Since the publication of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), his third novel, John le Carré has been regarded as the best living practitioner of espionage fiction, and his seven books since then, all but one of them spy novels, have made him the most acclaimed ever. Le Carré’s previous fiction has concentrated on East-West tensions, but with The Little Drummer Girl, he has shifted his focus from the Cold War to the very bloody conflicts of the Middle East. For the past decade, in novels such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and Smiley’s People (1980), his examination of the chesslike maneuvers of British and Soviet spies, featuring George Smiley and Karla, his Russian nemesis, has fascinated both readers of popular fiction and critics who admire le Carré’s style and his insight into global politics. Following several visits to the Middle East since 1977, le Carré wanted to deal with the complex political struggles there. Such a subject—with all sides seemingly right and wrong at the same time—appears perfect for this master of moral ambiguity. Abandoning his familiar mise-en-scène and his recurring cast of characters, le Carré has produced one of his most interesting books, combining politics, adventure, and romance and offering a fresh look at his usual themes of betrayal and guilt.
Le Carré’s typically labyrinthine plot begins with a series of anti-Jewish bombings in Europe. Israeli intelligence officer Marty Kurtz is assigned to get the terrorist behind all of these killings, an evasive Palestinian named Khalil. Kurtz is preoccupied not only with stopping Khalil but also with keeping his own operation from being shut down and perhaps most important, holding back “the mounting outcry for a military solution.” Kurtz chooses an unlikely weapon: twenty-six-year-old English actress Charmian, known as Charlie, veteran of third-rate touring companies and numerous left-wing causes. Kurtz selects Charlie for her acting ability and radical background. Charlie’s involvement comes about as the result of an elaborate charade carried out by Gadi Becker, known to Charlie as Joseph, a truly battle-scarred veteran of several wars. Becker slowly entices Charlie into a meeting with Kurtz—in part because he is the only man she has ever wanted who will not sleep with her.
Kurtz’s plot, during the unveiling of which the reader is only one slight step ahead of the naïve Charlie, is to convince Khalil that the actress is the true love of his younger brother, who calls himself Michel, another terrorist. Kurtz’s team forges love letters between Charlie and Michel and indoctrinates her in everything known about the brothers and their cause. Meanwhile, Michel is kidnaped, tortured, and killed; his death is made to look like an accident.
The heart of The Little Drummer Girl is in the scenes in which Charlie and Becker act out Michel’s courtship of her. She is able to “fall in love” with a man she has never seen because his part is being played by a man whom she truly loves—a man who shares all of her intimacies but not her bed. In this strange mixture of role-playing and genuine feeling, Charlie begins to lose her grasp on her own identity. Indeed, le Carré treats the tension between modern man’s quest for a firm identity and his need to assume varied roles as well as anyone in postwar fiction, with the possible exceptions of Vladimir Nabokov and Thomas Pynchon. Charlie is never certain why she is going along with Kurtz and hates herself for doing so. Kurtz knows that she participates because “to the uninitiated, the secret world is of itself attractive. Simply by turning on its axis, it can draw the weakly anchored to its centre.” There is also the fascination of trying to distinguish what is real:...
(The entire section is 1557 words.)