Sunday, December 07, 2008

John le Carré

John le Carré is the pseudonym of the British spy novelist David Cornwell. Detective and spy fiction has always fascinated me. By identifying with the detective, one can revel in the pleasure of unraveling a mystery through the exercise of one's rational faculties, and the sense of intellectual superiority provided by this identification can be quite heady.

The detective is generally presented as a man (or woman) of extraordinary mental and logical faculties. There is usually a contrast between the detective's coolness versus the floundering and ineptitude of his man Friday and the police. The detective is normally very interested in science and philosophy as well.

The earliest detective stories that I have enjoyed were by Edgar Allan Poe. Poe's detective stories revolve around the Frenchman C Auguste Dupin. The Dupin stories are remarkable for their economy of fieldwork (when he rarely ventures out, his observations and actions are almost surgical, marvelously short and precise). Especially in the story The Purloined Letter, he solves the entire mystery by his reflection on the mental depth of his adversary. His physical interventions are quite perfunctory.

If Edgar Allan Poe can be considered the originator of detective fiction, John le Carré is without a doubt one of the modern masters of the spy story. His novels are quite cerebral and are not mere entertainers. His protagonists are world-weary, know too well their own flaws and of those around them, have a sense of tragic resignation and are not ambitious or proud. While in college, I thoroughly enjoyed his Karla Trilogy featuring the British spymaster George Smiley.

His book The Spy Who Came in From the Cold prompted Graham Greene to praise it as the best spy story he had ever read. It is a short read, and haunted me for days when I first read it.

In Le Carré's early novels, one could still identify with the central character, because despite his flaws, he was presented as a man who no longer believed in things but still retained a modicum of human dignity.

I was, therefore, quite surprised when I recently watched a film based on his novel "The Tailor of Panama". As a film, it is mediocre. But it is remarkable for at least one thing.

Audience identification is a well-known phenomenon in literature and film. The audience invests its sympathies in a certain character (usually the male hero). No matter if the hero loses in the end. That is the stuff tragedy is made of and it provides a sweet sorrow where we become thoughtful and cry at the injustice in the world.

However, in this film, we are the unwitting participants in a strange narrative where at the end, it is revealed that the protagonist is not at all deserving of our sympathies. Throughout the film we are quite happily enjoying his craftiness and charm (especially since the character is played by Pierce Brosnan). We regard him as a variation on James Bond, as flawed but interesting. In the final minutes of the film, the full extent of his perversity becomes clear.

The audience is left reeling at the sudden shift.

(A similar ploy is used, almost as a gimmick, in Pulp Fiction, the famous film by Tarantino, where a famous actor, playing an important role, is killed half-way through the film without much ado or explanation.)

Many people claim that the film (The Tailor of Panama) is more of a farce, whereas the book is tragic. I leave you to make your comparisons.

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