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With Cold War Over, Le Carre Builds Plot Around Ethnic Tension


By John Le Carre

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Alfred A. Knopf, 302 pp., $24

The post-cold-war world is despicable in many ways: Thuggery, ethnic persecution, materialism, and corrupt ideology are unfortunately prominent in the former Soviet Union.

Not bad fodder for a spy novel. John le Carre's arena for ''Our Game,'' the Caucasus in southern Russia, is as gripping as anything Soviet-era hawks could conjure up. And Le Carre is just shy of prophetic when he predicts that the long-suffering mountain peoples, the Ingush, will set off the world's next powder keg in their struggle for independence from Moscow. Step one tiny republic east and you reach Chechnya.

Le Carre is best when he dissects deceit at its worst. In this debacle, Russia's minority groups have been betrayed alternately by the Kremlin, which vaguely promises self-determination but delivers oppression, and the West, which talks of freedom but only wrings its hands on the sidelines. All this is cataloged through the passionate exhortations of Larry Pettifer, a British ex-spy with a soft spot for the Caucasus, who steals 37 million from Moscow on behalf of the Ingush.

The plot takes off when he disappears. The police come knocking at the door of his childhood friend Timothy Cranmer, who was Pettifer's handler in the British Secret Service until it fired them both when their cold-war expertise was no longer required. Since getting the sack, Cranmer has been left bereft of enemies and consequently finds nothing to live for or believe in but his old vineyard and his new girlfriend, Emma.

Cranmer and Pettifer are more than friends: Cranmer created Pettifer's career by recruiting him to spy for Britain. He not only taught him the trade, but also built an entire persona for him to shield him from detection by the Russians. This is not too different from the relationship the two had in school, where Cranmer tried to shield Pettifer from constant bullying by his peers.

The novel's multilayered theme of betrayal gets a personal edge through Cranmer's repressed homosexual feelings for his flamboyant friend. He twists into rage when Pettifer runs off with Emma. Far from helping Pettifer make off with the money, as neighbors and the police and the Secret Service Office suspect, Cranmer nearly killed him out of envy.

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Cranmer suddenly finds a new motive to dig out his old tricks and false passports. He goes into hiding to escape the wary Office and two unrelenting bulldogs of police detectives -- and to unearth his colleague and his girl. Along the way Cranmer recounts -- with weary cynicism -- Pettifer's seemingly ridiculous devotion to the Caucasus. He even finds, among scraps of burnt paper Pettifer has left behind in a deserted apartment, the voice of yearning: ''Ich bin ein Ingush.''

But as he traces the missing 37 million from Pettifer to the Caucasus, Cranmer's contempt for Pettifer's naivete turns to fascination. His hunt becomes a pilgrimage to understand this trouble-wracked corner of the world.

This is where the pace of the plot crumbles, since the fascinating story of the Caucasus serves as a mere backdrop to an implausible personal transformation. Le Carre can't hope with his fiction to out-tell the truth of the real situation, and his story takes on an eerie tinge when one already knows what the Ingush's neighbors and ethnic cousins, the Chechens, have undergone in their own war with Russia.

As Cranmer the would-be murderer turns unconvincingly into an apostle, the plot tapers off as though Le Carre's pen slowly ran out of ink.

*Kristiana Helmick is on the Monitor staff.

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