Tuesday, 7 June 2016
Poetry in Our Kind of Traitor: Unreal Cities
I recently saw Our Kind of Traitor, the new film based on the 2010 novel by John le Carré. A story about the Russian mafia and corruption in the highest levels of British society, it may not sound like anything particularly out of the ordinary - but although this was not my favourite le Carré book nor film, it was still very good (in both forms) and it does have the vivid, ironic writing and the complex ambiguity of his other works. The film is visually beautiful and has some excellent performances, especially the tour de force by Stellan Skarsgård, who plays the Russian money launderer Dima.
In the novel, the protagonist Perry Makepiece is a teacher of English literature, and there are references to poetry, but it isn't necessarily his main area of expertise. In the film, he has become specifically a teacher of 'poetics', which he also describes as "so boring" (to a Russian, who predictably tells him that poetry isn't boring. He then adds that it's only boring "when it's put under a microscope.") I had to wonder if Perry became a poetry instructor for the film, rather than just an English literature expert, because to many people poetry would suggest a particularly high level of detachment from reality. Alternately, he could be a poetry instructor because of poetry's peculiar insights into the nature of reality. In one scene, Perry is giving a lecture on TS Eliot's The Waste Land, quoting some of my favourite lines:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
The film also ends on a rather beautiful visual reference to these lines. In the lecture room, however, when Perry goes on to 'Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,' the camera lingers on the bored faces of the students. In his lecture, Perry speaks of the "corrupt listless societies" described by both Dante and Eliot, populated by "lost souls". His wife Gail points out to him that the Russian vory recruit "people who are disillusioned with their lives and have lost their way."
The irony is that Perry's life shifts from the unreality of the poetry lecture room to a cascading hierarchy of power games and violence (often referenced with games such as tennis, chess, and even children's hide-and-seek), the secret world of the spies, and the unreal cities of London's chrome and glass to Switzerland's beautiful sterile music-box towns, which hide uglier realities (or unrealities.) Nothing in le Carré's works is entirely free of corruption or ambiguity. Criminals and traitors on both sides show deep, sincere love for their families. Loyalty comes in unexpected forms. Everything slides away and resists definition. The MI6 agent Hector makes reference at one point to the Polish philosopher Kolakowski and his stern definitions of good and evil, but the film suggests that things are not always so black and white.
This isn't the first novel or film from le Carré to feature poetry quite prominently: The Russia House quotes poets including Boris Pasternak, Stevie Smith and Theodore Roethke, and Our Game alludes to Osip Mandelstam. Smiley, his most famous character, is fascinated by the German poets. I think John le Carré understands how poetry hangs in the balance between realities and unrealities, and how - as in the best poetry, or simply the best writing - people and situations can be both intensely metaphorical, and intensely real-world.