Sunday, 6 July 2014

Espionage fiction on a warm summer day...

I’m enjoying a cup of Chai this morning while the day is still cool, and am looking forward to an afternoon that includes at least a few hours of reading, although I’m not sure what I will read next.  Hmmm…
My volunteer book club met yesterday to discuss John le Carré’s fairly autobiographical novel, A Perfect Spy (1986).  I started reading it last Sunday.  I figured, 600 pages, 6 days, no problem!  I’m not working right now, so I have lots of time to read!  Well, the first day I only managed about 50 pages, and not for want of trying.  So on Monday, I thought, OK, I have to read 150 pages today to make up for yesterday’s shortfall.  I nearly made up this page count by Wednesday, and by Thursday I was way ahead of the game, which left me only 50 pages to read on Friday.  I tell you this because it may give you a sense of how long it took this book to become interesting for me, based on the enthusiasm I had for my reading “assignment”.  But by the end, while I was happy to finish, I was glad I read it.  I was not, therefore, surprised to find that, of the six members who came out for the meeting, only three had finished it (well, two had finished and one was 100 pages from the end before she ran out of time, but she’s probably finished by now), and one of those people didn’t enjoy it.  The other three people didn’t even get to page 200 before they gave up.   I admitted that, if I hadn’t had to read it for the group, and let’s face it, I picked to book for the list so I really had to make an effort to finish it, I probably would have given up, too.  Some of the reasons people gave up on it:  too many characters to keep track of; didn’t know what was going on; who was narrating the story, anyway?; jumped around too much, not told in chronological order; and finally, who were the good guys?.  Even those of us who finished it weren’t sure who all the characters were, which countries they worked for, who they were married to,and what their relationships were to the other characters, although we all agreed that there were no “good guys”, except perhaps Magnus Pym, in his way, and a few minor characters.  In my opinion, this was OK, because while this reader was often in a state of confusion, I was better able to appreciate the identity crisis and lack of clear understanding about the other characters that the main character was experiencing at the time the story takes place.  Here is how the publisher's marketing department summarizes this novel:  “Magnus Pym, ranking diplomat, has vanished, believed defected.  The chase is on:  for a missing husband, a devoted father, and a secret agent.  Pym’s life, it is revealed, is entirely made up of secrets.  Dominated by a father who is also a confidence trickster on an epic scale, Pym has from the age of seventeen been controlled by two mentors.  It is these two, racing each other and time itself, who are orchestrating the search to find the perfect spy” (http://www.amazon.com/A-Perfect-Spy-Novel/dp/0143119761).  Sounds like an awesome page-turner, doesn’t it?  Think The Constant Gardener or Our Kind of Traitor (the only other two I have read by this author).  Having now read this book, I feel that the summary offered by Wikipedia is more accurate:  “A novel about the mental and moral dissolution of a high level secret agent” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Perfect_Spy).  Pym’s disappearance occurs after his father’s death, during which time he secludes himself in a room in an isolated house in a remote small town by the sea, tended to by elderly Miss Dubber and her cat Toby.  During this time, he writes a memoir explaining to his friends and family, mainly to his son, Tom, why he became a double agent and betrayed the British Intelligence Service.  Throughout his life, he was forced to take on so many personalities and personae that his own mental acuity became fractured.  He may have been “a perfect spy”, but he was too sensitive and aware, and this sensitivity, this desire to make things right for everyone, ultimately cost him his soul.  In my own notes, I suggest that this novel explores what it means to be a spy, the trials, the uncertainties, the suspicions that are ever-present, the sense of never really knowing what is true and what is guise, who to trust and who to renounce, the duplicitous nature of spying and how it can interfere with one’s own sense of identity.  This is something I have found in the early episodes of the BBC series, “MI5”.  In the first two seasons, when Tom and Zoe are agents, this is explored quite extensively.  The difficulties in having relationships with those outside the Service, and the effect of taking on many different identities over a period of time, in the interest of the job, are just two of the challenges this series presents.  (note:  later seasons become more action-oriented, more James Bond-like, so for me, less interesting and enjoyable).  One of the members who finished the book also mentioned that le Carré’s writing is excellent, that his descriptions are outstanding.  I have one such description that I want to share with you here.  Before his disappearance, Pym meets up with his first wife, Belinda, from whom he has been divorced for many years.  She is older and heftier than she once was, more severe and angry, as Pym notes:  “Yet her beauty clung to her like an identity she was trying to deny and her plainness kept slipping like a bad disguise.” (p 297 in my Penguin copy)  How beautiful and succinct a statement about her, one that totally captures her in a single sentence.  I think I can conclude this section by saying that le Carré is a brilliant writer, whose books may be worth the effort it takes to read them to the end, if you can let go of the need to understand everything that is going on as well as who all the characters are.  
That’s all I have for today.  Not sure what I will read next, but it will definitely be something new and Canadian.  I’ll let you know next week.

Bye for now…
Julie

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