The only people who kept the banks afloat in the financial crisis were organised crime’s money launderers.
There is an uncomfortable truth to this, and this is just one of the truths that John le Carré’s latest riveting novel riffs off.
As is often the way, le Carré starts with a seemingly simple story, which becomes more complex as it develops. Russian spies, financial and political scandals, and a few games of tennis are all thrown into Our Kind of Traitor.
The book, his 22nd, is set amid the backdrop of the credit crunch.
A young couple from London, who are on holiday in Antigua, meet a Russian millionaire who owns a peninsula, wears a diamond encrusted watch and has a tattoo on his right hand. He wants a game of tennis, and more.
The novel is a tale of greed and corruption, of “the profits of pain”. Like all of his most recent books, it is angry.
In a recent interview, le Carré said, “I’ve become more radical in old age than I’ve ever been.”
One character, a lecturer, asks, “Would Orwell have believed it possible that the same overfed voices which had haunted him in the 1930s, the same crippling incompetence, addiction to foreign wars and assumptions of entitlement, were happily in place in 2009?”
His answer: no, Orwell would not have believed it, “Or if he had, he would have taken to the streets. He would have smashed some serious glass.”
At another point a spy is asked, “Aren’t you supposed to be diplomats who lie for the good of their country?”
“That’s diplomats. We’re not gentlemen.”
“So you lie to save your hides?”
“No that’s politicians. Different game entirely.”
So to those who lie to save themselves: “according to the ground-floor gossips”, the Midlands accent of one spy “had become more noticeable under New Labour, but was receding with the prospect of electoral defeat”.
A cabinet minister and a high flyer in the opposition who is “tipped for stratospheric office” are filmed on the yacht of a corrupt oligarch.
It is covered up and it does not feel untrue—because it wasn’t covered up when it happened in reality.
The usual le Carré themes of “fair-play English gentlemen” and “perfidious Albion shits” battle each other—often in the same person.
To be honest, the villains are a bit one-dimensional.
But it feels like that is because le Carré is really pissed off with their real life equivalents. When a lawyer describes himself as a “walking legal loophole to the revoltingly rich”, it is enough.
The idea that the capitalist system is based on gangsterism is not new.
But this book explores beautifully the senses in which this is literally true. As always, le Carré has the measure of the intelligence services.
A spook relates, “I refer to that unfortunate fallow period between the Berlin Wall coming down and Osama Bin Laden doing us the favour of 9/11.”
Le Carré has not written a pamphlet, but his righteous anger makes for a damn good read that is still far better than the competition.
Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré (£18.99) is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk