In the High Peaks

Sunday, February 10, 2019

A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré

This was an extraordinarily interesting novel, where nothing is as it seems until the last thirty pages or so. Throughout the book every character is walking blindly in the dark, so to speak, in the no man's land of Bonn, until the last puzzle falls into place. And the journey to get to that point is a helter-skelter ricochet of a ride through the West German capital and its environs in 1966.

Le Carré does not state the date, but reference is made to the anti-war protests starting to break out in the U.S. and London, and 1966 was the first year of mass protests. And, of even greater importance to British diplomats in Bonn, is the fact that the UK is desperately seeking entry into the Common Market. The novel takes place on the eve of meetings in Brussels where Common Market countries will decide on the matter.

Now that's just the tense historical backdrop, but even edgier than the most current issues are the gruesomely haunting shadows that linger after the downfall of the Third Reich and the never-ending, suffocating presence of the Cold War.

No spoilers yet. The book opens with the unfathomable disappearance of Leo Harting, employed in the British Embassy in Bonn. Embassy files also have vanished.

In 1991, with the slew of new Penguin editions of all of Le Carré's novels, the author wrote introductions for all of them. It is worth quoting from his introduction to A Small Town in Germany.
"A Small Town in Germany is printed with aversion in my memory, and I can think of little good to say of it until I begin to remember the three principal protagonists: the former refugee, Harting;  the acidly pragmatic British diplomat, Bradfield; and the driven and unhappy investigator, Alan Turner, whose part I secretly allocated to myself...I have to concede that I did, after all, achieve much of what I had wanted...
The reasons for my aversion are many. The first is that I had set out to write something close to a black comedy about British political manners, and yet the result was widely perceived to be ferociously anti-German.
And perhaps it was. The West Germany of Konrad Adenauer [leader of West Germany in the post-occupation era]  was not all lovely by any means: old players from the Hitler time were two-a-penny...In the West German police, the judiciary, the intelligence fraternity, and the armed services, in industry and science and the teaching professions, and most particularly, in the bureaucracy, old Nazis abounded, either because they had done nothing for which they could be purged, or because they had been deemed indispensable to West Germany's reconstruction. But most often because their cases had laid gathering dust in someone's drawer, filed and forgotten as part of a tacit agreement between NATO partners to put the past behind us."  [My emphasis].

The previous excerpt is a very small part of Le Carré's introduction. Let it be said that Le Carré, as a young man, in the early postwar era, earlier than the setting for this book,  had spent time in Bonn as an employee of  MI5.

As I read this book, I found myself thinking time and time again, that younger people might appreciate annotations to help them understand all the references to World War II, the British occupation, to West Germany as a nation. I would think that they would be essential to future generations reading this novel.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and I read it for the TBR Challenge and the European Reading Challenge, both for 2019.
**By the way, all U.S. editions of the author's books list his pseudonym as John Le Carré, yet other sources insist that it is spelled le Carré.  Never mind, his real name is David John Moore Cornwell. And he lives in Cornwall, at least most of the time. And he is 87 years old and has another new book coming out soon. He refuses interviews now, saying that he wants to put all his energies  into writing,  at this  stage of the game.


  1. Wonderful review, Judith! You've persuaded me to try something by Le Carré at some stage, sooner rather than later. Of course, like you I'm old enough not to need annotations but many younger people didn't live through these times like we did and nor did they have parents who fought in the war who would talk about it. I had no idea John Le Carré was still alive and living in Cornwall.

    1. Thanks, Cath--
      We have a number of Le Carre admirers in our midst. Perhaps in 2020 I should host a March Le Carre Month or something, during which everyone would read a Le Carre novel they've never read and report or discuss.
      Age 85-86 was the tipping point for P.D. James, and she stopped writing at that point.
      I do wish him well. I imagine it must be so much harder at 87 to write a book, I can't fathom it really. By the way, he supposedly owns a mile of "cliff edge" on the sea in Cornwall. I wonder what his writing room is like--do you think it overlooks the sea, or would that be too distracting? During my professional writing life, I liked a view--looking out the window helped me to rest my brain and also to think.

    2. That sounds like an excellent plan to me, Judith.

      I've just Googled John Le Carré and apparently he lives in St. Buryan about 10 miles from my hometown of Penzance. I was quite surprised as I expected the answer to be one of the more exclusive parts of Cornwall, Fowey or Rock, or perhaps Padstow. Delighted it's St. Buryan, so very remote and windswept, very 'West Penwith'. I wonder where his stretch of coastline is exactly. Wiki just says, 'near Land's End'. Hmm...

    3. Cath,
      I didn't know you grew up in Penzance! How interesting--Cornwall is one of my favorite regions of England, absolutely. I've been to Cornwall twice, the last time with Ken on our 2-week honeymoon tour of England in 1986.
      So--it's fascinating to realize he lives in a "remote, windswept" part of Cornwall. Speaking of "Penwith," we've been enjoying all the Poldark series--the more recent one, of course. We have enjoyed it, especially the views of the Cornish coast which we love.

  2. I enjoyed this one in 2017 but I intend to read all of his books eventually. I have them all in our overflow bookcases in the garage at the moment. Jack has read them all. I also love Cornwall and books with that setting. It feel so much like Scotland though, I suppose it's the stone built houses and the Celtic influence.

    1. Katrina,
      I intend to read all of them as well. I'm excited to know that I enjoyed this one as much as I did.
      And I gravitate toward any novel with a Cornwall setting, absolutely. It's the sea--the cliffs and the sea that call to me, I think. And yes, that Celtic influence, for sure.

  3. Thanks for stopping by my blog Judith. I have been reading some of your posts. I really like your blog.

    I have never read Le Carrre but I have been wanting to read him for years. I have seen a couple of films based on his novels and I have found them impressive. I have a feeling that if I start The Smiley books and like them I will want to read them all.

  4. Hi Brian,
    I started with Le Carre's first novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I recommend buying the 50th anniversary edition, because of Le Carre's great introduction. It's a fairly brief novel, but very complex, in its way.
    I don't know which one I'll read next. It won't be until 2020, when I may host a Le Carre readalong.
    Thanks for visiting.