The Tailor of Panama

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The end of the Cold War has hardly left espionage novelist John le Carré searching desperately for material. After all, the world is still crammed with politicians, militarists, diplomats, spies, revolutionaries, criminals, the greedy looking for easy money, and romantics longing for adventure, all the necessary ingredients for international duplicity. Le Carré’s unusual twist in The Tailor of Panama is having as his protagonist a tailor, a mild-mannered husband and father, a most unlikely spy.

Le Carré’s model, as he notes in his acknowledgments, is Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana (1958), in which a British vacuum cleaner salesman in pre-Castro Cuba is recruited as a spy with comic results. Our Man in Havana is one of the works Greene described as an “entertainment,” meaning it took a lighter approach than some of his other fiction. Likewise, The Tailor of Panama starts out almost as a comedy of manners but gradually escalates into something considerably more serious.

In England, Harry Pendel is rescued from a Catholic orphanage by his Uncle Benny. Pendel’s father, a Russian immigrant, has died, and his mother, an eighteen-year-old housemaid, has returned to Ireland to hide from the shame of giving birth to a bastard. Because of five hundred unsold summer frocks, Benny sets his warehouse on fire to collect the insurance and lets his teenage nephew take the blame. During his two-and-a-half years in jail, Pendel learns the craft of tailoring and upon his release goes to Panama to start a new life.

Pendel’s existence in Panama is built around a lie even before he is caught up in espionage. He calls his firm “Pendel & Braithwaite Co. Limitada, Tailors to Royalty, formerly of Savile Row, London, and presently of the Via Espana, Panama City.” Pendel’s mentor, the legendary Arthur Braithwaite, to whom he was apprenticed, is a total fabrication. Pendel’s wife, Louisa, and their children, Hannah and Mark, believe in Braithwaite and know nothing of Pendel’s time in jail. Louisa is an American reared in the Panama Canal Zone, daughter of an army engineer. She works for Dr. Ernesto Delgado, the Panamanian president’s planning adviser on the canal.

Pendel’s life is serene, almost a parody of genteel English life abroad, except for a bad investment of Louisa’s money in a rice farm. Then one day appears Andrew Osnard, a young representative of Her Majesty’s Government, who claims his father was a customer of Braithwaite. Le Carré cleverly begins this relationship to be built upon lies with a lie.

Because many of Pendel’s customers are powerful and influential—even Manuel Noriega was one—Osnard wants him to make reports of what they say while being measured for suits, since a tailor’s shop is an unthreatening setting where their guards will be down. Osnard’s superiors are convinced that the future of Panama is vital to the United Kingdom because if the British have no say-so over who controls the canal after the United States withdraws its interests at the turn of the century, the Japanese will take advantage and rule international shipping.

Pendel’s loyal receptionist, Marta, disfigured from a beating by Noriega goons, and his playboy friend, Mickie Abraxas, a wealthy Panamanian of Greek descent, have had tenuous connections to politics. Using information from them and elsewhere, Pendel creates what he calls “the Silent Opposition,” a loosely connected group of students and fisherman who oppose the current government and are led by Abraxas. When Osnard pushes him for information about Delgado, Pendel convinces him that Louisa is spying on her boss. High British and American officials believe in Pendel’s tall tales and hope to install Abraxas as the new Panamanian leader.

When police question Abraxas about matters he knows nothing of, his fear of prison drives him to suicide. To protect his friend’s honor, Pendel makes the death appear to have been a murder. Soon, American forces are invading Panama. These developments are ironic since at least some of the British realize that Pendel’s reports are “the most frightful tosh,” but the situation has become unstoppable.

With its reputation for corruption and violence, Panama is an appropriate setting for such dark comedy. For Pendel, Panama is “not a country, it’s a casino.” A drunken Abraxas tells Osnard, “We’re so stupid and corrupt and blind I don’t know why the earth doesn’t swallow us up right now.” Everyone is on edge, a tension made all the more dangerous since almost everyone is also armed. Even the fiercely pro-Panama Louisa wonders, “Why can’t we use our own drug money to build our own factories and schools and hospitals?” Panama is a perfidious...

(The entire section is 1963 words.)