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Monday, December 5, 2011

Spy Surveillance, Torture, and Other Literary Devices

     Today, I was going to discuss politics but have been sidetracked by a literary discussion. Usually it’s the other way around.
     I just finished reading – for the third time – John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. This is after watching for at least the third time, the BBC mini-series starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley. All this is in pulse-quickening, toe-tapping anticipation of the movie starring Gary Oldman which is supposed to be released December 9th in the U.S. Unfortunately, I didn’t see a release date for Switzerland or South Africa where I tend to spend most of my time, but I'm sure it's coming within a few months. I’ve seen the trailer, and it looks very good, though it also looks like they added more violence and sex than was in the book – which had almost none of both. But trailers will sometimes try to give that impression just on general principles. 
     How often have you read a thriller and two days later forgotten the plot and possibly even the characters? Happens all the time, and why not? There is a place in the literary world for books that turn off the brain and provide just enough mental stimulation to dull the stresses of life while doing a better job than TV of keeping the synaptic fluid from solidifying. But…there are also those times when the mind wants to be fully engaged and to be astounded at where the writer has taken them. John LeCarre at his best can do that.
     The first two LeCarre books I read (The Russia House and Absolute Friends) provided quite a challenge. Both were a painful slog for me – not through any fault of LeCarre’s, but because my reading mind had become weak and ill-focused from reading too much pablum. Now I’m used to his style and read his books easily, seeing every word, picturing every scene, and catching almost every intended nuance. It was worth the struggle.
     Good fiction can oftentimes better describe reality than a dry work of well documented non-fiction. When you read LeCarre at his best there is a sense that he is describing events the way they actually take place in the real world. Here are two examples: In B-grade thrillers, be it movies or books, it is quite common to have successful surveillances conducted by only a few people? Well, in one Tinker Tailor scene you have a British spy being followed as part of a ‘Grand Slam Operation’ and the intricacy of the surveillance is such that it couldn’t have been done properly with less than a hundred people. And when you think about it, that must be true. In a big city there are taxis and trains to be jumped into, buses blocking views, crowded stores with rear exits to enter. How could a few people possibly cover all situations?
     Also have you ever wondered how real interrogations take place? In most thrillers it’s a few slaps, some torture, maybe a little good cop bad cop, then a clever question or two and soon the subject is singing like a canary. Read Jim Prideaux’s description in Tinker Tailor of how the Russians broke him down over months. Gritty, yes. Harrowing, yes. But so real that you know that this is the way it is really done.
     Okay, next week, back to politics with a discussion on attack ads.

Best regards,

Jim
Zurich      

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