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John Le Carre (real name David Cornwell)


Halfway through John le Carré's latest spy thriller, the reader is introduced to a sordid group of individuals from the influential demimonde whose inhabitants act as panders between the superrich (many of dubious origin) and the Establishment, for want of a better word.

They are all meeting on a lavishly appointed yacht near Dubrovnik, replete with luxuries, guns and willing young females. Had Ian Fleming written the scene in a Bond novel 50 years ago, then everyone would have accepted it as a fruity exaggeration, highlighting cartoon lifestyle of villains like Ernst Blofeld and Emilio Largo.

It is a measure of the surreal and saddening nature of the post-Cold War world that today le Carré's wealthy deviants are no longer ludicrous. The summit aboard the floating palace on Croatia's Dalmatian coast carries bitter echoes for British readers of a real meeting a little farther to the south in Corfu two summers ago, in which the European Union trade commissioner, the present British Chancellor of the Exchequer (in opposition at the time), dined with one of the wealthiest Russian oligarchs (still excluded from the United States on the advice of the Department of Justice).

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Unlike Fleming, le Carré no longer has to rely on hyperbole to reveal the workings of the demimonde. In terms of understanding what really goes on behind the curtains of power politics and the global oligarchy, he is possibly the most significant writer alive. And even though in Britain he has achieved the status of master, he will probably remain imprisoned by the genre of the spy novel when it comes to receiving the recognition he deserves. Let me be specific: I think the man deserves the Nobel.

His success lies in combining taut narrative structures with a terrific ear for dialogue while locking these into an understanding of contemporary events that to most ordinary mortals appear bewildering and fragmented. Our Kind of Traitor is not only a page-turner, it places those events in a context that reveals and explains. Indeed, taken as a whole, his collective oeuvre is as reliable a guide to contemporary geopolitics as you are likely to find.

In one of his more underrated novels, Single and Single, I was astonished to read le Carré's grasp of how the collapse of Russia into gangster capitalism during the 1990s was forcing a rethink of intelligence work throughout the Western world (with some spooks understanding it much better than others).

In a sense, Our Kind of Traitor demonstrates how Russian criminality has matured and found a successful modus vivendi with the Russian state in the era of Putin - the concentration of wealth in Russia's extractive industries was once used merely to make a few Russians hideously rich. Now, the economic muscle is also used to advance Russian interests in the world.

And yet, despite all the politics, at the heart of all le Carré novels are beautifully drawn relationships between a small group of people whose subtle exchanges are reminiscent of Ibsen's dramas. Here, the interaction between Perry, the idealistic Oxford academic, and his minders from Britain's counterintelligence agency, MI-6, is especially rich.

The novel's antihero, Dima, the greatest money launderer in the world, is aware that his criminal masters are about to dispense with his services permanently and in desperation turns to Britain's fabled spooks in a bid to save him and his family.

But although Russians account for most actual criminal activity in this story, it is Britain's craven establishment that le Carré identifies as the true moral transgressors. As the country sought to present London as the most attractive centre for global capital during the 1990s and the first decade of this century, governments turned a blind eye to what the origins of these funds were. Russians benefited enormously, as did hedge funds, oil sheiks, African diamond kings and all the other Masters of the Universe. But they were dependent on the European pimps in the City whose avaricious character le Carré dissects so well.

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There are a few decent people left whom le Carré sees holding on to their position in MI-6 by their fingernails, with the void beckoning below. I don't wish to spoil the gripping end, which is set, Fleming-esque, under the Eiger in Switzerland. Suffice to say that just as le Carré has become more radical with age, so has his pessimism grown.

Misha Glennie's most recent book is McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld. He lives in London.

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