What I’m Reading: John le Carré – A Small Town in Germany

I’m still making my way through John le Carré’s oeuvre in chronological order, and so far it has been a surprisingly interesting and enjoyable journey. My most recent stop, A Small Town in Germany, is no exception to this, and once again it is a much more complex affair than I would have expected – like previous works by le Carré, not so much in regard to the plot (which one would expect to be intricate in a spy novel) as to the quiet, perspicacious writing, whose very precision often makes it slide into lyrical territory, and to the finely spun web of imagery and theme that defines the novel much more than the intrigues that constitute its plot.

The novel’s title refers to Bonn during the late sixties, and it works quite well on this realistic level. I’ve only been to Bonn a couple of times myself, and most of this visits took place after the German re-unification when it already had ceased to be the capital of the Federal Republic, but my impression is that le Carré catches the weird, slightly off-kilter atmosphere of that place quite well. It presents some kind of alternative history, however, in so far as instead of the left-wing APO protesting on the streets, le Carré’s novel invents a populist movement that merges both left and right wing extremist ideas.

This movement, under its charismatic leader Karfeld, is a cause for worry at the British embassy in Bonn where A Small Town in Germany is for the most part set, as he thrives on stirring up anti-British sentiment. Again, le Carré is wonderful on catching the atmosphere of a community of people under siege as Karfeld’s campaigns moves steadily closer towards Bonn during the course of the narrative until things come to a head during a public speech of his.

At first parallel to, and later on interwoven with this is a more traditional spy plot of an investigation into the disappearance of an embassy employee by the novel’s thoroughly unlikeable protagonist Alan Turner. He pursues this investigation which nobody seems to care much about with a dogged determination not only to find his man but apparently also to be rude and offensive to everyone who he meets along the way.  Turner is an outsider among the blasé and class-conscious members of the British Embassy just as much as Leo Hartwig, the man he tries to find, something that is emphasized by Hari Kunzru in his excellent introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition; it also does a very good job of placing the novel in a historical context where dissatisfaction at the current state of Western democracy was giving rise to terrorism.

What I personally found most striking about A Small Town in Germany is how pretty much everything in it plays out on at least two distinctive levels. While it is very compelling on a realistic level, depicting the atmosphere of the late sixties in Germany and, as in previous novels by le Carré, the inefficiency and stifling bureaucracy of the British Secret Service, there is, if one looks just a bit more closely, also an allegorical dimension to it. It is probably most pronounced in the novel’s setting, the “Small Town” of its title – ostensibly, the novel takes place in Bonn, but from the way that town is repeatedly described as an island, is always shrouded in fog as well as constantly drenched by rain, it would seem pretty clear that le Carré is also writing about Great Britain here, that Bonn – a place that is far too provincial for being an important seat of power and too small to govern over such an extended area – is not just a realistically described place but also works as an allegory for England. Viewed from this angle, much of the plot takes on a completely new significance, and superimposed on the realistic spy story, there is an allegoric tale about Britain, the way it copes (or doesn’t cope) with its past, attempts to deal with the present and what its future might be. And to make things even more intricate, that subject also plays out in the margins of the novel’s literal plot where the German and French attititudes towards Britain, and Britain’s attempt to join the European Economic Union are a constant theme.

With A Small Town in Germany, le Carré once again managed to surprise me, and while it is not quite as brilliant (nor as bleak) as The Looking-Glass War, it is another excellent novel from an author that I obviously have been underrating for years, and I am glad that I have finally come to appreciate his work.

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2 comments

  1. thank you for this review of the book 🙂 helped very much in confirming the sense I had of the allegorical interpretation(s), and drawing those requisite connecting points well

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