Last year in The New Yorker, John le Carré opened an essay on his literary inspirations by noting that he has found much of his material in Britain’s former colonies, citing novels set in Hong Kong, the Bahamas, and (then) most recently Kenya. He even impugned the Colonial Office in The Little Drummer Girl, finding room to fault the Mandate while accompanying Mossad in the hunt for a Palestinian terrorist in the months just prior to Sharon Africanus’s invasion of Lebanon. My immediate reaction was: Where, then, is the le Carré novel about Ulster?
The end of the Cold War was, at first, seen as the death of the cash cow that le Carré and other writers of espionage fiction had been milking for decades. Where Clancy sank further into dementia, however, le Carré went abroad in search of Western monsters and found them in arms dealers, financiers, and pharmaceutical manufacturers (and, as always, the corrupt and craven politicians who cover for them). While these villains are clear and present, le Carré drains them of the moral ambiguity that characterized (and, in my opinion, improved) the conflicts in his Cold War novels. I can think of no conflict more bitter or immediate, and therefore a more fertile environment for le Carré’s talents, than that which has wracked Ireland for centuries and continues today.
Le Carré has touched on Ulster only once in his oeuvre: Jonathan Pine, the protagonist of The Night Manager, earned his chops in wet work in the British Army, intercepting IRA arms shipments. Unfortunately, Pine’s character finds more motivation from a personal grief (rather too directly) caused by the novel’s antagonist, an amoral arms dealer bloodlessly ignorant of his customers’ passions, than from any political reflection upon his apprenticeship in Ulster.
One might argue that The Little Drummer Girl exhausted the terrorist subject for le Carré. But le Carré is a genre writer, even if he invented his genre himself, and he has shown himself more than adept at immersing himself in a region and gleaning from multiple cultures and institutions the details crucial to revealing ugly but human truths while leaving everyone involved bloody and exhausted. Surely, Northern Ireland deserves such a treatment.
Le Carré is justly proud of his inability to keep his biography out of his writing, mining the rich veins of his childhood in 30s and 40s and his intelligence career in the 50s and 60s. But I think we only have to go back to the 90s to guess at some reasons for his reluctance to tackle the Ulster subject. When Salman Rushdie authorized a paperback edition of his fatwa-inciting novel The Satanic Verses, le Carré argued that the principle of free speech had been upheld with publication of the hardback edition and reproved Rushdie for endangering his publisher’s employees ("the girls in the mailroom," in le Carré’s phrase) by further provoking Muslims who might react with violence. This suggests that le Carré might be (or may have recently become) too sensitive to the costs of political and religious speech to justify a ruthlessly thorough examination of "the Troubles."
In his post-Cold War novels, le Carré has been given to a moral stridency that is of a kind, if not a degree, with Rushdie’s polemics. Ironically, the two le Carré novels that occasioned the greatest political backlash were among his least strident: The Little Drummer Girl, one of le Carré’s most morally conflicted works, and The Tailor of Panama, a parody of Graham Greene that approached farce in its excoriation of the easiest of targets: British and American politicians. Outcries at the latter provoked the response from le Carré that had been simmering since the mixed reception of the former.
It was not the lampoon of American pseudo-colonialism and corrupt British Intelligence in Tailor that raised hackles—it was the tailor himself, Harry Pendel, an English ex-patriate with plausibly intimate access to Panamanian power brokers and who just happens to be Jewish. When a corrupt and conniving agent of British Intelligence exhorts and extorts Pendel into fabricating a non-existent threat to the Canal and an equally non-existent insurgency that will, if properly funded, repel the threat, le Carré was accused of indulging in the anti-Semitic stereotype of the Jewish swindler. While this charge is easily dismissed by even a cursory reading of Tailor—the British agent is the true scoundrel—le Carré’s accusers recalled as supporting evidence the harsh criticism of The Little Drummer Girl 13 years earlier, which equated that novel’s less-than-Manichean view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with anti-Semitism. Le Carré denounced such defamation, and when Rushdie publicly inquired whether le Carré—now that he himself had been exposed to the censorious tendencies of religious zealots—might care to retract his condemnation of Rushdie, le Carré rejected the analogy and reiterated his opposition to publication that results in the loss of innocent lives.
Finally, it could be argued that timeliness is the guiding principle for le Carré (or his publisher) and that, post-Good Friday, intrigue in Northern Ireland won’t sell. Perhaps the Cold War was too kind to le Carré after all, such that in the 70s when passions and politics in Ulster were running their hottest, he had too good of a thing going with George Smiley to attend to Bloody Sunday. Clearly, le Carré would rather have impugned Thatcher’s Ulster policy than Blair’s.
It remains curious that none of le Carré’s characters or novels have had occasion to reflect on the (in)justice of continued British rule over the six northern counties of Ireland or the methods which various factions have used to resist or preserve that rule. It is telling that The Night Manager—le Carré’s first post-Cold War novel, prompting many to wonder to which task he might next set his hand—explicitly equated the Ulster conflict with a laundry list of nationalist, religious, and criminal insurgencies around the globe, all of which had been abetted by profit-driven arms dealers and their governmental patrons. He made the analogy of arms trafficking with drug trafficking, obscuring insurgents’ grievances in favor of addiction theory. The culpability of the arms industry is hardly controversial, and that industry’s corrupting influence upon Western governments not much more so. What is lacking is the journey, perhaps by an Englishman of undefined idealism, through the worlds of the Unionist and Republican paramilitaries, their political sponsors, and above all the suffering residents of Northern Ireland that le Carré could surely give us, but which he has so far refused.