A Small Town in Germany – John le Carré (1968)


“I’m still making my way through John le Carré’s oeuvre in chronological order, and so far it has been a surprisingly interesting and enjoyable journey. My most recent stop, A Small Town in Germany, is no exception to this, and once again it is a much more complex affair than I would have expected – like previous works by le Carré, not so much in regard to the plot (which one would expect to be intricate in a spy novel) as to the quiet, perspicacious writing, whose very precision often makes it slide into lyrical territory, and to the finely spun web of imagery and theme that defines the novel much more than the intrigues that constitute its plot. The novel’s title refers to Bonn during the late sixties, and it works quite well on this realistic level. I’ve only been to Bonn a couple of times myself, and most of this visits took place after the German re-unification when it already had ceased to be the capital of the Federal Republic, but my impression is that le Carré catches the weird, slightly off-kilter atmosphere of that place quite well. It presents some kind of alternative history, however, in so far as instead of the left-wing APO protesting on the streets, le Carré’s novel invents a populist movement that merges both left and right wing extremist ideas. This movement, under its charismatic leader Karfeld, is a cause for worry at the British embassy in Bonn where A Small Town in Germany is for the most part set, as he thrives on stirring up anti-British sentiment. Again, le Carré is wonderful on catching the atmosphere of a community of people under siege as Karfeld’s campaigns moves steadily closer towards Bonn during the course of the narrative until things come to a head during a public speech of his.  At first parallel to, and later on interwoven with this is a more traditional spy plot of an investigation into the disappearance of an embassy employee by the novel’s thoroughly unlikeable protagonist Alan Turner. He pursues this investigation which nobody seems to care much about with a dogged determination not only to find his man but apparently also to be rude and offensive to everyone who he meets along the way. Turner is an outsider among the blasé and class-conscious members of the British Embassy just as much as Leo Hartwig, the man he tries to find, something that is emphasized by Hari Kunzru in his excellent introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition; it also does a very good job of placing the novel in a historical context where dissatisfaction at the current state of Western democracy was giving rise to terrorism. …”
Heloise Merlin’s Weblog
NY Times: What Became Of Harting? (October 27, 1968)
W – A Small Town in Germany
amazon, Audible

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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