“Educated to Tragedy”: John Le Carré, The Little Drummer Girl

drummer-girl1She was entering by degrees exactly that condition which Joseph had predicted. She was being educated to tragedy, and the tragedy absolved her of the need to explain herself. She was a blinkered rider, being conveyed through events and emotions too great for her to encompass, into a land where merely to be present was to be part of a monstrous injustice. She had joined the victims and was finally reconciled to her deceit.

At first, reading The Little Drummer Girl, I really missed Smiley. It’s not just that he is a great character–original, distinctive, and perversely inviting. It’s also that for all his gloom (and perhaps in part because of it) he is the moral center of his novels, dogged in his determination to rest what he can of righteousness out of circumstances that make it not just inaccessible but nearly inconceivable. The books are melancholy because they occupy such disillusioned territory, and because in spite of that, there’s something lovable as well as admirable about Smiley, something comforting, even, in what he stands for (and fights for) as a government agent. Because he is what he is, we mourn his losses and failures and betrayals of principle.

In The Little Drummer Girl, though, we are surrounded not by operatives but by ideologues, and at the center of it is only Charlie–vain, impulsive, erratic, susceptible. It’s true that she is also smart, courageous, and determined, but to what (or whose) ends? For some time, as I read the novel, I was frustrated by her. Not only is she a kind of character I almost instinctively dislike, but she did nothing to anchor the novel morally. She never really does, but by the end I came to see her instability as essential to the role she plays, both in the novel’s elaborate scheme of deception and in its treatment of the political conflict it engages us with. She herself can’t belong to either side or neither side could use her–and that means Le Carré can use her to move our sympathies back and forth between them.

drummer-girl2Talking about our sympathies seems almost out of place, though, which is something else I found interesting about The Little Drummer Girl. It seems to me to be fairly careful about laying out the arguments for both sides, allowing neither Israel nor the Palestinians the moral high ground. Joseph is a crucial device in this respect, for us and for Charlie. As he lays out the case for Palestinian resistance, building the elaborate fiction that she will inhabit as a double-agent, she marvels “at the paradoxes of a man who could dance with so many of his own conflicting shadows, and still stand up.” Later, playing the part he has written for her, it is Joseph who begins to feel to her like the fiction, while the role he created becomes her reality:

Day and night, therefore, she strove–for Michel, for her own mad sanity, for Palestine, for Fatmeh and for Slam and the bombed children in the Sidon prison; driving herself outward in order to escape the chaos inside; gathering together the elements of her assumed character as never before, welding them into a single, combative entity. . . .

I have put my hand on the Palestinian heart; I am pledged to lift the world up by its ears to make it listen.

Horrors on one side, atrocities on the other, and between them we have Joseph, who knows it all but is clear about where his loyalties lie, and Charlie, whose allegiance is never truly political but always personal. For her, as her handlers expect and devise, the double-edged story they devise for her becomes its own justification and necessity:

So it went on, one argument predicating another, until the only logic was the fiction, and the fiction was a web that enmeshed everyone who tried to sweep it away.

Her relationship with Joseph becomes so closely overlaid with her role as Michel’s lover that sometimes I almost forgot, as she almost does, which man she has in fact longed for, talked with, slept beside, trusted.

A bit like Edward Waverley in Waverley, Charlie is useful because she needs to be educated into the conflict she finds herself in the midst of. By the end of Scott’s novel, however, Waverley’s enthusiasm for the Jacobite cause has been played out, and both the danger and the romantic allure of Fergus and Flora have been relegated to a picturesque past. I don’t think Le Carré takes sides so clearly in The Little Drummer Girl. I suppose we might assume that the side Charlie is “really” on is the right side; some evidence on that side would be that she does persist in her undercover mission, and also that no matter how roused her passions are on behalf of her Palestinian contacts, she still turns to Joseph (including, in what I thought was the novel’s weakest moment, at the very end). But you could also argue that her intense reaction after the job is done–her disgust with them all and with herself–is a criticism, a rejection, of their purposes, or at least of the means the Israelis have accepted to their ends, and also that everything she has seen for herself justifies the resistance they have provoked. In his introduction, Le Carré himself describes Charlie as “torn to pieces by the battle between two peoples who both have justice on their side.”

drummer-girl3Given the ruthless and destructive behavior the novel shows by both “peoples” in pursuit of the justice they claim, is the novel’s message about the Israel-Palestine conflict “a plague on both their houses”? That angry impatience doesn’t seem to fit with the tone of the novel, which is relentlessly grim but also (and in this it definitely reminded me of the other Le Carré novels I’ve read so far) almost clinical. The characters frequently get heated but the novel remains coolly descriptive, not moralizing or judgmental. Everyone running Charlie, Israeli or Palestinian, is just doing what they think must be done: if there’s some other way forward, some better ought arising from the is of both recent history and current circumstances, nobody in the novel is talking about it. There’s certainly no thread of wistful “can’t we all just get along” idealism: this is not the kind of novel that “puts a human face” on a political problem in order to urge reconciliation. At most, it does this through negative example and by proxy, through Charlie–but I’m not sure we can take her case as a lesson about how innocents suffer: “And you are the same English,” Khalil says quietly, when the crisis has come, “who gave away my country.”

2 thoughts on ““Educated to Tragedy”: John Le Carré, The Little Drummer Girl

  1. dollymix August 6, 2019 / 10:38 am

    I read this recently, and found your post a good summing up. I didn’t like it as much as the other Le Carre I’ve read, in part because I don’t think it did a good job marrying the clinical focus on spycraft with the emotional resonance of the story, which you explain well. I think it was probably also too long.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen the film Sicario, but it also features a young woman doing intelligence work as part of a violent conflict (the US/Mexico drug war) in which both sides are morally culpable. I think it does a really good job of making you feel the futility of trying to be a good person in that scenario by basically stripping away her agency, leaving her as the moral center of the film but who ends up stuck on the periphery of the plot. I wish Little Drummer Girl had done something equally bold – instead, as you point out, the romantic ending feels a bit too trite.


    • Rohan Maitzen August 8, 2019 / 8:48 am

      I haven’t seen that film but what you say about stripping away agency fits LDG well overall, I think, until the end. I wonder if Le Carre fell victim himself to a sense of what a “good” ending looks like for a female protagonist. He seems quite willing to leave his leading men in grey areas.


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