Le Carré, John. The Tailor of Panama.

NY: Knopf, 1996.

For many years now, Le Carré has been one of my favorite writers. In fact, in terms of his storytelling abilities alone, I consider him one of the best authors of any variety of the past sixty years. I own all his books and I reread all of them every few years.

The story this time is explicitly a homage to Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, which Le Carré has said is one of his own favorite books. And after the first time he read it, “the notion of an intelligence fabricator would not leave me alone.” But he takes quite a different approach, of course, and in fact carries the story much farther than Greene ever did.

Harry Pendel is an elite tailor in Panama City, a Cockney refugee from Savile Row (he says) who clothes all the bigwigs of Panama, from the country’s President to the U.S. general in charge of Southern Command. He’s married to Louisa, an American born in the Canal Zone, and has a couple of kids, and he’s reasonably happy. Even if he is having problems with the rice farm he invested in. And then Andy Osnard appears in his life, fresh from the newest incarnation of what Le Carré carefully never calls MI-6, now largely financed, in our post-Cold-War world, by private industry. Andy knows a great deal about Harry’s real life back in England, unpleasant things no one in Panama is aware of, and he thinks Pendel is perfectly placed to act as a listening post on behalf of Her Majesty’s government. What do his highly-placed customers gossip about in the fitting room? What does he overhear when he makes office calls on the Palace? They’re willing to pay him an impressive amount of money. And, naturally, Osnard intends to feather his own nest along the way. In fact, in order to milk this deal for all they can, Harry is encouraged to recruit sub-sources from among his friends and acquaintances. Well, there’s his young secretary, whom he rescued from a brutal beating by Noriega’s troops before the U.S. invasion, and who has been in love with him ever since. She knows lots of radical students, having been one herself. And there’s his best friend, Mickie, who supposedly has deep contacts with people “on the other side of the bridge.” And if he can’t actually gather politically useful information to pass on to Osnard, well, he can just make it up, rewriting and expanding on what he actually does hear. After all, he’s been doing that with his own personal history most of his life.

One of the things I like best about all of Le Carré’s books is his narrative subtlety. He often doesn’t tell you explicitly what’s going on, or perhaps what’s gone before. He hints at events and relationships through his characters’ dialogues or via their ruminations. So you have to pay attention, but it’s very much worth the effort. Harry’s one of the Good Guys and his true personality is revealed very slowly and in a sympathetic way, while Andy’s predatory nature is obvious right from the start. But you somehow know that Harry will prevail in their relationship, one way or another. And along the way you’ll find some marvelous writing. For instance, Harry at one point thinks about coming clean with his wife regarding his past. “Louisa [he rehearses], I’ve got to tell you something which is frankly a bit of a facer. What you know about me is not strictly kosher as regards all the details. It’s more in the line of what I’d like to have been, if all things had been a bit more equal than they were.” Nope. Can’t do it, he decides. “Tell you later. Much later. Like in another life entirely.” That short passage alone should tell you a lot about the speaker’s background and view of the world. But even the author’s throwaway descriptions are memorable, as in, “He watched the squadrons of pelicans crank themselves across the sea.” Or, as his Uncle Benny once told him, “Jews ask forgiveness of man, not God, which is rough on us because man is a harder con than God any day.”

When the Soviet Union fell apart and the Cold War became history, I worried a little that Le Carré would simply retire, his best fictional milieu having been taken away from him. But I needn’t have been concerned. He’s going to keep turning out amazingly well-written books for the rest of his life.


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