Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
John le Carre understood like few others the ins and outs of espionage, having personally stewed in it for a number of years. In A Small Town in Germany, perhaps one of the lesser-known novels in comparison to his famous ones, tells the story of a hunt for an embassy worker, Leo Harting, who goes missing with a briefcase stuffed with confidential documents.
Table of contents
John le Carre Sets a Traitor Loose
The art of espionage is something many people have tried to study and understand out of interest, but only few have ever seen what truly lays beyond the curtain of subterfuge. John le Carre is one of those people, and he also had the great fortune (from our perspective, at least) of being a talented writer, and A Small Town in Germany is perhaps one of his lesser-known works deserving of the spotlight.
Before talking about the plot of the book, I would like to address the concern certain people seem to have as to how current and relevant John le Carre‘s depiction of espionage is. Though the book was published all the way back in 1968 (notably being a bestseller of the 60s) and has some outdated information, I believe the author’s profound examination of the human mind to remain timeless.
In any case, the novel takes us right into the middle of the Cold War, with the British Embassy in Bonn angered by the rise of anti-British factions in Germany, just as Great-Britain seeks admission to Europe’s Common Market. In the midst of it all, a seeming nobody from the embassy, Leo Harting, goes missing with a briefcase stuffed with confidential documents.
London sends in Alan Turner to find the man, the files, and perform a sort of damage control on the situation. However, Turner is the kind of man intent on stopping at nothing in search of the ultimate, indisputable truth, even if it means stepping on the toes of powerful men on all sides of the border.
The further he becomes embroiled in the whole mess, the more it becomes apparent to him nobody really wants to find Leo Harting, preferring to bury the whole story as deep as possible. With a possible Soviet-German alliance also looming on the horizon, an atmosphere of intense paranoia serves as the backdrop for Turner’s hunt for the unadulterated facts.
The Poetry of Politics in A Small Town in Germany
The realm of politics is, in its own right, fascinating and likely complex beyond our wildest imaginations. Despite it being a world of mudslinging and deceit, we are nevertheless drawn to try and understand it, to read between the lines to try and decipher what’s really happening in the world; after all, we do live in it.
From an author’s point of view, discussing politics is a tricky business and even carries an inherent risk with it: the risk of alienating one’s audience. In other words, I don’t find there are many writers capable of tackling the subject in a way which makes it both entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time, but John le Carre does belong to this exclusive club.
The most effective deceit is the one which is never discovered.― John le Carre, A Small Town in Germany
For those who aren’t familiar with the Cold War, the power dynamics in play, the ramifications of various political decisions and other such details, I believe A Small Town in Germany is one of the best introductions to the subject, at least as far as novels are concerned.
The author is an absolute expert at depicting this era with great accuracy, especially when it comes to descriptions of the happenings at the highest levels of the military, intelligence and political sectors of Europe. What most people would see as dry and boring, Le Carre turns into a thrilling poetry where the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
The story does begin at a relatively slow pace, with John le Carre carefully building everything up, preparing the stage and all the actors who will have their own roles to play. Right around the time the various elements of the plot begin to click together and the pace picks up, we have a very clear idea of the character’s identities, their ambitions, and the deep implications of their many actions.
A Personal Relation to Spycraft
I have no doubt there are many authors capable of writing convincing, realistic and entertaining espionage novels, but the fact of the matter is, only those who themselves have worked in the field can be turned to for reliable knowledge and opinions. John le Carre happens to be that specific type of person, and those of you who have read his other novels know just how deep he takes us not only into the mechanics of his world, but also the morality.
As is often the case, the author seemingly takes great pleasure from providing in-depth descriptions of the various techniques employed in the realm of spycraft. He takes us step-by-step and precisely explains how spies do what they do, from stealing documents to meeting with their handlers and defecting.
While in some of his novels John le Carre has a bit of a tendency to go overboard in this regard, in A Small Town in Germany he stays within what I would call agreeable confines. He never burdens us with an overabundance of detail and ensures the story continually moves somewhere, making it quite easy and straightforward to follow, at least by the author’s standards.
The mental toll of the profession is also given a good amount of consideration, an aspect of espionage work the author rarely fails to include in his novels. Naturally, he’s better-placed than most to understand the psychological effects of being privy to the darkest, dirtiest and deadliest deeds humanity tries to sweep under the rug, and his characters reflect the various ways in which it can break a person or lead them to certain doom.
There is a recurring theme which I’ve noticed across a few of John le Carre‘s novels, present here as well, and it’s the inherent disgust he holds towards the British Secret Service. While naturally he can’t divulge any facts nor betray his country, it feels to me as if he has witnessed enough in his time to give his opinion some tangible weight, and it’s one anybody interested in the reality behind fictional spycraft ought to be interested in. With what I’ve read about cases such as the Kim Philby affair, I found it difficult to disagree with his personal assessment.
The Story of a Place
For those of you familiar with the author’s more famous works, I think you’ll agree with the statement his novels are mostly all about telling the stories of characters, following people more than anything else. A Small Town in Germany is different in this regard, being mostly the story of a place rather than people.
This isn’t to say there are no characters or that they don’t have any important tasks to accomplish. They are still present, of course, but I found they weren’t as clearly-defined as I’ve grown accustomed to seeing them. Rather, the focus is placed on the various shifts in power and historical courses which take place in one specific environment, the titular small town.
That’s the trouble with Americans, isn’t it, really? All that emphasis on the future. So dangerous. It makes them destructive of the present.― John le Carre, A Small Town in Germany
Inherently, this does make the plot a little less exciting than what we’ve grown accustomed to from the legendary spy-turned-author. On the other hand though, it captures a special microcosm of time and space which, I believe, accurately reflects a reality increasingly lost to us, moving further and further away from the sphere of public knowledge with each year.
Along the way he touches on some heavy subjects some people aren’t too keen on talking about, which went double for the times when the book was originally published. Among these topics are, for example, the relation of Germans to the atrocities committed by their own people during the Second World War.
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Naturally, it is still a novel in the end, and there is also a fair measure of entertainment and excitement to be had along the way, with the Turner’s hunt after the diplomat almost feeling like a twisting and winding whodunit story, one with a memorable ending mirroring the way things tend to work in the real world.
The Final Verdict
A Small Town in Germany by John le Carre is yet another sensational work from the grand-master of espionage himself, and despite it being different in some aspects from the author’s best-known works, it remains a masterpiece on all fronts.
If you’re looking for an espionage thriller taking place during the Cold War capable of both keeping you entertained and educating you about a time very much worth studying and remembering, then I strongly recommend you give this novel a read.
John le Carre
(October 19, 1931 – December 12, 2020)
David John Moore Cornwell , better known by his pen name John le Carre, is a British former intelligence officer and author whose works are all centred on the domain of espionage.
He had the distinction of working for both MI5 and MI6 during the 1950s and 1960s, at the same time as his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, became an international bestseller.
Several of his most celebrated works have been adapted into movies and television series, including The Constant Gardener, The Night Manager and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.