Book Review: “A Small Town in Germany” by John Le Carre

I’ve found my mind returning again and again to spies this December.  It seemed like a spy-full year–from the raid on the bin Laden compound over the summer, to the Arab spring, to CIA drones and the list goes on and on.  So, I picked up a lesser known Le Carre called “A Small Town in Germany.”

It’s hard to imagine that this book would be the favorite of any Le Carre fan; and that’s not because it’s bad but rather that Le Carre wrestles with these same themes  in other, more familiar books.  In this regard, “A Small Town in Germany” is the dress rehearsal for his George Smiley series.  But where the Smiley novels are epic, globe-trotting and sweeping, this book, as the title suggests, is more parochial and insular.

“A Small Town in Germany” takes place in and around the British Embassy in early 1960’s Bonn.  Bonn is the captial of West Germany and the British Embassy serves as an island of colonialism and diplomacy, surrounded by political unrest.  A shadowy, populist politician, whose allegiance to the West is unclear, called Karfeld, is holding political rallies, courting the Soviet Bloc.  The embassy sits uneasily in the diplomatic section of the city–like a seafaring vessel surrounded by the storms of change.

A German, named Leo Harting, has gone missing from the embassy staff.  Is he a defector?  Has he stolen anything?  What’s his motive?  Le Carre uses an interesting device here–Harting never really appears on the scene.  The reader only gets others’ impressions of the man, his flaws, his character, his emotions.  In this regard, the book reminded me of a classic English cottage mystery, where the victim dies on the first page and the rest of the novel is the detective trying to piece together what kind of enemies the dead man had.  Harting functions as the victim in this schema; though he’s very much alive.  Enter, then, the detective.  Alan Turner is the spy catcher, called in from London to investigate Harting’s disappearance.

The title “A Small Town in Germany” might make you think this is a book focused on Bonn; a kind of travelogue.  It’s not.  Le Carre has little interest in portraying the sights and sounds of Bonn.  The relatively few occasions where he does so, though, sparkle.  Rather than focus on Bonn, what Le Carre has done is to successfully portray the British Embassy as a lonely island in midst of the Cold War.   The sense of isolation and tension is portrayed masterfully.  The prose often describes  closets, basements, cramped offices–re-enforcing the feeling of tightness and suspense.

In short, if you like Le Carre and your spy fiction, this is a good one.  And this is realistic spy fiction.  Unlike some other espionage authors whose stories veer off into the fantastic, Le Carre’s feet are on the ground.  The reader can well imagine that this story may have happened–and that this story is an essential part of understanding the Cold War.

What to listen to while reading this book:  Since it takes place in the early 60’s and is very Anglo-centric, I’ve got to suggest listening to Live at the BBC by the Beatles. 

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