Is Le Carre’s ‘Agent Running in the Field’ really about the decline and fall of the West?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL October 26, 2019

The New York Times’s take on western values

It’s been a couple of hours since I finished ‘Agent Running in the Field’, John Le Carre’s 25th novel, which dropped into my Kindle on October 22.

I still can’t get over it. What did he really mean in writing this story, set deep within the chaos of Brexit and the Trump presidency?

First, a bit of context. ‘Agent Running in the Field’ is narrated by Nat, a 47-year-old spy for British intelligence. He works in an organisation that is known as “the Office”. Nat is back in London after years overseas and is in charge of “the Haven”, an “outstation” of the Russia department. He plays badminton with Ed, a “researcher” and loner who is dissatisfied with his job and disillusioned by Brexit, Trump’s America and the way things are now. Eventually, Ed becomes a Russian spy and Nat comes under suspicion too. The novel ends with Nat doing what he thinks necessary.

But it’s the subtext, not the plot, that has me thinking. What’s Mr Le Carre really writing about? The decline and fall of the West?

Consider the fulminations of “Arkady”, a former Russian double agent, one of Nat’s charges at one time. Nat has arranged to meet Arkady in the Czech Republic to find out what he can about the new, unfolding story, and here’s what he hears from his former agent:

“So tell me this.” He takes another pull of vodka. “What sort of bullshit are you Brits selling us traitors these days? Liberal democracy as the salvation of mankind? Why did I fall for that crap?”

“Maybe you wanted to.”

“You walk out of Europe with your British noses stuck in the air. ‘We’re special. We’re British. We don’t need Europe. We won all our wars alone. No Americans, no Russians, no anyone. We’re supermen.’ The great freedom-loving President Donald Trump is going to save your economic arses, I hear. You know what Trump is?”

“Tell me.”

“He’s Putin’s shithouse cleaner. He does everything for little Vladi that little Vladi can’t do for himself: pisses on European unity, pisses on human rights, pisses on NATO. Assures us that Crimea and Ukraine belong to the Holy Russian Empire, the Middle East belongs to the Jews and the Saudis, and to hell with the world order. And you Brits, what do you do? You suck his dick and invite him to tea with your Queen. You take our black money and wash it for us. You welcome us if we’re big enough crooks. You sell us half London. You wring your hands when we poison our traitors and you say please, please, dear Russian friends, trade with us. Is this what I risked my life for? I don’t believe so. I believe you Brits sold me a cartload of hypocritical horseshit. So don’t tell me you’ve come here to remind me of my liberal conscience and my Christian values and my love of your great big British Empire.”