Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Review: A Small Town in Germany

I’ll warn you, it starts slow. But then it takes you screaming down odd twisted paths and leaves you dumped at the end of the line, wholly unsatisfied, but ready to read another book by John le Carre.

There, my one-paragraph review of “A Small Town in Germany,” the first of le Carre’s books I’ve read, following my long-standing policy of reading books that typically come to me through thrift store purchases, outright donations or are discovered being smuggled into the house baked inside loaves of bread.

The one sympathetic character in the book is the one you don’t get to meet. The rest of them are anti-heroes at best, schemers at worst – which is probably an accurate reflection of the seedier side of mankind – the decent guy is the one you never meet. But then he’s not decent, then, is he? I won’t spoil any plots, but be ready to discover there are no white hats in this roundup.

I’ll ding it one star for crude sexual references that add nothing to the plot nor to the overall contemptible anti-hero’s persona. The book, and its characters, are brutal, brutish, ugly and inhuman, as inhuman as the Nazis who inevitably become the book’s shadow villains. Nazis, of course, are perfect villains, because that’s their shtick. “Nazis. I hate these guys,” is an apt line to steal from Indiana Jones when reading this book.

Le Carre has an interesting style. No one is omniscient in this book. We learn along with the characters, and as little as possible, to boot. Nor are we left with a clear-cut understanding as to how the plot is sewn together. There is much left unsaid that le Carre leaves to the reader to fill in. That’s admirable in a spy novel, because the true impulse is to wrap up everything in a neat package at the end like an Agatha Christie novel. The flaw with that premise is that life rarely comes in such neatly-wrapped packages. Le Carre captures that frustration well, and plays it to great narrative advantage.

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