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Strange portrait of Bonn in the 1960s
on 19 July 2010
Le Carré's fifth book is situated in and around the British embassy in Bonn, the post-WW II capital of West Germany during the second half of the 1960s. The political context of the book is rather contrived: the UK lost its empire, and is bankrupt and unpopular in West Germany. Anti-British feeling is running high with violent demonstrations. A populist politician urges people to turn their backs on the three former occupying powers and chart a new course for the nation, i.e. block UK-entry into the Common Market (precursor to the EU: the UK acceeded only in 1973), and support a trade alliance with Moscow instead...
While the Bonn embassy is preparing for the worst (mass demonstrations and a possible attack on its premises), a lowly diplomat, who is a temp and a former refugee with 20 years of service, fails to turn up for work. The embassy's most secret file is gone too, along with sundry other items, ranging from cups and saucers to an entire trolley loaded with files. Has he defected, run off to Moscow?
London sends one of its security hard men, Alan Turner, to sort out the mess. He confronts and offends everybody he speaks with in his search for truth, and he moves on and on, uncovering small and big secrets. Meanwhile, he is furious about his wife's infidelity with an upper-class type, the class tending to staff foreign embassies.
The book is memorable for several reasons: how large embassies went about their business operationally and socially during the Cold War; the memorable cast of diplomats and support staff; the significance of class in a British context, and the alleged shiftiness of German high-level contacts.
Finally, this complicated book is an experiment of not sending George Smiley (he is not mentioned at all), but Alan Turner to do battle. Unfaithful wives is what the two have in common, and passion for truth and justice in an environment full of hypocrisy, indifference and lethargy. Highly recommended.