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Underneath the grand, stately textures and rich, ironic nuances (which make this new, non-Smiley le Carre novel superior reading), there's a surprisingly conventional thriller-romance here--something of a step backward, perhaps, from the originality and moral/psychological delicacy of the Smiley-Karla trilogy. A Smiley-ish Israeli spymaster, Schulmann, a.k.a. Kurtz, is determined to flush out the Palestinian mastermind behind terrorist bombings in Europe. (Shrewdly, if sentimentally, le Carre makes Kurtz an anti-Begin sort of Israeli, hoping to prevent military action by eliminating terrorism more economically.) His plan? The traditional one: to infiltrate the Palestinian network with an agent who'll lead the Israelis to mastermind Khalil. But the way in which Kurtz accomplishes this infiltration is oblique, circuitous, quintessential le Carre: Kurtz secretly abducts Khalil's younger terrorist-brother Salim; handsome, troubled Israeli agent Becker quasi-seduces a young, leftist English actress on vacation in Greece, Charmian, a.k.a. "Charlie the Red." And, once the reluctant Charlie agrees (for not-entirely-convincing reasons) to be an Israeli agent, evidence of an England/Greece love-affair between Salim and Charlie is elaborately, painstakingly fabricated--love-letters, hotel-rooms, etc.--while Charlie gets deeply into her political, passionate role by playing out the love-story, with Becker (whom she does truly love, though he remains sexually aloof) as Salim. Thus, when Salim dies in an Israeli-staged car-crash, his comrades find the planted evidence and naturally seek out his grieving girlfriend, who may Know Too Much: with such credentials Charlie will become an almost-trusted terror recruit (spending devastating time in a Lebanon refugee camp). . . and will eventually be ready to get a bomb-assignment from Khalil in Europe, setting him up for Israel's assassins. Unfortunately, Charlie herself, for all the elegant prose and smart dialogue that le Carre lavishes on her, is never quite believable in her wavering political loyalties, her role-playing confusions; throughout, in fact, le Carre's narrative craft occasionally seems hamstrung by his determination to be fully fair to both sides of the Mideast terror. And the finale, with its strong-but-ordinary showdown and patly romantic fadeout, is faintly disappointing. Still, though a bit tenuous (and even, in the Charlie/Becker playlets, a trifle dull) by le Carre standards, this is clearly, compellingly, the work of one of today's few great storytellers--from its spacious yet tugging narration (a modern equivalent of Dickens) to its edge-of-your-seat interrogations and confrontations. So Smiley followers may be in for a slight let-down, but they--and others--will want to read every word nonetheless.
Pub Date: March 1st, 1982
ISBN: 0743464656
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1982


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