To Whom Evil is Done

‘I mean, you’ve got to compare method with method, and ideal with ideal. I would say that since the war, our methods – ours and those of the opposition – have become much the same. I mean, you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?’ He laughed quietly to himself. ‘That would never do.’

Well, quite.

Imagine the following. A man is lashed to a chair, being tortured. His nails are being extracted from fingers on both hands. Working one hand is a fellow from the east, pulling nails for the greater good of the workers and the revolution. At the other hand is a chap from the west, pulling nails for freedom and democracy.

Where is the morality to be found?

If the morality is not in the action, then anything is permissible for the cause; if it is in the action, then how can we say we are the good guys?

I believe that if an objective morality exists then it exists in the cause, not the action. How could it be otherwise? The evil in the world – indeed, ‘the problem of evil’ – is argued away by some by claiming that God might have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil to exist in the world. Such a position is ‘thin’ – as thin as an honest alibi as Chandler might have it – but it’s better than nothing.

Funny to read a book in which the British – in this case the British Secret Service – are just as wicked and pitiless as the enemy. One might be able to derive a certain pride from this. It’s good to think of the chaps in the shadows having the measure of the enemy and doing what is necessary in the battle to allow ‘us’ to ‘sleep peacefully in our beds’ – or whatever platitudinous drivel happens to be current linguistic currency. But is there a limit to what can be done to the enemy? Le Carre doesn’t answer this, but he does pose the question.

So, what do the British do in this marvellous novel?

We keep a sadistic Nazi in position because although we know he’s a torturer and murderer, he’s also our man in East Berlin, and – because he’s our Joe – we’ll look the other way for the sake of the product.

While we’re at it, we target a good, loyal and thoroughly decent fellow – because he is suspicious of our man – and frame him with an elaborate plot which will end with this innocent man’s murder. One must protect one’s assets, old-boy.

To bring this about, we’ll use a British girl – just a ditzy librarian, full of innocent ideology – and weave her into the intrigue before slapping her onto the table as our ace-card. Alas, we can’t have this poor creature running about the place and spilling her guts to anyone who’ll listen, so we’ll do a deal with the guards on the cold side of The Wall. We’ll let our man get up and over, but we’ll have them shoot the girl to keep her quiet, and she can spill her guts while she fades away.

Splendid plan – capital sport! Pass the brandy, old-man.

Isn’t it a bit rum to ship a British girl over to the GDR on a pretext, knowing full-well we’re planning to have her killed? Not at all, she’s a card-carrying party member, her choice, dear boy.

The cynicism in this book is breathtaking. The ruthlessness is not the point. As Auden points out:

 

I and the public know

What all school children learn

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return

 

There probably is some psychological truth to that, though the pinstripes in this novel do more besides.

I felt like I needed a thorough detoxification after reading this one.

Splendid novel, though

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