Books: The men who sold the world

Where have all the spies gone? Into corporations, every one. Christophe r Hope is stirred, but not shaken, by the outcome
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Single & Single

by John Le Carre

Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 16.99, 336pp

ONCE UPON a time, back in the Cold War when politicians ruled the world, they had a powerful claim on our attentions. They had the means to kill us all. And their secret agents - the "lonely deciders" as John Le Carre calls them in a telling phrase in his new novel - played a deadly game. The stakes were high: peace, or mutually assured destruction. Even so, there was a settled quality to things: "we" were here and the "Sovs" were there. In between the parties moved the secret go-betweens in their melancholy grandeur. In the Cold War, spies were hot: they made news, they made war, they made great fiction.

Then the world changed. The Berlin Wall fell, the Sovs collapsed and things were never the same. Anyway, the record suggests that real spies were pretty duff at the real thing. When the Wall came down, the secret watchers were as astonished as the rest of us.

On Russia, their record is even worse. They missed what was staring them in the face. Any interested visitor, walking about in Moscow in the late 1980s, or sitting in Russian kitchens listening to the frantic talk of anguished Muscovites, felt that the show was over. Though the agency denies it now, the CIA billions never found that out, never walked in the streets, apparently never simply looked and listened.

It was Le Carre, about that time, who suggested with brilliant perversity that maybe the Russians didn't have what it took. In The Russia House, a book almost as savage as , he put forward the notion that perhaps "the Sovs" were not really a nation of rocket scientists, all superbly tooled up and raring to run the planet.

That thought did sometimes occur to travellers holed up in the Ukraina Hotel, trying to fix an electric plug. But it was a detestable heresy in intelligence circles, where egos were as bloated as the budgets on which they thrived. In any case, the point about the Russians was that we needed them. Those people were some sort of solution.

Then the Empire flew apart. So who runs the world now? Or, put it this way: who is as venal, merciless, crooked as the power-brokers on both sides? points us to the financial buccaneers, the bankers, brokers, the boys in bright braces dealing in complex financial instruments. Where have all the spies gone? Into corporations, every one. After the Cold War, cold-hearted commerce is king. When the hedge funds wilt, babies starve. When currency speculators move in, nations go to the wall.

Enter Tiger Single, creator and master-spirit of the venture-capital house of . Tiger is jaunty, charismatic, arrogant, crooked, instantly recognisable and utterly of our time; the essence of the corporate raider, the gallant asset-stripper.

Tiger's urge is great and simple: to convert the new Russia to the new capitalism. And the financial press - Le Carre has the fawning tone exactly - excitedly parrots his mission, his canting sermons on progress. "The Greatest Challenge to the Commercial World today... is the birth of a market- oriented Soviet Union." Therefore the House of Single will be the "facilitator". It offers "solid long-term partnership without exploitation".

What it means is that Tiger Single plans to do for the old Soviet Union what George Soros did for world currencies. Or Nike for factory prices. Or Swiss banks for Jewish gold. If you thought the old days were bad, welcome to heaven as declared by the hedge funds, the universe run by money men, the men who put the "con" in economics. If the old political bosses happily offered to trade their mothers in the interests of "world peace", take a look at the new lot. Tiger Single would not simply offer; Tiger Single would deliver.

Le Carre parades for our delectation as convincing a line-up of prominent shits as ever read a balance sheet or restructured an economy. The novel opens when a corporate lawyer has his head blown off in a grisly comic execution on a Turkish hillside. From there on it is all go: the action shifts between London, Russia, Dorset and the wilds of Georgia.

There is the Georgian Mafia, and former Russian spies turned entrepreneurs. There is all Le Carre's deeply satisfying detail. There is Tiger's son, Oliver, raised to run his dad's show when the old man steps down - and suddenly having doubts about Tiger's tender desire to save Russia for capitalism. When young Oliver beats the odious Swiss lawyer, Herr Stampfli, we cheer him on.

Tiger Single is a wonderful creation. He is not merely an insufferable bastard; he is rather likeable in his arrogance. Shaved by Trumper, shod by Lobb, phoney from start to finish. He is also, God help us, a missionary, out to convert the heathen - into profit. He is ready to trade in everything from human souls to good, clean Caucasian blood, from the vein of exhausted, bankrupt Russians. Le Carre has always drawn and felt his Russians superbly well: does beautifully the madness, the greatness, the vodka, the dark heart.

There is Brock, the patient spy-master of The Russia House, now older and wiser. But times have changed and it shows. Brock has all the instincts of the Cold War controller of agents in the field. But his new role as a kind of super-sleuth on the track of off-shore accounts and financial scams seems to fit him as uncomfortably as the customs uniform he so seldom wears.

is, one comes to realise, a kind of revenge comedy. This is the new world order and Le Carre kicks it around very satisfactorily. But there is a limit to how excited you can get about offshore holdings.

Money-laundering and money grubbing are dull. We may be appalled by Tiger Single and his innovative ways of making a killing, but we are hardly surprised. When W H Auden remarked, of the brokers, that they spent their time roaring like beasts on the floor of the bourse, that was no more than we expected.

The trouble now, so Le Carre suggests, is that men like Tiger Single have leaped right out of the trading floor and into the pulpit, preaching the New World Economic Order. Nowadays, runs the gloomy thought that underpins this wonderfully angry novel, when the world's business elite meet in covens like Davos at the annual World Economic Forum (here lightly disguised as "an informal German lakeside seminar for senile untouchables") Tiger Single will be there, driving the big courtesy Audi around in the snow.

What the folks who brought you the New World Economic Order failed to mention is that they are it. And anything that goes - goes. Behind them are the dealers in derivatives, the hedge fund managers, the private bankers. Complex financial instruments are used to club the enemy into submission. This is war. Tiger Single is what we have coming to us. Be frightened, runs Le Carre's underlying message in .

It may be true. But, somehow, the news that balance-sheets have taken over from the balance of power is not enthralling. I was more frightened, before. The finger on the nuclear button wins every time against the hand in the till. Mutually Assured Destruction beats Money Laundering any day. Bring back the Sovs, I say.

Christopher Hope's new novel, `Signs of the Heart', will be published by Macmillan in June