Secretaries, clerks and diplomats, hastening down corridors, ignored them as they passed. The talk was of Brussels. The city’s name was whispered like a password. It lay on every tongue and was stammered out by every typewriter; it was cut into the white wax of the stencils and rung on every telephone.
The technologies (typewriters, stencils) are the only clues that we’re not in the the present day. We’re in 1968 when Britain was obsessed with trying to gain membership of the then European Common Market. Our applications of 1963 and 1967 had been vetoed by France, and Germany was seen as being our closest European ally. But that close friendship is in peril in A Small Town in Germany. It’s 1968 and unrest in Europe is broadspread, Student protests in Paris. Dissent infamously crushed in Prague in the spring. The Germans are also unsettled. With the chancellor, Kiesinger, an ex-nazi, denazification is but a mirage. The growing tide of left-wing opposition is led, at least in Le Carré’s novel, by the British-hating Karfeld, who favours a rapprochement to the Eastern bloc. The last thing the British diplomat in Bonn (the small town of the title, even if it was the then capital of the Federal Republic) needs is a junior member of staff, with distant connections to the East, disappearing with highly sensitive files ….
Enter Alan Turner, the Foreign Office’s bloodhound, the outsider, guaranteed to stir things up. Not only because of his job, but because he is a brute, totally indifferent to the damage he can cause, the feelings of those he interviews. Not adverse to hitting an interviewee – even if female – to get to the truth. It’s the only thing that matters to him, and in the process he uncovers lots of dirty secrets.
Because the embassy in Bonn has been rather complacent. With that background, why was Leo Harting working there in the first place and how did he accumulate responsibilites beyond his security level? Why are staff at the Embassy so uncooperative? And why does the Head of Security only seem concerned about retrieving the files; Harting’s safety being deemed irrelevant even when it becomes obvious that his disappearance is not what it first seemed.
Because – to put it bluntly – the British are hedging their diplomatic bets.
This is a Le Carré novel and in his universe, based, lest we forget, on his own experiences as a spy, the world of espionage is grubby and mucky. Never honourable. At best morally ambiguous. This is not the high octane world of Ian Fleming. There’s no glamour, no gadgets. And Turner is certainly no Bond.
Neither for that matter is Leo Harting. But the more Turner hears of Harting’s initially gentle, organ-playing, church-going persona, the more Turner realises how much outward appearances can deceive; that Harting is, in fact, “his untamed half”. Turner suddenly recognises a fellow outsider, treated as contemptuously as himself, with enemies on both sides of the political fence. Once Turner comes to an understanding of Harting’s motives, it becomes imperative for him to find the man before his enemies can.
A Small Town in Germany isn’t a fast paced novel by any stretch of the imagination. A goodly portion consists of series of chapters in which Turner interviews, insults amd offends various members of the British Embassy staff, and Le Carré paints cynical portraits of everyone and everything. He is particularly scathing about British notions of class, exemplified in the embassy setting, and is very unflattering towards Bonn, although I found it quite charming. (I suppose a spell of good weather helped my impression of the place.) Many pages are spent going nowhere, and the whole is infused with attitudes that have changed so much in the last 50 years. (Or perhaps not …) If ever there was a slow burner that repaid readerly patience, this is it. Another Le Carré masterpiece.