“Three Lessons of Shimon Litvak” (by John Gastineau)

When EQMM’s November/December 2017 issue goes on sale next month, readers will be introduced to a new writer, John Gastineau. With his debut in our Department of First Stories, the former newspaper reporter, photographer, and book editor returns to his first love, writing, after many years as a full-time lawyer. It’s clear from the following post that he has long had an interest in crime fiction (and particularly spy fiction), and his analysis of some of the work of John le Carré is timely, with le Carré’s latest book, A Legacy of Spies, currently number three on the New York Times bestseller list. Readers who have not yet read the 1983 novel The Little Drummer Girl by John le Carré  may want to do so before reading this post, which discusses the book in detail.—Janet Hutchings

In case you haven’t heard, John le Carré has a new novel out, A Legacy of Spies. For those of us who love the unblinkered and frequently irascible le Carré and admire his rich prose, it’s a reason to celebrate.

The occasion’s also likely to spark debate again about which of le Carré’s novels is the best. Le Carré is a productive 85 years old. For the past 20 years or so, each of his new novels has triggered such conversations because we can’t say whether it will be the last and some want to get the morbid jump on summing up.

The debate usually boils down to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) or the earlier The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), to which A Legacy of Spies is variously labeled as a prequel or sequel, 54 years later. Frequently the odd man out, I pick The Little Drummer Girl.

My reasons are partially sentimental. I received a hardcover, first edition of Drummer Girl as a birthday gift in 1983, the year it was published. I asked for it because I didn’t have the money to buy it for myself. At the time, I was writing the first draft of my first novel, and like most everyone else who aspires to write, I read the masters to figure out how to do it.

Besides providing a slow, pleasurable read, Drummer Girl did what I hoped it would do; it delivered lessons. Three particularly come to mind in the way le Carré described and developed the character Shimon Litvak.

(The statute of limitations period on spoilers surely lapsed sometime during the 34 years since le Carré published Drummer Girl. The presumption becomes operational now.)

In Drummer Girl, a small group of Israeli agents find and stop a Palestinian bomb maker who terrorizes Germany in the late 1970s-early 1980s. That thumbnail could lead the uninitiated to think the Israelis are the heroes and the Palestinians are the villains, but le Carré never draws bright moral lines.

What le Carré does in 430 pages is turn on their heads the sympathies and certainties the reader may entertain about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that, of course, continues today. He begins by giving us many reasons to root for the Israelis. They are smart, engrossingly rich and diverse in background and personality, devoted to and effective in their work, and historically righteous in their thoughts and acts, all qualities to be admired. By the end, however, we see that, in equal measure, so are the Palestinians, and the consequences of the sides’ equally righteous thoughts and acts leave us ambivalent about and sorry for both.

To pull off this feat, le Carré uses Charlie, an English actress recruited by Marty Kurtz, director of the Israeli spies, to penetrate the terrorist cell and lead him to its mastermind, Khalil, the bomb maker. In her recruitment and training, Kurtz and Gadi Becker, the reluctant, conflicted agent runner, take Charlie’s rudimentary revolutionary ideals and facile notions about Palestinians and Israelis and distill them into a deeper, nuanced understanding of both groups. They then send her off to witness and feel the effects of Israel’s attitudes, policies, practices on Palestinians, much as the reader has seen and felt the effects of Palestinian beliefs and acts on Israelis from the first page of the book.

Shimon Litvak aids Kurtz throughout the operation. In a book rife with them, he stands atop the fascinating secondary-character pile.

As befits a novel about spying and acting, Litvak plays in many roles. At first, he is “the sidekick,” perceived by other characters and readers merely as Kurtz’s personal assistant. He sees that Kurtz has a room to himself. He feeds Kurtz radical revolutionary literature “from his shabby briefcase.” He drives Kurtz to and from his first meeting with Becker. He acts as the recording secretary for Charlie’s “audition” for her role in the “theater of the real.”

As the novel progresses, Litvak, along with Kurtz, plays a Hollywood producer to interview Charlie’s theatrical agent about her. He investigates a bombing in Leyden. He successfully commands teams of field agents who kidnap Yanuka, Khalil’s brother, surveil and follow a car containing explosives, and assassinate Yanuka and another cell member who are no longer useful to the operation.

