A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carre the 1968 Week

A Small Town in Germany cover

I’m a day late with this post as 1968 Week finished on the fifth of November, but heigh-ho better late than never, I think.

A Small Town in Germany is the first book that I’ve read by John Le Carre and it definitely won’t be the last as it was a great read.

The setting is Bonn in the late 1960s and there are demonstrations in the streets and political strife in general. It’s a time when British politicians were desperate to join the Common Market as the European Union was called back then. General de Gaulle was doing his best to keep the UK out. I remember it well.

Alan Turner has been sent to Bonn from the Foreign Office in London. He has been tasked with looking into the disappearance of Leo Harting who is a minor embassy officer who has been on rolling temporary contracts for the last twenty years. Turner is disliked by everyone because it seems that Harting has been running rings around them all, being all things to all men and women and manipulating his way into having much more access to files than he should have.

Turner discovers that not only is Harting missing but so are dozens and dozens of files, including the all important green file. It seems that Harting must have been working for the Russians for years.

As espionage tales go this is a fairly straightforward one but very well written and enjoyable. It’s somewhat depressing though that almost fifty years on from when this book was published nothing much seems to have changed politically. This passage struck me:

no one thanks you for democracy. Now we’ve come out the other side. Democracy was only possible under a class system, that’s why: it was an indulgence granted by the privileged. We haven’t time for it any more: a flash of light between feudalism and automation and now it’s gone. What’s left? The voters are cut off from the parliament, parliament is cut off from the Government and the Government is cut off from everyone. Government by silence that’s the slogan. Government by alienation.

With politics in Bonn being overtaken by a wealthy right-wing industrialist who is successfully building a new political party this seemed spookily prescient, it’s just a matter of changing the country – or maybe such things are just constantly repeating in history as subsequent generations fail to learn from the past. I’ll definitely be reading more Le Carre books. Can anybody recommend the next one I should read?

3 thoughts on “A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carre the 1968 Week

  1. Pingback: #1968Club – Stuck in a Book

  2. Sorry I’m late to reply but I have just read The Russia House, by the same author. You might enjoy that too, it was written in the Gorbachev era just at the (supposed) end of Communism… comparing what we know of the world now with John Le C’s views then is very interesting.
    Another excellent Le Carre book is A Perfect Spy, and I found out later that the larger-than-life father of the main character was in fact modelled on the author’s own father, and to some extent his and Magnus Pym’s lives had a lot of parallels. A Small Town In Germany was possibly a little harder to follow than either of these titles, more complex in plot with less hand-holding to guide the reader, but beautifully written. All these books have his wonderful dry and very British sense of humour thrown in just when you least expect it – I actually laughed out loud more than once reading each of these. He’s a stimulating and intelligent writer and even if you’re not into spy novels first and foremost, his books are refreshing and enjoyable to read. There’s a trilogy of books centered around the character George Smiley which are excellent… “The Quest For Karla” is the informal collective term for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. Rivetting stuff. The original 1979 version of the 1st book is IMO some of the best western television ever made. The incomparable Alec Guinnes plays Smiley and he is incredibly good… look for the scene where he reminisces about a meeting 30 years before, and the elderly Guinness shows his skills in simply becoming a much younger, though still mature man of middle years. The climactic scene of the final book made some of the most intense TV I’ve ever seen. The remake is great, but has to try very hard knowing it stands in the shadow of those books and those productions. You’ll love them all if you enjoyed A Small Town In Germany. Le Carre’s entire “Circus” series of spy novels is a complete world in its own right, and then there is The Little Drummer Girl, a very different espionage novel in a very different setting… I think it may even be better. You’ll find your own favourites of course but I have no doubt you’ll be just as impressed as I was by all his works. However, I must say The Naiive and Sentimental Lover wasn’t to my taste… maybe because I wanted more of his spy novels, but it may be to others’.

    • Bernard W,
      Don’t worry there’s no hurry to comment on posts. I have an awful lot of catching up to do but luckily we have all of his books as my husband bought them when they were first published. I haven’t read Le Carre’s ‘Circus’ books partly because I enjoyed the TV series so much when they were first shown, as you say Alec Guinness was great as Smiley, he could put so much into just a look. Maybe I should read them though.
      Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment.

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