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A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré

3 February 2009

Yet another John Le Carré book, in my attempt to work through some of the novels that do not happen to feature George Smiley.

A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré

An embassy, by its very nature, is a small outpost of one country on another country’s soil. The little community of diplomats and staff that inhabit the outpost are well prepared to close ranks at the first hint of outside trouble or threat, especially at embassies in a country with unsettled political situations — and in Cold War Europe, few countries matched this description better than the two countries of a divided Germany. With the old capital city of Berlin walled off behind the Iron Curtain, the fog-choked industrial town of Bonn became the de facto capital of the Federal Republic of Germany. Although it was jokingly called the Bundesdorf (‘Federal Village’) because of its sleepy, almost backwater milieu, Bonn soon became the home of the various embassies of West Germany’s friends and allies, a small town in which the diplomats could play their delicate and occasionally desperate games while keeping one eye to the east.

In this small town in Germany, the diplomats and support staff of the British embassy are playing a particularly desperate game at present. The Government at home is fighting to survive, and anti-British sentiment is on the rise in a popular protest movement that has the not-so-secret sympathies of the present West German leaders. The British have pinned all their hopes on successfully negotiating entry to the European Economic Community, and everyone is keen to ensure that nothing happens to sour the deal. So when a junior file clerk named Leo Harting and several exceedingly sensitive files go missing from the embassy on the same evening, the blunt but efficient Alan Turner is sent from London to track down both the files and the man. Turner rides roughshod over the embassy staff, digging into private lives and reopening buried conflicts amongst the diplomats and staff members, as he attempts to get to the bottom of Harting’s disappearance. At it happens, though, the real conflicts run much deeper than Turner could have ever suspected, and are inextricably tied to a gruesome history that both the British and the West Germans hope will never see the light of day.

A Small Town in Germany draws on John Le Carré’s own experiences working in the British embassy in Bonn, which may explain how he manages to capture the sheer claustrophobia that can sometimes accompany diplomatic life abroad. The plot, although more tortuous than some of his previous books, has many of the quintessential Le Carré features — not least of which are the female characters who seem to be incapable of maintaining a stream of consciousness without having it wind its way back to sex. (I discussed this particular problem with a few friends a short while ago; the consensus seemed to be that this sort of characterisation might have seemed rather novel or daring when Le Carré was first writing his books, but with the passage of time is has become dated to the point of reading more like cliche than originality.) All the same, many of the good characteristics of a Le Carré novel are still there, the descriptions that immerse you in the setting and the careful turns of phrase that can sketch lightly or cut deeply. As a classic Cold War espionage novel, A Small Town in Germany deftly illustrates its author’s skill in overlapping layer upon layer of personal and political motivations to keep the reader in the dark until the very end.

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