Literature transmutes experiences into art, but political experiences are problematic material, as John Le Carr,e's "The Little Drummer Girl" shows. A political novel can be a political act, and can be, as Le Carr,e's is, polemical. But the dust raised by the brawling about Le Carr,e's politics has obscured the more interesting question of why the novel is so unsatisfactory.
Trollope used novels subtly to explore questions of manners: how can gentlemanliness be accommodated to politics? Dickens slammed headlong into policy questions, promoting reforms (of schools in "Nicholas Nickleby," of poorhouses in "Oliver Twist," of the law in "Bleak House"). But rarely is a novel as tied to current headlines as Le Carr,e's is.
There are 450,000 copies of it in print in this country. The market has spoken, and so have reviewers, most of them admiringly. A novel can be a fine device for exploring moral dilemmas, and reviewers frequently refer to Le Carr,e as a master of delineating moral "ambiguity." In his espionage novels the "ambiguity" consists primarily in the idea that means as much as ends reveal where, if anywhere, justice lies in a political conflict.
The subliminal--actually, not very subliminal--message of "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" and other novels was: East and West both do disagreeable things to promote their interests, so there is a kind of moral symmetry. That idea, and the thought that public virtue may diverge from private virtue--that conventionally good people cannot govern because they will not do what is necessary--appear again in his new novel.
About the cause of the controversy, consider this. Readers are encouraged to take as journalism--as fact--the statement by one of Le Carr,e's Palestinian characters that a refugee camp filled with women, children and elderly was bombed 700 times in 12 years--an average of more than once a week-- and that Israel routinely used U.S.- built cluster bombs, and dropped booby traps designed as toys. A novelist whose speciality is supposed to be verisimilitude should not retail rubbish.
Far from being, as advertised, an illusionless reporter of moral grayness and arcane details from shadowy worlds, Le Carr,e is a romantic. Were governments capable of the genius and precision that Le Carr,e's fictional Israelis demonstrate, the world would be either much better or much worse than it is. Describing the Palestinian terrorist who is the object of Israel's plot, Le Carr,e says: "He was broad-shouldered and sculptured, with the rarity of a precious object kept from sight. He could not have walked into a restaurant without the talk dying around him, or . . ." You get the drift. An editor of a Harlequin novel would reach for his blue pencil.
The principal male character, an Israeli agent, is a Zarathustran fellow spouting epigrams while performing miracles of manipulation on the principal female character. He devises plans of incredible complexity, requiring incredible precision. From start to finish, he, the plans and the book are incredible.
Israel's grievance against Le Carr,e is nothing compared with every woman's grievance. The central character, Charlie, is an English actress, a cloth-headed leftist who, incredibly, decides to cooperate with the Israelis who kidnap her. She will help kill that sculptured Palestinian. It is Pygmalion done as "My Fair Lady Counter-Terrorist." She is utterly passive and plastic to the male manipulators. They practice spiritual taxidermy on her, stuffing her with their purposes, which she does not really accept but fulfills anyway. On page 383 (of 430) an Israeli exclaims, "So what's her motivation?" That is a question that Le Carr,e never answers. He refers to "this world of unexplained devotions." This world? This novel.
Le Carr,e simply asserts that "to the uninitiated, the secret world is of itself attractive. Simply by turning on its axis, it can draw the weakly anchored to its centre." But Charlie is the center of this novel. She is unintelligible, so it is unconvincing.
At the end of his espionage trilogy about Smiley and Karla, the British and Soviet master spies "exchanged one more glance and perhaps each for that second did see in the other something of himself." Yes, of course: there are human beings with common attributes on all sides. But that is not a substantial political insight. Political literature done well can expand the range of readers' empathy by replacing abstractions with flesh-and- blood beings. Few such beings live in Le Carr,e's Middle East.