Monday, August 16, 2010

Book 19, Panama: "The Tailor of Panama" by John le Carré

Another winner. It took a while to warm up to this 460-page story, but it’s worth it. Was worried it was a little déclassé – after all, it’s a spy thriller, isn’t it? But the truth is, le Carré writes with real style and real intelligence: I can see the magical realism and stream-of-consciousness run-on sentences of the Latin American boom braided in with the crisp wit of classic British drawing room drama, and a real moral conscience behind everything.

SPOILER ALERT: It’s a tragedy. It starts off as an amusing expatriate narrative, with Harry Pendel the formerly-of-Savile Row tailor designing top-notch suits for the Panamanian elite; then it becomes a thriller when he’s recruited as a spy on the basis of blackmail, revealing his criminal past; then it becomes a comedy of errors when he’s forced to fabricate data to keep his employers happy, and you find out everyone’s ballooning up the data, and something’s gotta break, the truth will out and Pendel’s got to come out on top because he’s so likeable despite his deceptions, he’s just trying to rise above his Jewish working-class origins by creating these constructs that bend reality in his favour to give him that middle-class respectability and income everyone deserves, dammit.

But the truth doesn’t come out. The British embassy’s just too eager to be relevant in the world, so they latch onto the faked evidence and feed it to the United States and war breaks out, with Pendel in the middle of the firebombing watching his world go up in flames and Andrew Osnard, his fat mendacious paymaster, skiing in the Alps. SPOILERS END.

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map

Don’t worry: the war didn’t actually happen. The book’s written in the lead-up to the American handover of the Canal to the Panamanian government in 1999, on the basis that they would love an excuse to hold on to the power of global trade. Lots of elements are based on the aftermath of the Noriega regime, though. Great characters: former student radicals Marta with her permanently smashed-in face, courtesy of the police and Mickie Abraxas, drunken and crushed from his years of being raped in prison.

But oddly enough, the character I’m most intrigued by is Louisa, Pendel’s Zonian wife (Zonian meaning American born and raised in the Panama Canal Zone), with her schizo personality borne simply of being the less attractive daughter in a religious household in a cloistered Yankee aristocrat community, desperately trying to keep together appearances until everything snaps.

Representative quote: “Naomi, I am pleased to hear you because I have been meaning to write to you and now you have saved me a stamp. Naomi, I want you out of my fucking life. No, no, listen to me Naomi. Naomi, if you happen to be passing through the Vasco de Nuñez de Balboa Park and see my husband lying on his back enjoying oral intercourse with Barnum’s baby elephant, I would be grateful if you would tell your twenty best friends and never tell me. Because I don’t want to hear your fucking voice again till the Canal freezes over. Good night, Naomi.”

Next book: Miguel Benavides’ The Children of Mariplata from Costa Rica. Or Café Tropicana by Belinda Jones. Which one? Young people’s writing by a native guy or exoticised chick lit? Can’t decide.

No comments: