicide?" sort. There's even a little, wistful romance, our "hero" still enamored of the wife, we are informed in the first paragraph of the book, who left him "...two years [after they were married] in favor of a Cuban motor racing driver." (p. 3)

I don't know. Are there such things as "cozy" espionage thrillers? If so, I'd say this one definitely qualifies. We're given a puzzle to solve. There is just enough -- tactful -- violence to convince us that people's lives are at stake, that something dangerous and underhanded is taking place, but not so much that we're biting our nails, flipping pages in a hurry, worried for every character. No, I actually read this book at quite a leisurely pace, picking it up and putting it down for about a week -- despite its only being 128 pages long. Every time I picked it back up, I felt happy to be back in it, but I felt no real urgency to get to the end to find out what happened. I was quite content just to meander through it, knowing that all would eventually be revealed and would make perfect sense.

Yet, I wasn't bored. On the contrary, I enjoyed it immensely. I think that's because the characters are so well-drawn and so human. Unlike the heroes of some of the other mysteries we've read for this group, I felt that, even given how short the work was, I really got to know our hero George Smiley, that Le Carré has a talent for throwing in things that give us insight into his characters. I gather from Bob that Smiley continues as a character in other books by Le Carré, that this is his debut, and I think Le Carré was quite fond of him from the very beginning. I know I am. How could I not be fond of this character? He was a man born in the wrong century who

...hated the press as he hated advertising and television, he hated mass media, the relentless persuasion of the twentieth century. Everything he admired or loved had been the product of intense individualism. (p. 112)

"Cozy" the book may appear to be, yes. You can see, though, that Le Carré encourages his readers to think. He's out to do more than just provide some light entertainment by the fire.

The one question I have, though, is: is this book a bit antisemitic? My guess is that Le Carré was trying not to be, but to the ears of someone reading it 50 years after it was first published in Great Britain, it sounds quite so. There were generalizations and stereotypes, though hidden amongst huge bushes of sympathy. Then again, as someone who wants his readers to think, maybe Le Carré was merely trying to open people's eyes to the notion that, just as not all Germans are bad, not all Jews are good, drawing to our attention the fact that we are all, after all, human. He also raised some extremely interesting questions about those poor souls who survived life in WWII concentration camps. On some levels, then, you could say he was breaking down barriers and fighting against anti-semitism.

Anyway, good stuff. Guess who's busy browsing our shelves for more?


Courtney said...

I've definitely been a Le Carre avoider as well, considering him both outdated and uninteresting...this post definitley changes my mind! While I am not seeking out his next book imminently, I definitely will keep him under consideration - I love spy novels!

Rebecca H. said...

I enjoyed the book as well, even though I did have some moments of not quite getting what was going on. I got very confused about names at one point and had to do some digging around to figure it out. But still, I agree with you about the characters; I liked Smiley a lot. We talked in the discussion a bit about the antisemitism question, and people thought the book wasn't antisemitic, although I can't remember what the arguments were -- sorry about that! Maybe it's just that his language is a little more direct than we are comfortable with today? Anyway, spy novels are not my thing, really, but I did like this one.

Carrie#K said...

I never have read a Le Carre novel, no idea why not. I'll have to pick one up - probably there is anti-semitism - it's always a little freaky to read a prior generations assumptions.

Emily Barton said...

Court, this wasn't outdated. I'd definitely give it a try and see what you think.

Dorr, wish I'd been there for the discussion. I would have liked to hear others' opinions about the whole antisemitism thing. I was a bit confused at times, but pretty much brushed it off, because I was so much less confused than I'd expected to be!

Carrie, yes, I agree. I have learned to brace myself for prior generations' assumptions, although, sometimes, they still shock me a little.