John Le Carre, The Little Drummer Girl (Random House, 1983).
Le Carre has forsaken the world of the Circus and its post-imperial wiles to explore the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, particularly that between the underground agencies of the two sides. The central character is a young English actress named Charlie: At first sympathetic to the Palestinians, she is elaborately “turned” by the Israeli agents. After many weeks of interrogation and briefing, and several identity changes, she leads the Israelis to their Palestinian prey in southern Germany.
As a story, it is dull. Charlie is wooden, hollow, a man’s two-dimensional fantasy of a younger woman. Apparently this misogynist portrait is based on Le Carre’s younger sister, an actress who was part of the British theatrical world (Vanessa Redgrave among them) that backed the Workers’ Revolutionary Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Le Carre implies that political commitment, particularly that of women, is suspect—a theme that pervades all of his work. As reactionary as it is sexist, the story betrays a deep sibling unease on the author’s part about his sister’s activities, both on an intellectual and a personal level. Like other women in Le Carre, such as Smiley’s wife Anne, she is feckless and sexually menacing. The plot itself is dreary, moving from one claustrophobic and improbably elaborate venue to another. For all the promise of a new terrain, we only reach the Middle East for a brief sojourn three quarters of the way through the volume. Nearly all the action takes place in familiar Le Carre settings—pretty German towns, seedier middle-class England, southern European ports.
It soon becomes evident, too, that we have not left the spirit of the Circus. There is hardly a Jewish Joke or an Arab epithet to ward off that familiar sickly complacency which culminated in the cap doffing of Smiley’s People. Instead of suspense or psychological insight, we have only an invitation to awe as Le Carre’s bruised maestros move toward their predictable triumph.
The pre-publication publicity has suggested that Le Carre has been sympathetic to both Israelis and Palestinians. His US editors have even suggested that this book may annoy those favorable to Israel. They need not worry. Given its use of a major political theme, and its implicit comments upon it, this is a biased book in the conventional mode. The very fact that so much of the Arab-Israeli conflict is viewed through events in Germany, where Palestinian assassins are slaying innocent people, is enough to set the scene. The first statement of the Arab case comes from the mouth of an Israeli briefing officer. The main criticisms of the Israelis are for what they have done in Lebanon, rather than for their underlying contribution to the eviction of a whole people from their land.
Le Carre’s loss of nerve comes out in some telling incidents. We learn that the Israelis are accused of having dropped booby-trapped toys on Lebanon. This did happen. Yet the heroine is quickly brought in to fudge the issue: “Maybe, thought Charlie, maybe not.” Later, we learn that the huge apartment blocks built after 1967 in East Jerusalem are offensive—to (Israeli) conservationists. What the Arab population thought as their city was transformed by an invader we do not hear.
Just as he teased with his portrayals of the East-West conflict, so now Le Carre teases with the Arab-Israeli question. No doubt the book will be a great success: it carefully matches the prejudices of his audience. With a little less hype and a little more moral courage, Le Carre could have written a much better book. As it is, he seems to be a rather lost outsider, mixed up in issues for which he has little comprehension and many of the wrong instincts. A little drummer boy, perhaps?