The Little Drummer Girl by John le Carré
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”What would it be like really and absolutely to believe? (...) To know, really and absolutely know, that there's a Divine Being not set in time or space who reads your thoughts better than you ever did, and probably before you even have them? To believe that God sends you to war, God bends the path of bullets, decides which of his children will die, or have their legs blown off, or make a few hundred million on Wall Street, depending on today's Grand Design?”
Joseph proved to be more than just a fan with flowers.
Charlie is an English actress who has been reasonably successful on the stage and is one good role away from becoming an established actress when she meets a man on a beach in Greece. He isn’t like any other man she has ever met before. He has scars, unusual scars, scars that denote the violence that has been done to him, and because he was still alive she could assume that he had perpetrated violence, effectively, against his enemies .
’That Joseph was Jewish she had not doubted since her abortive interrogation of him on the beach. But Israel was a confused abstraction to her, engaging both her protectiveness and her hostility. She had never supposed for one second that it would ever get up and come to face her in the flesh.”
Charlie’s head is full of half formed radical left wing ideas about politics and social issues. She is promiscuous, always needing a man in her bed, and pretty enough to never have to look far for candidates. She thinks she understands what men want, but Joseph is an enigma who runs hot and cold. He keeps her emotions rising and falling like a stock market beset by outside forces beyond her understanding.
He wants more than sex from her. He wants her life.
Joseph is an Israeli spy and his job is to reel Charlie in for his boss Martin Kurtz. Martin is known by many names. He keeps several identities carefully separated in different files in his mind. He is a sword for the cause of Israel. He will use anyone or anything to protect his country. He has hand selected Charlie for a very specific task.
”You are definitely bastards. Wouldn’t you say so?” She was still looking at her skirt, really interested in the way it filled and turned. “And you are the biggest bastard of them all actually aren’t you? Because you are the biggest bastard of them all actually, aren’t you? Because you get it both ways. One minute our bleeding heart, the next our red-toothed warrior. Whereas all you really are--when it comes down to it--is a bloodthirsty, landgrabbing little Jew.”
Notorious with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant.
The relationship between Joseph and Charlie reminded me strongly of the Alfred Hitchcock movie from 1946…Notorious...which is one of my favorite Hitchcock films. T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) plays a government agent who is tasked with recruiting Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) to infiltrate a Nazi organization. Alicia falls in love with Devlin and he with her, but the job takes precedence over any personal feelings he might have for her. He has difficulties fully trusting her very evident feelings for him because of her promiscuous past and he certainly doesn’t trust his own feelings for her either. There are some poignant scenes with rich, weighted dialogue where if either one would be completely honest with the other the personal would override the professional charade of their relationship. Alicia wants to be saved, but she also wants to please Devlin by doing what he wants. Joseph and Charlie find themselves in a very similar circumstances. Joseph would betray his country by saving her and Charlie would disappoint Joseph by refusing to go forward.
They interrogate Charlie, breaking down her past, her beliefs, and her personality to better weave her own life with the fabricated life they want her to assume. John Le Carre’s writing is simply brilliant in these scenes. It is painful to see Charlie having to face the reality of her own life and then having it wrenched and transfigured into a new reality that will best allow her to use her acting skills to convince an elusive Palestinian Bomber that she was once in love with his brother.
”She was holding back her tears with a courage they must surely admire. How could she take it? they must be wondering--either then or now? The silence was like a pause between screams.”
Through it all she was praying that Joseph would stop them. She hoped he would be her savior, her protector, and shelter her from the violent world they were asking her to be a part of.
Like T. R. Devlin in Notorious Joseph remains silent.
”Joseph emerged…. He came to the foot of the steps and looked up at her, and at first it was like staring into her own face, because she could see exactly the same things in him that she hated in herself. So a sort of exchange of character occurred, where she assumed his role of killer and pimp, and he, presumably, hers of decoy, whore, and traitor.”
The Master Spy Novelist, John Le Carre.
John Le Carre transcends the genre with this book. This is not just a spy book. Readers who struggle with this book are expecting a page turning thriller along the lines of a Robert Ludlum book, but this is so much more. This is literary espionage that challenges the reader with intricate details including the thoughts of the interrogator and the thoughts of the one being interrogated moment by soul wrenching moment. The book also explores the deeper human elements of what it really means to die for an idea, for a cause. As the plot advances Charlie also experiences the changing alliances that can happen as one becomes intimate with people you once perceived as enemies. Walking in the shoes of those you don’t understand blurs the lines of who is right and who is wrong and the black and white world in your head becomes a paler shade of both.
There is a 1984 movie starring Diane Keaton where Charlie is changed from an American actress instead of an English one. I have not seen the movie, but intend to very soon.
This is not an entertainment, but a marvelous piece of literary writing along the lines of Fyodor Dostoevsky or the very best of Graham Greene. I’ve read a lot of spy novels, and intend to read many more, but I must say without any reservation this is the best espionage/spy novel I’ve ever read and among one of the best books I’ve read from any genre.
View all my reviews