John le Carré’s Scathing Tale of Brexit Britain

The Atlantic
By Sophie Gilbert

In Agent Running in the Field, the celebrated spy novelist takes on a chaotic international landscape.

If in John le Carré’s novels the British intelligence service stands as a microcosm for the state of the nation itself, then bad news: In 2019, we’re looking less at a major global power than at a leaky, pusillanimous, perennially cash-strapped institution. An agent’s best transport option for a clandestine mission is a rented “clapped-out Vauxhall.” There’s a bureaucratic ban on bottled water. Nat, the narrator of Agent Running in the Field, le Carré’s latest, is chided by his superiors when he expenses a taxi to interview a former source at a Czech resort town popular among Russian organized criminals. “It seems,” Nat observes dryly, “there was a bus I could have taken.”

Agent Running in the Field is a master spy novelist’s attempt to capture Brexit Britain in all its dysfunction and ignominy. Nat is a 46-year-old Londoner, the son of an impecunious Scottish aristocrat and a Russian exiled to Paris, who for the entirety of his career has worked for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. After 25 years of service recruiting and handling double agents all over Eastern Europe, he’s facing his expiration date as a covert agent when he’s offered one last chance: the opportunity to reestablish the Haven, a London-based substation managing resettled Russian defectors and informants. Nat is reluctant, given the Haven’s state of disrepair, but he accepts. A European by birth and by loyalty, he’s quietly appalled by Britain’s ongoing capitulation to financial interests, and alarmed by the resurgence of Russian power.

“If you spy for long enough,” one character reflects in Agent Running, “the show comes round again.” For le Carré, who recently turned 88, this means witnessing—and capturing—a Britain that, almost three decades after the end of the Cold War, is once again enmeshed in a convoluted conflict with Russia. This time around, things are slightly different. The Russians, Nat’s colleague notes, are “nastier than they ever were, more brazen, more meddlesome, and more numerous.” The Brits are distracted by Brexit, and by the arduous task of trying to cement relations with the capricious superpower across the Atlantic. But most complicated of all, and the fact that really seems to make le Carré despair, is that money has displaced ideology as the primary battleground. On this front, at least, the Russians have already won. Kremlin-backed oligarchs own swaths of prime London real estate, donating heavily to sympathetic politicians while taking full advantage of what Nat describes as “the City of London’s ever-rotating laundromat” for dirty cash.

Le Carré is perhaps the preeminent cartographer of international malfeasance, and his portrayal of spycraft is as enthralling as ever. Although he eschews more modern kinds of espionage for old-fashioned, in-person document drops and the careful cultivation of human intelligence, his stories don’t feel remotely anachronistic. But his characters, at this point, might. Nat, a man in his mid-40s, has a diction that feels decidedly out of joint with his age and his era. In one scene, he observes how “young girls and their swains splash and chatter” in the British sunshine; in another, he notes “a friendly bobby” strolling comfortably down the street. (It’s hard to say whether a slang word for a policeman that originated in the 19th century or the sight of an officer on foot patrol feels more improbable in this moment of Love Island glossaries and austerity budgets.)

Nat plays badminton at a small sports club in South London, and it’s there that he meets Ed, a gawky 25-year-old intent on challenging him. Ed is a character who’s firmly in the le Carré mold: He’s awkward, ethical, and absolutely obsessed with the geopolitical conflicts that he sees as ravaging the world, in this case the neo-fascist threat posed by President Donald Trump and the “unmitigated clusterfuck” of Brexit. In an earlier novel, Ed might have been an agent whose integrity gets him killed; in the real world of 2019, he’d most likely be a full-fledged member of Resistance Twitter. In Agent Running in the Field, he’s a cipher, who seems to exist only to play weekly badminton bouts with Nat and then subject him to imaginative rants in the pub afterward. Nat suspects that Ed’s “urgent preoccupation with world affairs and other mild eccentricities” mean that he has no other friends, and he’s willing to indulge him because he likes the way Ed plays. “The biggest gift you can give the young is time,” he thinks. (Again, Nat’s 46.)

The other Young Person in the novel is Florence, a brilliant agent in her early 20s who’s spearheading what seems to be the Haven’s biggest operation: a surveillance effort against a London-based Ukrainian oligarch with ties to the Kremlin. Though Nat observes how Florence dresses down, favoring “baggy woolen skirts, flat shoes, no make-up,” virtually every thought he has about her is sexualized nonetheless. Early on, he notes that their relationship is “emphatically non-tactile, with each of us going to elaborate lengths not to brush hands or otherwise make physical contact.” When he asks Florence to join him and Ed for a match with Ed’s sister, Nat notices her “shiny white thighs” in her badminton skirt. “Florence, you are not supposed to look like that,” he thinks. Later on, when they meet for dinner, he bemoans how a verbal altercation is “our first lovers’ tiff and we never made love.”

Le Carré’s characters are rarely unimpeachable. Peter Guillam sleeps with a young woman whom he considers to be his ward. George Smiley, for all his ferocious emotional intelligence, is in thrall for far too long to his feckless wife, Ann. Jonathan Pine’s sloppiness gets a woman killed. In Agent Running, Nat—who is married, though not always faithfully so, and has a daughter around Florence’s age—isn’t creepy, necessarily. His interactions with Florence contain no obvious innuendo or inappropriate overtures. But nor do they allow a young, fiercely talented woman to simply do her job. Nat is astute enough to observe that the SIS is just another old boys’ club, rewarding failure rather than potential, and icing out the agents who could represent its brightest future. What he can’t see—whether due to his own blind spots or his creator’s—is where he’s part of the problem.

In many ways, the intrigue of Agent Running in the Field is secondary to its function as a renowned author’s scathing indictment of a country selling itself out. Russia, in Nat’s description of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, is “not going forward to a bright future, but backwards into her dark, delusional past.” And Britain, with its “minority Tory cabinet of tenth-raters” and “a pig-ignorant foreign secretary” (who, in the world outside the book, recently became prime minister), seems to be following a short way behind. Le Carré—through his characters—is particularly caustic when it comes to British leaders’ courting of Trump, a president one of Nat’s former agents describes sourly as “Putin’s shithouse cleaner … [doing] everything for little Vladi that little Vladi can’t do for himself.” The Brits, the same agent complains, “sold me a cartload of hypocritical horseshit,” while cheerfully selling half of London to Putin’s own cronies.

In the last 75 pages of the novel, the various strands of Nat’s life begin to intertwine in ways that seem inevitable, given the book’s early emphasis on his badminton habit. But the payoff, in the end, is less surprising and compelling than the setting: a country that, in le Carré’s portrayal, seems to be decaying from the inside out. Agents Running in the Field captures a Britain whose power, influence, and claims to integrity are shown to be absurdly overblown. Even so, as a new installment in le Carré’s canon, the book also demonstrates that Britain is still a potent cultural force. Film and TV producers are more enthused by le Carré’s novels than ever before, while the author himself—a little crankier, perhaps, than he once was—remains one of the most shrewd and sonorous voices willing to speak truth to power.

John le Carre
Fiction
Agent Running in the Field