Litvak’s essential role, however, is to stand in contrast to both Kurtz and Becker to tell us things about them all. Kurtz is a child of the Diaspora and one of that generation of European Jews who survived the Holocaust and sailed east in crowded, decrepit ships to resist British occupation and create Israel. Becker is of the next generation who protected the young country from its Arab neighbors overtly during the Six-Day War and covertly in other ways.

Litvak is the product of a third generation, a “sabra” or Israeli-born Jew and “an apparatchik trained to his fingertips.” In the way le Carré depicts Litvak beyond those two facts, le Carré tells us much not only about Kurtz, Becker, and Litvak, but also about how to draw a character.

Physical descriptions need not be precise or thorough. Age, height, weight, and the colors of hair and eyes don’t matter that much in describing a character. The most we ever find out about Litvak is that he is half Kurtz’s nebulous age, perhaps 24 years old, and remarkably thin. That’s because le Carré cares little about the rap-sheet details of his character’s appearance. He is concerned with Litvak’s personality, his mental or emotional states, and finally his soul.

There must be enough description early enough to make the character’s later thoughts and actions plausible. By the time we’ve read 10 percent of the book, le Carré has told us enough about Litvak that nothing he does later is surprising.

On page 17 of my nearly broken edition, Litvak is “very thin” and “emaciated” and has “skeletal hands.” By page 39, we know he “hated inefficiency almost as much as he hated the enemy who was guilty of it.” By page 41, we know that he reveres Kurtz and that he is jealous of Becker’s place in Kurtz’s heart and suspicious of Becker’s apparent lack of zeal.

And then, on the same page, where Kurtz laughed until he wept in relief and exhaustion and Litvak joined him and “felt his envy disappear,” le Carré serves up the following paragraphs:

These sudden, rather crazy weather changes were deep in Litvak’s nature, where many irreconcilable factors played their part. . . . How did he see himself? One day as a twenty-four-year-old kibbutz orphan without a known relation alive, another as the adopted child of an American Orthodox foundation and the Israeli special forces. On another again, as God’s devoted policeman, cleaning the world up.

He played the piano beautifully.

That last sentence is both a descriptive summary compressed to diamond-hard clarity and a prism the reader may use to unlock the wide, colorful range of Litvak’s emotions and actions later.

Descriptions need not make a character likeable, just understandable. Litvak is fascinating but unlikeable. For all his proficiencies employed in devotion to his home, he is cold to the touch and often grating. He lacks the life experiences that fostered Kurtz’s emotional intelligence and Becker’s empathy, tempered their zeal, and nudged them along the moral spectrum toward literary heroism.

Kurtz respects Litvak but finds him hard to take. Kurtz secretly believes that the young members of the Israeli spy service among whom Litvak moves easily are “stiff and embarrassing to handle.” When Litvak leaves a room at Kurtz’s suggestion, “Kurtz gave a grateful sigh of relief.”

Even Litvak’s body rebels against his nature. Litvak’s hatred of those who have harmed Israel and those who promise but fail to protect it make him ill. In the presence of a British counterterrorism officer and former colonial occupant, “[h]e looked pale and might have been in pain.” During a meeting with a German official whose feet grow cold when he must dip his toes deeper into the bloodier aspects of Kurtz’s operation, Litvak turns “his eyes away, perhaps to conceal their fire,” under an expression that le Carré says is “white and sickly.”

Charlie has the last word about Litvak near the end of the book. To her, he is Mike, no more than Kurtz’s assistant, but someone she “had always, as she now realized, suspected of an unhealthy nature.”

Charlie sees Becker burst through a safe-house door to rescue her by unloading a gun into Khalil. She watches as Litvak followed, “knelt down and put a last precise shot into the back of Khalil’s neck, which must have been unnecessary.”

By depicting a person of an unhealthy nature carry out a gratuitously violent act after a heroic predecessor has done the essential, morally costly work, le Carré snaps into focus his opinion of the then-contemporary generation of Israelis engaged in the conflict. We may not share the opinion or like the character who represents it, but thanks to le Carré’s careful, sophisticated, and entertaining character description and development, we certainly understand them.

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