One thing I like and admire about John Le Carré’s work is that he is not content to rest on his (by this, his tenth published novel, considerable) laurels, but time and again ventures out of his comfort zones into unexplored territory. The departure in The Little Drummer Girl is not quite as radical as it was in The Naive and Sentimental Lover where he left the thriller genre completely, but here we find him moving away not only from his protagonist George Smiley but also the Cold War setting where he seemed to have found his narrative home and instead turn his writerly attention to the Israeli-Palestine conflict instead.
Another thing I like and admire about John Le Carré’s novels (of which I have read ten now, mostly in chronological order; unfortunately my reading Smiley’s People fell in the middle of a writing slump, though, so there is no post on that) and in fact what I consider his main importance and greatest impact as a writer is the way he uses genre plots to tell a completely different story from the one he appears to be telling. He is often praised for his realism, and while I suppose his deptiction of the world of spies and spooks as one of intrigue and bureaucracy comes closer to what is actually going on in secret service than Ian Fleming’s James Bond, I do not think that realism is what makes him such an outstanding author. What fascinates me most about his novels are the things going on underneath the surface of the plot, whole caverns of glittering metaphor and dazzling allegories which Le Carré both hides and reveals by sleight of hand, making me think of him as the stage magician among British 20th century authors. Or maybe more a juggler than a magician (a title that, for various reasons, might be more appropriate to Christopher Priest – another author who manages to strike surprising literary sparks from genre flint) in the way he keeps not only a complicated, intrigue-filled plot in the air but also deep, fascinating character studies and the above mentioned allegorical sub-texts with apparent ease and only very rarely dropping anything.
The Little Drummer Girl seems to split Le Carré’s reading public in those that think it one of his worst and those that consider it one of his best; interestingly, there appears to not much middle ground between the two positions. To not keep in anyone in suspension (I’m sure you’re all holding your breath right now) – I’m among the latter, and find myself having great difficulties to understand why this brilliant novel has attracted so much fervent dislike. One reason for it is probably precisely the novel’s unfamiliar setting, and I suspect that another might be another area where Le Carré here leaves his comfort zone, namely by making a female character the protagonist of this novel.
There is a persistent opinion that Le Carré cannot write female characters – something I personally think he conclusively refuted with Maria Ostrokova in Smiley’s People and now does again with Charlie, the titular protagonist of The Little Drummer Girl. One does sense the effort he put into getting the female perspective right (in fact, one maybe senses it just a bit too much – I am certain that for this novel Le Carré researched the female experience just as thoroughly and meticulously as he did the Isreali-Palestinian conflict) and I think he largely succeeded, making her one of his most fascinating characters and her increasingly despairing descent into confusion about what her real feelings are and who she really is both compelling and harrowing to read.
Even with those differences from most of his previous work, The Little Drummer Girl is on one, and the most immediately accessible, level a story of espionage; and that the opposing sides are not Great Britain and the Soviet Union but rather Israel and Palestine serves only to make ethical matters even more gray and doubtful – in Cold War stories, however much they might show morals as irretrievably muddled, there still is a firm underlying certainty that capitalism and freedom is preferable to communism and dictatorship. Nothing of the kind in this conflict – Le Carré takes great pain to present arguments for and against both sides of the conflict, to show the suffering as well as the ruthlessness of both Israelis and Palestinians. Readers who before reading The Little Drummer Girl were inclined towards one side or the other might find that – at least if they keep an open mind – by the end of the novel they have lost many of their certainties regarding it.
This is certainly what happens to Charlie, except in a much more radical way. She is emphatically left-wing and pro-Palestinian at the novel’s beginning; but she is also an actress, and from the start there is a slight but pervasive doubt whether her political convictions are truly felt or just a role she assumes. While there is a multitude of characters and viewpoints, Charlie is clearly at the centre of the novel: the whole plot revolves ultimately around her, she is both seduced and seducer, victim to as well as spinner of the intrigues that drive the novel forward. But in a way that centre is empty, or rather indeterminate, a kind of epistemological smear.
Charlie is an actress, so her identity is somewhat uncertain to start with, always dissolving into the roles she plays or has played, which she in turn makes vivid by infusing them with her own personality. She falls in love during a vacation in Greece, unaware that the man she finds herself attracted to is a member of the Israeli secret service which has plans for her. She is to help finding a Palestinian terrorist the Israeli are after, by posing as the fictitious lover of his brother. But while Charlie never met the brother, and the story is a hence a fake, she has met and fallen in love with the Israeli agent who poses as said brother, and hence the story is true. I do not want to go into too much detail here to not spoil the deft and clever ways in which Le Carré spins his intrigues, but it soon becomes obvious that the true focus of The Little Drummer Girl is (not really surprisingly) not so much te espionage story but rather the way the reality and fiction spin around each other in dizzying tempo until they blur into each other and finally become pretty much indistinguishable. Between her fictitious lover and her real one, her political convictions and the acts of espionage that directly contradict those, between her memories and the fake documents of her life the Israeli secret services produces Charlie finds it harder and not only to distinguish between outside reality and fiction but feels any certainties about her inner life slipping away from her, too, until she know hardly any more what she really feels and who she really is.
All of this is orchestrated by Le Carré in a manner that not only keeps the reader engaged but also involves him to some part – the great number of narrative points of view, the large personnel and the opaque intrigues, small details like that most characters in this novel have more than one name add up to keep readers not only on the edges of their seats but also themselves on the edge of confusion and while that confusion obviously never becomes as existential as Charlie’s, it does make it palpable to some degree, hopefully pushing readers to give some thought about the matters of reality and identity The Little Drummer Girl chiefly is about underneath its surface – as well as about the way those matters relate back into the political conflict which fuels the surface the plot (and of course they do relate back, in a multitude of ways).