The Yellow Birds Posts

“A Delicate Truth” John le Carre, June 2013

“A Delicate Truth” John le Carre, June 2013

Delicate Truth

My review of John le Carre’s latest novel, A Delicate Truth was published in the Hindu Literary Supplement. (Online on 1 June 2013 and in print on 2 June 2013) Here is the link to it: . The longer version of the review is reproduced below:

A Delicate Truth is a typical John le Carre spy-thriller, more psychological, less physical action. Yet the plot moves swiftly and is gripping to read. A seasoned but low-flying British foreign office man, “Paul Anderson” is sent off on an undercover assignment to Gibralter by Minister Quinn. Operation Wildlife — a secret operation and a public-private enterprise to kidnap a high-value terrorist from the Mediterranean Sea. As Elliot, Paul’s handler puts it politely, “He is the most unprincipled fucking merchant of death on the face of this earth bar none, but also the chosen intimate of the worst dregs of international society who is preoccupied with selling Manpad, man-portable air-defence system.” Jeb and his beach team observe a bag is first deposited at the front steps of the house under surveillance and then collected by a person wearing an Arab dress –a suicide bomber? Immediately they act. Predictably as with any conflict situation there is collateral damage.

Three years later Toby Bell, Private Secretary to Minister Quinn begins to unravel the mystery behind this operation. It has been bothering him considerably since despite being part of the minister’s official team at the time he had absolutely no knowledge of some projects his master was involved with. He can only connect the dots after having tapped a secret conversation in the minister’s official chamber, he realizes the wide and intricate nexus defence contractors and mercenaries have cast globally, with Fergus Quinn being a cog in in too. (A man of whose appearances one should not be fooled. “He’s a thug, he beats the working class drum, but he’s also ex-catholic, ex-Communist and New Labour – or what’s left of it now that its champion has moved onto richer pastures…He hates ideology and thinks he has invented pragmatism. He hates the Tories, although half the time he is to the right of them.” He is preoccupied with G-WOT or the global war on terror. ) A name heard often is of Jay Crispin and his Ethical Outcomes group, a fly-by-night company of defence contractors, “a caucus of wealthy American conservative evangelicals convinced that the Central Intelligence Agency is overrun with red-toothed Islamic sympathizers and liberal faggots”, a view that Finn is disposed to share. They are a private corporation that specializes in precious commodity— “high-grade information” more commonly known as secret intelligence, collected and disseminated in the private sphere only. “Unadulterated. Untouched by government hands.” Crispin is considered to be Quinn’s Svengali. According to Jeb, some years later when analyzing Operation Wildlife, the Ethical Outcomes team had lead Quinn up the garden path. “It was a deal gone bad. Nobody wants to admit that they handed over a couple of million dollars in a suitcase for a load of old cobblers, well do they?” Yet it is deemed as a successful operation. Paul gets knighted in recognition and a diplomatic posting overseas. Save for the loss of a couple of innocent lives, life carries on. Crispin reappears in a new and far more insidious avatar, linked to Rosethorne Protection Services, worth about 3 billion US (growing rapidly) with full time employees being six hundred. Offices spread across the world, specializing in “everything from personal protection to home security to counter-insurgency to who’s spying on your firm to who’s screwing your wife.”

A Delicate Truth is set during the Bush-Blair years at a time when the number of conflicts around the world increased and post 9/11 these intensified. Flushing out “the jihadi” was of paramount importance. In conflict studies, it is well documented that post-conflict reconstruction of a fragile society is a very slow and expensive process, requiring the skills and resources from around the world. It is lucrative business. But post-Cold War espionage genre floundered a bit since it was no longer a polarised world, easy to write about. It had taken off immediately after the World Wars, with writers like Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, Graham Greene, and John le Carre dominating it. (Even an experienced writer and an ex-spy John le Carre took a while to find his bearing in the new world order.) But contemporary warfare has shown a sharp escalation after the collapse since the early 1990s, giving a context and probably an appetite for this kind of fiction. Interestingly it has been the burst of espionage fiction in the children and young adult literature that has come to the fore. For instance, Anthony Read’s The Baker Street Boys (based upon his very popular 1980s TV series, but the novels began to appear in 2005 onwards); Andrew Lane Young Sherlock Holmes; Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider; Robert Muchamore’s Cherub novels; Charlie Higson’s hugely successful Young Bond; Chris Bradford’s Young Samurai series and for younger readers, Jill Marshall’s Jane Blonder and Andrew Cope’s Spy Dog. Having said that, it is also anti-war literature like debut author and ex-Iraqi war veteran Kevin Power’s The Yellow Birds and A Delicate Truth (given le Carre’s vocal condemnation of the Iraq war) that are creating a healthy public discourse about war and conflict albeit via literature, circumventing doctored press releases.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist.

1 June 2013

John le Carre A Delicate Truth Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2013. Pb. Pp. 312 Rs. 210

“The Yellow Birds” Kevin Powers

“The Yellow Birds” Kevin Powers

“The Yellow Birds” is the story of Private John Bartle who is preparing to join the United States Army and be posted in Operation Desert Storm. He is finally sent to Al Tafar, Syria for one year. At the wise old age of twenty-one he is considered to be a senior. Most of his colleagues are barely out of school. They are supposed to be these brave men, soldiers, fighting a war on behalf of their country. But the reality is that they have punishing schedules, the people with whom they seem to engage in combat are the elderly, children, lone adults who are as terrified as the soldiers. For instance, at one particular engagement Private Bartle recounts, “…I wanted to tell everyone to stop shouting at him, to ask, ‘What kind of men are we?’ An odd sensation came over me, as if I had been saved, for I was not a man, but a boy, and that he may have been frightened, but I did’t mind that so much, because I was frightened too, and I realised with a great shock that I was shooting at him and that I wouldn’t stop until I was sure he was dead, and I felt better knowing we were killing him together and that it was just as well not to be sure you are the one who did it.” (p.21)

The violence of war everyone knows or at least thinks that they can imagine. But it has been quite a while that such a powerful book has been published — that which recreates the horror of war, the stench and misery that accompanies it and what it actually does to the young men and women soldiers. Many lose their lives, many lose a limb or two or others lose their mind but if and when they return home they are treat as heroes. But Private Bartle would rather not have anything to do with them. When he returns home he slinks along the rail tracks to get himself some beer, preferably not respond to the cheers of people welcoming him home or calling him on the phone. His mother tells him, “People want to see you. I really think you should. Think about it.” He replies, “Goddammit Mama, All I do is think.”

Kevin Powers, the author, is a Gulf War veteran who says he wrote this book primarily alone. The Yellow Birds is based upon his experiences. Hence the descriptions of the body bomb, Private Murph losing his mind, the nurse being killed at the makeshift hospital are all very frighteningly real descriptions. Their is no room for imagination to soften the blow or distance oneself from the events in the third-person narrative. He describes it as is.

This is a book that fits well in the long tradition of war literature — John Hersey’s Hiroshima, Paul Fussell, Hans Fallada, Erich Maria Remarque, Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut to name a few. Kevin Powers writing is extremely powerful, it must be read and discussed and shared. But read on an empty stomach if possible. It is befitting that last week it won the 2013 PEN/Hemingway Award.

Kevin Powers The Yellow Birds Hachette India, Delhi, 2013. Pb. pp.230 Rs. 595

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