John le Carré, The Little Drummer Girl
In keeping with this year’s interest in bestsellers, here is a brief comment on a novel from bestselling author John le Carré: The Little Drummer Girl (New York: Scribner [1983, 2004], 473 pp). Let’s start with the plot: Israeli intelligence officers enlist Charlie, a young, emotionally fragile British actress with radical political views, for a mission to bring down a known Palestinian terrorist (Khalil). She is persuaded to help mainly because she falls in love with one of the Israelis (Gadi Becker, known to Charlie as Joseph). The mission consists of an elaborate hoax to fake a secret love affair between Charlie and the terrorist’s younger brother (Salim, who goes by the alias Michel) in order to get Charlie into the organization and then wind her way up to the older brother. (I can’t say if the hoax works without giving away the ending.)
I started with the plot to make this point: the novel is just too long for the slenderness of the plotline. We get such a dizzying density of detail that, even when those details are well chosen and cleverly described, it’s hard not to wish that something would hurry the story along. In fact, I kept thinking that a screenplay would do wonders for the novel, paring the excess down to the admittedly well-built essentials. Take the part about enlisting Charlie; the novel needs the whole of 150 large, small-fonted pages to get there. When the plan is finally set in motion, we are around page 250.
There is something to be said in defense of these details. In fact, the novel says it: “She [Charlie] picked out these details with accuracy because there are times when details can supply the only link with reality” (265). So there you go: the novel sees details as the way to produce verisimilitude. It works. You do get a sense of having toured a convincingly real world. But, like some ten-day, ten-country tours, it’s overkill. You can sample the degree of detail by reading chapters 8 and 10, which focus compulsively on details in order to build a credible story for the terrorist organization. That’s pretty much how the book as a whole works. Characters abound, many of them named and characterized to never appear again. Descriptions of setting are intricate. Everything seems to be under the scrutiny of a microscope rather than the lens of a regular camera. (Okay, it’s not the most obsessively detailed novel I’ve read: that would be A Suitable Boy, on which I’ll have something to say later on. But The Little Drummer Girl still traveled heavily through the story.)
Now, there are some brilliant characters in the big constellation created in the novel. The German terrorist Astrid Berger is a powerful presence in the book. And the person I considered most intriguing was Kurtz, an Israeli officer who impersonates a whole cast of characters as he moves from one setting to another, always knowing how to present himself and his information in order to get his way. He is calculating and more than willing to make sacrifices, but he wants to stave off the hawks in government.
Many of these characters are created by evocative and effective brushstrokes. Some of the descriptions make nice use of lyricism, without overdoing it (“lucid but allowably lyrical sentences,” in James Woods’s brilliant description of the language of mainstream realist fiction). But there are two main flaws with the novel’s narrative technique.
The first flaw is the way in which the descriptions are presented, which may appear freshly varied but it strikes me as plain sneaky and noisy. Sometimes the narrator is so fully aware of everyone’s intentions and thoughts, even those of minuscule characters, that it could be aptly described as overomniscient. “Over” because most omniscient narrators nowadays exert some kind of restraint, often relying on what specific characters experience. Not in this novel. And that same all-knowing narrator often moves without warning to the tone of a field report in which information is kept from everyone except privileged observers. This is an example: “What passed precisely between the two men could not at first be known, for neither Kurtz nor Gavron was of a confiding nature” (33). As I said, we may argue in favor of this wavering as a source of amusing variety, but sneaky is, again, the word that comes to mind, the apparent result of the author’s strategic indecision rather than the smart construction of a narrative voice.
The second flaw is one we could call overintrusion. At times, the author butts in with aphorisms that make me think of a fireside lecture about life delivered by a man on a rocking chair. Take these three examples: “that also is a feature of explosions […]: a communal, wild urge to celebrate the living, rather than to waste time mourning the dead” (5); “But lust, or nature, or whatever it is that makes fools of us, had its way” (49); “There is a terrible, yet pastoral peace that comes from living for a long time among the world’s real victims” (378). At other times, the descriptions become a bloated display of cleverness; even if they are enjoyable when considered individually, they often get in the way of the narrative. This may be a suitable example: “He had the senior policeman’s fastidious bad grammar and the borrowed good manners of a gentleman, and both were returnable without notice any time he damn well felt like it” (316).
Even with that aphoristic tendency, le Carré often rises as an insightful observer of human affairs. I liked, for instance, the way in which Kurtz describes Charlie’s embrace of radical politics: “Do you think we do not understand that your politics are the externalisation of a search for dimensions and responses not supplied to you when you most needed them?” (149).
So, do I recommend it? Sure, if you have a long flight or whatnot. The plot is good enough to carry you through to the end. It’s not poorly written; in fact, it’s in a different category altogether from some of the badly written bestsellers (e.g.). But the narrative technique and the deluge of details did sometimes interfere with my reading pleasure.