BOOK REVIEW / A pale Bond leaves Smiley in the cold: 'The Night Manager' - John le Carre: Hodder, 15.99 pounds

Robert Winder
Thursday 08 July 1993 23:02 BST

FOR SEVERAL years it has been fashionable to insist that the spy novel was exposed and hung out to dry the moment those first eager hammers thumped holes in the Berlin Wall. What began as a joke - ho-ho-ho, what will all those spy writers do with themselves now - has swiftly become part of the received wisdom: there's a Rest-in-Peace plaque, or at least a Do-Not-Disturb sign, nailed on to what's left of Checkpoint Charlie.

It is all rather a pity, not least because it presumes (wrongly) that spy novels are only documentaries in disguise, and that the novelists inspired by the Cold War were mere reporters. But the really unfortunate thing is that the spy novelists themselves have taken it at face value. One look at the warning signs, and they've shoved off in glum pursuit of more varied and up-to-date game.

Even John le Carre has withdrawn from Soviet airspace: his new book is about political collusion in the arms trade. On paper, it's a strong idea: all those espiocrats (in Le Carre's neat phrase) are still at their desks, but since the opposition can't quite get a team out these days, they are dabbling in police work; much more fun, and better for job security, to spy on big-shot gun-runners rather than simply arrest them.

The trade in weapons - or what connoisseurs like to call 'toys' - is a good milieu for thrills, with plenty of travel perks. It gives Le Carre lots of room to indulge his steady and admirable preoccupation with easy moral choices that are forever obliged to kowtow to subtle and top-secret considerations of state.

The Night Manager also obeys solid and readable conventions. A former soldier called Jonathan Pine, a night porter in a top-class Swiss hotel, is recruited by British intelligence and sent off to spike the guns of an old-school-tie arms dealer called Dicky Roper. There is a slightly implausible romantic twist - Roper was involved in the murder of Pine's former lover in Cairo - but the book mainly has its eye on the high-level cynicism that allows the arms business to flourish.

But in seeking to move with the times, Le Carre has produced an adventure of the most old-fashioned and predictable sort. His hero does not loiter, like George Smiley, in offices and libraries and public parks, sifting stray bits of gossip and rumour, rubbing his glasses in astonishment when he asks himself how come the car keys weren't on the kitchen table three Novembers ago. Pine is all action: he stages an elaborate disguise, infiltrates Roper's posh yacht, beds his sensational girlfriend, flicks through his office with a miniature camera and gets whacked about the head when he's exposed.

Talk about shaken and not stirred. Pine's the name, we half expect him to say - Jonathan Pine. Indeed it would hardly be a surprise if Dicky Roper greeted him with the phrase: 'Ah, Mr Pine, so good of you to join us.' Our icy hero could have replied: 'OK Roper, you've made your point. Let the girl go.'

Hovering over this extravagant saga is a moralising, allegorical tendency that continues to drain the energy out of Le Carre's natural storytelling gift. The behind-the-scenes villain (part of a big conspiracy which for some reason is pushed far into the background) is called Darker, mainly so his rebellious subordinates can refer to the 'forces of Darker'; the hero, Pine, is given a deliberately mournful, if not naive and sentimental name; and he starts the book as a hotel 'night manager' for no reason other than to make the title stick. The blurb draws embarrassing attention to the two women who 'mysteriously direct' Jonathan Pine's 'journey' - but the truth is, all they mysteriously direct is his lust: one smells of vanilla; the other has 'liquid hips'.

Dicky Roper, meanwhile, is 'the worst man in the world', no less. A good deal is made, in the book, of his celebrated 'charm'. Pine is always having to remind himself not to fall for it. But surely Le Carre himself does not believe that Roper's odious and transparent bonhomie amounts to anything like charm. The author insists on the point with great care: 'Roper let you know that you could tell him anything, and he would still be smiling at the end of it.'.

But as soon as Roper opens his mouth, the idea falls apart: 'Balls, frankly,' he tells Pine. 'Don't believe you. You've never relaxed in your life, in my view. Not sure I have either. I try. Play a bit of golf, do the boat, bit of this and that, swim, screw. But my engine's a-going all the time. So's yours. What I like about you. No neutral gear.' Is this charming? The odd swim and a bit of golf and a screw here and there? Does anyone feel that they could tell this guy anything, and that he would still be listening at the end of it? Even here, the metaphorical scheme falls heavily across the page: Roper's charm, we feel, is only there to clinch the sense in which he leads a charmed life.

Nothing can take the gloss from Le Carre's earlier books. But the notion that because the Cold War is over it is no longer a worthwhile subject for his fiction seems bizarre. There is still plenty of life in westerns, though the west was won and lost a hundred years ago. And the marvellous world Le Carre conjured up in those early novels was effective partly because it was so plausible, but also because it was such an cosy and coherent one - a place where all spies ended up as geography teachers in prep schools and where the biscuits were always stale, and always called biccies. Le Carre was not a frequent visitor behind the iron curtain: documentary reporting played a very small role in the great and deserved success of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and the Smiley novels.

In one sense, the East-West stalemate hardly exists in these books, though our perception of the Cold War in part derives from them. Instead, it functions as a great backdrop: a couple of whopping cliches about the freedom-loving West and the cunning, unfree East which Le Carre was able to subvert by dramatising the routine betrayals on both sides. Even better, he was able to conjure up a closed, self-referring fictional universe with its own private language and its own peculiar priorities. It seemed, at its best, a clear portrait of little England. But let out into the sunshine, that same language looks merely dated. It might well be that in a couple of hundred years of posterity's even-handed editing, nobody will notice that Le Carre's idioms were 20 years behind the times. It was OK for Smiley's circus people to cry 'My Aunt Fanny]' when they were surprised, and 'Say when' every time they made a cup of tea, because they lived in a very odd and unreal world made up of moles and lamplighters and faulty consciences. But today's readers can be forgiven if they wince a little.

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